Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Of Moose and Men

When Outside visitors arrive in Anchorage by plane, I hope they’re seated on the right side of the aircraft. As the jetliners circle out over the Cook Inlet and make their final approach to Ted Stevens International, they’ll see out the windows a wild and expansive wilderness.

Sure, if said traveler flew in on a clear summer day, they might have seen glacier-capped peaks, and those unfortunate souls on the left side of the plane would have caught a glimpse of a forest that stretches north almost uninterrupted to the end of tree line in the Arctic; like, whatever.
The real Alaska is the 1,500 acres of lighted ski trails - replete with snowmaking, soccer fields, paved bike paths, narrow mountain bike trails, and a motocross park that is Kincaid Park.

Yes, this is the Last Frontier for hoards of people who call Alaska home. In fact, for a massive chunk of the people who call Alaska home, this is about as wild as things get. When you go to Kincaid, you might see a moose, or you might see a bear (black). You also might see skiers, bikers, runners, walkers, tourists, high schoolers, babies, the elderly, locals, tourists, and/or a hot dog vendor. It’s a city park - albeit a big one - like many others.

Why would you bother go see the “real Alaska,” you know, that one that people always talk about being “a 30-minute drive away” on one of the two deadly roads that connect Anchorage to the rest of the state?

I even hear there’s a really big state park on the city’s eastern border that has relatively poor access given it’s proximity to over a quarter-million people, making it possible to have an entire ridge, valley, or mountain tarn to oneself for marginal effort.

Forget it though! Just go to Kincaid!

Lately, if you’re lucky, you might see one of the park’s users and one of the park’s residents (a moose or a bear) get in a tussle. For the users, that means hoof prints in your forehead or elsewhere, and for the animal, it means a bullet in their aforementioned forehead.


I’m not trying to overly harsh on Kincaid.

The park is really nice, and I enjoy mountain biking, cross country skiing, and road biking there.

I’m fortunate to live very close to the Hillside ski trails and mountain bike trails, so those are typically my base of operations for the above-mentioned activities during the week, but Kincaid offers a change in scenery, different terrain type, snow making on its ski trails (yet to see this system really kick into gear, but it’s a possibility), and sometimes better weather than Hillside. Kincaid also helps to diffuse pressure from Hillside. The best thing that ever happened to the Hillside single track was Kincaid single track.

That being said, Kincaid is surrounded by ocean on two sides, and hemmed by urban development on the rest.

Part of that urban development includes one of the busiest cargo airports in the US.

The sound of roaring jumbo jet engines rumble through the hills and hollows at all hours, and the dimmer whine of cars and motor bike engines ricochet off the trees.
It’s common in the still of winter inversions for jet and auto exhaust to permeate throughout the low points along the trails, and air quality issues have caused some athletes respiratory issues.

On a warm summer day, the park is packed with all types of users. Riding through on the paved coastal trail, don’t expect to put the hammer down doing intervals. People will be out walking shoulder-to-shoulder across the paths; tourists on rented bikes, heads spinning in the wind will be gawking; runners; roller bladers; and roller skiers will help to round it all out.

Oh, and then there’s the wildlife.

Like many other park users, it’s rare that I go to Kincaid without seeing a moose or having to re-route around one, regardless of my activity.

Recent negative moose-human encounters (two moose were shot/killed this fall) there have raised the ire of a contingent of park users not happy about impingement on the wildlife and their habitat, as they see it.

Obviously, I’m not in this corner.

Bluntly, I don’t care if I see a moose in a city park.

Further, I think they are over-fed, over-tame, sometimes unnaturally over-sized – like a good deal of the city’s human residents one might add – and know of only two serious predators: the Chevy bear and the Ford bear.

The biggest moose I’ve seen in Alaska seem to live in the confines of Anchorage parks, not that I claim to be authoritative on anything moose. 

I don’t claim to be a moose hater either though. When I see a moose on a backcountry ski, hike, or mountain bike trip – in the said backcountry – I will probably stop, if I have a camera snap a photo, and admire it for its hardiness and tenacity to survive in a place I merely visit.

I get where some of the vocal folks who have put down on user development in the park as an impingement of the moose’s habitat are coming from.

The moose didn’t show up in Anchorage and call it home because they like the 4-lane highways, cookie-cutter suburban sprawl developments, and high concentration of people.

They were here first, and while their numbers have probably been somewhat helped thanks to passive protection from predators and increased production of forage (I’ve laughed heartily watching moose making carnage out of ornamental trees in front of strip malls), they didn’t ask for any of this and are helpless to control it.

I also think about the folks that have called this place home for more than a decade, or better yet, multiple, and don’t like what they have seen.

It’s no secret that Alaska’s, and especially Anchorage’s, population is transient. Many people don’t make it past two or three years here, let alone 10.

