I headed out this morning a bit later than I had hoped. I’d initially planned on leaving a bit before 10 am (sunrise was at 9:57 am) but when I stepped outside there was a light mist/rain falling mixed with hard snow. With our frozen ground, this was making an instant ice rink. I went back inside and decided to wait a bit. Driving 15 miles north on increasingly icy roads did not seem like a wise decision.
About 30 minutes later it did not seem to be getting any worse so I decided to risk it. Often the weather in the Chatanika valley is different and that was the case this morning. As I climbed up the highway just past CHS road and then dropped over and into Goldstream valley, I could see that the low lying clouds responsible for the mist ended over the hills between Goldstream and Chatanika. So it wasn’t misty and rainy in the Chatanika, but it was still cloudy.
Before heading over to Olnes, I stopped at the gravel pits across from the Olnes turnoff. Last week when the wind had been howling I’d found some really cool bubble formation on one of the ponds. It has snowed in the last week so I knew I’d have to do a little searching but I hoped I’d be able to get some good pictures.
What I wasn’t counting on was the overflow that was just under the snow on top of the ice on the pond. I suspect that the weight of the new snow depressed the ice below just enough to force water up. Unfortunately it means those bubbles will probably not be visible again. Even if the overflow freezes, it will not be clear or smooth.
Although I did not find the bubbles I was looking for, I did manage to find some nice snowflakes. There is one corner of one of the ponds that does not freeze. I suspect there might be some geothermal up-welling at the spot. Not enough to be noticeable in the summer, but enough to keep the ice from forming and the ground thawed. There is another similar spot in the gravel pit that I discovered two years ago.
The Fairbanks area is geologically active and there are hot springs in the interior so I suspect that in addition to the known hot springs that are warm enough people have discovered them, there are probably many more spots like the one I was at today where it is not noticeably warmer other than it keeps the ground thawed or in this case one corner of a pond. Because there is no thick layer of snow or ice, snowflakes do gather on the bare rocks and surrounding ice edge before slowly melting.
After getting back to the truck I drove across the road and down the Olnes access road where I parked by the pipeline access road gate. Leaving the truck I strapped on my snowshoes for the first time this year and headed down the trail. Just after leaving the truck I spotted a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks and took few pictures. They are a beautiful bird and their red feathers provides a splash of color in the otherwise drab winter landscape.
I also stopped at the creek just past where I parked and walked down to the bank. When it is very cold there are some amazing crystals that grow on the surface of the ice and along the edge of the open leads. It was 26 degrees today and the flowing water was winning the battle with the ice and the only interesting formations were the small twigs poking above the surface of the water with clumps of snow. The reflection of these formations in the water and the symmetry was fascinating to observe.
I had planned on snowshoeing out to the lake this afternoon, but I stopped first at the next creek down the access road and walked up to a beaver dam a couple hundred yards above the bridge. Several weeks ago when I was coming back from the lake, I’d passed by the lodge and the pond above and noticed that the water level had dropped.
From last year I know that when the water level drops, the ice above does as well, cracking along it’s edges and providing escape for the moisture underneath. These cracks often contain some amazing crystals. I found a few small ones several weeks ago and was hoping even with the warm weather that I could find some today.
Since the last time I was at the beaver pond, the water level has continued to drop and the ice has cracked even more. The cracks are not open to the surface in most places, but you can still find them if you look for sharp drops in the snow above. It’s important to carefully dig down to the cracks as you never know what you will find, how the crack is oriented, and if the snow above will fall in and destroy the crystals.
Today I hit the jackpot. I didn’t find any of the really huge crystals that form when it is much colder, but I still found some very delicate crystals. When the cracks are not open, the crystals will continue to grow. Once the cracks are open, some continue to grow if the moist air from below continues to move out, but others stop and while the crystals do not melt, they do slowly sublimate.
When the crystals start to sublimate (the ice goes straight from a solid to a gas, not melting between), the formations can become eroded and sometimes this gives them a unique beauty. I think my favorite picture from today is of some perfectly clear ice crystal spears sticking up that have slowly been sublimating leaving some of the most delicate formations I’ve ever seen.
I got back to the truck around 3 pm and it was already getting dark. Sunset today was not until 3:18 PM, but it had set much earlier in the Chatanika valley due to the large hills to the south. It was most definitely getting on towards twilight as I headed back to the truck.
Although I would have liked it to have been a bit colder for better crystals, it was nice not to have to wear a hat or gloves for most of the day and to leave my heavy layers in my backpack. It’s always great to get out and although I did not make it out to the lake, I was very happy to have found the crystals I did and to have found them in a new location that is closer to where I park.
The best crystals seem to grow when it is very cold, but when it is super cold, I am also very cautious and do not want to get too far out into the woods. This will provide me a closer location to explore when I’m trying to stay safe this winter when it gets super cold.
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