Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cheechako no more

Exactly one year ago Sunday, I shut my car door, rolled the keys forward in the ignition and eased the Suby down my parent's driveway.
This is a much anticipated post, albeit a bit early.
Cheechako: The term used for people who haven't spent a full winter in the north. They're also often referred to as tenderfoots. I actually arrived in the state on June 4, 2008.
I'm a little premature in my declaration, but for the sake of my blogging schedule for the next few weeks, and because winter is over, at least down here at sea level, I'm going to officially declare myself no longer a chechako.
(For those who need to know, it is still snowing. Road riding in Summit Pass and Cooper Landing this weekend there was fresh snow on the ridges at 4,000'.)
Over the last two days I've been going through some of my posts from the past several months, and over and over again I've asked, "Was this real, was this me, was I there, did I really see that, did I really take that picture?"
Some of those pictures, there's nothing I can write underneath them that will ever allow me to express the emotions tied with them, the way I felt as I stood and snapped them.
There are pictures on this blog, for whatever it's worth, that make me quickly blink back tears.
When I left East Middlebury, I was fulfilling two dreams. I was going to a place I'd been once before, and knew thereafter I wanted to return to. I was also getting in my car and driving it until the road practically ran out.
I didn't even have a physical address for my final destination, nor sure exactly what/where I was going to.
It was the epitome of the post college grad dream.
A year later, I'm still here on the shores of the Kenai River,
It looks much the same as it did when I arrived, and as I set up equipment for fishing this summer, I couldn't help but stop and think, "I really call it my life."
It's some how normal that I live "up here."
In the last frontier, I have a real job, I work a 9-5, I commute to work, I get stressed, I get tired and sometimes I hang my head exhausted by life.
When I lift my head though, I see things very few others get to.
I've spent a year of my life living in a place where only 50 years ago most of the population lived off the land or starved. Back then, getting between here and Anchorage would have been easier with a horse or 4x4 than low clearance station wagon.
I've adapted habits to suit a climate that freezes over for 6 months at a time. I can go skiing when the mercury drops to minus 30. I've seen near boiling water freeze in mid-air when thrown skyward at minus 40. I've felt my own flesh go from cold to numb to dead faster than the world's best speed reader could zip through this sentence.
My life's been dictated by the eruptions of an active volcano.
The ground here threatens to shred everything the humans have built upon it.
My neighbors continually put my own trials and tribulations to shame with their daily fight to eat, avoid being eaten and pass their genes onto the next generation before returning to the earth.
I look both ways before I step out my door on fall mornings for bears walking through the yard. In the darkness of the winter night I drive well below the speed limit, my eyes keen to the dark silhouettes of half ton ungulates that meander across the highway without warning, threatening both the unwary driver and moose with a swift bloody death.
On a high mountain ridge, I'm blown away not by how my species has dominated the world, but how by how meek and insignificant we actually are despite our innovation.
"You have to want this place," I feel like I've told many, "otherwise it will devour you."
There are many here that shouldn't be.
For all its hardships however, there is beauty like truly nowhere else on earth.
Those of us who do survive up here, wake up to a dream every morning.
For me, I've been graced twice, to have both kind and generous people around me whom I'm forever indebted beyond compensation to; and a job that lets me do what I love and truly get to know the community and it's characters like no other livelihood can.

But my evolving story is no different than most of those I've met here.

"I came up here for a summer, a year, became two years, it's been 5/10/30 now, I'm not sure if I'll ever go back down, I better decide, pretty soon..."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The final stretch

