I have spent the better part of my Alaskan winters trying to outsmart ice. Ice has become my personal obsession. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I’ve spent trying to figure out how to keep ice from creeping, seeping and expanding into places I don’t want it to go. After a lifetime of struggle trying to win the ice wars, I have come to this conclusion: Ice has a mind and a life of its own.
To be clear, I’m talking about creeping ice, not the kind that accumulates from compacted snow or freezing rain. It’s bad enough having to deal with that kind of ice, but at least it’s stationary. With the help of studded tires, cleats and some sand, most Alaskans can cope with that sort of challenge.
I’m talking about live ice. The result of water that somehow seems to think it has to keep on flowing and going somewhere, even though it’s 15 degrees outside, when most life forms have the sense to hunker down and stop moving until it warms up.
But water, being clueless and wanting only to go downhill no matter what the cost, begins to freeze and form a glacier. Which keeps on growing and growing and growing. The colder it gets, the more the ice barrier builds up from the water pushing it forward. Should it suddenly warm up a bit, the water thinks, yipee, I can flow again. But wait. There is ice blocking its path now. So it jumps sideways instead and onto the road. Over the ditch. Or under your house.
For some years I lived in the mountains near Anchorage, in a valley full of bubbling creeks and waterfalls. Wherever the steep rugged road leading up into our homestead crossed these streams someone had built a culvert. Just like anywhere else in Alaska, these culverts worked fine in summer. But come winter, it was another story.
With the first cold snap, the culverts froze into a solid mass, blocking the creek’s flow. The icy water had no choice but to follow the path of least resistance. Soon glaciers came merrily gliding down the mountain road.
All the ice chopping, ditching and re routing was to no avail. Ice overflowed every attempt to thwart its expanding downhill course, and the road became the luge run from hell. A death run that even a Subaru could not overcome. This scenario repeated for many winters, and it was not until my hands were bleeding and my knuckles and back permanently damaged from hours of swinging an ice mattock, that I realized it might make more sense to work with nature, rather than against it.
Hence the bridge theory was born.
It seemed that wherever the creek flowed under cover, through trees, under grass or bushes, no glacier was to be seen. But wherever water became exposed to the open air, a glacier would form, blocking the water’s path, thus forming more ice and thus more glacier, in an endless, unstoppable cycle. Hmmm. Might the trick be to keep the water safely hidden and insulated? Like under a bridge, with no metal in sight? So before the next winter we tore out all the culverts and installed wooden bridges instead. The creek was fooled into thinking it was mean- dering through a forest instead of having to force itself under an evil road.
Problem solved: Mossy 1; glacier 0.
Variations of this theme have played out every winter now. Sometimes I win, mostly I lose. All it takes is one eroded bank, the grass accidentally grazed off, and one cold night an innocent seepage turns into an unstoppable ice monster, freezing a gate shut or blocking a basement door.
I’ve used insulation, boards, branches and blankets to cover ditches in hopes of leading the flow off into another direction. I’ve used heat tapes inside culverts, trying to keep them open in order to prevent the runoff from a sudden warm spell from running off into the barnyard. For some strange reason, the ice around here does not want to stay in the gully where it belongs.
Prevention, as in most things, is the key to averting disaster. But it’s practically impossible to outsmart ice, to understand its logic or read its intentions. Just when you thought you were a step ahead, it throws you a curve. It mutates from year to year. It makes its own rules as it goes along. And once ice has got the upper hand, as in the form of a glacier, it’s a losing battle.
You would think that Alaska’s road builders would seek advice from local experienced longtimers like me who have gained some insights about this water-ice thing over the years. I’m betting there’s quite a few of us out there with nuggets of wisdom to share that could make a difference between glacier life and death. Glaciers on roads can cause serious accidents. But, then, it also creates jobs to have road crews up all night thawing out frozen culverts.
It’s not only the winter water that hates those culverts; any landslide will tell you it would have preferred a nice big bridge to slide under with all that debris. But who listens.
Another thing: I don’t know who came up with the idea of placing thousands of stones in the ditches out East End Road last year as a form of erosion control. It probably seemed so natural and all; somebody from California, where it’s always summer, no doubt had this bright idea.
But water hates bare exposed freezing rocks almost as much as metal culverts (like on our beaches where even sea water turns to ice on the bare rocks). From what I can see, the ice in those fancy ditches is having a heyday, and soon will be jumping the ditches, creeping onto the highway, sending glaciers forth to multiply and prosper.
Be careful. Some dark cold night when you are driving home a glacier could jump out at you from seemingly nowhere and try to stop you. Slow down. Stay calm. Whatever you do, don’t brake. Once they have advanced this far, the glaciers are here to stay and the ice wars will have to be fought valiantly until the sun returns in late April to call a truce.
Sometimes you will win; most times you will lose. It’s just the nature of the ice beast.
Mossy Kilcher is a lifelong Alaskan, artist, musician and nature lover, living with her family on Seaside Farm in Homer. She enjoys sharing her life with numerous farm animals, wild critters, summer visitors and raspberry pickers.