Friday, June 28, 2013

Kenai Spring Classics

Russian Lakes Trail and Johnson Pass Trail, the Kenai Spring classics, are in peak form: dry, hardly encumbered by vegetation, and pretty as all get out.

Adam and I hit Johnson Pass as a 46-mile out-and-back, starting from Moose Pass on Saturday. Lots of other people were on the trail as well. Bikers easily outnumbered hikers by an incredible margin, and I probably saw more bikers than I have ever seen out in a day on any of the Kenai epics, including Res.

The enthusiasm is awesome to see.

I made it to the Johnson TH a bit on the early side, and sat tight to witness a conglomerate crew that consisted of portions of the Wasilla-Fishhook Gang, the Wednesday Night Bangers Ride, and the Trail Tramps, intermingled in one group, headed north, up the trail from Moose Pass.

The jabs flew like a pack of cats and dogs, penned up in an alley; the bar was set, Adam and I would have to catch the hodge-podge posse or we would be ridiculed (even more).

But Adam and I didn’t hit the trail until nearly a half hour later, and I knew the flack was growing every mile they progressed. I figured, as long as we caught them before they hit the high point, we would save (some) face.

We took off, and and pace kicked up to a level where conversation was sustainable on all but the steepest of climbs.

The south end of Johnson is a classic XC ride, with lots of up-and-down to keep the heart rate pumping for the climbs, and adrenaline flowing for the descents.

The uninterrupted climb to tree line was punctuated by one, sizable, downed pile of trees, but was otherwise good to go, though a sweat fest for sure.

Above tree line, a mild north wind whisked away the accumulated sweat from our brows, and we powered onward, before finally catching up with the crew a bit south of Johnson Lake.

Herbaceous veg was stupendously low, ranging from pedal to maybe top tube high, and the trail was for the most part firm and dry, with only the occasional wet spot. Woody veg is getting a bit out of control and abrasive though. Rumor is, the Feds will be in here to take care of this this year though. The Pass itself is in desperate need of some hungry moose, or some pruning. The south end of the trail, which saw brush cutting only 3 years ago, has grown back surprisingly fast as well.

We picked up Braun from the crew, who was also planning to ride through and back, and carried on at a slightly more moderate pace, now that the heckling session was over mitigated.

One only needs to ride a few feet past the marker at the Pass before you realize that the north and south ends of Johnson Pass are two totally different animals.

Though our general elevation track was downward trending, the average pace failed to tick up very much as we negotiated piles of boulders that promised to sheer off derailleurs or split sidewalls if the wrong line was chosen.

On a notoriously washed out, rocky hill that reminds me of some of the logging roads I grew up riding, Adam took a nasty header over a log water bar.

I missed seeing the impact, but at the base of the hill, he told me he hurt his wrist on the fall.

I could see he was a little shaken from the spill, in the usual sense one is, and had a bit of a wild-eyed look.

Me: “Is it broken?”

Adam: “No, I don’t think so.”

Me: “Do a 360 with it”

Adam: (Goes to spin wrist in question): “Oh, that’s what hurts.”

Taking stock of the condition of his hands, Adam realized that his other hand (not the sore wrist), while maybe not catching the brunt of the fall, had found a sharp rock, and had a nice split on the palm that was readily relieving itself of blood.

The wrist was OK to ride on, but sore.

Adam declined pain meds or a chance to let me play trail doctor with my $10 med kit; I can’t imagine why.

We carried on to the north trail head without further incident.

Two large snow fields covered the trail near Turngagin Pass. No surprise there, and I was surprised, as I always am, by how long it takes to descend that north section.

The upshot of that, is that while I always think the return climb will take forever, such is not the case.

We took a break at the trail head lot, though Braun, who had slipped behind on the descent, whipped it around in a hurry, eager to set a new PR.

Kellie, Phil, Natalie and a friend rolled in just as were about to hit the trail, and I offered to let them use my car at the opposite end so they could do a point to point as a group, so long as we met up later in Moose Pass.

Adam and I headed back south, sweating a bit more with the wind at our backs, but relieved that high clouds had moved in to keep temps cool.

I guess we weren’t sweating as much as some of the bike packers, who were wheeling their heavy loads up the trail. We were impressed however, when a denim-clad, pony-tailed backpacker/angler we had seen smoking a cig like Joe Cool of the Kenai Backcountry, was walking briskly down the trail a good 5 miles from where we had last seen him. The menthols certainly weren’t holding him back.

The descent down the south side was a tear as always. I noticed in at least one corner a”signature” that I knew was left by Cody, and left at least one of my own when the duff went soft.

As we entered the hilly section approaching Trail Lake, I felt our pace winding down.

I was not liking this, and my legs were feeling refreshed.

With maybe 2 miles to go, I hammered into the base of short, a steep climb.

