September in Alaska

Posted in Alaska on October 1, 2008 by ilikemountains

More than any other place I’ve lived, Alaska reminds you that you’re a mammal. You’re forced to live with the seasons, and their dramatic pendulum. You pack weight on in the winter, and shed it in the summer. Come October, you’re craving carbs and fat and you’re sleeping more.

As far as I’m concerned, this behavior is not due to the weather so much as the daylight. It’s impossible not to feel somewhat manic when it’s light out all the time, and to feel like you’re sleepwalking when the sun barely rises.

Because my moods can be so closely tied to the time of year, I love September more than any other month. For whatever reason, it evokes the strongest emotions, even more so than a sunny day in July. September is a winding-down, preparing-for-winter month. The tourists are heading back south. We have normal daylight hours, but we know we’re swiftly losing them. It’s colder and rainier and everyone comments on how dark it is, even though the daylight disappears every year. Termination dust coats the top of the mountains. You’re able to hang out with your friends since they’re slowing down, too, and a feeling of community surfaces again. The freezer is full of fish, and the garden is ready to be turned.

And one of the best parts of September is berry picking. The act of tromping through the woods looking for plump berries awakens something primal in me. It’s as if I’ve always been a gatherer. My mind focuses, my eyes narrow, and suddenly all I see in the forest are blueberries. Then I zone out, my hands and mind working automatically to collect a winter’s supply of wild blueberries.

Riding the Alaska Ferry

Posted in Alaska on September 2, 2008 by ilikemountains

Alaska is one of the those places that feels so far removed from the rest of the world, it may as well be another country. I realized this on my first flight to Anchorage from Seattle, which took three and a half hours. In my mind I’d pictured the distance to Anchorage to be about the same as from Seattle to Los Angeles, but I was way off. It’s more like flying from Seattle to Dallas.

But the Alaska Ferry is an unexpected link to the Far North. It departs Bellingham, Washington (just over an hour north of Seattle), every Friday. The amount of time it takes to reach its first stop, Ketchikan, is certainly a reminder of how far removed Alaska is (about 36 hours), but the fact that you can walk or drive on to a ferry in Washington somehow makes Alaska more tangible.

The ferry was what I expected from public transportation — utilitarian and plain. Budget travelers set up tents on the back deck or nabbed lounge chairs in the solarium (hint: that’s the way to go), while others laid out blankets on the floors inside. There was a snack bar with electrical outlets, and I spent a lot of my time in there working on my laptop. Wireless Internet was available but intermittent.

I brought duct tape to secure my tent pulls to the cement, but the amount of rain soon peeled the tape up. The family next to me woke up the next morning with an inch of standing water in their tent, and when the ferry arrived in Ketchikan the second morning, I found that I was collecting water in my tent as well and grabbed a lounge chair when people disembarked. That worked out well, since I was able to dry everything out and also didn’t have to take my tent down at 4am when we docked in Juneau the next morning.

The second day was spent squeezing through the Wrangell Narrows, and hushing by manned lighthouses and tiny fishing villages. We pulled in to Wrangell, where I totally regret not jogging out to Petroglyph Beach in the 30 minutes available. In Petersburg, small purse-seiners cruised into port with the day’s catch, and all seemed soggy and somewhat idyllic.

I sacked out under my heatlamp with a headlamp and a novel, and awoke to the fog horn early the next morning. We docked in Juneau in pitch black rain, and I walked off the ferry with a giant backpack, hoping to hitch a ride to the airport rather than pay for a taxi. The ferry terminal is a good 15 miles or so outside the city center, so there was no breakfast or coffee shop for me while I waited for my flight. I did manage to catch a ride, and worked in the airport for several hours before boarding.

I had to fly on the milk run, which made several stops before landing in Anchorage. One of the coolest was flying over Yakutat, which has an improbable stretch of sandy beach. A few years ago Yakutat got some media attention for its cold-water surfing. Outside Magazine ran an article, and Yakutat was put on the map. I couldn’t spot any surfers from the air. My camera wouldn’t pick them up, but there were 10,000-plus foot peaks in the background.

Welcome to Alaska.

The entire month of July

Posted in Alaska, Sport on August 18, 2008 by ilikemountains

So I kind of suck at blogging. Sorry.

