Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Digging for Treasure: A Brief Obsession with the Past

Alaska is a land of people who seem to be perpetually on the move. They come from somewhere else, pass through, view the country through their respective lenses, and often, in time, move on.

Alaska has also been a magnet of sorts for those in search of riches – sometimes monetary, sometimes perhaps more tangential.

More people have, and will continue to come in search of those riches, before moving on, for richer or poorer, in a cycle that seems endless.

It’s easy to lose sight of civilization, or its existence, in the mountains of Southcentral Alaska. It’s also just as easy to quickly be reminded that despite the ease with which quiet and solitude are found in seemingly empty valleys and ridgelines, these places have not always been so quiet, nor empty.

That’s Alaska in general though: no collective memory.

The historical record just doesn’t go that far back. Oral traditions tell tales through the millennia, but the written record only made thin forays beyond the Alaskan coast a couple hundred years ago, and more extensive history-keeping only began within the past century and a half.

This winter, for whatever reason, my appetite for hyper-local history of the eastern Kenai spiked.

During my first winters here, I read Alaskana lit voraciously. The books were broad, they covered the state, from the Aleutians to Eagle, from recent history to that of the first peoples who trekked here across a now-submerged land bridge from Asia.

This winter, I found myself specifically interested in the men and women who lived, worked, and died in the mountains I spend much of my time in on the Eastern Kenai during the turn of the last century.

I wasn’t completely unaware of this region’s history, or the names and places. There was a story here and there from something I’d heard or read, but I wanted more.

Luckily, Title Wave Books in Spenard keeps an entire Alaska mining history sub-section, and I snapped up what I could find on the area.

It’s not so much that I was curious about mining, and it was far from it that I was interested in broader Alaska history; I just wanted to read about people, in places I knew, with specific references to valleys, tarns, streams, ridges, and forests that I could still see, or at least imagine.

I got it.

By far, the best and most comprehensive account of mining history on the Kenai comes Mary Barry’s book, “A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula.”

What I liked about this work, was its unromantic, second source format. Barry used records, and first person accounts, but generally refrained from editorializing, except for occasionally pointing out potential gaps or exaggerations of stories.

At times, the book is almost tedious, with year-by-year accounts of each mine’s activities.

At the same time, it’s a relief to step away from the constantly overhyped, overly weapy, obsession with Alaska and its grandeur.

Indeed, Alaska is a beautiful place, but how many ways can you call the sky blue?

There were parts to reading this history that were heartening, but also disheartening, for sure.

I loved when I could pin point a gulch, a valley, a lake: to know for sure, that the early pioneers saw the same thing I saw; to know how different it must have looked and felt to them; to only have rough trails connecting small outposts; to be made to feel alone by their surroundings, and yet to see the area grow.

At the same time, after three crushingly warm winters in Alaska, it stung to read of deep and persistent snow packs, of heavy ice, and of cold, without the typical hyperbole that frequently intrudes Outside Alaskana writing.

Pick up any magazine story, or the diarrhea description of one of the countless shallow and vain “reality” shows on modern Alaska, and one expects a land possibly as harsh or worse than what some faced over a century ago. It’s a lie, and anyone wearing shorts-sleeves on a hike in March can tell you that.

If you want evidence that Alaska’s landscape is changing, it’s certainly everywhere: visit one of the state’s accessible glaciers and look at the little markers showing the rate of glacial retreat, that’s understood, sure.

Maybe I knew, maybe I didn’t, but the snout of Skilak Glacier used to be visible on Skilak Lake?

Did Portage Lake ever freeze this past winter, or the last? Doubtful. Many know the story of the Portage Glacier retreating out of sight from the expensive National Forest visitor’s center that was built to take it in during the 1980s; when the first miners arrived to the region, there was no such thing as Portage Lake, or what there was, was a puddle.

In May of 1896, thousands of stampeders stomped about impatiently on the beaches of Kachemak Bay, waiting for the ice to clear from the otherwise choked Turnagain Arm. The vessels weren’t able to reach Sunrise or Hope until the end of May that year. There was ice in the Arm for all of about 4 weeks this past winter, quite similar the preceding two.

On the other hand, there were countless examples of places that haven’t changed. My favorite was a picture taken on the East Fork, perhaps in May, that showed Pete’s South in the distant background, with its same damn glide crack that shows up there every year.

I took away something about the people too.

At first, I was really disheartened to read the accounts of the early miners who arrived on the shores of the northern Kenai in the late 1800s.

Many were simply fools; mostly men who were either duped, or desperate enough, they gave up what savings they had or went into debt to trek north to a land they’d probably hardly heard of, for riches that were apparently plentiful.

