The second annual Ester Tape & Tarp Ball was as fun as the first with a whole new collection of imaginative outfits--gowns with slits, silky dresses wrapped in duct tape, tarp chaps, hoop skirts. It's amazing what you can do with these two quintessentially Alaskan materials, plus a sewing machine. We started the night at Hoodoo Brewing, where we made quite the scene among a sea of Carharrts and hoodies. Then we ate dinner at the Pumphouse on the Chena River, where we were on full display in the glass porch--quite a few ladies came up to take our picture. We did our "official" prom-style pictures on the bridge. After a quick beer after the Golden Eagle (which hosted the ball last year) we made it to the Blue Loon. There was a blues-soul type band churning out James Brown-esque songs, a photo booth and a costume contest. Kristin, as always, won an award for her craftiness--the glamorous long dress with a mosaic of duct tape on the bodice and a low-cut back. My puffy dress (which she made and wore last year) lent itself nicely to dancing. When we got home at 1:30a.m., Ati jumped on me in elation and teared a gash in the mesh skirt. Didn't hurt the tarp though!
Spring ski and snowmachine fever
March was wrapping up fast, and we hadn’t skied the Alaska Range yet. It’s been a poor snow year and ski conditions weren’t very promising, but the forecast was for sun and 30 degrees. So we headed down to Kesugi Ridge, about 200 miles south of Fairbanks in Denali State Park. The speculation paid off. We scored not only great powder turns and epic views of Denali but a suntan as well. We rode Jake and Kristin’s snowmachines about a mile in from the trailhead and found a gem of a campsite the edge of the Byers Lake. We took a few spins around the lake Friday night. I’m a novice with snow machines, but learned quickly that the main secret to staying upright is to lean into the turns and punch the gas to get up berms. Ati the dog sprinted her heart out but couldn’t quite keep pace with the snowmachine and would sit down in protest when we got too far ahead. At first she wasn’t keen about riding on the snowmachine, but finally got tired enough to sit on Josh’s lap.
Jake and Kristin have an Arctic Oven, a canvas tent with a wood stove and chimney stack, so we had a delightfully warm place to hang out, cook and play cards. But we spent most of the time playing in the snow. Saturday morning we cruised to the mountains behind Byers Lake, softer ridges than the gnarly peaks of the Alaska Range. We skinned up a steep hillside, breaking trail through a couple feet of snow and scrawny spruce. The first 200 feet were stiff and slow. My ski popped off and I struggled to click back in without sinking in the snow or losing my ski. We crossed a gully to get to the next ridge, which led to the summit of the 2,000-foot knob. On the way up we found a sun-roasted bowl with luscious snow and stopped for lunch--sandwiches, trail mix and a PBR--before continuing up to the knob. We passed a pretty frozen stream that was smothered in snow and then weaved through alders to the top. While the summit was dwarfed by the surrounding peaks, it served up unbeatable views of Denali. The sky was crystal clear and the only wind in sight was at the tip top of the largest mountain in North America (20,230 feet).
Except for the very top wind-blasted section, the snow was north-facing, protected from the sun, and really nice. The middle section was like an enchanted forest, creamy powder and bushes covered in fluffy pillows of snow. Then came the bottom section--merely sketchy on the way up but downright scary on the way down. The trees and rocks were so thick that you couldn’t really traverse sideways, the preferred way to get down a super steep hill. I basically slid down on my edges, squeezing between rocks and alders and scraping snow as I went. The angle didn't seem to bother Ati, but the rest of us were relieved to get down. We made it back to camp in time for some excellent chicken curry and a bright alpenglow over Denali.
Camping on a glacier
Check! In March we did a trip with our mountaineering class through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. We spent the previous month learning how to use crampons (spiky shoes for climbing steep icy terrain) and an ice ax (to self-arrest if you fall), rescue yourself and others from a crevasse (crack in a glacier), and glissade, which is basically just sliding down a hill on your butt. Learned that when I was about 3.
Castner Glacier is about 120 miles south of Fairbanks in the eastern Alaska Range (called the Deltas) and is swimming in beautiful snowy peaks. We drove down early Saturday and parked on the side of the Richardson Highway. There were about 30 people and two instructors in the group. It was in the 30s and cloudless, a spectacular day to be in the mountains. We filled our packs with 50 pounds of gear (it’s amazing how much stuff you need to survive on a glacier) and started skiing up Castner Creek. We reached the toe of the glacier in about two miles. For the most part, you can’t tell it’s a glacier except for the occasional patch of exposed ice or ice cave. It’s a good beginner trip because there are not many crevasses toward the bottom. In the winter, crevasses tend to get filled with snow (called snow bridges) and are often fairly safe to cross. But the conditions vary greatly depending on snow levels, temperature, wind, the movement of the glacier, etc. So when crossing glaciers, you’re typically supposed to wear a harness and tie up to a rope with at least two other people. If one person falls in, the other two stop the fall (by self arresting and using a snow anchor) and then pull them up (using a Z pulley system). Or the victim can do a self rescue by climbing up the rope on their own, using a series of other ropes and knots. These are all the skills we learned in the class. Though we didn't rope up since Castner is pretty tame.
We skied about another mile up the glacier and set up camp. We made quite the little city of tents, kitchens, and wind walls. Then the instructors set up some anchors on an ice wall and we practiced rappelling and rescue techniques. Before long it was getting dark, and we returned to camp to make dinner. We put on about 5 layers, including 2 puff coats and down booties, and cooked our dehydrated dinners in our ice kitchen. The stars were incredible, with no light pollution within 50 miles. Fortunately it was a warm night (for Alaska) and didn’t drop below 10 degrees. But you still can’t sit around very long in those temperatures. So eventually I crawled into my -40 sleeping bag (I borrowed from Josh’s dad, who does research in the arctic in the winter) which is an amazing cocoon of fluffy warmth. I placed a water bottle full with hot water at my feet, and snuggled up with all my wet clothes (boot liners, socks and mittens) and battery appliances (head lamp, avalanche beacon, camera) in order to keep everything I needed for tomorrow dry and functional. I only had to wake up once to pee, which is merely annoying while summer camping and dreadful while winter camping. I understand why real mountaineers pee in a bottle without ever leaving their sleeping bag.
Getting out of the warm sleeping bag in the morning is the hardest part of the whole experience. When you inevitably touch the tent wall, which is lined in frost, it starts raining on everyone. After you fumble around to get dressed and then jam your feet back into cold plastic ski boots, you have to start moving right away to warm up. The brilliance of the scenery does boost morale when you're wondering why you're not at home in your down comforter. After a hearty oatmeal breakfast, we practiced some Z pulleying and then packed up camp and hit the trail. It was another glorious day, around 30 degrees and sunny. We cruised down the glacier and river in about an hour, and back to Fairbanks in less than three. Before you knew it, we were enjoying burritos and margaritas at Taco Azteca. Gotta love Alaska in the spring.
A Jumbled January
Now I remember why Alaskans go to Hawaii in the winter and not the east coast. It's too much of a gamble. I just spent three weeks with my family in central Pennsylvania, choosing January because it’s usually the coldest—and always the darkest—month in Fairbanks. But the joke was on me. Thanks to a wacky jet stream delivering arctic air to the Lower 48 and tropical air to Alaska, it was colder in PA than Fairbanks for the entire duration of my trip. When you live in a place with 7 months of winter, it’s pretty painful to hit even colder weather during your planned escape. For example, the third week in January was in the 40s in Fairbanks and didn’t exceed 10 degrees in Hershey. It was close to 60 in Denali, melting most of the snow that typically blankets the national park. Just 10 days earlier, it was 80 degrees colder.
I left Fairbanks with three feet of lovely snow and returned to 1 compacted foot with an icy shell. When the temperature spiked and it started raining on top of snow, the roads turned into a wicked cocktail of daytime slush and overnight ice. Alyeska, the ski resort south of Anchorage, closed down for a week because of the rain and a month later the trails are still littered with rocks. So I wasn’t totally upset to miss this madness. Also, I had a blast hanging out with my family and it was nice to wake up with the sun (7:30 a.m. sunrise, wow!). I was just slightly wistful riding the stationary bike at the gym in PA thinking about my friends in Fairbanks skate skiing in T-shirts.
14 Dogs, 22 People & 13 Pies: Tok Thanksgiving 2013
The title pretty much sums it up. We spent Thanksgiving at our friend Jake’s family cabin on the Robertson River about 30 miles north of Tok. Incredibly, his parents raised three kids in a dry cabin 2 kilometers from the trailhead with only wood heat and solar for electricity. It’s a beautiful cabin on a lake with a million-dollar view of the might Alaska Range, about as peaceful as you can imagine. Unless you invite 20 people from Fairbanks to Thanksgiving dinner! We drove down in a blinding snowstorm on Wednesday night, skied in to the cabin and laid our sleeping bags on the floor near the wood stove. We woke up to a clear, crisp (about zero) Thanksgiving day, had breakfast and put on our skis to check out the huge trail system. Then it was time to eat, which was the main activity of the weekend. We all brought dishes from Fairbanks and had a fantastic feast with turkey, moose stuffing, squash casserole, creamed corn, pink cranberry sorbet, and a zucchini casserole that I made. The food coma set in before long, and played board games and knitted and drank champagne until dessert time. This was another onslaught of 13 pies—pumpkin cheesecake, apple and Alaska blueberry pies, pecan and more. When it was bedtime, the floor turned into a sea of sleeping bags once again, with 12 humans snuggled up next to at least 8 dogs.
We started the day Saturday with Hank’s Hash, Jake’s dad’s famous breakfast made of Thanksgiving leftovers scrambled with a ton of eggs. This amount of calories demanded a serious ski, and we hit the trails around noon headed for the ridge opposite the cabin. We ended up breaking trail in a couple feet of snow for awhile and then emerging above tree line to a lovely view of the valley. We started our descent and made the mistake of stopping for a snack right when the temperature was dropping. Everyone got really cold—even the super-furry sled dogs were curled into a tiny ball whimpering next to the fire. Ati, a 5-month old pup without a lot of body mass, was shivering and looked worried, so Josh held her over the fire for a few minutes to warm her up. Once we started skiing again we warmed up, and were back at the cabin eating leftovers in no time. It was a cozy, relaxing, fun holiday with lots to be thankful for!
Beaver Trapping in the Bush
I caught my first beaver (and most likely my last). It wasn't actually my trap, but I assisted the 8-year-old trapper. I was in Galena for work, a village of about 400 on the Yukon River, which was badly flooded by an ice jam last spring. Ninety percent of the homes were damaged and about 20 need to be rebuilt. We designed replacement homes that are super efficient and quick to build. My boss and I were staying with an awesome family that lives the iconic Bush life. They have a plane, a boat, an enormous freezer full of moose, musk ox, caribou, bear, and salmon, and all the respective furs hanging on the walls. The kids, 8 and 6, are already bona fide hunters and trappers (fox and wolf among their quarry).
It was time to retrieve the beaver traps for the season as the river was beginning to freeze. So five of us packed into a canoe and paddled through a skin of ice down the slough (never done that before either–you have to ram the paddle down through the ice and stroke back hard). After a tiring half-mile of breaking ice, we beached the canoe and walked to the trap. Surprise! A big brown furry lump was sitting in the trap just off the bank. The traps are supposedly "humane," as in when the beaver swims in, it breaks its neck right away so it doesn't drown. The kids were excited; apparently this was the last beaver in the slough (the other had been caught the day before). I pulled the beaver, still in the trap, out of the water. It was probably 40 pounds–I had to use both hands for the photo opp. The teeth are so long and yellow it looks like a cartoon. The tail is also totally amazing, super thick, scaly and full of fat.
Next step was skinning the beaver. I spectated for this portion. You start by cutting off off the feet and making a big incision down the belly, then carefully peeling back the skin. The thing is covered in a thick layer of fat. It took them about 20 minutes to completely skin it. Then they use the meat for trapping bigger game and the fur to make hats and other clothing.
I don't think I could ever personally trap, because I hate to think of animals suffering and I appreciate them much more alive than dead. But trapping is a big part of the Bush Alaska way of life, and I can definitely appreciate learning the art and ethics of trapping and seeing the next generation of trappers in action.
Alaska and the Three Day Weekend
I understand why people from Alaska don't do long weekends outside the state. I've missed a lot of weddings in the past three years. Since I'm from Central PA and went to school in Virginia, my high school and college friends are mainly in New York and D.C. When you live in Alaska, no one expects you to travel 4,000 miles for one day (except family of course). If you actually show up at a wedding, you get a lot of credit.
When I found out on of my best friends from college was getting married in October in New York City, I just assumed I'd skip it. Plus in September I took a whole week off for a wedding in Boulder (as a bridesmaid no less). But as the days got shorter, I was more and more lured by the promise of seeing tons of good college friends, high school friends and family. So with three weeks to go, I bought a ticket to fly east Wednesday night and return to Alaska on Monday. Sure, it would be 18 hours of travel both directions for only 3-and-a-half days of "vacation," but would be packed with action and loved ones.
The weekend was a blur of late nights, reconnecting with long lost friends, dancing, and east coast specialties like pumpkin pancakes, New York pizza, and my mom's homemade gingersnaps. I arrived in Harrisburg Thursday afternoon, went shopping for some presentable shoes and then to dinner with my parents and big brother. I took the train to the city Friday and navigated my way downtown to the rehearsal dinner and caught up with college friends from the University of Richmond, some of whom I hadn't seen in almost 10 years. Saturday my best friend from kindergarten, Sommer, dragged me to a spin class and then helped me curl my hair for the wedding. I barely made it to St. James Church on Madison and 70th in time (apparently it takes more than 30 minutes to travel 3 miles in the city). The next 11 hours were spent celebrating Chris and Kit and reliving college days.
We went to sleep at 5 a.m. and didn't make it to Sunday brunch till 2:30 p.m. My little brother, who happened to be in NY for the weekend, joined me and my high school friends and was subjected to extensive girl talk. We swung by a birthday party for my friend Pete, who I met working at a dude ranch in Wyoming after college and skied with in Vail, and who Sommer knew from Cornell. It's amazing how many chapters of my life converged in three days!
It was "only" supposed to take 16 hours and three flights to get home. I left for La Guardia airport at noon on Monday and was hoping to be snuggling with my puppy at midnight. But then came Dallas, where my flight was delayed an hour and a half, exactly long enough to miss my connection in Seattle. Monday night was spent curled up on the concrete floor of the Seattle airport, trying to sleep over blaring CNN and sporadic TSA announcements, cursing American Airlines. After a 6 a.m. flight to Anchorage and the last jump to Fairbanks, I made it to work by noon on Tuesday–sleep deprived, slightly hungover, and still in the afterglow of an epic weekend.
It was totally worth it. But I don't think I'll attempt any more long weekends east of Seattle!
Traditional Alaska Dance Off
We saw native dance groups from across Alaska perform this weekend at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks, a gathering of tribes from across the state each year. There were women, men, boys and girls in traditional parkas, feather gloves, grass hats, and skin drums. It was a beautiful glimpse of ancient culture and celebration of tradition. You don't automatically get much exposure to indigenous culture when you live in Alaska's urban centers. You have to either travel to villages, which I occasionally do for work, or seek out opportunities like this. It's always interesting to learn about people who have survived in such a harsh place for thousands of years, to see what has sustained them, and to try to understand the grave challenges they face today. Here's a clip from the show!
Introducing Atigun the puppy!
We got a puppy! Her name is Atigun and she’s the sweetest dog ever. She’s an Australian shepherd with Chesapeake Bay Retriever and Chow mixed in. She's black with white and tan legs, white spots on her feet, and a white cross on her chest. She has a curly head of hair and soft floppy ears (maybe from the Chesy). She’s named after the mountain pass of the Brooks Range, Alaska’s northernmost mountains, that marks the continental divide. We got her in Wasilla, Alaska’s capital for unspayed dogs, when she was 6 and a half weeks old. I felt bad taking her from her mom so young, but the mom was weaning the pups (and being kind of mean to them) and it was not the safest of neighborhoods.
The entire litter was adorable, but she was the one tri-colored pup and she fit perfectly in my arms. Plus she was an aggressive eater so that seemed like a good sign. She was basically four pounds of fur with stubs for legs. When she started yowling and nipping as soon as we got in the truck, I had an “Oh God, what have we done” moment. But she fell asleep before long wedged between the back of the chair and a bag. When we stopped for a break in Denali, she got out and peed right away (smart pup!) and then chased us around with that adorable puppy bounce. I was super relieved to discover how playful she was (that’s half the reason I wanted a dog!) She spent the first night in a box in the bathroom and the next day we got the essentials— kennel, bed, dog food, and lots of toys. We were officially dog owners.
The next morning she was asleep belly-up on my lap with her head hanging over my knees, and I had to go to work. I locked her in the kennel and raced out of the house covering my ears as she howled. When I got back at lunch, she was howling in joy to see me.
Now she’s three months old, and she’s still always happy to see us—when we wake up in the morning, when we're hiding in the tall grass and she finds us, or after any short separation. That must be why people love dogs. She follows me around at work but also plays with every dog and person she sees. If Josh are spread out on the trail, she'll sit in the middle or regroup us. Then there's the 24-hour entertainment. She chases her tail, buries Nyla bones, wrestles with moss, uses tarps as a slip-and-slide, jumps on big dogs (Great Danes included) and falls asleep in the most precious positions. She's about 15 pounds and looks more like a dog every day, but retains her puppy-ness.
I'm sure Ati will be a recurring character on this blog!
Packrafts & Bear Spray: field tested
The rapids were bigger than I remember. Those were my thoughts when we launched our packrafts—inflatable personal rafts designed to fit in your backpack and also run whitewater—into Windy Creek in mid-September. We floated it last fall, and I remember splashy fun with a few close calls, but overall a good introduction to packrafting. The beginning is the most technical part—nonstop rapids littered with boulders. We made it about 4 miles before Josh lost his balance while negotiating between two big rocks, leaned backward and dumped into 40 degree water. Anna, Ken and I were in front of Josh. When Anna pointed back a couple times (I thought she saw a moose or something) I turned around and saw Josh swimming/bobbing down the river with his boat ahead of him. We paddled to the bank and he managed to swim out of the current, but his boat took off downriver. Ken went after it (they are not cheap!) Josh was a bit knocked up but OK. After he flipped it took him a few tries to rip the spray skirt off, so he was stuck underwater for awhile and had to push down on his paddle to come up for air (scary!)
Fall in Denali is not warm, but fortunately it was a nice sunny day in the low 50s. Josh changed into an extra set of clothes stashed in a dry bag. Since he was boatless, I packed up my raft and bushwacked out with him while Anna and Ken chased after the fugitive boat. We had hiked about 4 miles in from the car before starting the float, and then floated about 4 miles. So we were nowhere near the trail, but we saw a promising “winter trail” on the map (always ambiguous) and scrambled toward it. It took us 2-and-a-half hours to get 3.5 miles back to the car, up a bluff and through a maze of dwarf birch (scraggly waist-high shrubs), watery bog up to our shins, and—worst of all—thick willow. After blasting through a couple miles of bush, it was quite a disappointment to find the trail was a tunnel of bowed-in willow, thick nasty trees that’s also the best place to surprise bears.
That’s when I got paranoid, started fiddling with my bear spray, and bear-sprayed myself directly in the gut. Bear spray is super-concentrated cayenne pepper spray that deploys in a fierce stream of bright orange fire and poofs up in a big cloud. I froze for a moment, registering my stupidity, and then we bolted from the cloud. Then I made another cheechako mistake and rinsed myself off in a puddle. Bear spray is oil-based so it doesn’t dissolve in water, but instead is carried by it. So what started as a burning belly turned into burning arms and face (not my eyes, thank God!). It felt like third-degree sunburn except my skin was cool to the touch. Though at least I can rest assured that it might scare away a bear someday (even though locals call it “seasoning”…for the bear).
Luckily, Anna and Ken were waiting for us at the car with the runaway raft, which had gotten snagged on a log a mile downriver. It felt like a $1,000 prize. We finished the day drinking hard-earned beer at 49th State Brewery in Healy. By the time I was drifting off to sleep back in Fairbanks, the burning had subsided, leaving me with extra respect for bear spray and Windy Creek.
Mechanical problems, far from home
Having your car break down is never fun. But breaking down in the middle of nowhere, Alaska takes the cake. Some simple car trouble in Glennallen turned into a week-and-a-half adventure involving a U-Haul truck, some funny rumors on the ferry, and ultimately sockeye salmon. So I guess it wasn't all bad.
Last week I took an epic road trip with my friends from grad school, Sarah and Val. We drove my Subaru (Razz) from Fairbanks to Denali National Park, across the Denali Highway, and then headed south down to the coast, stopping to marvel at moose, caribou and mountains along the way. On Day 4, we got off the Denali Highway (a spectacular but rough gravel road) and stopped for gas in Glennallen, which is little more than a gas station 300 miles from Fairbanks and far from the next actual town. As we turned into the parking lot, the car started coughing and clicking. It didn't seem to be the engine, but rather something in the turning assembly. Luckily EGM Auto was open 24 hours, so we dropped it off and rented a cabin at the RV park for the night–not quite Valdez, but at least they had a fan (it was 93 degrees).
Turns out it was my wheel bearing, and they wouldn't get the part from Wasilla (150 miles away) until the next day, Thursday. So we rented a U-Haul pickup (the one and only rental in Glennallen) and took off for Valdez (115 miles away) where we were supposed to kayak in the icebergs the next day. It was a Ford F-150 with a custom paint job saying "19.95 IN-TOWN RENTAL" and it was actually pretty fun–if not fuel efficient. We sat three comfortably across the bench and piled all our gear in the bed. The plan was to drive back to Glennallen to pick up my car the next evening, then back down to Valdez to catch a ferry early Friday morning.
Thank God for that pickup. When we got off of Columbia Bay, a wonderland of floating icebergs, glaciers and sea otters, I got a call from the mechanic saying my ball joint was rusted onto my axle and wouldn't release even under a 12 ton press. Of course, there were no extra ball joints for 1999 Subarus lying around in Glennallen. The part would have to be pulled from a vehicle in–guess where? Wasilla. I could pick up my car on Sunday. That meant the U-Haul was going on our ferry adventure.
It was pouring as we sat in line at the ferry terminal, so we ran out and laid a tarp over our bags in the back. The boarding agent gave us a skeptical look when we pulled up, since I had declared my car was 17 feet on the ticket. They had to back us into a small nook to squeeze us into the parking deck.The U-Haul turned out to be a conversation starter on the ferry. A group of older tourists said, "Oh you're the girls in the U-Haul? We saw you in Valdez. We assumed you were running away from your boyfriends!" Before you knew it, we were driving off the boat in Whittier, a rainy coastal town outside of Anchorage, en route to Girdwood. Unfortunately, our tarp job had not prevented rain from pooling in the front of the truck bed, and Val's entire suitcase was soaking. So we hit up the laundromat in Girdwood to shower and wash everything. It was probably for the best, since I was going to a wedding in Girdwood the next day.
Come Sunday, it was time to return to real life in Fairbanks. The plan was to swing by Glennallen (only 3 hours out of the way) and pick up my Suby. But alas, the part had still not arrived!! My mechanic had driven all the way to Wasilla and the shop guy told him he didn't have time to pull it. We could spend the night in Glennallen and hope it was ready the following day, but there was no guarantee we'd make it back to Fairbanks in time for Val's 10pm flight. The cards seemed stacked against us, so we decided the keep the wheels we had and took the U-Haul back to Fairbanks (at the daily rate of $80/day).
We were only 30 miles from home after a 10-hour day squashed into a truck when we hit the traffic stop. It was 9:30 pm, and we sat there until 11 as fire trucks and troopers converged on the fender bender. The road had already been partially closed for a wildfire, and the accident occurred while drivers were following a pilot car (at 40 mph, don't ask me how). We finally pulled the U-Haul into its new home in Ester at 11:30 on Sunday after an awesome-yet-aggravating week.
I won't bore you with the next false alarm–another mid-week trip down to Glennallen only to find that the new wheel bearing was still stuck to something. At least we ditched the U-Haul and caught 10 awesome salmon while we were down there. In closing, my car arrived back in Fairbanks on Saturday, 10 days after it broke down in Glennallen–requiring a very straightforward replacement. The mechanic was just as frustrated as me: he told me he never wants to work on Subarus again and he hung my steering knuckle on the wall as a tribute.
Lesson learned? Next time it may actually be more economical to tow my car 300 miles back to Fairbanks rather than leave it in Glennallen, and no more Denali Highway for Razz.
A Quest for Copper River Reds
I finally clubbed a salmon to death. It was intense. We went fishing for Copper River reds this week in a raging glacial-fed river bordered by the colorful Wrangell mountains. The Copper is the main dipnetting fishery in Alaska, so when the fish are running it's usually packed with dipnetters perched on just about every accessible rock.
Dipnets are 10-foot metal poles with nets the size of mini soccer goals on the end. You stick the net into eddies, where salmon stop and rest as they swim upstream to spawn. Because the water is so gray and cloudy, fish can't see and (hopefully) accidentally swim into your net.
This fishery, like all fishing and hunting in Alaska, is strictly regulated. You have to be an Alaska resident to dipnet, and the fish allowances vary based on where you live, the size of your family, and your subsistence status. Josh and I were allowed to catch 30 for our household. If you catch them all, it's called "limiting out," and it's definitely a badge of pride. We only caught 10, mainly because we still have leftover fish from limiting out two years ago. So while you don't want to catch more than you need, it's still a little embarrassing if you don't hit your limit (especially when my friend caught 30 in 2 hours the night before!)
We got to Chitina at about 2 am (7 hour drive from Fairbanks), camped for a few hours and started fishing at 9 am. Typically you have to hike (or bike or 4-wheel) with your huge awkward net several miles down a canyon and then climb down a steep bluff to find a fishing spot. Half the time, the spots are already taken. Thankfully, it was really quiet on this random Wednesday.
When fish are running like crazy, it's called a pulse. We hit the tail end of a pulse, and caught 5 big ones in the first hour, about one every 10 minutes. It's surprisingly hard to hold the net in the water. Even though you're fishing in an eddy, the river is churning with boils and upswells and just an incredibly powerful current. I felt several exciting bumps, only to pull up an empty net. When you do catch one, salmon don't give up without a fight. Josh would pull up the net with a writhing, jumping 15 pounder, and I would grab the net and set it on a rock. Then you take a fist-sized rock and club the fish hard on top of the head several times. I found it both physically and emotionally difficult, especially since the fish were so huge and full of life. After it stops moving, you bleed it out by slitting right behind the gills and severing the main artery. Then you string it on a rope and let it chill in the river, and go back for more.
