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Bare ground in Anchorage? In midwinter? It's daunting to local dog-sledders. Snow in recent days makes outlook brighter

Television weathermen reading the temperatures for cities like Houston, Tallahassee, and Tulsa on occasion this winter have whimsically added: ``Colder than it was today in Anchorage, Alaska.'' Colder than Anchorage?

Alaska may take momentary delight in such capriciousness, but unseasonably warm and dry weather here has caused its share of grief.

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Participation in winter sports like cross-country skiing, dog sledding, and snow-machine riding has been down this winter because of the lack of snow, as Anchorage residents have been forced to drive into the surrounding mountains to find a sufficient snow base.

``What's hard this year is having to drive an hour to ski instead of 10 minutes,'' said Ernest Piper, a speech writer for Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield. Mr. Piper participated in this year's Iditaski, a 200-mile cross-country ski race.

``The trail was nothing but glare ice,'' he said. ``It was depressing to be out there in February and not only was there no snow, it was raining.''

Sled dog races are to Alaska what horse racing is to Kentucky. Dozens of races have been canceled this winter, and race organizers are worried about conditions for next month's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an event that has drawn worldwide attention for Alaska.

Temperatures dropped to near normal for last weekend's Fur Rendezvous Festival, but the ``Rondy's'' championship sled-dog race was canceled for lack of snow. It was the first time in the 40-year history of the midwinter carnival that sled dogs hadn't run on the streets and trails of Alaska's largest city.

Mushers had traveled to Anchorage from around Alaska and from as far away as New York, Minnesota, Idaho, and Canada for the chance to become a world champion.

Alaskans feel isolated enough without being deprived of the outdoor activities that bring them together in winter, says Robert Alberts, who counsels residents on ways to cope with ``cabin fever'' -- born of short days and wintry conditions. ``The lack of snow has made this winter seem darker, since there's less reflection of what light there is,'' Mr. Alberts says.

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By mid-February, 14 inches of snow had fallen on Anchorage, Mr. Barske said. Normal snowfall for the period is 50 inches. The winter began colder than normal; the air was as dry as day-old French bread. By early November, a scant 2 inches of snow had dusted Anchorage. Most of that disappeared when the mercury began rising in the middle of the month, said National Weather Service forecaster Elliott Barske.

In the intervening three months, Anchorage's temperatures have averaged 15 degrees F. -- 13 degrees above normal. Hardly the kind of Alaska weather that helped make famous the writings of Robert Service and Jack London.

Anchorage, with a statistical guarantee of a white Christmas, was bone dry during the holidays. Local businesses that depend on snow have had rough sledding.

``Although there's plenty of snow in the mountains, people don't buy skis until they see snow in town,'' said Paul Denkewalter of Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking.

When people see nothing but white ice on the streets, their recreational thoughts turn to Hawaii vacations or joining a bridge group, Mr. Denkewalter said.

A silver lining is the effect on Anchorage's snow-removal budget, virtually untapped this year.

There also is brighter -- whiter -- news for skiers and dogsled racers: Snow began falling on Anchorage Sunday night and continued into Tuesday. Colder, dryer air was forecast to follow the snow.

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