Bunny Count: January 2014

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It’s that time again.  Time for the monthly Bunny Count:

Bunnies: 0
Moose: 2 (crossing nicely at the school crossing)
Bears: 0
Seahawks: 0 but I would rather they be seen and not heard

Days in Alaska: 27
Days in New York While the Temperature was Colder than Alaska: 4
Hours Spent in 15°F Temperature Watching Hockey: 8
Number of Italian Family Members Introduced To Just While Having a Wine in a NYC Italian Restaurant: 4 (5 if you want to count the cute Albanian ‘friend of the family’ girl)
Number of times the word “Hello” is sung in Book of Mormon: 44 (not including Bonjour, Nia Hoa, and Hola)

Snow: 9.2 Inches
Total Snow for the Season: 53.5 Inches
If All The Rain Fell As Snow In January: 16.4 inches
Days with Rain or Snow: 15

Average Temperature in Anchorage in January: 29.7°
Actual Average Temperature: 34.2°
Days the High Exceeded 40°: 8
Official Snow Depth as of Jan 1: 16 inches
Official Snow Depth as of Jan 31: 5 inches
Maximum Snow Depth: 20 inches on Jan 17th
Snow Melt in 13 Days: 15 inches

Times killed by Hockey, NYC, Snow Melt, Damalanches, Bunnies, or Bears: 0

The Damalanche

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Alaskan weather seems to be all the news these days.  Mostly due to the crazy heat wave we are getting up here caused the same misbehaving jet stream that has the Eastern US in a freeze.  We were above freezing for nearly two weeks here in Anchorage, and just down the road in Girdwood they had a day where it reached 57°F.  Most of our December snows are melted, and the streets once frozen over by the melt now are dry and covered in dirt.  I take full blame for all this – it started the day I put snow tires on finally.

One danger with the warm weathers along some of the mountain roads, passes, or fjords is avalanches.  The rain and sun melt the top layers of snow until their heavy enough to break away down the side of the hills.  Many of the avalanche controls are working well around here, but there is only so much you can do.  It’s lead to one of the most concerning events in the news up here in Alaska (when you ignore politics).  That event has been called:  The Damalanche

The city of Valdez is currently cut off from Alaska Highway system due to several avalanches covering the Richardson Highway across Thompson Pass approximately 20 miles north of town.  Valdez, a city of about 4000 people, is known for three things – it is the terminus of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, it was near where the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled millions of barrels of oil, and it is the snowiest place in North America (look it up – it gets 400-500 inches a year, they get double that of second place).  The town sits on Prince William Sound and while only about 100 miles from Anchorage as the crow flies, requires a 305 mile drive through the mountains to get to it by car.  Now – the only way to reach it is by ferry or plane (and with bad weather, that isn’t very possible).

What happen is that Valdez started their month with the typical 55 inches of snow fall, then got hit by warm / rainy weather over this past weekend.  Two avalanches in particular are the real problem, one that occurred naturally and the other set off by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to minimize the threats.  These two avalanches brought so much snow down that the road in that area is covered by as much as 50 feet of snow.  Worse, the snow is in the Lowe river next to the road and is as much as 100 feet high there.  That much snow has dammed the river so that 2,000 feet of road is covered in 10 to 15 feet of water.  So it’s not just an avalanche, its a dam; so it’s a Damalanche.

The road crews have huge challenges ahead of them.  For one thing, they can clear this road but where will they will have to haul it a long ways to put it anywhere — you’re in a mountain pass, you can’t just push a 50ft snow drift to the side.  Second, it’s January, so winter still has about three months to work itself through … that means snow is going to continue to fall on the pass and cover up any work they get done on any given day.

All kidding aside the road clearing has a scary situation developing.  Road crews can’t access the damalanche from the north, because there is 2,000feet of water covered road.  They can access it from the south, but if that snow gives way at the wrong time, you have all that water sitting behind the damalanche that will come out … and there’s no place to get out of the way.

