Sunday, December 27, 2009

BC dogs

Monday Edit: There will be no Thursday post. Also, this just in: Mount Redoubt's back! ... maybe LINK
Nice and relaxxing long weekend with some good spring like skiing in town. Temps have been hovering around the freezing mark for over a week with some liquid percipitation as high as 2,000, or so has been reported. I never made it out this weekend.
I'm off to go groom what little snow is left, so here's an Op-ed published earlier this month.

Dogs love backcountry but need extra caution
By Out and About Dante Petri
The only sight more graceful than a skilled snowboarder or skier making turns down the side of a creamy white mountainside in the Turnagain Pass backcountry is perhaps their four-legged best friend, diving headfirst through the weightless powder behind them.
I love seeing dogs enjoying the snow as much as their master backcountry skiing, and if I had my own pup I'd like to bring him or her out there too,
Dogs on steep snow-covered slopes face the same dangers as humans though, and every now and then I can't help but think maybe a few dogs should have stayed home.
I was reminded of this last weekend snowboarding on a popular aspect in Turnagain Pass called Tincan.
Not too far from the top of a bowl run, I saw two skiers ahead of me, apparently enjoying the view over the steep south facing ridge that plummets almost 800 vertical feet or more to a valley bottom.
Then I realized one of the skiers kept shouting something into the abyss, realized the dog I'd seen with them earlier was nowhere to be seen.
The pup had, for whatever reason, headed over the ridge. This was just the beginning of a sad story I thought.
The dog was completely out of sight, and for all its owner knew, it could have launched an avalanche, tumbled over a rockface, become trapped in a glide crack or just said the heck with it, and run off into the wild.
Even as stable as avalanche conditions were, the slope was way too steep for the owner or his friend to venture down if the dog was hurt, and what's more, now they were stuck on a ridge above treeline waiting.
If they did have to go get the dog out of the valley it would have entailed skiing back down and then likely breaking trail a few miles up the valley.
Fortunately the weather couldn't have been nicer so there was no risk of exposure from standing around.
Happily for all involved as well, the Lab climbed back up over the crest of the ridge to his waiting owner and continued on to beat him to the summit, tail wagging the whole way.
I talked with Carl Skustad, the director and a forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center in Girdwood about dog safety in the backcountry Thursday.
Some of the dangers he highlighted for me were the same that this dog could have faced on its foray: triggering an avalanche or falling into a glide crack.
Others he mentioned included falling into tree wells, or even becoming entrapped in deep, loose snow.
Dogs face the same dangers as people up there, and if people can make mistakes with deadly consequences, it goes without saying that a dog with no knowledge of the hazards can as well.
To me, this dog's little trek highlighted almost everything that could go wrong with a pup in the backcountry, and avalanche conditions were pretty safe at the time.
In another scenario the ending to the story might have been different.
The dog's safety is certainly important, but dogs in the backcountry also raise safety concerns for other users.
As smart as they may be, the average pooch will be likely too tempted to wait up top for its master to make his or her way to a safe spot before following suit down the face.
It's not uncommon to see a skier and their dog making their way down a slope at the same time, a potentially hazardous practice.
In the worst case scenario, a dog may run out over a ready-to-pop slope or overhanging cornice and endanger people below.
Skustad said this is particularly a concern with bigger dogs, and that they have triggered avalanches that took out skiers and riders below them.
What happens if a dog launches a slide and buries itself and possibly friends or strangers?
Skustad told me he doesn't personally recommend harnessing a dog with a locator beacon since it won't be distinguishable from a person's who might be buried as well.
I'd have to agree with that, as much as we might love our dogs, if there's a person and a dog trapped in the same slide, the priority is obvious.
Some quick Internet research revealed that there are beacon systems that operate at different frequencies so searchers can look for people first, and dogs or gear second, but you can plan on spending for these systems.
Maybe that's a price worth paying though.
The bottom line is that there's absolutely an extra degree of caution dog owners should take when they bring a canine into the backcountry if they want to avoid tragedy.
The obvious is to evaluate conditions not only for skiing and riding, but also for the dog.
Is the terrain safe for a dog? Can the snowpack withstand an extra hundred pounds punching down through the layers? Is an aspect cratered with glide cracks or tree wells?
Those are just a few questions an owner should be asking before letting "Rex" jump into the back of the car with the waxed up planks.
Additionally, how well trained is the dog? Having a dog that follows the next person it meets, or runs off at the sight of a ptarmigan is a pup that needs a more training before it buries its snout into the face of a mountain.
Dante Petri can be reached at

