Monday, December 29, 2008

Back east

Despite every attempt made by the weather and airlines to stall or disrupt my short trip back east for Christmas, I managed to have a pretty great time.
The first class seating from Anchorage to Minneapolis, and then onward to Detroit were a bit overrated I have to say. Though the seats are wider, they folded no farther back than an ordinary coach seat, and even lacked the fold out head rest wings I had on my coach seat to and from New Zealand making comfortable sleep a reality.
I was pretty sure at one point that I was going to spend the holiday in Detroit, but fortunately slow ground crews and sloppy weather kept my flight to Burlington on the ground long enough for me to catch it, though I spent the first part of my flight trying to cool off and catch my breath from the mile long sprint between terminals.
Back east I found Vermont covered in almost 2 feet of snow, though as I drove to Middlebury the sky spittled drops of rain, hinting at what would be a blue Christmas. In someways, it was reassuring.
On Tuesday as I drove out to get some photos of the subject of an article, heavy snow squalls blew through the Central Peninsula, making my heart beat to that hollow anxious rhythm.
Though I knew I'd be gone for only a few short days, and was looking forward to seeing family and friends, I couldn't help but feel a bit of despair at my leaving.
I was reminded of the feelings I had on my slow train ride north from NYC on the long road home from New Zealand.
I'd walk through the front door of my parents home exactly seven months and a few hours after leaving in May.
The lawn was lush and green, lilacs bloomed and summer seemed poised to settle in for good that morning. Now I'd find that same place stark with winter.
Seasons change just like people.
Though Alaska has perhaps had less of an impact than New Zealand did on my personality, seven months is still a long time in the overall lifespan of a 23 year old. Plenty of time to make a few changes.
My anxieties over what those close to me would think upon my return however, were overshadowed by my own concerns that my trip back east might shake me.
Deep seated in the palpation of my heart was not so much a fear that I'd miss out on anything in Alaska in three days but more that being close to family, old friends, forgotten amenities and other aspects of life I might not have in the north, would drain my arctic enthusiasm and make me long to return.
I've been so fortunate to have suffered little homesickness in my time here. I can only attribute it to having so much to do and see.
I worried however, that those old familiar feelings would make me realize there was a hole in my life.
Sunday morning, I sat on a twin engine plane, my head resting on the frigid oval window pane. To the southeast, a magnificent red and orange glow radiated off the Kenai Mountains as the propellers churned the -2o something degree air on the short flight back to Kenai.
I felt no hole, if anything I was whole.

The trip home only reaffirmed that I've got some great friends on the far coast who make no shortage of an effort to welcome me every time I go there.
More importantly, I spent some quality time with a few folks in East Middlebury. I know my parents and grandmother aren't 100% behind my residence up here, the later is about 0% for it despite my efforts to convince her otherwise. As always, they've remained an integral part of anything I've done in life, whether they'd do it themselves or not!
Lastly of course, the day spent snowboarding at the old Snowbowl with Tony seemed to pour some concrete on a relationship I've always considered fissured by the distance of age and travels. I hope it holds.

I took very few photos back home. Though I did an excellent ski with Ashar, Amy, the dogs and a few friends of theirs, I never really bothered to pull out the camera.

Amy snapped this pic of their new pup Emmy taking a break from the unbroken trail somewhere in Goshen. The yawn was an indication of here intent to soon snuggle down and take a nap. I did my best not to intterupt her but the short skis matched with even shorter polles on crusty snow left me flailing, though never falling, more than once.

Bernie for a day of carving ice on the slopes of the bowl. He and Scott made the trip up from Saratoga to visit and ski on Friday. The pale lighting cast by the great picture windows at the lodge was always a favorite for candid photos in highschool.

I can't possibly thank everyone I got to see here but I will say it was great to see everyone I did and for those missed, I hope to catch you on my next visit in another couple months.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dirt road field sobriety tests