By 10:30 it had slowed down considerably, and we only caught 2 in the next three hours. Timing is everything, and fish prefer to swim at night. We finally decided to move to a different spot deeper into the canyon, which is a huge pain: not only are you carrying a bulky dipnet up a cliff through willows and loose rock, but you also have to pack out your fish and keep them cold. At the next spot, the eddy was slightly calmer and we caught three more in 90 minutes. It was 4 in the afternoon and we had 10 beautiful salmon, and a sunburn. We were pretty pleased with the number, and we also had to work the next day, so we packed the fish in our backpacks (lined with garbage bags) and humped about 70 pounds back to the car.
Even though we didn't get home until 3 a.m., the sunset over Summit Lake was well worth it. On Thursday, we celebrated July Fourth with fresh sockeye salmon grilled with peppers and onions. Proud to be an American, and an Alaskan!
Now I know why people live in Anchorage. We went backcountry skiing at Turnagain Pass last weekend and it brought me to my knees (no I was not telemarking!) We skied in 35-degree sunshine on a half foot of creamy untouched snow in a bowl surrounded by stunning peaks with blue Turnagain Arm shining in the distance. The place, called Eddies, was a 15-minute drive from Girdwood.
Josh and I went with our friends Anna and Ken (who knows the area really well) and another Josh from Anchorage. We skinned to the mountain through about 45 minutes of spruce forest and rolling hills before arriving at the foot of the climb. The snow was well-bonded and avalanche danger was low. It was another 2,000 feet to the top (or at least the bench we descended from) and we chugged steadily along, shedding layers as we went. The skin track was really nice, zigzagging easily up the mountain with only a couple steep sections. Plus, we didn't see anyone til we got to the top, which is surprising considering the perfect conditions, the popularity of this area and its proximity to Anchorage.
At the top we unclicked and rested for a bit. Fortunately I had some leftover Moose's Tooth pizza in my backpack. Ken and Josh continued up and over the ridge in pursuit of more turns, while Josh, Anna and I dropped into a beautiful bowl to the right of our path. We had about 2,000 vertical feet of fresh tracks. The first few turns were the sweetest, gliding through six inches of flawless snow. It was my first time using my fat skis in the conditions they were born for, and they floated so well that I didn't even have to try. We got stuck traversing through a rather thick patch of trees in the middle and then popped out about 500 feet from our starting point. From here we straightlined it down, threw our skins back on our skis and hiked out.
We had only done one run, but it was a full day of bliss.
Spring has sprung in Juneau
A clear day in Juneau is a magical thing. The glistening fjords, icy blue glaciers, snowcapped peaks and lush Sitka spruce forests have a way of hypnotizing you, luring you to drop everything and move to this quaint coastal capital. But typically you wake up the next day to the drip-drop of rain, walk outside coated in Gore-tex and all the majestic scenery is hidden in dense fog. It makes the clear days even more special.
I got to Juneau last Thursday for the Southeast Home Show, the annual convention where homeowners come to compare contractors, shop for boilers, plan their dream cabins on pristine islands, and–we hope–learn how to make their homes more energy efficient. My office, the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, had a booth overflowing with educational articles, two mock-ups of super-insulated walls, a heat recovery ventilator, and lots of information on ground source heat pumps, air source heat pumps, and crawl space insulation–the hot energy topics in Juneau this year.
But back to the fun part. Since the sun was out, we snuck in a half-day of skiing on Thursday before the Home Show. The mountain (the locals laughed at me when I called it a resort), Eagle Crest, is an awesome hill–about 1,500 vertical feet of playful terrain with giant old spruce, fluffy bowls, and steep fall lines. It only has two chair lifts, but from the top you can access a wonderland of backcountry–wide open ridges, scary-looking chutes, and miles of untracked powder. We stuck to the groomers Thursday because there was no fresh snow, and they were fast and fun.
Being in the rainforest, Juneau gets absolutely dumped on all year. So after one epic bluebird day, the clouds quickly moved in to reclaim their turf. It rained all through the Home Show, which made it less painful to sit in a convention hall all day. On Monday, after the Home Show concluded, we skied in 8 inches of powder amid a wet blizzard. Despite not being able to see for the top 200 feet, we hit some amazing tree runs with deep powder pockets and soft bouncy bumps. We were extra appreciative of the tree skiing because in Fairbanks, with the exception of nicely spaced aspen groves, the trees are mainly scrawny black spruce and alder–not a skier's dream forest.
Skiing was the main highlight of the trip, but we also had lots of fun eating freshly caught halibut, sampling the many microbrews on tap (Alaskan Brewing is in Juneau), eating delicious baked goods at the Silverbow Bakery, and hiking the beautiful trails above the city. I did wipe out on a slick patch of trail, smearing my butt in mud and slicing my palm open.
I guess I was only made to go downhill on skis!
A Melted Winter Feast
The expectations are high when you go to a fondue party with a Swiss host. I was eager to learn some Swiss tricks when our friends Claudine (from Switzerland) and her boyfriend Andrew had a bunch of us over for fondue, especially since I was originally exposed to fondue as a kid through our Swiss au pairs.
They made one big batch with a mix of Swiss cheeses and lots of bread, veggies, apples, Little Smokies, and other dippables. Unlike most Alaska potlucks, there was no moose, caribou, or fish at the table. It was mostly consistent with other fondue parties (lots of red wine, no double-dipping, kiss your neighbor if you drop your bread in the cheese) with a slight Swiss twist:
we sprinkled salt, pepper and nutmeg on our plate to spice up the bread
when we got to the bottom of the cheese, Claudine added three eggs and we stirred them into a delicious cheesy scramble and polished them off with bread
hot mulled wine for a starter with cloves, oranges, and other good stuff
For dessert we had a sinful Ghirardelli chocolate fondue with fruit, marshmallows, and cookies. The party wound down early as our bodies tried to digest large amounts of lactose and sugar. I definitely remember why I loved fondue so much as a kid!
Mardi Gras Alaska-Style
Jambalaya, beads, King cake...You don’t have to be in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras! Last weekend we went to a party at Trey’s, who grew up in New Orleans. While we had all the ingredients for the event, and just as eccentric characters, the party had a decidedly Alaska feel—the beards, the outfits, the conversation.
We started with some amazing breaded shrimp in butter sauce with pickled jalapenos as Trey finished up the main courses. He made a wonderful ettoufe (gumbo with garlic butter sauce) with crawfish he ordered from New Orleans and a spicy jambalaya with sausage. Meanwhile, we sipped on Sazeracs, a Mardi Gras cocktail made from rye whiskey, bitters and a touch of sugar.
After lots of food, we wrapped up with King cake, a ridiculous confection that tastes like a donut with sweet frosting and green and purple sprinkles. If you get a bite with the traditional plastic baby, it’s your job to bake next year’s cake.
Before long I was filled with a fusion of spice, sweets and bitters. Instead of partying all night and trying to earn more beads, we walked home in the snow. A big day of skiing at Moose Mountain awaited!
Happy New Year from PERU!
The craggy 20,000-foot peaks of the Peruvian Andes were not that much bigger than Denali. The rural Andean villages filled with traditional clothing and local food also reminded me a bit of Alaska. But unlike the North, these mountains were wrapped in green, with rainforest bumping up against high alpine terrain, and farmed terraces stepping up steep hillsides. Tourists walked out of Wifi cafes alongside farmers who could have walked out of the 1300s.
Peru was my first taste of South America and seemed like the perfect two-week escape from January in Fairbanks. I travelled with my sister, Jean, and boyfriend Josh for two weeks in a counterclockwise loop around southern Peru, starting in Lima and stopping in the canyon lands, Lake Titicaca, and, of course, the Lost City of Machu Picchu. It was quite an adventure, only accentuated by the fact that it was the middle of rainy season and none of us spoke Spanish.
We headed first to Colca Canyon, which at nearly 14,000 feet is the second deepest canyon in the world and nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Villages hung off steep canyon walls etched with terraces growing potatoes, quinoa and corn. We spent New Year’s Eve in the farming village of Chivay, where residents from throughout the valley gathered to sing and dance around the plaza in an epic all-nighter. The next day we took a van about 50 miles along the lid of the canyon, through several sections of washout and one terrifying blind tunnel, to Cruz del Condor. Here we watched Andean condors swooping through the canyon, black birds with white-striped wings that span up to 10 feet.
We hiked the last seven miles along the quiet road to Cabanaconde, a friendly agricultural village deep inside the valley and the launching point for treks into the canyon. Coming from a Fairbanks winter, the summer heat and 10,000-foot elevation slowed us down but gave us time to savor everything — farmers working the fields, a snow-capped volcano, horses and donkeys roaming freely. Some of these farms preceded the Inca Empire (1430s-1530s) and the culture has also survived. Women wore bright dresses embroidered with flowers and lace, jeweled straw hats and long braids, and hauled babies and produce in blankets on their backs. A few lambs wandered around streets lined with brick and adobe buildings.
The next morning we descended into the canyon early. The steep trail dropped 4,000 vertical feet in about 2.5 miles, zigzagging down rocky slopes covered in shrubs and flowering cactus. At the bottom, we admired the towering canyon walls, soaked our shaky legs in the pool and re-hydrated. The mid-day ascent was tough in the beating sun. We ran out of water, and Jeannie had a close encounter with a mule on a tight switchback. As we were dragging ourselves toward the top and complaining about the thin air, a barefoot elderly woman darted past us carrying about 50 pounds of potatoes. Alpaca stew had never tasted so good when we got back to the hostel. The next day we took a six-hour bus back to Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest (and trendiest) city that sits on an 8,000-foot plateau. Here I had my favorite meal of the trip, Ocopa Arequipena — potatoes in spicy peanut sauce topped with a boiled egg and black olives.
From there we headed by bus seven hours east to Puno, a city on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Puno was a cultural melting pot and the first time since Lima we could use English comfortably. Lago Titicaca means gray (caca) puma (titi) and covers 5,000 square miles, draining two huge mountain chains. It’s famous for being the world’s highest navigable lake (at 12,500 feet) and for its shimmering blueness, but who knew that a couple thousand people live on floating islands hand-built from reeds and anchored into the lake floor? The Uros started building them in the 14th century to escape warring tribes, and it’s hard to believe they still live this way. Each island hosts 25-30 people and lasts for about 40 years. One family showed us how they build them from sod and strips of reed, and invited us into their tiny reed homes. The squishy ground reminded me of walking on boggy tundra.
On a much larger island named Taquile (this one rooted), we saw an Inca-era community practically untouched by modernity, with no machinery and intermittent electricity. Residents wear Spanish peasant clothing and grow wheat, potatoes and barley. The men wear white shirts and black capris with a hat to symbolize marital status — red if you’re married, white if you’re single. A local family fed us fresh trout in their yard overlooking both Peru and Bolivia.
A six-hour bus ride through the aptly named Sacred Valley brought us to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire and gateway to Machu Picchu. We spent a couple nights in the artsy area of San Blas, roaming the colorful Plaza de Armas and doing yoga to shake off long hours on a bus. Then we joined a train full of tourists to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Maccu Pichu.
The next day we attacked the stiff trail to the ruins at 4:30 a.m. and reached the gate by 6, beating most of the crowd (visitors are capped at 2,500 per day). It was a hot cloudless day in peak rainy season. The fact that I’d seen a thousand photos of Machu Picchu did not dull its impact. Tucked in a saddle between two mountains (Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu), the ruins are surrounded by cliffs that fall 1,500 feet down to the raging brown Urubamba River. The location helps explain how the 15th century city was missed entirely during the Spanish invasion and wasn’t discovered by outsiders until the 1900s. It’s made up of nearly 150 buildings of polished stone, with temples, parks, houses, lookout towers, and more than 100 staircases. In the center of the city was a quarry, the building supply store of the Incas. The important buildings of the Sacred District were made of stones carved and fitted perfectly without any mortar.
After exploring for awhile we began the ascent up Huayna Picchu, the pointy peak that juts out behind the ruins on every postcard (only 400 admitted per day). The Inca-built trail was a steep rocky staircase winding up to a temple (where the high priest supposedly lived) and a breathtaking overlook: 18,000-foot peaks popped out of the sky and Macchu Picchu lay 1,100 feet below, submerged in lush mountains.
Still dazzled, we returned to Lima for one more night of Peruvian potatoes. Back on the plane, I tried to compute this newly discovered continent. Peru isn’t perfect — the taxis are scary, the slums are sad and you have to be careful in the cities. But it gave me a new sense of wonder in the world — its mountains, languages and lost civilizations.
My final pieces of advice: rainy season is gloriously quiet and cheap (and only wet in the high country), and the English-Spanish iPhone app is a life-saver.
Weekend at Eleazar's
Three times I have tried to rent a cabin in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks for a weekend ski trip, and each time the temperature has plunged to -40, which precipitates a long group email debate about whether or not to go, anxiety about freezing to death, and ultimately cancellation. It's always super disappointing because you lose your deposit and end up nursing wine all weekend wrapped in a blanket, wishing you were frolicking in the snow.
This weekend, the snow gods finally delivered: it was in the 20s on Saturday and even warmer on Sunday, fresh, fast snow, and even a hint of heat from the sun (all very abnormal for February!) We skied into Eleazar's cabin Saturday morning, which is 13 miles from the trailhead, spent the night and skied out Sunday. There were nine of us in the group--a few super fast skiers, some leisurely ones, plus three dogs.
The trail starts with about 5 miles of gentle hills, cutting a nice wide track through white spruce. From the ridge you can see the White Mountains rolling north and east. My friends Claudine and Andrew were teaching their dogs Smokey and Toolik how to skijore, and I tried hooking Smokey to my belt for a couple miles (who is an adorable charming former sled dog huskie). It was my first time getting pulled by a dog and I understand why people love it. He didn't pull all my weight but kept a light tension on the rope, lightening the load. He turned around and shot me a couple of questioning looks when I slowed down.
Soon we come to the top of "The Wall," a steep 1-mile hill rife with places to wipe out. Downhills are typically crazy on cross country skis, which are super light and skinny with no metal edges. All you can do is snowplow to shed speed and hope for the best. Fortunately I had backcountry skis with metal edges, which were fast enough for a thrill but controlled enough to stay on my feet. At least the snow was soft and fluffy for the few in our group who did wipe out.
The Wall drops you into a river bed of black spruce, which is usually 10-20 degrees colder than the ridge. But this weekend it was balmy, and we even got a kiss from the sun at the bottom, the first sign of its return. Another five miles and we made it to the trail junction. Now we just had to climb up a 1-mile hill to the cabin. Maybe it was the 13-mile ski after 2 months off, or maybe it was the ski boots shredding up my heels, but this hill would not end! I stopped looking for the cabin and just shuffled one foot in front of the other, and at last, tired and sweaty, there we were. The log cabin was super cute, with two bunk beds, a loft, a big wood stove, Coleman gas cookstove and picnic table. There are 12 recreational cabins in the White Mountains maintained by the Bureau of Land Management that are very popular among skiers and snowmachiners (when it's warm enough to use them). Fifty yards uphill was an outhouse, and we boiled snow in big pots on the stove for drinking water.
After taking off our skis and changing into cabin-wear (a new pair of long underwear and down booties) we cooked up some pasta with pesto and played a few games. We stoked the fire and went to sleep pretty early, with the dogs happily snuggled up next to us. It got really hot in the loft in middle of the night as the wood heat drifted up to the ceiling, but we slept pretty soundly until the sun came up shortly after 8 am (we're gaining 6 minutes of daylight per day now!) Breakfast was egg & veggie burritos, and then we were packing up to hit the trail again.
I was a bit sore from the day before, but it was a beautiful day to be on skis. Some gorilla tape and a double pair of socks helped assuage my blisters as well. The climb back up The Wall was an asskicker, and I had to herringbone up the steep parts but not walk, and we reconvened at the top eat some brownies. The last six miles flew by, and soon we were coasting down a final hill back to the cars. The sore feet and tired muscles were totally worth it, and I can't wait to get back on these trails. Now let's see how long this unseasonable warm spell holds!
Thanksgiving at Alyeska
This Thanksgiving was spent not gorging turkey and pie at home but skiing at opening weekend at Girdwood, the ski resort outside Anchorage. A big group of us–a mix of coworkers and Swedish exchange students from UAF–rented a condo 100 yards from the ski hill and spent the long weekend skiing, soaking in the hot tub, and playing a little bit of flip cup. The only thing missing was snow. Because the mountain only had 10 inches at the base, only one run was open. It was the perfect storm for getting injured--ice, poor visibility, and a bad bottleneck on the iciest section. Fortunately no one did. Josh and I skied one day at the resort and then hit the XC trails crawling up the foot of the mountain, which was 10 times softer and less crowded than the hill.
On Thanksgiving night, all 10 of us went to the base camp lodge, the Sitzmark, for what was advertised as an epic family-style Thanksgiving buffet. It was so epic that it sold out by the time we showed up at 7. The Swedes were crestfallen, as we had been talking up the American feast all day--candied yams, hearty stuffing, cranberries, and turkey all in one bite! After breaking the news, our server felt awful and came back to the table with a deal--if we bought one nice ($100) bottle of champagne, she would throw in 3 pitchers, and for $30 total they would bring us all the leftovers from the buffet. Obviously we accepted, and before long we were dining on slices of turkey, gravy, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and more. While it wasn't 'all you can eat,' there was plenty to go around and our table was sparkling with Thanksgiving spirit. We went home and played a few drinking games, which is never easy on a full stomach.
The rest of the weekend was super relaxing with lots of good company and food, but no more rides on the chairlift. While it was nice to squeeze in one day of downhill skiing, I was reminded what a ski snob I am. After you live in a mountain town for a few years and get to ski every single day for 7 months, your standards become ridiculous: if it's not a powder day, or at least packed powder, I'd rather sleep in.
Very Berry: making wild Alaska blueberry & cranberry liqueur
Alaska turns into nature's pantry in the late summer–meat, berries, fish, veggies, birch sap, you name it. So what do we do with all this bounty? Most of it ends up in the freezer to be savored throughout the year.
Blueberries, cranberries and cloudberries can be used for pies, pancakes, jam, cereal, and this year, a new product–blueberry and cranberry bounce. We recently converted several pounds of berries into eight bottles of bright fruity 50 proof liqueur now stacked in the cabinet.
It's a simple recipe that capitalizes on the super-sweetness and super-tartness of Alaska berries. First you cook 1.5 pounds of blueberry (or cranberry) into a mash to release their natural sugars. You combine this with 1 handle (750 mL) of vodka in a canning jar and let it infuse for two months in a cool, dark place. Strain the fruit out and put the liquid back on the stove. Dissolve 4 cups of sugar into 740 mL of water, and stir into the liquid.
It made three 32 ounce bottles (to share) and one 750 mL (to drink!) We made one cranberry batch and one blueberry batch.
My plan is to tie a ribbon on and give the bottles away for Christmas presents.
And supposedly it only gets better over the first couple months!
It seemed slightly odd that the first tamale party I went to was in the Great North. So was the second! But then again, we have lots of time to kill in the winter up here, and big appetites.
The best thing about Alaskan tamale parties? Big game. I doubt the Mayans had moose mole or caribou cheese tamales. Our party wasn't restricted to local ingredients, though. Other fillings included red chilis, pork, pumpkin, sweet potato, corn, beans, chocolate, pineapple, and even candy corn (that was my idea)–a good mix of sweet and savory.
Kristin was the ever graceful host. She has the best kitchen, utensils, and attitude for this kind of event. We had about 20 ladies and about that many fillings, so we set up a few assembly tables and made tamales for 6.5 hours straight on a rainy fall Saturday.
To make tamales, you take a corn husk soaked in water, fill it with a little bed of maseca (a cornmeal mixture with lard, sugar, baking powder and some other things) and then add a scoop of the desired filling. Then you wrap the corn husk completely around the fillings and tie strings of the husk around both ends, like a little corny present. We steamed big batches in a few roiling pots of water.
It was a long day, but we were continuously fueled by hot tamales, and we left with about 30 tamales apiece. You can throw them in the freezer (or outside, if you live in Alaska) and heat them up in the microwave or oven, and maybe dip it in sour cream, for a delightfully filling treat!
Five Villages in Five Days
In September I travelled to the Norton Sound region to work on an elder housing project, along with an architect from my office (Cold Climate Housing Research Center) and an elder services specialist from Anchorage. We visited five villages in five days, a fabulous time and fascinating window into life in rural Alaska. We slept in the same inn where the Iditarod mushers stay; admired hundreds of miles of the Bering Sea coast from about 700 feet up; listened to fascinating stories from elders who predated the missionaries and schools in the village; used a honey bucket (toilet without plumbing); and even went for a run on the tundra.
All of the villages are located on the edge of the coast where rivers pour into the sea, for one reason: food. They subsist on whaling, sealing, fishing, and moose and caribou hunting. Climate change is incredibly visible here--as shore-fast sea ice takes longer to freeze up in the fall (stormy season) the coastlines are getting battered by surges, which recently flooded the school in Shaktoolik. While the indigenous people have lived in the area for thousands of years, several villages have moved multiple times in the past century because of coastal erosion.
The purpose of our trip was to meet with community members in each village to come up with a plan to help elders "age in place." Currently, elders stay in their homes (often crowded with 10 or more family members and not always safe for the elderly) until they require 24-hour nursing care; then they move to Anchorage or Nome, far away from families. This is disruptive for any family, but particularly in an Alaska Native community with a close-knit family structure and a fading culture, where young generations are already losing touch with language and traditions. Keeping elders in the community is seen as a way to keep Native culture alive.
So each night we held a meeting and discussed the options, asking whether elders would prefer home modifications (grab bars in the shower, ramps, no-skid surfaces), a small efficiency apartment that would connect to the existing house, or a congregate living facility where they would live independently.
The Tour We flew first to Unalakleet, a village of about 700 and the hub of the Norton Sound subregion. That means this is the biggest airport and has the most services--consisting of an inn, a restaurant and a health clinic with medical staff (but no actual physicians. You still need to fly to Anchorage or Nome to deliver a baby or for major treatments).
This was our jumping off point to Stebbins, the southernmost village and the only one without plumbing. You get whiffs of human waste as you walk down the street past the honeybucket dumps, where each household throws its bathroom bucket. The town of about 300 was really friendly, and we slept in a nice apartment in the village school above the gym. When we arrived at the tribal council hall, we discovered we were double-booked with BINGO that night. We spent the next few hours walking door-to-door in the village passing out an elder housing survey, which was quite a glimpse into the local lifestyle. One house had a moose head (not the rack, the whole head) sitting next to the door; another entryway reeked of stinkfish (a Native delicacy of fermented fish); and several ladies were butchering goose in their kitchens and covered in blood. It seemed like there were usually at least three generations living together, as many women start having babies in their late teens. The old homes by the beach were drafty and small, often sided in plywood, while a more modern neighborhood contained cookie-cutter homes up on pilings with gray metal siding.
We squeezed the meeting into a break in BINGO, which probably actually helped boost attendance. Elders seemed to like the idea of a small pod apartment next to the home, where they could have more privacy and still be cared for by family. The pod would connect to water and sewage, have its own heater, and have a semi-permanent foundation that could be easily broken down and used for another home.
There is actually a road between Stebbins and St. Michael, our next destination, so the next day we hitched a ride (7 people in a truck) with some folks headed to the store in St. Michael. We were greeted by a 50 mph wind. The day before we had received a text saying our contact was incarcerated, so another local, Dameon, offered to walk us around to elders' homes to pass out surveys. We were all surprised when chickens ran out from under one person's house. Only about 8 elders showed up at the meeting, partly because there weren't many elders in the village and the wind was pretty vicious. They voiced that it was very important to stay near their families.
Next we flew to Koyuk, a beautiful and friendly village built into a hill on Norton Bay, with snow-capped mountains on one side and thick with white spruce (so they could actually use wood stoves, unlike many villages in the arctic). The principal of the local school picked us up at the airstrip. He was a very boisterous young guy who grew up on a Cherokee reservation in Tennessee and had spent years teaching in Bush Alaska with his wife. Our contact Ruby was awesome, helping us set up at the tribal building and walking us around to do some home assessments. We saw everything from leaky walls to shifting foundations to moldy bathrooms. Many homes were very hot and humid, which can cause moisture problems in a cold climate. As water vapor tries to escape through the walls to reach a less concentrated state, it hits cold surfaces in the wall cavity, condenses, and sets the stage for mold growth. Good ventilation would alleviate the problem, but many homes don't even have working bathroom fans.
The meeting was super productive, mainly because elders and their caretakers opened up about what they wanted and needed. They said they want to stay at home as long as possible, and when they require additional care, they'd rather move to an assisted living facility in Unalakleet rather than Nome or Anchorage. There was the occasional long tangent, like one guy (apparently the oldest in Koyuk) who talked about his frustration with changing times. "We teach the belugas to be smart. You hear the aluminum boats, bang bang bang bang!!! 30 miles from here. That's why the belugas are smart."
We slept on the floor of the school library and woke up Thursday to fresh snow and hoards of excited K-12 students.
It was time to head to Village Number 4. Shaktoolik is a narrow spit of land that almost looks like it's floating in the ocean. Several years ago they had to relocate three miles up the coast because of erosion. Now the ocean is eating away at the south shores and depositing more sand on the north end. We had quite an adventure with lodging that taught me when traveling in villages, always confirm your reservations a day in advance. When we showed up at Myron's B&B, he had forgotten we were coming and given our rooms away to some construction workers. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly and said we could stay at his brother's house down the road. His brother Newman lived in a ramshackle bachelor pad with a broken toilet and film of grime over everything. To flush the toilet, you had to dump a bucket of water down the drain (we all held it). At first we were a little uneasy about the arrangements, but then his niece and nephew came over and we realized he was a trustworthy guy. Myron spooked Amanda a little bit when he sat down next to her on the couch, took her picture, and told her he was looking for a girlfriend.
No one had advertised the meeting in Shaktoolik as planned, so I jumped on the radio that afternoon to make an announcement. The small village didn't actually have very many elders, but about 12 residents showed up. They weren't too interested in the pod idea and raised a good point: Since elders often own the home, and kids and grandkids are crashing with them, why would they want to move? What they really wanted was more housing for younger people and more health aides (trained staff usually from outside the village) to care for elders.
Our final charrette was in Unalakleet. We stayed at Maggie's Inn, a hotspot for Iditarod mushers and Iron Dog snowmachiners every March. The clean beds and showers were a refreshing change from sleeping on school floors and public buildings.
We saw a Coast Guard helicopter when we arrived, as a couple from Unalakleet had gone missing earlier in the week after they took a river boat out into the sea and got stuck in a wind storm. The boat had been found overturned and a body had washed to shore about 35 miles away. It cast a very sad mood over the village, and residents were organizing a search party to find the other body.
We ate lunch at Piece on Earth, a really good pizza place in Unalakleet and the only real restaurant in the region. It takes an hour to get your food, and a large pizza costs $36, but comes with an astonishing variety of fresh veggies, considering the cost of flying supplies out here.
