On a late September early morning drive back from Talkeetna, I saw winter surprise three different drivers.
The first hit the black ice in their whippy little sports car as they were passing me. They twirled along the highway, landing in a ditch. I could just make out the driver’s face, full of shock, as I continued driving by.
The second and third fishtails happened in quick succession, on a shaded part of the highway, where the early morning wintry mix had turned to ice.
It’s the time of year, where dangerous road conditions don’t make themselves known. Instead, the danger camouflages itself, taking down the unsuspecting driver.
I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with poor conditions.
My first winter in Alaska, I landed in a ditch more times than I can count.
One morning, as the sun was just peeking up, I was driving two friends to Tsalteshi Trails. As we drove down to the Sterling Highway, I lost all control. Instead of looking at the road, I found myself saying to my friends, ‘Oh, we’ll be fine,’ in the most unconvincing tone. Luckily, we were fine. My car spent the day in the ditch while we went and skied.
Last week, I hiked up to the Dan Moller Cabin in Juneau, enjoying some Southeast rain. How four Sewardites traveling to Southeast Alaska forgot to pack XTRATUFs, I’ll never know. The trail, though, is lined with boardwalk, allowing us to avoid swampy shoes for most of the trek.
The next morning, though, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that winter hiked up just behind us.
Each of the boards that had so kindly kept water out of our shoes the previous day was soaked through, morphing into frozen planks of black ice.
The 4-mile trek back down to Juneau left my shoulders sore from the nervous tension I held in them all day. Instead of walking freely down, my body was tight, meticulously taking each step or just sliding my feet across the board.
The traction on my trail running shoes couldn’t stand the test, though. Once, a misstep landed me on my butt. A second time, when I was feeling cocky thanks to the sun beating down onto the boardwalk, I fell sideways and sent my foot down a foot into the muck. Luckily, my shoe was still attached when I finally wrangled my way out of there.
We knew the temperatures were dropping, but we forgot what that means in Alaska. So, while we were lamenting our lack of rain boots on our hike in, we should have been worried about our lack of microspikes for our hike out.
Termination dust has been steadily moving down the mountains for weeks, but the days are still long enough to work and play and the temperatures are still high enough for me to forgo the puffy coat.
But, that doesn’t mean that winter isn’t here.
Winter is more than just snow on the trails. It doesn’t storm in with 12 inches of snow.
It’s black ice on the roads and trails. It’s temperatures that dance around freezing, dropping fast at night and taking awhile to warm up with the sun.
It’s the morning wood stove fire that doesn’t need to be kept alive past lunch.
Our autumn season is quick, you can blink and miss the fall colors. And while the leaves are still holding on, winter starts creeping its way. Winter isn’t coming, it’s already here. So, start thinking about pulling out the skis, dig out your headlamps and microspikes and, most importantly, drive safe.