Thursday, January 29, 2009

I just heard myself on

I checked my email this morning to see I had an email from CNN, and not long after getting into the office my phone rang with an editor from CNN Radio on the other end eager to learn more about our ancy volcano.
Let me rewind here real quick.
On Sunday morning a fax came in from the Alaska Volcano Center in Anchorage warning that Mt Redoubt, the 10,097' peak about 50 miles west of Kenai, had been moved from aviation code Yellow to Orange, while staff at AVO went on a 24 hour watch.

Upper part of the north flank of Redoubt showing fumaroles issuing from the ice/snow-covered 1990 lava dome that sits in the summit crater; and the large collapse hole at the base of the ice fall portion of Drift Glacier. Picture Date: January 25, 2009 13:15:00 akst Image Creator: Bleick, Heather Image courtesy of AVO/USGS

The peak first showed signs of life in November when the observatory moved it's aviation code to yellow.
Index of features shown in photos taken on November 2, 2008 at Redoubt Volcano. Picture Date: November 02, 2008 13:09:00 AST Image Creator: McGimsey, GameImage courtesy of AVO/USGS.

Then Sunday morning the peak rumbled back to life with an intense period of seismic (earthquake) activity.
While no one would have known on this side of the inlet, it was more than enough to alarm the scientists at AVO.
Since then the peak as calmed down, though AVO continues to report the peak's seismic activity is well above background levels.
The peak's appeared awakening is right on schedule. Redoubt last eruption series started on Dec. 14, 1989 and continued through April of 1990.
While that was the first eruption series for the peak recorded on the scientific record, the peak has had a tendency to erupt on a 20-30 year schedule.
So here we are.
There are in fact two theories as to what's going on below right now, but it seems the weight is being put on a likelihood that there will be another eruption in the very near future.
The initial warning issued by AVO was that it could occur in a matter of hours to days.
Now it's at days.
So this brings me back to today.
The Lower seems to have finally got word of the pending eruption, and CNN was looking to generate copy this morning.
After getting the go ahead from my publisher, I called CNN Radio back up and did a 10 minute recorded interview.

The Redoubt so many in the area know, though perhaps not from this angle. The peak is a striking landmark across the inlet on clear days. Here, Redoubt is seen from the remote Bear Lake, 35 km east of the volcano on the wild and unpopulated West Side of the Inlet. Picture Date: August 11, 2005 16:39:04 AST Image Creator: Wallace, K. L. Image Courtesy of USGS/AVO
CNN was chiefly interested in finding out how folks were handling the possible eruption up here.
I explained that as an organization, we were encouraging everyone to prepare for an eruption and get all the supplies necessary, from the usual food, water and extra medications, to specifics for an eruption like surgical masks and extra air filters for vehicles.
There was a bit of confusion I think about what kind of eruption Redoubt is likely to produce as I was also asked about evacuation plans.
At the moment, the expectation is that the eruption could generate ashfall, and dependent upon wind directions, that could mean the Kenai will get coated.
Conversely, it could just be a beautiful spectacle, or not visible at all is we're socked in per usual.
Redoubt erupts by building up hardend lava domes with gooey centers near its summit and then shattering them in ahsfilled eruptions.
There won't be glowing lava flows pouring down the mountain's flanks, and Mount St. Hellens drama is not anticipated.
Evacuation is somewhat of an ironic idea all together as we're on a peninsula here, and with only one road on or off, it never takes travelers far from the center of the eruption so there's not many places to go.
Ascending eruption cloud from Redoubt Volcano and its reflection in the waters of Cook Inlet. View is to the west from the Kenai Peninsula. Photograph by J. Warren, April 21, 1990. Picture Date: April 21, 1990 Image Creator: Warren, J. Image courtesy of USGS/AVO
Otherwise, most people it seems are going about their lives as usual with a bit of caution.
There was a notable, though untraceable scare Monday afternoon.
Possibly clouds lifting off the inlet and a setting sun spurred a few anxious individuals to mistake a wisp of cloud for an eruption, though a glace at pictures from the 89-90 eruption easily shows how hard it would be to confuse the two.
Nonetheless, a heap of false eruption reports piled into the newsroom while AVO reported getting inudated with calls asking if the peak had blown its lid Monday evening.
Similar episodes have occurred since.
All the same, save for a few folks who seem to have nothing better to do than overreact, everything is going on as usual.
On a personal note, I certainly hope the weather doesn't hold a grudge on us when the peak erupts, but if it does I'll have to deal with it like everyone else.
The chief priority will be ensuring that I'm someplace safe, either at work or the lodge, and once there, that I'll probably be staying put to avoid damaging my lungs or vehicle with ash.
The lodge is well stocked with easily prepared high calorie food, water, and portable fuel for cooking and heating if necessary.
Keep up with Redoubt's latest developments online at the Clarion or AVO.
Another, less harmful atmospheric particle fell Wednesday and Thursday delivering about 6" to Sterling and I'm sure more to Turny.
Near 0 lows and clear skies paired with increased daylight should make Turny an excellent place to be on Saturday. After such a long week I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Woodland treasures

