Breaking Up (in Alaska) is hard to do

In Alaska, when we lived there,  the end of winter was known as “breakup.”  Now in some minds that might mean the thawing of the state’s rivers.  In fact the thawing of the Yukon was a major event, which often brought flooding to our base at Galena, which was surrounded by the river.   The flooding meant we had to evacuate the base until it resided.Alaska Christmas Day

In Anchorage, breakup had a far different meaning.  First of all, it meant that the days were finally beginning to get longer.  In the winter there were only about 4 hours of daylight.  It was common for me to go to work in the dark, when I wasn’t flying,  spend the day in my office which had no windows and then come home in the dark.  Like the 18 or so hours of daylight in the summer, one got used to it pretty quickly.  Still it was a good feeling to see the sun still up after 3 p.m. in the afternoon.

Secondly, while Anchorage didn’t get a great deal of snow in the winter.  What fell did not melt and built up on the roads.  Unlike the lower 48 there were not the large winged plows on the road, only road graders which, at that time in the early 1970s,  scraped down the snow in a smooth layer, so that by the end of the winter the roads were basically snow-covered paths built up several inches.  When break up came instead of the traditional potholes there were ice potholes on the roads as the surface broke up.   As spring progressed driving on these roads became a challenge of trying to avoid the ice potholes and ultimately the real potholes.

All the melting ice was a challenge in another way.  Kids walking to school had to wear what they called “breakup” boots.  These were the type of rubber boots called “wellies” in other parts of the world.   Although the runoff from the streets affected the kids walking to school,  the melting ice was not so much a problem for our home as we did not have a basement.

When we arrived in Alaska many homes didn’t have a basement due to the permafrost level.  Permafrost is ground that remains frozen all year.    Although it occurs in only a few places near Anchorage, I guess the builders felt that building on a concrete slab was a better and probably cheaper procedure.  By the time we left in 1978, there were many homes being built with basements.   Permafrost also came into play during the construction of the Alaska pipeline. The pylons that held the pipe had to be insulated so as to not melt the permafrost and cause a possible collapse of the line which carried heated oil from the North Slope to the terminal at Valdez.

Lastly, Breakup became a big celebration.  In Nenana, there was an annual contest to guess the date and time of the Tanana River ice would break up.  This was followed with great interest especially in Anchorage.   When Breakup came we knew the end was in sight and the long days of summer were finally on the horizon.

However, as we often heard from the ever realistic folks of Alaska there was an awareness of what followed:

After all if “Spring was here could Winter be far behind.”





About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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