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In Valdez, 8 feet just a good snow
PILED UP: Snowmachiners, kids, skiers happy to be out.

By Joel Gay
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: January 9, 2003)
Eight feet of snow in nine days would paralyze most towns for weeks, plugging streets, collapsing roofs and triggering chaos.

It just brings Valdez up to normal.

"That wasn't a great snow, an all-star snow, but it was a good snow," said Valdez Police Lt. Bill Comer. With snow standing 4 feet deep in the fields and forming mountains where it has been piled in vacant lots, the city now looks like it's supposed to look, he said. "The people of Valdez are used to a lot of snow."

After a long, warm fall that featured green grass all the way into December, winter came abruptly, said Jeff Bailey of the National Weather Service in Valdez. Five feet fell in a three-day storm in late December. Another 3 feet dropped in a storm that ended Monday. The snow stake outside his office that showed 3 inches at Christmas now marks 40 inches.

"It's a snow-shoveler's market down here," he said.

Indeed, shoveler Amanda Baird said she was praying for more snow.

"It's a real good way to make money," she said. Most businesses slow down after the winter fishing and tourist seasons. But with a plastic grain scoop and a business card, she can keep a positive cash flow.

Baird said the shoveling doesn't hurt her back. Maybe that's because she is 19. Or, perhaps it is because she has years of experience. She started shoveling roofs at age 12, when she moved to Valdez.

The two storms bring the total snowfall this winter to 10 feet, on par for a normal year, Bailey said. By the end of a typical winter that total will reach nearly 25 feet.

But he is quick to point out that there is no such thing as a "typical winter" in Valdez.

"A couple years ago we didn't get started till February. Sometimes the heaviest (snowfall) is in March. Every year is its own thing," he said. "We could get 40 feet or we might not get but 20. You never know."

The kids of Valdez were thrilled to have fresh snow to play in, said Roz Strang, principal of Hermon Hutchens Elementary School. "They were very disappointed it wasn't coming sooner."

Plows and loaders push snow into mountainous piles at the school and elsewhere around Valdez, which become wintertime playgrounds, Strang said. Kids can't get to jungle gyms, the slides are snowed in, they can't make it to swing sets. The snow gets so high they can walk over the top of the monkey bars.

The biggest problem with the snow piles, she said, is that "sometimes the kids go down into (voids in) the snow and can't come out. So we have a buddy system."

Bigger kids were ready for a change, too, said Nancy Peterson, the person in charge of city parks and recreation. Valdez maintains about 10 kilometers of cross-country ski trails and 10 miles of snowmachine trails, and all were closed until the recent dumps.

"Snowmachiners, people with new skis -- everybody was getting very antsy to get out," Peterson said. "We went from nothing to having our trails open in a week."

East of town in Thompson Pass, backcountry ski guide and Thompson Pass Chalet owner Matt Kinney said the snow started falling around Christmas and has hardly quit. One day he measured 31 inches of light, fluffy powder, he said.

"It's a lot of shoveling but some outstanding skiing," Kinney said.

Even downtown the snow was unusually light, at least for the first storm, he said. Typical Valdez snowstorms start cold, but end up warm or even rainy. Not so this time. "It's pretty amazing stuff," Kinney said.

The dry snow still packed a punch. Five avalanches roared down into Thompson Pass starting late Sunday morning, closing the Richardson Highway -- the only road into Valdez -- for more than a day.

Lynn Dickenson, administrative assistant at the Department of Transportation in Valdez, said it took until 6 p.m. Monday to open one lane. Two hours later both lanes were passing traffic again, she said.

Snow was falling again, steadily, in Valdez on Wednesday. Forecaster Bailey expected "light to moderate" snow for the next several days.

Then again, "light to moderate" has a different meaning in the snow capital of Alaska, Bailey said. "For Valdez, a foot and a half is kinda small potatoes. We could get that and not blink an eye."

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Yeah well here in western Bristol Bay we had a couple days of -20 to -30 and everybody was hoping it would finally freeze enough to make ice travel safe. We even had enough snow. But now we're back up to +36 and rain. No ice fishing or snogoing for me for a while - not even Xcountry skiing. Its easy on the moose and caribou but frustrating hunters and trappers. I supppose the higher elevations are getting a lot of snow but I can't get there.
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