Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rock Climbing at Kachemak Crack

The view from Left Beach in Halibut Cove, Kachemak Bay, looking across to Homer (we live about in the middle of the pictured area) with umiak in foreground.

A month ago Aurora went across Kachemak Bay with a group of kids on a HoWL (Homer Wilderness Leadership) rock climbing camp. When I saw the pictures it was with a mixture of awe and excitement that I gazed at the size of the cliffs she climbed. Last week Aurora's climbing instructor from Homer Community Schools called us up to see if we were interested in heading over to Kachemak Crack for 3 days of camping and rock climbing. Heck, yes, we were! He finagled a boat ride over for us and at 6:30 a.m. on Monday we were on our way across the bay, a quick 30-minute, 6-mile hop to Left Beach.

While HoWL was fun for Aurora, most of the climbers were neophytes and not at her level of climbing, and when climbing with a group a lot of time is spent waiting for others to finish their climbs. Fuzzy, Aurora's climbing instructor, challenges her more and gave her some awesome climbing experiences. Meanwhile, Denver and I got in our share of climbs and we were both proud of our showing.

The first morning was a heavily overcast rainy day with rain in the forecast for the next 5 days. We got to our drop-off point on Left Beach in Halibut Cove and were glad to see Fuzzy come down to the shore to help us offload the boat. He had kayaked over the day before since the weather was good. He had a fire going under a rock overhang so we set up our camp chairs and hunkered down to wait out the rain. By noon it had stopped and by midafternoon the rocks were dry enough to climb so he and Aurora got started setting up the ropes for the classic Kachemak Crack climb--the easiest of the 4 climbs.

Setting up was easy, with Aurora playing out rope as Fuzzy freeclimbed to the chain at the top. Then Aurora climbed as Fuzzy top belayed her. Denver and I each took our turns on this climb. It is a really fun one because the holds are large and there are many of them--seeming almost to be wherever you need one by your hands or feet. The rock is a very slight lean away from the climber so it is easy to maneuver.

Day 2 was a long, grueling day for Aurora and Fuzzy, as it took 3 hours to set up the Salty Dawg using a 2 stage setup, with Aurora doing a climbing belay for Fuzzy from mid-way. This was a more dangerous climb because while there were bolts to anchor the rope as you climbed up, they were spaced far enough apart that if the lead climber were to fall they would hit the rocks before the bolt would catch them. Aurora was on belay at the bottom to hold the rope should Fuzzy fall and also to play out the rope as Fuzzy climbed and needed more. The climbing belay halfway was a new experience for Aurora. When it was over they each got to rappel down, which can be as exciting as one wants to make it. Denver got maybe a third of the way up the Salty Dawg before he got stuck by one particularly challenging spot, and I got stymied at the same place.

Day 3 Denver was fresh and he made it to the top of the Salty Dawg, a 120 foot climb. It was awesome to watch him. I made it maybe 5 feet higher than I had the day before but that one spot got me and my arms and hands were so tired I didn't think I could make that one unless I was fresh. Then we moved the rope over to the crackhead jam, a challenging climb with an overhang. Aurora didn't make it her first time up, fell a bunch of times (the belayer catches the fall, but with an overhang it can be a pain to get back onto the rock face and much energy is spent climbing a previously climbed spot), and finally took a break, totally spent. I played on the classic Kachemak Crack and Denver attempted the crackhead jam, making it up as high as Fuzzy had, about halfway.

Come evening we got Aurora to give the crackhead jam a second try. She was very tired, but all Fuzzy had to say was, "It's your call," and she pulled on her harness and shoes. The previous climb she had discovered the move she needed to make to get over the overhang, and as she put it, "It's all mental. I had to stick my fingers in the crack and get over the fear that I wouldn't be able to get them out. Once I did that it was easy." Ha. It was a nail-biter for me, sitting on the ground. I was cheering Aurora on as much as I would at any championship basketball game. It was incredible to see her make moves on what appear to be no holds. When she made it over crucial spots I had tears in my eyes. It was an unbeatable experience.

