Thursday, May 30, 2013


When Memorial Day weekend rolls around and the weather forecast is for sun, Anch'o'Rage takes to the Seward Highway and storms the beaches.
That's all well and good. I like the Kenai, but I think the secret to the opening weekend of summer is to avoid one more weekend sitting behind the Winnebago caravan on the Seward, and head north.
Last year we were rewarded with thin crowds and non-existent traffic on a road trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (LINK).
This year, Mike C and I headed to Denali National Park to do some gravel road grinding (not to be confused with a web site, grinder dot com; gravel road grinding involves long rides on lonely gravel roads).
Confession: Except for the Alaska Range trip this spring, I have never been to Denali NP.
Confession: I've driven the haul road, driven from the Lower 48 to Alaska, twice, driven to Valdez, but I have never been north of Talkeetna.
Honestly though, going to Denali is pretty unattractive given all the things to do here in the summer, and it's closed and only accessible by plane, ski, or dog team the other half of the year.
Most of the time when its open, it's packed with tourists and out of state workers, pushing and shoving to take a picture of a bear, or asking, "If that mountain is Denali, which one is McKinley?" (That assumes they can even see the park's namesake mountain, which sports at least two names).
But this time of year, the crowds aren't a problem, and as we learned, it was the perfect place to be.
We left town late Friday afternoon and drove about three and a half hours north to Healy, just north of the entrance to the Park, arriving late at a non-descript campground that featured hosts who spoke limited English, no functioning rest room facilities to speak up, and a melt water stream and lake flowing through the "tent" sites. However, said campground is an incredibly close stumble to 49th State Brewing Company; and all those other things are irrelevant anyway.
The High One. Denali.
Denali National park has one, 92 mile road, that enters from the Parks Highway. The first 15 miles of the road are open to all traffic. Beyond that, only a few permitted private vehicles are allowed another 15 miles, and bus, bike, or hike is the only way to go further in.
We parked at the small parking area at Savage River and began our ride from there, with the plan to ride about 30 miles in, up and over Sable Pass.

We noticed Friday evening on the drive up, the interior still had a lot of snow. It was hard not to wish for a the splitty and more time.

Stuck dozer. They were not happy.
Road crews begin clearing the Park Road in March. An entire section the Park's web page is dedicated to photos of the effort, which includes breaking up solid ice from overflow that can be 6-feet or more thick at times. With the road open, crews appeared to be trying to manage the excessive flow of melt water as the warm sun kicked in.

One of my favorite sections.
The thick snow cover on the ground meant no bugs, and lots of reflected sun. Temps were in the high-50s to low-60s all day. Perfect riding weather. The road was in great shape too. No mud, and dust was rarely a problem. Bus drivers typically slow way down when approaching riders.

Climbing the narrow road to Sable Pass.

Photo courtesy of Mike C

A bus crosses the East Fork River between Sable and Polychrome Pass.

Muddy waters flow on the still un-broken ice of the East Fork.

The climb to Polychrome.
We debated pushing on, but knew that we were beginning to eat into our own abilities to do a good ride the next day.

Looking down the East Fork.
While the snow-covered peaks offered some familiarity, overall, many of the vistas hardly felt like the Alaska I think I know.

Taking a break. Photo courtesy of Mike C.

Scott Scale 910, a good gravel grinder.
Short of any dry singletrack, this was my first real outing on my new Scott Scale 910. While a geared cross bike is perhaps the most ideal bike for this kind of riding, the Scale was sufficient and did not feel too inefficient, plus it added a lot more confidence on the washboard sections and pot holes.

Not all the views are of stunning mountains. The climate zone include taiga forests and vast open shrub lands.

I've never really seen water flow ontop of ice like this.

This ditch was ripping so fast I think it could have been fun in a kayak. Not sure how much longer the excavator bucket was going to last.

We headed back to camp and refueled and re-hydrated at 49th State Brewing, which is an excellent hang out. The food is adequately portioned and priced, and the libations are, well, they're a topic for another forum.
Sunday dawned clear and sunny yet again. After a leisurely start, we packed up from the shores of what we referred to as lake sh!ticaca at the campground, and headed south to the western terminus of the Denali Highway.
Before the Parks Road connected Anchorage and Fairbanks directly, the only way to link the two up was to head east on the Glenn, and then north on the Richardson. This meant access to the park was significantly longer, via the Denali Highway. Nowadays, the D-Highway is a seasonally maintained, 135-mile gravel road linking Paxson, on the Richardson, and Cantwell on the Parks.
From Cantwell, we drove about 30 miles east on the D-Highway to the still snowed in Brushkana Camground. Though we can't say we knew any better, we saved ourselves a lot of pain and suffering, as those first 30 miles out of Cantwell are pretty hilly.

