Unseasonably warm weather is threatening to cut short the snowmachining season in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this year.
The warm temperatures and lack of snow over the last few weeks have created hazardous conditions in some areas and may force the complete closure of the refuge to snowmachiners.
"Basically we've been losing snow for several weeks," said Robin West, refuge manager. "Conditions have been degrading steadily for several weeks. If conditions continue, and we continue to lose snow, we will eventually have to close."
Parts of the refuge are open for snowmachine use from Dec. 1 to April 30. But the refuge manager can close the refuge if there is inadequate snow cover to protect surface areas or for public safety reasons.
Snow was forecast for the central peninsula over the weekend, and temperatures are expected to stay in the 20s and 30s all this week. But if temperatures rise and the snow continues to melt, the refuge could be closed in two to three weeks, West said.
A recent inspection of the refuge showed several areas that had only the minimally required snow cover for snowmachining. Bare patches, open streams and marginal trail conditions were also reported. Snowmachine operators are asked to avoid areas where snow cover is not adequate to protect the surface vegetation and soils.
Lakes, streams and other waterways have been impacted by the thawing trend as well.
"Folks really need to be careful on moving water and some lakes, particularly those that have spring action underneath," West said. "People shouldn't automatically assume that just because it was good a month ago that it's good now."
Ice thickness in certain lakes and streams has been reduced by warmer temperatures. West warned that lake inlets and outlets could be dangerous, and other lakes, like Skilak, should be avoided altogether.
"People need to be very careful," West said. "There's a number of vehicles on the bottom of Hidden Lake and Skilak Lake where people thought it was OK and it wasn't. I'm not saying anything in particular is unsafe at this time, I'm just asking people to be very cautious and not make assumptions."
Currently, all areas above the timberline, except the Caribou Hills, areas along Ski Hill Road and Skilak Loop and within the Swanson River and Swan Lake canoe systems are closed to snowmachines.
Caution is recommended in all other areas that are still open to snowmachine use. Just because a trail was safe last month, doesn't mean it still is, West said. Snow can be packed down and expose rocks or tree roots on the trails, so snowmachiners need to exercise caution.
"For the most part here, we're asking people to use common sense, watch their speed and avoid areas with low snow cover," West said.
"For the most part, people are complying. It makes good sense to do that so they don't beat up their machine.
"And we generally see less people with these conditions."
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