The irony of the name of this post didn't dawn on me until after I'd thought of it, but after an 11 and 1/4 hour day in the office, I closed out my day by loading a dead horse into a small pick-up.
Yes, that's right, after a long day wearing the loafers and collared shirt, interviewing local officials and jamming on a computer, what else says, "I live in Alaska," like going to help a co-worker and a few strangers push a big dead animal into a fairly small truck, so it can be butchered up and fed to a working dog team later this winter?
This has been a jam packed week, and I could post on a number of things, but obviously it's late now, and I'm going to have to be brief.
The main action this week stemmed from a murder, a high speed pursuit that lead police officers from three different departments from Sterling to just past my office in Kenai, the launch of the Tight Lines Fishing Section and my first ever online news broadcast, the discovery of a body in the Kenai Bluffs and the fact I have only a week before I take off for LA.
For more information on any of the news stories visit the Clarion's Website. Click on the "View All Headlines" link below the list of Today's stories for the entire list.
To see yours truly delivering this week's fishing report online and in person visit the Tight Line's Website. That's a site you should put in your book marks and check back every Thursday through the summer. That's my job for the paper for the next several weeks, though obviously I won't be doing any reports while I'm in the Lower though, so after next week's, a colleague will fill in.
I better get to this dead horse thing too.
My coworker, Joseph, and his wife Colleen, keep a blog of their dog mushing endeavors and pursuits. Last winter Colleen competed in the Yukon Quest 1000-mile International Sled Dog Race. This year she's hoping to compete in the Iditarod.
To do either race, and run a kennel with over three dozen dogs, it takes a lot of protein, so they're signed up to be notified when moose are struck my cars or horses pass away and the owners wish to donate the meat.
In this case a pretty old looking beast had keeled over last night at a small farmstead in Sterling not far from camp.
The owners weren't home, and house sitting couple combined with Joseph and Colleen managed to pretty much get it into the back of Joseph's little Mazda, but needed one more set of hands to seal the deal.
The couple was really relieved when I showed up as it was looking like the horse might have to be quartered otherwise, something neither wanted to be around for.
I won't post more than a distant shot of driving down the road, and I'll leave it at the bottom so viewers not wishing to see it can skip it.
For those wanting more, check Colleen and Joesph's blog later this weekend or next week for some more pictures.
Despite it sounding like a gruesome task, everyone laughed the whole time, and I can't imagine an activity where perfect strangers could bond so quickly.
The last thing I wanted to hit on, before this gets long, and perhaps it already has, is that this is the last "winter" post, if you will.
Though winter is definitely over here on the Kenai, and has been happily for several weeks now, next week I'll be going to a single post a week format.
For obvious reason I'm not sure how much I'll be able to post after Thursday, I'll certainly try for at least one while I'm in Middlebury, but nothing promised.
When I return on June 15 I'll step back into camp life. Because my schedule is so hectic from Thursday through Saturday, the Thursday post will go away.
Since Sunday through Monday are my personal recovery days, I'll try and post on either one.
Consistency will no longer be a forte, however, I'd say in truth, it will be best to check the blog mid-day Tuesday for west coasters, later in the evening for east coasters.
When camp life is lax I may throw up a bonus or two here and there, but you'll catch it and I'll note it in my "regular" post.
I wanted to talk more about my experience blogging this winter, but perhaps I'll see what the weather does this weekend and consider that for Sunday.
See ya then.

Here's a shot taken around 9:45 p.m on the Highway in Sterling this evening.

Ok, the next two shots are the horse, it's really not that bad, but I don't need to be responsible for upsetting anyone...

It was a tight fit...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Resurrection again, Swan Lake

Farther, muddier, harder, more bears and more epic Alaska backcountry mountain biking. I can't stay away from a good thing, so I headed right back to Resurrection Trail this weekend, this time with the intent of pushing about 13 miles in to Swan Lake.
I didn't take any pics from the trail head to Trout Lake other than one since things look pretty similar to last weekend, so see last weekend's post for those photos if you missed it.
The trail had hardend up quite a bit in the last week, and combined with not stopping for photos, I was able to make much better time to Trout, arriving 40 minutes faster.

The top of the hill at the edge of Sterling headed into the hills. As was typical of life on the peninsula, clear skies in Sterling gave way to in-and-out rain showers in the mountains, but the sun made spotty appearances through my five and a half hour ride.

The trail hugs the steep sided shoreline of Juneau Lake. Just as I hit the lake, a hail/heavy rain shower broke out so I hunkered down under some stunted spruce growing on the bank, ate some food and waited it out. Resurrection Pass, like Turnagain, has different weather every 15 minutes, but with the right clothing and the right attitude it's more than comfortable.
A short clip of the rain and hail falling into Juneau Lake from my shore side shelter under a few stunted spruce.

Still waiting

Back on my way, overlooking Juneau Lake from a Forest Service cabin's front yard.