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

My favorite view at the intersection of Wolf Run, Moose and the Rabbit at the Tsalteshi Trails. I snapped this while I was out grooming the other night. As you can see, there is a Santa, he left classic tracks and fresh corduroy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Pete and I skied at Fresno Ridge in Summit Pass on Friday in temps that hovered on the tough side of 0 in the morning and the slightly easier side by beer thirty. The snow as phenomenal dry and light and conditions were rock solid stable. The bright sun made it all the better.
We pushed from the highway (1,200') to about 4,000' for one of the biggest and toughest runs I've ever done. The shin to knee deep powder and avalanche dragon lair feel of the two chutes we hit certainly didn't diminish anything about the experience. We were able to get a second shorter run in to close out the day on the willow slope as well.
The cold temps froze my camera batter so I only got a slim few photos.

View Fresno in a larger map

First rays of light hitting the upper reaches of Manitoba.

Looking north.

Fresno Ridge Weather Station records temps and wind speeds so skiers and riders can tell how cold and blown around they'll be.

I've been lying about all that skate skiing. As you can see by my gut, I've just been drinking beer and eating pizza.

The big day Friday actually kicked my tail harder than I initially though and Saturday I was definitely hurting, but I still went and hammered out a 30k+ ski in town despite some very vocal initial protests from the upper body of all places. At 8 degrees out though, things felt comfortable compared to the day before.
I was again a little intrigued how I felt relieved in the second half of my ski as darkness fell and I put on a headlamp. Who would think that racing through the woods in the cold and dark of a winter night would feel so right? Guess it's just the place.
Anyway, happy winter solstice, Monday marks the beginning of the end of night! For the curious, we'll have all of 5 hours and 41 minutes of daylight here Monday, or roughly sunrise a little after 10 and sunset around 3:45.
Also, there will be no planned Thursday post, Merry X-Mas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cooper Landing

A week ago I went up to Cooper Landing to do a story on the school there.
Recently the district school board revealed there weren't enough students, just six, in the building to receive state funding. Ten are needed.
The school won't close this year, and district officials are saying they'll find a way to keep it open.
While covering the issue however, I found myself not just trying to profile a one-room school house, but also scraping at the surface of an issue that faces rural villages in Alaska and Outside.
Cooper Landing, pop. 360 is located in a narrow mountain valley along the eastern reach of the Sterling Highway.
The Kenai River flows through the heart of this area, its teal aquamarine waters pouring out from its source, Kenai Lake. On all sides Cooper Landing is surrounded by federal land managed by the National Forest and the National Wildlife Service.
The state and borough also have landholdings in this area.
Between the government owned land and the mountainous geography of the region, private property is scarce.
The beautiful scenery and teeming runs of fish that make their way up each summer have helped to fuel an increase in property value over the last decade.
Year round 9-5 work is essentially non-existent.
Oh, did I mention that Cooper Landing is about a 45-60 minute drive from Soldotna or Seward?
Avalanches may cut it off from the latter this time of year, and the highway between Sterling and Cooper is often the iciest I encounter on my winter drives to Turnagain.
This is all to say that Cooper could be a tough place to live, especially for young families.
While Cooper attracts hordes of outdoor adventurers and anglers through the summer, in the winter it's a quiet place I often slip through with just enough recognition to observe the decreased speed limit and perhaps a hardy angler working the mouth of Kenai Lake but little more.
In reality, having spent some time there, it was easy to see how concerned the community, no matter how small it may have been, was for their school's future, and their own.
There's a not uncommon saying that if the town loses its school it loses its soul.
This is an issue that's come up on the peninsula before it other small communities like Hope, and it's an issue that rural villages across the state are faced with as well.
Cooper's plight hits a little bit of a chord with me though.
Cooper is on a main thoroughfare between two major population centers, Anchorage and the Central Pen.
Indeed, after Girdwood, it is the only year round habituated area until Sterling.
The withering of remote villages accessible only by plane or boat is disheartening, but to see a road system village fight to save its soul makes me ask deeper questions.
At this time in my life, I could never see myself living in a place like Cooper, at least for not more than for a year or two.
When I talked with the sole teacher at Cooper though, he spoke of how he always wanted to settle there.
One of his points was that he found that both he and his wife were waking each day asking why they lived in Kenai. He also said every weekend he found himself driving up to Cooper.
I don't know if Cooper Landing is where I'll end up one day, but a part of me worries that there might not be a Cooper Landing here, or wherever I end up when I find that place.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Another solid weekend on the snow. I skied 33k at Tsalteshi on Friday, went into town, got dinner and then met up with Bill to groom the trails.
Temps were pretty bitter at 4 degrees but I've really come to enjoy the late night grooming. Most the time I just try and imagine what a former self would think if he could have known he'd one day be buzzing through the woods of Alaska late at night setting corduroy.

