Thursday, June 26, 2014

The End of Hibernation

So I did what a lot of Alaskans do each winter, which is hibernate.  There are plenty of us who live in areas where we hole ourselves in for a long, tough winter and make our appearance with the bears in the spring.  Unfortunately for me, the bears were out of hibernation more last winter than myself.  There were multiple reports over the winter months about bears being seen out and about, looking for food. From Juneau to Denali, grizzlies and black bears were skulking around, possibly rumbling tummies called them out of their holes. It's not too uncommon, but this last winter was certainly an unusual one for Alaskan standards. 

Unseasonably warm weather lead to green grass making a surprise appearance around my home in January. Very little snow in most areas and rain in Fairbanks later in the season than ever recorded before. Massive avalanches closed the only roadway into the town of Valdez during one warm night of wet snow and rainfall. The avalanche blocked a narrow section of a canyon just outside of the town known for being the last stop of the Alyeska Pipeline and site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A river which normally has a very low flow during winter was flowing much higher than normal due to warmer temps and a very large lake formed across the highway and filled the canyon, threatening to burst through and flood the town. 

Across the state people noticed big temperature fluctuations and a lot less snow.  A winter in Alaska without snow is depressing enough for me, but I had also missed out on last summer, as I was rebuilding an old camper the whole season. I suffer from depression anyway, and the lack of activity, cabin fever and a vitamin D deficiency caused me to begin having panic attacks this spring, worse than ever before. I went most of the entire winter without the internet, which is why my blog went silent for a while. I wasn't even aware the olympics had taken place. No news or radio and the only contact with the outside world I had were a couple shopping trips for necessities every few months. I've had to deal with some health issues and have been dragging myself to doctor's appointments and also putting some off. I'm trying to combat my depression and cabin fever by finally going on a couple overnight camping trips in our newly remodeled camper, which is enjoyable for me as I love the outdoors of Alaska. 

A fossil hunting trip to Eureka turned up only a lost gold pan (which my husband had just been saying he forgot to bring) and ten unbroken clay pigeons a poor marksman left behind.  The area where I like to hunt for fossils is on the Glenn Highway, south of Glennallen in a small hunting community called Eureka. Strange snow runoff and rainfall decimated some of the fossil-rich rocks in area and mud slides covered the rocks with a thick layer of dirt. Despite the lack of fossils, it was a good hike and of course, my husband and I set up our frisbee golf cage and played a few rounds at our campsite. This has become a tradition with us and we always like to take a picture of the cage sitting in such a picturesque place with gorgeous mountains in the background. 

The Glenn Highway does have some problems with frost heaves, which are marked by simple "temporary" signs which say "BUMPS." I believe a very serious recent accident occurred due to these frost heaves, which seemed obvious when I saw skid marks directly after a less noticeable dip in the road. The driver must have slammed on the breaks and steered away from the front end of a guardrail, causing himself and his passenger to fly off the road. The skid marks made me look up recent accidents in the area when I got back home and saw that 2 young men were involved in the crash and were very blessed to have a doctor and forestry crew drive by the scene in the middle of the night. There is very little traffic in this area at night and their lives were saved by the firefighters putting out their car fire and a medic and passing army doctor giving emergency treatment until more help arrived. 

Further down the road is another dangerous area marked by signs saying "Rock slide next 25 miles". I was behind a liquid nitrogen truck through this area and it was a slightly stressing ride. Alaska roads were typically built by people who were shown the best routes by the natives of the area, and they follow the rivers which were previously the only mode of transportation through the state. A lot of areas are flanked by large cliff walls, carved by the retreating glaciers which feed these rivers. Though the state tries to make improvements when possible, the frost heave areas on the Glenn have not been fixed in years. Road maintenance in the state is very costly and widening areas or straightening dangerous curves can mean cutting straight through mountains. Personally, I think we could benefit from making Alaska's highways toll roads. Frost heaves alone can cause a section of road to be ripped up and rebuilt every year. Commercial truck traffic creates dips and grooves and studded tires wear out the pavement when there's no snow. Graters and plows can scrape up roads and potholes are common. We have some very costly maintenance and a very low population to contribute taxes to the DOT. With the avalanches outside of Valdez, costs were considerable for the snow removal and road closure. Extreme weather contributes greatly to road maintenance and accidents on our mostly narrow 2-lane highways. 

It's not the most biker-friendly state, either. Scenic highways could be enjoyed by bikers and hikers if we actually had bike paths in more areas. It would be nice to have rest stops that aren't just outhouses filled with graffiti, flies and even a wandering bear or two if they have no door. Alaska doesn't have a lot of infrastructure because it is so costly. There are solid rock mountains, glaciers and rapid rivers to negotiate, not to mention animal migration corridors and salmon spawning streams. What roads we do have are constantly being threatened by flooding or course-changing rivers, rock slides and avalanches. It's not easy to travel in this state, but the destination is usually worth it. The state is beautiful and it would be nice to get to where we're going safely and stress-free. There's a lot of work to be done, but it will take time and money. Toll roads could be the answer if Alaskans would approve. 

In the meantime, I will continue trying to relax with my husband on camping trips around the state this summer. One of the areas of the Glenn Highway has sections of old roadway, now straightened and widened. The old, unused roadway made for a nice bike ride for myself and my husband, though I obviously need to start making up for the sedentary lifestyle I had during my hibernation because the ride back uphill was a killer. Another section of the old highway has been taken over by beavers, who have dammed up a tiny creek and flooded the area out, creating for themselves a gigantic, multi-tiered beaver paradise. If we actually managed to begin moving the highways away from waterways, migratory animals could begin traveling the routes and contributing to new growth along the riverbanks. It could very likely solve the erosion issues by having migrating animals naturally trimming and propagating plants as they travel along the river's edge.

For all its faults, the Alaska road system is full of beauty and breathtaking scenery. So far, nothing has kept me from exploring the state on any of these roads, no matter how bad they may be.

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