Sunday, December 27, 2009

Alyeska Revisted

Last year we went to Alyeska for a 4 day ski vacation.  This year when we started talking about Christmas break plans all the kids wanted to do was go back to Alyeska.  We looked into plenty of housing options, tried to get some other families to go with us and split a house or condo rental, and finally ended up staying at Alyeska Resort again.  Two free lift tickets per day for three days, plus free breakfasts four mornings tipped the balance and made it worth it to stay there rather than drive back and forth to a hotel in Anchorage.
Doug’s experience learning to snowboard last year was less than stellar so he decided to learn to downhill ski.  He took lessons two days and felt ready to hit the slopes, despite never having been on downhill skis before.  Denver took lessons a couple of days also, and advanced to the intermediate level for skiers.  Aurora improved the most and her confidence level on her snowboard got a huge boost.  Her instructor laughingly said, “I tried to make her fall but couldn’t!” taking her down some jumps.  Aurora was thrilled to actually “get air” for the first time.  Though I’d skied before I didn’t have a lot of confidence so I took lessons the first day and it helped give me some focus on what I need to do to improve my technique, as well as tips on how to conserve my energy so I don’t get tired so quickly.  All of our lessons were worth the cost, though some of them would have been better had everyone in the group been at the same level.
The weather the day before we left was bitterly cold:  single digits with a wind.  By time we got to Alyeska it had warmed up to the 30’s and it was alternating snow, slush and rain.  The first day was good snow; the second day was better since it cooled down enough for fresh snow overnight.  Day 3 it was pouring rain.  The kids had planned on lessons that day, and things proceed as planned despite pouring rain.  Many parents opted out of skiing, but sent their little ones out for lessons.  At 12:30 when lessons were over it was pouring rain and blowing so we opted for a run into Anchorage to do our shopping (Costco!).  Finally, on the last day (we still had lift tickets left over since we hadn’t used them the day before) the kids and I skied.  It was icy (the lift operators couched it nicely:  fast!) and even the grooming hadn’t made it very nice so skiing wasn’t ideal, but we were still out there so the kids were happy.  The cannons constantly booming and the rush of avalanches when they hit their mark was a little disconcerting (even hearing impaired me could hear them!), but everyone went about their business as usual so I figured we must be out of range.
There were a few sweet parts to our vacation.  The second day we were there our breakfast vouchers were stolen out of our room.  Security investigated, and the hotel willingly replaced them despite the statement in boldface on the front:  Vouchers will not be replaced if lost or stolen.  They were worth $80 so we appreciated their replacement.  The day it was pouring rain Doug returned his ski rentals at noon.  Normally they have to be returned within 24 hours of rental time in order not to be charged for the next day.  When he requested a refund for that day they gave it to him without questions.  That really earned our loyalty.  They were little things that the resort could have been hard-nosed about, but they chose to consider our perspective.  In doing so, we will consider returning and would recommend them to others.
Each day we ran into people we knew from around the state, so it was fun to feel part of the cozy Alaska community, which isn’t as cozy as it used to be, but still retains some of its small-town feel.  Overall, it was a vacation to feel good about.  We were talking about going to Hawaii for Christmas next year, but our kids are totally against it:  “We want to go to Alyeska!”  Such choices!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Foreigness of Life in Alaska--NOT!

It has taken over two years to get to the point where I have to shake my head and remind myself that I am in Alaska. It no longer seems like the exotic, wild place it was when we first moved here.  Just like anywhere else, budgets are tight, life is busy, cars and appliances break down, it snows, it rains, it ices, there are good times with friends, and on and on.

