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August 29, 2006 - Winter is Never Far Away

Immediately east of Anchorage is the Chugach Mountains. The first ridge that overlooks the city has peaks to about 3500 feet; head deeper into the mountains and the peaks get taller, and eventually you reach the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains.

About this time of year, we'll get a rainy, foggy day, and when we get up the next morning, the tops of the peaks will have a fresh coating of snow. Alaskans call this "termination dust", which is a reference to the end of summer. Termination dust comes and goes several times in late August and September, before the snows settle in here at sea level, usually on a Saturday morning, when we have some outdoor chore, or even worse, a fishing trip planned. The phenomenon is the same in other parts of the state. In Fairbanks, the White Mountains just north and northeast of town will gather a mantle of snow a few weeks before the snows reach the floor of the Tanana Valley.

In Denali National Park, the situation is a little different. The mountains there are quite a bit taller, and most of the park, including the area along the park road is around the 3000 to 4000 feet, so when there's termination dust on the Chugach Mountains, there's snow on the park road in Denali. This is an important thing to remember when you're out in the elements in Alaska; especially in the fall, but in fact, it is important anytime. When it is raining on you, it is snowing just a few thousand feet above your head, and in Alaska, a nice sunny day can become rainy very quickly, and an unexpected heavy shower might have a few hailstones, then a few more, then a few flakes of snow, and before you know it, you have a cold, wet mess.

I was on a moose hunting trip a few years back. We traveled by boat for about 15 miles, and we spent the better part of the month of September at our camp. We hunted the last day of the season. It was a beautiful fall day, with temperatures in the low 50's. We went into our tents that night, ready to break camp and go home the next day. I woke up around 7 AM, and I heard some dripping on the tent.I was eager to make some coffee and some breakfast, so I started to get dressed and go to our campfire and get the fire started. I unzipped my tent, and was greeted by the sight of six inches of snow.

First snow of the year at Kashwitna Lake near Willow.

I made my coffee, and we broke camp, and rode in the boat for 15 miles in the cold and miserable snow all the way back to town.

Any day now, the Chugach Mountains will get another coating of snow, and Alaskans will moan and complain about how summer was short, and winter is coming. The truth is, winter comes when it wants to come, and summer is really just on loan to us, and we're going to have to pay that loan back... Any day now.

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