Besides the climbing, there was plenty of other entertainment. We were camping right next to 20 Alaskan Natives (girls) from all over the state, and the next beach over there were 20 Natives (boys). The groups had built authentic umiaks, the type of boats Natives used to hunt whales in up along the Bering Sea, and each morning they would paddle off, returning in the evening.

Denver would search for mussels on the rocks during low tide and cooked them up for each meal, relishing every bite and generously sharing with Fuzzy and the rest of us.

One evening while out walking during low tide a plane took off nearly over our heads right on the beach, then swooped around and nearly touched the ground in a show-off stunt. We also encountered a dead sea otter on the beach.

Fuzzy has kayaked from Homer all the way around the Kenai Peninsula to Seward, Valdez and Cordova (you might need to look at a map to realize how far that is!) and regaled us with stories of meeting whales, storms and all sorts of adventures kayaking, as well as his many other adrenaline-pumping activities.

And a highlight for me was finding ripe berries: blueberries, salmonberries, as well as red and black currants. I hadn't expected the berries to be ripe yet, so that was a nice surprise. We even picked some to take home.

This had to be one of my favorite trips we've taken since being in Alaska. Since we came over in a boat we didn't have to skimp too much on the supplies, so we had a good campstove, tarps to shelter us from the rain, camp chairs for all and plenty of food. It felt like car camping without the car & road. It was nervewracking waiting for our boat ride back, which ended up being a couple hours late, but it worked out in the end. While I was pretty wiped out, sunburned, bruised and sore upon arriving home, the glow of a good trip made it all well worth it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gardening Revisited

Apple trees, domestic blueberries, currants, raspberries and strawberries
are the fruit we are treated to right in our yard, nearly all protected by an 8 foot moose fence.

I spent 2 years starting a garden from scratch at 1300 feet elevation at the home we rented for 2 years. Now we live at 300 feet above sea level and the growing season is 2-4 weeks longer here and the area is protected, away from the winds the roared off the glaciers up high. While our new home had a garden before we moved in, it was grown over and neglected for years (and lawn planted over some of it) so there was lots of work required to make it plantable again.

The greenhouse was easy: the last day of April I threw some lettuce, spinach and radishes in along the back edge of the raised beds, figuring we could get the crop long before the larger plants crowded them out. Memorial weekend I ran over to Wagon Wheel (our local garden supply store) and got some tomato, cucumber, pepper and zucchini starts and planted them, arranging the soaker hoses around the plants. It is a petite greenhouse, with room for 6 plants on each side and three hills along the back in the raised beds. I supplemented with some pots and planters on the floor, which ended up not doing well.

I got the fan plugged in and set the temperature for 80 degrees so the fan would go on when the inside temperature reached 80. A vent on the other end sometimes opens, sometimes does not. On warm days when I'm around and the fan is running constantly I open the door to let bees or other pollinators in to do their work on the cucumber and zucchini blossoms. The tomato blossoms just need to be shaken to pollinate them, so they all get a daily shake. The pepper plants don't need pollinating, but the zucchini females (the ones that form the zucchinis) need to be pollinated with males (blossoms on stalks with no baby zucchini forming), which I have to do if I don't think a bee has done the job.

The garden was another story. There were 2 raised beds that were a solid mass of weeds. I broke a brand new shovel on it last year trying to get through it. The wood was not treated, however, and was starting to rot so I ended up just tearing that raised bed out and renting a rototiller from Uhlmers and tilling up the raised bed and the area behind it. The sod was so thick that the tiller had a hard time biting through it, and the pushki roots were virtually impossible to till. However, we managed, and I was impressed that the soil was actually pretty good (a bit wet, but good).

