Tuesday, April 8, 2014

An Abnormally Warm Winter

The lack of snow changed the moose patterns this winter. Here, a moose below the Islands and Ocean Visitor's Center.

This has been the winter that I’ve joked many times to family in the Lower 48, “Come to Homer, it’s warmer here!” While the Midwest and East Coast have been hit with record-breaking cold temperatures and snow, Alaska has been downright balmy. When Aurora was in Barrow in January, it was in the 20’s. We went through weeks mid-winter when the temperatures did not dip below 32 and were as warm as the 50’s. Cross-country skiing was sporadic, and though we had “enough” snow, it often wasn’t good quality. And the Homer Rope Tow was only open 3 weeks of the entire season. One person I know never harvested their kale. They threw a tarp over it and whenever they wanted some they would go out to the garden, peel back the tarp and snip some off. That was in February!

This was the year for cancelling ski races, and even the ones that happened were only by serendipity it seemed. The high school race the first weekend of December was the first to succumb to the lack of snow, and there was nowhere that could have hosted it as there wasn’t snow anywhere. The middle school was to host the first race of the season the end of January but the only place anyone was skiing on the Kenai Peninsula was Soldotna, which runs about 15 degrees colder than Homer most of the winter (warmer in the summer) so they hosted it. When it was time for the Besh Cups races in January, the days were an insane brew of snowstorm and clear, sunny sky, with rain predicted. We managed to pull of the middle school boroughs ski race on Sunset Loop and the snow was going-going and almost gone, but then it snowed, just enough. The Homer Ski Marathon the first weekend of March was cancelled. The next week the Homer Epic, 50 or 100 kilometers out East End Road, was held amid one of our bigger snowstorms of the year. Two weeks later the ski leg of the Sea to Ski was pulled off with a bit of snow shoveling.

This weekend traveling through Turnagain Pass on the way to Anchorage, I was impressed at how little snow there was, at a time that the snowbanks are usually well over the height of a car still. At Alyeska the parking lot was still nearly full, yet the kids said it didn’t feel very busy. They stayed at the top of the mountain so when it was pouring at the bottom they were up in the snow. In Girdwood the bike paths were mostly clear besides a few spots in the shade, again, very unusual for this time of year when the snow would normally be at least 2-4 feet deep at the base.

The biggest difference I noticed this winter was the change in moose patterns. Normally we have a moose trail through our yard all winter, with them veering around the front of the house and then along the side and into the gully. We have had up to 6 moose bedded down in our yard at a time, and oftentimes I would have to scare the moose away or wait till they left in order to get from my cabin on the property to the house. At this time of year I would look down at the front yard and see lots of piles of moose droppings. Moose droppings in our yard this year: none. I think I went 4 months without seeing a single moose. Suddenly 3 weeks ago we started seeing moose all over our neighborhood and town. There would be tracks in the yard in the morning, mama moose and junior bedded down by our spruce trees, or a moose hanging out on the road as we went for a walk. I've missed having the moose around even if they are a little pesky at times.

Part of me found it terrible to have so little snow, while part of me was so thrilled to have clear roads much of the winter! The lack of ice was delightful.

When I lived in Michigan I loved the winters with lots of endless snow, but with all the traveling we do now plus 2 teenage drivers in the house as well as the extreme ice we get in Homer, I was glad for the reprieve!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ketchikan Adventure-More Basketball Travel

The Homer girls basketball team was supposed to go to the Juneau tournament Jan. 1-3, but just a couple weeks before it was discovered that the team had not been signed up. The girls coach decided to join the boys’ team going to the Ketchikan basketball tournament. Unfortunately, many of the girls’ families had scheduled their vacations around the Jan. 1-3 time, planning to be back in time to get to Juneau Jan. 1. We had a trip to Arizona planned for Christmas break, but by a stroke of fate, we’d actually paid for the cancellation insurance so although we didn’t get our annual Alaska Airlines companion ticket back (quite a loss, actually), we got our miles and other tickets reimbursed fully and we so cancelled our vacation so Aurora could play in the Ketchikan tournament.

