Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Endless summer

Juneau has yet to experience a very deep cold snap this winter, and we haven't had much snow. This is following a near-record-dry fall and what I have been told was a record-warm summer. Our pattern since mid-November seems to be a couple of (relatively) warm and very wet days followed by so-extended-they're-almost-disorienting periods of sunlight and what can really only be described as light freezes. Yes, I realized temperatures in the single digits and teens is more than a light freeze. But in direct sunlight, when you're pedaling or climbing so hard you can feel the heat thrashing its way out of your clothing layers, this winter almost feels like summer.

This is the forest at 1,200 feet above sea level on Dec. 30. By this time of year, this elevation should be a few feet deep in snow. But this year ... happy green plants, bare dirt, sunlight glowing on ice-free bark ... what month is this? It's really quite odd. Global warming? Or maybe just timing. This is my fourth winter in Juneau. The first three were near-record snowfall years. The 2006-07 season actually is the record. The whole of my Juneau winter experience has been snow after rain after snow after rain, a constant struggle in slush and fluff. And of course I like snow. But I like it even better packed down, well-frozen, good for riding bikes and hiking. This is my kind of winter.

I went up to the Sun Bowl today at an unforgivably slow pace. I'm not sure what made me so slow. Perhaps the conditions? There is actually a lot of ice on the ground - pure, clear ice that is quite slippery unless you take great measures to go around it. And for some unknown reason, when I did hit snow, I refused to slip on my snowshoes just to see how far I could skitter across the hardpack before I punched into rotten gristle up to my hips. But it was three hours to the base of the ridge, and when I looked at my watch, I actually yelped, because I honestly thought it was more than an hour earlier. A steady stream of wind-driven powder poured off the ridge and I figured I was probably better off in my slowness, because it forced me to avoid what was probably a brutal below-zero windchill that would certainly destroy my delusion of summer.

Back down the mountain with sweaty hair frozen like a helmet to my head, and crampons on my feet because I really was struggling mightily with that ground ice. But the ride out was wonderful, crackling on the studded tires, balaclava pulled over my face, seeing through the frozen surface into a world of heat and light.