The Juneau Lake section of trail is a segment of single track every rider should hope and dream to ride once in their lifetime.

Real life

Swan Lake, a paddler rows the boat the Forest Service left on its shoreline into the mountains. One of the wild things about riding in Alaska that I guess I still haven't goten over yet, is that for every mile I ride, I'm usually one mile farther from civilization. When I stood on the shores of Swan Lake, I was about 10 miles from the nearest road as the crow flies, and that crow better know how to get some altitude as there's some pretty good sized mountains between it and a lonely stretch of the Seward Highway. Amazing still is that 10 miles is just a drop in the bucket by Alaska standards, but I can't think of anywhere else I've ever ridden where I could get that far away from everything.
Spruce Grouse! This place is crawling with them right now it's awesome. I saw more birds than I could count and had one nearly fly in my face. I'm sure they'll be all gone when the hunting season reopens in late summer just to spite me, but I may bring a small pistol along on some fall rides. Once I passed Trout Lake the bear sign went out to wazoo as well. Last weekend I saw one set of black bear tracks, this week who even knows how many I saw of both black and brown. Most were old, but I did come across some fairly fresh scat near Swan Lake. I filled up on Way-Ohs! for breakfast though and made a lot of noise.

Heading back out, looking south from Juneau Lake.

Biology lesson. Between Trout and Juneau Lake, a short spur trail leads to an ~one acre fenced in enclosure that shows the difference between browsed and unbrowsed vegetation. I climbed up the 50 year old rickety wooden ladder at the northwest corner of the enclosure and got atop the 10 foot fence to take these two pictures (click either to enlarge). The first is inside the enclosure, the second just feet from the fence. Inside, the willows have grown upwards of 20 feet high, and while they appear dense from above, notice that they're all centrally rooted. Movement within the enclosure would be nearly impossible however as the stalks grow so densely. Outside the enclosure, the willows are dense as well, but none make it much more than five feet high, and can still be waded through. The moose are so thorough they even trim the willows tips that try and grow through the fence.


One last closing shot before I began the ripping decent back to the Sterling Highway. Notice the green line. Spring is still another week or two off from where I was riding in Resurrection, but Cooper Landing is looking bright and green.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

East end burns

Day after day, the sun has dominated the persistent rains of the Pacific, while freeze dried vegetation rustles in the incessant sea breeze, waiting for a spark.
It was only a matter of time before a spark became a blaze, and now the far western edge of the Kenai Peninsula is ablaze.
Firefighters fought through Thursday to gain control of the 1,200 acre blaze that started Tuesday evening when a power line was believed to have sparked a downed tree.

Image from
The size of the blaze is relatively small, however, its proximity to three Russian Old Believer Villages, Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo, remains a concern.
Evacuation orders were issued, though few have responded thus far.
At last check the fire had stopped its spread, but remained hot and ready to advance.
For more on the fire and the effected community's response, visit the Clarion's sister paper, the Homer News.

It's odd to think about forest fires this time of year as the world is literally exploding back to life. Often we associate spring with a lush abundance of new life, not the erasal of old, but here, that seems to be the case.
As my barber in in Soldotna said, "It's a dry country this time of year."
April is the driest month of the year, and May isn't too far behind.
I drive down Greatland St. slower than I did in the darkest depths of winter when it was only a lane and a half wide, not out of fear that a half ton moose will emerge from the inky darkness and leave us both in a bloody mess, but simply because I kick up a ton of dust even rolling through at less then 20mph.
Small grass fires have ignited in the Kenai-Soldotna area as well, but quick responses have kept them from spreading beyond a few hundred yards.
Hopefully no fools decide to let their campfires get out of hand this weekend, as rains aren't predicted to fall for at least a week.

In other news, I was talking with Narva today, and I was reminded that I fly to southern Cal in exactly TWO WEEKS, SWEEET!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Resurrection; first MTB ride of the season

The Kenai's world class backcountry mountain biking brought me here, but for most the year, this is not the land of singletrack heaven.
Alas the season seems to have risen.
Long days, clear skies and temps in the 50's and 60's have set off rumors that the southern portion of the Hope to Cooper Landing section of the Resurrection trail was rideable.
Friday I did what any good journalist should, and investigated said rumors for myself.