Staring down my gunsite, I looked down the trail at what appeared to be a deformed arachnid, the size of a small dog, squatting 250 feet off.
I slowly brought the gun back down, thinking, “There’s no way that’s what I think it is.”
I kept my stare fixed on the hard blue ice covering the path in slippery sheets as I quickened my pace.
I’d waited, perhaps since I was five years old, first convinced the glacial erratics covering the hills behind my house were actually dinosaur bones, to find a woodland treasure like the one I hoped lay in front of me.
The temptation to peer up and look ahead strained the muscles in my neck, but I feared in doing so, I’d confirm that the object was in fact just a large branch or even litter.
Finally, within 30 feet, I couldn’t wait anymore, and my head snapped up.
There before me sat a fresh moose antler shed.
Just pulled from the ice

I could hardly believe my eyes and practically slid the remaining distance.
I’ve always wanted to find a set of antlers out on a trail or a bushwhack.
Given the miles I’ve covered, on and off trail, I can’t believe that it’s taken this long to have finally found one.
I couldn’t believe my luck either.
I was only a quarter mile down a side trail that juts off a very popular trail.
“How is it that no one could have happened across this great find until now,” I thought?
I couldn’t say exactly when the mid-sized bull had dropped the horn, it had just frozen back into the trail, but maybe they came off in late December and were buried in the storm that rolled through then.
The moose was at a point in its life, where prone to many perils, legal hunting was not one of them.
Hunter in the game units here may only take spike forks, usually two year-olds, or trophy moose with racks over 50.”
Joe reckoned this one was in the 40” range.
After popping the antlers from the ice, I held them up to the dim sky and marveled at their walnut color and deep ridges.
There wasn’t a single blemish on them, no chew marks from rodents or birds.
Holding the single antler up, I immediately found a new respect for the animal that had once toted them through the thick boreal forests and falling snow.
It must have weighed 20 pounds at least, I estimated.
Covered in snow, ice or tangled in brush, I could see them getting old fast.
Throwing them on my pack, I couldn’t contain the grin on my face.
I could come back from the hunt/hike empty handed, which, would in fact be the case, but already the trip was a success.
If that wasn’t enough, working my way through the dead matted grasses on the shore of a remote pond a little while later, I stumbled over a buried object.
For whatever reason, though hundreds of logs littered the shore, and I assumed it was nothing else, I glanced down.
To my surprise, I saw the top knobs protruding from the palm of another shed poking a few inches above the vegetation.
The second shed I found may not have even been a shed, it almost looked cut on one side.

All these years of hoping to find a set of antlers, and in one day I tripped over two; unbelievable.
The second set was much older, bleached white and had moss growing on its underside.
It was also either split or cut so only the palms were still there.
I set them back down. The other shed was weighing me down enough and this one was well on its way of returning to the soil.
Inside and warmed up, I added a pen for perspective. This is a larger image and may be viewed in detail if clicked on.

October recollections. East of Sterling the snowpack thins to nothing other than what fell in a recent dusting, reminding me of late October and early November in these parts. Fortunately a cold spell is continuing to firm up land and lake.

Be sure to follow the Clarion online this week for coverage of Redoubt Volcano. The peak was upped to "watch" and scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage are monitoring it 24/7 after a the volcano suddenly started showing signs of life early Sunday morning. Presuming Redoubt doesn't give me reason to act sooner, there will be an update in Wednesday's paper.
Continuing on the geological fix, I was rattled awake along with other late sleepers Saturday morning when a large 5.7 quake centered near the mouth of Cook Inlet shook southcentral. Read about it here in the ADN.
Exciting stuff happening here these days.
Lastly I shot this closing image at 6 p.m. this evening before heading out onto the trails. That's right, twilight at 6! We are at 7.5 hours of light sunrise to sunset by mid-week here, and gaining over four minutes everyday. My headlamp will soon be relegated to the pack. Snow conditions on the trails, though thin, are phenomenally fast right now. I plan to take my GPS out Tuesday and do some sprints. I can estimate the speeds I'm traveling on flat ground right now, they're comparable to sprinting on a road bike I think, but I'd like to confirm them first.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


A few times I've found myself reporting in the midst of passion and emotion, knowing that irregardless of how charged the air around me might be, my job was simply to turn a real event into a script of words on a page.
On Tuesday, the 44th president of the U.S. took the oath of office, ushering in a new era in American History.
In the little town of Kenai, Alaska, more than 200 swarmed into the confines of a community center to watch the day's ceremonies, recorded some ten hours prior.
In such a conservative area I, and the event's organizers, expected a showing of 50-60 people. I certainly expected a bit of emotion, but otherwise it seemed that the gathering would largely be a medium for local Dems to discuss future plans and opportunities.
As the meeting was to take place, local union bus drivers were deciding whether to trade in their keys for picket signs early the next morning, likely leaving dozens if not hundreds of district students stranded or unable to reach school.
Such an event had my full attention, and I was unprepared to give what had originally only been expected to be a small get together the fullest coverage I would have liked to provide.
I came to this realization, as I kneeled in the grip of the first person I'd met, for whom the election was more than a mere matter of politics.
With "Air and Simple Gifts" playing in the background, Lou Dodson-Lankard squeezed my wrist and explained to me, in a manner far more eloquent than I imagine I could have done if I had the entire day to write the story, why she knew that a person like Barack Obama would one day lead the nation.
I struggled, in that moment, to hold my own emotions within, I think, not simply because of the power and wisdom offered in her answer, but also because I knew it was one of those moments that comes along every so often in this profession, that leaves me realizing my own limits to capture a situation in print.
I held my digital recorder in my left hand capturing her short dialog that evening however. It's a decision I am eternally grateful for.
Vince and Scott at the paper reworked the digital file and uploaded it to the Clarion's homepage and the accompanying story.
I invite you to take a listen here, the flash player is located at the bottom of the article.