I no longer think about bears and moose quite as much (though of course it is prudent to look for the mama moose and her 2 babies that hang in our yard when we walk at night).
Subarus are standard fare, particularly old Subarus that have survived since they don't salt the roads up here.
 Beards are such a common sight, even those large flowing beards on young men, that I don't notice them much anymore.
Bald eagles are still special, but not so unusual as to ooooooh over since I will see at least one most days it seems.
Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular here, though I wonder if I just never noticed them in the midwest?
The short days I do still notice (we're nearing the shortest daylight hours of the year!), though I noticed short days in the midwest too.  Here they are just shorter--somewhere around 6 hours of sunlight on the shortest day, though daylight hours are longer with dawn and dusk extending for well over and hour before and after the sunrise and sunset.
I take it for granted that if I want cheaper food I have to drive 1 1/2 hours to Kenai or Soldotna, and even cheaper food (read:  normal price for Lower 48) requires a 4-5 hour drive to Anchorage.  That's less work than those who live in the bush, or Valdez, or Tok or many other outlying towns.
Mail order is becoming standard fare for us and the latest discovery is  free shipping on both orders and returns with shoes being the main item we have difficulty finding up here.  We swap companies that have good shipping policies to Alaska, and shun whenever possible those who charge exoribent rates.  Gift cards do the job for holidays much of the time.
Service seems to be uniformly poor, but there are occasional pockets of good service that earn our loyalty.  The typical attitude seems to be, "You should be happy we're here at all!"  And to a degree, they're right.  We should be happy we have enterprenuers who are willing to run businesses at all.
Small, private businesses rather than chains are the standard fare in Homer, and the longer I am here the more it seems that Homer is a metropolitan area.  In fact, it is not considered rural by Alaskan standards.
I continue to be impressed with the talent and offerings in this little burg.  The Nutcracker is a stellar performance by local kids each year, Community Schools offers oodles of activities, there are dance classes, voice lessons, theatre, and more than anyone could possibly do.  That's not counting the "free stuff":  parks, hikes, skiing, beachwalks, etc.
Is it me, or are there more people with passion about issues who are willing to take a stand?  There are more radicals here, or else I just never saw them in the midwest.

Ultimately I have learned that this is just another place to live (albeit, a place I really like living!), and wherever you go you are still the same person and will have many of the same challenges.  Life is about survival, and also about self actualization--seeking that sense of meaning and purpose.  This just happens to be where we've planted ourselves for the moment as we live our lives.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Homer Invitational: First High School Race of the Year

Part of the advantage of being on the Kachemak Women's Nordic Ski Team is that I get email notices about all the local ski events, including a call for volunteers. When one of the volunteers got called to work on the Slope at the last minute, I felt bad for the volunteer coordinator and offered to be a timer at the Homer Invitational High School ski race at Lookout Mountain last Friday. My relatives were coming from Kenai to race, so I figured I could spectator and help out at the same time.

Despite having raced all through high school, this ski race did not even begin to stir any memories for me of my high school skiing days. It is a totally different ballpark. When I was in high school it was a ski club, there were maybe 10 of us on the team (2 girls), it was skating only (the years right after Bill Koch's gold medal win at the '84 Olympics using the revolutionary ski skating technique), we went to community races where the very young to the very old all raced together, and it was always a mass start. I raced against other high schoolers in a high-school only venue just once a year:  at the high school cross-country ski championships near the end of the season.

Contrast that with this race setup:
There were about 130 racers, JV and varsity, boys and girls.
Friday afternoon was a 3km classical race; Saturday was the 5km skating race. Thus, the kids got a whole day off school to go to this race, and then they all camped overnight at Homer High School.
The starts were timed, about 10-15 seconds apart, so there was no "pack", and you really didn't know how you were doing relative to everyone else until the results came in long after the race was over.  To top it off, the coaches waxed the kids' skis and there were volunteers who wrapped blankets around the skiers as they stood in line waiting to start.  Admittedly, the pressure on these young athletes is probably much greater than it was on me since so much time and money is invested in their success.

My job as a timer was to click a button each time a skier's foot crossed the finish line.  Three other people were doing the same thing, and there were 4 people punching bib numbers into their handheld computers while 2 people had a paper backups, writing down every bib number as it crossed the finish line.  All of the information from the computers was being fed into the laptop in the warming hut as we did it.  If it seems like overkill, some of the handheld computers weren't working, so it was important that at least one be working at all times.  My neice ended up losing to the next closest skier in the classical race by one-tenth of a second, which could be someone's reaction time in clicking their button.

All in all, it was fun to be part of this event and see how a ski race is run.  The grooming, plowing, signage, timers, yadda yadda, all added up to a huge number of hours to pull this off.  A really nice touch was the huge bonfire with hot drinks, soup and a place to sit for anyone who cared to stop and enjoy.  Unfortunately, I was too busy timing to get over there, but it sure looked inviting!