Twenty-two elders showed up at the meeting and they were interested in having an assisted living facility in the village. The building would probably be owned by the tribal government, and the toughest part will be keeping occupancy up in order to cover costs. Amanda, our state health care expert, said it would cost about $8,000/month per person to stay there without Medicaid or state assistance, so it's important that the region has enough qualifying elders to make it sustainable.
We finished off the night with margaritas at Tracy's house, our project coordinator from Unalakleet who arranged the whole trip. It was awesome to unwind and hang out after a crazy week of traveling and intense sessions every night. Saturday we had a big debriefing before getting on the plane back to Anchorage, and I interviewed everyone about the week to preserve our impressions. We had received different feedback from each village, with one thing in common: help us stay at home as long as possible. This winter we will most likely come up with a pod prototype design and begin design development on an assisted living facility for Unalakleet.
We returned to Fairbanks after midnight. Josh was at a concert but had left my car at the office. I was almost home when the hood suddenly started smoking and the power steering crapped out, so I wrangled it into the Ester Post Office and parked. Normally I would be stressed out about getting stranded in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures, but having spent a whole week in villages with one curveball after another, I simply grabbed my backpack, turned on my headlamp, and walked home.
Packrafting in Denali: the joyful marriage of backpacking and rafting
I had high hopes for packrafting, since many of my friends in Alaska are buying them and then disappearing into the wilderness for the whole summer. After much anticipation, I finally went over Labor Day weekend and was not disappointed: it was a blast, with flashes of fear, adrenaline and cold. We went to Windy Creek outside Denali, a fairly short run on a Class 2 river with splashy rapids and a great starter trip.
Packrafting is the ingenius marriage of backpacking and rafting. Packrafts are super light inflatable rafts designed for a solo paddler that are about 7 feet long and weigh less than 5 pounds. They pack down to the size of a sleeping bag and fit easily into your backpack. The sport started in Alaska, probably because there are so many remote rivers that you can't get to from the road system.
Now it's taking off in the Interior, and several of my friends bought some recently and have been playing with them this summer. I went with a few of them down to Denali last weekend to test it out. I haven't been rafting in about 5 years, and although I love rivers, I have never felt savvy on the water whether I'm in an intertube, a surfboard or a canoe. So, along with the other two beginners in our group, I was a bit intrepid at first given the cold water and not-warm weather.
We spent the night in a cabin at Carlo Creek, just south of Denali National Park. Saturday we parked a couple take-out vehicles (one on the Jack River and one on the Nenana, so we had options) and drove to Cantwell. We parked at the lodge and hiked about 3.5 miles, on a very well-groomed trail, to Windy Creek. The hike was a feast of colors, with firey red dwarf birch and blueberry bushes covering the ground, orange and yellow leaves and flowers, and bright gold birch and aspen crawling up the mountains.
The creek was fast, rocky, and looked very fun but a little scary. It was in the high 40s, but we had warmed up a bit from hiking. When we got to the put-in, we ate a quick lunch and then blew up our boats, which have a delightfully clever design. They're made of urethane-coated nylon and are very tough. It takes about 5 minutes to inflate them, by squeezing air from a big nylon bag into a hole. You use collapsible paddles that you strap to your backpack while hiking.
The first couple miles were swift with lots of rocks and plenty of water to propel us over them. My fear turned quickly into ecstatic fun.You're constantly navigating between obstacles--rocks, sweepers, more rocks--and paddling toward the fast, high water. You don't have time to think of anything except what's ahead on the river. I was happy to discover that packrafts are very forgiving. If you don't maneuver perfectly, the boats bounce off most rocks and you can even drop over the small ones, if you don't mind getting wet. One time I went over a rock and was momentarily stuck in a hole, but a few hard paddles dislodged me. They're pretty responsive too, and a few hard paddles will clear a big rock in your path. My gloves were soaked within minutes but the rest of me stayed fairly dry under the skirt of the raft.
We didn't get stuck on shallows or sweepers until the second part of the trip, where every half-mile we seemed to encounter something we had to beach for. When you see an obstacle, you're supposed to paddle away from it toward the easiest shore. Well, one time I picked the wrong shore and ended up with the front of my boat wedged under a sweeper and the current trying to drag me through the sweeper. That's the crazy thing about rivers--One second you're chatting and laughing, and the next second requires split second decision making to avoid disaster.
Luckily I was right next to a gravel bar and managed to step out of my boat onto dry ground--while submerging my whole leg in frosty water--and yank the boat onto shore. Unfortunately, I forgot to grab my paddle and it was whisked downriver. That is, my friend's $150 paddle. Fortunately, the giant spruce tree laying across the river (which had triggered this crazy behavior the first place) caught the paddle in its branches. So all I had to do was carry the packraft, which had been flooded with water when I jumped ship, over my head while wading through a waist-deep slough and then bushwacking through 100 yards of dwarf birch to the other side of the sweeper, where my paddle was waiting patiently for me. Now I was half-soaked, cold and pissed off at my misjudgment.
Fortunately we were close to the confluence with the Jack River and the take-out. We ferried across the river, got out and deflated the boats, which only takes about 10 minutes. Then we were back on our feet with rafts on our backs hiking to the car. We had been out about 6 hours--counting hiking and floating--and I had definitely had my fill of excitement (without even seeing any bears!) We cruised back to the hostel and went across the street to Panorama Pizza for dinner and some fusball.
I would say my first packrafting trip was probably fun enough to justify buying one next year. It's like the summer version of alpine touring--opening up huge chunks of the backcountry that would otherwise be too difficult, or too slow, to access.
Caribou: a journey from the mountain to the freezer
No, I did not shoot a caribou. But I did help process close to 200 pounds of meat after our friend Jake shot one recently. A couple weeks ago, Jake, Kristin and Josh went hunting out near Tok, northeast of Fairbanks close to Canada. They spent two days hiking in the eastern Alaska Range, and finally came across some caribou early afternoon on Sunday. The caribou were hanging out in a draw, and Josh hiked up above them to shoo them down toward the others. Jake had an open shot, and aimed for the biggest one by far. Bull's eye!
He happened to shoot it in a rocky scree field, which meant the three of them spent the next couple hours field dressing the animal on sharp rocks. They packed out about 170 pounds of meat six miles back to the car. It was midnight when they left Tok and 3 a.m. when they got back to Fairbanks. Josh took Monday off and they started processing the meat at 2 in the afternoon. By the time I arrived after work at 6, they were about halfway done.
It wasn’t as gross as I thought it would be—just smelled like typical meat (not sure what I was expecting, something more rank!) I just learned to filet fish last year and had never processed meat, so it was a learning experience. They had already de-boned it in the field. So we just had to slice off the fat and most of the connective tissue, or fascia, which is stretchy and wrapped around every muscle. Then you chop it into steaks or stew meat or roasts. About half was ground into burger, the odds and ends of everything else.
By the end, we were pretty exhausted (well, the hunters more than me!) but had filled almost a whole freezer of neatly packaged meal-sized servings of caribou. Kristin cooked up some panang curry with fresh 'boo and farm fresh veggies, and of course it was delicious! While I’m not a hunter, the concept is really appealing: a couple days of really hard work for a year’s worth of protein (well, if you have good aim).
Ester LiBerry Pie Festival, Music Festival & Library Fundraiser
The Ester LiBerry Music Festival is a pie contest/music festival/fundraiser for the new John Trigg Ester Library outside Fairbanks. Every pie must incorporate some type of berry (by the botanical definition) which ranges from cranberry to a coffee bean to a tomato.
The event features local bands, local ingredients, and, of course, intense bidding wars between locals! The winning pie auctioned off for $425, which will go toward building a super energy efficient library heated entirely by renewables. More information at esterlibrary.org.
Alaska State Cup 2012
Every year there is a state cup soccer tournament in Anchorage that features the best teams in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and a couple from Canada. That’s the men’s division; the women’s division usually brings three whole teams—one good team from Anchorage, one crappy team from Anchorage, and a mishmash of players from Fairbanks. Every year I am astounded by the shortage of women’s soccer players in a state bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Especially when I remember the Pennsylvania state cup of my youth, which had an A and B women’s league both stacked with at least 8 competitive teams.
Anyway, the last three years Josh’s team (the legendary Rusty Buffalo) has won the men’s league, which is always a huge upset because Anchorage has more than 4 times the population of Fairbanks and, to be a honest, a much higher standard of soccer than its northern neighbor. The women’s team, however, has lost in the finals every year to the same team of dirty, mostly heavy girls who are surprisingly fast, after beating them in the preliminaries. They run over us and complain about every call, and it’s usually not very fun. Then we have to watch them win the Alaska State Champions hoodies year after year, and it kills me. Plus, we don’t play as a team (not a surprise seeing as we don’t play together all season) and the other games in the tournament are completely uncompetitive (we usually win by about 6 goals), which doesn’t add to the fun. That’s why I decided not to play this year and instead just go down and cheer for the men’s team.
We drove down Friday and the guys played a team of mainly Mexican players—i.e. good footskills—and tied 1-1. The next morning, I was recruited by the Fairbanks women’s team to play the last two games and couldn’t say no, mainly because being at the soccer fields around soccer players all day makes you, believe it or not, want to play soccer! So I borrowed some socks and shinguards and suited up against the heavyweights. They changed the games to 7v7 to try to attract more women (didn’t work) so there was no offsides and more attack. I played center mid and had lots of shots but no goals. The first game was really close and we totally outshot them but ended up losing 1-0. Next game was an hour later, against the other half of the heavyweights, and we again outshot them but couldn’t finish!
So even though we didn’t win any games I felt way happier than years past—because I had fun playing with Tonya, Amber and Anne and the Anchorage girls weren’t nearly as venomous or dirty as other years (probably because Tonya had broken bread with them at the bar the night before). It also shows me that I’ve done a 180 since college and care much more about good soccer than about winning.
Once eliminated, I poured my energy into cheering for the guys’ team. They were 0-1-1 so they needed to win the Saturday evening game by 2 goals. It was evident pretty early on that wasn’t going to happen against International. They played well as a team, but the other team happened to have the former captain of the Cuban national team, who schooled our defense and scored 3 out of the 4 goals. Also, it didn’t help that our team got 2 red cards—one for the coach for yelling profanities and one for railroading another player in the back—so were playing a man down most of the game.
Clearly, the run for the Rusty Buffalo was over. They had dominated for several years through a mix of speed, heart and lucky bounces. This year they still had heart, but didn’t quite have the legs or the stars on their side.
On the upside, this freed us up to hit downtown Anchorage on Saturday night. It started with Irish car bombs (Baileys, whiskey and Guinness) and ended with late-night food at Hot Sticks, watching police arrest some punks across the street. It was a really fun weekend, but still no hoodie!
Sheep & Berries at Mt. Prindle
It dawned on me this summer that I am so focused on seeing the iconic parts of Alaska—the rainforest in Southeast, the arctic, the fjords of the Kenai—that I have largely overlooked the Interior. I’ve done a bunch of trips in Denali and the Alaska Range—which is only about 2 hours south—but constantly overlook the mountain range about 30 miles north of Fairbanks—the Steese White Mountains. Granted, these 5,000 foot peaks don’t exactly look down on the gnarly peaks of the Alaskas, which stretch up to 20,000 feet. But if you drive about an hour out of Fairbanks up the Steese Highway, you can take one of several wilderness access dirt roads into the mountains. They are beautiful and undulating with cool rocky ridges, soft tundra, and wide open views.
In early August we headed out this way for a memorable weekend, where we basked in the sun, harvested a gallon of wild blueberries and had our campsite raided by sheep. Josh and I decided to hike Mt. Prindle, a 5,000 foot summit with a half-mile ridge of granite tors—big rock formations up to 30 feet tall that almost look manmade. We camped by the trailhead on Friday and started the hike early Saturday morning. We brought Josh’s parents’ Chesapeake Bay retriever, Gertrude, who is “better bear protection than a shotgun,” according to Josh. It was 80 degrees without a cloud in the sky, and the trail was completely above treeline--so it was hot. We bushwhacked through a swampy area for awhile before realizing we were supposed to cross the river right away. We finally found the trail—an awesome single-track through tundra that followed Nome Creek all the way up the valley at a gentle incline.
I was elated to discover the entire valley was FILLED with blueberry bushes—ripe ones! This helped fuel the walk with a heavy backpack. After about five miles we got to a bowl surrounded by mountains and set up camp by the river—sticking our Nalgenes and two token beers in the water to chill. We laid in the sun and relaxed for about an hour, soaking up this rare Alaska heat. Then we kept pressing toward the summit, about another 4 miles on fluffy tundra. We spotted about 20 Dall sheep less than a half-mile from our campsite, and most of them scattered as we approached. Except for one young ram (with only one horn), who started walking toward the trail in our direction. Gertrude hadn’t spotted him yet, and before you know it he was standing in the trail about 50 yards away pacing toward us! Dall sheep are skittish creatures whose main survival skill is to stay above their predators—hence they hang out in rocky mountaintops. The ones who approach humans are probably not the ones to live long lives.
But this one-horned sheep was a couple hundred feet away and getting closer, and wasn’t spooked away until Gertrude lost her cool and lurched toward him howling. Now the ram bounded up the other slope about 100 yards, perching there with an eye on us. One of those weird encounters with a wild animal that makes you wonder if you’re supposed to be afraid of something just because it isn’t afraid of you, even though it’s below you on the food chain.
So we summitted and played around in the tors for awhile and snacked on some summer sausage. I almost wanted to drop into the other side of the ridge, where you’re confronted with more beautiful open wilderness.
Strange encounter with sheep Number 2 came when we were returning to our campsite and saw about 6 sheep running away from that direction. They couldn’t possibly have been snooping around our campsite, I thought. But I clearly don’t understand sheep, because when we got back there was evidence everywhere: Gertrude picked up their scent all around our tent, our socks that had been drying on a bush were strewn about, and the bag of cheese and bread I had hidden under moss by the river to keep cool was dug up. They raided our stuff! Fortunately they didn’t trample the tent, they didn’t come back, and they took my mind off bears.
We went to bed super early after the sun dipped behind the mountains, and had an amazingly sound sleep that night. We started hiking out early Sunday to leave time for berry picking. We were bewildered at the size and spread of blueberries, and filled up a couple water bottles (pretty good considering I eat about one out of every 5 I pick). We ran into one of the women I run with about 2 miles from the trailhead, the only person we saw the entire weekend. The final river crossing felt really good on the feet. Crossings are always a little daunting because I’m always so surprised by the power of the current, but this one was pretty shallow and gentle. We got back to town in time to eat dinner with Josh’s mom on the deck and steal some ridiculously sweet cherry tomatoes from her plant.
Just another Alaska summer weekend filled with mountains, wildlife, and blueberries. Except this time I had one unusual thing to show for it—a tan!
Teacher training in the Fairbanks North Star Borough
My teacher friend said the basic protocol is to 1) stay out of the moose's way and 2) tell a grown-up.
Never saw a moose during recess at East Hanover Elementary, in Central PA!
Spiders in Alaska: Part II
So just to recap on Part 1, two of my best friends/teammates from college, Annette and Christa, visited this month and we roadtripped around Alaska. The first week was spent on Solstice festivities in Fairbanks and watching bears in Denali. Then we headed to the Kenai Peninsula.
It was cold and windy when we got to Seward, a token Alaska town with 4,000-foot mountains rising out of a sparkling blue fjord and a charming quaint downtown. We found a hostel and booked a sightseeing cruise for the following day (all the kayaking tours apparently fill up weeks ahead of time!) We wandered into the Yukon Bar downtown, where they happened to have Panty Peeler (a very strong, tasty brew by Midnight Sun Brewing). Next thing you know, it's midnight and we have the munchies, so we go back to the hostel and cook up some egg sandwiches and brats (whatever was left in the cooler). We felt really bad about triggering the fire alarm (the electric burner was way too hot) and waking everyone up, but the sandwiches were really hit the spot.
The next morning we boarded our boat for a full-day tour of Resurrection Bay, out into the Gulf of Alaska to the Aialik Bay, Aialik Glacier, and surrounding islands. We saw a cornucopia of wildlife–humpbacks, orcas, harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, Dall porpoises, bald eagles, oyster catchers, puffins, and more. For about 40 minutes we watched humpbacks bubble net feet about 100 feet from the boat: one whale carves a circle in the surface with its mouth, creating bubbles that draw food into the center like a net, and then 3 or 4 whales surface with their whole heads and gulp in 500 or so gallons of water, filtering out plankton to digest and blowing the rest out the blowhole. We were completely spellbound along with the 60 others on the boat as everyone looked for bubbles, then a collective 'WOW' as the amazing creatures came up to feed. Finally the captain had to take off so we could stay on schedule. "The whales are great but if I don't show you guys a glacier and a puffin, you're gonna turn on me in no time," he said. We also saw a pod of orcas splashing around. Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family and families spend their entire lives with their mother's lineage. (Our captain was like a marine encyclopedia.)
The rest of the day was a blur of wildlife– harbor seals glaring at us from rocks, dozens of sea lions sprawled on rocks grunting, an adorable sea otter flipping around, Dall porpoises jetting across the surface of the water, 100s of puffins flitting between the rocks and the water, bald eagles relaxing in trees, and 100s of Alaska penguins perched on a rock eyeing for fish. Oh yea, and we also travelled 10,000 years back in time to the Aialik Glacier, a remnant from the last ice age that is 2 miles x 10 miles long with a 300-foot vertical wall jutting into the water. The boat sat still for about 15 minutes so we could just "listen" to the glacier, which is actively calving, meaning Volkswagon-sized chunks of ice break free and crash into the water before your eyes.
After about 6 hours of mind-boggling scenery, we stopped at the tour company's lodge at Fox Island for some baked salmon and rib-eye before heading back to Seward.
We woke up the next morning to Resurrection Bay gleaming in the sunshine. We had some breakfast and coffee before heading north, back to the Denali area. We stopped again in Talkeetna (to pick up Annette's credit card from the bar where she left it a few nights before) and had a yummy lunch at Denali Brewing Co. We got to Byers Lake campground at Denali State Park around 6pm, pitched the tent, and went for a hike. We walked a few miles and saw a waterfall and a beautiful panorama of the Alaska Range. Of course we didn't see the black clouds rolling in until Annette was in full costume (ruby red prom dress) filming a scene of a damsel in distress climbing across a very sketchy bridge (she's an artist). By the time we hustled back to the campground, it was pouring. With impressive reaction time and resourcefulness, we hung up a tarp from trees and the car to provide some shelter and cooked a tasty meal of dried noodles and Italian sausage. We weren't about to let the rain ruin our campfire experience, so we cooked s'mores on the Coleman stove (they blackened in about 2 seconds) and then slept soundly to the rain pelting the tent fly.
It was dry in the morning, and we began the 3-hour journey back to Fairbanks. We had planned to meet up with other friends for a pub crawl of downtown Fairbanks on the last night (not the most cosmopolitan scene but still an enriching experience). We started at Lavelle's, a classy restaurant and wine bar, and went downhill from there to the Midnite Mine (a basement bar with a gritty Alaska crowd) and ended up at my favorite establishment of all, the Golden Eagle in Ester, a mile from my house with mystery beer on tap and the best company you could ask for.
The last day we crammed in some gift shopping (Annette bought some reindeer sausage for her friends in D.C.) and then met up with Annette's friend Igor from art school in D.C., who astonishingly lives about 10 miles away from me in the Ester area (small world!) They fed us bear marinated in teriyaki, moose burger, seal, whale, wild mushrooms, and some greens from their garden. It was hard to say goodbye to my friends, but I was fully saturated with fun from the trip (and yes, a bit hungover too). The week reminded me how much I love my friends, love Alaska, and love my life!
Fourth of July 2012, Ester-style
Spiders in Alaska Part 1: the Interior
Annette and Christa, two of my best friends and soccer teammates from college, and subsequent roommates/ski bums in Vail, came to visit the Great AK in June. Christa is a med student in Mississippi and Annette is an artist in D.C., so this was quite a break from reality for them and a treat for me. We started the trip by celebrating summer solstice in fairbanks, one of the few weekends of the year that Fairbanks is actually the place to be. We hit up the midnight sun baseball game (or at least the tailgate) as soon as they landed. Then on Friday evening we floated the lower chena, which is a very easy, very popular float through downtown fairbanks. There are several bars along the way, and no rapids or sweepers, so it makes a good booze cruise. We had a huge flotilla of 30-some canoers, kayakers, and friends on other random watercraft (like Corey's homemade rigid-foam/plywood flotation). It was close to 80 degrees and a perfect night to be on the river.
Saturday we prepped for our big roadtrip, stocking up on bratwurst, trail mix, s'mores, whiskey, the bare essentials. That night we ran in the Midnight Sun 10k, a quintessential solstice experience that attracts about 4,000 runners and walkers, many in body paint, wigs, and crazy costumes. (Ten of my friends went as racing dragons...each dragon had five runners with a ridgeback and a giant head made out of an action packer. They were really slow.) It starts at 10 pm and weaves through a bunch of downtown neighborhoods, where residents BBQ, party, blast music, and cheer on the runners (while kids squirt us with Super Soakers). It's a super fun, fast course, and I finished first in my age group and 6th overall with a time of 42:07.
Sunday we hit the road, en route to Denali, only a two-hour drive from Fairbanks. The sun was shining until we got there and were met with the characteristic cloud clover. We stayed at my boss's cabin right outside the park, perched on the Nenana River and close to the restaurants and coffee shops too. We indulged in some delicious halibut tacos and local raspberry wheat beer at the Salmon Bake and then perused the gift shops. I found an awesome wolf keychain–when you squeeze his belly, gray wolf poop squirts out the back. I have a thing for wolves (the only animal I haven't seen yet in Denali!)
The next day we woke up early and boarded the bus, headed for the visitor's center located 60 miles inside the park. Because Denali is classified as a wilderness park, it only has one road and is accessible only by bus (unless you have a special permit). So if you want to see the vast beauty and abundant wildlife Denali has to offer, the bus is your ticket (unfortunately this means riding elbow to elbow with 50 other tourists with large cameras). We definitely lucked out. Within an hour we had seen a moose and a grizzly bear. While we were catching our breath, a wolverine (the most elusive animal in Alaska) walked right across the road, followed by a lynx! Wolverines are black and white, weasely creatures the size of a big dog and famous among trappers for their warm, soft pelts. Dall sheep started to pop out against the rocky tops of the mountains. We also saw a few caribou napping by the river and an overweight marmot sunning near the road.
As we got closer to visitor's center we saw a sow and two cubs browsing the tundra for berries (they also eat roots and fish). By the time we were ready to go for a hike, we had seen enough grizzlies to make me a little bear shy. Christa really wanted to ford the river, but she was the only one with sandals and zip-off pants, plus the braided river was deeper and faster than it looked. So after Annette and I almost went for a swim, we opted instead for a mountain next to the Toklat River that was pretty open and didn't have much brush (a good place to surprise bears) but still plenty of big views. We saw beautiful, tiny blue flowers littering the tundra, which I later identified as forget-me-nots, the state flower of Alaska. After our hike we hitched a ride on another bus back to the park entrance, where Josh was meeting us (he had a bad run-in with dehydration and thus took the day off).
When we woke up Tuesday it was pouring--all across the state. A pilot in the coffee shop suggested we go to Coldfoot, a remote truckstop in the Arctic, to avoid the rain, but I was deadset on going to the coast. But the original plan to take the Denali Highway east to the Richardson, then drive to Valdez, was foiled by a small screw that had penetrated my rear left tire. Then the very candid mechanic told me my tires were way too $hi##y for the Denali Highway (a rough dirt road) with no services whatsoever, so we decided to stay on the more mainstream Parks Highway and make our way to the Kenai Peninsula.
That night we stopped in Talkeetna, a charming mountain town a couple hours north of Anchorage that serves as a launchpad for mountaineers climbing Denali. It's token Alaska, with painted wooden moose sculptures everywhere and bright flowers overflowing in gardens along the pedestrian downtown. We hiked around a cluster of lakes (on a mosquito-infested trail) and then dined on mushroom and Hawaiian pies at Mountain High Pizza. After listening to open-mic at the Fairview Inn, an historic hotel/bar from the 1920s (furnished with lots of animal heads and a slot machine), we spent the night at the hostel right next to the airstrip. After a good night's sleep (Josh and I slept in a Vanagan in the yard that smelled faintly of climbers) we headed for Seward, 150 miles south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula, and a completely different world of fjords and marine life.
Chicken Stock 2012
About 200 miles from Fairbanks, just next to the Canadian border, is the town of Chicken, Alaska. While famous for its “Where the hell is Chicken” bumper stickers and “I got laid in Chicken” souveniers, there’s really nothing there. The former gold boom town now has a year-round population of about 10. Legend says they called it Chicken because the locals didn’t know how to spell Ptarmigan. The only real economy depends on the giant tour buses that stop by to purchase ice cream and key chains on their way from Dawson City (in the Yukon Territory) to Fairbanks. Dredges, pipe, and other mining equipment lay haphazardly all over the place in a state of long disuse.
Chicken Stock is an outdoor bluegrass music festival that started about three years ago. It brings together really good bands from Fairbanks (like Steve Brown and the Bailers), Anchorage, and Canada. About 200 people from all directions cluster in Chicken for the weekend—hipsters from Whitehorse, hippies from Fairbanks, rednecks, mushers, and retirees from nearby Tok and beyond. The bands play in a big clearing in between the river and the store on a stage made of two old rusty flatbed trucks backed up against each other. It’s pretty much the perfect setting for listening to bluegrass music, dancing, and hoola hooping.
We struck gold with the weather—80 degrees and sunny all weekend, with the sun never truly setting (with solstice just around the corner). We rolled in from Fairbanks on Friday night around 9:30, after a five-hour drive ending with 60 miles of rolling foothills, green spruce forest, and ethereal-looking fire scar on the Taylor Highway. We found a great camping spot about 200 yards from the festival and then moseyed down to the music. It only lasted til midnight, so then we ate some campfire snacks and headed to the main attraction in Chicken—the saloon where they shoot women’s panties out of a canon. No joke….they pack this old-school canon full of underwear, sprinkle in some gunfire, and blast them sky-high. The remnants are collected and hung from the saloon's ceiling for a very unique local charm. We watched the sun hover on the horizon for a couple hours and then another day promptly begin at around 3 a.m.
I knew we were in for a hot day when I woke up baking in my tent at 8 a.m. Saturday. Hot sunny days are always a treat in Interior Alaska, helping fade memories of months of -40. Emily, Josh and I went for a run toward Eagle, another town in the middle of nowhere. We found a trail that weaved through birch and overlooked the river valley and town of Chicken. Then after an egg scramble, it was time to change into a sundress and head to the show. The scene is very chill, with people camped out in chairs all over the big lot and a large dirt dance floor. Before long we were toasted, so we headed to the river to soak our feet.