Map of Resurrection Trail, on left is the northern most section, right shows southern section and some of the northern section, including the stretch I rode Friday (click for a better view). Map courtesy of Alaska Hike Search

The entire Resurrection trail is 71.5 miles long and stretches from the end of Exit Glacier Rd. outside Seward, north to the little town of Hope. The 16.9 mile section from the end of Exit Glacier Rd. to Russian Lakes trail is called the southern portion. It's overgrown, unmaintained and not rideable unless you like carrying a bike. The trail then overlaps the Lower Russian Lakes Trail to the Sterling Highway, crossing the road in Cooper Landing and heading north another 39 miles over Resurrection Pass to Hope.
This latter section is the subject of this post. I only rolled 7 or 8 miles in to Trout Lake before turning around on Friday.

East towards Cooper Landing and Kenai Lake.

The trail had little standing water on it thanks to the lack of rain and light snowfall this season, however the clay mud was sticky and caked on heavily making the going slow in some places.

Looking south down Juneau Bean Creek on the Trout Lake spur trail.

"Then He made singletrack, and it was good"

Overflow ice was still present in a few places, but clouds kept temps cool and the ice was good for cleaning the mud from treads.

Classic Kenai day, clear and cloudless in Sterling but in and out rain and sun in the mountains.

The new plates make this car look good, but I knew something was missing, ah, that's it, a muddy bike on the roof!

On Saturday I did something unimaginable, got up before six, inhaled some oatmeal and toast, and went to work.
Only catch, I was working on my bike.
The first ever North Kenai Peninsula 200km Brevet bike race was being held and I was covering the first 100k by riding along and interviewing some of the local riders.
It's the first time I've ever conducted interviews by bike, pretty cool, and I got paid to ride.
I'll post a link for the story, to come out on Tuesday, in my Thursday post.
As a side thought from the experience, I'd forgotten that riding early in the morning, offers quite a bit of satisfaction.
Though I was riding slower than my usual pace to interview, there's nothing like knowing you can put away a 60+ mile ride before lunch, when on most days I dread the thought of doing anything physical before 11.
Scott snapped this photo just outside Kenai. Wisely I let the riders get on their way first, giving myself a bit of time to warm-up and clear the windpipes before catching-up to do my interviews.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ice jam

Heavy snows and deep cold this winter caused havoc in the border town of Eagle in interior Ak this week.
Living on the shores of Kenai I was glad the river went out quietly this spring.
Flooding is bad news as it is, throw in icebergs the size of SUVs and you get all out obliteration. Photos and the stories from the Daily News-Miner sum up the situation far better than I ever could.
Eagle is over 600 road miles north east of Sterling, and sits just a few miles down stream from the Yukon River after it passes the Canadian border.
The reason I'm taking a moment to write a little bit about Eagle, a place I've never been to and probably won't ever in the future, is a connection I feel to it.
Yukon River ice spills over onto Front Street in Eagle, Alaska, on May 5, 2009. Taken from the

Earlier this winter I read John McPhee's, Coming Into the Country.
McPhee spent several years in Alaska in the 70's when the state was going through a massive transition period of influxxing modernity caused by the development of the Alaska Pipeline. Meanwhile, the many old timers of the young state were reconsidering the decision to join the union as they found millions upon millions of acres of it being "locked up" in federal land.
McPhee spends time examining the many sides involved in the changes, including an entire section on living in Eagle.
McPhee doesn't talk about his experiences in Eagle however, he instead talks about its inhabitants. He does so by spending time in their homes, on the river and in the bush.
With words he literally brings the life of the town out of print and into your reading chair.
Reading the book, and having been raised in a small town, I soon felt like I too had spent a year of my life in the town of 70 something; that I'd come to know its inhabitants, and more importantly their plights, their dreams and their quirks like McPhee had.
This week, looking at the picture of the massive white chunks of ice sweeping away cabins and structures from like dust from a table, I couldn't help but feel my heart raise when I saw a quote from one of the character's McPhee wrote about, and then sink when another was quoted as saying that the town would never be the same.
As the days grow longer, the sun warms up more and life springs anew from the ground and sky, it's easy to forget what a difficult and harsh place this can be to live in.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Car thieves and drunks