As someone who is generally adverse to change, I wonder what it will be like for me if I last another 5, 10, or 15 years here.

I think in the short-term, we are all pro-change/pro-development, but we don’t always appreciate how those little changes can stack up to big changes in the long run.

Recently, I was driving the completely re-done Trunk Road in Palmer. I drove this road once in its entirety before it was rebuilt. It was windy and narrow like all good country roads, and passed through a mosaic of woods and fields.

The new road is straight, fast, and wide, and I like it.
It’s an improvement. Sure the old road had more character, but this one shortens the drive, gets me to the mountains faster, feels overall safer, and has enough shoulder to appeal to my inner road biker.

But as I drove it one day this fall, passing through a fading green hay field, I watched a group of kids ride scooters on the paved path next to the road scooting by a yellow sign with a tractor on it.

The sight was not uncommon in my youth; a juxtaposition of the growth of housing developments into the domain of a struggling dairy industry.

I wondered, if in 10 years, I would be driving this road, parked at traffic light, surrounded by strip malls, and if some kids would be riding scooters next to the road there too.
Would I still think the project was great?

Change can be good, but it can lead to things we don’t like too.

I like the fast road, but I like the big, open fields next to it more.

I have no idea what the future holds for Trunk Road, I hope it’s not Dimond Boulevard, but if history is our teacher, I can make a sturdy guess.

To close the circle, I can see how that has played out for Kincaid.

The park is a very different place than it was 10, or 20 years ago, I’m positive.

In small increments, the addition of trails, trail lighting, parking, access, and new facilities has probably been welcomed by most.

More, because of the transience that prevails here, the base line of what was, is continually fleeting. This concept is common in fisheries biology. One generation’s perception of abundance of a depleting stock of fish will be different than the next generation’s concept of abundnce, as each generation’s baseline is lower than the former’s.

Here, the weight of long-term management and conservation of park lands becomes evident. That being said, the future of park management should come from the user groups.

Kincaid’s future has in many ways been decided by its past developments and its geography. Cornered by the sea and a growing city, its ability to serve as a wildlife sanctuary is questionable. Meanwhile, it has been developed to support high quality recreational facilities, be it skiing, biathalon, soccer, mountain biking, etc.

Scattered calls have been made to halt further, sanctioned, approved trail building and development in the park, despite incredible year-round popularity of the trails that have been built thus far (less than 10 miles at this point).
Halting development will not decrease use though.

So long as Anchorage’s population continues to grow, users of all types will continue to go to recreate at the park in increasing numbers.
Meanwhile, as this country’s waist line girth continues to grow proportionally, and our govnerment convulses into seizures over providing healthcare, it is bewildering to me that anyone would not want to see an increase in the development of opportunities for people to get outside and partake in some form of healthy exercise.

How many miles of trails the park can sustain is a good question, but limiting the miles that exist in the hopes of reducing human-moose encounters in Kincaid, will effectively spread those encounters out over a wider area, i.e., outside of Kincaid, while increasing the pressure on the already existing facilities and trails.

If users begin to feel that the trails at Kincaid are too crowded with people, or moose for that matter, they will seek out their experiences elsewhere, or demand an expansion of those opportunities into territories yonder.

When I look at the vastness of this state, and on the whole how little of it is developed, traipsed upon, or generally recreated on, I think, “It’s not so bad.”

When I think about Anchorage’s rolls of fat spilling outside its metaphorical belt into the Valley or beyond though, with its massive appetite for land to consume giant parking lots and big box stores, I think: “Anchorage should do everything it can to contain itself.”

Among other things, that means further developing Anchorage for all that it’s worth. Build higher, build denser, build more efficient, etc. What that spells for Anchorage’s parks is more of the same. We are well endowed with some great parks, but they will need to be capable of handling more use, not less. Undoubtedly, the city’s wildlife will suffer. That’s unfortunate, but I’d rather see the wildlife in Anchorage take it on the nose than wildlife in points beyond.

It seems obvious to me, that for those of us who live here so that we may spend time in “the real Alaska,” but are employed in here Anchorage for five days a week, that is a simple solution to preserve what we really love.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November I Remember

November. It's that choking, wheezing, coughing fit, damn-it-I-knew-it-I-should-have-plugged-the-block-heater-in-last-night-please-start-you-goddamn-piece-of-junk-hunk; winter.