Like any other sports trip to the bush, there is an amazing amount of coordination to make it happen.  Here’s how it looked for the kids:  On Christmas Day (yes, you read that right!) the boys and girls teams, coaches, managers and Douglas as principal converged on the school at 6 p.m. (we had friends over and had to shoo them out to drive Douglas and Aurora to town!). They got on a school bus and rode to Anchorage where they slept on the floor of a church overnight. Early the next morning the boys headed to the airport, flying out about 9 a.m. A few hours later, the girls flew out. 

One of the small airports--Petersburg or Wrangell probably--
as Douglas stood at the door getting fresh air between flights
The flight hopscotches through small towns in Southeast Alaska, barely getting in the air before it is time to descend for the next town. There were 3 stops each way, with Juneau on both routes but different small towns for the other stops.  Each small town stop involved a 45-minute wait as folks got off, collected their luggage, and the next folks got their luggage loaded and were screened at the door of the plane before getting on. Juneau was a longer layover, except for the girls going there. Apparently the fog was too bad to land, so after circling for awhile they finally skipped it and went on to the next town.

The ferry across the river from the airport to the city of Ketchikan
The city of Ketchikan (note I said city!) is built against a mountain so there is nowhere for an airport. So the airport is across the river on an island. A 15-20 car ferry shuttles vehicles and people across every 30 minutes for $5 per person or $10 per car. The river is only a few hundred yards wide, so even though Ketchikan is “right there” it is still a process to get there!
The girls got off the ferry, were picked up by a school bus and went right into the gym and participated in the shooting contest, a popular part of basketball tournaments.  By then they were starving because they hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast aside from a small snack on the plane that the coach bought them all. Doug’s advice is to take food and water if you take these flights because you cannot get off the plane at most stops and it is a long day.
Ketchikan band and sports parents offer to be host families for visiting teams that want it. That first evening the girls were separated into pairs, met their host families and for the rest of the week their host families drove them around, fed them and some even took them sightseeing. For many of the girls who went, this tournament was a highlight of their season, in part because of meeting locals and the hospitality of the host families.

View of Ketchikan from Douglas' hotel window--gray foggy day (the norm there!)
Ketchikan High School is fairly large, 500-600 students which puts them solidly in the 4a large schools division. There was quite a mix of schools represented from all divisions from 1a through 4a, with 8 girls and 8 boys teams playing. So there were some unevenly matched games, but many teams didn’t have their full rosters as people were on vacation. So it was just a fun way to get in some basketball over break and not have to miss any school (the trip spanned 6 days for a 3-day tournament!).

Ketchikan High School gym

The tournament ended on Saturday night. Sunday everyone reversed the process and ferried to the airport, flew through 3 airports to Anchorage and caught the bus home (we did a mini-vacation in Anchorage to make up for missing Arizona).

The price tag for this trip is somewhere in the range of $8000 per team, with a portion of that being passed on to the players. Having the host families reduced the cost for the girls since they didn’t need to buy any food (the boys stayed in a school). Ketchikan helped pay for part of the trip, which was a nice benny and not one schools can expect when traveling to the bush.
Overall, it was yet another Alaskan adventure that puts a whole different spin on travel for school sports.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

East End Bike Path

Natural speed bump in the East End Bike Path: frost heaves

I have blogged about some other bike paths, and yet I drive along the East End bike path a number of times a day and have never mentioned it. It extends from the 4-way stop sign (Subway, the Caribou Restaurant intersection) that marks the beginning of East End Road out to the Gear Shed, about 3.5 miles. It is a rolling path, and there are many cross-streets and business entrances that cross it, so it is busier than, say, the spit trail. And on top of that is this interesting development: nearly all the culverts underneath this trail "popped" a few yeas ago, creating a series of maybe a dozen or more built-in speed bumps. Frost heaves did their job and yet they weren't as noticeable until a year or so ago, when each bump was painted yellow with a warning "Bump" painted onto the path, warning users of the upcoming bump.

