Chasing good weather is an art and a science for Alaska hikers

Nearly two months of solid rain have turned my hiking buddies and me into “weather hawks.” We hunt for and pore over multiple weather forecasts, seeking that four- or five-hour window somewhere in the state when the sun might grace us with its magical light and warmth.

Some might disagree, but I think weather forecasts have improved dramatically over the past 15-20 years. But, being at the mercy of the ever-changing moods of the Gulf of Alaska at our southern doorstep, they can’t always be right.

Over the years I’ve found that weather sometimes seems to move in more quickly than predicted. For that reason, I’ll always prepare for Wednesday’s hike on the preceding Tuesday. I look for hourly forecasts. I’ll get up at 3 am if it will put me in a place that offers three or four hours of that illusive bright orb we have seen so little of since July.

My friends say I’m driven. The more accurate word is obsessed.

Southcentral Alaska and even the immediate Anchorage area also have microclimates. For example, it can be socked in with clouds in the Eagle River area, while at Eklutna Lake, which is blessed with a rain shadow created by the Chugach’s big mountains to the south, there can be glorious sunny breaks.

Likewise, the upper Hillside and Glen Alps can be cloudy from a Cook Inlet marine layer that stacks up around Flattop Mountain. But in West Anchorage around Kincaid Park, which is even closer to Cook Inlet, it might be sunny.

If you want to beat the weather monster, you have to be willing to drive your car away from it. Granted, our Alaska road system is limited. But generally, by venturing north and even east, you can greatly improve your chances of finding better weather. I haven’t fully worked out the formula, but Distance from Gulf of Alaska (DFGOA) = Better Weather (BW).

Two autumns ago, in early October, I drove more than 270 miles to the Nabesna area, about 100 miles south of Tok Junction, to find some sun and blue sky. It worked for a couple of days. I enjoyed a nice hike in the Mentasta Mountains, where I’d never been.

This summer, Fairbanks had some nice weather in August. The distance wasn’t keeping me from heading up there. It was my lack of knowledge of its area trails. Even farther north, along the Dalton Highway, the weather was appreciably better than in Southcentral.

Of course, it helps a lot being retired. My friends and I can pounce on a brief weather break on any day of the week. And this summer, we’ve also conditioned ourselves to do the unheard of: Hiking in the rain. And we observed a lot of others doing it. Strangely enough, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Getting wet for short periods isn’t a problem for me. It’s lack of visibility. It’s hard to justify a strenuous hike up a mountain ridge when one can’t see a mile.

Readers might find this hard to believe, but in the past 50 days of almost unrelenting rain, I have found at least 14 breaks or “windows” when it was either sunny, partly sunny, or cloudy, without rain.

There are a few people in Alaska who examine weather data as closely as our professional meteorologists. I am one of them. But in truth, I have yet to figure it out. Sometimes when it’s cloudy and rainy everywhere, it will be partly sunny in Moose Pass, of all places, on the Kenai Peninsula. Go figure.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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