Still frozen Brushkana.

Temps were cooler on Sunday, struggling to make it out of the 50s.

 Views into a much lonelier portion of the Alaska Range.

Traffic was still very light and we encountered little mud or dust.

Dead. Quiet.
We rode about half as much as we did on the Parks, as the legs were a bit spent from the day before. It would still be pretty sweet to ride the D-Highway in its entirety though, and is fodder for another long weekend.

We saw a ton of birds and plenty of Arctic ground squirrels, one very distant bear, but other than that, no wildlife to write home about.
Then, on the drive back down the Parks, we of course came across a small group of caribou, and joined the throngs to gawk and Instagram.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Every spring I develop this perverted fantasy.
Good snow gets harder and harder to find. Climb high, stay north, watch the sun, and watch the ambient.
Every outing could be the last. Shut-outs and no-gos become as prevalent as bomber days.
Where are the glory days? Where did February and March go?
There was sun in those months too, but not too much. Skiing was care-free. All aspects were a go, right down to the car.
What is this shit?
I dream of a snow-covered trees, of shorts days, cold temps, and relentless storm cycles.
We go through swings all winter long. It warms up, its gets too cold.
Mini interjections of summer into winter.
Maybe, just maybe, somehow, winter could come back, and interject into summer?
No. It never really happens though. The stock market can plummet, pensions can fly out the window, but summer doesn’t crash.
…or maybe, it does.

.3 inches in town was about 3 inches at the house Saturday morning.

The record storm was well heralded by the weather service. All week the forecast discussions chatted ceaselessly about the potential for a collision between an Arctic low and an Aleutian low.
If the two met, snow was going to fall. All the way down to the ocean.
It happened.
Anchorage broke records: Longest snow season, formerly 230 days, snow on Saturday morning made the Winter of 2012-13 232 days long (as measured from first to last measurable snow, or September 29, 2012-May 18, 2013; most snow in a snowfall at the near sea-level measuring site, .3 inches.
Better yet though, was what fell above sea level.

Arctic Valley from Rendezvous.

Jack and I headed to north Anchorage and drove up Arctic valley mid-morning Saturday. Gray clouds stuck to the peaks, but as I looked out the side-view mirror of Jack’s rig, I tried to ignore the fact that the snow was billowing out of the wheel wells like only a cold dry powder can do.
We hit the base and started making short laps in the swales of Arctic Valley.
Unbelievable, the snow would have been awesome on February 18. After two runs, a posse of AVrs showed up and kicked on a lift. We debated if they would allow us a ride, but decided to head back to Rendezvous where we shares longer gullies with only two others.
The skiing was silly. Face shots every turn. Vis was lousy. Snow falling off and on all day, sometimes heavily. Except for 2 turns of wind-blown off the ridge, the gullies skied so consistently top to bottom the lack of vis didn't matter. Ride top temps on departure were 13 degrees. The last few inches of snow that fell were incredibly light. I was thankful the last coat of wax on my rock board was Swix blue. How often can you say blue was the right choice for a day in May?

Quick vis window into South Fork.

Making friends in the storm.
My head was a wreck. I knew it wasn’t mid-winter, but everything told me it was.
We skied till about 5 before other obligations brought us back to town.

Photo courtesy of Jack.

Sunday, under clear skies and in cool temps, I headed north and met up with Lizzy at her ski chalet.
We wanted to head into Delia Creek and ski some of the couloirs.
As we drove up the road though, we noticed that almost everything north facing steeper than some unknown, but very precise angle, had slipped, leaving the run out of a lot of the runs a veritable stew of snow chunk.
The re-frozen bed surface was slick and hard, and while the snow had fallen hot and wet and finished cold and dry, it wasn’t enough to hold it.
The pass was nearly empty. Snow revelers had changed seasons, so we pointed our attention to Marmot’s NW ribs and did laps there, where the angle was slacked enough to hang onto most of its snow, but still more than steep enough to have a lot of fun.


Plenty of them.

Indy Mine and the Hatch Pass cabins are looking pretty well buried.