The creamy powder shots of Turnagain feel a bit fresher when you think you might have spent the weekend in jail instead of ripping fresh lines.
I had myself pretty well convinced for a heart pounding 20 minutes I'd be making a return visit to Wildwood, the jail outside Kenai, Friday night, this time however, I would have hung around for a bit longer, 70 hours longer, to be exact.
Friday evening Joe and I went up to the local bar for drinks and a little socialization. I stuck with my usual two beers in as many hours, as, though the bar isn't two miles from the lodge, I was driving.
With the holiday season in full swing, local PD have been stepping up their efforts to get drunk drivers off the roads. Last week we ran a multi-part series on DUI and the consequences in the Clarion.
As I pulled out of the bar a trooper sped by heading in the same direction.
"I've only had 2 brews, I'm good but I'll hang back all the same," I thought.
I noticed a car on my tail was riding close but I'm about to turn so I didn't mind. As I turned on my signal and moved into the center lane to turn down my road, sure enough, red and blue lights behind me!
There were two troopers working the bar, they were probably just sitting watching for people leaving.
So anyway, I throw the keys on the dash, roll down the window and the trooper comes over. I'm just curious to see what I've been pulled over for.
I guess the light over my license plate is out and that was enough.
I'm real straight with them though, the trooper asks and I tell them I had two drinks.
After clearing my license registration and insurance, the trooper comes back and of course, wants me to do a field sobriety test.
Now I know I'm not going to blow a .08 or anything, but here's what came out of the DUI series; you don't have to. That's right, you can get a DUI below .08 if the officer feels you're impaired. One officer interviewed in the story said he knew who was going to jail within seconds of the sobriety test. This is the whole point of the tests after all.
Holy crap, I was so scared, I knew I felt safe to drive, but what if they disagreed. That was it, I'd immediately spend the next three days in jail.
The first test they had me do was the line of sight, following the trooper's finger with my eyes while he high beamed me with a flashlight.
This is one of the most telling tests, as they're looking to see if you can maintain your focus or if your pupils involuntarily snap back or twitch.
This is hell, and by far the hardest. The officer holds their finger at the edge of your peripheral vision for 5 seconds and then moves to the other end, back and forth several times.
Imagine being asked to turn you head 90 degrees in one direction, then turn it 1 degree more, and hold it there. Your muscles want to pull back to a more natural position.
This is true with your pupils too, perhaps more so as the muscles are smaller, weaker, and more easily influenced by alcohol, even it's only a little bit.
Next they had me they had me do the heal to toe walking a straight line. Only problem, I was on a dirt road, so the straightest line was a snowy unlevel tire track. I didn't like it
I stood on one leg while extending the other for 10 seconds, no problem there I thought.
After each test though, one of the troopers would mouth something into the radio. I couldn't hear what though.
Then came reciting the alphabet from e-p. My heart was beginning to race, and of course, I stumbled almost immediately, on g. I regained myself and finished up, but I knew I'd biffed it.
Finally they asked me to count backwards from 69-54. With the cold and fear now causing me to shake visibly, I just wanted this to be over already, and started counting almost the second the trooper stopped talking. I realized immediately I didn't know where I was supposed to stop. 59 sounded about right as I tried to think, and count backwards in my head.
I finished, pleased with my effort, when the trooper said into his radio, "failed counting test."
"I said stop at 54" He said.
I apologized and said I'd misheard him, which was somewhat true; more that my pounding heart muffled out his directions.
He and the other trooper told me to hang tight, walked 10 feet away next to his running vehicle and consulted on my performance.
They were so close I could almost hear them, but the engine drowned out their words.
I could see the one officer who'd been observing the whole thing just nodding in agreement to everything the one who gave direction and mouthed results was saying.
I just watched, wide eyed not believing this was happening.
"Oh god," was all I could think, "I'm going to jail, I'm losing my license, the dream's over, I can't believe this."
They came back after what felt like an eternity, though was probably less than 10 seconds.
As I prepared to turn and face the vehicle, they pleasantly thanked me for my cooperation and told me to have a nice evening.
I was golden. I almost couldn't believe it.
I explained that I worked at the Clarion and that we'd just done this DUI series. I couldn't help thinking the whole time how funny it was that Mike and Scott spent a night last week doing a ride-along with the Kenai PD hoping to get some shots of someone performing a field sobriety test, with no such luck.
The troopers laughed and said if I wanted to get a camera we could do it again. I was set on that!
I then asked a question I was a bit worried to pose. I wanted their professional opinion on my ability to drive with the two beers over the past two hours in my system. It's something I've always wondered about as it's my rule if I'm driving, though until Friday night, it'd never been put to the test.
They offered to give me a Breathalyzer, which, as I started breathing through and immediately realized would have been hysterically ironic if I blew over a .08!
I believe however, that the trooper may have laughed slightly when he told me I was at .015, not even a quarter of the way there.
They confirmed what I've always practiced, that someone built on my light frame can consume and remove one beer an hour and maintain a .02. While .02 isn't much, I can now safely say that much past that and I might feel OK to drive, but I wouldn't want to prove it.
I got back in the car, and Joe, who was a bit more tipsy than I, thought the whole thing was just hysterical. He knew I was fine, but felt the need to tell me how annoyed he would have been if he had to walk the last half mile home.
"I was freezing, crapping my pants thinking I was going to jail, and you were worried you were going to have to walk a measly half mile!!" I laughed hysterically.
Holy smokes, I was pretty wound up afterwards you can imagine.