Regardless, crews are working quickly and progress suggests they are getting things done.  Officially the DOT stated they could not determine when the road will open.  That being said, word is that the residents are taking it all in stride.  One guy pointed out that a majority of towns in Alaska don’t have roads connecting them and they all survive, so why can’t Valdez?  With nothing else to do with their time, Valdez representatives have turned it into a raffle – guess the date when the road will open correctly and you win $100.

So take some consideration when you are freezing to death down there in the Lower 48, being warm up here isn’t all fun and games.

Life is Like The Hammer & A House Full of Rocks

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I am feeling pretty philosophical this week for reasons I am not ready to go into (yet … or at least not ready to go into yet in this blog … and sober [see also, drunk facebooking]), and this morning I had a strange realization that sometimes life isn’t just “like a box of chocolates”.  Life is many times like “a full house of rocks and you got the hammer”.

Long story short … it’s a curling reference; and I went curling last night so it’s fresh in my head.

Wait … you say you want a short story long? Don’t mind if I do.

I’ll get you a blog post next month on “Everything you need to know about curling to not be confused during the Olympics” post – but let me give you a short version.  It’s like shuffleboard or boccie ball or other games like that where granite stones down a sheet of ice towards a target (called a “house”), and the team with the rocks closest to the center (called “the button”) scores points (either 1 or more depending how many rocks you have further in than the other team).  Each team alternates throwing rocks until both teams have thrown their 8 rocks in an “end”; with games lasting 6, 8, 10 ends depending on the game.  Anytime a rock is thrown, there is one throwing the rock, one creating the target and calling the shot, and two ready to do the sweeping from the moment the rock is released to when it stops.  The last rock thrown is called “the hammer”, and will make or break the whole scoring outcome of the end so much so that much of the other 15 rocks are thrown to either set up the hammer, good or bad.  Almost always, the house is filled with rocks, either in it or guarding the front of it – and the hammer has the job of either saving their team from being scored, or adding to or growing the overall score for your team.  In Curling – having the hammer especially in the last end is like have the last at bat in a baseball game, or having the ball with time running out in basketball, or being the quarterback in a 2-minute drill – while your team can help out a lot, the game is in your hands.

Because of the role I play, I get the hammer a lot – and the way my brain works, having the hammer is always the opposite of what it is.  I hate easy shots because I know I will screw it up.  What I keep saying is that the hardest shot for the hammer is “an open draw to the button where you are only adding points”.  Like last night, two of my rocks in the house (which gives us a score of 2) and if I put my last rock anywhere in the house we score 3 – what do I do?  I knock out one of my other rocks so we score 1.  On a twelve foot target, I missed my spot by six feet and hit the only 6 inches of a rock that I didn’t want to hit.  I missed the shot because I darn near knew I was going to miss it.  In all honesty, it is the hardest shot in curling because it is a lot of pressure.  Those that are good at it fall back on two things – one, to rely on their team of sweepers to help them if they aren’t perfect; two, it’s hard but you know how to do it – you do your job you will get it done.

Sometimes, though, there are so many rocks in front of the house that it looks like there is nothing by rocks in the way – honestly, those are the ends I like.  You can send rocks back into the house, you can use your rock to knock others out of the way, or you can create a billiard’s game of rocks going everywhere.  Also, with that many rocks in the way, if you miss with your original “Plan A”, you are bound to have a “Plan B”  (sometimes C, D, E, & F).  Some of that is influenced by the shot, some of it by the sweepers, some of it by the guy making the calls in the house; but there are always loads of options.  A guy I play with a lot makes it even more fun, when given three or four options, he always … and I mean ALWAYS … chooses the shot that if we make it is the “coolest”.  Nine times out of ten we miss, but every time I miss I learn more of what I am capable of throwing, half the time the shot ends up being positive regardless … and that tenth time when we actually hit … well …  it’s pretty awesome.

I am not a great curler, but I am not a bad one either.  Our team struggles, but not without trying, and not without a lot of fun along the way. Strangely enough, my game last night became exciting, not because of what I missed or didn’t miss, but that our team and the team we played against both did what we were capable of (and when we didn’t it just made things more interesting).  Last night we loved the game and when things went wrong we laughed at ourselves louder than we cried.