Hoar frost much? A thick ice fog has been settling in almost nightly leaving behind the long feathery crystals.

Despite the late night grooming I was up early on Saturday and soon enroute to Turnagain. The guys from Anchorage said they were feeling ill, but we havn't seen any new snow in almost two full weeks now so the snowpack is very stable. That's all to say I felt comfortable hitting the slopes of Tincan on my own.
Skiing at Tincan alone is also sort of an oxymoron since there's always going to be others there. Actually I was pleased to see that things were quiet for a sunny Saturday.
There's been a weird inversion layer in the mountains where temps at the highway (1,000') hovered around 0, but at 3,000' they were near 30.
While the snow above treeline left a lot to be desired, the vitamin-d and lack of wind made it more than comfortable.
I ended up doing one bowl run, one top to bottom and one tree run for the day.

View Tincan 121209 in a larger map

Sunrise aroun 10 a.m. at the Skyline Trail Head

Looking over Eddys to Turnagain Arm.

Turnagain Pass

Tincan Proper

Drives home as beautiful as the drive up.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Public servant

A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a farewell event for a retiring school official (MD) and present a gift.
Originally, when I got a call from MD's secretary asking if I would come, I thought it was more of a heads up to get a photo op or a write-up in the paper.
I'd actually done a story on MD a week or two prior, so I figured I'd just go for the art.
Not a few days after the first call, MD's secretary called me back and made sure I was coming. That's when she told me that she'd printed and enlarged an editorial the paper had written on MD and framed it.
She said she wanted me to present the gift because it would mean more.
I worked with MD on a number of different issues and her phone line was always open whenever I had questions on the district's finances.
Still the proposition seemed a little bit weird, so I cleared it with my editor. Since we hadn't paid for the gift or anything like that, it was fine.
I wasn't expecting to say anything either.
I thought I'd just be sort of holding the framed editorial while the emcee said something, and then hand it off, shake hands, or hug.
I was happy just to wish one of my sources well and give something back for all those frantic last possible minute working on deadline questions.
I was also more than a little honored myself as a relatively new member of the community to somehow feel that I was a part of something bigger.
Well that's quite the prelude, anyway I showed up last Monday to the event, and it turns out I was going to be expected to say something.


Obviously, while the event was largely informal, I still felt I had to maintain a degree of professionalism. In other words, I still felt like I was wearing my Clarion hat.
So I tried my best anyway to talk a little bit about the importance of public servants who understand the value of communicating with the media.

I'm not sure how I did, I wouldn't grade myself too high, but a few others said otherwise.
Here's a few points maybe I would have made sure I drilled home had I thought ahead:

Sometimes those who go by the title "public servant," forget the roots of their two-part name.
When you put yourself into such a position, you in doing so, open your life much as you would a 24/7 convenience store.
As a journalist I've come to value those who understand this, and work tirelessly to make themselves available to both the silly and the sharp questions on their expertise.
They're the one's who take my calls minutes to deadline with that question I forgot. They're the one's who pour piles of paper and Internet links onto my desk when I ask for a minor clarification. They're the ones who invite me to their office to explain policy and formulas I need more help understanding. They're the ones, who after they give me a technical explanation, then help me break things down into layman's terms that my readers will understand. They're the ones who when they don't have the answer, tell me so, and send me to a person that might.
Most importantly, they're the ones who understand that what the public knows is always more valuable than what they don't know.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


What a weekend. I had an extra day off since I worked Thanksgiving so I started on Thursday with a 33k ski on the Tsalteshi Trails. This time last year even classic skiing that would have been a feat, let alone skate skiing. I'd only been on skates for about three weeks at this point and was still struggling to do much more than 7 or 8k. I certainly won't say my technique felt as strong as my endurance, but that will come in good time I guess.
While I was out I crossed paths with the groomer Bill and told him to make sure to tap me if he needed some help.
"How about tomorrow?" He said.
So Friday I made good on a long held dream of mine and learned to groom trails. I'll have a more elaborate post on grooming sometime in the future, but the gist is we use snowmobiles pulling miniature (compared to those hauled Piston Bullys) grooming devices. There's a lot more to it than I guess I realized and the snowmobiles really don't like the drag behind them so they're pretty difficult to steer, even at slow speeds.
Anyway, Bill gave me a brief tutorial and then we each hopped on a machine and spent three hours grooming the system. I just tried to keep up. Afterwards I went into town, had a donut and a coffee at the bakery while I warmed up, then headed back up the hill and skied 15k on the trails I'd just groomed. How awesome.

