Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Moose Bed in Flowerbed

As I was walking out my door this morning I was puzzling about why my daffodil plants were squished down. I was looking for moose prints and I found a big one: the entire body print of a moose! The whole area was depressed and moose hair was scattered about. In our 5 years of living in this house, we've never had a moose bed down literally right next to it. Usually they are about 15 feet away, under the spruce trees on the other side of the house by the creek.

Just last week our next door neighbor grabbed me one morning as we were both heading out, telling me there was a young, injured moose in her yard. I'd been seeing tracks on the driveway but hadn't seen it. I am guessing this visitor was that injured moose, as the spot it depressed in the flowerbed was relatively small--about the size a 2-year-old moose would be. It would make sense it would be staying very close to humans for safety from predators.

I am happy that the moose didn't eat my daffodils. Last year they weren't up till the beginning of June, but this year they were sprouting in early April. That is how early our spring is this year!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Visiting the Switchbacks

Although we enjoy visiting the head of the bay, we don't get up there often as it is a drive in the opposite direction than we usually go. After a grueling 3 days of hosting and helping with home track meets, we needed to "get away" without going too far. Trails are a bit mucky right now as things are melting and softening up at elevation, so we decided to make our Easter get-away a trip to the switchbacks. It was a treat as always, and we all found ourselves relaxing. Once down to the bottom of the switchbacks, the beach heading west towards Homer is a comfortable hike as it is a fairly firm-packed small rock no matter whether it is wet or dry. Here are some photo highlights of yesterday's trek.

One of the "switches" on the switchbacks.

Rough bolster's holding back  the loose stuff falling off the cliff along the switchbacks.

Seeing the blue on the glacier across the bay is not a good sign. It means the glacier is receding. We don't usually see the ice so early in the season.

Dixon Glacier in the Kenai Mountain Range  from the head of the bay at the bottom of the switchbacks.

I love the history visible in these cliffs: millennia of layers of coal, sandstone and more.

High tide line is evident on the sandstone cliffs along the beach.
We found an unattended coal fire by the sweet little waterfall that we hiked to. Later a truck full of Old Believers zoomed by, probably headed to their party spot (the party is assumed since there were fresh beer cans littered along the switchbacks that weren't there when we headed down).

A young eagle was eating a meal on the cliff just above our heads.

A sign of spring and things to come:  pushki sprouting

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Busy Bishop's Beach!

Busy day on Bishop's Beach

On a high tide on a nice day, Bishop's Beach becomes a busy place. The high tide squashes the potential space to spread out on the beach, so the parked cars, kids tossing rocks, couples out sauntering and dog walkers and their dogs all get to share a much small space. It always makes me smile when I look at this scene and think this is "busy!" Oh my gosh, there are like 20 people on the beach, and maybe 5 cars! I realize just how my view of the world has changed living somewhere where, on the relativity scale, so few people live.

And as summer nears, so do the "crowds" of people visiting as well as those back with summer jobs and homes. For now, we're still enjoying being able to zip back and forth to Anchorage without cars in front of us slowing us down!

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!