So it comes down to this:

  • Sometimes when you have the hammer and it supposed to be easy – don’t spend time doubting yourself abilities, just go out and do what you know how to do.
  • Sometimes when you have the hammer, everything looks like a mess – don’t get caught up on what won’t happen, go after what could happen because it’s always better to try.
  • Aim for what is awesome – you may miss, but you will learn from it; but on the other hand guess what happens if you hit it.
  • Regardless, just because you have the hammer doesn’t mean your team isn’t there – they are not only by your side from the start, they are will you until the last rock stops.

Well, Why Don’t You Marry Hockey?

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When I was spouting off my love for Hockey, specifically what the NHL has done over recent years to make the sport more fan friendly, my old friend Jeremy Phillips decided to say: “If you love hockey so much, why don’t you marry it.”  I think he said that, either that or it was about NHL’s commissioner.  Whatever it was, message came through loud and clear: “shut up about hockey”.

This week, though, you can’t get me to.

The main reason is that I am marking off another item from my bucket list this Sunday — I will be attending the NHL Stadium Series game between My New Jersey Devils, and the New York Rangers; a game that will be held outdoors at Yankee Stadium.  The bucket list items specifically was “watch an NHL outdoor game”, and got bonus points when I found out NJ was in a game this year.  I’ve been a Devil’s fan since 1985 because for one I grew up forced to either follow hockey teams in hated rival cities (Blackhawks? Seriously?  Have you ever been to Chicago?), for two in 1985 they made a deep run in the playoffs when I first started caring about the game, and for three “their logos were awesome”.  I’ve been a backwards fare weather fan of theirs since then — paying close attention when they are losing, but completely missing two of their Stanley Cup years.  Since they aren’t they are so-so at best, you can believe I am on the Devil bandwagon.

The “outdoor” games started as a fad about five years ago in the NHL, but it was so popular its grown to five games this year, not to mention the college games as well.  Players and fans realize hockey is like other sports where kids get their start playing it on simpler locations – where baseball just needs open field & backpacks for bases, basketball needs a hoop nailed to a garage, hockey only needed a frozen pond & a mom to call them home for dinner.  There’s clearly a different spirit to the game. I wanted to experience that.

But it’s that kind of week for hockey.  This past Saturday was one of my favorite sports television events — Hockey Day in Canada.  CBC (broadcasted in the US on the NHL network) selects one small town that is the home of NHL players, a junior hockey team, and with good youth programs to be their home base.  During that day, the rink is used for hometown teams to play in front of the stars of CBC hockey including the infamous Don Cherry (long time outspoken commentator on the “Coach’s Corner), and everywhere else, youth hockey is celebrated country wide in events celebrating how the sport brings people together.  Don has a saying: “We are never more Canadian than at the dropping of the puck”.

So in that quiet week before Football’s Super Bowl (Broncos by a couple TDs by the way), I am going to rekindle my love for hockey.  Tuesday I will watch the Devils on TV as they make Greg Walker’s Blues cry.  I fly out Thursday night to NYC, Friday if I am not too tired & its not too late I’ll head over to Newark to watch the Devils play Washington & Alex Ovechkin, one of the best players playing today.  Saturday – go be a New York tourist.  Then Sunday I bundle up for below freezing temperatures to head off to one of the most famous baseball parks in country to watch me some pond hockey.

How’s that for love?

The Aurora Post, Finally!

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Finally … FINALLY … I am going to do a post just on the most magical of magical beauties of Alaskan nature: The Aurora.  This is a post I have been wanting to do for months, but held off waiting for a day after a good Auroral Event to describe it better.  While I saw it a few times last winter, I have yet to see it this winter.  I’m tired of waiting, and maybe if I do post this it will actually come out for me.