We were all varying shades of red by the time we returned to the campsite for dinner, seeking refuge from the sun under hats, long sleeves, and hard-to-come-by slivers of shade. Things were picking up at the festival, and Kristin started to sell some of her home-made hoola hoops. Steve Brown and the Bailers, a really awesome band made up of Fairbanks-area teachers, came on around 7. Even Josh and Sam danced to these guys. Despite being star-struck, I walked up to Steve Brown during a break, explained that I was a big fan, and asked if I could use one of his songs in a video documentary I’m making of our great Southeast escapade. He said yes, and to send him a link…local celebrities are so much better than the big ones!
One thing about Alaska summer nights is that they take foreeeever to cool off. After a full day in the sun’s eye, we ran out of steam around 11 and wandered back to camp for s’mores. Our sleep was punctuated by occasional canon firings, but I slept pretty deeply and felt good on Sunday. We took our time driving back to Fairbanks, stopping at Fast Eddie’s in Tok for an enormous pizza.
Spring Bike Ride in Denali
Denali National Park is one of Alaska’s finest gems—enormous mountains, amazing river valleys, teeming with wildlife. It's also one of the most famous parks in the U.S. and thus teeming with tourists during the summer. As a local, it's critical to visit around the fringes of high season (no offense to tourists but it sucks sitting on a crowded bus with people crawling over you to take pictures of moose). So we try to go once before the buses start running on Memorial Day and again in the fall after Labor Day, when the tundra landscape explodes in the richest fall colors I've ever seen. Last weekend we went for a full-day bike trip from Teklanika (about 30 miles in on the park road, and the farthest point you’re allowed to drive) to Polychrome Pass, about 15 miles away.
This time of year, you need to be ready for anything. So we had shorts, Spandex, cheese and crackers, rain jackets, hats, gloves, and—of course—bear spray (they're awake). Just as we hoped, we had absolutely no traffic on the road and lots of wildlife: three bears, three caribou, a few Dall sheep, an eagle, and lots of birds. Which makes me love Denali (nowhere else in the state do you see so many animals right by the road) and also regret the fact that it’s so overrun in the summer. Then again, it is the nation's park and so all Americans should get a chance to visit it.
There were eight of us on the ride—everything from competitive cyclists Ness and RJ to me, who almost passed out on the top of Sable Pass, to Greta, who hasn’t exercised in a year. It begins with a few miles of slow uphill to the base of Sable Pass, and then a couple-thousand foot climb with some seriously steep sections. Let’s just say my bike didn’t have a low enough gear…and at some points I had to thrust my entire core forward to rotate the pedal. Kinda pathetic, but I’m a runner, not a biker! The top of Sable Pass was beautiful, with snow fields, glimmering peaks, and a strong wind. Next up was a 4-mile descent, so we put on another layer and bombed down the pass. It’s kind of bittersweet going down something long and steep that you know you have to go back up. Toward the bottom, I was rounding a corner and Greta came screaming past me, making up for lost time up Sable Pass by not braking at all (caution isn’t her style).
Only Ken, Ness and RJ summitted Polychrome, which is renown for its red southwest look and incredible overlook. The rest of us pedaled about halfway up and then stopped to eat snacks. A golden eagle was flying laps over us for awhile and we stared at the beautiful ridgeline of the Alaska Range against streaks of blue sky. A few sheep were also spotted on a high skree field. Unfortunately there is no chairlift back up Sable Pass, so the next 40 minutes were an exhausting slog with several false summits. Anna and I didn’t have padded bike shorts so we were experiencing serious butt soreness by this point. And of course, after a big climb you’ve overheated and sweaty, but you have to bundle up for the descent—so we put back on our hats, gloves and jackets. The ride down was a euphoric free fall; you just hold on tight and try not slide out on loose gravel.
Toward the base of the pass, Josh stopped to point out a couple grizzlies about a half-mile away walking down some rocks. Don’t ask me how he saw these two brown dots while cruising at full speed (must be an Alaskan genetic trait) but it was pretty cool to see the sow and cub ambling along. A couple miles later we saw a much more personal show—a grizzly was hanging out on a gravel bar only a couple hundred yards away but down a 30-foot bank, which meant a safe distance for the peanut gallery. She was digging for something—someone said she thought it was potatoes but I don’t know what grows on gravel bars. Eventually she clomped across the river (it was more of a stream at this juncture) and laid down to take a snooze—pretty cute! This was only about one mile from the parking lot—and my butt was very grateful to get off the bike.
Since it was dinnertime, we hit up the 49th State Brewery in Healy, a new-ish restaurant/brewery with really good food and decent brews, when they’re not sold out. I got cod tacos and a yummy Blonde Ale. On the two-hour drive back to Fairbanks, you trade in the mountains for gentle rolling hills. I prefer mountains!
Slush Cup at Alyeska
Like most ski resorts, skiers in Alyeska wrap up the season by dressing up in ridiculous costumes (skunks, superheroes, TV stars), flying down a hill on skis, launching into a pool, and trying to water ski about 50 feet on downhill skis. We went down to Girdwood for Slush Cup in April to ski one last time and say goodbye to winter. On Saturday, the day of the pond skimming, it was cold and rainy (snowing at the top). The snow was crusty at the top of the mountain and slushy at the bottom, which made for an interesting first day on my new powder skis. With rockered tips and tails, they like to float on top of the snow, but with a fat waist (115 mm) they don’t exactly turn on a dime. We skied a full day and then camped out on the slope to watch the Slush Cup with several thousand other spectators. The course contained not one but two pools separated with a bridge of snow. So skiers had to gain a lot of speed to make it across the first 40-foot-long pool, and then maintain control while skiing over the snow and landing in another 25-foot pool of water. Most people wiped out in the first pool—one snowboarder chick yard-saled as soon as she hit the water and ripped one of her feet out of her boot (I’ve never seen that happen on a snowboard). Another guy tried a backflip off the middle bridge and dumped into the water on his butt. A skier dressed up like a skunk actually made it all the way across.
After Slush Cup, we walked back to our condo for showers. Unfortunately we didn't get tickets to the Photons, an Anchorage jam band playing at the Sitzmark. But instead we opted for burritos and some fun paper games. Two of our friends, Anna and Ken, met us in Girdwood on their way back to Alaska from Greenland. Sunday was a beautiful sunny day, which meant warm snow and pure slush. The powder skis performed better in these conditions and I started getting a feel for them. We skied a half-day with a couple breaks for beer and tired legs. We even had time to get dinner at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage before our flight back to Fairbanks (usually we drive but it takes 7 hours, which is a bit intense for two days of skiing). It was great to get one last dose of snowy mountains before diving into summer in Alaska!
Our Backyard Moose
It was -20 when I woke up on the first day of spring. The vernal equinox in mid-March, which delivers exactly 12 hours of daylight, is a major milestone in Fairbanks as residents claw their way out of a deep dark winter.
Spring has been sluggish this year. The average temperature in March was -1 (it's usually +9) and we had lows of -20 for eight days with -30 one night.
The stubborn cold finally broke on Sunday, just in time for the Sonot Kkaazoot ski race on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. It was 15 degrees at the start of the race, which has a 20km and 50km distance. Being the underachiever I am, I skied the 20k, an out-and-back groomer on the (utterly flat) river. It's a fast course, and I finished in 1hr17, which, to my astonishment, was enough to win my age group. Even more surprising because, at 29, in running events I'm usually stuck in the most competitive field of 25-29. Apparently that's not the case for skiing. Many of the 20k winners were in high school or quite a bit older than me, while the 50k was dominated by UAF skiers.
The weather has only gotten more heavenly since then. At my lunchtime ski class today, it was 35 degrees and it felt like there were three suns shining on us, melting the top layer of snow into a slick runway. Tomorrow I'm going to skin Moose Mountain, the local 1000 foot ski hill, and on Thursday (forecast is 42) we're going for an office ski "meeting" on the river (did I mention I love my job?)
The flip side of above-freezing temps is, of course, that the snowpack diminishes more every day--the tragedy of spring in Fairbanks. Now that it's finally warm and light, you have to cram a whole winter's worth of fun into about six weeks. But instead of lamenting our wacky seasons, I'm just going to put some warm wax on my skis, some sunscreen on my cheeks, and enjoy it while it lasts!
Girdwood was my manifest destiny. By that I mean I soo needed it and sooo deserved it. After being starved of sun and powder all winter, a small group of us went down to Girdwood (a ski town just south of Anchorage that is a dumping ground for all the coastal storms in Southcentral). We arrived right after a big storm and skied in knee-deep powder all weekend. Finally, some food for the soul after a cold, dark, difficult winter in Fairbanks.
We were greeted with 10-foot snow berms when we pulled into town, which is tucked in between the Chugach mountains and Turnagain Arm. It also happens to be rainforest (technically speaking, it receives more than 80 inches of rain a year). This winter they have 750 inches (62 FEET) of snow and counting. In ski-speak, that’s pretty freakin epic. Snow was plowed into walls lining the road, sat in giant heaps in parking lots and clung to steep rooftops. We stayed in a condo about 20 steps from the mountain.
Saturday was about 24 degrees with high overcast. We woke up and headed to the resort, which doesn’t open until 10:30, allowing more time for coffee and snow-gazing than in Colorado, where resorts open at 9 a.m. and you have to leave Boulder by 6 to catch first chair (plus, a lift ticket only costs $60 at Alyeska as opposed to >$100 at Vail). Luckily, Saturday happened to be the day of the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in downtown Anchorage, so the mountain was way less crowded than it would’ve been. We cruised to the top and skied the front side of the resort, finding deep, untracked snow at the High Traverse and Max’s. After only skiing on hardpack all season (most of which was on cross country skis) the powder was bliss—soft, fluffy and forgiving. We took a short break for leftover pizza and then migrated to North Face, a giant bowl with a full menu of steeps, bumps and trees. We spent the rest of the day exploring different lines and glades and trying to deny the fatigue that grips your legs on the first powder day of the season.
Sunday we mixed it up and drove to Anchorage for the Tour of Anchorage, a 25k skate ski race on the coastal trail. The scenery—jagged snowy peaks rising out of frozen tidal flats—helped distract from the pain. It’s not a long distance, but six hours of carving in powder the day before started to catch up to me around mile 10. Anyway, it was a gorgeous bluebird day with fast snow and fabulous views. In a rather sick twist, the only hill comes at the very end and lasts for about 3 kilometers, stealing all your energy and spitting you out into a stadium filled with fans egging you on. I finished in just over 2 hours. Then we met our friends Ness and RJ for lunch at Bear’s Tooth, trying to fill up on yummy Anchorage cuisine before returning to Fairbanks. They had just done the 50k, so it seemed tacky to complain about our tired legs too much. Plus, more powder awaited on Monday.
It snowed another few inches and we spent the next day in North Face blasting through tracked but soft powder. This always happens over the weekend, so the challenge becomes finding untouched powder stashes hiding in the trees, along the borders of trails or in other obscure spots. It started snowing in the afternoon, filling in crevices and adding a nice cushion to the mountain. We kept doing laps until our legs started screaming at the end of the day.
Our reward came wrapped in rice. We shared about six sushi rolls for five of us at the Sakura restaurant at the Alyeska hotel—a mix of ahi, salmon, marlin, crab, shrimp with some cream cheese, avocado, unagi, lemongrass, and more. I’m sure anything would’ve tasted good at the end of this kind of weekend, but the rolls were awesome—fat and bursting with flavor. A few pitchers of Sapporo also helped dull the cramping (when did I turn into such a total softy?!)
Because it was dumping snow as we headed back to the hotel, a 12-inch rule was instituted for the next day: if it snowed a foot, we would ski another day instead of driving back to Fairbanks. Yes, everybody was physically smoked and had obligations back in Fairbanks. But powder has a way of short-circuiting your brain, giving you healing powers, and making your job and other responsibilities seem trivial. It snowed a ton, but of course, by the time we woke up Tuesday morning, our sore legs and common sense had won out, so we packed up and headed for Fairbanks. Well, first a stop at the REI in Anchorage to buy a backcountry shovel and drool over new rocker powder skis (I swear I had the skinniest skis on the mountain!) Then we relived the great powder skiing for the next seven hours in the car. The positive energy must’ve worked—we returned to an huge 18-inch dump in Fairbanks (at least huge by Fairbanks standards)!!
Last weekend we had Denali National Park all to ourselves. Well, not officially, but we did ski for two days and sleep in a cabin on the river in the midst of the park and we hardly saw a soul. The park is 6 million acres of wilderness, with only a single road piercing 60 miles into its heart. You access the park from the Parks Highway (one of about 3 highways in the state); then you have to park at the entrance and ride in on a bus (unless you have a bike or a very special permit).
Unless you camp inside the park—for $24 a day—you have to stay at the Princess Lodge or another ritzy hotel in a little strip of tourist traps right outside Denali—locally nicknamed Glitter Gulch for its effect on the canyon. Just 50 feet outside Glitter Gulch is a charming 10x12 foot cabin that my boss built in 1976, before the National Park Service came to town and the T-shirt shops, rafting outfits, and coffee shops followed on its heels. While the cabin is only steps away from the fake little tourist world, you walk through the little wooden gate and down the snowy footpath and it feels like you’re a world away.
So when a ski trip to Alyeska fell through last week (Alaska’s biggest ski resort outside of Anchorage), four of us headed down to Denali. While it's only two hours away and we go there at least three times a summer, I kind of forget about it for most of the winter, partially because it’s so cold and dark you hardly have time to go anywhere. Plus the mountains often get hit with storms and wind, not ideal for winter recreation. Apparently everyone else does too!
On Saturday it was close to 30 and bluebird. We drove 40 minutes past Denali to Cantwell, which gets pounded with all the storms coming up from the south. We found a hill right on the side of the road with deep, creamy snow and a convenient snowmachine track, and skinned up. We found some nice glades It was soft, stable, and awesome—especially when you’ve only skied in Fairbanks all season—and we did three laps. You can ski much bigger mountains down there, but they are farther in and require either a mile or two skin-in or a snowmachine—those are on the list for next time.
When the sun was fading, we piled back in the car and headed for the cabin. Jake brought some delicious pulled pork from his home-raised pigs, and I contributed some gourmet Lipton noodle packets. My friend Sam who was meeting us arrived and announced he had driven into a ditch when trying to park on the side of the road (which illustrates how out of place this cabin is). It turned out to be a good thing, because the next 45 minutes we spent shoveling and pushing as well as gazing at an epic display of the northern lights—rippling across the night sky and dancing on the peaks. This was the type of show where you expect a spaceship with Martians to show up any moment.
It's very special to catch a great display of the lights (though I've seen at half-dozen this year) because you can so easily miss them when it’s -40 and you avoid going outside at all costs. They say people with dry cabins see the most aurora—from the comfort of the outhouse.
When we finally got Sam loose, thanks to a pack of snowmachiners that stopped to help us push, he backed out onto solid land, drove 10 feet, and then steered back into the ditch. Wow! This was impressive, even for a non-Alaskan like me, and the snowmachiners definitely got a kick out of it. Apparently he thought he was driving onto “flat snow” (I learned riding home with him the next day that he doesn’t have the best vision). We dislodged him again and he finally found the pulloff we had shoveled for him.
The next day we skied inside the park on “groomers,” which turned out to be single-track in the trees with five feet of snow on either side, wrapped snugly in spruce trees. It was a pain going uphill because it was too narrow to duck-walk and your poles simply sunk into the snow rather than providing leverage, but the true joke was trying to ski downhill. Not only was it too narrow to snowplow, but the snow on the sides was crusty and studded with trees and brush, so you had no hope of even slowing down at will, let alone stopping gracefully. Every downhill section turned into a total crash-fest, with one person going first and sacrificing their body to the unknown curves, grades, and detritus of the trail, with the rest of us watching and trying to learn from their mistakes. Mostly, though, the falling was inevitable, and all you could do was plan your fall—minimizing contact with trees, spacing ourselves out to avoid a pile-up, and trying not to pick up too much speed before the sharp bends.
It took us four hours to ski five exhausting miles (standard for comparison: we can usually go about six miles in an hour on the groomed trails in Fairbanks). But on a redeeming note, the scenery was unbelievable—unending ridgelines of the amazing Alaska Range, sun-speckled forests and powder fields, plus tons of animal tracks—snowshoe hare, moose, caribou, fox, lynx—but no actual animal encounters (that was a first for Denali, they must either keep a low-profile in the winter or our crashes were scaring them away). After the ski, it was time to pack up and mosey back to Fairbanks. Not before eating a jalapeno burger at the Monderosa Grill in Nenana (a village at the halfway point). I usually don’t like burgers, but after spending most of the day on my a$$, it really hit the spot.
Yukon Quest 2012
The first mushing race I went to almost made me want to buy a kennel of dogs. The Yukon Quest started on the Chena River on February 4, when 24 dog teams left downtown Fairbanks for a 1,000-mile odyssey to Whitehorse, Canada. The Quest is considered the toughest mushing race in the world, the same distance as the Iditarod but more difficult terrain (three mountain passes instead of one), less support (mushers have to camp at least two nights on their own between checkpoints) and more extreme temperatures (it's in the middle of winter and much farther north).
It was first sign of life that I've seen downtown all winter. It was -25 on the river, which didn’t feel that bad after a month of -40, and Fairbanks came out in force for the start. There were many subgroups mixed in among the couple thousand fans—mushers, hippies, rednecks, families, etc. Mingling down on the river, I realized I’m pretty much the most ill-equipped person in the Interior. While I had on my warmest outfit—my pink puff coat, wool boots, and goose down mittens–everyone else was sporting huge parkas, fur hats, beaver gloves, bunny boots, etc. Stuff you only own to ride snow machines or stand around outside in -50.
First we staked out a big bend in the river, about a quarter mile away from the start, to get a good view of the dog teams. Most had about 14 dogs, as they start with a big team and then can drop dogs off to their handlers along the way. All the dogs have matching booties, lime green, orange. The mushers have a sled filled with enough supplies (dog food, hay, extra clothes, emergency tent) to get to the next checkpoint, usually between 60-100 miles away. The mushers wave flags as they head east up the Chena River.
When my extremities started freezing in place, we started walking up the river to the official start. One team left every five minutes, and the start was choked with press, cameras, and dog handlers. The on-deck team stands about 200 yards away from the start line, and it takes at least four handlers to hold the dogs back because they’re freaking out with excitement—yipping, barking, and jumping around. Then the announcer gives the countdown, the musher jumps on the sled, and they’re off. I was actually 2 feet away from Lance Mackey, the famous four-time Quest and Iditarod champion, trying to get pictures of the dogs and didn’t even know it!
When the mushers seemed well on their way, we left for the ski trails—one activity I actually have proper gear for.
Hot Springs, Cooold Air
I can't say I've ever wondered what it would be like to soak in 100-degree water in -55 degree air. But now I know. A big group planned a backcountry cabin trip in the Steese White Mountains last weekend—a 6-mile ski in to a cabin Friday night, seven miles ki in to the next cabin Saturday, and a 13-mile ski back to the car Sunday—but the weather had a different idea. It plunged to -40 on Thursday night, and on Friday the cars and snowmachines we had planned the trip around wouldn’t even start. (Motorized vehicles are not very reliable in this weather.) This was a blessing, considering what the weather would bring.
Our friend and organizer Drew didn’t want to cancel the whole weekend, so he rented a cabin near Chena Hot Springs (geothermal pools an hour from Fairbanks) that you can drive to. So on Friday, at minus-40, we packed 12 people, five dogs, and lots of food and drinks into the cabin. We played games and fed the wood stove, the only heat source, constantly to try to counter the freezing air drifting through the floor. It was lots of the fun, except for a few dog skirmishes (you can’t really make them play outside when it’s that cold!)
Saturday morning it was -45 at the cabin, but we decided to ski anyway since we had our gear and the full day ahead. I was wary of skiing at this temperature because as soon as you walk outside, the cold bites through all your layers. To my surprise, we warmed up after about 15 minutes on the trails (going uphill helped) and the main challenge was managing moisture, sweat, breathing, etc. Your neck warmer becomes an ice wall of breath and snot. Sweat on your body freezes the minute you stop and rest. So you either can't sweat or you can't stop.
The trails were beautiful—white spruce forests, rolling hills, gentle mountains, and SUN! Though the sun gives no heat during all of December and January, it was so bright you could almost imagine its warmth. We skied about two hours and I learned a valuable lesson—it’s never too cold to ski because of how much you warm up from working.
Saturday night was the real adventure. The temperature had bottomed out at -55, and we had to plug two cars into the generator for two hours before even attempting to start the engines. Then we drove the 20 miles to Chena Hot Springs Resort to soak in the natural geothermal pools. The hot springs are always better in wintertime because the heat is so delicious and you have the chance to see the northern lights. Let’s just say the 20-meter walk in a bathing suit from the locker room into the water was the coldest 15 seconds of my life. By the time your feet hit the water, which ramps down into the pool, you pretty much belly flop into it. It takes about 10 minutes for your face to warm up, as the steam freezes to your ears, eyes, cheeks, etc.
Eventually even your head warms up. Your hair is another story. You can do just about any ‘do you want. Just wet your hair, fashion it into a French Twist or a Mohawk or a bob, and it solidifies in a matter of seconds. And I’ve totally debunked the myth that your hair breaks when it freezes (I would be bald, because little pieces of my hair freeze every time I ski). You also form beautiful ice mascara on your lashes. We stayed in the springs for an hour or so. When it’s only -20, I usually get so hot that I have to intermittently sit on a snow-covered rock to cool down. Not at -55.
It was long enough to drain every drop of water from your body. After soaking, I chugged some water and then passed out (another rather pleasing side effect of the heat). On Sunday, it had warmed up to a balmy -42. It took 4 hours to get all the vehicles started—along with a bunch of charcoal, sleeping bags, and a weed burner. Which made me very grateful that we were not coming out of the backcountry, back to the trailhead, and trying to start frozen vehicles.
As we drove back into town we were enveloped in ice fog, a thick soup of particulates from tailpipes and wood stoves that collects in low-lying areas (like all of downtown Fairbanks). The air quality was rated unhealthy for all groups and tasted like exhaust, so we ran from the car into the gym to work out. I also sat in the tanning bed for 10 minutes just to thaw out. Back in Ester, it was only -30 and the air was fresh. Best of all—I checked the forecast and it predicted 0 degrees by Wednesday. The winter forecast is kind of like reading your fortune, and this one told me I would have a good week.
MORE Florida, Family and Frosting
OK, where was I? Oh yes, heading from the Florida Keys to Hershey, PA for Christmas (feels like a dream now that I’m back in Fairbanks). While I was saying a dramatic farewell to warm sunny weather, little did I know it was in the 50s and sunny in Central PA, very out of character for December. It was Josh’s first visit to the farmstead, a 19th-century brick farmhouse complete with a bell, smokehouse, and chicken coop, and surrounded by Christmas trees and cornfields.
Probably like most people, the less I go home the more I appreciate it. Not only the powerful nostalgia of petting your old dog, raiding the old cupboard for snacks, watching movies in the den, and sleeping in your own room (except my little brother stole it last year so we slept in the finished attic). But also the things you never really noticed because they were so familiar—walking up to the hill and across the corn where you could see land rolling all the way to downtown Hershey, watching horses race and play at the barn across the street, eating my mom’s amazing scrambled eggs (fresh from the coop), examining pear, peach and apple trees that I always took for granted. And finally, some new stuff—the screened-in porch, the bamboo forest my dad planted to experiment with non-native horticulture, the revolving color of the kitchen and hallways, my mom’s beautiful paintings that continue to eat up the wall space.
It was a full house, with Jeannie home from Tallahassee, Josh and I from Fairbanks, Mike and his girlfriend Pearla from New York City, and Luke, who lives in the area but crashed at the house for old time’s sake. We started the visit off right with my favorite meal, cranberry barbecue chicken with noodles and applesauce, and then went to the Hershey Bears game, the local AHL hockey team. Luke comped us tickets, since he's a bigwig at the Hershey company, and even scored us some souvenir Bears towels.
The next morning Josh and I went for a run in T-shirts and then drove halfway to Pittsburgh to meet my best from Alesha and her husband Jim, who were visiting Jim’s parents in Pitt. The last time I saw her we were roadtripping around Alaska, along with my sister, climbing mountains, camping and picking blueberries. It’s amazing how much more compact the East Coast is.
The next few days were a swirl of sugar, filled with Christmas cookies, gingerbread houses and mimosas. I broke away to visit my best friends from high school on Christmas Eve Eve—one is pregnant and two are corporate divas in NYC. Though we’ve taken quite different paths, it’s soo much fun to get together. I also got to see my cousins, John and Kevin, who live in Philly, and go pet the horses next door.
The gingerbread house construction really brought out everyone’s inner colors—you could see Jeannie’s OCD in her House of Smarteys, Luke’s mad genius in his pretzel-rod spires, Mike’s pragmatism in his accurate rendition of our house, and my flair for the exotic with my depiction of our Oceanside condo (the stilts were really hard!) Josh and Pearla both contributed regional architecture, Josh creating his parents’ mining camp in the Brooks Range and Pearla reproducing the one and only Empire State Building.
Next thing you know, it’s Christmas Day! Just like every other year, there was tons of turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry ice, carrots, champagne, minced meat pies and brandy butter. I really should have gone running with Jeannie the next day, but instead we went a final nature walk led by Dad up to the hill, down to the pond, and into the dark heart of the bamboo forest. To celebrate our last night, we all went to Hotel Hershey, a famous grandiose hotel from the 1930s, for Chocolate-tinis. You guessed it—cocoa vodka served up with a Hershey’s syrup rim and garnished with a Kiss. Then we ate dinner at a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant in Hershey that served the best pizza and pasta I’ve had in years. After that meal it didn't take long to pass out, which was good because we had to leave town with my dad at 3:30 am to get to the Newark airport by 6. It was probably better fleeing at night, since it would’ve been tough to tear myself away from family and Christmas cookies if I’d been fully conscious. While the notion of returning to the Fairbanks winter chilled my blood, at least we would get back in time to catch the awesome New Year’s fireworks.
And yes, minus-25 feels way harsher after being in Florida!
Florida, Family and Frosting: Part I
The secret to enduring an Alaska winter is getting out for at least two weeks.
Last year we went to Hawai’i in January. This year I decided to make the long trip home to Hershey, Pennsylvania for Christmas (I missed last year because I had to work on Christmas, as well as Thanksgiving and New Year’s). But since Hershey isn’t known for its balmy winters or sandy coast, we decided to tack on a trip somewhere warm to catch up on our Vitamin D. Since we were already traveling 4,000 miles to the east coast, we picked the Florida Keys.
I invited the entire family, expecting everyone was too busy and it would be just Josh and I. To my surprise and delight, Jeannie, Luke, Mom and Dad all jumped on board. This would be the first destination Christmas since we went to Breckenridge in the mid-90s. So I found an oceanside condo that was big enough to sleep us all (if you count the couch) on Marathon Key, which is about 2 hours from the mainland on the Keys Scenic Highway.
