Archive for June, 2008

Send for reinforcements ’cause there’s too much here for me to love

Posted in Alaska, Travel, Writing on June 20, 2008 by ilikemountains

I have a habit of falling in love with places. That’s probably why I love traveling so much, and a part of why I’m so insatiable. But I found myself uncommonly in love with Cordova these past few days. It’s the only town in my section of Lonely Planet’s Alaska 9 that I hadn’t visited, so I scheduled an extra day there to make sure I got to putter around and actually get to enjoy it.

I left from Whittier, which I disliked immensely. I have a tendency to feel like I pick up on the energy of places, and Whittier was oppressing and depressing. It’s such an odd, dark, ugly town, despite the brilliant mountains rising straight up from the ocean. The snow still hadn’t melted, and it was a sort of sloppy brown color. The residents were strange and the whole place has a vacant feel. No real roads, either — just routes weaving through the giant rail yard.

Everything changed as soon as I drove on the ferry to Cordova. I got to take the bright new speed ferry, which cut the old travel time almost in half, to 3.5 hours. All of a sudden the vibe changed from small-town locals practically living in a bunker to pretty pony-tailed mountain girls, bearded guys in fleece vests, and everyone friendly as can be. The ferry was full, and everyone was chatty and seemed to know each other. One woman showed off her new baby, while another girl – who biked onto the ferry – napped in a booth. Someone else was beading and folks kept stopping by to ask her about her project.

I drove off the ferry straight into an old-timey downtown very similar to Seward’s. I tried sleeping at the Alaskan Bar & Hotel, but the jukebox kept me up until closing so not much sleeping happened. Still, the old building had that high-ceilinged, creaky-staired charm that you don’t see much in Alaska. Green mountains covered in low clouds encircled the town, which was covered in salmonberries.

I hadn’t left the mountains – at all – in weeks, having driven up from Seward. So when I drove out of Cordova on the Copper River Highway (nearly fifty miles of shooting gravel and glowing lupine) a couple of days into my visit, I was completely unprepared for the mountains to dramatically step back and the land to open up. The Copper River Delta, spanning 60 miles, is a flat berth of silty, braided branches of the Copper River mingled with bright green fauna. To my left the mountains huddled a few miles off, and to my right the sky seemed to open up forever. I felt like I was looking out onto a prairie, and now I know what people mean when they describe places as having “big skies.”

The release of all those mountains uncorked something in me, and I totally cried – twice. I laughed a lot, too. It just felt so good to be out in the open.

I drove all the way out to the Million Dollar Bridge and Childs Glacier, where I heard but never saw the grumble of calving ice. Then I squeezed in a six-mile run to Saddle Bag glacier and back, where I was dive-bombed by a mama bird who scared the shit out of me. No bears. None this trip, in fact, which is fine with me, since I’m spending 4 out of 5 nights in my tent.

Scared

Posted in Alaska, Sport on June 5, 2008 by ilikemountains

Two weeks before I leave for my Lonely Planet research trip, I made my first trek — halfway — up Mt. Marathon. I’ll interrupt research briefly to return to Seward and run the race on July 4th and I’ve got between now and June 11 to get to know the mountain and try to steel my quads.

Although I’m in fairly decent shape and can run four miles without totally dying and hike somewhat often and just completed two triathlons, my body was not prepared for the mountain. I went with two friends who are also in training and try to get up there three times a week, and what surprised me the most was not just how steep the incline actually is, but also how slow we went. Our pace raised my spirits briefly, because winners complete the race in under an hour. Maybe this mountain wasn’t as big as I thought?

Late spring snow has resulted in only a thin slice of bare land and, I’m told, this bare land is the “up” trail and the one visible from town. The “down” trail is in a chute still covered with snow and isn’t much of a trail at all — it’s all shale, and racers have perfected the art of taking giant leaps downhill and thrusting their heels in the shale, allowing them to sort of glide down the moving rocks.

After 35 minutes of a painstainking fight against gravity, we reached a sort of pipe. “What’s this?” I asked Stacy. Above her, the summit seemed close. Maybe we were almost there. “It’s the halfway point!” she announced cheerfully. Any confidence I had plummeted as quickly as the trail. My thighs were burning, and the incline was so steep that I spent the bulk of the climb on my toes. Calf cramps already seemed imminent.

Stacy and Laura headed back down the “up” trail with me carefully following them. I tried to run, but felt I was going to lose control and tumble down the mountain. I worked out a sort of awkward gait that jammed my toes into the front of my shoe and left my butt near the ground. My feet kept slipping out in front of me on mud and snow, and by the end I was frustrated and near tears. Stacy and Laura had come across a black bear last week, and a brown bear sow and cub have been spotted up there recently, so they would stop and wait for me to make sure I hadn’t been devoured. There’s not much I hate more than making people wait for me like that.

As we walked back to our cars from the trailhead, they assured me that once the “down” trail was clear it’d be much easier going downhill. “It’s fast,” they promised. As it was, it took me just as long to go down as up.

Now the mountain taunts me. I leave the post office, and the “up” trail is visible, looking innocent and harmless, just like a basic, decent trail. I cross the alley from my classroom to the cafeteria, and the summit is right there above the building. Biking to town, I look directly at the ridge we climbed. I even have the north arm of the mountain rising out of my backyard, so there’s no escaping it.

Obviously, running — even trail running — is not going to be enough to get me into the kind of shape Mt. Marathon requires. Instead of the leisurely jogs through small Alaskan towns that I’ve been envisioning, I’m going to have to set aside time to seek out the grueling mountain trails while researching the area.

My original goal was to finish the race in under an hour an a half. With my new insight into my fear of running downhill in addition to the fact that the snow might not be gone before I leave, I’ve rethought that goal and just want to get up and down the mountain at all. That’s it.