Here's the take away message from this funny little story though folks. The PSA commercials on TV, the radio and in the paper get redundant, yes, but I'm not fucking kidding, if you're over your limit, and you get pulled over, you're screwed.
We all have a limit where we're probably still good to drive, but when your ripped out of that warm little enclave of a car, shot in the face with a beam of light, and told to do activities, some of which are hard enough sober, you will get nailed.
I don't curse much in this blog, but feel strongly about this, so I'm leaving it here:

If you're past your limit, don't fucking do it, you will get caught, you will spend the night in a jail cell, your life will be hell for a rather long while after.

Ok, on a different note, here's some photos from skiing the Tincan in Turnagain.

Roadgap: a kicker on the lower slopes of Tincan appears to launch out over the pass.

Anthony on the second run

Josh makes some lines in the snow

Whisps of clouds streak over the Tincan Commons summit

Ethan stands on the edge of a windlip that we'll call 20 feet unless you were there. The tracks below are mine. I thought I was dropping 5 feet, hence the 'V' shape at my landing. I did what I'll call a folded cartwheel and rode it out, since you weren't there for that either. Ethan dropped it too, not realizing it was so large. His landing was similar.

Ethan makes the best of it


Saturday was the second shortest day of the year, this was the second option for Tuesday's cover art.

A good perspective of a half run. Not sure who was about to drop in.

Ethan demonstrates a medium, small and grand powder spray, respectively.

Anthony provides some perspective on the grade of the terrain

That's Ethan, he's testing the depth of the snowpack

Josh drops into the trees

A view of Tincan from back at the cars. It's easy to see how it's defined in two aspects. It's low angle low elevation tree slopes, and its upper bowls.

Here's a few shots of yours truly taken from Ethan's camera, thanks Ethan!

The first run we took was horrible. If you look you can see I've thrown my goggles up in an attempt to get any depth perception, the lighting, as the photo attests was miserable and it was hard to tell up from down.

Ethan has this photo titled, 'Oh shit!' Those would have been the words that came out of my mouth as I dropped off the windlip thinking I was decending 5 feet instead of 15-20.

These two shots wreak of creamy fast snow

Here's a few shots also from Ethan from last weekend on Magnum

Tuesday I'll be heading east, hopefully somehow avoiding the circus that all the major airports have become, though my hopes are dim. Nonetheless, there will be no post on Thursday. Have a great xmas guys!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dark lies

It’s time to shed some light on a dark and overrated myth of the north.
Three and a half months ago I made the decision to stay up here through the dark and cold Alaska winter.
Here I am today, on the cusp of the shortest day of the year, a day that won’t last five and a half hours, but my sanity seems to be just as firm as can be.
Friends in the Lower worried for me back in early September. I worried in early November when the sun struggled to make it over the scraggly spruce.
All for nothing though.
I’ve learned, as with anything, the dark is what you make of it. For me I make very little of it.
If you wanted to sit your house, and watch the sun work so hard each day to generate a few short hours of light, and listen to depressing music thinking about how lousy it was that the dark came back so quickly, this place would be hell.
If, on the other hand, all you’re thinking about is snapping into your skate skis, flipping on a little AA powered sunlight, and jettisoning around on the cold fast snowy trails after work, it’s paradise. If all you think about, is the fact that those slow sunrises and sunsets marinate the mountains and atmospheric features on all sides in brilliant pink, orange, red and magenta on any drive to or from work or the backcountry, it’s utopia. If all you think about, is that come April, the sun will shine on corn crusted mountains until 9:30-10 each night, you’ll laugh at all those who worried for you.
Living an active lifestyle, and generating Vitamin D everytime you crest a steep climb, break a land speed record on skate skis or throw a magnificent white flume of powder on the side of some epic Alaska real estate, entirely compensates for the body’s inability to absorb plentiful sunlight this time of year.
Sure, there are days when I feel the nip of the brevity of the light. They’re not often the days I’m out chasing bird however, nor the days I’m out slashing on the slopes of Turnagain.
They’re the days I drive to work, the sun yet to rise. I go in, make some calls, write some words, and look up to see the orange glow of sunrise on the building next door. I look down, and many words later, I look up again, to see the orange glow is still there, but coming from a different angle. When I step out of the office, I see my car, parked at the other end of the lot, still wrapped in the darkness I left it in at the beginning of the day.
Those days, I sometimes feel the burn of human light. Of a motorist’s brights in the oncoming lane, of florescence beaming overhead all day and screens, searing my pupils.
And if it were all so bad, in the cool woods, I switch off my headlamp, and in a second, the starlit snow sucks it all away.
The sun makes a slow rise on a clear morning, casting Redoubt Volcano, seen from downtown Kenai, in a pink glow.