The next thing you know, after 27 hours of traveling Josh and I roll up to the beach house late at night on the Thursday before Christmas and Dad and Luke jump out from a dark corner trying to scare us–typical family vacation. The house was perfect—it was on stilts overlooking the Atlantic with a huge hot tub, tiki hut, barbecue, and pool table underneath. There was a sandy/gravely beach on the water and even an enormous blue resident iguana, who we called Igor.
The week went fast, of course, but we didn’t waste any time. We went swimming at a white sand beach, kayaked through the mangroves, spent a day in Key West, played pool, ate lots of grouper, drank pina coladas, and went fishing on the reef.
The fishing was a bit traumatic for three out of five of us (especially me). I should have realized it when we got to the dock at 6 a.m. and we were the only boat going out, because it was super windy and the water was churning. By the time we got to the reef, about four miles out, I was starting to regret the Raisin Bran and coffee. As soon as the captain killed the engine, the 42-foot boat started bouncing off steady 2-3 foot waves with the occasional five footer. I fished long enough to catch one very handsome yellow snapper, and then took up post next to the side of the boat and fixated on the land in the distance. Let’s just say I wasn’t the only one to get sick, but I was the most public. Josh and Edson (Jeannie’s boyfriend) made the mistake of going down to the bathroom and lost their sense of equilibrium—which is really hard to get back.
Which was too bad, because the fishing was fantastic—you throw in your line with a minnow and a fish latches on. You could see tons of fish swimming around, since the reef was only about 20 feet deep. Dad caught a half dozen snappers—yellow and mangrove—and had a big fat smile on his face the whole time, which was a little contagious even though I was hanging off the side of the boat. Jeannie was also unfazed by the chop and pulled up several nice catches. Before long my dad’s empathy for us overcame the fun of fishing and we headed back to shore. My appetite was finally restored by that evening, and the snapper tasted delicious broiled with butter and garlic.
The kayaking trip was less sensational, thankfully. Sarah, my roommate from CU, joined us for a couple days since she’s living in Miami. So Josh, Edson, Jeannie, Sarah and I rented sea kayaks and explored the coastal waters around Marathon Key. It was sunny and 80 (100 degrees warmer than the high in Fairbanks!) The best part was paddling through narrow channels in the mangroves; in one area you had to grab mangrove vines to pull yourself through because there wasn’t room to paddle. It opened into a beautiful lake with lots of fish, which seemed like it should also have a pineapple grove, but I couldn’t find one.
On the last day we played a spirited game of 3v3 beach volleyball, which ended in a 1-1 tie that we were all too tired to break. Dad, Jean and Edson won the first game with the help of Jeannie’s dogged defense, some expertly placed shots by Jeffo and some diving saves by Edson. Luke, Josh and I redeemed ourselves in the second game, winning narrowly after giving up a huge lead, thanks to my exacting serve, Josh’s scrappy bumping, and a climactic play in which Luke blocked Dad’s “family-friendly" spike (I'm sure we'll never hear the end of it!) I’m not sure what we looked like from the outside but there was an Olympic intensity on the court.
After four days of fun in 80-degree sunshine and one last happy hour on the oceanfront, Mom, Dad and Luke took off for Hershey to get ready for Christmas (which for Mom meant baking and for Dad and Luke meant last-minute shopping). The rest of us stayed an extra day to sneak in one more sunset. Then Edson dropped us off at the Fort Lauderdale airport, where our adventure continued, and then he began the 10-hour solo drive back to Tallahassee (what a good sport!)
The First Cold Snap of 2011 (and it's not even Thanksgiving yet!)
The first cold snap came early this year. We set six consecutive record lows last week (starting Nov. 15) with four days straight colder than -35. That’s 85 degrees colder than my hometown, Hershey, Penn., and 115 degrees colder than where my sister lives in Tallahassee, Fla. It’s not supposed to warm up above -15 for another week.
If you live in Fairbanks, the first cold snap is a milestone and for many, actually a relief. After a gorgeous sunny summer, many wait in perpetual dread for the winter (I can’t speak for everyone; a few crazies love the cold). But most of us are dreading the pain of the cold, the extra work required to warm up your car every morning and to dash from heated space to heated space, the extra toughness required to ski when it’s unpleasantly cold, etc. You’re also afraid that you can’t handle -40 this year, because it sounds unbelievably, unbearably cold. But it’s really not that bad.
The first cold snap is a shock, for sure. It stings your flesh and burns your lungs and fills every fiber of your clothing with cold, which you have to shake off when you get inside. But after the first couple days, it’s not that noticeable—probably like the rain in Seattle or the wind in Chicago—the background of day-to-day life. You stay inside in your slippers, make chili, bake fattening goodies, drink wine, watch movies, read by the stove.
The best part? When a low-pressure system finally pushes the high-pressure ridge off Fairbanks and the cold lifts—bouncing temperatures back to zero or even in the positives. Until you’ve felt -40, you just can’t appreciate zero degrees. It’s like trying to return the serve of a professional tennis player and then playing against your brother. Zero is like a warm, loving hug, and all of a sudden you want to go for night skis and go to restaurants again. And so it goes, until the next cold snap. This is the rollercoaster of winter in Fairbanks.
Skating into Winter
Ski season is here! One nice thing about a loooong winter is an extended ski season and an abbreviated off-season, which means you have less time to forget how to XC ski–a perennial problem for me in Colorado. One unfortunate thing about the extreme cold is that it makes skate skiing very difficult.
There are two types of skiing–skate (which uses an ice-skating motion) and classic (kicking and gliding in tracks with your hips centered). I enjoy both but greatly favor skate because it's faster, more fluid, and more akin to running than classic. Plus you can climb up hills without waddling in a herringbone technique. In Colorado I did nothing but skate ski. Why doesn't it work up here, you're wondering? In order to glide, you must melt the top layer of snow as you ski over it. But when it's cold (0 or below) the snow is so dry and cold that it doesn't melt, which means no glide. In classic skiing, on the other hand, you don't need as much glide. Instead of just gliding, you get momentum from kicking off, which you accomplish by applying kick wax underneath your foot area to bond to the snow and give you traction. Also, you ski in parallel tracks most of the time, which become more compact and moist as more skiers cross them.
Anyway, since I love skate skiing I am doing as much as possible before the temperature drops. I skied 7 times in the last two weeks in mostly beautiful, 15- to 30-degree weather with fast snow. It's been snowing a few inches every few days, enough to keep the trails soft. This weekend we went on a 13 km ski at Birch Hill with Anna, our friend who skied at UAF (Division 1 ski team) and needless to say is way faster than us. Tonight we went to the UAF trails for the first time, but the temperature dropped to -5, which made for very slow, squeaky skate skiing (even with fresh cold-weather wax). Although with a full moon and bright sky, it was a magical night to be skiing laps on the lake.
And though tempted to complain about the cold front, I realize that in a month I'll be ecstatic to ski in 5-below...will probably break out the skate skis for the occasion!
The Lumberjack Games
I chucked my first ax the other day, and it came pretty close to bull's eye. My metamorphosis into an Alaskan continued with the Farthest North Sports Festival, aka the Lumberjack Games, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks last weekend.
It was a crisp day with the first hard frost of the season. The events include log rolling, box saw, ax throw, fire building, and birling, where two crazy people strip down, balance on a log on a lake and face off against each other. Last man in the pond wins, but not if you consider that both competitors end up soaking wet in 40-degree water and 30-degree air. There were a good 50 people at the festival, almost exclusively in Lumberjack fashion–Carharrts, plaid and Extra Tuffs. Young girls were sawing away at giant spruce trunks, teams of college kids were tossing logs between posts (lumberjack horseshoes), and a retired forester/ringer circulated carrying his personal ax and setting records in almost every single event.
The ax throw seemed like my best chance of maintaining some dignity while still participating. You aim for a standard round target and you get three tries. I mimicked the technique of the other lumberjacks, which was to pull the ax straight back over your head, perpendicular with your shoulders, and effortlessly let it fly. Except when I tried to do it gracefully on my practice throw, it careened sadly into the plywood backstop, reminding me of my pitiful tennis serve. So I decided to put every fiber of my strength into the throw, even if I threw my shoulder out. The second throw glanced off the target, but the next one nailed the third ring of the target, and the final throw sank within a sawtooth of the bull's eye–a delightful feeling (in part because I beat Josh, a true Alaskan and an actual sawyer. :)
It's good to learn how to handle an ax and a saw, but I think I'd have better luck in a running race against the lumberjacks than in the forest games.
A Fall Fantasy Land in Denali
Fall goes by like a bullet in Alaska. It’s late September and it’s already down to the 20s at night with highs in the 40s. Apparently this is the third-warmest fall in the past century.
This means you have a small window to soak up the fall colors (or leaf-peeping, as I heard it called on NPR the other day). So we headed down to Denali the other weekend to go hiking and scope out the foliage (fall comes earlier there because of higher elevation). The Alaska Range is like a coloring book this time of year. While it doesn’t have the firey maple trees or the mosaic of vibrant hardwoods of the east coast, it does have an entire floor of tundra that turns bright red as well as huge mountains streaked in gold. Once your eyes adjust you can make out layers of color from the ground up to the peaks—green and orange mosses, red and yellow tundra leaves, red cranberries, blue blueberries, red fireweed, orange dwarf birch, gold willows, alder and aspen, and—my favorite—the red-tipped gold birch trees that look like torches.
We hiked up Mt. Healy, a rather steep climb just outside Denali National Park, for a view of undulating, color-stained mountains. Aspen groves were crawling up the rocky hillsides and bunching up against the river, while we walked on a blanket of red flowers and leaves (you almost feel guilty crushing them but you have to walk somewhere!)
The clouds rolled in and darkened the sky, which actually intensified some of the colors. After our descent we drove south along the park (but didn’t go inside because it was Labor Day weekend) through a tunnel of gold birch. I stopped a bunch of times to take photos, but even with snazzy digital film you just can’t capture the pigment of dying leaves.
I’ve always been a big fan of fall, and not just because it's soccer season. Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, the leaves explode in color before fluttering into a thick mattress on the ground. That’s when the fun began—raking up big, fluffy piles of leaves begging to be jumped on (the only time I remember taking an interest in yard work). In Vail I would go for long bike rides in the mountains in the fall, trying to get as high as possible to see the entire valley of color. In Boulder I would camp out somewhere along the Peak to Peak Highway, a triangle from Boulder to Estes Park to Nederland that goes through deep canyons stuffed with trees.
The only drawback of fall is that it goes quickly and is followed by a long winter, especially if you live in Fairbanks. But I suppose like many things in life, it's so beautiful because it’s so fleeting.
The Equinox Marathon
I did it. I ran a marathon from start to finish, every bloody inch of 26.2 miles. It was totally awesome. I thought it would be painful and exhausting with moments of despair. But I never hit that point. And I ran one of the toughest courses in the U.S. in less than 4 hours and finished 7th for women (granted, the world’s best female athletes don’t live in Fairbanks). Still, the course included climbing a 2,300-foot mountain in the middle, racing down a sheer chute, and miles and miles of rock- and root-laden trail.
The day was like a dream. It was 55 degrees and cloudless. The course meandered through gold birch forests and gave a crystal-clear view of Denali from the top of Ester Dome. I was also lucky—I woke up feeling like a million bucks, full of energy and rookie nerves (this was my first marathon). I was rested, hydrated, and ready to attack that damn hill. My pocket was filled with snacks and ibuprofen. I started in the front line and made it up the initial hill (you literally start on a sharp sledding hill) and through the gate before the five-minute bottleneck ensued.
The first nine miles are rolling hills on dirt and wood chip trails. I ran 8:30-minute splits, faster than I was planning, until the dreaded hill began at Mile 9. I was worried my legs would be too tired to propel myself up the hill, but I kept moving, throwing my body upward and walking only in a couple ridiculously steep spots. The trail had several Alaskan trademarks, including the moose carcass on the side of the singletrack along with some abandoned cars. Not to mention the stunning panorama of the Alaska Range. Just when you reach the top and you think the climb is over, you begin the “out and back,” a super-hilly, somewhat-detested 5-mile section that rubs salt in the wounds of your burning legs (though they give you Oreos at the turnaround).
At long last, you reach the top of the chute—time for the descent. On one hand, this is your reward for the last 1.5 hours of torture. On the other hand, your legs are entirely rubber as you look over the edge of an elevator shaft. But it’s a great place to make up time. By the time I had danced down 1/3-mile chute and turned onto the gentler downhill (which cruises right past my cabin in Ester) my legs were numb and confused. I worried that I had taken too many painkillers, but I think my legs were just trying to process the incredible ups and downs they had carried me over. I lengthened my strides for the next four miles or so, embracing the magic of gravity, and passed the 20-mile marker with cautious joy.
Then you get to another 2-mile uphill on a power line, which would have been dismal if it weren't for a very friendly table handing out water and Bloody Marys. I almost grabbed the wrong cup (I LOVE Bloodys) but instead chugged some water and ate a fruit snack. Maybe this gave me new life (or maybe it was seeing my sprint coach at the top of the hill) but with 5 kilometers left I picked up the pace. At this point, all my joints were aching, an old stress fracture in my left foot had reawakened, and my left hip and quad had decided to fall asleep—so I was basically dragging a good 20 pounds of dead weight. Two thoughts pushed me onward—‘the faster I go, the sooner it’s over,’ and ‘you never have to do this again.’ But I realized I also had some gas left as I passed about 5 people in the final three miles (and witnessed what it's like to "hit the wall"), managed my way up the final hill, loped down a final hill, and kicked it in on the finish. I must say, it felt good to hear “And here comes the 7th woman, Molly Rettig.” So what if the first-place chick finished 30 minutes ahead of me at 3:27 (the top 10 seem to have a big spread up here). I immediately inhaled a banana, granola bar and mango Naked drink.
All my training buddies had awesome races too—Bruno ran his first marathon in 4:15, the fastest barefoot runner on the course; Ness finished top 10 in our age group at 4:11; and Robbin beat her PR with under 4:30. After cheering for awhile, I soaked in the river up to my knees (should’ve gone deeper, the ice-cold water really stops inflammation but it also felt like daggers), consumed some pizza and beer at Silver Gulch, put my feet up and basked in my runner's high. Two days later, there's still a few traces left. Sure doesn't last nearly as long as the 4-month training period!
I think the Equinox Marathon is symbolic of Fairbanks, in a way: If you can survive this, you can survive anything.
top of Ester Dome (Alaska Range is in the distance but faded into the sky)
The Brooks Range, Heaven on Earth
The Brooks Range might just be the end-all of Alaska. It's an utterly remote, rugged, 125 million-year old mountain range that runs through northern Alaska and marks the Continental Divide, draining rivers and streams to the north into the Arctic Ocean and those to the south into the Pacific. I spent a week in mid-August at a lake immersed in the 5,000-foot mountains, right next to the Chandalar River, a beautiful, wild water body that winds through total wilderness--i.e. no people for 100s of miles except for a few native villages and some arctic researchers. We climbed the peaks, canoed the lakes and river, watched the beavers, loons and ducks, and reveled in the fall colors--bright gold birch, torch-red shrubs and tundra leaves, and shiny cranberries and blueberries. It's crazy to wake up and fall asleep without encountering any sign of civilization, only the occasional din of a bush plane. Probably the most untouched piece of wilderness that I will ever see!
Josh's family has mining claims in the Brooks Range, so they can set up a temporary wall tent and cache in the area. They cleverly selected a spot on a shimmery lake that reflects clouds, mountains and trees with perfect clarity. We took a float plane from Fairbanks to the lake, which involves the smoothest imaginable takeoff and landing. The first day we hiked to get water, which you can drink straight from the creek. No filtering, boiling, or fretting of giardia because there are no lakes/beavers upstream.
The next day we hiked a 5,000-foot peak carpeted in red and yellow leaves that gives views of the entire Chandalar Valley, the river snaking through alpine lakes and mountains. Unbelievable. We had to cross the creek (yep, I wore waders) to get to the mountain. As I've mentioned before, there aren't really hiking trails in Alaska, especially not in these parts, so we trekked on a game trail part of the way and trudged through tundra the rest of the way. On the way up, we found several treasures--one piece of pure clear crystal, some black and white crystal, a gaint pink/black/white crystal that is now sitting in on the speaker in our living room, and a vast blueberry field. I picked one Nalgene worth of the tart berries (and only ate a cup or two in the process). We didn't see any wildlife (maybe because I yelled "Watch out bears!!" every 10 minutes or so) but Josh's dad spotted some Dall sheep right above us through the scope from camp. We had salmon and sweet potatoes for dinner back at the camp, which is fully-equipped with a Coleman propane stove, Dutch oven, fresh food from Fairbanks and a cache full of non-perishable noodle dinners and candy bars.
The next day we explored the river with the canoe, which required riding one canoe across one lake, over a dam, through another lake, to an island, hiking 100 yards and picking up another canoe. We cruised upstream and stopped at a few fishing holes. At the first eddy, I caught a grayling and a small pike within my first three casts. When we beached at some of the river bank, we saw some fresh moose, bear and wolf tracks.
The next day brought sparkling sun and 60 degrees. We cruised downriver for more hiking, more blueberries, and some old-fashioned reading and napping by the river. We walked on caribou moss, a crunchy gray-green plant that grows on the tundra, and some squishy orange moss. Tonight we dined on hamburger helper with ground beef and prepared for our departure the next morning.
Flying isn't that simple in the bush. You might expect your pilot to arrive Saturday morning (as we did) and then not see him until Monday thanks to lousy weather in Fairbanks. So we entertained ourselves for a couple days (playing Gin Rummy, exploring old miners' cabins near camp, paddling around the lake and packing/unpacking/repacking. Kinda frustrating but competely out of your hands. The weather finally broke and we got picked up Monday afternoon. Of course, as soon as we returned to Fairbanks, I wanted to be back on the private lake swirling in mountains and ducks!
More Galavanting through Alaska
I wanted to show my urbane guests the cosmopolitan side of Alaska, so we spent one night in Anchorage. We stayed in a hotel downtown, ate some good food at Snow Goose, on the water, and did a little dancing at Bernie’s Bungalow. It was nice to take a shower after a few nights of camping, but it was even better to leave Anchorage and head north toward Denali. (Anchorage is always a bit stressful once you’re acclimated to the low population density of Fairbanks...the only city scar I received was a long crack in the windshield from who-knows-what overnight at the hotel.) We decided to camp on the Denali Highway, a 135-mile gravel road that winds through the Alaska Range, because Jeannie and Alesha really wanted to see wildlife, and you’re almost guaranteed to see moose and caribou on this stretch. We spent the night at the Brushkana campground, about 30 miles in from Cantwell, right next to a mellow fishing stream. Well, while we encountered no fish, moose or caribou, we did come across heaps of wild blueberries that evening. The blueberries look like ebullient Christmas bulbs strung all over the bushes. We found an especially blue south-facing hill and filled a Nalgene with berries, which we sprinkled in yogurt for breakfast the next day.
The campground was quite peaceful, and we played cards for a bit before a long, restful slumber. It started raining overnight, so we packed up camp in a hurry and headed back to Fairbanks, where it had been raining all week! I just barely had time to take Alesha to the Golden Eagle, our local watering hole in Ester, before dropping her at the airport. The next day, Jeannie and I woke up early for a 19-mile trail run in the light drizzle (surprisingly refreshing) and then watched Josh’s soccer game—the Fairbanks adult men’s championship (they won!) I made some muffins with our freshly harvested blueberries, which were delightfully tart. Then we loaded Jeannie up with Thai food and sent her on her odyssey back to the south. The week flew by, but wow, it was fun to have some Florida sunshine in Fairbanks!
Bears, Glaciers, Mountains & Marshmallows: Southcentral Alaska, Part I
I just returned from a whirlwind roadtrip to Southcentral Alaska with my sister and best friend. Jeannie, the sister, lives in Tallahassee and Alesha, the friend, lives in Chicago (though ironically she is from Tallahassee). So basically I was hosting two Florida girls in Far North. It was an unbelievable week, almost too fun to put into words, but here goes.
Jeannie, Josh and I drove from Fairbanks to Anchorage to pick up Alesha Tuesday night. Then we swung by the best pizza place/brewery in Alaska, Moose’s Tooth, grabbed some fuel, and headed about 80 miles south to Hope, a tiny town on Turnagain Arm (a beautiful bay that cuts into the Kenai Peninsula). It was dark and rainy by 1 a.m. when we reached the Forest Service campground, tucked about 7 miles up in the mountains over the water. (Keep in mind, Jeannie and Alesha are city girls and don’t regularly camp). We set up two tents in the dark—it’s amazing how much darker it gets at night in southern Alaska—and passed out on a slight incline. The next morning we drove into Hope to hit up the wonderful diner for breakfast. On the way out of the campground, we saw a black bear cub running down the road (Jeannie has a knack for spotting bears), but he darted into the woods before we got a picture.
After filling up on pancakes, we headed to Seward, one of the most picturesque drives I’ve ever come across, loaded with peaks, rainforest and sapphire lakes. After we secured a campsite in downtown Seward, it was time to begin our mission: Mt. Marathon. It’s a 3,000-foot ascent over just 1.5 miles (in other words, STEEP) that has become famous for its Fourth of July race. You can’t classify it as a hike (as Jeannie admonished me for doing), because you have to use your hands almost the entire way up. You literally scramble up roots and vines for the first half, until you reach treeline. Then you climb a winding trail on sharp rocks and gravel to the top. You’re rewarded with a breathtaking view of Resurrection Bay, sparkling water trimmed with mountains and dotted with islands, as well as the small city and harbor of Seward.
Though it took two hours to get to the top, we made it back down in about 30 minutes. The descent is a fast, straight line down loose skree. We took large lunges and then surfed down the loose gravel, then carefully navigated down a creek bed to the bottom. We all took at least one tumble, and our hands, legs, and butts were filthy by the end.
In the evening we strolled around Seward, a super endearing town that subsists mainly on fishing and shipping, looking for beer and playing cards (we were successful on both fronts). In the 1/2 mile walk back to the campground we probably spotted 40 bunnies, of all different colors and sizes, a very strange overpopulation in Seward. The next morning we walked along the rocky beach and followed a sea otter for about a mile as he paddled along the coast. Then we hiked to Exit Glacier just outside of Seward, an active (and fastly retreating) glacier that pours down from an icefield and melts into a beautiful braided river. By this point we were bloated with the beauty of the Kenai Peninsula, so we drove back up to Anchorage for a cosmopolitan night of fine dining and dancing. To be continued...
Chainsaws, Beer & Alaskan Men
In many ways Alaska totally defies stereotypes. But occasionally they are dead on--like the one about men being obsessed with their chainsaws. Case in point: my friend Alex opening a Heineken with his Shindaiwa 757. He really saved the day because no one had a pop-topper.
(I apologize for the obnoxious watermark on the video.)
Independence Day in the Arctic
This Fourth of July was spent in the arctic tundra 140 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. We drove about 8 hours north from Fairbanks to Galbraith Lake on the Dalton Highway, a.k.a. the Haul Road, which was built in the pipeline days to service the oil fields up at Prudhoe Bay. The road traces the pipeline, which drapes over the landscape like a giant steel snake held up by U-shaped brackets. The road alternates between immaculate new pavement and washboarded dirt riddled with tire-eating potholes, all the more reason to respect the occasional bikers on this route. But for the most part, you hardly pass any vehicles except truckers hauling supplies to Prudhoe (the inspiration for the reality show Ice Truckers).
You enter the Arctic Circle after about 150 miles, an anticlimactic moment but you're immersed in beautiful spruce forests, open tundra, rocky outcroppings, and fields of fireweed (bright pink flowers that grow on the heels of wildfires). Then you run into the Brooks Range after about 200 miles, a breathtaking span of 6,000-foot mountains with sawtooth ridgelines and awesome spires. You're in an open, mostly flat valley weaving through mountains for about 100 miles. Then you pass the farthest-north tree in Alaska before heading up and over Atigun Pass (which is only 4,739 feet, a wee molehill compared to Berthoud Pass, an 11,307-foot summit on the way to Winter Park, Colo., where I lived for a season). It may not be Mt. McKinley but it's a friendly summit. We were greeted by about 8 Dall sheep frolicking down a scree slope and then running right in the middle of the road.
Galbraith Lake, our campsite, was only about 20 miles north of the pass. On the north side of Atigun Pass, the steep mountains melt into soft foothills. No more trees--only fluffy tundra and tussocks, obnoxious tough patches of grass that jut out of the tundra. We hiked up to a foothill overlooking the lake. We were very bear-aware since we didn't have a shotgun, though the only wildlife we saw had wings–ptarmigan, swans, plovers, jaegers.
After camping we sat in the sun, slightly in disbelief of the 70-degree arctic weather (while it poured in Fairbanks all weekend!) We pawned around a dry creek for some river rocks, then camped right on the edge of the mountains. When I went to bed at around midnight, the sun was stooped about a pinky-finger away from the horizon. When I checked at 3 a.m. it still hadn't set. Gotta love summer in the arctic.
Summer solstice-the day that never ends
In Fairbanks we get 22 hours of daylight on summer solstice, June 21. The other two hours the sun barely taps the horizon in a beautiful, suspended dawn. This year it was 85 and sunny, so we decided to ring in solstice by going camping. We headed out Chena Hot Springs Road, which runs about 50 miles east of Fairbanks, and found our secret spot on the river. A semi-hidden dirt road butts right up against the babbling Chena, and some motivated campers were dragged a picnic table out there (I guess it's not top secret).
The 'skeets were bad (thank god for deet) but aside from that it was the perfect day. We played Scrabble, ate halibut fresh from the Pacific, and then went to sleep in broad daylight. On Sunday we hiked part of Granite Tors, a 15-mile climb up to these awesome rock formations, through aspen and birch forest filled with rose hips and lupine and other wildflowers. The landscape in Fairbanks is so green right now it almost hurts your eyes, making it hard to believe that the same land is frozen, dark and almost lifeless for half the year.
We picked up Josh's mom and nephew on the way back to town and hit the Midnight Sun Festival in downtown Fairbanks--the one day of the year that downtown feels like a real waterfront city. The people watching is second to none, as the streets are jam-packed with locals, tourists, skateboarders, break dancers, families, seniors, residents from rural villages, middle-school girls with too much makeup and not enough clothing, bikers, rednecks, etc etc. The food is also top notch--I limited myself to Korean bulgogi, half an elephant ear and a giant bag of Kettle Korn (only bc the line for soft pretzels was too long and I felt too queasy for ice cream after all that fried dough).
Solstice is a day of mixed emotions--euphoria stoked by the midnight sun and festivities and yet the creeping angst that tomorrow will be shorter, and the day after that even shorter, until it's November and below-zero. But for now, more camping, running, soccer and midnight barbecuing!