Saturday Josh called up and said to meet him at the Eddy's parking lot in Turnagain. The aspect is north of Tincan and a bit more of a slog in so the crowds aren't as thick.

View Eddies in a larger map

Can't complain about the sunrise this time of year. The drives to the mountains around the solstice certainly makes up for the short days.

I did say we got a ton of snow last week.

We stayed on a sheltered aspect with trees to provide better depth perception. The lighting was less than ideal and the winds were howling on the ridge tops.

Turnagain Arm.

What a perfect day. The long trek in let me get to figure out the whole skinning thing. This was my first trip out on my new splitboard and the technique for using skins is a bit strange compared to snowshoes. They were entirely more efficient though and made the trek up much easier. The transition of putting the board back together is a little slow and tedious, but its ride is good and only took a run to get used to.
Ya, the sunrises have just been brilliant, this was Sunday morning. Screw coffee.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ferreting out a problem

A couple weeks ago I posted that the lodge had a new resident.
I nearly fell off the breakfast bar stool when I saw a little white ermine peering at me through the slats of a cabinet door.
Since his most recent sighting he's seemed to stay away, likely striking fear in the hearts of the little voles that live under the building.I’m sure all the noise of construction and renovation above ground has helped to keep the curious critter subterranean as well.
On Sunday however, Joe said he was up stairs watching some TV when he thought he heard me downstairs.
That was impossible of course since I was at work, and when he yelled and no one responded he went and peered over the railing.
The ermine was back, and furiously tearing through the many boxes stacked on the floor.
Joe said he chased him around, finally striking him with a wooden dowel. The little weasel rolled over as though he'd seen his last, but when Joe gave him a nudge with the stick, the ermine sprung back into animation, and careened off for the nearest shelter.
Eventually it found its way back down the vent hole in the floor under the cleaning closet, but later that afternoon Joe said he saw it on the front deck trying to get into some garbage.
When I got home I found the Have-a-heart trap baited with a chicken wing in the middle of the living room.
I won't question Joe's trapping expertise, but I decided to move it into the closet next to the chosen entry point.
A few hours later, actually, while I was typing up Sunday's post, I heard a strange noise from the hallway, followed by some rattling.
When I went to look, sure enough, the snow white ermine was locked inside.
He was actually quite calm given his dire predicament, far more relaxed than either Joe or myself, that's for sure.
After snapping a picture and debating what to do we decided to try and drown it since that would be the quickest way to go.
I suppose we could have driven it off somewhere and let it go, but a moment later I was glad I didn't.
As the sink filled up, Joe picked up the cage to put it in, and the rattling finally got the better of the little guy, who made a pannicked loud chirp.
That was about when I noticed how bad the kitchen smelled. I assumed at first maybe it was Joe. He'd been working all day on the renovations, but holy smokes, this was just horrible.
The trap was too big to fit in the sink, so I moved it outside for plan-b; all too eager to get away from Joe.
When I came back inside to load a bb-gun though, I noticed the whole downstairs kind of smelled, and it wasn't really body odor so much as "skunk-lite."
I commented about it, and Joe said ermine's in fact had a scent gland much like a skunk. The ermine had skunked the kitchen.
I felt a little bad to have to dispatch the guy, after all, it wasn't his fault the crawlspace below the lodge was also full of ermine food; food that I'd just a soon have in his belly than creating havoc and digging tunnels.
It also wasn't his fault there was a perfect little hole to climb through that lead to a warm wonder world that surely had food as well.
Coexistence wasn't an option though, especially not if he made a habit of skunking the place.
More, there was no way I was putting his smelly butt in the car where he could blow a load again in a small space.
Anyway dispatching him was clean and simple and he was out before he knew what hit him. Meanwhile, de-stinkifying the countertop was a little more difficult. Let’s just say that the swiffer wetter pad I used, heavily loaded with fragrance, was neutralized by the time I was done. I haven’t caught anything else since then -- though despite my instruction not to, Joe ate the rest of the bait. Oh well. As far as I know though, ermine's are usually solitary creatures, so he was probably on his own down there.