Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Alyeska Ski Vacation

I have heard about Alyeska for years since my aunt and uncle and their family have spent some time here, so when airline prices went up, up, up, our vacation to Colorado got shelved in favor of something closer to home. Doug and the kids had never downhill skied or snowboarded before, but the kids were enthusiastic about a ski vacation, so we set up a 4-day trip to Alyeska.

Alyeska is located in Girdwood, which is about 30 minutes south of Anchorage on the Turnagain Arm off Cook Inlet. The top of the mountain, at 3,939 feet, gets 635 inches of snow each year, while the base gets, on average, 197 inches. We are used to having more snow where we live east of Homer than just about anywhere else we visit on the Kenai Peninsula, but they do have more snow in Girdwood than we do at home, and it felt like a truly beautiful fairyland driving the streets of the village, with lamplight shining on snow-laden spruce trees and the snowbanks piled high.

Day 1: Douglas and Aurora took snowboarding lessons, Denver took alpine lessons, and I bopped around and got a feel for the lay of things. I have my own skis that a friend gave me (thanks, Lorraine!), and my lift tickets came with the room, so I was free to ski all I wanted. It had been 18 years almost to the day that I last downhill skied in Colorado at Keystone, but the snowplow turn felt like second nature despite all those years. I was still a bit tentative on the green (easy) slopes, but enjoyed the long, gradual Blueberry Hill and Sitzmark runs. After a couple runs, I decided to take the tram to the top of Mt. Alyeska. It was a cloudy, overcast day, but just a few hundred feet up we went through the clouds and broke out into the glorious sunshine which you see in the picture above. It was a different world up there, and though Turnagain Arm was covered with clouds, the mountains all around the Arm soared up, creating a stunning vista. It is above treeline, so it was all snow, snow and more snow. It made me kind of nervous thinking about skiing down it since I could see just how far I had to go. I was used to Keystone (the only other place I'd ever downhill skied), where it was 4 miles from the top to bottom and there were plenty of trees to break things up. I took the tram back down, feeling slightly embarrassed to be carrying my skis back down the mountain rather than skiing it.

Day 2: Douglas and Aurora took the Level II snowboarding lessons, and Denver and I hit the easy slopes. After 2 runs down, Denver beat me to the bottom every single time. Picture what the alpine ski racers look like, crouched down in a tuck and on a single-minded focus to get to the bottom of that mountain as fast as possible. That's exactly what Denver looked like in his cute blue snowsuit that is patched up with duct tape. "No fear" comes to mind as I watched him, and my mother instincts on one hand wanted to yell at him "Stay in control!" every single run, while on the other hand I wanted him to feel the confidence and joy of skiing well, which he was. Three hours of skiing tuckered us out so we were ready to hit the hot tub. Meanwhile, Aurora and Douglas learned the "S" turn on their snowboards, each of them at one of the two "Magic Carpets"--conveyor belts that take beginning skiers and snowboarders to the top of their practice area.

Day 3: Douglas and Aurora practiced their snowboarding technique for a couple hours. In the afternoon I took Aurora down the Blueberry Hill run, and was totally impressed by how well she did. Day 1 saw her falling a lot, but she managed a decent sized hill 2 out of 4 times without falling. Again, my mother instincts were to be protective and "Oh my gosh, she's going to fall!" but Aurora popped right back up again and on she went. Since I know nothing about snowboarding, all I would be able to do is help her up anyways, so I was really hoping she knew what she was doing. I am in awe of that girl, though!
Douglas didn't feel like attempting a bigger hill on his board, so he watched each of the kids as I took the other out. Denver was a kamikaze skier again today. More awe on my part. Never mind that he's only skied a couple times--I was learning from him! He has naturally great technique and got the telemark turn down pat. How does he manage to be so good? I am jealous! I think part of it is just that lack of fear that I once had--and that got me in plenty of scrapes.
The big accomplishment of the day was by ME! I took the tram up to the top first thing when the slopes opened at 10:30, determined to ski down. There is a blue star route--one level above the green easy slopes--that goes from the tram on down to the bottom. Since I learned to ski when my boyfriend at the time took me to the top of Keystone and said, "Ski down," I figured that I should be able to ski an easy slope. I hardly got a wink of sleep last night I was so keyed up about it. It was one of those things I wanted to do simply because I feared doing it. I am a firm believer in "Feel the fear and do it anyways." So, I felt the fear and did it anyways, and I am here writing about it, so I obviously survived!
There were a few major challenges for me on this run down Main Street, The Weir, Ego Flats, Cork Screw, Switchback, Klondike and Cabbage Patch. First of all, I was the first one down the slope that day! All the other people who had gotten out of the tram took the more difficult runs, so here I was, trying to figure out where the runs went in fresh, ungroomed snow. It would be one thing if I were an experienced skier, but I am not. When I last skied I was with someone who told me where to go, what to do, etc. I just had to ski. This time I was all by myself with no one to guide me. In one place I followed the sign that said "Switchback", but it appeared to be pointing in a narrow trail through the woods. That didn't seem right, so I skied back out of the woods, and further down I saw my turn.
My second challenge was that my legs got incredibly tired. I was using way more energy than one needs to, partly because I was so tense and partly because my technique was terrible. So by the time I got down to the Klondike, my quads were shaking from fatigue, and the final run, the Cabbage Patch, was the steepest part of the whole run. Well, I made it down to the Day Lodge in 17 minutes from the time I started, and let me tell you, it was the longest 17 minutes I've been through in quite awhile. Denver was raring to go when I finally found him, so I managed another 3 hours of skiing for him before I begged off to head to the hot tub.