Welcome to the Sunday post.
Once the weather warmed enough to let me ride outside after work, I found I wasn't getting home until 8:30, and thus not able to get to the blog for at least another hour on Mondays. Since even a photo post with a few cut lines takes an hour, I was finding I had to make the tough decision of cutting my posts short or trim valuable hours of sleep out of my night every Monday.
Sleep always wins, and there's no point in posting to this thing only semi-conscious, so I decided to move the Monday post to Sundays.
The lord's day is usually a low key one. I escape the office a bit earlier, and opt for a light run instead of 2-3 hours in the saddle to mix things up a bit for the old workhorses.
Tonight I was supposed to do one of those short runs.
So much for that:
I was enjoying the sunny 70 degree evening jogging along a particularly nice stretch of road that drops down next to the river just around the bend from camp, but a little farther on foot, when I came across a pick-up truck, sunk to its axles, half in the ditch and half on the road.
The road cuts across a wetland and the culvert must be too small or plugged as water is backed up to the shoulder on one side making it real soft.
I've known about this for several weeks now, but the worst it does to me is sink my sneakers a bit.
I also noted a fissure that extended from the shoulder onto the travel lane maybe six inches and wondered if it would ever fail.
The lady driving the Silverado 1500 found out.
The road, being out of the way and having only a few inhabitants, meant she was pretty well hosed for getting help from a passerby.
Now I use the word hosed here for a reason.
When I approached the trucks window I was greeted with a sweet aroma I couldn't quite put my finger on; hang onto that thought.
The lady was phone less, very nervous and wanted to know if I had something to pull her out with.
There's no way the ole suby was yanking this gal out, and I don't jog with a cell, so I turned around and ran back up the road to a cluster of homes a few blocks away, going straight to to door of the home with gnarliest looking truck parked out front.
I found a guy named Gary, and like any Alaskan with a big ass truck, he dropped whatever it was he was doing on the spot when I told him a lady needed his rig to pull hers out.
If Alaska had to pick 3 universal favorite activities, I would wager a sizable portion of my pay on "rescuing each other from their own roads," making it on that list, right behind "shooting shit" and or course, "catching fish."
I digress.
When we returned to the scene of the accident, Gary and I hooked up the two trucks while the woman remained in the car, talking pretty frantically.
Now don't get me wrong, the view out the passenger window was a scary one, the rig was off at a pretty bad angle and I bet for a few terrifying fractions of a second she thought she was going to dunk it into the swamp.
However she also revealed that this wasn't her rig, and kept looking behind her back down the road saying, I'm glad I'm all the way around the corner.
The road was a dead end.
She also felt it important to inform me that, "the truck wasn't hot," then said something to the effect of it's a long story.
Sketch right.
Finally Gary and I got the rope squared off, and the lady asked me to drive the rig out, she didn't want to be in the cab for the next step.
I had to open the door, the thing was at such a steep angle she couldn't push it on her own.
As soon as I climbed in the whole puzzle came together.
That sweet aroma I couldn't quite put my finger on...sitting in the cup holder were two empty beer cozies.
Where there occupants had gone wasn't obvious, but the aroma of cheap beer hung in the cab like smoke in bar.
I had a little mini-debate in my head on whether we should actually get her truck out for her, but hardly had I dropped the gear box out of 4-lo and into neutral, was Gary tugging me out.
My focus was immediately concentrated on keeping the truck from finishing it's clockwise rotation and getting the submerged wheels back onto solid footing.
The lady did a dance that might have won her points on certain game shows but otherwise looked hilarious on the swampy road as the truck's front passenger wheel caught purchase and pulled the rest of the vehicle back up.
Saying thank you an uncountable number of times fast enough to nullify the meaning of the word, she hopped back in ready to get the hell out of where ever it was she was so glad couldn't see her.
Did I assist in the lifting of a truck, I have no idea. I'll just have to watch the court log I guess. So much for helping out huh?

This post was born right here. Click to enlarge. Summer arrived late last week with highs in the 70's through the weekend. I know that sounds unimpressive, but try to remember that in all of last summer there was a week's worth of days where the thermometer made it that high.

The Suby is officially Alaskan, I know finally right, it's only been like a year. The plates look good on her though.
I know, she needs a bath too.