Snow returned to many parts of Alaska this winter, giving riders and racers hope that winter is back for good.
“On the weekends it’s getting better and better because people are realizing we have snow,” said Kathy Lopeman, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers club on the Kenai Peninsula.
The conditions have been so good, she said some people have been riding out to Freddie’s Roadhouse on Saturday nights for dinner.
“A lot of people call that date night,” she said.
Lopeman was at home Feb. 12 as a blizzard warning was issued for the peninsula, the latest snow-related winter weather warning in a seemingly endless string of weather advisories issued by a very busy National Weather Service office in Anchorage.
The day before, Lopeman said drag races had been held up at the roadhouse, which has been able to host races pretty much all winter long. That’s a big change from the past few years, when low snow and periodic winter warming made riding a challenge not just on the Kenai, but across much of Alaska.
According to the weather service, Southcentral and parts of the Interior have seen slightly above average snow totals this year. Through late-February, Anchorage had received about 71 inches of snow, about the same as Fairbanks. Both totals were a few inches above normal. Those areas have also seen below-normal temperatures, which help keep snow on the ground longer. According to the weather service, Anchorage was 3 degrees colder than normal in December and January, while Fairbanks was about 4 degrees colder in December and 1.6 degrees colder than normal in January.
Other parts of the state, however, haven’t seen a similar revival. Western Alaska, for example, hasn’t been as fortunate, with Bethel, Nome and McGrath all well below normal snowfall through January. Juneau has had a below-average snow year at sea level, but the mountains above the city have seen good snow, with riders reporting good conditions all winter.
Where it has snowed, however, has been in many areas plagued with tough conditions since 2014 — areas that include many parts of the most popular riding areas in Alaska.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge as well as parts of the Chugach National Forest opened for the first time in several seasons this year due to the more normal conditions.
“Thanks to the recent snow, Placer and Twentymile areas are now open for snowmachines for the first time in three years,” read a press release announcing those areas’ openings issued in mid-January by the National Forest Service.
After a year’s hiatus, the Valdez Mayor’s Cup races are back and ready to bring the beating.
The Valdez Snowmachine Club calls its 200-mile Mayor’s Cup Cross Country Race “Alaska’s 200 Mile Adventure in Pain.”
“It’s more of an Iron Man, cross-country type of race,” said Rich Loftin, one of the race organizers.
Scheduled for March 18, the three-decades-old race was cancelled last year but is back this winter with both a 200-mile snowmachine race (with pro, semi-pro, women’s, vintage, and veterans’ divisions), as well as a 100-mile cross-country snowbike race.
“That’s a first,” said Loftin, who said he comes from a dirt bike background and thought the idea of a cross-country race aboard the narrow-track, one-ski machines might attract some competitive new riders to the race.
“I see the popularity of these snowbikes increasing and as it does, I know how dirt bike riders are and how they think,” he said.
His vision for the snowbike race is to create something similar to a Euro-style GP or desert bike race. So far, interest has been steady.
“It’s looking like 10, 12, 15 might be showing up,” for the snowbike race, he added.
As for the 200-mile snowmachine race, Loftin said riders will travel on a looped course that takes them on a nice tour of varying terrain.
“It’s wooded trails, across river beds out around the lake, up a hill and back down,” he said.
Loftin said race organizers are hoping for a big turnout this year and want to make sure the Mayor’s Cup gets back on track.
“We’re just trying to keep it going,” he said.
Registration for the 200-mile snowmachine race and 100-mile snowbike race runs through March 17 at 7 p.m.
Interested riders can get information at the club’s Facebook page.
Back near Anchorage, Kyle Nicoll with the Alaska Motor Mushers Club said the club hosted several junior races in January and is planning its big Larry Heal Memorial cross-country races March 11.
“They’ve all turned out really well,” he said of the junior races, which are held on Montana Lake near Talkeetna.
The club hadn’t yet hosted any adult races, but Nicoll said that was due mainly to many racers training for the year’s big cross-country race.
“Most of our guys are racing Iron Dog this year,” he said of the February race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.
Nicoll said the snow has been solid this winter south of the Alaska Range.
“It’s been good, the (Susitna) River’s been really good,” said Nicoll, who said he was sitting out a ride on a mid-February Sunday afternoon after temperatures plunged to 25 below in the Mat-Su.
Still, Nicoll’s optimism is guarded, as he knows that Alaska weather can change in an instant. Even as he waited out a cold snap, Nicoll was quick to point out that fact.
“It’s supposed to get into the 40s this week,” he said.
Despite the topsy-turvy nature of a sport that’s dependent on Mother Nature, riders seem to be upbeat about the promising return to snow normalcy this year.
Nicoll said he expects a huge turnout for the Larry Heal event.
“We’re going to have a big purse,” he said.
Nicoll said AMMC is also planning to help out with the Valdez Mayor’s Cup.
Like Nicoll, Kathy Lopeman down on the Kenai said the snow had excitement levels up for the first time in a couple years.
“We’ll be having Family Fun Days this year on March 18, and we’ll be able to do it at our pavilion,” she said. “We haven’t been able to use that for the past couple years.”
Lopeman said the snow will also allow the club to host a Military Appreciation Day and she anticipated a huge turnout for the group’s Way Out Women fundraising ride for cancer patients at the end of February.
“If we raise more than a hundred thousand dollars that’ll put us over $1 million in the 13 years of the event,” she said.
Maybe Mother Nature has a soft spot for snowmachine riders, after all.
“We’re really excited,” she said.