Big fish in a big sea
I got my first taste of deep-sea halibut fishing last weekend in Valdez. While none of us won the Halibut Derby (biggest 'but of the season) we ended up with about 50 pounds of white, delicious, flaky fish between three of us. Plus we got really lucky on two fronts–it was sunny and the sea was tranquil, two rarities in Valdez.
Kristin, Josh and I left Fairbanks Friday night. Valdez is about 350 miles south of Fairbanks on Prince William Sound. The small fishing town is swimming in mountains and perched on Valdez Arm. It's also the terminus of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, so you can see large cylindrical oil containers on one shore and tankers cruising through the sound. The drive was fabulous. We stopped in Delta Junction for buffalo burgers and milkshakes (I highly recommend wild Alaska blueberry). Then we got to Summit Lake, one of the more picturesque spots in Alaska, just as the sun was setting behind the Alaska Range and bouncing off the lake and the cloud ceiling. We saw a dead moose on the side of a stream. Then we camped at a BLM campground and roasted s'mores. Do roadtrips get better than that? (You have no idea how much the midnight sun enhances roadtrips, you can drive forever and the sunsets are super drawn-out). Total wildlife count: 9 porcupine, 3 caribou, 2 live moose (including a TINY calf) and a handful of hares.
When we drove over Thompson Pass, the final approach to Valdez, I saw the full, craggy ridgeline of the mountains for the first time as it's always been clouded over on past trips. When we arrived Saturday, we hiked around the oil side of the arm up to a reservoir. The lady in the visitor's center reminded us to bring bear spray and make lots of noise because the area is brimming with brown bears. It was warm and glorious, with blue sky and the twinkling blue water. We camped by the small-plane airport and dined on Kristin's home-raised pork, then added a fly tent to our campsite because Valdez's typical rainy weather was supposed to be restored that night.
We were due at the boat at 6 a.m. Sunday, so we started the day at 5 a.m. with some egg sandwiches and Dramamine. We motored about 2 hours out of the harbor to a shelf between a couple of barrier islands, at about 150 feet deep. Our guide, Captain Carl, typically goes all the way out to the open sea, but the water had been extremely choppy lately (clients had booted over the deck every day for the past week) so he wanted to stay somewhere calmer.
Under Alaska Fish and Game rules, everyone is allotted 2 fish per day. But most people only go out one day a season, because a charter costs $315 per person. So, in order to recoup your investment, you need to catch 30 pounds of fish apiece (with the going rate for halibut at $30/lb). Halibut range from small (30 pounds and under) to enormous (up to more than 300 pounds). But it's very common to catch 100 pound fish.
Let's just say we didn't recoup our investment. In 6 hours of fishing, Kristin and I only caught one 20-pound fish each. My first bite was very big and exciting–everyone thought it was a trophy halibut as I reeled it in. Josh helped stabilize the rod, which was arcing under the weight. Sadly it was a big orange sting ray, but at least I got to practice my technique (it's surprisingly tough to reel in even a small fish for 150 feet).
Josh was the only one who caught two fish–a 10-pounder and a 15-pounder, a little disappointing after he averaged 80-pound fish last year. After we caught something, Capt. Carl would spear it with a big hook, then throw it in a chest/bench on the boat. He caught a couple pollock (the fish that fake crab is made out of) at about 20 feet. When we got back to the harbor, Capt. Carl threw the halibut into a wheelbarrow and wheeled to the filet station. The charter next to us had caught an array of 100-pound, 90-pound and 80-pound fish, which was slightly demoralizing.
All of our meat combined only filled up half the cooler. Usually you leave with a full cooler apiece. We were bummed the captain didn't take up deeper, to big fish territory, but I understand his reasoning as I've definitely become sick on boats before. My net catch was one $315 fish. But with butter and a little seasoning over the camp stove, I would say it was worth every penny.
Fairbanks on fire
It's wildfire season, and Fairbanks is surrounded by fires and shrouded in a screen of smoke. A fire on the outskirts of town, in a heavy residential area, caused a big scare last week as it spread rapidly to 800 acres. Lots of households were prepared to evacuate, but a couple hundred firefighters attacked the blaze and brought it under control--so no homes were consumed.
Soon after a big one was ignited in Delta Junction, about 90 miles south of Fairbanks, and grew to 22,000 acres. We saw a bunch of smokejumpers at the drive-through on our way down to Valdez this weekend. There were more than 200 people on the fire, trying to contain it and protect unoccupied cabins (Structures are entitled to special protection during wildfires, whereas wide open tundra is allowed to burn and burn).
We were welcomed back into town on Monday (Memorial Day) with another huge plume 15 miles northwest of Fairbanks. It grew to over 2,000 acres in a day, running across the tops of trees, threatening to jump the Chatanika River and creep even closer to town. It beckoned five firefighting crews from the Lower 48.
Four more small fires started in Fairbanks this week, with anywhere from 5 to 20 firefighters apiece. Well, at least the firefighters are happy.
FWD: Beware of grizzly
Always a fun email to get after you biked to work...
A resident on Miller Hill Road called to report a brown bear sighting in the area. If you walk or ride to work, or have reason to be in that area or the area around Smith Lake or North Campus, please be aware of your surroundings.
If you sight the bear, please contact the Emergency Communications Center at 474-7721.
Greenup in Fairbanks
The arrival of spring is formally known in Fairbanks as "Greenup," and it happens in one day.
Last week the aspen and birch forests that dominate Fairbanks were brown and dead-looking (though bloated with sap). When it struck 70 degrees on Tuesday, they exploded in green leaves. All of a sudden the whole town turned into a painting–practically dripping with color. Believe it or not, it has a profound effect on the psyche, after 8 chilly months when everything but conifers die (it hasn't been 70 since early September).
I think my brain has been mass-producing dopamine and adrenaline since Greenup. The whole community seems to be walking around with punch-drunk expressions, the trails and roads are packed with runners and cyclists, and people are planning out all of their weekends, roadtrips and fishing expeditions. Spring has never felt like such a renewal of life.
Time is playing tricks on me again. We had a barbecue last night, to christen the new deck, all of a sudden my friend Trey looked at his watch and pounced out of his chair. It was almost midnight, but it hardly felt like 10, and we disbanded since it was a weeknight. Other nights, you ignore the real clock and listen to your biological ticker. You can always catch up on sleep in October.
A spring-time jaunt through Denali, on bicycles
We spent Saturday biking in Denali National Park, winding through the Alaska Range, stunning river valleys and the transition between winter and spring–with snow-capped mountains, ice-choked streams, budding birch trees and running rivers. In fact, we took a bridge over one river that we had skied across just two months ago. And, similar to the ski day, we had the park almost to ourselves.
Biking Denali early-season was highly recommended by friends who have encountered bears and wolves in the middle of the road in May. We didn't see any big game but we did spot three caribou, four Dall sheep, one porcupine, lots of snowshoe hares and ptarmigan. It was also a gorgeous day with sun, breeze and almost nobody else on the road.
The only way into the 6-million-acre park is on a dirt road which goes about 80 miles to Wonder Lake, near the foot of Mt. McKinley. You're only allowed to drive into Mile 15; to get any further you need to take a National Park Service bus (which is fun but often filled with aggressive tourists with cameras), on foot or on bike.
Josh and I drove down from Fairbanks Friday night (about 120 miles) and camped out at Savage River, 15 miles into the park. We got a great glimpse of the reclusive Mt. McKinley and visited briefly with a big male porcupine next to the road (Josh gets credit for this one, I thought it was a bush). We had to drive back to the entrance for coffee in the morning (because we forgot a pot to boil water), somewhat defeating the purpose of staying at a $22 campground within the park. Saturday morning we met up with our friends Kristin and Melanie and started pedaling at about 10 am.You start by attacking a gradual 5-mile hill (quite a warm-up!) and then cruise down another five miles to a valley floor. Then it flattens out for awhile.
We biked through uninterrupted mountains, still caked in snow, streams gurgling around ice chunks and gaping valleys filled with willow, alder and dwarf birch. The flora hadn't quite come to life yet, as the park is at about 3,000 foot elevation and thus is a little late to bloom. We had lunch by a pond (with some swampy characteristics) in the sun. When our friends jumped on the outgoing bus after lunch, I stopped wishing to see bears (they had the bear spray). You have to keep a close eye on the roadside willows as you ride, because I've seen bears hunching there in the past from the comfort of the bus. Also, we saw some bear and moose tracks by the road. At one of the rest stops, an "interpreter" for the park pointed out some caribou bedded down in the willow a few hundred yards away. We saw through his scope that they were resting, perfectly still, probably conserving energy since there isn't much food yet.
We covered about 30 miles on Saturday. I realized three things–I'm elated it's summer; I'm so grateful that Denali is only 2 hours from Fairbanks, and I need a cushion on my bike seat.
I’m living in a quintessential Alaskan cabin in the woods. In the year I’ve spent in Fairbanks, I have lived in a log home (reminiscent of a Lincoln log house) for nine months and a giant 3,500 square-foot stick frame home with cedar siding for three months (after the Lincoln log house caught on fire). The big home is what some would call a “moron” house, because you add more on and more on and more on over the years, but was incredibly homey and nestled in an aspen forest. So all of my living environs thus far have been very Alaskan (including the fire, houses are constantly catching on fire in Fairbanks because of wood stoves, electrical wiring, you name it).
I just moved into the latest cabin with my boyfriend Josh. At about 1,000 square feet with two floors, it would certainly fit the definition of quaint. We dented the ceiling and the wall trying to maneuver a full-length box spring up the > shaped staircase.
We have a 500-gallon water tank (thank God), which our landlord added several years ago. But it’s obvious the place was meant to be a dry cabin, as the bathroom and shower are squeezed into a tiny room between the staircase and dining room. The shower, toilet and sink are basically stacked on top of one another (Yes, I could probably shave my legs, pee and brush my teeth at the same time.)
The kitchen is also skimpy. With three skinny cupboards, my Lucky Charms have been stripped of their packaging and live on top of my noodles and chips. And you can’t really use the toaster oven and chop veggies at the same time or you might get fried veggies.
But I’m adjusting to the scale and learning to appreciate the beauty of vertical space (for instance, my shoe holder that hangs in the closet) as well as the shed (where all our ski boots and snow gear is stashed for the summer). I imagine it’s like living in Manhattan and making the most of every inch.
And while it may be tiny, it has loads of character. It’s cozy with a good flow, a spacious living room and a nice bedroom. We live on a hill surrounded by aspens with the Alaska Range in the distance. The hill is stitched with running and biking trails and has a awesome pub (with excellent microbrew and friendly locals) at the base. Plus, we have a brand new deck, which is so expansive that it makes up for the tight kitchen and bathroom.
Well, I better go finish unpacking!
Gas hits $4.19 a gallon in Fairbanks...
Nenana Ice Classic-ice breaks and jackpot breaks records!
(I stole this one from my coworker at the News-Miner) by Mary Beth Smetzer
FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Unless stalled by an ice jam, the Nenana Ice Classic tripod will be miles downriver by the time the names of the 22 winners divvying up this year’s Ice Classic $338,062 jackpot are announced today.
The tripod broke its icy mooring at 5:24 p.m. Wednesday Alaska Daylight Time. But the winning ticketholders had to have guessed 4:24 p.m., since guesses are made in Alaska Standard Time.
The winners will be officially notified sometime after the tickets are pulled today, Cherrie Forness, Ice Classic manager.
“We don’t know if the winners are pools or individuals,” she said. “We’ll pull all the tickets in the morning and then start calling people. We can’t give out the names until we talk to them.”
The value of each winning ticket is $15,366.45. This year’s record $338,062 jackpot is 51 percent of the gross ticket sales.
The remaining 49 percent of ticket revenue goes to a wide variety of scholarships, educational and charitable causes and to run the Ice Classic operation.
“Our payroll for April was almost $85,000,” Forness said.
According to Ice Classic records, this is the fifth time in the event’s 94-year history that the Ice Classic tripod went out on May 4.
Previous breakup times on the May 4 date were: 1944 at 2:08 p.m.; 1967 at 11:55 a.m.; 1970 at 10:37 a.m., and 1973 at 11:59 a.m.
Last year, the ice went out on April 29 at 9:06 a.m. Alaska Standard Time. There were three winning ticket holders who split a jackpot of $279,030.
The event dates back to 1917 when surveyors for the federal agency building the Alaska Railroad waited for open water so boats could bring up material they needed to go to work.
The popular breakup guessing game has thousands of takers buying tickets for $2.50 each.
Media coverage has stirred interest worldwide. People buy tickets through the mail and summer tourists are eager customers as well as Interior residents.
“There are teachers in the states who do science projects on the Ice Classic,” Forness said. “It’s a good thing for Alaska, a good thing for the people and a good thing for Nenana.”
Future plans for the breakup event is to have a Web cam set up next spring so everyone can watch the ice go out.
But there will have to be some changes made in state gaming regulations before Ice Classic tickets can be sold on the Internet.
Forness had business in Fairbanks on Wednesday and wasn’t surprised she missed the tripod trip the Ice Classic clock before she returned.
At 10 a.m., she took a last look before heading north on the Parks Highway.
“About 3/4 of a mile upriver, the main channel was clear with lots of rotten ice around the tripod, and the pressure of the water was cutting into the ice,” she recalled.
Forness and many others had been keeping a close eye on the ice. The quiet little town, 55 miles south of Fairbanks, always experiences a noticeable upsurge in traffic this time of year.
“There were lots of people out watching,” she said.
And everyone knows Mother Nature is in charge.
“We have no more inside information than anyone else,” Forness said. “One of the pools I was in was four minutes off.”
In the past few days I've gotten a new job, a new cabin (rental) and a vicious cold. I have also almost lost my mind several times. My flakiest moments:
bounced a check (to my mom!)
ran a red light (i realized and hit the brakes halfway into the intersection, it was scary)
left my car in neutral when i got out to pump gas and, when it started rolling toward the truck in front of me, rushed back and put it in first gear
went to the wrong coffee shop to meet a friend, didn't realize it for 20 minutes
hit SEND too early when submitting my state taxes online, neglecting to enter my residency change and recoup my rebate from Colorado (Ok, this was a couple weeks ago before the madness, but it seemed like it belonged with the other blond moments)
Barticman is a cross between a pub crawl, a spring fling and a transportation exhibit. About 60 young people in Fairbanks usher in spring by dressing up in zany outfits, biking (or being pulled by a bike) from bar to bar and chugging cheap, canned beer (for time). It's a spin on Arctic Man, a famous race in Interior Alaska where a snowmachiner tows a skier up a mountain and across a lake (also pretty boozey).
But instead of snowmachines and skis, Barticman involves bikes and a variety of exotic conveyances. One group of friends, going as A-Team, towed a hollowed-out ATV with two bikes. Another set used dressed up as firefighters, with water guns, and towed a plywood go-kart with foot steering (the fire dog rode in the cab). Other vehicles included a canoe on wheels (with a pirate theme), a cart with a bar and stools and three skiers to simulate an apres-ski scene, and an armchair (with dudes dressed in pajamas).
But you don't earn points for speed. You win or lose based on how fast you can chug PBR. You lose points if it dribbles down your chin or you spill. Teams start at the Marlin and bike about one mile (through the busiest intersection in Fairbanks, across a bridge) to the next bar. Can you picture bikers towing a canoe across a narrow sidewalk on a bridge? The next bar, Boatel, is a classic Fairbanks dive bar with no windows (it resembles a bomb shelter). You should have seen the faces of the oldtimer regulars when the bar was flooded with ninjas and 80s rock stars. After chugging a beer and recording your time, you hit the road to the third bar (the Oasis, which has a similar vibe) and finally finish at the campus bar, the Pub.
It is a hysterical, spirited day when people embrace the anything-goes mentality, the terrible city sprawl and the summer sun of Fairbanks.
Puddles, puddles, puddles
I'm familiar with the muddy springs of Colorado, but I've never experienced anything like mud season in Fairbanks. Here we’ve got 60 inches of snow melting in a matter of weeks, and only so much can evaporate, go into drains or percolate into the earth. What happens to the rest?
I have never seen such impressive puddles. I couldn’t use two out of the three entrances to my building this month because they were blocked by certifiable seas of snowmelt. Of course, the puddles freeze overnight and transform into a ice-crusted death traps in the morning that I wouldn’t want to cross without an ATV.
By afternoon they are pools of murky liquid, but you have no idea how deep. And the roads are so riddled with potholes (because the climate is so cruel to pavement) that you never know how many are hiding underneath.
Plus, I think I’m the only person in Fairbanks without Extra Tuffs (mud boots)—classic Cheechaka move!
Chalk up another point for Fairbanks. It's April 16 and we just went for a gorgeous cross country ski under a heavenly blue sky in T-shirts. In Colorado I would still be downhill skiing at 10,000 feet, but the snow on lower-elevation cross-country trails would either be melted or too soupy to ski on.
It wasn't even spring corn, but rather firm, fast snow, with a couple mushy warm patches. It's that fleeting time of year when you still get the best of winter (skiing) and a taste of summer (sunlight). In less than a month we'll be playing outdoor soccer again!
Daylight check: Sunrise--6 a.m., Sunset--9:30
In search of spring powder
We made the trek about 350 miles down to Girdwood with only
a couple weeks left in the season for some primo spring skiing with four friends from Fairbanks. Girdwood is
about an hour south of Anchorage in the Chugach mountains. The Alyeska resort
overlooks Turnagain Arm, a beautiful blue bay rimmed in snowy mountains.
Though it’s tiny compared to Vail, A-Basin and the other
mountains I’m used to in Colorado, the views are completely unparalleled. The terrain is also quite fun–steep and wide open, since it's above treeline.
It’s also in the rainforest and averages more than 600
inches of snow a year. Eighteen of them came the day before we arrived, which
should have promised epic powder skiing. But because it was so warm, the snow
roasted in the sun, froze overnight and formed into a thick crust by Saturday
morning—or “corral reef” as a local put it.
Saturday was glorious and sunny, so we got a chance to work on our goggle tans (mine is still nonexistent). The lifts ran from 11-6 (most are 8:30-4), which made sense
once we started skiing. We skied groomers the entire morning, waiting for the
crust to warm up and soften.
It had turned into mashed potatoes by around 1 or so, and
was super fun. We had a nice luscious run on the high traverse.
Our legs wore out around 4 and we headed to the Sitzmark
lodge at the base. After some Bloody Marys and nachos, it was time to hit up
the hot tub at our slopeside hotel (The only reason we can afford the Alyeska Resort is because our friend runs the spa). Later that night we
went back to the Sitzmark to listen to a bluegrass band, the American Taxi. It was a fun cornucopia of ski bums and bachelorette parties and hairy men and random
people in costumes that transported me back to life in Vail.
We started the journey back to Fairbanks, which is really
more of a scenic cruise, on Sunday afternoon. It was a beautiful bluebird day
and I feasted on the Alaska Range for about 150 miles on the way home (and on about 5 peanut butter cookies). We even had a full naked view of Denali, which is a rarity.
Sadly, the rugged peaks turn into rolling hills on the final
100 miles to Fairbanks. Still, the
drive through Interior Alaska is nothing but mountains, rivers, forests and a sense of engulfing wilderness and it always makes me feel lucky to live here.
Another perk is the $45 lift tickets, as opposed
to $96 for a day at Vail. Who knew, some things actually are cheaper in Alaska!
Skiing in Denali
Winter is ending and I still hadn’t been skiing in Denali,
so a few of us remedied that the other weekend.
I had my first river crossing experience on cross country
skis. As for the rest of the terrain, it was completely unpredictable and
mostly crappy. It was nonetheless sensational skiing in the mountains.
Denali National Park includes six million acres of
wilderness but only one road that takes you in about 60 miles on the northeast
corner. The road is closed most of the winter but opens up incrementally toward
the end. We drove about 15 miles until we hit the roadblock at Savage River,
and picked up a trail.
Anna and Drew were both skijoring (with dogs that are
enthusiastic but weren’t exactly bred for that purpose). Josh and I were
After about a half mile, we crossed the Savage River. A
couple coming off the trail asked us if we had grips, which I’ve never even
heard of, but I understood when I saw the 200 yards of rock solid, glacial-blue
ice. I was a little nervous at the outset, mainly because falling would be
painful and getting back up seemed virtually hopeless. But I managed to stay on
my feet and it was pretty fun. You just stab your poles in hard and shuffle
across the ice in a geriatric fashion. Once in awhile your legs wander off to
the sides and then you just have to go with it. (Can you tell I’ve never tried
Finally we hit the snow. Though there was little “skiing,”
in the normal sense of kicking and gliding, during our trek. It was mostly post holing, meaning every step you take you sink through a layer of crust. But
once in awhile the snow holds you, making it even harder to plan your next
step. For example, when I skied down a hill I would float on top of the crust for
awhile, then all of a sudden crash through, run into a curb of snow and
Fortunately Drew was training for an ultra ski marathon so
he broke trail the entire day.
The conditions improved to hard pack once we crossed the
river and made it to a north aspect. We hiked along a ridge for about an hour,
stopping for snacks and sharing a Russian Imperial stout (for warmth).
The weather went from sunny to snowing and blowing, which
was very pretty but also a little blinding since I had forgotten goggles.
We skied for about three hours, though we probably only went
four miles or so. The reward was jalapeno burgers at the Monderosa restaurant in
Nenana on the way back to Fairbanks.
My read on Denali in the winter: you go there for the
views, not the skiing.
Don't be gunshy
(that's me in the brown, Sam in the black)
Another fixture of Alaskan life is guns. My coworker has more than 60. He wears
a holster to work (though we have a no gun policy, for employees). He even has a
handgun that looks exactly like a wallet and fits into your back pocket. His
16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son both carry guns (but not to school).
He offered to take another coworker and me to the shooting
range over lunch sometime. I figured learning how to shoot might allay my fear
of guns. Plus, who doesn’t want to feel like a Charlie’s angel for a day? Last week we headed to the
outdoor range on the south side of town. It’s a cross between a driving
range and a junk yard, as people use all kinds of trash for targets. The
shooting area is speckled with colored shells, which look like Bic lighters. We
were the only ones at there at first, but eventually we were joined by about 10
others (all men).
My coworker brought two assault rifles (an AK-15 and a Ruger
.22 caliber rifle) and two handguns.
First, he taught us the three rules: always point the gun in
a safe direction, always keep your hand off the trigger until you’re ready to
shoot, and always keep it unloaded when you’re not using it (if it’s in your
pocket, you’re technically using it).
I started with the Ruger, which he said was the easiest, and it
was. It was quiet and didn’t have much kick. It’s a semi-automatic, which means
once you load the magazine you can take as many shots as you want without
having to re-cock it. (With an automatic weapon you can just hold your finger
over the trigger and it will keep firing.) It was also pretty comfortable. You
have to line up the target between two sights. We used a sheet of aluminum folded like a placard with three circles. I hit it several times but sent most of the bullets over--just like my tennis serve!
The AK-15 was more burly. I was very uptight at first (as
the photos indicate). It was heavy, loud and kicked a little, which made me jump every
time. Once I had lined up the target, I had a hard time keeping everything
steady. But I nicked the corners of the target a few times. I also tried two
different handguns—I can’t remember what they were called. I was surprised to learn they didn’t have safeties, which both the assault weapons had. Once they’re
loaded and cocked, they’re ready to fire. So when you see a gun on sombody’s
hip, it’s probably ready to fire.
With handguns, you also have to doublecheck the chamber to make sure it’s
empty after you take the magazine out, because one bullet tends to stay in
there. Apparently that causes a lot of accidents.
We shot for about an hour. I’m not gonna lie—it was
definitely a rush. But guns still scare me.
March in Fairbanks rocks. Granted, it's only the 13th. But now I know why everybody says this month is the one redeeming part of winter up here. The amazing thing is how fast we emerged from the oppressive frozen darkness. The last week of February it turned from a bleak nether-land into a brilliant white wonderland.
It has been warm (10-20 degrees) and extremely sunny every day this month, with double the light bouncing off the snowpack. Every day is getting longer and we still have plenty of snow for winter fun, like skiing and getting your car stuck (I accidentally drove onto a snowmachine trail yesterday and got stuck "high center," which means my car was straddling a chunk of solid snow, and the snow under the wheels was sugary and traction-less). But I skied almost every day this week under bluebird skies. Last weekend I even got sunburnt and shed a layer and my gloves. In other words, it felt like Colorado!
Except at night-time. The northern lights have been full-force all week thanks to strong solar winds and coronal mass ejections (love using this term) sending charged particles into the earth's outer atmosphere. On Wednesday it was flashing away as I was driving, stealing my attention from the icy roads. I finally stopped to gaze from Chena Hot Springs Road outside the city. I watched a swirl of bright green dancing across the sky, one second rippling like a river and the next second bursting like fireworks.
The nice weather has given me a similar burst of energy. All of a sudden I want to take advantage of all the awesome opportunities, trails and hut trips up here. Alaska seems so big and the winter seems so short (if I block out all of December and January spent racing from my car into buildings while swearing, buried inside down clothing, watching Hulu and doing crosswords instead of frolicking outside). Anyway, in the next month I need to get out and find some mountains because I am hungry for GRAVITY!
Back to the 'Banks
There's no denying Boulder is a hard place to leave. Especially when I was leaving my brother, sister and a bunch of awesome journalism, soccer, skiing and kickball friends. But after an amazing week filled with trail running, great skiing and awesome food, it was a pleasant return to Fairbanks. Every day is getting longer and warmer. After springing the clocks forward yesterday, it's light until 8:30! A little piece of me is still in Boulder but the rest of me is here.
Skiing into my old life
planned a trip to Colorado in March to visit my brother (who recently
moved to Boulder) and all my friends from grad school, soccer and ski
bumming. I also wanted to ski in the plentiful powder the mountains
have gotten this season, visit some professors, go running, go
shopping, etc. That's a lot to do in 5 days!
just got here yesterday and I've already gone running in the mountains,
eaten at Salt, named Metromix's Best New Restaurant this year, gone
bowling and bought four boxes of Girl Scout cookies -- not bad, huh??
was -10 when I left Fairbanks Tuesday night and 60 degrees when I
arrived in Denver Wednesday around noon. You can imagine my surprise to
see people wearing capris! We are still a couple of months away from
capris (T-shirts, flip flops, etc) in Fairbanks. Today I woke up to the
bright sun and the Flatiron mountains outlined in sky blue, ahhhh how
I've missed this view. After a nutritious breakfast of Girl Scout
cookies and coffee, sitting outside in a T-shirt, I find myself
thinking of the differences between Fairbanks and Boulder.
is asking me how I liked the winter in Fairbanks. When I tell them how
cold it was in January (average temp was -14, which isn't bad compared
to 2010 average of -41), they look horror-stricken. It's hard to
explain that it's really not as bad as it sounds and that once you're
accustomed to -20, anything above that is pretty nice. And that I get
super excited to ski when it heats up to 0, and that it's an even
bigger treat if it's in the teens because I can skate ski (you need
warmer snow to get glide). How do you describe this to people who live
in the most divine climate imaginable, where it's always sunny, it's 60
or warmer sometimes in the middle of winter, and it snows relentlessly
at higher altitudes, meaning you can drive an hour or two and ski
powder every weekend. I always knew I had it good in Colorado. But I am
still grateful for this new perspective. And I have still enjoyed my
winter in Fairbanks (if in a love/hate way) because it's always white
and skiable, and it's made me tougher.
