Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Smoke From a (Not so) Distant Fire

The big news of the week, and the Memorial Day holiday weekend, at least for Southcentral AK, was the explosive growth of the Funny River Horse Trail Fire in the heart of the Central Peninsula.

When the fire started Monday night, I assumed the initial reports in size were a series of typos and blunders by an Anchorage news media that is notoriously inept at locating and reporting on incidents anywhere outside the Anchorage Bowl, especially when there are simultaneous events occurring. What started as a reported 2 acres brush fire, turned to 40, 400, and 4,000 acres almost overnight.

Photo: Nat Herz
Despite some rains and improved control, I would not be surprised if this fire claims up to 200,000 acres by the time it finally sputters.
Tuesday evening, riding on the Anchorage Hillside, was a bit surreal, as the volcano-like plumes from the Tyonek and Funny River fire were both visible.
Photo: KBBI
The next morning, Anchorage awoke to drifting smoke. And so began the “as usual” woe is us of Anchor-ranters for a crisis that has far greater consequences to communities many miles away.
The smoke trapped by the morning inversion was definitely spooky, especially on Hillside, where it drifted thick enough to trick people, myself included, into thinking flames might be burning nearby.
By mid-morning, the smoke was mostly gone, but the alarmists were all abuzz: “stay indoors,” “don’t over-exert,” “it hurts my nose and makes my eyes scratchy.”
For folks with pre-existing respiratory problems, I’m sure the smoke was only making life worse, but this spring, Anchorage has posted pollen counts higher than any where else in the U.S., something the area is not known for. At best, the smoke seemed to reduce visibility and flavor the air with the scent of a campfire.
Step outside at noon, and most these symptoms were gone, but trapped in the re-circ of indoor ventilation, it was annoying, I’ll agree.

It really irked me though. Here, Anchorage is whining because of some smoke, meanwhile, people in the Cen-Pen were getting rained down on by ash, could feel the heat of the 200-foot high flames, and were waiting for the call to abandon their homes…homes I might add, that most could lay claim to having built with their own hard-earned sweat equity.

Anyhow, rant over.

The fire is changing so fast, that there is no point in trying to post any info here as it will likely be irrelevant, but more on the scope, scale, and updates are here:

Riding on the Eastern Kenai was comparatively smoke free, and the trails continue to be a month ahead of schedule.
Chuck and I rode the Johnson Pass Trail out-and-back from Braun’s cabin Saturday morning.
Braun was up north, and generously let us use the cabin as a base of operations for the weekend.

Thanks Braun, we missed you!
We missed Adam at the TH due to a communication failure, and were probably 15 minutes behind him most of the way north.
Near the Pass, we ran into Mike, Jessie, Aaron, and Steve, and I tossed them my keys so they could use my car to retrieve theirs.
Chuck and I hit Adam headed southbound a mile or so from the northern TH, and Adam doubled back to the lot with us, joining for the rest of the day.
A short break at the lot, and we were back on the trail.
The south side of the pass was amazing. No veg thanks both to brush work completed by trail crews last year, and the aforementioned dry conditions.
The north side also saw some great trail work last year, and while everything was ridable, another week will get this section of trail into top form. A few soggy spots made the going a bit tougher.
All in all, if last year I was in love with Russian, this year, that love is bestowed on Johnson. The trail is just so damn fun, and so different in its two halves. The views from the high country are incredible, and the mountains rise so steeply on both sides, that sometimes I imagine the high valley may share more in resemblances with Norway than Alaska.
How would I know though.
Aside from having a pretty decent pace, and feeling much better than I did last week, I think the highlight was chasing a rolly-poly black bear down the south side of the Pass. The healthy looking bruin ran for a long ways about 50 yards on front of us as we descended. I was surprised how long he took before finally banking left and climbing the steep, forested slope above.
It was a real treat.

Sunday, my legs reminded me that while the Johnson out-and-back is fulfilling, it is also draining, and I was feeling pretty stiff.
Mike, Aaron, Steve and I set up a shuttle to ride Russian top to bottom.
A mile or two in, Steve sunk his 2.5” front tire nearly hub deep into a crack between planks on a bridge. This is the second time I’ve seen this on this trail, though at a different bridge. Despite a banged shin from the resulting high-speed endo, he rode on. We shoved some tall cow parsnip stalks into the crack in the hope that future riders might be steered away from the slot.

Aaron near Echo Pond.
Russian was almost completely mud free at this point, and though last June I felt the trail was in the best shape I had ever seen, I would restate that for this year. In sections, we were actually kicking up small clouds of dust. The trade off, is that except for the occasional, stunted lupine, the trail is relatively drab in wildflower coloration so far. Then again, it’s still early, and that could change as rain has begun to fall.