Here's a moose's butt, at night, haha, sorry, he gave me quite a fright the other night when he started running around the yard just after I stepped out of my car. This is the little fella that's been sleeping under the deck on occasion. He's a yearling and very small. Later that evening he woke me browsing outside my window in the yard.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Are there peacocks in Alaska?

A few weeks ago my friend Abby, who teaches a class of second-graders at a private school in Connecticut, asked if she could have her students write me a letter and ask about Ak.
Always eager to spread the good word about the Greatland (read: we are better, we are stronger, we are tougher, we are smarter, you must know) haha, just kidding, I was happy to help out a friend.
She sent me the following list of questions last week and I've done my best in a letter to answer them at a second grade level.

1. What kind of fish are in Alaska?
2. How is it up there in Alaska? Is it cold in Alaska or hot?
3. Why did you move to Alaska? Is Alaska pretty?
4. What is your favorite fish for catching?
5. What is the biggest fish that you have caught in Alaska?
6. What language do they speak in Alaska?
7. Why is Alaska called Alaska?
8. What kind of animals are there in Alaska? Which animals have you seen?
9. What is the weather like there?
10. What can you see and do in the mountains in Alaska?
11. Are there peacocks in Alaska? (great question...)
12. What is school like in Alaska? Is it different?
13. Tell us what you know about the Iditarod? Have you met sled dogs?
14. What do people in Alaska do for fun?

Dear Ms. Putnam and Class,
What great questions you’ve asked! I’d better be careful that my boss at the newspaper I work at doesn’t find out what a great group of questioner you all are, I may lose my job!
I’ll do my best to answer everything you’ve sent.
Let me first tell you a little bit about myself. I work as a reporter for a very small newspaper in a little town called Kenai (pronounced keen-eye). Everyday I write stories about things like fishing, government and school.
Children in Alaska have to go to school too just like you, from the end of August until the beginning of June. They learn many of the same things you do, and in the towns and cities the schools probably look just the same.
In the small towns and villages of far away from any roads though, there may only be one or two teachers for an entire school, and first graders may eat lunch every day with eighth graders.
In the wintertime children go to school in the dark too, since the sun does not rise until 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning. When they leave it will be dark again.
If it’s too cold out the children may have to spend their recess playing indoors, something that none of them like very much.
I moved to Alaska this past spring to work at a fishing camp where people come in the summertime to go fishing. I decided after I graduated college, that I wanted to move someplace new and see something different.
While Alaska is very different, most people still speak English. In the native village though, you may find people still speaking in Yupik, Tagalog and Inupiaq. There are also a few villages where people mostly speak Russian
The name Alaska, is Russian. The Russians were the first Europeans to settle Alaska. They took the name from the native Aleut’s word, Alyeska, which means, great land.
It’s a very good name.
When I moved here I found a very pretty place full of tall snow covered mountains, forests as far as the eye can see and streams full of big fish.
It seems like there must be some fisherman and woman in the class with so many questions about the fish up here.
Alaska has many many different types of fish and I’ve only caught a few of them.
I live next to a river with four different types of salmon, Kings, Reds, Silvers and Pinks, plus two types of trout, rainbows and Dolly Varden.
There is one other type of salmon, the Dog, and at least two or three other kinds of trout. We also have the sharp toothed Northern Pike, and the eel like Burbot.
My favorite fish to catch is the Silver Salmon. The Silver Salmon come in August and September. They get very angry as they swim up the river and if you hook one, it will jump, splash and dive to try and escape. They’re very fun to catch, if you can get them to the boat!
The biggest fish I’ve caught in Alaska was a 60 pound Halibut. Halibut are strange looking fish that live at the bottom of the ocean. They have both eyes on one side of their body, and swim with one side facing the ocean floor, and the other up. Some grow to be over 300 pounds!
There are also many different animals in Alaska. Some of the more famous you may have heard of are Moose, Sheep, Wolves, Lynx, Wolverine, Caribou, Musk Ox, Brown Bears, Black Bears and Polar Bears. There are also many small animals you might expect to find too like rabbits, foxes, coyotes and beaver.
I’ve seen many of the small animals along with lots of Moose, Brown Bears and Black Bears.
The bears have all gone to sleep for the winter, but I see moose almost every day when I go skiing. One even spent a snowy night under my front porch!
I have never seen a wild peacock in Alaska. There are lots of birds here though, including bald eagles. In the summer a family of three bald eagles lived on the other side of the river from me. In the morning they would wake me up while they called to each other and feasted on the fish they’d caught for breakfast.
Right now it is winter time here. Winter starts in October and stretches until April. At times it can be very cold. Last week the temperature was almost 40 degrees below zero. I don’t like that kind of weather, but luckily, it doesn’t come around much.
In the summertime it doesn’t get very hot. Seventy degrees seems like a heat wave. In the middle of Alaska, far away from the cold oceans though, summer temperatures reach 90-100 degrees.
The nice thing about summer though, is the sun never sets. We have daylight all the time. That means the sun can be shining at midnight!
Alaska is a good place for people that like to play outdoors. On the weekends people go to the mountains to fish, hunt, hike, snowmobile, boat, ski, snowboard and yes, even dog sled.
One of the reporters I work with and his wife, Colleen, who’s a teacher at a school here, have a kennel of sled dogs. They are getting ready to do a race that’s just as long, and maybe even harder than the Iditarod, called the Yukon Quest. Colleen, who will do the sled driving, or mushing as it is called, will go from the Alaskan city of Fairbanks, in the middle of Alaska, to a city in the Yukon Territory of Canada called White Horse. It will probably take her two weeks to complete. Can you picture Ms. Putnam doing a dog sled race across Alaska?
We’re very lucky to have so much to do here in the mountains.
They’re a beautiful place to go all year round. They’re tall, pretty, full of animals and the place where all our rivers begin.
Alaska is also home to the tallest mountain in North America, Mt McKinley, but everyone here calls it by its Native American name, Denali, which means, the tall one.
Denali is so tall, that on a very clear day I can see it even though I’m over 300 miles away!