The view along the East End Bike Path is decidedly industrial. If you can overlook that, the view is great.
What is exciting for those of us who live out East End Road is that this summer is "the" summer that the bike path is going to be extended another mile or so, out to around Waterman Road. This plan has been in the works for a long time. Because the winter was so mild (note how little snow is left!) they were able to get out there a few weeks ago and cut the trees and begin prep work on the path construction. Electric lines will need to be moved to the other side of the road, culverts and fill brought in and more in this somewhat hilly section. It will not be a quick project. I am guessing, though, that traffic on it will increase greatly, and a round-trip run on it will end up being about 9-10 miles, which is better than the current 7.

East End Road just past Mile 4, right about where the path extension will start

Monday, March 31, 2014

MathCounts Competition

Every so often I reflect on the great education I feel like my kids are getting here in Homer. There are so many "value-added" activities besides just school. One of these things is MathCounts, a nationwide middle school math competition that begins at the regional level, advances to state and then on to nationals. Aurora was involved in it both years in middle school, and now Denver has as well.

Middle schoolers who are in advanced math and have an A are pulled out of the regular classroom once a week to work on even more advanced math problems. The top 4 seventh and eighth graders (from Homer; if sixth grade is part of a middle school they are included), based on tests, are part of the official school team, while the next 4 can attend the regional competition as unofficial individuals. It gives them experience so hopefully they make it to the team in 8th grade. Aurora was only an individual the first year as she was homeschooled, and was on the Homer Middle School team the second year. Last year Denver went as an individual and this year as part of the team.

The competition involves three different types of tests:  the Sprint, Target, Team and Countdown Rounds. This year Denver's team got second place at regionals, qualifying them for state. What I didn't realize is that state is all-expense-paid, which in Alaska can be significant! The 4 kids and coach were flown from Homer to Anchorage ($240 or so per ticket), stayed in a hotel (2 rooms, 2 nights, $100+/night), ate out at restaurants ($10 per child per meal) and bussed around for various activities. This year the state competition was in Anchorage, though in recent years it has been in Fairbanks. The kids got to Anchorage at noon on Friday, visited a planetarium, got dinner and free time. Saturday was the competition and then a tour of the UAA Engineering Building which is being built right now, then free time and dinner. And finally they flew home Sunday morning.

It was a treat for middle schoolers to have this opportunity. Corporations, foundations and individuals contribute donations to make this possible. The hope is to inspire these bright minded kids to seek careers in math or engineering. But for kids who aren't thinking that far ahead, it can still be a fun time. This year Homer Middle School's team did better than they have ever done, getting second at state, with three top-10 finishes.

I am a little sad that this chapter of my kids' life is over. They have been involved in it for 4 years now and it has inspired their love of math, while developing their teamwork skills with that math. I am grateful that one of the local college instructors and a middle school teacher are willing to be there and help these kids on. It is one more thing that makes me appreciate their education in Homer!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cordova Adventure

Cordova from the air

This year the 3A basketball regionals tournament was held in Cordova. It is quite the coordination feat to get the teams there from around the Anchorage area and Kenai Peninsula. As part of the Board of Review, my husband had to go but he took the relatively quick and easy route of flying from Homer to Anchorage, and then from Anchorage to Cordova.  The teams, however, had a much longer journey.

