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For Alaskans, Memorial Day weekend starts off chilly, wet, snowy

Craig Medred

Summer tourist season starts Friday, with rain in the forecast for Anchorage for the start of Memorial Day weekend. But that's nothing. At Exit Glacier at Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, and here are some tips from the National Park Service:

• Layer up the clothes;

• Bring the snowshoes, and

• Don't forget the water, or maybe pack a pot and stove for melting snow to drink.

"Due to continued freezing temperatures at night, the water to the restrooms may not be able to be turned on for the Memorial Day weekend,'' the agency warned in a press release.

The toilets, fortunately, work fine, given that they are nothing but covered pits in the still snow-covered landscape that surrounds the popular tourist attraction 100 miles south of Anchorage. Exit Glacier, like a lot of the state's Southcentral region, is having a tough time getting out from under unusually heavy winter snows.

Mother Nature aimed an icy arrow at the populated heart of Alaska this winter. Alaska's largest city saw record snowfall. The eastern Kenai Peninsula had near-record snowfall. Then came a chilly spring. As a cool drizzle fell on Anchorage Thursday, Alaskans wondered: Is this the best Mother Nature can offer? 

The story of the endless winter is nicely told by the Alaska-Pacific River Forest Center's snow-depth map, which shows about two feet remaining at its automated Exit Glacier measuring site, nearly three feet at Grouse Creek Divide on the Kenai to the north, nearly six feet at Grandview along the Alaska Railroad route from Anchorage to Seward, nearly seven feet at Turnagain Pass along the Seward Highway, and about five-and-half feet at the Mount Alyeska site only 1,540 feet above sea level in Girdwood.

Higher up on Alyeska, as much as 15 feet of snow remains. Alyeska Resort, just down the road from Anchorage, is offering spring skiing this weekend. It planned to open last weekend, too, but the new snow falling on the upper mountains raised avalanche dangers. The words to this song were sung by the late, great crooner Johnny Horton: "When it's spring time in Alaska, it's 40 below.''

Well, not quite -- but sometimes it sure seems like it.

"There is still up to four feet of snow covering the trail system and campground,'' the park service reported from Exit Glacier.

"It's unbelievable,'' admitted Irene Lindquist, the trail tech for the Kenai's 5.4-million-acre Chugach National Forest. Campgrounds on the central Kenai area are still snowed under. The Forest's Begich-Boggs Visitor Center near Portage Glacier, about 45 miles south of Anchorage, will open for the weekend, but campgrounds in the Portage Valley remain closed. Why? Too much snow.

The story is the same to the south toward Turnagain Pass, where people are still snowmobiling, and down toward the small community of Hope on the other side. Campgrounds at Bertha Creek, Granite Creek and elsewhere are under so much snow they won't open for the holiday weekend. The situation does look better, however, in the Cooper Landing area and to the west toward Soldotna. The Quartz Creek and Russian River campgrounds in the forest will be open, and Lindquist said it might even be possible to hike a portion of the Resurrection Pass Trail without snowshoes.

The same cannot be said for the Lost Lake Trail. There's still snow right down to the trailhead only about 300 feet above sea level.

"The snow is melting pretty quickly,'' Lindquist added. "It is going quickly in some areas.''

"In some areas'' is the key phrase. In other areas, not so much. Cross-country and telemark skiers are still bombing the Front Range Chugach Mountains above Anchorage. Some north-facing slopes look like they could make for good skiing for weeks yet. Maybe by the Fourth of July holiday it will finally look and feel like spring in Southcentral Alaska.

Meanwhile, give the oft-maligned employees of the federal govenrment some credit for at least trying to get the season started. They've been out there with shovels and heavy equipment doing their best to make things better.  They dug out the Exit Glacier visitor center and pavilion and plan to have them open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily from May 26 to May 29 come hell or high, white water -- or what most of us call snow.

Facilities will close from May 30 until June 5 for the installation of new exhibits, but when they're open, the park says, "staff will be available for visitor orientation and information in the pavilion, located a short distance from the Nature Center. (But) ranger-led programs will not be offered until the snow has sufficiently melted to make the trails accessible."

The park didn't even offer an estimate on when that might be, if it happens at all. From the looks of Exit Glacier at the moment, this could be the start of a new Ice Age.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com