Snow depth still varies across Kenai Peninsula

Though the snow has finally arrived on many parts of the Kenai Peninsula, it’s still patchy enough to limit some winter recreation so far.

With a new pad of snow across the western Kenai Peninsula, snowmachiners can now take off across the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge north of the Kenai River. The refuge announced the opening Friday to take effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m., with the exception of the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Systems, areas above timberline and the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area except for Hidden, Kelly, Petersen and Engineer lake, according to a news release issued Friday.

However, the area south of the Kenai River is still closed.

“Snow cover south of the Kenai River remains insufficient at this time to open for snowmachining,” the release states. “…The Refuge advises that snowmachine users exercise caution, especially on lakes, river and streams which may not yet be sufficiently frozen. In addition, rocks and tree stumps can be hazardous in areas of less snow accumulation.”

This weekend, the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race ran a rerouted course through the Caribou Hills and southern Kenai Peninsula, with mushers in the 200-mile event completing two laps of the circuit rather than the traditional route from Kasilof to Homer and back. Race organizer Tami Murray said the race committee relocated the race course to accommodate the lack of snow along the traditional route, with the mushers bounding up and down the hills inland from Ninilchik south to Homer.

To the east, snow has built up in the mountains of Turnagain Pass and the mountains around Seward, but it’s still spotty in the mountains of the central Kenai Peninsula, such as near Cooper Landing. Although the U.S. Forest Service can open the Resurrection Pass Trail area for snowmachining this year, it has yet to do so because there has not been enough snow in the area to protect the vegetation from damage.

The forecasters from the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center haven’t been out to survey snow conditions in the central peninsula areas, such as Snug Harbor or Resurrection Pass, because it hasn’t been open to snowmachines yet, said Wendy Wagner, the director and forecaster for the center.

“It’s much thinner there than it is over by Seward or of course at Turnagain Pass,” she said. “And we don’t produce a danger rating for those areas but we do definitely keep tabs as far as the central Kenai region goes.”

Although snowpack is still thin in many areas of the lowlands on the western Kenai Peninsula, it thickens as the altitude increases. The snowfall monitor at the top of Turnagain Pass reported 69 inches of snow there Sunday, and 29 inches in someof the higher areas north east of Homer, according to the National Weather Service.

Any areas that have received new snow can be suspect for human-caused avalanches, Wagner said. The colder temperatures seen across Southcentral Alaska recently may help the new snow bond to the older snow, but when new snow is powdery, it is still possible to trigger a loose avalanche, she said.

There is still a layer of weak snow beneath the current layer of fresh snow, which is preventing the new snow from bonding, according to the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center advisory for Sunday. On Saturday, people out in the Turnagain Pass area reported eight observed avalanches in the area, though no one was reportedly caught in them, according to the advisory.

High winds can also lead to greater risk of slab avalanches, Wagner said.

“Any time the wind blows and loads a slope that can form an avalanche problem on those slopes,” she said.

Though the center’s forecasters cannot survey everywhere, it’s helpful when people can send them observations and information about snow conditions in the Chugach Mountains, Wagner said. If anyone gets out and observes what looks like an avalanche or likely avalanche conditions, they can send it to the forecasters through the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center’s website under the “observations” tab, she said.

Those out recreating can spot potential avalanches with three likely signs: recent slides, cracking in the snow surface and settling, an effect avalanche forecasters call “whoomphing,” Wagner said.

“If people do get out and they can send us the information, that’s one of our best ways to assess the danger (in the central Kenai Peninsula),” she said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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