I didn’t stop.

I felt bad that I didn’t forewarn Adam, but I also wasn’t sure my legs were going to still want to go at the top of the climb.

“We’re good,” they reported as we crested into a short descent.

I really liked how we had ended the last 5 miles of Russian a week before with a blitz chase, even though on that ride, my legs didn’t have the juice to sustain the effort, so I went for it, knowing Adam was going to not only catch on, but probably try and catch up.

Somehow I fended him off, though I mostly credit my sly sleazy maneuver, the rocky climbs in the last half mile to the car that favor my bike, and probably mercy from Adam.

I rejoined the big crew at Sharon’s cabin, and we rolled to the Moose Pass Solstice Party. The food, beverages, music and peeps all received high marks, and I even got my car back.

I did not eat enough though, and Saturday’s effort pushed me more than I realized. I dreamt at one point that night, of eating pine chips. They were delicious.

Sunday’s ride broke some records on a different front. Fourteen (yes, 14) riders gathered in the Res Pass Cooper Landing lot for a shuttled, point-to-point ride “down” the Russian Lakes Trail.

This was easily the most people I have ever done a group mountain bike ride with that was actually cohesive.

In general, group mountain bike rides are a bad idea. I’ve seen mountain bike spins with only four dudes go straight down the tubes when all four managed some kind of mechanical in a mosquito-infested backwater of a trail.

This ride certainly had its share of mechanicals, but the fact that 13 of the 14 riders made it to the end, and all riders made it out, intact, with no one having to take a hike or having a meltdown, was maybe a miracle?

Or maybe it was just that the group consisted of competent backcountry travelers, who, though they may not have all possessed the same fitness on a bike, were all perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and each other.

We didn’t actually know we would have 14 riders from the outset, so the start of the ride consisted of some standing around in the Res Pass Lot doing some car to bike accounting. We made the choice to be incredibly un-American, and stuffed two pickups with 14 bikes and humans.

Photo courtesy of L.P.
We all enjoyed a snug drive up Snug Harbor Rd, albeit, a bit dusty, unloaded, and after agreeing that the entire group would string out, but regroup at Upper Russian Lake – apx halfway – set off.

Not quite though.

I did not want to be anywhere near the front of this group, out of fear that agro-Dante would come out and decide it was actually a race, not a group ride.

So I went for a little pedal by myself down Snug Harbor Road and let about a 5-minute gap build before I too headed down the trail.

Unfortuantely, it was not long before I found Mike K and Jessie tending to a leaking front tire on Jessie’s bike. We shot some air into the tubeless tire and carried on, but maybe a half-mile later it was squishy again. The tubeless tire appeared to have a leak at some unknown location, and required a total of five (5) hands and three (3) tire levers to pry the tire off and re-seat it, tube in place. The sixth (6th) hand was used to swat the hungry mosquitoes from our three (3) backs.

The time spent working on the tire left a big gap between us and the rest of the crew, but spared us from a few other flats and a broken chain repair session.

The one casualty of the day was a blown sidewall on a rider whose name I’m not recalling, but the incident occurred within 5 miles of the Upper TH, so, after patching the hole as best as possible, he took one for the team and rode back up and out, driving one of the trucks back down.

Mike, Jessie and I didn’t see anyone else from the group until we neared the Upper Lake, and took a long lunch on the windy shores.

The ride out through the next 10 miles was perfect. The lupine was in bloom, and I slowly worked my way through the group, and Mike and I took off to finish up the last few miles well ahead of everyone so we could go retrieve his truck and still hang out after.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Creative Kredit

Look at the posts from the past few weeks.
Look at the posts from this same time period in years gone by.
Really, compare posts from similar time periods in different years.

There's a lot of similarity.
Sometimes it feels like I do the same things at the same time of year, every year.
The progression can almost seem monotonous.
But there's a reason for the repetition.
Alaska's challenging environment, and wide range of micro-climes means certain activities are good in certain places at certain times.
Try skiing from the road in doesn't happen without a lot of schwack; follow a trail to a glacier though, and powder bliss may await.

Mountain bike season is much the same.
The season starts in the low-low country, and gradually climbs up, above the ever-growing vegetation and into zones that were previously buried under snow.
As a result, there are certain places that we only really get to see for a short period each year.
Russian Lakes Trail is one of them.
This is one of my favorite places on the Kenai, and one of the main reasons I live here, yet, I can only ride it for a couple weeks a year.
So should I feel bad about riding the snot out of it - twice in a weekend for that matter - while I can?
No, I think I'm OK with feeling like I lack creativity.

Stopped at the Upper Lake on Saturday on a hot-paced out and back from Cooper Landing to the top of Snug Harbor Rd in some very hot weather.