While the daylight will soon begin to grow, winter has hardly begun. There’ll certainly be many more challenges ahead, but for now, it’s begun to feel that one of the greatest has been stepped over with little effort.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ice Cold Sun

Eleven hour day at the office today, need sleep, but enjoy the photos.

I put on my big city fancy looky glasses this weekend and headed to the big town to get an avalanche beacon and spend the night hanging out with Ethan, Josh, and their girlfriends in Anchorage, or Skanchorage, a term I recently learned. Anyone who's spent a bit of time around me knows I have a strong habit of referring to familiar places by unfamiliar names. This one's pretty catchy.

I ended up spending two hours stuck in traffic just north of Girdwood because of a big wreck. It did give me a chance to catch up with my friend Rachel back in Jersey over the phone however, and I snapped a shot here of an icy and moon like Turnagain Arm.

After dark, the lights came on over the slopes of Aleyeska. If I'd known I was going to be stuck for so long I might have gone over put a few runs in.

After a hearty breakfast at Jackie's Diner on Saturday morning compliments of Alexa, Josh's girlfriend; Josh, Ethan and I headed into Turnagain. The skies were absolutely cloudless, a rarity in Alaska, and I'm told pretty much a phenomenon in Turnagain. What's more the clear skies had been preceded by a massive dump (a reported 43" in the northern part of the pass) followed by a deep freeze, drying and consolidating the snow pack. Conditions were both stable and set up to be legendary as far as snow quality.
The temps were still hanging in the single digits at sea level as we sped out of Anchor town (see see, didn't even think about it...) and were probably at 0 in the pass, though I never checked.

Corn Biscuit in the center right, we skied Magnum partially shown to the left. A wise decision.

The first climb totally sucked. The dry powder and a fresh unconsolidated up track caused me to drop my footing anywhere from 3-12" every step. Additionally the cold temps made my snowshoe bindings stiff, making it hard to get them fitting snugly. They thus loosened a few times and pointed themselves nose-in to the side of the narrow up track, essentially causing one foot to have to break trail for an extended distance until I could hit a safe place to readjust. By the time I approached the crest I could only see the track a few feet in front of my face.

Looking up to see this towering ahead was a welcome sight. A skier traverses the top of Magnum.

Ethan and my silhouette is cast across Turnagain Pass.

What's Ethan looking at?

How about some seriously awesome looking lines on Sunburst

Leaving the dark side. This is such an awesome shot. The skier ahead climbs from behind the shadow cast by Corn biscuit onto the sunlit ridge of Magnum joining her friend in the warm orange glow.

Big lips. This was also a favorite shot of the day, and made the cover of Monday's Clarion. Josh takes in the view along the edge of the wind lip formed over the crest of Magnum.

I love this shot so much. Unfortunately my lense needs cleaning, the spots really screwed with it.

On the final run I asked Josh to hold my camera for me so I could film the run dropping in off the lip. Unfortunately, not long after making the drop, I either dipped the camera into the powder or inadvertanly sprayed it, covering the lense for the rest of the run, leaving noting but an audio of the wind whistling by and my occasionally hooting as I threw a spray.

A few fuzzy shots of Josh. I'm glad any came out, for a few minutes it looked like the camera's foray into the white oblivion was going to leave it incapacitated for life.
Our run out was pretty hysterical. In the fading light we made a combat descent through some whippy willow growths before dropping into a creek bottom, leading us into the mouth of a short canyon. Upon entering the narrow walled canyon we all made a sharp right turn, only to come flying around the bend to see open water! Though the road was only a minute or two beyond, hi ting water with the temps that low would have been less than pleasant. All three of us cleared it and came out laughing hysterically.
Unfortunately our enthusiasm was brought to a jarring halt back in the lot. A weary looking skier approached us and first asked if we'd seen a dog. He'd obviously lost his when it went chasing after another group. He then asked if we knew anything about the buried skier. A skier on Corn biscuit was caught in a slide triggered by a friend above. We learned later through the online forums that she was removed, 5-6' under, hypothermic, but able to ski out in the dark. We all felt a little better about spending the day on Magnum suffice to say, and for a newbie like me, much better about having some wise friends to ride with.