The Aurora, also known as the Northern Aurora (the thing in the sky, not the drum corps), also known as the Northern Lights, also known in the Northern Hemisphere’s full title of Aurora Borealis (Aurora Australis in the Southern Hemisphere), is as much an identity to Alaska as anything else you can connect to Northern Latitudes.  The aurora paints the winter night sky with greens, blues, reds, and yellows.  They appear like ribbons or curtains of colors, and typically move sometimes subtly sometimes constantly.   I can post pictures, but my pictures wouldn’t do it justice (good pics can be found if you Google Aurora).  Many people have told me that seeing the Aurora is on their bucket list, and if it isn’t on yours then you don’t know what a bucket list is.  I love the Aurora for a number of reasons, in no small reason for the great combination of both the analytically side of my brain and the artistic side. It is this magical, dancing painting jumping over the night sky created by a complex series of astronomical events that is still hard to understand and predict.  It is predictable of when, where, and how often you will see it; but you still can miss it easier than not.  Sure, it’s not strictly an Alaskan thing, but God sure does seem to want to give it to us more often than the rest of y’all.

One misconception about the Aurora is that it is connected to Snowy or Freezing Conditions — that would be like saying New Years Day lands where it does because of the Football Season, both happen they just happen to line up as well.  The aurora is actually happening constantly, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  It stays in an Auroral Zone, typically 3° to 6° latitude and different distances from the poles, and normally north of the Canadian Boarder (or for you Europeans normally in Scandinavia; and for you Southerners, south of Tasmania).  While auroras can be quite bright, never have they been known to be bright enough to be seen during daylight hours.  Since the Auroral Zone typically sees 20 or more hours of daylight and evening-long twilight it’s nearly impossible to see the Aurora during the summer.  Conversely, since it’s dark for so long during the winter, the casual observer is more likely to spot an aurora during the winter — that’s why it gets it’s frosty reputation.  Auroras are actually strongest around the equinox (September & March) but for reasons that scientists haven’t figured out completely yet.  It is predictable, and many of us not only have the aurora forecasting website sending us alerts, but even have the forecast app that shows us all the technical data that goes into the forecast.

We don’t do so well on Aurora watches here in Anchorage, seeing it about 5 to 10 times during a year.  For one, we are just south of the natural auroral zone, where 20 miles as the crow flies does better; but we also have more cloudy conditions during the winter than Alaska’s interior.  Fairbanks, AK does much better — between fewer clouds, the typical aurora band hanging over the city, and longer nights you are more likely to see it than not on any given night during the winter — so, their main source of winter tourism is Aurora seekers.  Chena Hot Springs, a natural spa resort 50 miles north of Fairbanks, is known for being one of the best viewing locations as it is away from city lights and deep into the optimum viewing locations — it’s extremely popular with Asian tourists who have a belief that children conceived under an Aurora are more likely to become boys (which leaves us joking sometimes that you need good sanitizer when visiting Chena as you never know in which part of the spa “conceiving” is taking place).

Now for the difficult / fun part — explaining what the hell the aurora is!  In short, it’s an interaction between charged particles ejected from the sun hitting the earth’s atmosphere.  Photons arriving in the upper atmosphere (50mi or 80km above sea level) collide with nitrogen and oxygen forcing them to change their ionic structure, a process that emits energy at wavelengths visible to the naked eye.  The photons are directed to polar regions due to their magnetosphere and solar wind carry-able properties until the reach a critical velocity to affect the oxygen and nitrogen.  Since the earth’s geomagnetism is variable, changes in it, typically caused by significant atmosphere weather like large electrical storms, can increase or decrease the rate at which photons will interact with the the atmosphere.  If you are still reading at this point, I dare you to leave a comment below that says ‘boo-yeah, I didn’t lose my brain in the analytically part’.    The photons are a result of solar storms, such as solar flares, and take approximately 48 to 96 hours to arrive at Earth.  This all means an auroral event is predictable based on a solar event, the solar wind velocity carrying the magnetosphere particles, and the current geomagnetic conditions of the planet.

So yeah, an aurora is a complex event.

But still, the beauty of an aurora event, from the most subtle to the most dynamic, is utterly mind blowing.  Those lights up in the sky, they grow, they shrink.  They turn green to yellow to red.  They dance, the hold they wander.  They appear, they disappear, they tease.  In one of the greatest shows I ever witnessed, I saw one ride across the sky like a ribbon trailing a team of horses, until they grew and lifted to staggering breadth and depth.  Then when a swoop of light, turned & circled directly above me like a vortex of emerald sheets swishing about.  What makes it more stunning to me is how it does it so silently.  For a person who has spent most of his life seeing the pageantry of combining music with visual, to watch a visual media dance and move with such grace to the silence of the world takes my breath away.