Braun and Sharon climb through the heat on Snug Harbor Rd doing the loop on Sunday.

80+ degree temps make icy cold streams refreshing.

Veg is not taking off without rain. The upshot, the trail is easy to see. The down side, the wildflowers are few and far between so far this year.

Pastoral view of the Upper Lake.

Braun cools off in the Upper Lake.

Friday, Angelo and I beat the heat on the Kenai fishing kings.

Angelo had a hell of a fight with this guy. Hardly hooked, he ran like hell.

Catch and release only with no bait, this buck was a proud catch and an easy release.

A balanced breakfast at fish camp: fruit shake, frozen waffles.

Amy and Ashar returned from their trip on the AK Pen, making a brief stop in Anchorage.

Lots of sun has been great for the indoor garden this year.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Visitors and Visiting Favorite Places

Ashar and Amy came through town last week on their way to a pack rafting adventure down the Aniakchak, but had a few lay over days in Anchorage. With the clear, warm weather making itself comfortable, we took advantage of this and went for a morning hike up Wolverine.
Clear skies let us see Denali and the AK Range, a rare treat for this time of year.

Ashar crosses a snow field near the sky line ridge.

Amy on the summit.

Looking up the North Fork and Williwaw valley L-R.

Getting green.
It was awesome to have A&A in town, even if only for a few days, to get to show them around a little bit and show them at least some of the nearby fun things to do.

Sunday I headed south and met up with Adam at the southern Resurrection Trail Head for one of my favorite fun things to do this time of year. Russian Lakes Trail.
We planned to ride at least to the Resurection River Trail Junction, about 17 miles in from Cooper Landing, 15 from the trail's start, farther if possible.
We found the trail to the Res River Jct to be in awesome condition, firm, fast, and dry. Above that, and we began to encounter patches of thaw mud and snow. The thaw mud was hard to read, in some places, apparent wheel-eating pits were actually firm in some places, and deep muck in others. Eventually, about 2 miles from the upper trail head we called it, and took lunch on a bridge with a fast moving trib under it that kept the hungry bugs at bay.

Skilak Glacier in the distance.

Adam after one of the steep climbs.

There was still shore ice on the river we took a break over.

The upper section of the Russian Lakes Trail is one of my favorite places on the Kenai.

Note the ice on the pond.

Cooper Mountain: bad ass from all angles.
Doing the whole Russian out and back is a comparatively tough ride by Kenai standards, at about 46 miles round trip from the Resurrection Trail lot, it sports 3,000+ cumulative feet of climbing, and though the trip back "down" is faster than the trip up, there's plenty of pedaling, especially after 23 miles of getting bumped around. It's easily the hardest way to approach this trail, of the many options available, and worthy of a good early season ass kicking in prep for the many more to come.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Kenai, at Last

Spring has (and still sort of is) taking its sweet time, but I finally headed south last weekend for some activities that are generally more common for this time of year.

On the way down on Friday I stopped at the Johnson Pass northern trail head and hopped on the road bike for a 50-something mile ride to the town of Hope (Porcupine Campground at the end of the road actually) and back.
A paved bike path follows the Seward Highway from the Johnson Pass TH to the Hope Junction, and the twisty Hope Road has very light traffic and good pavement, making this an all around satisfying road ride.
The only down sides were the amounts of gravel covering the bike path in most sections and the fact that the first 45 minutes or so are spent riding down, meaning this ride ends with a climb, and on Friday, a stiff headwind too.
I got an iPhone last week. I'm an idiot. I was trying to take a picture while riding and snapped a selfy instead, but it came out as a good candid "WTF" shot.

Mt Alpenglow on the return trip.
I crashed at fish camp both Friday and Saturday. Joe was working furiously to deal with an endless to-do list, which is a bit on the long side this year thanks to the fall floods and deep frost. He was looking forward to a return of both the crew and some fish.

On Saturday morning I met up with Adam and we headed to the Resurrection Pass south trail head to launch a ride on the lower portion of the Russian Lakes Trail. The cold spring has left sections of trails that usually aren't muddy still covered in freeze-thaw mud, especially north-facing hills. We had to hike a few sections, but overall, the riding was better than we expected. We made it as planned to the Upper Lake, taking a break at the cabin, before turning back around. There were a few trees down in the usual areas, but we were actually able to move several ourselves (I will be writing the IRS for my tax credit after I post this).

A few miles shy of the Upper Lake we scared this chubby black bear. He initially sprung onto the cotton wood right of the bridge, but after clinging for a few seconds eyeing us, he opted to bolt.

Only to hug this tree a little ways over. We were dying laughing at him, poor guy was scared to death.

Upper Lake Cabin.

Still looks like winter back there.

Sunday was a work day at camp, helping Joe out on some projects.
Interspersed with some fish slime and blood. Looking forward to some more.