Another raised bed had been built of treated wood and was not rotting, so I dug all the iris' out of it. In half I planted rhubarb roots I'd found in the yard; in the other half I planted celery seeds and celery starts and covered it with remay to keep it a bit warmer and more protected. The celery seeds never came up, so I later planted a cucumber and a zucchini to fill the space and added some spinach seeds a few weeks ago for a late spinach crop.

I have heard that in our area zucchini and cucumbers cannot grow outside, but someone gave me their leftover starts after I had already filled up the greenhouse. In the spirit of adventure, I decided to try planting them outside and I covered them in remay tents (pictured) and plastic juice jugs. The type of covering didn't seem to make a difference, but rain could get through the remay, while the plants under the plastic jugs stayed dry when it rained and had to be manually watered. At this point in mid/late July the zucchini are blossoming and the cucumber is still limping along.

To supplement the garden footage, I planted my herbs in tubs: parsley, chives and mint each had a tub and were covered with either remay or plastic (more experimenting). I just used what soil was already in the tubs, which probably wasn't a good idea; I think they would have done better with less potting soil and more real dirt with nutrients. The parsley just finally showed up a few days ago, and I gave up on the chives (they were up but wouldn't be harvestable for a few years) and cut a bunch off someone else's mature plants.

Planting was a challenge. The sod hadn't been worked up well, so there were sections that were still untilled. I was in a hurry to get everything in what with various summer travel plans pulling us away from home during the key planting season, so I did a shortcut version: for the potatoes I dug a hole through the sod/weeds just enough to plant the potato. In one entire row I pulled out pushki root after pushki root, giant tubers (pictured left) that look like humongous dandelion roots. The kicker is that the fluid from pushki can cause blisters, rashes and other skin irritation so no matter how beautiful the weather was I had to wear full protection: long pants, long shirt and thick gloves. What I didn't do and should have is wear a mask. After that day of planting potatoes and pulling up pushki roots my throat was sore for 2 days.

I was disappointed at how small my garden turned out. My aunt had given me her leftover starts as well as potatoes left over from last year. With that I planted 4 rows of potatoes and about 24 kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. I had just enough room for a partial row of onions, a partial row of rutabagas and a double row of carrots. I like to have my freezer full and veggies enough to last the winter, but it is a gradual process to reach that ideal. For a first year, this was a start.

So far my harvest has been 4 cucumbers from the greenhouse and lots of lettuce. My green peppers are ready whenever I need them. Neither the radishes or spinach made it either in the greenhouse or in the planters outside, which I attribute to poor soil. Amazingly, the bibb lettuce loves it inside the greenhouse. In the greenhouse the cucumber plants are less than 8 inches in length (pathetic!) and bore some cukes, but some cukes have been dying and falling off as well. The tomato plants are going wild and are huge, with tiny green tomatoes on them, and the acorn squash (planted seeds Memorial weekend) are prolific. The zucchini plants inside are about 5 times larger than the plants outside and started blossoming a few weeks sooner (4 inch fruit on them already compared to no fruit yet on the outside ones).

One sweet thing we inherited is an underground hose that runs from the house out to the greenhouse/garden area. We are careful with water as we have water trucked in (as does nearly everyone who lives on 'the bench' in Homer). We have yet to get a rainwater gathering system in place. After nearly a year of thinking about it, I finally chose my compost spot and got my lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, sawdust, comfrey leaves and more peculating to make some good dirt for me.

Next year I hope to be on top of things a bit more and start my own plants inside earlier and get everything planted in the greenhouse sooner as well. While a heater in the greenhouse would be nice, it is not absolutely necessary. I always approach my gardening in Alaska as a great big experiment anyways, so I'm always throwing things in, transplanting, using manure tea, bringing bees into the greenhouse and whatever other idea hits me. I give my gardener friends tours and pump them for information, which is my best source of expertise as gardeners love talking plants and sharing their knowledge (which is why I am blogging so extensively about this!). If a plant dies, I just plant something else to take its place since I have so little space. I have planted spinach in 3 different places at 3 different times in the past couple weeks as I rearrange things. And of course weeding is a never-ending task, but I have a great tan for my efforts!!