Thank you again for all your great questions-

Dante Petri

I'm hoping my letter reads ok at a second grade level. I've never really put much thought into target audiences until the past month or so as I've begun to rethink the paper's Schools section, but more on that some other time.

In other news, to keep it brief, we've lost about 80 percent of the snowpack here after a pineapple expressed drove temperatures from near record lows to damn near record highs with sustained winds of 25-30mp and gust topping over 100. My thermometer that likes to read 5-10 degrees above the actual temp took a major digger in a massive gust of wind, getting ripped right off the railing on the deck and slamed back down, but not without first threatening that temps had made it to the big 5-0.
Rain and snowfall water equivalent totaled over 10" in Turnagain pass, and above 3,000', 56" of snow fell.
The xc skiing is slowly recovering but things are dangerously icy in a few spots; it'll be a good week to work on speed and a bad week to take a tumble.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Disaster strikes the inlet

Disaster struck in Cook Inlet early Thursday morning, leaving no one injured but 35,000 to 38,000 gallons of diesel trapped within a 166 foot vessel that's now completely submerged beneath sea ice.

The following story is posted online at the Clarion's site.

Peninsula Clarion
The supply vessel that struck the Granite Point oil platform early Thursday morning has submerged out of sight according to reports from the Coast Guard and a spokesperson for the operator of the boat.
Seven people were rescued when the MV Monarch, an Ocean Marine Services Inc. operated boat delivering supplies to the platform, began to sink early Thursday morning. The platform evacuated all nonessential personnel. All personnel aboard the platform and the Monarch are safe and accounted for, according to Chevron Spokeswoman Roxanne Sinz.
The Coast Guard responded to the initial distress call. “We received a report at 5:50 a.m. that the MV Monarch was taking on water,” said Petty Officer Walter Shinn with the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau.
The 166-foot-long vessel was pushed up against the platform, which is roughly 19 miles north of Nikiski on the west side of Cook Inlet, near Tyonek. According to a statement released by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Monarch was pinned against the platform by sea ice. Sinz said she was unaware of any structural damage the platform may have sustained from the impact. The Monarch is carrying 35,000-38,000 gallons of diesel. An additional 20,000 gallons of diesel is on the oil platform, Shinn said.
The Coast Guard dispatched a seven-person team from Anchorage to respond to the incident. “A C-130 and H-65 helicopter from Kodiak were also set to respond, but high winds kept them grounded,” Shinn said. A tug is on site and the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory was enroute Thursday afternoon. Petty Officer Sara Francis, a spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said the cutter was due to arrive in the morning and would stand by for further instruction.
Officials do not know what caused the problem, but the Coast Guard was taking action to begin investigation. Jim Butler, spokesperson for OMSI, described the sunken vessel’s submerged condition as “fairly stable.” Since the vessel disappeared its location was no longer known. The inlet is estimated to be 86 feet deep at that location. “We’ll be using sonar to figure out its orientation at first light” Francis said. Earlier in the day Butler described it’s location, saying, “It’s slightly away from the platform to its south.”
A light sheen was reported to be visible on the water around the platform after the initial accident, according to the DEC. “My understanding is that there was some hydraulic oils and some fuel released as it went down but we have had no reports of any persistent sheening around the vessel,” Butler said. Butler said an afternoon flyover revealed no further leakage.
“There was no sign of any debris or any sheen of fuel in the area where the vessel is,” Butler said.
Salvage crews arrived Thursday afternoon to assess the situation. Crews from Global Diving and Salvage along with Chadux are being used for clean up. “I think OMSI has done a real good job activating resources from around the world. We have experts from overseas for underwater salvage coming here,” Butler said. A salvage plan will be devised Friday.
“The salvage crew is assessing the situation and developing a plan with the Coast Guard,” Butler said. Though the vessel is believed to be south of the platform, Chevron had “shut in” the platform, and was removing product from the pipelines that run on its north side. Sinz called these measures precautionary.
Seven workers were still on the rig, after seven were evacuated Thursday morning, with no reported injuries.