Sometimes it just seems to purr to life, but most the years I've lived up here, November has not been a glorious time, especially in her early part. Some years I think, snow up high, accessible on weekends, helps to soothe the pain of the oft hard and frozen but yet snow-less low-lands where we dwell.
Well, we got snow, up high, and a whole heap of it. In 24 hours Hatcher Pass saw a near record dump two weeks ago. Lizzy and I, along with an assortment of other idiots, tried to get the goods as they accumulated that sloppy Sunday. The road to Hatchers was a mess though, thick, doughy snow, heavy and wet on top of glop mixed with car raisinettes. I barely kept the Suby from turning into a raisin too, and we instead tried to ski from down low, but only the hardy (see Jack) managed to penetrate the impenetrable alders and climb into the whiteout.
Skiers and snow revelers rejoiced though. Good skiing would be had when the fresh blanket settled its tired bones and stopped sliding.
For those who skied the mid-week window, they were the lucky few. On Thursday came the warm, the wind, and the rain.
Hatchers was glossed with a 1/4 inch crust from parking lot to ridge line.
47.75 inches of blower pow, 0.25 inches of thin crust. Tragedy.

The snow fell in far more moderate portions over Anchorage, and Hillside picked up 7 inches, more than enough to put in some excellent skate skiing, and snow biking - did I fail to mention that I got one of those? Ya, I had a melt down about life goals, ski training, fun and enjoyment, yadda-yadda. More on that topic some other time.

Welcome sight. Near full moon and a snowy forest in Far North.

After the warm up, clear, cold, high pressure moved in.

No need for a head lamp night skiing at Independence Mine with Lizzy on Thursday night.

Dan and I investigated the rain crust near Independence on Friday. We made two laps and found OK turns on steep enough, sheltered terrain, but were unimpressed. It was good to get out. Wax-based classic skiing on Archangel Road was the winning ticket for the weekend. Swix V05 Polar is my favorite kick wax.

If dogs could talk, Lana would tell Dan: "Told you so." Despite there being more or less 4 feet of snow, she did not like this stream crossing. Guess we know why. I helped by taking pics.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hikes and Huts

Fall: It's the time of year when I do two things I don't seem to do at any other point in the year, go hiking and stay in huts

Back in September, Rachel invited me to go hike Tikishla in the Anchorage Front Range with a crew of friends. Tikishla is a craggy, 5,230-foot FR summit that is part of a ridge line dividing North Campbell Creek and the Snow Hawk Valley. The smaller summits of Kanchee and Knoya, as well as the higher summit of Tanaina are part of the same ridge.
We had amazing weather for this hike: cold, clear fall morning lead to a warm day, and gorgeous alpine colors.


Spurr over Anchorage. Denali was out too, very clear to all but my camera..

Probably getting laser tagged.

Eagle River beyond the lonely Snow Hawk head waters.

After a stop for lunch on Knoya, headed to Tikishla, in the distance.

Tikishla's west summit from the higher east summit. Lots of Chugach crud scrambling and rock hopping.


Tanaina, and Koktoya peaking above just past.

On the way back, Tikishla's west face. A worthy ski.


Kanchee and Knoya.

The Dome.

Moon rise.

Two friends.

Sunset on a great day.
More recently, Lizzy and I and a big crew (a total of 8 people and 3 dogs, trekked into the Mint Hut at the head waters of the Little Susitna and stayed over at the Mountaineering Club of Alaska'a Mint Hut.
This is probably one of the most scenic huts in Alaska, and also one of MCA's most accessible. Perched in a small bowl near the Mint Glacier, the red and green hut over looks the granite peaks of the Talkeetnas and is back-dropped by a play ground of good skiing. When Jack, Kruse, and I did the Bomber Traverse we bypassed the cabin on our way to Penny Royal Glacier, but it's well worth a visit and a stay.
EDIT: This post has generated a lot of activity, likely because of its mention of Bomber Traverse and Mint Hut. It also generated a couple comments regarding membership to the Mountaineering Club of Alaska, the organization that built and maintains the Mint Hut and a number of others in the Talkeetnas and Northern Chugach. Membership to MCA cost $15 annually; compare this to the price of renting a National Forest cabin on the Kenai Peninsula at $45 a night. MCA memberships are available online here: LINK

Fresh snow on the way in.

Mostly cloudy, but we got a little break in the afternoon.

Turns out, it was winter up at the hut. A couple inches at the trail head translated to a freeze-thawed 2.5-foot base with a foot of blower on it at the hut, around 4,300 feet FSL. We didn't have to dig out the door too bad, but another good storm with really start to bury this thing.

Here's a close up of the Hut taken from Backdoor Pass, May Day 2011.

Same photo, not zoomed in.

Sorry Marta. Busy at breakfast time.

We slept cozily with 7 people and one little dog in the loft, and one person and two dogs downstairs. EDIT: Plus one inflatable goat...what?

Snow flakes falling gently before leaving. Back Door Pass is to the left.

Half buried.

Steep morning commute.

Rest of the crew coming down.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Adventures in Ventura County

Southcentral Alaska has had a record-setting September...as in, it's November and it's still going.
The oft wet and mild month continued its march right through October, and may very well butt into November.