Lapping our own tracks. A rare occurrence on Marmot. Perhaps as rare as mid-May powder.

Assessing the gopher hazard. Marmots were popping out of the slope. Below us on every run, requiring adding a new variable to snow safety. (ECT 25, Q1, Gopher 5=rip it)

My fantasy realized, (OK, I went and slammed a ton of vert in the Front Range after work on Monday too) I can't think of a better way to end the season. I'm ready for summer adventures.
Just a couple months before pow season.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Say Hey

Supposedly, the season of change is upon us, and a friend told me I should just embrace it.
That’s being made difficult to do considering this is “The Winter of Lindsay Lohan:” every time you think you’ve heard the last of it, it’s back for another bout of sh!t show.
I like it.
Despite winter’s hanging in the limelight much later than usual this year, I’m pretty good about switching the gears come early April and getting back on the bike.
Motivation to do so was stronger this year too since I had been without a steady after-work activity since late February when I backed of skate skiing due to a strained MCL.
This past week, my riding really felt like it kicked into high gear. I don’t know what happened, but my normal 2-hour, 31-mile, 4,000-foot elevation ride on Monday was one of my all-time best, and the best I’ve ever put in this early in the season. On Tuesday, even with the legs feeling a bit stiff from the solid effort the night before, I did the Arctic Bike Club’s Campbell Airstrip Road Hill Climb, and had an absolute blast climbing the 4.1-mile and 800-foot course in 15:25 for 4th place in the Sport division. The ride reminded me how much I love being in the competitive mix.
But riding hard and pushing myself is something I’ve always strived for. There’s something else I’ve decided I need to embrace this year: saying “Hey.”
OK, well, actually it’s quite rare that I will verbally say “Hey,” but as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve been first, perpetually nagged by how small the riding community is, and secondly, how disconnected they are.
Living in the Kenai, obviously, the riding community was small; that’s what you get for living someplace with such a small population to begin with. Everyone knew everyone else who rode, there were only a few roads to actually ride on, and even when unintended, we all regularly crossed paths. Waves were more likely to be gaining a riding partner or stopping for a quick chat.
Then I moved to Anchorage.
The area actually has a healthy population of riders, of all breeds and from all tribes.
A hopeful sign this spring too, is that I feel like I’ve seen a lot more people out on the roads than in the past few years, despite the cool spring. I have no way to quantify this, but it sure feels that way.
Anyhow, I noticed pretty quick when I moved to ANC that when I would wave to a passing rider, I rarely got a response.
Let me back up for a second.
When I say wave, I’m talking about either a drop of four fingers from the hoods or drops, to maybe a full release of the hand, dropped a few inches off the bars for a second.

Is not so much required.
I’ve lived in other parts of the world and the country with far more robust populations of riders, and the wave has always been standard.
In fact, the whole wave thing was so prevalent, particularly in New Zealand, I had to come up with some hard rules about who I waved at: No commuters, cruisers, safety vests, no one on a sidewalk, no waving while on a bike path, and of course no TT/tri-dorks; only fellow roadies… and stoked kids too I guess.
Here in the frigid north, in a typical ride, I might see anywhere from 3 to 6 riders, of all sorts, riding both on the travel lane and the sidewalk (where they exist).
I maintained my rules for the first few seasons, even though I saw so few people out riding it hardly mattered, but the few roadies I did see rarely waved back, and some even gave me bewildered looks.
I decided that as of this season, I don’t care. I’m making it a point to wave at everyone I see on a bike while I’m out riding, pretty much regardless. Roadies, grandma and grandpa taking a cruise around the hood, the weary commuter sporting a neon vest and multiple flashing lights, and yes, even the TT/tri dorks. The one caveat, still no bike paths. That could get ridiculous (look mom, no hands!)
So far, my experiment has yielded interesting results. About 1/3 of the people I wave to probably don’t even see it. Maybe they’re not looking, maybe they’re too busy trying not to fall into a pavement crevasse.
I guess I should say too, I’m not going to wave while cooking 40+ down a descent, nor when hammering into a corner, or any other situation where I’d rather have two hands on the flight deck.
Another 1/3 of riders waved to catch the wave and return it. Most rewarding, about half of this 1/3 (What’s that, a 1/6? Math was not a forte.) return the wave with a smile.
And then, there’s this other 1/3, that catches it, but doesn’t return it, with no obvious excuse.
Now, I desperately want to say they are all TT/tri-dorks who are hanging onto their bars desperately, less they have a mishap that leaves them like overturned potato bugs (LINK), but sadly, that’s not the case.
Of particular annoyance, I keep intersecting a small group ride of 3-4 guys that never returns the wave. Not a single rider. I’m pretty sure it’s the same crew. And, they all appear to be roadies.
So, the last time this happened, I decided it would be just that, the last. I seem to see them at about the same spot on one of my usual loops, so clearly they are riding a pattern too, and I doubt it’ll be all that long before we cross paths again. Next time I roll by though, if at least one of them can’t figure out how to drop a wave, I’m hitting the brakes, whipping it around, and riding up abreast to the front of their pack (they’re not going that fast) and falling back through, saying hello to each and every one of them individually, asking how their ride’s are going.
If these guys can’t figure out how to have a basic form of communication with fellow riders, then god damned it if I won’t squeeze it awkwardly down their gullets from a soft plastic water bottle full of platicy-tasting “kind gesture GU” (fortified, with 30g caffeine).
This town, hell, this state, is too small for anyone to have an Arione up their a$$.
We on two wheels are all just prey species; forage fish swimming in an ocean full of V8-equipped sharks.
The greater the sense of community that exists between us, the more we school up, the better we are in the long ride.
So, say hey.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Winter and Spring are fighting...and we are the children caught between. Sometimes life is tough and confusing, sometimes we get double birthdays.