A Bald Eagle is washed in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez tanker dumped over 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sea in March of 1989. The incident in Cook Inlet comes 19 years and ten months on the heels of the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. The MV Monarch is only carrying 35,000 to 38,000 gallons of diesel, still trapped within it, an amount that pales when compared to the E.V. The inlet's massive tide fluctuations paired with the the buoyancy of the any petroleum product means a spill could still have disastrous results for the surrounding communities. Photo from the International Bird Rescue Research Center

This was one of the stories that kept me at work for ten hours today. As a result I'm going to leave it at this:
It will be a bit hard to sleep tonight as I think about a boat full of oil knocking around in tides that are fluctuating by 30 feet at the bottom of one of the wildest seas in the world.
While the hull seems unlikely to crack and spill any more volatile cargo tonight; how it will ultimately be extricated remains to be seen.
Ironically, Governor Palin filed suit today against the Federal Government for listing the Cook Inlet Beluga under the Endangered Species Act, citing that doing so could negatively impact the Cook Inlet Economy.
This could be true.
An oil spill would also negatively impact the inlet economy too. Additionally it would negatively impact the marine ecosystems of the inlet and diminish the quality of life for all of its residents.
This seems like a real worthy cause Palin, keep it up.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Driver's seat

After expounding all the wisdom I managed to store up from my high school driver's education course while taking a driver safety test Friday, I found myself throwing it all to the wind as I put the pedal to the metal Sunday afternoon in a converted 3/4 Chevy pick-up, racing the Clarion's photographer Scott and some dude wearing a lynx on his head around a quarter mile ice track in Kasilof.
Did I mention Scott and I were getting paid to do that? Oh, ya, we were.
This weekend was all about time spent in the driver's seat, just at very opposite ends of why one would do that.
Friday I put a few new furoughs in my brow racking my brain and taking the state's driver safety test at the DMV.
I need to establish my residency here and the first step in the process is getting a new license and registering to vote. (Yes I did vote this year, absentee in Vt.)
Unfortunately I needed my social security card, which is now in transit, so despite having everything else from a passport to pay stubs, I'll have to wait until later this week.
Enough about the DMV though.
Scott and I are working on a future Peninsula Life on a local group of guys and girls that like to spend their winter Sundays spinning rubber around a frozen lake in Kasilof.
The time spent around the motor heads got me thinking about a time in my life when I too was really into burning gas and kicking ass.

"A moment of shame" Scott called this photo, caught by the flagger on Scott's camera. Scott in the 06 car, spins backwards blowing out part of the berm letting me sneak by in the truck to take the second place seat behind a kid wearing a lynx on his head.

Back in high school, I believed, like an eleventh commandment, "That if thou shall owneth an SUV, than though shall be required to utilize their 4x4 capabilities when ever though is presented with thy opportune trail-eth."
Of course, I didn't actually own a 4x4, but my folks had a GMC 2500 I drove through most of junior year, and Jeep Grand Cherokee I drove later through my senior year.
Both were very capable and relatively rugged off road vehicles given that neither had any modifications.
I, like most car obsessed teenagers, had visions of converting both into tricked out mudding machines, complete with massive spotlights and power winches to extrude them from the stickiest of messes.
Even my friends would note to their amusement that a shiny head turning sports car could purr by without so match as nod from me, but send a muddy looking beast with a light bar across the grill and my head would snap to see in a second.
I never did get to tricking out either vehicle other than installing a bash guard under the jeep's oil pan and transmission I think.
The reason, well, we'll get to that.
Scott appropriately titled this shot, caught by the flagger of me on Scott's camera, "the slow lane."