There were no lines at the lifts, the slopes weren't very crowded, the weather was perfect, the staff were nice, and besides Chair #3 on the easy slopes breaking down for an hour on Day 2 (very frustrating for Denver), it was a good skiing/boarding experience. Aurora is now plotting how she can earn money to buy a snowboard, and Doug thinks he'll actually "ride" again sometime. Alyeska Resort is at the base of the tram and Chair #7 which takes one over to the main slopes. The beds and pillows are immensely comfortable, which is not something to take lightly! The hot tub is delightfully huge, and the pool is nice. There is a beautiful, posh exercise room which I was too tired to check out, but which tempted me each day. The greatest disappointment was that the resort advertises a skating pond right outside, but they weren't maintaining it, so we'd hauled our ice skates here for naught. There are also cross-country ski and snowshoeing trails all around (50 kilometers worth!), but again, I was too tired after skiing the slopes to torture myself like that!

Overall, this was a nice, comfortable vacation, and was less than the price of 2 plane tickets to the Lower 48. We were each happy with what we did, and we're already trying to figure out when we're going to come back again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Hitting the Wall

Huh? You ask. Am I playing too much raquetball, or skiing till I drop? Nope. Let me explain.

As the days have been growing darker and darker and our daylight has dwindled to about 6 hours, I have been cruising along happily, so impressed with how well I was dealing with it. "Gee, what's the big deal about it being dark in Alaska? No problem." I've even considered blogging about how much I like the darkness: it is comforting like a blanket in a way, surrounding me. Well, last week I "hit the wall." The lack of light finally started to bug me--really bug me. It might have been the rain we had last week. The roads were icy, icy, icy and the snow wasn't that great for skiing. I got to the gym most days and ate pretty well--just a handful of potato chips each night. But I didn't spend any time outside, and I think that's what did me in.

I blogged about the lack of sunlight last year, but I think it may be something I revisit each year--as many Alaskans do. Everyone is affected, though some more than others. Even people who have lived here all their lives notice it. A key factor is sunshine. The sun has been hiding for weeks it seems, besides the weak (though beautiful) light of sunrises or sunsets. I recall noticing the darkness in Marquette, Michigan one winter (and moved to Arizona after that winter!!) simply because the sun never came out. The lack of light is not just an issue in Alaska; many people in the Lower 48 deal with it as well, as I did that one winter in Michigan. But it is more pronounced here--and in some places in Alaska much more than others.

What "hitting the wall"
has reminded me is that I really have to take care of myself...and I really need to get outside to catch what rays there might be. It takes a conscious effort to stay sane and stay happy in Alaska, but it can be done. This was my wake-up call!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Driving East End Road

As one leaves Homer and heads down East End Road, the world changes from that of cityscape to that of glorious panarama. Even after a year and a half of driving the 20 miles to town, I still notice and feel the transition to another world as the road climbs higher, narrows and winds around canyons.
If you go far enough, the narrow, frost-heaved road turns to gravel and you enter the Russian village of Voznesenka. And if you are daring and continue on, the road narrows even more down what the locals call "the switchbacks" which lead to the "Head of the Bay"--the mud flats at the head of Kachemak Bay. If you were to make your way past a no tresspassing sign up that way, you might feel transported to another country as you enter Kachemak Selo, one of the trio of Russian villages at the Head of the Bay. The dirt lanes and fences separate homes, children play in the dirt and 4-wheelers roar by.

Most days we drive the relatively tame but still beautiful East End Road out of Homer. The sense of neighborliness and courtesy on the road is not dead. When I get behind a slower-moving car, I sigh and sink into my seat and remind myself to enjoy the scenery (if it's light out!). Yet just a day ago two cars pulled off and let me pass--just me, and no other cars behind me. This is not an uncommon courtesy; it seems to happen at least once a week . It still startles me. Yet when I am the one going slower, I will pull off as well--following the example of my courteous neighbors on East End Road.

My favorite pasttime while driving East End Road is to pull out my camera and take pictures of the awesome beauty! Needless to say, this is a dangerous enterprise since I'm usually driving, or I stop in the middle of the road. When the section of road you see here is covered with snow or ice, it quickly becomes treacherous. But I am irresistibly drawn to take pictures so I can share the changing moods of Kachemak Bay, the Kenai Mountain Range, the glaciers. Just over these mountains is the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield entirely in the U.S. I dream of flying over it, of hiking it, of exploring it as I drive this road.

If you Google "East End Road Homer Alaska", you will learn of homes for sale and of local murders. But there is much more to this road than can be summed up in a map. Locals like to tell stories of only 10 years ago when the paved road ended at McNeil Canyon School at Mile 12, and one had to take a 4-wheeler or snowmobile to the villages. Now the pavement extends all the way to Mile 20 or so. The road was inaccessible--or nearly so--in the spring with the frost heaves. The grandfather of our landlord helped build this road. The father of our landlord drove down the mud flats to Homer once a year to get supplies--the only time they would get to town.
I find a mystique in driving East End Road. We have been contemplating "moving to town," but the thought hurts each of us in a different way. I would miss a 30+ minute commute over--I will say it--one of the most beautiful places on earth. I don't say that lightly. There are many glorious places on this earth, but something about the Homer area has lodged itself inside us like a shard of glass--or a magnet. Even if we leave, it will always be there, drawing us back.