6:30 am...out front. It continued to accumulate.
Anchorage awoke to the first Saturday of May with snow falling all the way down to sea level, and accumulating somewhere around the 500 FSL mark on up. I imagine more than a few people added more than cream or sugar to their coffee at the sight.
A rally north lead me to Lizzy's at the base of Hatcher, and not long after we were into the storm to investigate.
We found a white out, and even starting out low at the Government lot, we were accosted by furious flakes.
We realized quickly that we would not be going very high, but the alder land would at least let us approach the base of some of the surrounding peaks.

Just above treeline, entering the 4068 bowl.
Snow that had fallen cold upon Hatcher mid-week was now being condensed under the 20 some-odd inches of heavy and wet that would eventually accumulate, making for a very talkative snow pack indeed.
While we stayed well away from the unseen slopes of Frostbite and 4068, we heard frequent rumblings from across the street. One notable slide ran for two minutes, and sounded like a cascade of wet, card borad refrigerator boxes tumbling down a hill.

We skied the whale snot down low for a couple runs, and hoped we would get a break the next day.

Sunday dawned clear, and we headed back to Frostbite and 4068 area to see how the new snow had settled.
Slides had gone on almost every aspect, though their nature varied. On southerly sun-impacted faces the fresh snow went wide and went far. On northerly faces the slides seemed to struggle to rally support. It didn't matter though, the snow was deep, and heavy. Even a narrow, 20' x 100' slide down a gully piled up enough rubble to bury a car, and with the accumulated water weight, probably crush it too. While the sun shown overhead, clear skies had failed to materialize overnight and suck the fresh snow dry of its water, so we found a rather wet and warm snow pack.
A whoompf not too far above treeline in the flats got our attention. A 5-minute pit suggested the new snow still wasn't getting along with the older drier snow, and just below the old snow was a firm melt/wind crust.
We kept our angle moderate on the shoulder of Frostbite.

Lap 2.
 Lap 2 and the clouds returned. The light went flatish, the snow was so-so, so we called it a day.

I got sworn at, a lot. Spring attire in AK.
But being the children in these seasonal feuds can be sweet too. By Wednesday, spring was sprunging, and temps climbed into the mid to high 50s across the LA bowl. Out of the office mee-lee and into the nearby wilds.

North Suicide.

Ocean views.

The Ramp.
 Lap 1 yielded great corn in a long west-facing gully. Lap 2, and the snow started to get a bit of an attachment complex.
Then, I ran into Rachel.
"I could do another or go home," she said, having just skied a more northerly aspect.
I was having the same debate, but her tracks on the shoulder looked sweet, and called for more.
"Always another," I replied.
"Damn you."
But the light was perfect, and the ambient had set the shoulder up for great turns in inch-deep corn.
Damn you! But not really.
The 9'o'clock something exit promised to be horrid, but I forget, the beauty of the FR is that the wind hammers the snow all year, so when the sun and warmth finally arrive, the snow just softens, and rarely collapses. Going home was a breeze.

Job well done.