Speedy Steve.
After a mid-way stop at the Upper Lake, we headed onward, only to be greeted by the sight of an apocalyptic cloud on the northern horizon.
While blue sky was visible on all other sides, including in the direction of the fire, this high cloud of smoke was headed south toward us.
To the best that I can figure, the smoke had drifted north from its origin, and then circled back down south through the Resurrection Pass corridor.

End times cloud. Well, not really.
A few miles later we rode under the eerie orange glow of sun shining through smoke.
The cloud must have been high enough to have lost most its acrid potency, because it only smelled faintly, and despite some very light ash falling, it was not irritating us as we rode along.

Aaron rides through a thin veil of smoke and an orange glow.
Monday dawned with low clouds replacing the smoke of the evening prior, but cool, breezy blue sky prevailed soon enough.
I was split between doing the Russian Loop or heading into Johnson. The Loop seemed to have lost some appeal after the prior day’s smoke show and possible threat of a repeat, and was also somewhat committing; the south side of Johnson was addicting, and offered options.
I headed from the cabin to Johnson Pass.
The call was the right one. After a reasonably speedy climb to the Pass, my legs told me that I could go all the way to the north end again, but after contemplating the time, drive home, and the opinions of other parts of my body, I told my legs they could just try a little harder on the return and give the rest of my body a break.
Also the right call.
Johnson Lake Lunch Spot.
I hit the descent harder than I think I ever have, testing the Solo’s limits by launching a few features with more speed than usual and enjoying at least one moment of suspended animation.
It’s a fun bike, and it rewards the rider for going fast and riding well on descents. It’s not harsh, but it is certainly less tolerant of laziness when the trail heads down or speed increases. It climbs well enough too now that it has lost some weight and picked up lighter shoes and better gears. It clearly prefers to climb in a more relaxed, upright position, at an easy-going pace, but it at least pretends to try when I put the hammer down. With a little better control of the Pro-Pedal via a flip-lock, it might actually do OK.
Getting this bike dialed still feels a bit like 2 steps forward 1 back. Every ride has revealed more that I like about the bike, but also lent itself to more issues.
Basically, now that I have shed some weight and rolling resistance, I’m still trying to get the gearing right.
I thought I had it by installing a 24x38 XT double crank. Unfortunately, the 24T low gear is too low for the Solo’s rear axle/bottom bracket angle, and the chain will rub on the bottom of the derailleur. There are no adapters available. I remedied this by installing a triple front derail and setting the limiter screws for the two gears. This worked 80-90%, but it just felt too rigged. I couldn’t be sure it would shift. Basically, if I was too low in the cassette it wasn’t going to make it up a ring on the front, and likewise, if I was too high, it might not drop. While these situations aren’t that common, there are spots on trails where you can anticipate a sudden acceleration, and pull the front gear up in advance; likewise, for the occasional need to drop gears in a hurry. In these situations, I had to tediously work through the cassette to get to the right place or risk not making the shift. Meanwhile, I occasionally dropped the chain from the 38T to the 24 when the trail got bumpy. I’ve since just accepted defeat on the double up front, and gone with a weightier triple that has a more reliable shift. The added gear range is OK given the bike’s purpose, and I will get more use out of a 32T middle ring than a 38, and more speed for road connections out of the 42T big ring, but the double combo was potentially successful and far simpler. If Shimano developed a more adaptable double front shifter, I would probably go for this.
Is it next weekend yet?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gull Rock Trail, Russian Lakes, and Camping in Hope

A year ago this weekend we were living the Fantasy (LINK) skiing mid-winter quality powder on mid-May.
This spring feels like a fantasy too, and a check of the weather, and photos posted by friends back east, reveals that its nicer, and farther along, here, than it is for them.
A somewhat impromptu group ride set off from the end of the road in Hope early on Friday afternoon, to the end of the Gull Rock Trail.
I’ve always ignored the GR trail, as the few reviews I’ve read made it sound both short (less than 5 miles), and too bumpy, rooty, washed out or over grown to make for a worthy ride.
I envisioned a short, sea-level hiking trail with a steep shoreline, swampy low spots, and steep rooty, rocky, washed out climbs through the drainage gulches…plus lots of grown in vegetation. A good hike with a few descent sections of riding, but plenty of pushing.
While I’m told the trail does get grown in as the season progresses, that may be one of the only similarities it shares with other Kenai singletracks.
Basically, for me, I would trade about half of the riding we have on the Kenai (bye bye Res), for another 15 miles of trail like GR.
It’s no secret, the riding here on the Kenai is 95% fast and smooth. Technical skill is rarely required, and even when a technical obstacle is encountered, the trail before and after it is typically free and clear.
GR on the other hand, is a roller coaster of rock gardens and root wads, regularly clustered tightly and demanding Nintendo combo moves for successful passage; off camber trail, steep pitches, and long gradual high speed grades; scree, thick forest, and head-high vegetation round it out.
I don’t think there were any lines in the 5.8 miles I clocked from the trail head to the final overlook that weren’t ridable, but dabbing is just about guaranteed even for a skilled rider.
It was entertaining: many of us, myself included, thought this would be so short and easy of a ride, that we would head up the road afterward and ride some of Resurrection just to pack on a few more miles.
That was hardly needed.
The trail is just as fun and challenging on the way back.
There was one other similarity this trail shares with its neighbors: its views. Everytime you look up, you have to remember, what you’re looking at is someone’s dream vacation.
The Solo poses for another photo shoot. It lost a few pounds after this weekend, so that was good.

