Snowshoeing in the Alaskan Winter Wonderland

Ahoy Readers!

It’s the great debate. As an Alaskan, winter resident, are you a skier? or do you don the snowshoes? I think the questions really waters down to : how much do you like getting off trails? Because, although I realize cross country skis CAN BE USED for off-road style outdoor adventure, I see that happening on a very limited basis. Anybody want to chime in here? I snowshoe because if you want to explore the woods during the winter you need mobility, and besides, I fall less on snowshoes :D.

Living in Fairbanks has proved to be a far different winter than my experiences of three years in Maine and my childhood (22 years a child) in Minnesota. One of the primary differences in the winter here in the interior is the wind! I have never seen anything like it, and my friends from Minnesota won’t believe this – we do not have wind. Blizzards, the bane of Minnesotan school systems, are unheard of here. In fact, school systems in Fairbanks do not close when the mercury dip to -40, they close when the weather warms up resulting in icy conditions! Snow that accumulates on railings and fence posts is likely to be in the same pile when the spring thaw begins. The stillness of the wind creates an interesting climactic condition in Fairbanks known as the ‘temperature inversion’. During the winter, the winds are an important mixer of air and because that mixing does not happen here, strong differentials are set as you climb elevation; in short, cold air is trapped in the valleys of the Interior region. This has a couple of ramifications, the first is as a home-owner you would rather have your house high on a hillside, because in extreme cases it could mean an extra 50 degrees of warmth! (http://www.alaskareport.com/science10059.htm). Secondly, below the inversion the development of ‘ice fog’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_fog)┬áis a pest for home-owners and can build up on your house and car. I have watched this ice fog man mornings while studying from the Margaret Murie building on top of campus- a good example picture is shown in the Wikipedia article I’ve listed. The ice fog creates havoc for humans and incredible beauty in the wilderness. The white spruce, willow, dogwood and shrub birch become encases in ice crystals and look like long-forgotten freezer burned hotdogs. As you walk through the areas of hoar frost it is not hard to imagine scuba-diving through a snow-reef; the trees the coral and the snow the sand.

I’ve had a great time snowshoeing some of the lower and higher elevation areas of the Fairbanks. I’ve been focusing on Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest and the Murphy Dome region. Some of the days have been cold and require some extra face protection, but the views and sights have been exquisite. Although I did not see any wildlife, during my last trip to Murphy Dome I followed a fresh set of moose tracks, and found scat so fresh that I made sure to keep a watchful eye for any watching eyes; I was sure I was going to walk up on a moose. Snowshoe hair tracks were abundant as were red fox, mouse, and ptarmigan.

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Snowshoe hare tracks were common in the Murphy Dome region. Here you can see them, their heart shaped print is very identifiable.

The series of images below represent the two different winter types of Alaska. The first three are all from Bonanza Creek. You’ll see that the wind doesn’t blow here too often, and tree-corals abound! The the sunlight illuminates them it is snowshoe stopping, many pauses were taken to observe the beauty of this classic,winter, wonderland!

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The snow here is so light and fluffy, that even a small puff of wind will send snow flying. Here, you can see the havoc as a breeze (a rare wind!) pushed snow off the branches and into my face.
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Branches laden with light snow were lit up by the sunlight. Every new bend in the trail brought about new illuminated trees to focus on.
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All the gear and the views! Heres a look towards the river valley at Bonanza creek experimental forest. Warm boots, gloves and jacket!

This second set of images shows life in the ice fog area. The trees here are heavily laden with icy and snow and are bent and stopped. A stark contrast to the lightly laden branches of the bottom lands! The low-lying sun cast long shadows around all the trees. This time of year the sunrises at 10:20 AM and sets at 3:00 PM. The short days are illuminated by a sun that slides along the horizon, rather than going overhead and the cold sets fast once the sun is no longer keeping it at bay.

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The longs shadows of the low sun played on the snow. The warm color of the sun was spectacular! The reds, yellows and oranges you see here are completely natural.
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Here I am posing in from the hoar-frost-coral-trees on top of Murphy Dome. Cold and stunning!
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The shadow of the this 6-foot white spruce cast by the low-lying sun is almost 30 feet long!
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Hoar frost behind, views in front! This picture was actually taken with my phone, you’ll see the selfie arm in my face mask.

I wanted to leave you all with a short timelapse video of the sunset on Murphy Dome. This timelapse is comprised of 530 shots over an 1.25 hours time and is played at 30 frames per second. Some of you read in my post about my problems with my camera in the cold shooting the Aurora. I wanted to shoot this timelapse in good light conditions at similar temps (-10 degrees F) and see how my camera reacted. It did pretty well, and makes me think that some of my issues with the Aurora shoot were due to the High ISO and a stressed sensor. Lots more to learn!

My goal of this timelapse video was to capture the changing shadows on the hillside and the sunset. Enjoy!

8 thoughts on “Snowshoeing in the Alaskan Winter Wonderland”

  1. I love the “fan coral” photos! Great analogy, Ian. I couldn’t help but giggle when I looked at the 30′ shadow cast by the pine tree…it made me think of Peter Pan trying to re-attach his shadow to his feet with a bar of soap. He would’ve run out of soap in a heartbeat:) Our first snowstorm of the year today. Our trees are looking snow-covered but not nearly as beautiful as the ones in your photos. Another great outing!

  2. Hi, Ian,
    I love your pictures of the hoar frost. It fascinates me. We had stunning frost in January of 2011, and I’d walk onto the lake many evenings, so I could look its beauty. Thank you for the reminder.
    Sed

      1. Oh, the MN picture is certainly different. My daughter took one at night, and it seemed somewhat more of Alaska’s quality. I was shocked to read you had almost no wind there. I had no idea.

  3. Scuba diving through a snow reef. Freezer burned hot dogs. Watchful eye for watching eyes. Creating a front-row seat for your readers. I love i!

  4. Thinking about the windlessness that you describe. Makes sense, Mr Sun is the world’s weathermaker, and one of those roles is providing energy for the wind machine. With Mr Sun only showing up a few hours a day….and far away on the horizon, his energy input isn’t enough to power up the wind machine. Winterlong coral brush is the result. How’s that for a dosage of unscientific science?

    1. Yes, although I’m no weatherman I think the low-lying sun evenly heats the snow-covered landscape – or perhaps it doesn’t heat it it at all. Perhaps the homogenous cover (snow) doesn’t create favorable conditions for wind.

  5. Wow, Ian, so much to learn aboout Alaska. I am glad you’re enjoying yourself out there and thanks again for the stunning pix. I’ll have to check out the site about the ice fog,
    Merry Christmas and God bless
    Peter

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