There were two main events this July, with a lot of little ones beaten in for texture. The first is that I completed Mt. Marathon without injury or incident, save for some uncomfortable chafing in some uncomfortable places. The other is that I spent 3 nights camped on the Alaska Ferry, a trip from Bellingham to Juneau that I’ve wanted to take for years.

First, Mt. Marathon: As my previous posts note, I trained very little for this race. I was in reasonably good shape, but Marathon is the type of mountain that requires strategy. Two days before the race I climbed halfway up just to try to pick a route up. There are three options: 1) Run past the chute and take switchbacks up; 2) Stop in front of the chute and climb a near-vertical hillside covered in trees, called “The Roots” because you climb up tree roots like a ladder; 3) Go directly up the chute, which involves scaling a rock face — I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard that’s what some of the winners do. I chose the roots, because I figured it’s the most direct route, and you’re using your arms for that part and in doing so taking some pressure off your legs.

Mt. Marathon from town.

Mt. Marathon from town.

The race starts about a half-mile from the trail in downtown Seward. The men’s and women’s races are split into two waves 5 minutes apart. I made it into the first wave (thanks Laura!), which is better since the trail is single file and you want to be near the front. I made it to the root trail, got in line, and started climbing. The climb itself doesn’t have much to describe — it’s long, and it’s hard. I had a strained calf muscle, so instead of climbing on my toes as usual I put my heels down. This meant I used my quads almost exclusively, instead of my calves taking some heat. But it saved me from injury.

The chute just above treeline. Scary!

The chute just above treeline. Scary!

Here’s how long and steep Mt. Marathon is: Picture the Empire State Building. Tall, right? Stack two and a half of those buildings together, and you’ve got the vertical height of Marathon: 3022 feet. So, let’s say you’re climbing to the top of those ES buildings. You take the stairs, but to make it like the Marathon race, you need to take every other stair to lengthen your stride. Then, take away the stairs, leaving just the incline, which is so steep you can’t put your heels down (unless you’re injured). Add some mud — I slipped flat on my front a few times, with women behind me grabbing my calves and ankles. Throw in rocks and snow, and you’ve got a difficult climb. That’s Marathon. Now imagine going back down.

I hadn’t practiced going down from the top part of the mountain. Again, there were choices: go straight down a snow field, or go around it. I chose the snow field. A deep luge had been carved out, and I jumped in and started sliding. Bad move. I was wearing running shorts, which immediately slid right up. I tried using my hands and feet to stop myself, but the incline was too great. The result: chafing. I managed to hop out of the luge at some point, as other racers were bearing down on me and they were out of control. I stood there for a few moments, watching them go by while I tried to figure out how to get down. Finally I just started running down, digging my heels in the snow.

The rest of the way down was uneventful. At the bottom, I had to run through a creek, swinging over small waterfalls and over rocks, but that was child’s play next to the snow. Once I made it half way down realized I was going to complete the race, and that felt great. I honestly didn’t know when I started if I would finish because of my calf.

I felt strong when I hit the street, and I heard my name all over. I didn’t look too sexy, but I was in good company. My time was nothing fantastic, but it wasn’t horrible either and might even be fast enough to keep me in the first wave next year.

Up next: the Alaska Ferry and why it’s one of the coolest trips ever.

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.

First triathlon, first BBQ, 10th foot of snow

Posted in Alaska, Sport on April 28, 2008 by ilikemountains

We had our first race of the season and first outdoor celebration. The night before, Anchorage got two feet of ill-received snow, and we got six inches. Not cool. After a week of sunshine and melting, spirits were damp. It was the end of April, after all.

But we raced in the slush, dug out a hang-out area in front of the barbeque and fireplace, dug out a path from the garage and line it with beer, and generally managed to have a good time. Beer helped.

Beer pathGiving uncle a kiss

The backyard situation

Posted in Alaska on April 22, 2008 by ilikemountains

Epic BBQ is in four days. I’m waiting two more days to help Mama Nature with the thaw, but I’ve been getting things started. I located the woodstove/firepit this morning, and marked it with a tree branch:

X marks the spot

The top!

Then I cleared around the top and sides. In a day or two we’ll dig it out and light a fire, which will (hopefully) melt a nice ring around it.

The creek is making a small appearance as well:

Creek

The guesthouse is free and clear, though we still need to dig out the door to the greenhouse.

Guesthouse

Cowhouse/Greenhouse

Two more days before I give up and totally shovel the yard. Cross your fingies that I won’t have to.