Regionals began on Thursday morning, March 6.  The boys and girls basketball teams, cheerleaders, coaches, team managers and some parents got on the bus after school on Tuesday, fortified with Thai take-out from one of the cheerleader's parents who owns the local Vida's Thai (yum!) From there they drove to Hope, Alaska, about a 3 1/2 hour drive, which would put them within an hour of Whittier, where they had to catch the ferry Wednesday morning.  As a funny side note, because we have spent time in Hope my daughter knew where the Hope School was. The bus driver thought he did, but drove down a long road quite a ways (that would be heading out to the Palmer Creek Mine area). She told him he passed the school (which is only a block or so off the main road in Hope), but he said, "No, no, it's down this road."  Finally he realized he was passed it and turned around.

After spending the night in Hope, the kids got up bright and early Wednesday, at breakfast, loaded onto the bus and headed to Whittier, in order to get to the tunnel when vehicles were being let through. It is a 2-mile tunnel, and vehicles cannot go through at night, and during the day they are only let through every 30 minutes. Besides Houston High School, every team going to regionals was going through the tunnel at that time and getting on that ferry to Cordova.

Once through the tunnel, the kids had to go through TSA-type security and get on the ferry. Loading a ferry is quite a process. Some teams were taking their buses over, while other teams were taking private vehicles to shuttle kids around. Others were renting vehicles in Cordova (which is what my husband did). From what I heard the ferry was loaded TO capacity (maybe even a few extra folks) in order to get all the teams over. I heard they were going to have a second ferry run special for all the fans to get there, since there weren't enough flights to fly them all in.

The ferry ride was uneventful, luckily, but very long. It took off at 9 a.m. and didn't get to Cordova until 4 or 5 p.m. That was the "slow" ferry. On the way back they would take the "fast ferry," a catamaran (which was still a good 6-hour ride).

Once in Cordova the kids walked to their lodging. The girls stayed in a hotel that had kitchenettes, which was perfect so they could cook their own food, since Cordova only has a handful of restaurants open at this time of year. The boys were staying in the elementary school.  Most of the games were being played in the high school.  Pretty much the whole town can be walked in less than 10 minutes from one end to the next, so once the kids were there they wandered about the town and harbor.

Prince William Motel, Cordova

Doug stayed in a 3-story cinder-block motel, Prince William Motel, which he described as having "half-way clean rooms." It did have microwaves, small fridges and TV's in the rooms (I thought it interesting he even mentioned TV's. Don't all motels and hotels provide TV's nowadays?!). The rooms were spacious but there was no view, and the price was about right at $100/night. Apparently the motel complex had an interesting setup. I couldn't quite picture it from the way he was describing it.

Ranked #1 on TripAdvisor for best food in Cordova
The other notable place Doug mentioned from Cordova was the pizza place he at one day, Harborside Pizza, which supposedly is the most popular restaurant in town. It was a single-wide trailer that they took out one end of and installed a wood fireplace that they bake the pizzas in. There is no seating in it and they used to deliver but the volume of deliveries requested was so great they had to stop doing that (maybe not making enough money from it?!). The inside is quite run down and old, but the pizza is good. The owner is looking at trying to save up enough money to get a sit-in restaurant.

The parents of the basketball teams had met and planned all the meals for the kids at regionals since they didn't want the expense and inconvenience of eating out. The boys ended up being right next to a kitchen at the elementary school and so that is where the teams cooked and ate their meals. Apparently a number of entrepreneur-minded folks in Cordova opened up their restaurants or made meals just to handle the huge influx of people on the town for 5 days.

The tournament was disappointing for both the boys and girls teams. The boys were ranked #3 in the state at some points during the season (top 3 from regionals go to state), so they were hopeful to go, but lost their fourth game. One of the top scorers for the girls team got violently ill the second day of the tournament and was out day 3 when we needed to win 2 games to make it to state, which we probably would have done handily had she been playing. But it is still exciting to travel and see all the teams playing. Quite an adventure to just play basketball! Two Homer High girls and one guy made the All-Conference First Team, Aurora and two guys made the All-Conference Second Team, one boy and one girl made the "Good Sports Team" and three cheerleaders were recognized for the all-cheer team. So they made a good showing despite some losses.