The key difference with gardening down here was that the soil was readily plantable. Up yonder where we used to live the 'soil' was 'clay' and impossible to plant without adding a lot of compost, manure and good stuff for drainage and nutrients. I don't know if all the soil around here is so good, but soil has been eroding off the ridge above us for hundreds or thousands of years, so I suspect it is simply better than soil at elevation. Gardening is a lot of work, but I love it!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nussman Ridge Center Trail

A beautiful bridge spans a rushing stream at the beginning of this trail in Turnagin Pass.

Every time I drive from Homer to Anchorage, I gaze at the hiking trails wistfully and wish I would spend some time camping up in that area so I could check out all the trails. I was on my own heading back home last week, the weather was good and I was itching to check out another trail so I pulled off in one of the nicely paved parking lots in Turnagin Pass (there are 2 almost across the road from each other). Coming from Anchorage, it was the one on the left, the one that all the backcountry skiers take in the winter, strapping on skins and heading for some of the greatest backcountry downhill skiing and snowboarding in the state.

As a summer trail it started off paved, turned to gravel, popped over a silty, rushing glacier stream on a beautiful bridge, and then withered down to a lightly-used single track after the stone monument with the name of the trail posted. There were boggy sections, and soon my tennis shoes were soaked. I pressed on as far as I could until the trail got boggier than I wanted to deal with, which was about 30 minutes out. From there I could see a ridge ahead of me (pictured above) and jagged peaks rising above that in the distance. It was a peaceful, comfortable hike, and if I go back muck boots would be my footwear of choice. It would be fun to see how far I could get in a day trip. The season is short, as the snow has only recently left and the blueberries were only just blooming on July 14 when I did the hike.

Caveat: I am pretty sure, but not positive, that this is the name of this trail. I couldn't quite read it positively in blowing up the picture. Argh!

Bird Ridge Hike

Between Girdwood and Anchorage along the Seward Highway, Turnagin Arm hems in the road on one side while the Chugach Mountains rise thousands of feet on the other side. There are oodles of pull-offs and hiking trails along this section within 45 minutes of Anchorage, but it seems like we are always in a hurry to get somewhere and don't have the time to stop for a hike. Last week on yet another trip to Anchorage my cousin and I made time to climb Bird Ridge.

The Bird Ridge hike begins at the most distinctive parking lot along this section of highway: what looks like hundreds of feet of rock were blasted out, making sheer cliffs that grab your attention as you drive by. The tiered parking area is nicely paved, making it impressive by Alaska standards. We actually parked 1/4 mile to the north where there was another parking area for the same trail.

It starts out with a paved path and just past the bathrooms the trail begins to climb. On par with Alaska, there is a race up this trail to the top (just up; not back down), which follows a ridge all the way up. My cousin thought it takes nearly an hour for the speediest climber to get up there, so that would be a long climb. We ended up climbing for 45 minutes up since we didn't have a lot of time. Some other people who were climbing were watching for a bore tide (when there is a very low tide going to a very high tide, a single wave 2 to 6 feet high sweeps up the Turnagin Arm) that was supposed to come through about 6:15-6:30, which was right around the time we were up there. We didn't see it, which was a bummer.

This hike is a nice one for getting incredible views of Turnagin Arm without climbing too much since the trees are not very dense. Forty five minutes got us to the area where we would have had to start climbing over rocks rather than just hiking the trail, so that worked out well. We figure we climbed 600-800 feet, which would have been more comfortable if we weren't wearing jeans!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kilcher Homestead Games

The Kilcher Homestead Cabin built in the 1940's

This is one of those cute, whimsical events that is so "Alaska." I've heard of the Kilcher Homestead Games before, so when I was reminded of it from the radio today I decided we had to go check it out.

