It was just below zero when I started walking this morning around 10 am. The sun had risen about 30 minutes earlier, but was still just barely above the hills that form the southern edge of the Chatanika valley. The skies were clear and blue and and the sun shone bright. At this time of the year, the north face of most hills at this latitude will never see the sun until well after solstice.
When I got out to the Chatanika valley this morning, I parked on the highway shoulder across from the Olnes pond turnoff and walked out to the gravel pits. The pits were being actively used this summer for the construction on the highway. Even though I was often a mile or two away on my walks, the noise from the dredged and the other equipment they had going was always in the background.
Last winter the mothballed the equipment and left much of it so as to ease reopening this past spring. Two weeks ago when I was heading home from a walk I noticed them disassembling the larger pieces of equipment and carting things off. This morning it was all gone. They have graded the piles of overburden they scraped off to get at the gravel and I am hoping that means they are done. I would be nice next summer to be able to walk in the woods and not have to hear the distant noise of large machinery.
Today I walked out to the gravel pits to check on the ice thickness and also to check out how things have changed. In the last two summers they have taken out enough gravel to double the size of the southern pond. Although we have had some cold weather, the ice along the near edge where I was walking did not appear stable.
In fact in one corner there were still some open patches. I’ve noticed in years past several spots around the gravel pits that do not freeze as quickly as others. I’ve surmised that there may be some geothermal warmth rising up and while it’s not enough to create hot springs or be obvious, it is enough to melt the snow and keep the ice from forming in several spots.
While the ice on the gravel ponds did not appear safe to walk on, there were some very cool crystals that had formed right at the edge that I was able to get some pictures of.
This past week we received around 10 inches of snow. Not a significant amount for this time of year, but notable that it all fell within about 36 hours. Many roads are still a mess and while the Elliot highway has been cleared, the Olnes recreation area access road has not.
I was a bit nervous about driving down it. I do have 4-wheel drive, but I also have bald tires and it would not have been a fun place to get stuck. Luckily enough other people had been down the road that it has been somewhat packed down and there were packed ruts I could follow.
My plan for the day had been to hike out to the lake and check the ice thickness and try and find some ice crystals. Before heading out I took a right off the pipeline access road and walked out to the river. Last year there was an open lead right up against the bank and running along a gravel bar where the water was shallow. I’d hoped for the same formation this year as it had been a good place to photograph crystals last winter.
When I got down to the river today I found that the water is running higher and as of now there is no open lead close to shore that is easily accessible. Maybe as the water level drops this winter something will develop. There are some good crystals forming on Vault creek, but the ice is still way too thin for me to get close enough to check them out.
After getting down to the river I walked downstream about a quarter mile before cutting back through the woods to the access road where I crossed it and headed southwest on trails and then cross country out to the lake.
Reaching the lake I carefully ventured out onto the frozen surface. While it appeared to be thick, I was still extremely cautious. The water level of the lake has already started dropping without an influx of water. In some of the shallow areas I think the ice is already sitting on the bottom, but I’m still staying away. I heard cracks and groans several times while at the lake as ice settled.
There were also several more ominous cracks while I was walking on ice close to shore in shallow water. I was not too worried about breaking through, but having the ice settle and creak under you is still worrying. I think what was happening was that as the ice settled with the dropping water levels, it became stuck in some areas. My weight was enough to get it unstuck and it was still adjusting to it’s new position.
Last Sunday I’d talked to a friend who took a walk out to this area the previous day. He had noted a lack of wildlife on his walk. I too noticed a lack today. I saw few animals and while I did spot some tracks, they were much less numerous than I would have expected. I saw a few birds; jays and chickadees, but no grouse, no ravens, no flocks of redpolls. I also did not see tracks of many animals either.
I know that the grouse population in the area was low this past year and I know that probably caused a decline in the foxes, but I also did not cross any moose tracks and very few squirrel or rabbit. In years past even if I do not see many animals there is normally a lot of evidence of them, especially after a new snow fall. Today the snow was pristine, empty of tracks in most of the areas I was. It was strange and a bit worrisome.
After exploring the shore of the lake a bit, I headed back towards the truck. I took a different path back, stopping to check on a beaver dam. The beavers had flooded the woods upstream of their dam this past fall and I was expecting to find it still flooded. While there dam looked intact, the water level behind it has fallen several feet. I’m not sure if this is due to an unseen hole in the dam or just the slow leak of water that is not being replaced, but it was much lower than last year so something must be going on.
From the beaver dam to the pipeline access road is only a short distance and after getting back to the road I headed back to the truck and home. It was a beautiful day to be out. As I walked East on the access road back to the truck I got out of the trees and into the light and I could feel the sun warming my back. On our cold winter days this is something of a rarity. Stopping, I turned, closed my eyes, faced the sun and let it warm my face as it’s radiance turned my vision red filtered through my closed eyelids. It is the sun that I miss on these short day, but it is the sun when it shines that reminds me it will return and it is the sun on these short days that keeps me positive and willing to brave these cold days of winter.