Mike and Kerry take in the views at the end of the trail.

Jeremy, Dave, Jessie, and Liz looking out toward Anchorage.

On the way back, Dave showed how much he can drive the power to the pedals, and exploded the carbon spider on his crank!

Dave got the hero award, and ran back. I would have walked.
 A group of us camped out at a choice spot near Hope on the Arm. It was hard going to bed, and waking up and eating breakfast with these views.

Camp d├ęcor.


Saturday I met up with Braun, and we rode out to Upper Russian Lake and back. The trail didn’t have a lot of room to improve from the previous weekend, but the few wet spots there were, were still drier yet, and the vegetation showed little signs of growth. It may be another bland year on the wildflower front, but at least the cow parsnip isn’t enjoying our spring.

Hot trails and cool wheels.

Sunday, I had the hardest ride I’ve had in way too long. I spent the day chasing Adam and Chuck, doing the Russian out-and-back, riding from Cooper Landing to the Snug Harbor trail head and back.
No photos were taken on this ride; I was too busy trying to hang on most of the day while they chatted easily about aquariums, diving, and tropical vacations. All I could think about was how much I was craving salt, a cool swim, and eating fish. Thanks fellas.
To justify my struggles, I’d like to borrow a recently-learned term: “excusematics.” I’m not sure if I’m spelling this correctly, but basically, excusematics is the use of advanced calculus, statistics, any and all forces such as physics, chemistry, biology, and anything else you can pull from a textbook and your a$$, that will help to show why you as a rider were underperforming or not keeping up with partners for any possible reason, except for your own inability.
One can include things like headwinds, tacky trails, and of course, a piece of equipment.
Right now, I’m laying the blame heavily on the latter (of course, I’m not mentioning that I’m the one who made this purchase, as excusematcis allows me to exclude that from the equations as well.)

The Solo came heavy, with a set of weighty tires more ideal for downhilling, and a hefty dropper post I can’t seem to find a use for. It also came hard, with an XTR double on the crank that sported a 28 tooth ring as the lowest gear, and a standard 36T cassette in the rear. On a lighter bike this gearing might not feel so harsh, but on a 31 lbs 5 inch travel rig, it’s been a bit much.
Though this bike is intentionally overbuilt, hopefully some recent mods will begin to address these issues.

Is it next weekend yet?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Early Spring Riding

I guess if there's one upshot to a snowless and warm winter, it's a really quick transition to spring.
Road riding has been down right pleasant this spring, and we all knew it was just a matter of time before the Kenai single track came into play.
Jenny has been putting the rubber to the mountain in Cooper Landing this spring, and providing excellent trail reports the past few weeks. She tipped us off two weekends ago that Lower Russian was just about there, so Adam and I hit it last Sunday.
We launched from Cooper Landing, and rode to the Res river Trail Junction. I would describe the lower 10 miles as good, and the 5 to the Jct as great. I would have said the same thing if it was June 11 too, let alone May 11. I had to keep pinching myself.
While we never expect to make it past the Jct on the first trip, and thus planned to turn around there, the riding was so good we decided to inch a bit further. We quickly remembered why as the trail entered the long hemlock hollow climb where we found thick ice and mud. The upper most 5 miles will likely be best not this weekend, but the following. That will still be a good week earlier than any year since I moved here.
Otherwise, there were but a few soft spots on the usual places, although I was surprised that some of the consistently wet areas were in much better shape than expected. Bugs were minimal, weeds had not even sprouted, and there were only a few down trees, all but one of which could have been cleared with a handsaw, though not the skimpy arms of two bikers.
We only saw backpackers (2 headed out, 2 headed in), one other biker near the start, and Jenny. Lots of big wolf scat too, but not much bear sign.

At the Jct I noticed this old tackle box, reel, and can of bug spray. There is also a can of some kind of food barely in the frame. I've ridden by here dozens of times, often stopping for a moment to enjoy the view, and never seen this! I don't know if its always been there but buried, or if some one set it up. It looks really cool though.

I can't wait to see this view again, and again, and again...

This was the Solo's first trip out. It's on a weight loss plan.

Jenny left cold ones at the TH. Can't beat that!