Shredding the Moose
Today I got my first taste of downhill skiing in Fairbanks at the one, the only, Moose Mountain. It's perched in the hills of Murphy Dome, about a 25 minute drive from Ester (they call their "mountains" domes here). Though it is quite different from the Colorado mountains I'm used to, it definitely inspired the same joy of gravity and skier's high. It's about 1,200 feet of vertical with about 200 skiable acres (Vail is 3,500 vert and over 5,000 skiable acres, by comparison). On the other side of the token, a ticket cost $37 instead of $98 at Vail.
In lieu of chairlifts, the resort has "turbo charged terrestial trams," i.e. buses. Which I thought was funny, but is actually incredibly nice in this climate because you get 15 minutes to thaw out in between runs. Fortunately, it was only about 0 today with light wind. It snowed about 6 inches the night before. The snow has almost no moisture content here, because Fairbanks is an arctic desert, so we blasted through a half-foot of super dry fluff.
From the top, you actually feel like you're in the mountains (a rare sense in Fairbanks), though more soft and rolling than the rugged ridgelines and deep valleys in Colorado. The runs were long enough to get a good rhythm and steep enough to have to turn. The terrain is a bit diverse, with wide open slopes, some narrow spots, some gullies and catwalks. There's also ample tree skiing, though skiing through black spruce is slightly different than skiing through lodgepole pines or aspen glades...They are scrawny trees spaced very close together, which makes it tough to weave.
The lodge was cozy with old dorm furniture, hot chocolate and snacks, but no bar (lost a few points there). We had to drive about 20 minutes to get to the closest restaurant and order my classic apres-treat of a bloody mary and nachos.
All in all, Moose really exceeded my expectations. Though I'm still vibrating with excitement for my trip to Colorado in two weeks. I plan to hang out with my brother and sister, visit a bunch of friends in Boulder and ski Vail and A-Basin. I wonder how warm I will feel on a 13,000-foot peak after a winter in Fairbanks?
Fun in the backyard...
Alaska sunrises and sunsets
If there was one thing I underestimated about Alaska, it was the sunsets.
The sun really knows how to make an entrance, and an exit, up here. It’s not much to look at in the summer because the sun doesn’t officially set. But in the winter, the sun sets the sky on fire twice a day (unfortunately those episodes are only about 4 hours apart, as winter days are so short). Unlike the fleeting sunsets of Hawai’i, they can last 20 minutes or longer at this latitude. You just have to hope it’s warm enough to stand outside and enjoy the show.
I have a splendid view where I live in Ester, mounted about 800 feet up on a hill. The log house faces southeast toward the peaks of the Alaska Range. The sun illuminates the ridge in firey colors and casts a warm glow into the living room.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is another good vantage point. Also perched on a big hill, you get an entire profile of the mountains and the trio of massifs--Deborah, Hesse and Hayes. I saw a sunrise up here the other day (about 10:15) that took my breath away. There was a big cloud cover and the sun ignited the clouds with orange, purple and pink.
We also witnessed an awesome display heading south out of Fairbanks toward Denali recently (though it was about 2 p.m. so it wasn’t technically a sunset). The sun was suspended in the middle of a cloud, like a lantern, above the Tanana River Valley, a huge bed of braided streams and rivers. It radiated up and down and made the whole valley glow.
Okay, I've talked them up enough. See for yourself-- a selection of spectacular sunrises and sunsets from this year.
A Fruit Fest
Fresh fruit is hard to come by in Alaska in the winter. Your choices are apples, bananas or $5 for a small container of bruised strawberries. So in Hawai'i we gorged on exotic tropical fruit every day. At the farmer's market $10 will get you a bag of rambutans, passion fruit, a pineapple, bananas, avocados, starfruit and papayas that would cost $40 in Alaska. Papayas were 7 for $2. Passion fruit seemed to be the crowd favorite--a hard round yellow fruit with orange gooey seeds inside. SUPER tart and sweet.
Rambutans are spiky pink balls that look more like sea fauna than edible fruit. You twist them open and find a fruit inside that looks like an eyeball and tastes like a grape--with a pit. We ate the papayas with yogurt and granola for breakfast. The pineapples we shiskabobed and grilled along with shrimp, Maui onions and peppers. And the starfruit we sliced into cute little bite-sized stars. Sadly, mangoes were not in season...I remember fondly grabbing fallen mangos off the street in Maui and eating them like apples. But I definitely got my fill of ripe colorful fruit on the Big Island. Which is good, because they X-ray your bag at the airport to make sure you don't try to smuggle any agricultural products home. Thankfully, the chocolate- coconut macadamia nuts were allowed.
Hawai'i episode 3
The Kona Coast has the best beaches on the island. Though the ultimate beaches, like Makalawena, you can't drive to. You basically need a Jeep or truck to drive to the access points. Then you hike another 1.5 miles across sharp lava rock. We saw some black goats along the way. The beach was made up of white sugary sand and turquoise water. There was a whale fluking about 100 yards from the shore. The waves were great for boogie boarding and way friendlier than some of Kona's other beaches. Sea turtles hang out in the tide pools. It was a little slice of ecstasy.
We also kayaked across Kealakekua Bay to snorkel along the reef. As a novice snorkeler, I had to learn to swim through the channels in shallow spots and how to use the purge valve on my snorkel. It was such an enchanting world. We saw little bitty yellow tang, which are a radiant hue of yellow, as well as Achilles tang, long-nosed butterfly fish, gilded trigger fish, needle fish, parrot fish chewing on coral. The coral was studded with amazing sea urchins, long spiky yellow ones that were completely exposed, and bright red ones that waved around inside crevices in the coral. After I stepped on a sea urchin several years ago while surfing in Maui (one of the most painful experiences of my life) I have a keen fascination with the creatures.
Not to be a food snob, but I was unimpressed with the seafood on the Big Island. Maybe I'm spoiled with all the fresh wild salmon and halibut in Alaska. But I would say the fish in Maui is ten times better, and more accessible, than in Hawai'i. When I worked as a waitress in Maui, I would regularly eat ahi sashimi for lunch and marlin ceviche for lunch. The food is much more generic on the Big Island. That said, we enjoyed some wonderful sushi at Sushi Rock in Hawi, in northwest Hawai'i. The "tropical treat" featured spicy ahi, papaya, cucumber and macadamia nut. And my roll had mahi with local goat cheese, greens, avocado and parmesan. We also bought some sushi-grade ahi in Kona and seared it with sesame and seaweed seasoning one night. Mmmmmm....I'm hoping this isn't what gave me a stomach virus at the end of the trip. But that's another story.
Big Island episode 2
We hit Waipio Valley on a gorgeous sunny day, a black sand beach sancwiched between dizzying 1000 foot cliffs. We hiked down this steep 1-mile road (I jogged and my quads were sore for the rest of the week). The valley floor, a canvas of bright green, was dotted with taro farms and wild horses. We saw a waterfall cascading off a cliff into the Waipio River, which emptied into the ocean. The waves were big, meaning lots of surfers, but the undertow was strong. The walk back up was also a calf-burner, and a sun-burner. We headed to Volcano National Park next, in the southeastern corner of the island. Half the park was closed due to lethal amounts of vog (volcanic fog). So we camped in a rocky area where you can see both Mauna Kea (the tallest peak in Hawaii) and Mauna Loa, the active volcano. Unfortunately, the vog clouded the view. But we did see nenes, which are cute striped Hawaiian geese that are only found in the Hawaiian islands.
We hiked the rim of the Kilauea Iki Crater and then climbed along the cordera, or crater floor, checking out lava rocks splattered with gold and random flowers and berries that somehow grow there. You can walk right up to the active vents, though you shouldn't bask in the steam because they are spewing sulfur. We also walked through a giant old lava tube, a black tunnel that was hollowed out during an eruption. We had to use headlamps because, since absolutely no sunlight penetrates the tube, your "night vision" never really kicks in.
Pele, the goddess of fire, is fairly prominent in the Volcano museum. They also have seismographs that tell you where earthquakes are happening throughout the park in live time. You can even jump in front of one and it records your disturbance.
There's a winery outside the park and I bought a bottle of Volcano Red--which actually survived the plane ride home.
Next stop, Kona Coast: land of coffee, macadamia nuts and dolphins. We saw two out of three.
HAWAI'I episode one
I couldn’t decide whether or not to post about Hawaii on this blog, since it’s officially about life in Alaska. But since almost everyone I know in Alaska goes to Hawaii over the winter, it seems like a relevant part of the Northern lifestyle.
We spent last week on the Big Island, aka Hawaii, swimming in turquoise water, snorkeling with manta rays, gorging on fresh fruit, exploring volcanoes and hiking through tropical forests. Stepping off the plane felt like warm, airy, sunny embrace. At 84 degrees, it was more than 100 degrees warmer than Fairbanks.
Major first impressions: HEAT from the sun. fresh fruit. warm water. half-naked bodies. I changed from a PolarTec fleece and Smartwools into shorts, a tank and fip flops at the airport (which is open-air, btw).
The first night we camped at a beach on the north Kona coast with fine white sand and big waves. The boogie boarders were out in droves. Then we got our first cup of authentic Kona coffee in Waimea, in the north-central part of the island. We spent the next night at a cabin in the rainforest at 2000 feet. The ranger said it was 39 degrees at his house the other day and they turned on the wood stove! We went on a fabulous hike through a forest that seemed to be painted green—especially coming from a land of white and brown. Ferns sprouted out of tree trunks and moss rolled over logs. It was overflowing with ohia trees and rainbow trees and eucalyptus trees, which we learned from our host Bo are invasive species. They were farmed in order to produce pulp and then quickly grew out of control in some areas.
We we lucky to stay in the cabins the same night as a pure Hawaiian family from Puna (southeast Hawaii, near the lava flow). There were about 20 of them and they had kept indigenous traditions (which are fast-dying in Hawaii) alive, like speaking to their kids in Hawaiian. One guy, Desmon, teaches star navigation at University of Hawaii in Hilo. He can look at the sky from any point on earth, Kansas or the middle of the Pacific, and locate where he is on a map. Human GPS! They also cooked traditional dishes like squid and pork stew, poi (a purple paste made from the taro root) and pudding made of Hawaiian sweet potatoes (also bright purple).
Everyone in the family seemed to be musically talented. They played ukeleles (one was made out of koa and another out of a gourd) and sang island tunes all night. Both the poi and the conversation were quite a treat!
5.....4....3...2..1..Happy New Year!
Fireworks are much better when it's really dark outside. Which is why people in Fairbanks have big-budget fireworks displays on New Year's Eve rather than the Fourth of July (when night consists of a few hours of dim sunlight).
Let me just say that adding fireworks to the excitement of New Year's creates pretty much delirium. The whole city comes out for a display at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at 8 pm. We skied to the U from a friend's house and watched about 20 minutes worth of respectable fireworks from the agricultural research field. It was a very pleasant 10 degrees. We sat on sleeping pads on the snow and brought a Nalgene full of champagne.
But the best-kept secret happens much later. At midnight, the town of Ester (where I live) sets off fireworks at the base of the hill. The pyrotechnicians set up camp in the parking lot of the Golden Eagle saloon and hundreds of locals gather on the porch about 100 feet away--totally the VIP section. Then the fireworks commence and are met with nonstop cheering from the crowd for the next 15 minutes or so.
Being so close to a major display definitely heightens the exhileration factor. I was raised on Fourth of July fireworks in Cape Cod, where my dad and his fraternity brothers would light bottlerockets and comets and other crackling explosives from the yard, the lake, the clearing, you name it. There were a couple of close calls, and one actual ignition, over the years. Wondering whether a fireball might come veering toward you definitely added to the thrill.
This was slightly more sophisticated (no offense, Dad) but with the same drama of bright, resounding explosives from a point-blank distance. The crowd passed around champagne and enjoyed a potluck afterward.
We followed the fervor of the fireworks with some more champagne and card games, and savored the first three and a half hours of 2011 before hitting the sack.
The slideshow below is a selection from both displays. Though they're just not the same without the boom! So I posted a fireworks video too...
A flurry of crazy weather and a 70-degree surge
You can thank a blizzard that’s been rolling up the western coast of Alaska for record-breaking high temperatures in Fairbanks over the holiday weekend. Winds on the eastern edge of the storm were pushed over the Alaska Range and north into the Interior. They warmed up as they moved downslope. “You can actually get pretty warm temperatures here, even in the dead of winter, if you get a good strong southerly flow coming over the Alaska Range,” said Christopher Cox, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. After the coldest December in 30 years, including a low of minus 40 on Christmas day, the temperature soared up to 41 degrees Fahrenheit at the Fairbanks International Airport Sunday morning. Gusts clocked in at 25 miles per hour in the hills. Delta Junction hit 52 degrees Saturday and saw winds up to 45 miles per hour Sunday. The warm weather is expected to hang around until Tuesday, with highs near 25 on Monday and 15 on Tuesday. The thaw created slick roads as moisture in the air deposited onto cold road surfaces and formed instantaneous frost, Cox said. “As long as we are warm or close to freezing, roads will continue to be very slick. Especially in the hills where it’s a little bit warmer,” he said. The warm spell melted a trivial amount of snow and canceled out the one inch of white stuff that fell on New Year’s Eve. Don’t read too much into the cold December or the warm weekend, Cox said. The cold weather in December was caused by a large blocking pattern that lasted for about three weeks. It prevented air from moving east to west and kept a high-pressure system fixed above the Interior. The average temperature last month was about 18-below-zero, 12 degrees lower than normal. That doesn’t mean January will be colder, or milder, than any other year. January is typically the coldest month of the year in Fairbanks. “We’re in a strong La Niña pattern, which generally speaking will cause colder than normal temperatures,” Cox said.
Sled dog country
I wrote an article today about a retired sled dog who ran away, lived in the wild for 3-and-a-half years and was finally picked up by Animal Control and reunited with her owner.
I went out to the musher''s house to see the dog, Bridget. Bridget was an 8-year-old super-cute half-husky half-English Pointer who was a sprint mushing dog in her day. She was also super cuddly, rare for a sled dog. She had a black coat and short hair, all the more impressive that she survived three winters in Fairbanks. She was missing one foot, which must have been gnawed off by another animal or stuck in a trap. You could see the bone at the bottom of the appendage. She held it up, like it was in a sling, while she was running around. Pretty agile, considering.
The musher lived in a cabin in the woods with a big pen of 18 sled dogs, who howled in unison when the photographer and I pulled up. Sled dogs are L O U D, which I learned when I lived in a neighborhood with tons of them in the summer of 2008. Whenever you jog near a yard of dogs, you set off a cacophony of barking. They are all roped to individual posts so they can't mingle. When they get excited they jump around howling and tangle themselves in their chains.
Anyway, I used to be surprised when I passed a house with more than three dogs. Now nothing under 20 fazes me.
Winter weather update
Today's forecast: High -21/Low -34. Very cold, evening flurries
Thursday's forecast: High -29/Low -35. Clear and very cold.
Christmas Eve forecast: High -26/Low -34. Partly cloudy and very cold.
Christmas forecast: High -23/Low -32. Partly cloudy and very cold.
A few thoughts: Doesn't this make zero sound warm? I'm getting bored with the "very cold" descriptor. Maybe we need to coin more superlatives for cold. Though I guess after enough very cold days meteorologists lose their inspiration for colorful vocab? In conversation, people start to drop the "negative" in front of the number, as it goes without saying after awhile
Everyone has a plug-in in Fairbanks
I don't know why these plugs crack me up. Maybe I find it ironic that people live in a place where their car won't turn on without a trickle charger in the battery, oil pan heater, block heater and transmission heater. What I've learned about plugging in:
It creates the false impression that there are many more hybrid vehicles (including hybrid monster trucks) than there actually are in Fairbanks Oil turns to molasses at 40-below You should plug in if it's zero or colder but you BETTER plug in at 20-below or colder You need to bring your own extension chord everywhere (sounds obvious but I forgot mine on the first cold day and had to go out and turn on my car every 2 hours) It takes your car 1-2 hours to cool off completely Some places provide outlets, like my office, while others don't (like the gym or supermarket) For this reason, many leave their cars running while grocery shopping and during short appointments ( You can imagine the effect that has on air quality) Running cars in parking lots can fake you out when trying to park An Arctic leash would be nice (it recoils to your hood when you pull it like a retractable dog leash)
Who actually goes to public meetings?
I spend quite a bit of time at public meetings, which means I hear lots of public testimony. The same faces often show up to comment on ordinances, and I've discovered that nothing fires people up like federal spending. The other night, an ordinance came up on whether to use a $900,000 federal grant and $270,000 in state funding for a new emergency operations center. I thought the public comment really summed up the local attitude (from what I've seen) on such issues.
"I don't want local government going under national security."
"If we take federal money on, it essentially is a federal building. When the Feds determine they need it, they'll take it."
"I'm very bothered about this. I'm afraid of doing things up so big, saying this has to be above the floodplain, when it's so unlikely we'd have a very big flood soon."
"There's no such thing as free money. We are saddling our kids with $13 trillion in national debt already." True
The only person to testify for the emergency center was the new fire chief for the University, who said the current facility as inadequate for emergency response. Also, Fairbanks sits in the Tanana Valley floodplain. In the summer it's usually surrounded by wildfire and two major rivers characteristically flood.
**I'm still trying to figure out if these folks represent a true sample of Fairbanks or just the ones who enjoy speaking at public meetings.
Hold your breath–til Thursday!
Because Fairbanks gets extremely cold and also sits in the Tanana Valley, we get a lovely effect called a "temperature inversion." Hot air rises and cold air is trapped close to the ground in low-lying areas like downtown, where I work.
Today (20-below) the inversion is trapping fine particulate matter, produced by wood stoves, coal stoves, wood boilers, car exhaust and other pollution, near the ground at unhealthy levels, according to EPA standards. It's supposed to be 30-below for the rest of the week, which means no fresh air in the immediate future. Ahh, I miss Colorado.
Cold case observations
Here are my observations from Day 1 of sub-20-below-zero weather. Stay tuned--this list will continue to grow as the weather gets colder.
Tailpipe emissions form into big, dense plumes when the hot exhaust misses with the freezing air, another good reason not to tailgate
Your windows don't freeze when it's super cold because the air is too dry
Twenty below is the cutoff for always plugging in your car
Think of your car as a super-efficient freezer. Take advantage of leaving freezable groceries like bagels and ice cream inside, but avoid items like apples and beer
Synthetic plastic bags, like my gym bag, become stiff and crinkly and seem like they're about to break
Shoes/Gym clothes/towels left in the car with any trace sweat will freeze
It's actually more annoying being overheated when you go inside (to the grocery store, for example) in a down coat, scarf and hat than being a little cold outside
Some people just don't wear gloves...let it go
Ice Storm Paralyzes Fairbanks
Last week was a prime example of why you don't wish for warm weather in the winter in Fairbanks (even though every fiber of your bones may want to). A freak warm front struck town Monday morning and dropped rain for two days straight, the second biggest rain event on record. It turned roads into glaciers and closed schools and businesses for most of the week. I couldn't get down my road (I live one mile up a fairly steep hill) for two days, until road crews came by with a sander and grader (which roughs up the ice with a serated blade). It became so warm on Wednesday (37 degrees) that the roads turned into slush pits with puddles and random ridges of gravelly ice. We got .94 inches of rain total, only five one-hundredths shy of the biggest rainfall in the century in 1937. It came on the heels of about 5 inches of fresh snow over the weekend, and amalgamated into bulletproof ice (up to an inch thick) on roads and solid crust on ski trails. When I went for a run on Thursday, the day after the rain stopped as well as Thanksgiving Day, my feet didn't break through the crust, which is good for runners but bad for skiers. The rain reverted to snow Thursday and accumulated in about 4 inches by Saturday (thank God!)
Unfortunately the colder temps also froze the slush remaining on roads, which crews continued to attack with gravel. Suffice it to say, it was a mess.We went skiing in Ester yesterday to assess the damages to the snowpack. I took one step onto the trail -- which begins with a sharp downhill -- and landed flat on my tailbone, thanks to one ski grabbing the snow and the other gliding away. Once I regained composure, we skied some more gradual hills and discovered the trails had a soft layer of snow with a mean layer of solid ice underneath. The rain had frozen on branches and created icy bramble. On one section, we had to bushwhack through a tunnel of willows and alders that had bent over into the trail, earning a slew of scratches on my face and a bushel of twigs in my jacket hood. The snowmachine trails were in the best shape, as the sleds had packed down new snow into soft, smooth tracks. We went for a beautiful ski across Ester dome through a white frosty forest. When it started getting dark at THREE O'CLOCK, I was reminded that it is, in fact, the middle of the winter in upstate Alaska.
Lessons learned: don't pray for above-freezing temperatures in the winter, and take your skis off and walk down icy trailheads.
Alaska Driver's License Exam at the Fairbanks DMV
When I went to get my Alaska driver's license today (but of course I forgot my passport), I found this study question rather amusing...
When turning left at an intersection with an oncoming bicyclist in the facing lane, you should
A. yield to the bicyclist as you would to an oncoming car B. proceed through the intersection C. honk and yell at the bicyclist D. none of the above
If you live in Fairbanks, you may have guessed C
While most of you would think A is the obvious answer, you have probably never experienced the intersections or bike paths of Interior Alaska. Let's just say "Share the road" is not the M.O. here. Do NOT expect cars, especially not trucks, to yield at traffic lights, stop signs or on narrow roads with no shoulder. Half the time they don't see you and half the time they probably just assume they are bigger or you are a hippy. So this is not such a no-brainer question in this region (don't worry, you can miss 5 out of 20 questions and still pass).
I bought a beautiful, sleek road bike in the spring and biked to work (about 12 miles one way) once a week most of the summer. At several intersections, I don't even dream about crossing until I have the walk sign AND I make eye contact with every driver in every lane. When you're riding straight down a road on the shoulder, where you ALWAYS have right of way over merging traffic, cars will still turn in front of you. And if you were considering going through a green light as if you were a car, instead of waiting for the pedestrian signal, FORGET it!
T/F If you can survive on a bike in Fairbanks, you can survive on a bike anywhere. TRUE
Going for a Sunday sled
I was driving down my dirt road yesterday (pictured here) when a dog (large poodle?) appeared in the middle of the right of way. I slowed down (I never go faster than 15 mph anyway) and all of a sudden, a sledder with a giant smile popped out of the woods onto the bank of the road. I assumed it was a kid at first (not sure why, my dad is the most prolific sledder around in my hometown). It was actually a 60-year old woman! We watched her march to the mailbox in the rear-view mirror to retrieve her paper.
As you can see, this is not an open glade, but rather a fairly dense aspen forest. So she had to pick a pretty specific, and bold, line down the hill from her property.
At the community park at the bottom of the hill, about 10 kids were playing hockey on the playground, which becomes an ice rink in the winter. They have coin-operated lights.
Gotta love Ester.
Cold climate and tight home-building breeds mold problem in Alaska
Cross country skiing in Alaska
What's it like to cross-country ski in negative 20, you ask? Well, I'll get back to you on that. But I can already tell you Nordic skiing in Alaska is a whole different ball of wax than skiing in Colorado, and requires much colder-temperature wax as well.
Today I skied in a crisp but pleasant 9 degrees. Here's what happens at that temp: Your cheeks develop a nice rosy windchap on downhills. You also lose circulation in your toes and fingers within about 15 minutes and they go numb--which isn't so bad. The motivation to keep moving is stronger in Alaska than Colorado. If you stop to talk with a ski buddy, it doesn't take long for your face to freeze and your sweat to crystallize...in whatever places you sweat. Also, you see things like mustaches with big chunks of ice encrusted onto the tips, like I saw on the trails today.
Specialized arctic equipment is a big factor if you ski in 20-below (as people here do, some go even colder). Skiers wear boot gloves over their ski boots. They also wear ear muffs underneath their hats to block the wind stream. And the general clothing is less breathable than normal cross-country ski gear, which is designed to be lighter than downhill ski gear because you work up so much body heat.
Also, the probability of encountering a moose is very high (fortunately, bears are hibernating). The other day, a university student was charged by a mean cow moose on the ski trails and had to hide behind a tree and call 911 (sadly, the moose was shot by Troopers for being overly aggressive).
On the upside, Fairbanks has hundreds of kilometers of skiable trails, many of which are groomed and lit (remember how we only have 4 hours of daylight in mid-winter??) They are beautiful, wide, free and snowy--the main ingredients for winter fun. So I plan to spend a lot of time skating around and exploring the frostier side of Fairbanks this season.
Trick or Treat (in seal oil)
Halloween brought out the typical witch, gorilla, Arabian princess and Storm Trooper costumes at work Friday. But one office treat I wasn't expecting was a container of seal and She-fish soaked in seal oil (sealed, thank goodness).
The She-fish was smoked and pretty tasty. The seal, however, was long-grained and livery. Surprisingly, there were no salmon eyeballs in the dish, which are used not just as a Halloween tradition but also an Alaska Native one, as they don't waste any part of fish they harvest.
As for my costume, I went back to my roots (Hershey, Pennsylvania) and dressed up as a Twizzler on Friday, complete with a necklace and bracelet made out of the real thing. Did you know licorice is vegan approved? To trick or treaters, we handed out Mike n Ikes and Hot Tomales, also Pennsylvania candies.
Even in Alaska, they don't come covered in seal oil.
Ice, ice, baby
Apparently fall is the iciest time of the year because "it's so warm" (i.e. not yet in the negatives) that the snow hits the road and melts, then freezes overnight and forms a nice sometimes-invisible slick. The upside is that most locals know how to drive in winter conditions and they respect icy roads. So you (usually) don't have a punk teenager flying up on your butt and then weaving through traffic and slamming on his breaks at the stoplight.
It won't be as icy once it gets really cold. At certain temperatures (and pressure points) snow sublimates from a solid straight into a gas, skipping the liquid phase.
That yields several benefits -- dry roads and good snow for skiing!
A great awakening plan
One nice thing about adulthood is that I've figured out how to get myself out of bed in the morning. Throughout my 20s, it's become easier to pop up, make coffee and start the day. Well, now that it's getting darker in Fairbanks (no sign of daylight at 8 a.m.) I'm transported back to my high school days when my mom had to wake me up at least twice before I dragged my butt out of bed and sleepwalked to the shower. Unfortunately, my mom lives 5,000 miles away now! So I'm testing out different strategies for getting out of bed. Here's what worked this morning:
8 a.m. – first alarm goes off but I don't notice it for awhile because it's on vibrate. switch to ring and hit snooze
8:10 -- second alarm goes off. hit snooze
8:20 -- get out of bed, open the blinds (makes a tiny bit of difference), get back in bed, hit snooze
8:30 -- I realize I'm gonna be late if I hit snooze too much more. turn on bedside lamp, hit snooze one last time and try to motivate by thinking about breakfast
8:35 -- OKAY okay, I'm up!
