Chugiak-Eagle River residents were looking at only a thin scattering of snow as the Yuletide approached, but the weather gods cooperated a bit with six days to spare.
That brought to mind the year when lack of the white stuff raised concerns for a white Christmas. With only days to go, the ground was bare. When this writer crafted an editorial capped by a big “THINK SNOW” headline, it prompted a call from BBC in London. Our English friends had been dumped upon in record-shattering terms. The on-air trans-Atlantic conversation was hearty with offers of exchange that could only be fulfilled in fantasy. “Cheerio” sounded hollow and fell on deaf ears.
Alaska’s weather factored into this writer’s Alaskancy.
Twelve times he told clerks processing paperwork in connection with his Army enlistment to send him “anyplace by Alaska.” Born and raised in the heart of the south, he dreaded the cold. That’s what caused his response to the question of choice of overseas assignment. In those days “choice” was indeed wishful. The outcome was up to someone other than the lowly recruit.
It was on the morning of Jan. 4, 1949, that this 18-year-old private stood shivering on the dock at Whittier after disembarking from the USS Sgt. Charles E. Mower. It was 20 below, and the wind was howling. Things did not improve after an all-day ride ending at a tent on Ft. Richardson and a night wasted trying to get the eight-man tent’s space heater to work. He survived by wearing every item of clothing that would fit and spreading the rest of his duffel bag’s contents over the blanket on his cot.
The picture brightened the next day when he discovered Anchorage was a real city. He found a comfortable room in a heated home. He worked the swing shift as a teletype operator at the Alaska Communication System in the Old Federal Building at 4th Ave. and F St. Too young to hang out in bars, he found a part-time day job with the Anchorage Daily Times.
The pertinent point to be made here: More than two-thirds of a century since that arrival he has experienced a lot of Alaskan weather. We know that glaciers are receding and it has just been reported that record amounts of snow have fallen on Mt. Denali. This will not be a discussion of the global warming debate, nor an informed scientific meteorological presentation. Instead, it recalls memorable events involving Mother Nature’s whims, extremes in the fall of precipitation, etc.
Thanks to the Internet and the helpful direction of the friendly folks at the Anchorage Forecast Office of the National Weather Service, we can look at some statistics.
Since we started with snowfall, let’s note that never in recorded history has our area not had snow. There have been some years where the water table was threatened by a small accumulation, but there have been plenty of winters with lots of white stuff.
The most snow to drop on us was over the winter of 1955-56 when a total of 171.6 inches fell from the skies. Juneau beat us out, though, just the year before when they shoveled out from under a whopping 212.1 inches. We can take comfort in the fact that several places in the Lower 48 have had a lot more snow. The Mt. Baker Ski Area in Washington State, for example, had a whopping 1,140 inches in the winter of 1998-99. While Alaska is the state with the most snowfall, Minnesota reportedly comes in second, although parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are sometimes buried under not inches but yards of snow.
The heaviest local snowfall in memory occurred a decade ago when the two-foot dump pictured above had to be cleared away.
Before the days of tax-supported snow removal on area roads, it was up to residents to shovel themselves out.
Two brothers were the first residents of Jayhawk Drive in Birchwood. Carl and John Steeby were transplanted Kansans, thence the name Jayhawk based on older brother Carl’s alma mater. Carl bought the third 2.5-acre tract east of Birchwood Rd., which was not yet a loop. John obtained one 330 feet farther east and 330 feet north of Jayhawk.
When the first big snowfall covered the area in that record-breaking year of 1954-55, both men had to get to work.
Carl’s job was at the Eklutna Power Project where he was the engineer for the tunnel being cut between the lake bottom and the generation plant on the Palmer Highway. John worked at the power plant on Elmendorf Air Force Base.
Carrying a snow shovel, John trudged down from the house he built. Carl brought out his shovel and the two of them cleared a path to Birchwood Rd. from the driveway at the near corner of Carl’s lot. Declaring his birthright as the older son, Carl thanked his brother, saying, “I think I can make it from here.” Whereupon he cranked up his vehicle and drove away. John was left with more than 1000 feet of roadway to clear all by himself. Both men laughed a decade later when recounting this story, but John was still smarting at the memory.
Streets serving multiple homes brought searches for suitable solutions. Another anecdote involves a road in the Peters Creek area where four or five houses were located. The suggestion was made that all chip in and hire someone to plow the road. One woman, a prominent resident who will remain anonymous because her descendants may be readers, objected. “Why should I have to pay when (the man) at the end of the street has to plow it anyway to get in and out of his place,” she asked. That man likely was as disappointed as was John Steeby.
Enough snow talk. Let’s think temperatures now.
Our coldest years on record were 1955 and 1956. Thermometers registered an average of 32.5 and 31.1, respectively, throughout the year. Combined, that meant the average for the 24 months was only 31.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The two coldest days were in 1975. On Jan. 4 it was 34 degrees less than nothing and the next day the mercury dropped three degrees under that. It was that year that underground pipes froze, even those that were “safely” buried 12 feet below the surface. Plumbers became wealthy. People in the snowplowing business put welders onto the beds of their pickups to add thawing as a sideline since skies were clear and snow was scarce.
It was in 1971 that we experienced the longest stretch of cold weather. For eight days between Jan. 17 and 24, the temperature did not rise above zero.
Enough about cold weather. Let’s warm up a little by thinking in the other direction.
Our warmest two years were also paired, 1977 and 1978. Temperatures over the first 12 months averaged 39 and over the next 52 weeks were at 39.7. Comparing the 24-month averages between the coldest and warmest years the difference was 7.6 degrees.
How hot did it ever get? It was 85 degrees on June 14, 1969. Second highest on record was the next day when it was—let’s say it was “less hot” rather than “cooler”—by two degrees.
On that thought, we need to remember the saying that in Alaska if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it will change.
Why did that young soldier remain in Alaska for so many years? He learned that he could find ways to get warm regardless of the ambient temperature, but if stranded in the desert there was no way to cool off.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com