Cordova Air Terminal: quite small! It is 12 miles out of town in the middle of nowhere.
On Sunday Doug's flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 6 p.m. or so since the early flight had been booked. He was wandering around Cordova Sunday morning and it was like a ghost town. The ferry had left so there were few people around and none of the stores were open. He'd had to check out of his hotel so he was trying to figure how where the heck he was going to hang out for a whole day. 

On a whim he went to the airport and discovered that there was ONE seat open on the plane with the Houston team at 1:00 p.m.. He nabbed it! His flight to Homer was at 10 p.m. so it was still going to be a long day hanging out in the Anchorage Airport. He texted me to let me know of the flight change. I was in Anchorage just heading into Costco and then home and was like, "I'm in Anchorage. I'll pick you up at the airport in an hour after I shop at Costco."  We could not have planned that more perfectly.

Everything went smoothly on the travels, the weather was good and there was no drama between teams. The travel is always in the back of my mind when the kids are on the road for sports, and many other parents will mention in passing, "Whew! So glad the kids are home! So glad things went smoothly. They are all safe." Especially after the busload of cross-country skiers got in an accident in the pass going into Valdez this winter, we are all a bit edgy. And Aurora was happy because she got to ride on the ferry named Aurora!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Second Star Luxury Home

The Homer High School boys and girls basketball teams jointly ran a raffle fundraiser, the top prize being a day or evening rental of the Second Star, a luxury home on the east end of Kachemak Drive in Homer built by Beachy Construction. In order to be motivated to sell the tickets, players and their parents were offered tours of this home. It ended up being a fascinating look into what money can build, and felt more like a museum or showroom tour than a walk through a home that someone might live in.  Here are some pictures and perspectives on this 1.16 million dollar home (1.33 million including the land).

With 13 bathrooms, 8 luxury bedrooms plus bunkrooms and other children’s rooms, it seemed I was taking pictures of lots of bathrooms and bedrooms. It was hard to get the effect as there was so much to take in. Chandeliers abounded as did artwork and gorgeous views of Kachemak Bay. Some features include:
  • Pool with treadmill in it
  • Sauna
  • Hot tub
  • Game room
  • Movie theater
  • Library
  • Office
  • 3000 square feet of decking
  • Outdoor oven
  • Hidden passages
  • Servants quarters
  • NeverNever Land play area with ship, treehouse and passageways

The most common reaction from those of us touring the house was wide eyes, “Wow!” and “Look at that!” It is not common to have 17,000 foot luxury homes in Homer.  My favorite room was the office, as I could totally picture myself sitting at the desk enjoying the view, though I’m afraid I would just want to turn it into an artist’s studio and paint the views instead!

I really wanted to win the raffle ticket, picturing being able to enjoy treating friends to a gala event at the Second Star. Alas, it was not to be. But I still enjoy the memories of walking through this amazing home!

Small pool for exercise, with treadmill in the bottom.

Shower/changing room by pool/sauna/hot tub area

It seemed there were double sinks in all the bathrooms in the house, all unique!

Bunkroom, with at least 5 beds, including the one rocking one (metal frame)

All of the luxury bedrooms came with their own bathrooms, with each bedroom and bath uniquely appointed.

My favorite room:  the office with view of Kachemak Bay outside.

A section of the master bedroom's bathroom (the bathroom had multiple rooms)

Cute little kiddie-size tub

Bassinet in a nook off one of the bedrooms off of NeverNeverLand

Ship in NeverNeverLand on 3rd floor--kids' playroom plus bedrooms

Tree inside NeverNeverLand play area, with stairs and passageways to crawl through and fake grass carpet

Porthole bedroom off of NeverNeverLand

Treehouse in NeverNeverLand, except that it is supposed to be up in the sky (skyhouse?)

For more on this home and other pictures, see the local paper’s article on it in the Homer Tribune: