Thursday, October 30, 2008

The stars, the snow, the fire

Here's a book to read this winter; John Haines' "The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness" I've read it close to a dozen times now since I first picked it up a decade ago. This book, for me, has been one of those shaping influences in a life that defines who a person is. It is without question, one of the major driving forces that has brought me here.

I'll leave you with my favorite graph from the memoir:

"What does a person do in a place like this, so far away and alone? For one thing, he watches the weather -- the stars, the snow and the fire. These are the books he reads most of all. And everything that he does, from bringing in firewood and buckets of snow, to carrying the wastewater back outdoors, requires that he stand in the open, away from his walls, out of his man-written books and his dreaming head for a while. As I stand here, refreshed by the stillness and closeness of the night, I think it is a good way to live."

It's getting late, I'll have more on Monday.

Happy Halloween

Monday, October 27, 2008

Goblins and ghools arrive early too in Ak

I had myself a Halloween styled scare a week early this year, and for a few frightful minutes I thought I might not see the sunrise early Friday morning.
Sometime around 5 a.m., a good four hours before the sun makes its daily showing over the river, something roused me from sleep. Because it woke me, I wasn't quite sure what I heard, though it sounded like something hit the wall outside my room.
The lodge is heated with air vents, and after the furnace shut off, the ducts will contract, making loud thuds as they do so. Not hearing anything else, I assumed that's what I'd heard, and began to drift back into sleep after a few moments.
Suddenly I heard something again, this time I could tell, it was right next to the house, right outside my room. It sounded like a plastic bucket was getting tossed around. Immediately I thought a bear must have been throwing a garbage can around; but there was no garbage outside, and I hadn't seen a bear in camp in a few weeks, they should be bedding down by now.
I stuck a leg out of bed, when to my horror, a loud raking noise started coming from the siding. Something was scratching the wall of the house right below the window. The glass window began to shudder and clink as whatever it was scratched the glass.
I leapt out of bed, but froze in terror in the middle of the room.
Was this really happening I thought? Over and over the wall of the house was clawed and whatever was outside appeared to be trying to pry open the window. With the blinds drawn, I couldn't see what so eagerly was attempting to get in, though I was sure at any second it would burst open the double pane glass and reveal itself. I could also hear the plastic bucket getting kicked around, whatever was here, and there was more than one.
They had to know I was in here. The front of the lodge is made up of giant glass windows and a sliding glass door, they had picked one of the harder points to get in, so clearly they knew I was here, and they wanted me.
My right leg shook violently; I wished like hell I had a gun, I'd just start firing through the window. I didn't however, and I had to do something quick. I reached towards the nightstand and felt around in the dark for my keys, I couldn't find them.
Now I was posed with a conundrum. I needed to find my keys, if I could remote start my car outside the window, whatever it was would bolt. To do so I needed to see, and flipping on the light seemed like the worst idea in the world.
Panic stricken, and knowing I had no other choice; I reached back and flipped them on.
The raking stopped. I held still for second, with the light on, the outside world was now completely blacked out. I saw my keys and snatched them, holding down the remote start button.
The lights of the suby flipped on. I heard something step back from the window.
The car loudly coughed to life, revving the engine as the starter caught.
Its loud purr was greeted with the sound of something fumbling first away from the house and then thundering full speed up the driveway.
Holy shit was all I could think.
I shut the room light back off and ran to the window.
Outside the Subaru’s lights lit up the courtyard, but I couldn't see anything beyond the shadows of the cabins and dark woods. I watched for another minute or two, expecting at any minute to see a dark object emerge from the shadows to carry on in its endeavor. I couldn't make out what tracks were imprinted in the snow outside, I could see a bunch, but I knew some of them were likely mine.
I still couldn't believe what had just happened. Had something really just sought me out? What condition could an animal be in, driven to invade a home for a meal? If I was going to have to put up with this all winter I'd need a gun. My little suby couldn't protect me for much longer.
Finally I gathered up the courage to go outside and look at the tracks in the snow. I grabbed the biggest flashlight in the lodge, and walled cautiously to the arctic entryway. I stood in the doorway for several seconds, shining my light beyond the reaches of the floodlight looking for glowing eyes in the forest. Satisfied whatever was out there was far enough away I ventured down the steps to the end of my window.
At first I was nothing but my own tracks, when I noticed, two firmly planted, massive moose tracks....What the hell I thought. It started making sense; the raking could have easily been a moose's antlers, but why.
That's when I noticed a dislodged hanging flower basket, caught neatly in a gap between the railroad tie retaining wall and the corner of my room.
It all made sense now. I could see the moose had had walked on the elevated yard on one corner of my room to nibble on the frozen remains of some flowers in the hanging basket. He must have pulled too hard and the basket fell, probably waking me up. Stepping down from the yard he came around to the other side and began to try and paw it out. Unable move it, he must have become frustrated at tried to reach it with is long hero of a snout, repeatedly slamming his antlers against the house as he did so.
I just about died laughing, and fell back on the cold stairs of the arctic entryway.
I was so sure something had sniffed me out and was determined to make be breakfast, and all the while, some stupid moose had been out there trying to make a meal of some dead flowers, totally unaware that I trembled only a few feet away.
I wished I'd had a bit more nerve, and peered out the window. I might have had some good face to face time with the moose without it ever knowing. Anyway, I took down the rest of the hanging baskets on the house the next morning.

Here are some photos from my hike Saturday afternoon in the upper Upper Russian River Valley trail. It made sense on the rides I did on this 20 mile trail to start at the lower end and ride ten miles in to the upper lake. To circuit it I'd have had to ride a 40 mile loop with 20 miles or road to connect the two, and a 40 mile out and back round trip also lacked appeal. Thus it'd been four years since I'd seen the upper reaches of the trail, though even covered in a dusting of snow, I still found myself recognizing many vistas. The upper trail is equally as gorgeous as the lower, and I wished I'd have sacked up a bit and done the upper on bike too. Ahh well, I'll have to wait for summer.
anyhoo, I originally hoped to ski the upper ten miles, but was both shocked and disappointed to find on my drive into the mountains, that as I gained elevation, the snow pack thinned from a measly 3-4 inches to nothing! The mountains seem to be forcing all the moisture to fall down here on the flats or high up in their crowns, as I didn't find snow again until I'd gained a good 1,000.' The high snow was fine and dry, giving me hope that when it does accumulate, it will be spectacular stuff.

This ought to give a pretty good idea of how much snow falls. The bottom of this snag is a good 10 feet up. Unless Paul Bunyon came through and made this cut, I'd say there was at least a couple feet on the ground.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Internet bullying; not just for junior high and myspace

Remember internet bullies, the sun can't shine on the same moose's ass everyday, nor will it continue to shine on yours, you ass....haha sorry

The evolution of online forums, facebook, myspace, blogging and other internet based social forums has made it far easier to communicate, but it's also made it far easier to be an ass.
Any old joe plumber with a keyboard and a phone line can post his thoughts on anything for the whole world to read these days, and in many ways, that's a good thing.
At the paper however, we've been having an issue with one schmo in particular, who's done a bang-up job for making the case that you ought to have to pass a character test before being allowed online. This guy is the definition of an internet bully.
All the articles at the paper go-online after they're published. There, anyone can log on and leave comments about the article.
I have reservations about this feature. It's great that folks get to have interactive debates, raise questions, or bring up additional points, and publish them right alongside the original work. At the same time it severely detracts from the letters to the editor page.
Letters to the editor are one of the last standing virtues of print media. Radio and televised lack this venue, and their attempts to duplicate it are sparse and shoddy at best.
The net is sweeping that away though. Now that anyone can post their thoughts on an article instantly, the days of well thought out rational and clear writing are quickly disappearing.
Many an editor has had to toss out a hot headed inappropriate letter from an enraged reader. Generally however, when writing these letters, a little time and thought is necessary, allowing most readers to cool off, think about what they're saying, and why they're writing. Additionally, most papers require the letter to be signed.
An online post however, occurs immediately after, and it's not exactly breaking news that people might write things they didn't exactly mean or intend to write if they'd sat for a moment and thought about it. More importantly, they can do so with fake names, allowing them to lash into those they disagree with, with little concern of being identified.
That's been a particular concern at the paper, where one repeat offender, who may on some days publish more in comments then I do in print, has torn into readers opposing his views. Recently he cut a deep gash when he brought up the personal matters of the subject in an article that were otherwise unmentioned in the story. The victim, who hadn't read the story, got wind that this information had been brought up in the article, and called the reporter in a rage. It was pretty quickly realized what had happened, but the damage was already done.
Meanwhile, the jerk online was busy scolding us for making the victims life even harder.
I think his days posting on our site are numbered.
All summer we wanted sun, and now, its here, but all I want is snow! It's been pretty bright here for the past week and the snow's getting tough and fast. The skiing's been ok, but with such a thin covering, it's getting bare and unforgiving.
Now that we seem to be getting some sunny weather, I decided it was about time to get a shot of sunset over redoubt. It's a really a perk to watch the sun glow off this peak at dawn and dusk

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Flash of AKlure

The following is the second part of what I'm calling my AKlure pieces, documenting how though I may have never known it, the road north was one I was destined to follow.A snowy road on the drive to work last week

Four years ago this summer, I left for a one week trip of a lifetime, or so I thought.
I was bound for the 49th state, the last frontier, to ride my bike through its meandering single track trails, to see sights I could only imagine.
At some point in high school, my mother, told me that she would send me on a trip, anywhere in the world. “Any” had hardly escaped her lips before my mind was made, though I held my card aside. For four years I kept it there. I think she expected I’d want to do a snowboard camp, a NOLS course, something my peers might be doing. Then, as I entered my senior year, I casually mentioned to my mother one evening, that we should start looking at plane tickets to Alaska, I had a chip in my pocket, and I was ready to play it.
I could see the lump in my mother’s throat, but I’d done a bit of research, and found a company that lead tours, making the idea a bit more palpable. Upon enquiry, it was clear, the outfit didn’t get a whole bunch of 18 year olds, in fact, I may have been the first; I’m not sure. Nonetheless they were happy to help.
For a week that July, I tore through a wilderness as vast and beautiful as I could have ever imagined by day, recharging with fresh salmon and halibut by night, passing out from exhaustion under the midnight sun.
On day five, what was supposed to be a rest day, I found myself with the two guides, sitting on the tundra plateau above Lost Lake outside of Seward. The sun beating down on us, wild flowers blooming in all direction, surrounded by snow clad peaks, watching wildlife traverse the distant hillsides, I knew I had to come back, for longer than a week. Two gorgeous gorges across the tundra plateau above Lost Lake seen July 2004

The summer passed and I went on to start my college career at a small school in upstate New York. I may have had a better sense of place than most. I think that while most of my peers were out reveling in their new found freedoms, I was a bit more concerned about how fully I’d make use of that freedom. Not too long into my first year I developed a plan to take one step, each year, a bit further from home. I’d use my chosen profession of journalism to move about the country, ultimately taking me north to spend the first year of my post graduate life living and working as a reporter in Alaska. The tundra plateau above Lost Lake

In four years however, perspectives and plans change. Journalism started to fade from the radar, riding began to dominate more and more of my time. A semester abroad in New Zealand lead to new aspirations. Alaska began to look cold dark and forbidding.
By September of last year, I don’t believe Alaska was even minutely a part of my life anymore. At the time, I was pursuing an internship with a land trust, and was thinking urban design was my calling. And then, quite out of the blue, a friend called and asked if I wanted a job working at a fish camp in Sterling the following summer. Ditto

Hardly a week had school been in session, and already I was being asked to think about next summer. I might have said no immediately, but images of the Kenai’s lush green and white streaked mountainsides, teal blue rivers and epic riding lurked in my mind. I said I’d consider it, and as the weeks went by, the idea looked better and better.
A racing season that saw me reach the top of one class and broach the bottom of another, far more aggressive one requiring ever more commitment to training and routine, followed by a break-up, and a flattening economy, lead me to realize that gutting fish in Alaska could be the best thing I had going for me--

A few weeks ago, sitting on the same plateau above Lost Lake, I found myself marveling at the reality that this was now my home, that the Russian River, Crescent Lake, Resurrection and Lost Lake trails were my home turf single-track rides, and that I’d just accepted a job offer working as a reporter for a small local daily in Kenai, Alaska.
Like a fish striking a brightly colored lure, I too was hooked by the flash of AKlure. Looking towards Seward

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Skiing Belugas

Ok, that's not really the case.

First and foremost, it snowed enough to get out on the skinnies not once, but twice! Golf course skiing (yes there are a few here) to protect the bases of the skis, but still awesome. The local trails are supposedly "rolled out and skiing well." Not sure about that with only 3-4inches on the ground, but if the weekend sun doesn't melt too much off and the snows return, I could be skiing in the woods soon enough.