Discussion: I need to eliminate a couple of those snoozes. I think the key is slowly adding light into my cerebrum. So at 8 a.m., I need to open the blinds. And at 8:10, I need to turn on the bedside lamp. I also read that you need to start moving your body to signal to your brain that you're awake, so I might also try to wiggle my toes while snoozing. If this plan works, by 8:15 tomorrow I should already be at my closet debating about wearing long underwear!
What rhymes with 5k?
The town of Ester does most things its own way, including road races. Last weekend I ran the Readers on the Run 5k to raise money for the town's new library. You run three one-mile laps around the post office and along the stream. Every lap, you pass a table filled with magnets containing words and phrases, and you have to construct a poem on a cookie sheet. Mine was "If I say I am God, please take the drink away." (Keep in mind, you gotta write on the fly because it's a race!)
That wasn't the only unique facet. The clock started two minutes after the "On your mark, get set, go!" to give us a headstart. The race marshal also deducted three minutes from your finish time. And you could earn extra credit, i.e. more minutes deducted from your time, by taking a literature quiz after you cross the finish line that included greats like Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Salinger and J.K. Rowling. So, when all was said and done, I had set a new PR (without even running 7 minute miles!)
I also won the women's division (there were only 40 runners total and many were kids) and scored a lovely amethyst necklace. There were also prizes for best costume, won by two ladies dressed like pink fairies, and best poem, which I can't completely remember but had something to do with "astronaut pants."
Like I said, Ester does things its own way.
A renewable Alaska?
The state that oozes with natural resources is going green, or at least half green. The Alaska Legislature set a goal in April to get half its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025.
Alaska is by no means ahead of the game. By 2009, 33 states already had adopted similar goals, with percentages ranging between 10 percent and 30 percent (Maine). California, for instance, is shooting for 20 percent renewable by 2017, and Colorado wants 20 percent renewables in its mix by 2020. Still, Alaska deserves credit for getting on board and for going big (a recurring theme here).
There are several projects in the works, including a wind farm near Denali and a big hydroelectric project, the Susitna Dam, that would provide more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity, more than twice the entire state's current usage. They may not be completed for 10 years, though.
There are also cool, innovative projects right in Fairbanks. This year the school district installed a ground source heat pump at one school--which seems ironic in an area with frozen ground! It produces 72,000 BTUs per hour, or enough to heat a big house. The district also put a solar wall on one of its metal warehouses.
The owner of Chena Hot Springs, a geothermal resort in east Fairbanks, is totally jazzed on clean energy. He's working on a 500-kilowatt biomass plant that turns garbage and recycled paper into electricity. He is sourcing the biomass from the university and the military campuses, and expects to plug it into the utility grid by the end of the year.
It's exciting news that Alaska is not only pursuing real projects, but has officially set goals and deadlines that will spur more innovation!
Wearing your politics on your bumper
I pulled up behind a blue Dodge van yesterday at, where else, McDonalds (I was ordering a McFlurry not a Big Mac, if that makes a difference). The old van bore some bumper stickers that say a lot about Fairbanks--especially since I was on the military-base side of town.
The one that stuck out the most was the "Terrorist Hunting Permit" sticker that was overlaid on an American flag sticker.
But I also quite enjoyed the "Driver has no money, Obama took it all" sticker.
It reminded me of another car I'd seen at a stoplight the other day.
One Big A (photo of donkey) Mistake America
The other said "I'll keep my guns, freedom and money. You can keep the change."
Everyone is entitled to their own bumper art. I think the strong concentration of conservative bumper stickers strikes me because in my former hometown (Boulder, Colorado), most bumper stickers are anti-war, anti-Bush, treehugger or vegetarian-themed.
Parents Come to Town
I convinced my mom and dad to visit Alaska before the death of winter, aka October, so we spent last weekend roadtripping through the Interior. Of course, the temperature plunged from the mid-60s to the low 30s the night before they got here, forcing me to dig through my winter stash for extra coats. Luckily my mom loves my pink puff coat and my roommate had an extra wool-lined Carhartt jacket that my dad had only dreamed of.
Despite the fact that they missed the glorious autumn colors by one week, we had a grand time (poor mom, she also missed spring by one week when she dropped me off here in May!) We spent the first night at Tangle Lakes Inn on the Denali Highway. To my dad's delight, outside the inn a few Canadians were using a helicopter to haul core sampling equipment from their exploratory drilling site. We also had a double whammy of weather with 40-mile-per-hour winds and an earthquake in the middle of the night (no northern lights, sorry again mom).
The next day,we drove from Tangle Lakes about 100 miles west to Cantwell. Within the first few minutes we saw a herd of 30 caribou--you spot them afar by their white butts or sometimes in the middle of the road. We saw about 100 more on the Denali Hwy, plus dozens of trumpeter swans and a male moose on the prowl. They round up cows into a harem during mating season before, umm, consummating the relationships. We stopped at a bunch of lakes and rivers to fish for grayling and Arctic charr, but came up dry. The consolation prize was gorgeous views of the Deborah and Hess peaks in a bright blue sky.
The next day we drove into Denali National Park hungry for grizzlies (just to admire). We went for a snowy hike up to some rocks that are known to have resident marmots. But we got skunked on wildlife in Denali, quite a surprise! To unwind from all the excitement, we visited Chena Hot Springs outside Fairbanks. We had an awesome dinner of salmon, halibut and filet followed by a steamy soak in the geothermal rock pools. The next morning, in 20-degree sunshine, it felt just as good.
After a couple more adventures in Fairbanks (bringing my parents to my favorite bar, showing them "downtown," going shopping for winter clothes and checking out the pipeline) my mom and dad caught a flight back to Philadelphia and drove to Hershey. They claim they loved Fairbanks. There are some parallels between the two places, after all. Hunting, fishing, rednecks, beer, and friendly locals, among many others. On the other hand, when they got home it was 82 degrees and it was only half that here.
Fall in Denali, Slice of Heaven Anyone?
Denali is the crown jewel of Alaska, and it's only 2 hours southwest of Fairbanks. Ironically, you usually can’t see Mt. McKinley, the continent’s highest peak, from the park because of clouds, storms or fog. A group of us spent last weekend in Denali camping and hiking, and we seriously hit a gold mine: bluebird day, punch-in-the-gut views of Mt. McKinley, a kaleidoscope of fall colors, and tons of wildlife encounters (none threatening, thank goodness!)
The first day we went hiking outside Igloo Creek and within an hour we came across a lynx, which are typically very reclusive, just 20 feet away. We thought he would run away, but he just fixed his blue gaze on us with mild annoyance for a few minutes and then went back to stalking ground squirrels. We watched him for an hour or two, during which time a Dall sheep meandered from a neighboring draw all the way up to within 10 feet of the lynx.
We were all stupefied! It was like watching a scene from Planet Earth unfold. Would the lynx attack the sheep? Would the sheep attack the lynx? Or would either decide to come after us, five curious hikers? I guess the Discovery programs have given us unrealistic expectations, because absolutely no interaction occurred between the animals, besides the sheep eventually getting spooked and running up the bowl a bit.
The next day (another 62-degree blue-sky treat) we took the bus deeper into the park through mountains covered in red tundra, fluorescent green moss and stands of gold aspen, poplar and birch. We passed about 10 grizzly bears running across scree slopes or along gravel bars, with playful cubs in tow.
Soon the mighty peak was unveiled. We had lots of million-dollar views of the 20,021-foot McKinley, a giant powder-white triangle against a cerulean sky. We climbed a ring of ridgelines for better views of the valley, filled with braided streams, with snowy peaks and spires spiking in all directions.
As our bus driver confirmed, this type of day in Denali is nearly unheard of. On the drive home, my head was swimming with the swirl of colors, the rare wildlife and the sense of wonder that Alaska continually instills.
A Float Trip (by plane, not raft)
Today I took a float plane up to a lake in the Brooks Range in northern Alaska to check out a friend's camp. It was my first experience in a small airplane (a Cessna 206) and it was a FUN ride. We flew over about 200 miles of foothills, mountains, spruce forests, snaking rivers, constellations of ponds, wildfires and absolutely no civilization. After about two hours, we landed on a lake with a small campground -- a wall tent, a cache, outhouse and a couple of canoes. The setting seemed too surreal to actually be inhabited. 6,000 foot peaks rose around an alpine lake with hundreds of miles of pristine wilderness stretching in every direction.
i couldn't tear my eyes away from the tundra floor. in the fall the arctic tundra is like a beautiful tapestry...bright green moss speckled with red, yellow and orange shrubs, red bushes of blueberries, low-bush cranberries and clusters of big cartoonish looking mushrooms. walking on it is like walking on a bed of fluff.
watching the season change as we flew north. the landscape went from a sea of forest green to splotches of bright yellow aspen and orange and red patches of dwarf birch and alder.
the mountains get really tall really fast. one second you're immersed in green rolling hills. the next second, you spot a saw-tooth ridgeline of the Brooks.
the Yukon and its surrounding river valley. the rivers and streams in the Yukon Flats flow like big, loose curls of a ribbon.
taking off and landing in a float plane, especially landing. the touch-down was so gentle I didn't even know we had hit the water. the takeoff was cool because the thrust builds up so fast and is released into the air with such ease. the transitions before takeoff and after landing were fun because you're floating around in the water like a boat, but with wings.
the air tasted so fresh and pure I wanted it to fill up every cell of my body. it was a crisp 60 degrees with some blissful sunshine.
Living in Alaska, I frequently stumble upon scenery that makes me drool. You don't have to go out of your way at all. You can simply drive the Denali Highway by the park or the Seward Highway along the Kenai Peninsula or the Richardson Highway through the Alaska Range and get breathtaking views from the car seat. You can even drive to the top of Ester Dome in Fairbanks for a panoramic view of the Alaska Range, complete with the Deborah, Hess and Hayes trio of peaks.
But it's different when you have to fly through hundreds of miles of nothingness. The area is so saturated with nature, it just rubs off on you. Because it's so hard to get to, you feel more like a visitor. Which somehow makes the blueberries taste even sweeter!
Classifying August – Summer or Fall?
It’s not quite August 20 and the aspen are turning yellow already. I saw it with my own eyes on a jog today. Only a few leaves are tinged so far, but before long the entire groves will burst into bright gold. The weather has been ultra fickle lately, hitting a record-breaking 91 on Sunday and then plummeting to 53 by Wednesday. The sky is so cloudy it looks like a wall of fluff. (Which makes for breathtaking sunsets, which I haven't really seen all summer in Fairbanks.)
I was warned that fall strikes early in Fairbanks, but mid-August??
However, summer hasn't totally surrendered. The delphiniums and nasturtiums and poppies are still electric and the cherry tomatoes, which I’m eating right now, are still popping up every day. So instead of mourning the summer, I'll appreciate this strange overlap of summer produce and fall sunsets.
The Denali Highway (aka Caribou Crossing)
“Have you driven the Denali Highway yet?”
I’ve been asked that question at least a half-dozen times since moving to Fairbanks in May.
But on my checklist of Alaska adventures, the 460-mile loop from Fairbanks had taken a backseat to other far-flung places like Valdez, Haines, Homer and Chitina.
Last weekend, my boyfriend, Josh Kunz, and I decided to go backpacking along Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park.
Well, the only time we took our backpacks out of the car was to transform the backseat of my Subaru into a bed. It was cold, wet and blustery when we rolled up to Glitter Gulch outside Denali National Park for refreshments around noon on Saturday, draining any motivation to spend the next 24 hours in the backcountry (I’ve been spoiled by Colorado sunshine for five years and have been called a fair-weather hiker by Alaskans).
Driving the 135-mile unpaved Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson, fishing and car-camping along the way, seemed like the perfect fallback. The route snakes through bright green foothills streaked in fireweed and backdropped by Alaska Range peaks capped in fresh snow. The landscape is strewn with glaciers, wild rivers and lush tundra sprinkled with caribou, moose, porcupines, beavers, bald eagles, loons and trumpeter swans. With next to no people, cars or businesses it’s the real Alaska experience promised by every visitor’s guide.
Fallback was the wrong word.
The Denali Highway passes plenty of creeks with healthy populations of Arctic grayling and dolly varden. We stopped at one — Seattle Creek — and Josh caught a grayling, and we picked a few blueberries.
We spotted most of the wildlife we saw from the car. The first herd of caribou was about 30 strong. They were browsing in the willows until they sensed us, then started zigzagging in different directions before bolting over the ridge. It was my first Alaska caribou sighting.
A little while later, we passed at least 60 more. Another small herd stood silhouetted against a dusky ridgeline and we saw a spate of twosomes — lots of cows with calves — in the road. One bull, with a rack the size of a small tree, looked about to tip over any second. I learned caribou are hard to anticipate; sometimes they head for the hills
and sometimes they beeline it down the road.
You run into the Susitna River about halfway to Paxson. The river cuts a wide path through the valley, which is studded with lakes, ponds and streams and framed by mountains. Josh said the landscape reminded him of being in the Brooks Range, where his family has a mining camp. Steady rain beat into the high, silty water as we crossed the slightly concave wooden bridge.
When we got hungry, we started scoping the many dirt pull-offs carved by hunters. We found a spot about 10 miles past the Susitna that perched above the wide, flat river valley and built a campfire in the rain. Since we had no cookables (the grayling was too small) we dined on leftovers from Panorama Pizza outside Cantwell (one of the best pizzas I’ve had in Alaska).
The rain had broken by the next morning, while my neck had just been seriously tweaked from sleeping in the trunk.
The wildlife tour quickly resumed as we encountered more caribou and a baby porcupine dawdling across the road. After debating whether or not porcupines can shoot their quills, we tried to get a little closer. He hid behind a rock, probably for the best, as I’m sure he wasn’t as cuddly as he looked.
The next side road that enticed us led to Maclaren Glacier, 12 miles off the highway. We only made it 100 feet before I decided to spare my car from the crater-sized holes filled with rainwater. The road is friendlier to trucks or ATVs, several of which cruised by.
The Maclaren River Lodge, just past the glacier, was our first reminder of civilization in awhile. The year-round resort offers dog-sled tours and other activities. We came to the harsh realization that summer is almost over when we passed a musher on a four-wheeler training her dogs.
Finally, we made it to Tangle Lakes, 15 miles west of Paxson, which more than lived up to their legend. The headwaters of the Delta River shimmered even in the flat light. Fishermen and others paralyzed by the scenery stayed at the campground and the inn.
After four hours on a bumpy gravel road, the pavement seemed like a racetrack when we hit the Richardson Highway. The sun came out as we headed north to Fairbanks, inspiring a quick hike up Donnelly Dome for panoramic views of the Alaska Range and the Tanana Valley. That was followed by blackberry milkshakes at the Buffalo Center Drive-In in Delta Junction. And the perfect finish? No wet tent or socks to deal with. Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Road trip across 135 mile Denali Highway doesn’t disappoint
Summer on the Tanana: camp teaches Alaska Native ways + river ecology
Blueberry Bliss & Granite Tors
Who knew there was a Stonehenge in Fairbanks? It's about 7 miles off Chena Hot Springs Road, and it's a cluster of all-natural tors (rock formations) decorating at least a dozen ridgelines, framed by rolling spruce mountains and backed by the Alaska Range. You can scramble, scale, climb, jump, play with marmots and much more on this uber-cool playground.
Oh yea, and the trail is trimmed in wild blueberries. We picked a big Gatorade bottle of them, which is exciting because tundra blueberries don't usually ripen until late July. Luckily the hungry black bears didn't get the memo. The berries were practically falling off the bushes and were bursting with tart sweetness.
So now I've got two mementos from the day: a pinkish sunburn from long exposed ridge hiking and a delectable blueberry rhubarb cobbler.
Fourth of July, Minus the Fireworks, Plus the Gunfire
If fireworks are your favorite thing about Independence Day, you shouldn't come to Alaska over the 4th. Since there is no real nightfall, there are no impressive fireworks (not that locals don't still set them off). Fairbanks saves its good explosives for New Year's Eve, when you've got darkness galore, and it's reportedly a show-stealer.
Fortunately, some traditions persist: they still have long weekends and barbecues here. So I went to an epic parade (including raw radishes and a marcher with a sign on a toilet bowl saying 'TEA Party headquarters), a couple BBQs (including one pig roast) and then went camping. We drove about 60 miles outside town and found a stellar little campsite on the Chena River. It seemed almost too good to be true at 10 pm on a holiday, and it didn't take long to find out why.
Some campers not too far downriver were shooting guns every 10 minutes til 1 am at God-only-knows-what but most likely a stump or a rock. We made a fire, cooked s'mores and played Scrabble. I guess everyone has their own substitute for a fireworks display, some more combustible than others!
Killer Views, Killer Weeds
When you live in Interior Alaska, you need to take advantage of three-day weekends. So I spent this weekend road-tripping to Valdez, a small fishing village on Prince William Sound. We drove overnight on Thursday through forests and mountains aglow in pink from the sun, which never actually set but rather flirted on the horizon for an hour around 2 am. The final approach to Valdez is a dizzying swirl of glaciers, 600-foot tall waterfalls through glacier-chiseled canyons and lush green rainforest.
Once you're in Valdez, you can either take a cruise out on the Sound to look for icebergs and whales (done that), fish for 500-pound halibut, or explore the coast. We hiked Shupe Trail, which snakes along Prince William Sound through wildflowers and bear-saturated wilderness. The closest we came to a bear, fortunately, was scat in the middle of the path.
But I did make one enemy: stinging nettles. A jogger warned us that the trail was covered in the evil weed, but I didn't notice it until I spotted angry bumps all over my legs a few miles in. The spiky innocuous-looking plant kept me awake all night scratching, but taught me a vital lesson: always listen to runners, and don't assume bears are the most dangerous creatures on the trail.
Fires, Floods & Lightning
It seems like Interior Alaska is in a perpetual state of natural disaster. In the first few weeks of summer, 200,000 acres of central AK were burning in about eight wildfires. Relief firefighters were flown in from the Lower 48 and locals spouted predictions of "a bad fire year," meaning the smoke blots out the sun and casts Fairbanks in impermeable haze. At the same time, a 25-mile ice jam in the Yukon River threatened to flood small riverside villages.
Last week was really rainy in Fairbanks, dousing fires and shifting the danger to floods and the question to, 'Which would you prefer: fires or floods?' A local newspaper article stated "Steady rain has stifled what had been a busy start to the wildfire season...The Weather Service said Delta Junction and surrounding areas could see minor flooding and Allen."
It's strange to face this trade-off, especially coming from Colorado, where people talk about droughts, not floods. It's also interesting how nonchalant people are toward news of natural disasters. 200,000 acres of fires? That's nothing. In 2004 it was over 5 million acres. Sure, the wasps are bad, but at least the mosquitoes aren't out. I guessing living on the precipice of large-scale natural events, and ever-present bugs, desensitizes you a bit. Plus, with such a low population density, the floods and fires don't affect as many people.
Colorado in a Can
One of the hardest parts about moving out of Colorado is leaving a place with more than 100 microbreweries, more per capita than any other state. Boulder alone is chock full, with Mountain Sun, Avery and Boulder Beer downtown, and just up the road one of my all-time favorites—Oskar Blues. Famous for high-alcohol craft beers and a stunning canyon setting, this pub is epic for birthdays and ski trip pit stops.
How does this relate to Alaska, you ask? Lucky for me there’s a bar in Ester with good taste. Golden Eagle, known as “the living room of Ester” and less than a mile from my house, serves Oskar Blues' finest: Old Chub (an 8-percent Scottish Ale), Gubna (an imperial IPA), and Ten Fidy (a 10.5 percent black Russian imperial stout). And only $3 a can! That’s right, the goods are canned.
So anytime I’m feeling homesick, all I need to do is roll up to this classic saloon, take a few swallows of ice-cold pleasure, and I’m transported to the foothills of Colorado.
The Aspen Squall
This week, every aspen tree in Fairbanks decided to shed its cottony seeds. It's the worst in Ester, as the town is situated in an aspen and cottonwood forest. While I find the tall willowy trees with quaking leaves and white bark beautiful, I wouldn't say the same for the yards, roads and cars covered in their sticky fluffy glue. I washed my car last night, and it already has another skin of aspen goop. Moments after Trey vacuumed, the dogs came in and covered the floor with it.
It's hopeless to fight it. Apparently it hasn't been this bad in years, but all of the aspen happen to be maturing at once. Aspen do that. Their root systems are a single organism, and while individual trees may only live 100 or so years, the roots can live for 10s of thousands of years.
So hopefully not all the seeds blanketing the ground turn into aspen!
No, Alaska isn't cold in the summer
Despite being at the 64th parallel (and only 1600 miles from the North Pole), it turns out Fairbanks is actually quite hot in the summertime. It's been almost 80 degrees every day this week, and it's only May. The heat is fairly comfortable thanks to the dry climate and nice breeze.
But one drawback to the dry warmth is wildfire. A 45,000-acre fire is burning in Toklat, an area 80 miles southwest of Fairbanks. When the wind is blowing right, the smoke drifts to Fairbanks and casts a haze over the valley. In the past, Fairbanks has been shrouded in thick dark smoke for weeks at a time because of fires in the Bush and elsewhere in the Interior. The word is, unless it starts raining soon, fires could be bad this year. The downside of being submerged in millions of acres of wilderness.
Fly Like a Leaf Miner, Sting Like a Yellowjacket
Alaska's infamous bug season is underway. But so far mosquitoes are being outperformed by yellowjackets and aspen leaf-miners, little moth-like pests that desiccate aspen leaves. Upstairs there are about 6 queen yellowjackets zipping around and a constant din of buzzing. They fly themselves to death in about a day, wasting all their energy trying to escape. Fortunately they don't seem interested in wasting it on stinging me...
It's 73 and sunny today, prime for kicking back on the deck. But then the flies and leaf miners discover you, and there goes your peace. They don't bite, but they make your skin crawl.
One way to avoid bugs is to run. You almost have a moving forcefield around you, I guess because bugs are too lazy to keep up. I just ran for an hour in perfect solace. Maybe running on dirt roads, basking in dust, helps camouflage me too.
So far, the mosquitoes are not bad (knock on aspen). They are probably still breeding in the bogs, which means I should enjoy the bees and flies while I can.
17 Hours of Daylight and Counting
you know it's time for bed if it's this dark
Last night the sun set at 11:18 pm and rose today at 4:17 a.m. Of course, there was still dusky daylight in between. When it comes to midnight sun, there are too many advantages to name: higher energy, midnight jogs, more time to putz around in the garden (plus fast-growing veggies), and abundant Vitamin D, to name a few.
So the last thing I'm doing is complaining about midnight sun, but I will say that it throws you off. First of all, your body clock doesn't know what time it is. I've rarely eaten dinner before 9 p.m. in the last 10 days because, I guess, dusk signals suppertime. Yesterday our soccer scrimmage lasted until 9:20, when people finally peeled off out of hunger, because it's the perfect time of "day" to play–after work, nice lighting, cooler temperature.
You also overbook your days. Yesterday I worked til 6 p.m., went to a barbecue til 7:30, played soccer for two hours, went to a cinema bar to catch up with friends, and then to a friend's house for a midnight snack. I hope my metabolism can adapt to these long days rather than shutting down at a normal bedtime...
You end up sleep deprived during the day, running on about six hours of rest and promising to go to bed earlier tonight. But by the time evening rolls around, you want to be on a deck enjoying the sun or playing Ultimate Frisbee in kayaks. Though I suppose sleep is a small price to pay for looong days. And, as Alaskans will constantly remind you, you need to hoard enough sunshine now to last you the whole year, kind of like canning strawberry preserves.
Below: pickup p.m. soccer and the Alaska Range with setting sun at 11 pm tonight, from my deck
Where Regional References are Proper Nouns
Unlike most states, Alaskans capitalize terms referring Alaska's location. Which means they're common enough to be proper nouns. For example:
1. My editor wrote to the newsroom: "I’m taking some time off to go Outside for a vacation."
2. From a news article about about the hiring of a new superintendent who wants to "get acclimated once he arrives in the Far North."
3. At the coffee shop: "Have a good trip down South." (i.e. any continental state)
Rural villages are called Bush Alaska. While it seems rather presumptuous to modify the English language like this, it's remarkably handy in conversation.
If I could enact this to other places I've lived, Hershey would be called Cow Country (or Kiss Country); Vail would be Bro Topia; Boulder would be Granola Ville.
The Legendary AlCan
Yes, the AlCan (Alaska Canadian Highway) is paved. Is it like a groomer? Definitely not. First of all, the scenery throughout demands your attention. Driving around Kluane Lake, which you hit in the Yukon, we saw (Dall?) sheep sliding down a skree field on the mountain. Sometimes the road disappears from sight, which can be disquieting. Then frost heave strikes and persist for hundreds of miles. Thankfully the Canadians placed orange flags next to the worst heaves, which send your car flopping. From Beaver Creek (not as spiffy as the one by Vail) almost back to the U.S. border, we were behind a camper who kept driving in the opposite lane on a two-lane road to try to dodge the heaves, making it impossible to pass.
When we crossed the U.S. border, a couple hundred miles from Tok, a very cute border patrol agent promised us the road was "100 times better from here on out." He was right, despite the 15 miles of skinned dirt-top road. But we were happy to be back in the U.S. and were greeted by a visual feast of the Wrangell mountains for the next 100 miles.
I can't wait to drive the AlCan again, but maybe next time in a Jeep Wrangler...Below are more photos from the AlCan!
A Cheechaka's Point of View
Cheechako: “a newcomer to Alaska, ignorant of the terrain, the weather, the animals, the culture, the necessary driving skills in the winter, etc. Opposite of a sourdough” (according to Urban Dictionary).
In other words, ignorant of pretty much everything worth knowing–no street cred, survival skills, social savvy, nada. While I take slight offense to that definition, overall it's probably fair. A cheechaka is a cross between a cheechako and a chica--my attempt to feminize and take a little edge off the label. The label I'm applying to myself, since I just moved to Alaska from the Lower 48 last week.
This site will record my impressions of life in Alaska, ranging from midnight sun to bears on the porch to one-of-a-kind locals to ice fog, a phenomenon of 50-below temps. The idea originated during my first week, when I encountered a moose while trail running and realized I needed a special space to document the "Alaskan experience " from a newbie's perspective.
Please don’t hold my naïvete against me, as the purpose of this blog is to enjoy the novelty of Alaska and gradually flush the ignorance out of my system. Hence the title. Welcome to this window into Alaska!