You still see this today: the idea that Alaska’s treasures are both bountiful and easy for the taking.

Incredibly unbelievable stories about mountain streams filled with big golden nuggets waiting to be scooped up drove these men to a point of frenzy, buying up a season’s worth of expensive supplies and gear, storming ships and demanding passage north.

Upon arrival, most were greatly disappointed.

While we often think of the early pioneers as tough, resourceful, and enduring in the face of hardship, the reality was, a lot of those who came up in the first rushes of the late 1890s were anything but, and truthfully, had no business being in this wilderness.

They reminded me of that skier, flush with a brand new $1000+ backcountry ski set up, bright new goretex wear, but struggling like hell to make even a kick turn within sight of their car.

The blue bird, blower pow, the “AK velvet” so eagerly hyped and promised by the industry, does require a little work, and it doesn’t oft come easy. The truth is though, your average first timer AT skier, fresh out the doors of REI, is probably more prepared and motivated than some of those early miners were.

Many of the first stampeders sought passage back on the first boats for Seattle when they realized that riches were going to come the same way they did anywhere else: damn hard work and time.

As is well known, the people who fared best from the early days of the rush, were those who purveyed the goods, who sailed the ships, and who ran the mule trains and the lumber mills.

The miners who did strike it rich were often just lucky above all else.

My favorite case was that of A.W. “Jack” Morgan. In his memoires, Morgan explained how he was duped by a seemingly trustworthy doctor in Oregon who claimed to have traveled up the Susitna River to a rich claim. Morgan traveled to Alaska with a group including the doctor to their jumping off point in Tyonek. After three days, they hardly made it upstream of the mouth of the big sandy river before they realized their leader had never been to Alaska, there was no claim, and that they best part ways. Broke, Morgan bounced around Turnagain Arm a bit prospecting and working, before taking some work at a so far relatively unsuccessful mine on Lynx Creek. A turn of events lead Morgan to become a part owner, and the chief operator of the claim. He spent his first Alaskan winter at the mine, watching over his own and the adjacent claims, high in the mountains, hunting and trapping. Not long after Morgan took over, the mine hit its “paystreak” and Morgan cleaned up well. Morgan continued to live in Alaska for a number of years, before eventually returning south, but he seemed to be one of the few who came away richer in more than one sense of the word.

As I read deeper into the history of the region, I found, that, as time wore on, those who actually wanted to be in the area, were willing to stick it out, and like Morgan, found riches beyond the gold.
The Kenai was obviously not a great place to get rich. It quickly thinned those who were there to make a quick buck. Unbelievably, many of those same fools followed myth and rumor to the next rush. Those who stayed though, became the founders of the modern Kenai, establishing the communities of Hope, Sunrise, Seward, and Girdwood. The names of those men and women still stick to the sides of mounts or along seemingly forgotten claims and streams on USGS maps, or, for others, deep in obscure pages of history.



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

LV Ray Peak Northwest Face

April 2016 started with a wash out. A planned weeklong trip to Thompson Pass got nixed when some of the best skiing and stability in recent memory was nearly destroyed as freeze lines and rain climbed to heights one might expect in late May, let alone late March.
Reports started trickling in though: there was hope. A Seward crew ticked off some great lines on Andy Simmons and Sheep mountains in the Moose Pass area, and skiing above Seward was reported to be good as well.
In a copycat effort on Simmons, I drove beneath LV Ray early one morning last week, and wondered why I wasn’t headed up Carter Lake Trail instead of the hot and sweaty Ptarmigan Creek Trail I ended up getting rejected on?
A week later, Nathan, Trent, and Kyle were onboard for LV.
LeRoy Vincent Ray, better known simply as LV, established himself as a prominent Seward lawyer, mining investor, Senate president of the first Alaska Territorial Legislature, and thrice the mayor of Seward. He financed a great deal of mining activity on the peninsula, something that became more critical as miners realized the key to success in the area’s was claim consolidation and more capitol-intensive mining methods.
Ray’s namesake mountain rises steeply to the north of the small community of Moose Pass, so steeply in fact, that without a sun roof, it is hard to take in the mountain’s slopes when driving below.

          An aside, while the Moose Pass mountain, LV Ray Peak, may be one of the most prominent memorials to the Seward pioneer, it is interesting how, just as in his real life, Ray’s influence and work can still be found throughout the eastern peninsula. One of Ray’s most successful mining ventures was the Bruhn-Ray Mine on Canyon Creek at its confluence with the East Fork, one of the most active and long-standing mining spots on the Kenai. In the early 1990s, re-alignment of the Seward Highway threatened the remnant structures of the mine site, so some of the buildings – a barn, bunkhouse, and blacksmith shop – were relocated to the community of Hope, where they can still be visited today.