Off roading came pretty easily.
I had a solid knoledge base of miles worth of trails from mountain biking and hiking. I knew of every problem water bar, rock and tree on every route.
Most often, if I suspected I'd found a new loop, I'd ride it first on two wheels to examine every feature first before bumping along through it on four wheels.
In the early days I'd only use the big truck.
I was limited in my options with the long vehicle as it couldn't handle tight situations or narrow winding trails.
It's lack of weight in the back meant it was less than ideal for greasy mud and corn snow too.
I did pull some forays in deep water, and its high ground clearance let it cruise over obstacles I'd later be challenged with in the smaller jeep.
The jeep on the other hand, was slightly better built for the woods. It was nimble, could be relatively speedy, handled diverse footing much better and had a specific off road drive setting plus the standard 4 high and low.
The jeep went far wider afield and far deeper into the muck.
I found a way to support the habit too, piling friends into the jeep on Friday afternoons before football games and charging $5 a pop for two hours or so of spray launching stream crosses, mud chucking bogging and thud busting rock gardens.
I even scored extra points on a physics project when my group and I photographed the jeep fording a stream to demonstrate a change in velocity over time.
In the spring of my senior year, it all came to pretty much a screeching halt though.
On what was nothing less than a disastrous afternoon of off roading for my friend Chad and I, I flooded the jeeps engine with murky river water when I hit a small pond with too much speed and washed a bow wake over the hood and partially up the windshield.
The cylinders slammed to a stop as they hit water, unbeknownst to me at the time, but terminally weakening a piston rod.
Though the motor regained power after having the oil changed a few times, at 700 something miles after the accident, the rod let go, sending the piston head through the engine block at 2500 rpms, shattering into a million fragments on the pavement below.
The force of the impact was so intense the shop later found bits of molten metal on the undercarriage.
It could have been much worse, but replacing the engine with a used one from another jeep cost a fairly pretty penny.
Chad, on that same dismal afternoon, as though we shouldn't have figured out when to call it a day, sank his truck to its axles in a partially frozen mud pit, requiring him to foot the gas bill for the operation of a massive log skidder needed to pull him out.
While blowing an engine isn't really a part of off roading, just like mountainbiking, once vehicles leave the gentle paved road's their components are subject to far more abuse.
With abuse comes expense, and I quickly realized that replacing the drive train on a bike is about 90% less expensive than replacing even half the drive train on a jeep.
Lesson learned.
I occasionally ventured off road again here and there, but only to access remote trails or pull some jerk off's trash out of the woods.
Sitting in the driver seat of the old racing truck Sunday was a real throw back to the days of old, but I'm happy to be the one paying $5 now for a chance to spin the wheels instead of vice versa.

Hear's (you'll get it in a second) a few photos from this weekend, including a shot or real life actual frostbite, watch out! Friday, after passing my drivers test, I went up to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Soldotna and skied some of their classic tracks. The trails are more old school, occasionally groomed, narrow and humpy. Not necessarily ideal for after work night skis, but a real hoot for a sunny afternoon.

Long shadows from short trees fall across Headquarters Lake

The Kenai Mountains from HQ Lake

On my drive home after skiing I looked at the clock and noticed it said 4:30.
"That can't be right," I thought, "it's still light out."
What proceeded was a series of holy appraisments of excrement extruded with divine oversight from my mouth as I realized, it was in fact, light, very light, at 4:30 in the afternoon. When I pulled into the driveway I snapped this shot of the moon above the river, in daylight, at five minutes to five. While the sun had set long ago, the twighlight now extends much later into the day.
By the end of the week we'll have gained a full hour of light back putting us at six and a half, and a currently picking up three and a half minutes more every day. That gain also increases each day.

Growing tired of the cold (through it at at least warmed back to negative single digits by Friday, I burned almost a tank of gas to go ski the baycrest trails in the banana belt, or Homer. Temps, in the low to mid teens, felt balmy, and I actually waxxed the classic skis too warm for conditions off the start.
Cook Inlet Blue

Across Kachemak Bay

No photoshopping required, just a well placed trail sign!

The baycrest trails have a real touch of Homer to them with some more funky names along with some strange sights alongside the trail for keen observers. Their trail system is also far more expansive and offers real views. They lack however, the same snow coverage, trail maitanance and hardcore dedication to trail grooming found in the Tsalteshi trails.

This is essentially what it takes now, for me to bother taking a picture of an eagle. Not one, shoot I see a few eagles everyday, but an entire tree of eagles, that will catch my attention. Why are all these eagles grouped up here? This was taken on a trail that runs behind the Homer landfill. Nice huh? But the eagles, and the ravens, have to survive the cold too, and with the rivers and lakes frozen, fish is hard to come by.
It's quite a site to see the giant birds flocked up like little chickadees in the trees.

This isn't a display of poor ear hygiene, but it could be a case for needing better protection from the extreme cold while skiing. Last week, included in the damages of the cold snap, was a very small patch (see little dark yellow oval center left) of real life frostbite, not nip, on my right ear. The patch, a long as a fingernail is wide) froze on a long descent last Tuesday. I could actually feel the tissue freezing as the wind cut through my hat. Though I cupped my hands over my ears cutting the wind, I was too late for this little spot.
Though tiny, it now burns almost the second my ears face a stiff wind and I'll have to be extra careful to protect this now vulnerable area in future sub-zero episodes. I was quite happy to get back out on skate skis this bright sunny morning before work and actually shed my shell for just a jersey and wind pants. Temps are likely to climb into the high 20's by mid-week.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The streak ends