Something happened to me during our exceptionally pleasant summer. I remembered that, I like summer. I like dry trails. I like not (constantly) checking analyzing the weather. I even like the heat (BLASPHEMY!).
I got used to it.
So as summer turned into fall, and it became harder and harder to get my fix on two-wheels, the transition was harder than it has ever been before.
After a soggy and muddy Labor Day weekend ride on the Kenai with Adam, I decided to work the actual holiday and combine it with a flex day the following weekend and skip town.
Initially, Whitehorse seemed like a good place to head, and I think next year there's a good chance that's where I'll be for the fall holiday (the last three falls have been drenchers here in Southcentral...I got the message).
Of course, given my lack of planning and the fact that it wasn't a holiday, I couldn't rally any company for the long weekend, so it looked to be a solo mission.
Simultaneously, my mom and Steve were most the way through a cross-country drive from Vermont to Oxnard, Ca to my mom's new house in sunny SoCal.
When I looked at airfare to LAX, it turned out the travel time by jet across the continent was slightly less than the drive to Whitehorse, and the trip costs comparable.
I got my plane tickets.

I had actually already planned to visit my mom in her new digs twice this autumn/early-winter, the September sanity-saving trip was a bonus.

The lemon tree in my mom's backyard, under an avocado tree, next to a pear tree.

Eating carne asada Japanese style...on the floor.
 My mom's new home is pretty awesome. Near the coast, it's cool and breezy, despite the sometimes warm temps found farther inland. Located on a mostly quiet street, the house is full of big sky lights and her small back yard features fruit and avocado trees. I arrived only a few days after she did on my first visit, and her furniture was still a couple weeks behind her, so meals were served Japanese style, and step stools and lawn chairs were utilized for seating.
Another huge perk, she lives maybe a 25 minute drive from the Sycamore Canyon trail head in Point Mugu State Park.
Narva and I rode here when I visited him in 2009, so I had a brief recollection of the trails as it was.

The trail head for Sycamore is on the beach.

The area burned last spring.

Triple digit temperatures 1,000 feet above sea level.
This signe would be more helpful at the bottom, not the top.

The first ride was a butt-kicker. The heat, and a wrong turn up the aptly named Hell Hill left me shivering on a ridge line in triple-digit temperatures. That means I'm hypothermic, right?
I used the rest of the day to ride mellow and acclimate.

Secret entry to a secret trail...shhhhhh.

Paved ranch/fire road.
Top of the Guadalasca Trail, a fun windy climb.
After trial by heat stroke I dialed in the trails, and put together a really fun set of loops the following day.


Recreating THIS
Also a big perk of going down to SoCal, is getting to hang out and ride with Narva.

I made my second visit in late October. Temps were much cooler, and peaked in maybe the low to mid-seventies in most places I was riding.

Mom got her furniture for trip 2.

The house looked great, and it was nice to sit on a real chair, not step ladder!

I moved the Trance down to Ca in a form of semi-retirement in September. The Trance now has a spot in the garage.

The "kid's" room.

Even though temps were a bit more moderate, I learned my lesson, and started my trip with a break-in ride, before diving in.
Riding in SoCal twisted my brain a little bit. First, it doesn't take much to find trails more technical than what I ride here in AK, so finding trails where there is one line, and you take it or don't make it is welcome. Still, I always argue that here in the north, we win on the epic, scenic, and remoteness factor.
I think that's still mostly true, but the riding I did on trip 2 really gave AK riding a run.
On day two I stitched together a 40-mile ride that sported some 5,000+ feet of climbing, starting from the Sycamore Canyon trail head to the Los Robles Trail in Thousand Oaks, bringing in various loops on the two trail systems.

Long climb out of Sycamore.

Los Robles Trails is a favorite for area riders, and it was easy to figure out why: lots of switch backs, good flow, and plenty of technical sections.

I will take bears and cowparnip over any and all of these things.

But mostly cats. Seriously? In LA?

View from Rosewood Trail of Thousand Oaks.

Perfect way to end a great day.
Day 3, I headed to Ojai to do a ride with Narva on Nordhoff Ridge and the Gridley Trail.

Climbing the ridge.

Narva ripped the long descent down Gridley, but got a little into this corner.

A good friend would have helped, but a good friend made sure we got some pics.
In the 20-some odd mile point-to-point ride, we saw maybe a combined half-dozen people within a mile of each trail head, and only three other people (riders) beyond that. From one side of the ridge we had pleasant views into the Ojai Valley, and to the other, the rugged Los Padres National Forest.
Gridley Trail was a gem, a hugely long descent with some sketchy sections and drop dead gorgeous views.

Another recreation of THIS and this.

Great resource if you're mountain biking in the area: http://venturacountytrails.org/TrailMaps/MapsHome.html