More importantly, I had an article go national on the wire. I don't know if it's been picked up by anyone but I'm really proud of it. I took a few weeks to put together a piece on Cook Inlet Beluga's. Take a look:

Orcas play with a recently killed inlet beluga off Anchor Point in June 2007.
Photos Courtesy of Mel Erickson

Monday, October 13, 2008

No Name Mountain in the Mystery Hills

I didn't write anything for this post, I'll let the pics do most the talking.

Friday, after some impressive wild weather in the inlet, temps shot up into the 50's and the skies cleared out. We lost most the snow cover below 1,000 feet, but up high the winds had packed it knee deep in places.

Blue skies, corn snow, shorts and tee shirt weather combined to make for some great peak bagging weather in the Kenai. I went after a nameless peak twenty miles east of Sterling in the Mystery Hills.

Spruce Hens are everywhere. I'm told they're really tasty too. I'm thinking I'd like to find out for myself.

A view of what's to come in a clearing below treeline.

Clouds continually rolled through the valley below obscuring look out hill, Jean Lake, Skilak Lake and the distant central Kenai Mountains.

From the col looking north to Cook Inlet

Col, looking south

Climbing the ridge east of the col

From a minor summit
From the top.

360 video from the top

I looped my descent, heading down a sun baked snow field on the summits western face.

My descent brought me into the wide alpine valley north of the col. Thick willows are the definition of bushwhacking, imagine this view all all sides. With the leaves gone it's not so bad as I can see where I'm going. I can't imagine this in summer, not to mention the thick cover is great for bears.
Approaching the col

Monday, October 6, 2008

First snow, October 6

Some type of white dusty chemical covered the shoulders and center lane of the Sterling highway as I approached Soldotna on my way to work. I couldn't figure it out for the first mile. It must have snowed I thought, but there was no sign of snow anywhere else, and the travel lane itself was mostly dry. Eventually, it dawned on me that the edge of the cold pavement was the only place the light dusting had stuck. Not really much to write home about, it'd be gone in another 20 minutes.

Four hours later I headed home for a few hours to go for a run and grab a bite before rushing back off to meetings. Thoroughly stressed about my schedule covering elections, school events, and more meetings, I hardly noticed as the rain splattering on my windshield changed over to snow just outside of Soldotna.

"Oh, so this is the first snow I've seen down here," hardly registered as a passing thought.

Nothing was sticking, I got a little snow on me Friday riding my Skilak Roubaix loop and have watched the mountains steadily grow their white coats for over a month.

As I approached Sterling I noticed the atv trails along the highway had sporadic patches of snow, and by the time I turned onto my street, I found it entirely blanketed with an inch of the white stuff, while the tips of the surrounding spruce grew frosty.

I'd silently been cursing the accumulated ice, as I drove home. I still needed snow tires and I wasn't sure what type I wanted, I still needed xc-skis and I wasn't sure what type I wanted, plus I was officially done riding outside with the road covered in snow; I wasn't ready for winter.

Suddenly, the image before me, the single set of tire tracks leading down the white road, the big flakes falling steadily, back dropped by the winter sky no higher than the top of the frosty spruces, sent a surge, slowly but powerfully starting at the top of my neck down through my back.

I sucked in air as it lowered down through my chest, tensed as it passed through my lower back into my legs, drawing them rigid, until the feeling reached the tips of my toes, threatening to explode out their very tips.

It was an excitement, that momentarily made me want to slam my gas pedal to the floor, to jump out of the car and sprint into the woods, to shake the nearby trees and watch the snow pour off in all directions.

My car was woefully under prepared for snow and ice, my bike had likely just been relegated to a trainer, and the skis I hoped to enjoy the snow on were likely still in a shop, awaiting my eventual purchase; but all this didn't matter suddenly. My mind had just clicked in, and was skating down the road in front of me, dreaming of a coming winter.

This week saw the unofficial start of winter! six to seven inches fell On Tuesday through Wednesday morning, though only two crusty inches stuck it out. Thursday saw an additional couple of inches fall to the south. Sterling hardly saw an inch today, while I was nearly whited out on my way to Anchor Point for a story. Rain and warmer temps (that means high/mid 40's) are in the forecast for this weekend though so it won't last.

10:30am on the Sterling Highway between Kasilof and Ninilchik Thursday.