My first glimpses of it were as a kid when we it reached south enough to be seen over Southern Wisconsin, still trying to figure out what we were seeing out of a car on a cold dark night.  When I was in college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they were visible about as much as they are up here in Anchorage — which is to say 5-10 times a year.  Typically (and this was back in the day of crappy cable TV) we would know it was a good Aurora night if the cable channels started going out.  We would run to the window, and there they were in the sky.  I saw the aurora on my first overseas flight, when we were over the Northern Atlantic on route to England.  I can remember three or four times I caught it during my first winter up here – the grandest when the sky went full on emerald green the night before St Patrick’s Day leading me to say “Chicago may paint their rivers green, but Anchorage, God paints the sky green”.

I doubt tonight will be the night I see it this winter — for one we are getting heavy snow through the weekend, so forget about seeing any part of the sky; and the forecast call for only a “Moderate” (or 3 of 10) level of activity.  But a big flare could happen today, the clouds could break tomorrow, and we could be dancing under the emerald skies by the end of the weekend.

Crud

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I know I know. You the loyal Bear Feed reader expected post after post over the last couple of weeks and I just didn’t deliver.
I’ve been fighting off the Anchorage Crud, a chest cold that is likely bronchitis but a bunch of us are sure we can shake it by just overdosing on Vicks vaporub and cough drops. Between work, curling, and laying around coughing there wasn’t much to blog about. It’s snowing a lot, but yeah you could have guess that.

Fun stuff is coming. It’s becoming the fun time of year to be Alaskan that isn’t summer, so just you wait.

Suck It Up

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Happy Polar Vortex Week to everyone down there in the Lower 48.  Yup Yup, it’s good to see all of you swooning down there, spinning around and chatting how hard it is to survive your little cold spell.  I know these are tough times for you, and while I could be screaming ‘suck it up’ and tell you ‘Now you know what Alaska always gets’, I just thought I would says … well … Suck it Up, because Now you know what Alaska always gets!

Ok … Ok … maybe I shouldn’t be a jerk about all this.  But maybe its because for the last 18 months, anytime I complain about the weather, y’all flood me with “its warmer here, its not raining here, I am better than you, jackass”.  Finally I get a little revenge!  This past week, warm Pacific air pushed temps in Anchorage up to 37°F — which was in some cases 20 to 30 degrees warmer than some of you down there.  At work during a call on Monday to our Global Team, we found out Houston Texas (18°F) was significantly colder than Anchorage (30°F).   Even parts of Wisconsin were below zero conditions on the North Slope this week.

But seriously, that’s the thing … come next week, y’all will go back to your 30s, 40s, 70s — and we will be getting what we got this week.  As you will be wondering how anyone can function at -20°F, Prudhoe Bay will be business as usual at -40°F.

By the way – Don’t give me that “we are tough in these conditions” junk.  I wanted your posts out there in you upper Midwest states.  You can see it progress as the vortex lingered:
Day 1: “In Florida they call it a blizzard, in (State that Begins with M) we call it the weekend”
Day 2: “I’m taking a selfie of me with a snow shovel because its new and different”
Day 3: “Come to (M-State) for the Beauty, Stay because your car won’t start”
Day 4: “I don’t care if schools are open yet, I need these kids out of the house!”
Day 5: “Seriously?  They haven’t plowed the Starbucks yet?”
Day 6: “Florida Sounds Really Good Now”

In short, I am glad y’all are having your little excursion into the world of actually getting a winter wonderland — but when it all melts over the weekend, don’t make a stink because we get another 20-30 inches here.

**PS — All in jest kiddies.  Glad to see that you all played it safe, hunkered down, and made it through that mess.  Winter weather is dangerous, and you had me worried there for a bit, but glad most of you come out of it with only complaints and pictures.