There are dozens of lines that would make incredible descents off LV Ray Peak, but given the progression of the season, our chosen line was the ~1,000’ run down the northwest face above Carter Lake.
For as big and prominent as LV may be, the whole day went by with so much ease it was almost a head screw.
We had a short 30-minute walk from the trail head up the switch-backing Carter Lake Trail before we reached snow line and clicked in.
We cruised up to and across the lake to a draw that divides LV with its neighbor, Madson Peak, and proceeded to go SFU on bomber crust – there was no side hilling to be had on this climb.
Eventually, the slope got steep enough that we switched to booting to attain the NW ridge, and then, alternated as necessary between booting and skinning along the ridge to hit the mountain’s north summit.
Nathan got hero of the day award, still skinning slopes the rest of us were booting, or patiently kicking steps through the stout sun crust ahead of us to make veritable staircases up the steeper sections.
As we closed in we began to find soft snow, and eventually got our first full view into the NW face, relieved to see that despite the stiff conditions on solar aspects, out descent route was going to ski nice and soft.
LV has 3 distinct summits peaks. We knew going in we’d be aiming for the lesser northern summit as that would set us up for the run – the true summit is out of the way for skiing the NW face. That being said, we were all thoroughly impressed by LV’s somewhat hidden west face, and the potential this face holds for a future mid-winter trip and actual summit descent.
We also got a nice view of Madson Peak’s north face too, which looked better than I imagined, and also well worth a return trip.
There are sort of “two” lines down the NW face. The most distinct is a couloir-like feature that hugs the east edge of the face. The “other” is a slightly diagonal run toward Carter Lake down the more open face, though depending on coverage, has a lot of different potential features and variations. I don’t think you can drop the north summit to the highway, it wasn’t really on the agenda, but I think it cliffs out. The central or southern summit knob would set a skier up much better for the long but chunder and alder-strewn run down to Moose Pass regardless.
Anyway, I got to cut the line, and slashed a couple turns to a convenient dollop 100 feet down. From there I could see the entire run, radioed up that I would go out of sight, and dropped in.
I judge a run by what I remember: the less I remember, the better the run.
I skied a bit conservatively, as I was expecting a harsh transition to heat crust. When I found the transition, it had a nice coat of soft snow over top and was very carvable, not harsh at all, and I was actually able to open it up a bit more once I hit it.
That’s all I remember.
Down in the sun I radioed up and the crew dropped in one by one.
We had made such good time, there was discussion of hot lapping the western benches for some corn harvest, but the stout crust turned out to be surprisingly more breakable once it’d been softened by the sun, so we opted to count our win and head out.
We were back at the car in 5.5 hours total.
Amazing.

Morning clouds blowing off LV with the NW face in plain view. Photo T.S.
 
 
Tree line.

Glide cracks on Wrong Mountain.


BA in uphillologiy from SFUU

 
Nathan kicking steps through the stout crust, Photo T.S.

I felt as good as I looked. A hilly 60 mile road ride the day before might not have been the best idea...(I was actually kicking out a small trench to put my skis back on in, but I'm not saying I was thrilled either Photo T.S.
 
Madson Peak's hidden valley.

Trail Lake

Headwaters of Quartz and Mills

Final push
 
Closing in. Photo T.S.
 


Taking in the view of LV's true summit and sweet west face. Photo T.S.
 
Tern Lake and Avalanche Acres.

The rime crusted summits were really wild. These photos fail to do justice.

Trail Lake and the long runs back to the Highway
 
 
 
Yours truly reports a sweet run. Photo T.S.

Nathan takes a scoop from the dollop. Photo T.S.

Kyle provides the visual on snow quality. Photo T.S.
 

Nathan back out in the sun.

Kyle

Back a the lake

 
Extreme melted-out manky snowmachine trail skiing. Photo T.S.
 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On Disc Brakes: An Open Letter to the UCI and the Inergalctic Federation of Cyclitesesis-ers

A Note:

It has recently come to my attention that coincendtal to my publication of an open letter to the UCI on the use of disc brakes on the road bicycles, another cyclist has also submitted a similar letter found here: LINK. I would like to clarify that while I believe these instance to be mere chance, I also fear that the timing could reflect the potential collision of two parallel universes that are soon to join as one as a result of the UCI's egregious oversight in allowing disc brakes to be used on road bikes so carelessly.