I've just about exhausted my supply of cold snap leads this week. I ended it, I hope, with a story on frostbite today and temps at a whole +1 after work today.
Of course, Thursday is my rest day, so I stayed off the skis, but toughed it out every day earlier this week down to -27 on the trails Tuesday night.
So I thought I'd address the folks who might think this is normal.
Let be clear, according to everyone who's been here a while, the cold temperatures show up on occasion, but rarely for so long.
The fact is, weather rarely sticks around here for any period of time .
The norm is a little bit of everything, everyday.
This summer for example, there were weeks that went by where one could have said, it's rained every day and told the truth, particularly in the more volatile months of August and September.
At the same time, they'd also have to acknowledge that it had been sunny everyone of those days too.
So while it's been darn close to 40 below a few times in the last week, when this system finally moves through it may turn to 40 above and raining.
I'm really really hoping not as you can imagine, but it's certainly possible.
I thought I'd share some weather info, particularly for my friends back east who might be curious as to what things are like.
First, you can take a look at averages and records for Soldotna at this link.
On Wednesday morning, the coldest day here in the driveway at 37 below, we were 10 degrees from setting a new all time record low for the central peninsula.
That says right there that this cold snap was at the bottom end of mercurial reading around here.
That's significantly colder than what one would expect to find back east, no question.
Here's another difference, Soldotna's record high for January is only 47. February and March haven't done much better, with temps only reaching 52 in both months.
I can say with assurance that it can, and has made it well above that back east, often to by dismay, wiping out the snowpack overnight.
While January's record high in the thaw may not have exceeded the low 60's. March has sky rocketed to an unbelievable 82, a high not seen in these parts once all this past record cold summer.
Yet, Soldotna and the temperate east only vary at extremes. Their averages looks very similar, particularly in the winter, with Soldotna trailing in the warmer months.
The moderate temperatures of July and August are largely influenced by the increased precipitation in those months.
What really defines the central peninsula from say Middlebury or Saratoga though, is the fact that its on the west coast.
We're simpler, in the sense that we're impacted almost constantly by the same system, but we have massive differences locally.
Essentially, the same storms come through with the consistency of clockwork. I can tell the weather for the next three days simply by how the wind blows.
If I were to move 50 miles however, the result of that blowing wind would be just as consistent, but possibly entirely different than it is at camp.
For example, through the summer, I'd often say, "It's always sunny in Soldotna," after the tv comedy, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
While this obviously wasn't always true, Sterling, which is only 10 miles east of Soldotna, is often subject to more cloud cover and rain because it is just close enough to the Kenai mountains.
In another example, on my 20 mile drive to Kenai each day, temperatures will fluctuate by up to 15 degrees, warmer in the winter and colder in summer.
That kind of fluctuation might happen in the east too, but generally, if it's 10 degrees in Middlebury, it will be 8-10 in Burlington, and that's a 40 mile difference.
The east however, is subject to much wilder and less predictable weather systems that are influenced by an entire Continent of variations. Hence, the east and and the central pen differ the most at their extremes, but largely have the same climates.
One very important factor to note out of all of this though, is the precipitation difference.
Middlebury averages 17 inches more precipitation a year than Soldotna...suckas.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Keeping in line with a summer that went on record as second coldest since state records were first kept, South-central is locked into what will likely be its third longest cold-snap in history.
Anchoragites are whining (good read on anchor town's deep freeze) about temperatures that have generally stayed on the better side of 20 below, while the interior has seen a temps dive as far off the deep end as 65 below.
Those crazy fools in the center of the state already live a few moose hairs from clinical insanity I've been told, so the deep freeze and long dark days have less of an impact up there than it does down this way.
The central peninsula has seen its typical variation of temperatures. At work in Kenai temps are usually a good 15 degrees warmer than they are out here in the Sterling, though they've stayed on the negative side of 0 for well over a week.
In Sterling on Saturday morning, when winter took its middle finger and shoved it onto the button of disaster, temperatures were 34 below in the driveway at 10 in the morning. The last few morning have all been in the low -30's.
I'd planned to make an escape to the ski trails in Homer, where Kachemak Bay and the gusty Gulf of Alaska has kept temperatures anywhere from a few degrees below to a balmy 15 above.
Unfortunately, I spent both days crawling around under the lodge and getting the preliminary stages of frostbite trying to revive my vehicle.
The lodge went first on Thursday.
Ice formed somewhere in the water line, freezing the entire mainline 200 something feet back up the the well.
A welder had to send a line up the pipe to break it loose.
Things seemed to be going well through Friday morning.
Joe and I crawled down beneath the lodge and spent several hours rewrapping the lines with 85 feet of electric pipe heating strips and foam insulation.
Satisfied with how tight everything looked, Joe went back up while I cleaned up the old insulation and heating strips.
Not more than a second after I heard the door close did he start hollering, "We're froze up again!"
With the strips plugged in and hot, I highly doubted this.
Upon inspection I found the the water coming out at a low stream, and unable to reach the upstairs bathroom. We'd lost pressure, but not water altogether.
Ken, our handy man came over and determined the gauge that calls for water to fill the water tank had gone and we were relying soley on a well pump.
The following day he installed a new one, and for a few hours it looked like things might be back to normal.
Alas, the pressure went again, and to shorten what ended up being a very educational experience in learning how a home water system works, it was finally determined by Sunday evening, that the water tank had ice in it.
Later that night a friend brought over a diesel fueled bullet heater, what appears, and essenially operated like a small jet engine, that produces several thousand btu's an hour.
We blasted the crawl space up to an outrageous 120 degrees, restoring the waterlines.
Since, the kitchen sink has never been shut off unless another water sucking appliance is in use.
Saturday's intense cold took a second victim too.
Since October everyone from my parents and coworkers to friends from both Inside and Outside, have asked, will you have to plug your car in this winter?
I will now say, yes; and no, unfortunately it's not because I've converted the car into a plug-in hybrid.
In Saturday's -34 degrees air, my oil turned to the consistency of peanut butter, and even when hooked to Joe's massive 10 cylinder powered F-350, the suby couldn't be brought to life.
Aside from trying to jump the car, I even crawled around under the engine compartment ineffectually trying to warm the oil back to a slightly more viscous consistency with a fireball throwing torch.
I called one of the only shops open in town, and was able to secure a block heater for installation, but had to rope the little black wagon to Joe's truck and drag it in.
Sitting in the unheated compartment working the brake and making sure the car stayed in the lane on the straight drive into town, I lost feeling in the sole of my left foot, and have the early stages of frostbite on the tip of my left hand's ring finger. Fortunately the damages were slight, largely unnoticeable visually and feels like I slammed the finger in a doorway, just, very precisely.
I immediately went to a nearby Chinese buffet and slurped down a bowl of piping hot, msg laden I'm sure, hot and sour soup. At least I still have my foot!

