Alaska's Winter On the Wild Side

Roaming moose, piles of snow, and an active volcano are making the season a tad unusual. THE LAST FRONTIER

ALASKA lost its innocence as a frontier a long time ago, certainly well before the helicopters began thumping over this city, the state's largest, with a population of a quarter-million people, to relay rush-hour traffic reports. But enough still happens here to remind that life in this big-shouldered state can be a bit more elemental than anything in Kansas or California.

Consider three recurring themes this winter: volcanoes, snow, and marauding moose.

Let's start with the weather. Sure, this is Alaska and you expect nature to be headstrong and antisocial. But this year, in parts of the state it has been unusually severe.

In Valdez, the oil depot on Prince William Sound, a record 496 inches of snow has fallen this winter, which if you don't have a calculator adds up to more than 41 feet.

That has been enough to sink a few pleasure boats in the harbor, collapse a building or two, and turn some people's driveways into cocoons. About eight feet remains on the ground.

`Ready for spring'

Valdezeans aren't unaccustomed to snow. The town is the Buffalo, N.Y., of Alaska. Its schools, however, have never closed because of snow - including this year.

But even some hardy residents there, who in their shoveling have been bobbing up and down with the regularity of an oil derrick, are tiring of trying to keep roofs clear.

``We're ready for spring,'' says Mayor Lynn Chrystal, who, appropriately enough, works for the National Weather Service.

In the Susitna Valley, not far north of here, the snowfall has been nearly as unrelenting. Residents in the sparsely settled area have had to tunnel down to the windows of their homes to let light in. Entire cabins have been lost beneath the gauze.

Snow hampers moose

Anchorage has been hit with a comparatively modest eight feet of snow, though this is still the most in 25 years. About two feet remains on the ground.

``It has been very heavy,'' says Mark Evangelista, a meteorologist here, referring mainly to Valdez and the Susitna Valley.

If the snow has tested Alaskans' sturdiness, it has been harder on the moose. Antler-high accumulations in some areas have made it difficult for the bandylegged behemoths to move about and find food, mainly willow and birch twigs.

Some of the worst problems have been concentrated along a 50-mile stretch of the Alaskan railroad, between Willow and Talkeetna. Unable to move through the woods, the half-ton animals come up on the tracks and are hit by the iron-snouted locomotives. Railroad officials say they can't stop the trains in time or even see the animals during some whiteout winter storms.

More than 550 moose have been killed along the tracks this year. The carcasses are usually given to people for food. One large moose can feed a family for a year.

To stop the killing, the railroad sends pilot cars ahead of the trains, sirens blowing, to try to shoo the animals away. For a while, officials tried laying tires inside the tracks, similar to what football players run through in practice, to discourage them from walking the rails.

Local volunteers, railroad engineers - even the US Army, for a time - have been plowing paths (``moose sidewalks'') along the tracks for the animals to use.

All this has been only modestly successful.

``Our efforts have been hampered by more snow,'' says Vivian Hamilton of the Alaska Railroad.

Others are watching what they do. One state lawmaker has suggested the railroad be fined $1,000 for every moose it kills.

Plenty of other moose are perishing in snow-heavy parts of the state, though. Another 550 have been hit by cars, and the state Department of Fish and Game estimates more than 1,000 others will starve this winter.

Even though all this is part of the natural rhythm of the wild, the figures this year are unusually high.

``It could well be a record year all around,'' says David Harkness, a Fish and Game biologist.

More moose than usual are coming into towns looking for food - including in urban Anchorage. Carol Phillips walked home from work one day recently to find a moose near her carport.

``I don't know which one of us was more startled,'' she says.

Not all encounters have been so friendly. A couple from Wasilla, north of here, was attacked and kicked by a mad moose earlier this week.

In the Iditarod - the 1,100-mile dog sled run that Alaskans like to call the world's ``last great race'' - most mushers are packing guns to protect against encounters with starving moose. One is carrying a semi-automatic assault rifle. A musher shot a moose along the trail this week.

If all this is not enough, the Redoubt volcano, 100 miles southwest of here, continues to hiccup. Its effects have been more annoying than hazardous - ash showered over wide areas - though there is recurring concern about an oil storage terminal near the mountain.

All in all, apparently, it's just Alaska being Alaska.

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