Another note (4/21/2016): Apparently there was some confusion about whether this was a serious post or not...so let me clarify. Disc brakes are good. UCI needs to focus on things like, cleaning up the sport, for example. UCI finds it easier to remain backwards and reactionary. Dante makes joke post making fun of this on blog. Dante goes to ride on bike with disc brakes. Dante uses disc brakes and inadvertently starts a war with galaxy 5RAM, then realizes the true horror of disc brakes by nebulizing the entire solar system.

On disc brakes
I’ve spent 10 years in the road cycling peloton and another 10 riding mountain bikes making fun of road bikers for their goofy unitard suits and stupid-looking handle bars in my na├»ve youth. That makes it 20 years on my bike, training, if you can call it that, enjoying what I like most, my passion. Since I was six, I’ve enjoyed biking, it got harder when they took the training wheels off, I continue to do so, but I wish to use them again.

Just like in any other sport, cycling has evolved in many technical aspects. However, it has not done so in others in a way we’d all have liked.

Through all these years, I’ve witnessed many improvements on different parts of the bike and cycling apparel. Well, the apparel hasn’t improved because it still makes you look like a doof to outsiders, but I guess I’ve really just lowered my standards is what it boils down to. Anyway, we started off with 6 speeds, then 7 speeds, then 8 speeds, then 9 speeds, then 10 speeds, and then 11 speeds. That last one came here to stay; oh crap, never mind, SRAM just released 12 speeds last week.

We use presta valves to fill up our tires with air now. For decades the Schrader valve was king of the road, but riders needed greater flexibility when changing a flat, so the inventors, and the engineers, and the smartest people the bike industry could find in the bars brought us the simple and elegant beauty of presta. I was loathe to adopt but I admit now it is superior!

We’ve also stopped using bar ends on skinny handlebars, and now use huge wide bars with 100 variations of angled rise. The days are long gone too when we used stanchion boots to cover our suspension forks, them things were whack!

My point is: two years ago, we started seeing disc brakes put on cyclocross bikes; well, actually, they’ve been on mountain bikes for like 15 years, and cars and motorcycles probably since we invented fire; and the rumor was that there could be a chance that they be tested in road cycling events!

Beforehand, I want to make this clear: I’m in favor that all the other weak and stupid bike riders: the cyclocrossers, and the sucky amateurs who can’t pedal at an average rate of 300 watts for 5 hours straight, enjoy the immense pleasure of disc brakes during rides, because the rest of their life must totally suck.

But then, there’s road cycling. Was there really anyone who thought things like Monday night’s after work ride wouldn’t happen? Really, nobody thought disc brakes were dangerous? Nobody realized they can cut, or that they could get flung from a rider's bike and become giant inter-orbital saucers, possibly launching into inter-stellar flight, reaching another world, slicing open the thorax section of the giant insect mother queen ant of the planet Shimargoux-XT, resulting in a cross-galaxy fight for survival where the inhabitants of Earth were ultimately doomed to become enslaved by the RoboShock bots? Common UCI, use your head.

At the top of the big spiral railroad overpass bridge on the Anchorage Ship Creek Bike Path, only one rider used them. With 2 riders, that makes it 1 rider, carrying a total 2 disc brakes into the peloton, minus the square root of 1, plus one, so this still equals 1, right?

Let me take you there: to a wooden bridge, a steep 3 percent descent, handrails, a muddy brook nearby, with comets, and meteors falling, and the world imploding. I’ve got to brake, so I squeeze the levers. The bike slows at a really predictable rate. The wooded planks bounce me around, my teeth chatter together, but basically, I’m doing that because I’m a moron and should not have downed that double mocha shot gu. My brakes don’t squelch and squeal, I feel totally under control; I’m not worried about the fact that I’m using the same technology to slow my bike that Fausto Coppi was 60 years ago, that in a few seasons I will not have worn down my nice rims, heck, I won’t even have to put new cables or housing on my brakes next year. In fact, to be totally honest, I’m basically not even thinking about the brakes at all, because they're just working, normally.

At the bottom of the spiral bridge, I get off my bike, throw myself against the right-hand side of the path, cover my face with my hands in shock and disbelief, start to feel sick… I could only wait for my mom to come get me, while a lot of things come through my mind.
Mom never arrives, she's in Mexico stupid, but a guy named Bob comes by and lets me have a few swigs from his half-finished Colt 45. It’s warm.

Eventually, I get back on my bike, a little tipsy still. The world is flying by, but you know, I guess we can adapt.

Improved stopping power? Ya, like stopping the entire world as we know it and causing the destruction of all humanity!