“Then it will be slippy” my mother said in 2001 – the year we immigrated to Alaska – when I told her that we finally got snow.
Interior Alaska’s roads are icy and/or snow covered for about 7 to 8 months depending on altitude and position to sun exposure. Thus, drivers learn how to correct when the back of their car goes to the side whenever they drive around a curve. You know how to start driving even when you parked you car uphill. You have a box of sand, a shovel, a tow and blankets in your car in winter in case you go into a ditch or to support someone getting out of a ditch. You never start driving just because the traffic light is green. You first check that nobody is slipping into the intersection. Driveways are considered dangerous as well.
Despite these dangers, why are drivers in Interior Alaska looking forward to snow? No it is not because they know better to drive on snow/ice than on dirt roads and/or wet asphalt. No it is not because summer is construction season.
About three weeks after fall equinox, daylight hours plus dawn become shorter than the hours of complete darkness. Even under full moon clear sky conditions, it is dark – damned dark. The headlights just show a bit of the road and the light gets absorbed in the boreal forest like by a black body1. Some mail boxes along the road look like moose which is irritating.
Moose are what Alaskan drivers are afraid of. Moose munch on twigs and hence walk around scrub and permafrost areas and the scrubs along the roads. Moose are brown like the ground and their surroundings. Thus, they are hard to see. They may enter the road out of the blue. If you hit a moose, you kill the moose. You consider yourself lucky when you survive with some injuries. Of course, your car is totaled.
What difference does the snow make? Sure, snow increases the length of your breaking distance. However, snow is white. It reflects the beams of your headlights. Thus, it is less dark. You can see farther than without snow. Furthermore, you have a chance to see the moose against the white when the moose move. You at least have a chance to avoid killing them!
In 2003, I drove from Goldstream to Fairbanks International Airport to pick up my husband. Driving around a curve from a forested area into an area with snow-covered permafrost I saw motion and immediately hit the brakes and tried to keep the car straight on the icy road that had lower ground to its left and right. Upon standing a moose cow and her calf jumped out of the ditch and crossed the road about 10 yards (9.14 m) in front of me to vanish in the dish on the other side of the road.
Why are drivers afraid of driveways? Later in winter, when the snow cover is about one to 1.5 feet (30-45 cm), walking in the snow costs more energy than walking on trails. Thus, moose use trails, driveways and even the roads to walk on. It is like the caribous using the haulway instead of migrating on the tundra.
One winter morning of December 2004, we drove from Goldstream to College to go to work. My husband was driving. With a sudden I saw a tiny motion in a driveway to the right 10 yards (9.14 m) in front of us and shouted “Pass auf”, which means be careful. My husband immediately hit the brakes and stirred towards the other side of the street doing the elk test. The moose and I had eye contact thru the side window! Her nose was just a hand-wide away from the glass! We all three were lucky that the car passed the elk test without a problem and that there was snow. I would not have seen the moose and warned my husband if there had been no snow.
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1A black body absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of wavelength or angle of incidence.
Photos: G. Kramm (2015)
Copyright 2013-2015 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved