Warm winters threaten retail and recreation in Anchorage

Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking
The snowless parking lot outside Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage’s Spenard neighborhood. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

It’s been a terrible winter for Anchorage by just about every measure.

Warm weather systems have turned what little precipitation has reached the municipality into rain and ice, ruining many of the recreational activities residents wait all year to enjoy. Few people’s livelihoods in Anchorage depend on reliable winter conditions. But there may be a hazard to the city’s economic health if winter-loving outdoor enthusiasts decide dark, icy winters aren’t worth sticking around for.

It’s dusk on an icy slope in Russian Jack Park on the east side of town, as 9-year-old Andrew Harmon solemnly puts on his skate skies.

“The conditions right now, we really can’t work with it too well,”he said.

Junior Nordic ski practices this season have been moved around to different trails in search of a bare minimum of usable terrain.

“Basically, there’s like, no snow,” Harmon explained. “Mostly ice and some leaves.”

For him, one of the big problems is it hurts a lot if you fall. For his dad, Art Harmon, who’s coached Junior Nordic for years, it’s a separate set of issues.

“The main difference is that you have to be really flexible with your plan,” Harmon said inside the park’s chalet as young skiers started arriving.

This winter, Harmon has had to adjust what he’s teaching, even putting lessons about ski fundamentals on hold if conditions don’t comply. But flexibility also means a lot more logistical coordination.

On training days, coaches like Harmon leave messages on a hotline for parents and get instructions on which park will host that day’s practice.

“So again, we’ll be at Russian Jack, and we’ll see you at 6:15,” the phone recording crackles.

Harmon said even though an extra 20 minute commute to, say Hilltop on the south side of town, is hardly a catastrophe, and it makes a difference for families.

But for retailers in Anchorage, those same dismal Nordic conditions are less about inconvenience than survival. Some of the most popular winter activities – ones that demand some consumer investment – have dropped off a cliff.

“Last year, as everybody knows it was a very grim winter,” recalled Marcy Baker, who has worked at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in the Spenard neighborhood for 30 years. After getting burned last year, the store took a gamble on this season.

“We decided we were going to plan on another poor winter and inventory accordingly. So we only have two big down parkas left in the store,” Baker said, standing before a meager sales rack. “Which is smart.”

It wasn’t just coats. AMH scaled back its overall inventory for winter clothing and equipment.

Many of their core customers haven’t given up on outdoor recreation, though. It’s been a good year when it comes to equipment for ice, whether that’s ice skates for snowless creeks and lakes, or cleats for staying upright on hikes.

“Everybody that’s come in, they’re kind of grumbling a little bit, but they’ve all adapted to do something. The Nordic skating has been joyful and the backcountry skiing’s been good,” she said.

There’s no debating it’s been a bad year for fans of winter weather in Southcentral, but measurements and the causes are multifaceted. Not only was there a record-breaking snow drought, but Anchorage has seen about a third of its average winter moisture. And the precipitation that made it within the boundaries of the municipality has mostly been rain, caused by higher-than-normal temperatures from all the warm air moving up from the southeast.

“And that’s locked out a lot of the more typical – and what we would consider seasonable – cold for a large part of the state, especially southcentral,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Snider.

The causes of that warmth, though, are less straightforward. The Blob, El Nino, micro-climates over surrounding maritime areas, fluctuations in the jet stream 30,000 feet up in the sky – all of these are contributing this year. And though the last three winters have been relatively warm and low on snow, Snider points out that when he moved to Anchorage in the 2011-2012 winter, Anchorage hit a record and had about 5 feet of snow above its average. The consistent trend is less uniformly directional than one of diminishing consistency.

“In the last several years the variability of winter has been pretty broad,” Snider said.

What this means for the character and psyche of Anchorage is a little less certain. An open-ended survey by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. asked almost 1,275 questions about why they live in Anchorage and why they might leave. One of the most recurrent themes in the answers was recreation. People love the hiking, the skiing, the proximity to whatever outdoor fun can be dreamed up.

For coach Harmon, that means adapting ski practice if need be. On a recent evening, he had his junior Nordic children step out of their bindings for a scavenger hunt.

“A couple of them said, ‘This is the most fun we’ve had at Junior Nordic,’ and we weren’t even on skis,” Harmon said. “I try to hold on to those things because you can be bummed out here about the lack of snow, but as an Alaskan I want to have the feeling that no matter what the weather I can go out and enjoy myself.”

The best medicine for a dreary winter, for Harmon and others in Anchorage, is adaptation. And if all else fails, there’s always hope that next year might be better.

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