Knock on wood, things appear to be back to normal for the moment.
Wow, I expected this to be a shorter post considering the lack of art. I planned originally to post some data on weather norms here to highlight both the similarities and extreme differences it has to the climate back in Middlebury Vt, but it looks like I can save that for Thursday's post.
The weekend wasn't a total loss, in fact, much was accomplished, just, in less than ideal conditions. One favorable outcome was the addition of a Dall sheep to the several dozen mounts that adorn the walls of the lodge.

While I was unable to get out on skis all weekend, I went for a long, satisfying and surprisingly fast classic ski along the moonlit trails in the sub 20 degree temps tonight. I was at first mislead as I thought I would be skiing at -12, possibly having the warmest ski here since before I left, but a more accurate thermometer later told me my starting temp was -18 and ending temp was -21.
The true low is found in an area I call the wolverine valley, a sheltered low spot that holds air significantly colder than on the trails above. I stayed out of the valley except for two quick dips on trails that drop in and out of it. I imagine temperatures can be up to 10 degrees colder in the valley based on how hard the frost bites my face (my contacts started to freeze, lets leave it at 'that cold...' but that's another story).
I did see one other couple, the only other crazies out there this evening, and on skate skis no less!
I imagine they did a short loop on the tacky snow as they weren't there when I started, and left when I did.
I seem to have mastered my layering in these temps though and remain comfortable if not on the verge of too warm, even through the icy 10 minute warm-up.

Hot skis for cold snow. The classic wax based skis get to come in and warm up each night so I can properly lay down kick-wax on them in the morning before work. I look forward to getting back on skate skis, but the speedy RCR classics have proven themselves in the track over the last week after an initial dislike.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thirty below

Behind a thermometer that reads -30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit is a mighty river, frozen solid like a white hot lava field shining in the bright sun.
The temperatures gauges in Sterling haven’t made it any closer to zero than perhaps -15 for the last few days. With the light at its near shortest for the entire season on the first day of the New Year, this is the Alaska winter so many in the Lower conjure images of.
My vehicle runs in the driveway, humming regularly now ready to go. Five minutes ago it looked like it was frozen to the land like everything else around it.
Holding the painfully cold key to the end of its rotation in the ignition, the car coughed like a machine gun, spinning the motor over and over. Finally after holding it in place for 10 seconds, the car, very quietly shivered to life, like a great beast pulled out of deep slumber into the cold air.
I awoke this morning to a world locked in cold.
The pipes under the lodge were solid, frozen all the way deep underground.
There’s truly nothing enjoyable about these temperatures
Furnaces run constantly, skin peels and cracks without application of moisturizers; the snow makes skis drag across it like sand paper, contacts fold across the cornea and water freezes instantly to everything.
I wrote a story today about a local musher that raced 200 miles in -50 degree temperatures paired with 50 mph winds on the Denali Highway outside Paxson last weekend.
This weather is as close to Fairbanks as things get; I see no reason to get closer right now.
It makes your will tough. Skiing through that bitter cold one learns what keeps them warm and what doesn’t. How quickly a healthy piece of flesh goes from numb, to dead.
The thought of 0 degrees sounds great, high teens or low twenties balmy. Anything else might be uncomfortably hot.

The river, frozen over on New Years Eve day. The ice finally locked solid out front two nights before

Moisture from both sweat and breath freeze almost instantly on night skis at 20 below.