Thursday, January 12, 2012

Valdez Snow, Nome Ice & The Great Race in Alaska

by Nancy DeWitt

Alaska has been in the national news recently, thanks to several epic storms and snowfalls. The coastal towns of Cordova and Valdez are presently buried in snow while residents struggle to clear the streets and keep their roofs from collapsing. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard's only Arctic ice-breaker, the Healy, and the Russian-flagged tanker Renda are struggling through the Bering Sea ice pack in an attempt to deliver over one million gallons of heating oil to Nome. A hurricane-force storm in November prevented the usual autumn fuel delivery to Nome, hence this heroic effort. The ships' progress through shifting ice and towering pressure ridges has been difficult, to put it mildly.

Photo courtesy of Candy Waugaman
Massive snowfalls are not unusual in Valdez, which was the terminus for the first road connecting Fairbanks to the coast. Thompson Pass north of Valdez is renown for having the most snowfall ever recorded in Alaska: 974.5 inches (81.2 feet!) fell here during the winter of 1952-53. The first automobile stages traveling the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail were often halted by blizzards here and in the Alaska Range. In such instances, passengers were transferred to horse-drawn sleighs that met up with an automobile waiting further down the road. Even today's motorists can encounter blizzards and avalanches that shut down the highway or make driving treacherous.

Alaska's current predicament has reminded me of the absurdity of the original route planned for the 1908 New York-Paris automobile race. Organizers were convinced that automobiles would be able to travel from Valdez in March over the winter sleigh trail to Fairbanks, and then down the frozen Tanana and Yukon Rivers to Nome. From here they would cross the Bering Strait, either by ship or by dismantling the cars and sledding them across the ice! Not only can people not even WALK across the strait's pack ice without swimming because of open leads, the difficulties faced by a modern-day ice-breaker cast doubt that a steamship could have made the crossing that time of year.

Not surprisingly, the first automobile to reach Valdez by ship during the 1908 race (a Thomas Flyer now on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno) barely made it off the dock due to the deep snow and was shipped back south. Of course, that didn't make for an exciting Hollywood story, so a movie loosely based on the race took great liberty with this part of the tale. Remember "The Great Race" with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood? I'm still in awe at how easily they floated the Leslie Special and Hannibal 8 across the Bering Straight on an ice floe. If only we could get heating fuel to Nome so effortlessly! Fortunately, the pie fight later in the movie far out-sillied this scene.

By the way, you can see one of the four Leslie Specials made for the movie at the Tupelo Automobile Museum in Alabama, while one of the five Hannibal 8s made is on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum Los Angeles.

*Update* The Healy and Renda arrived at the port of Nome on January 14.

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