The Kilcher Homestead is down Kilcher Road, about Mile 10 or so of East End Road. It was first settled in the late '30's by a couple from Switzerland. They moved from down by Kachemak Bay up to the present location of the homestead cabin in the 1940's. They had 8 children (2 or 3 to a bunk--3 levels of bunk beds in one room), though the original house was added on to so what you see pictured here is with the additions. It still has the sod roof, and as you can see, incredible views over the hayfields.
The games included nail pounding, 3 legged races, a cast iron fry pan toss and the "Run for the Coal." Aurora got first in the 12-18 Run for the Coal, which was about a mile run down to the beach where she had to pick up a 5 pound bag of coal and then run back up. In the 12 and under category, Denver got second, though he didn't have to run as far and only had to carry a 3 pound bag of coal. Doug managed to toss the cast iron frying pan 91 feet, only 3 feet shy of winning with the longest toss. And while the contests went on, kids pile up freshly mown hay into "nests" or "forts," which kept them fully occupied.

Kilchers still live on the homestead, and in fact, a couple from Michigan is living in the downstairs of the original cabin in exchange for talking to visitors about the place. It is private property and the Kilcher family requests that people call for permission to walk the property or the trail down to the beach (a phone number is listed on a sign when you get far enough along Kilcher Road).

This was our first time visiting the homestead. It was a casual, fun afternoon hanging out. We knew probably two thirds of the people there. The view was beautiful; it was the sort of place you want to have a picnic lunch.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kincaid Park/Anchorage--A Gem!

Every so often I come across something in Anchorage that makes me think, "I could actually live here." I was in Anchorage by myself the other day and in the mood to explore so decided to see what was at the end of Dimond Boulevard. What was at the end of Dimond was the real gem of Anchorage: Kincaid Park.

I came in the back entrance of the park where the motocross stadium is. I'm not a big fan of motocross, but when a dirtbike flew 40 feet into the air right in front of me, I was duly impressed. Open 5 days a week, the place was hopping, with trucks pulling in and out and 5-10 dirtbikes flying around the stadium at any one time. Some were obviously better than others; not all were pulling as much air as that first one I saw.

Then I climbed the sand dune behind the motocross stadium. I wasn't sure which came first, the motocross or the dune (as in, did all that sand blow out of the motocross area??), but it was still a fascinating area, with bird (bat?) holes in the side of the sandstone cliff and an incredible view of Cook Inlet and Turnagin Arm. 'Paintball Prohibited' signs were plastered everywhere, and that appears to be one of the few things that cannot be done in Kincaid Park.

Next I started hiking. There was a rabbit warren of trails--twisty turny trails of hard-packed dirt that would be incredible for mountain biking, though protection would be needed from the devil's club hanging over the trail in places. Of the 60 kilometers of trails, which are cross-country ski trails in the winter, 17 kilometers are lighted. The picture shows just how twisty they are. I counted 21 "steep downhills" on this map, so the terrain is certainly challenging enough.

After a hike I headed back to the car and drove the perimeter of the park, which took me past huge California-style housing developments (all the well-to-do in Anchorage want to be next door to Kincaid Park, I imagine) to the main entrance of the park. Wow. Brand new pavement, lighting, landscaping, newly paved bike paths winding along. I stopped at one pull-off and it was the biathalon range. There a group of people were training an attack dog. The dog did so well he pulled the padded 'arm' off the man who was wearing it. I beat a hasty retreat.

Rollerskiers abounded, as did walkers, joggers and bikers (abounded in Alaska terms of population density, which is much less than, say, Midwest population density). The end of the road was a packed parking area with a year-round cafeteria/chalet surrounded by soccer fields, a playground, a frisbee golf course, and an overlook.

On my way out I checked out Campbell Lake. A couple of people were kayaking on it and fishing is allowed as well. There is also an archery range and it looked like they are building a viewing stadium into the side of one hill. There are bridges and tunnels, old bunkers from the military presence and now used for storage, and I saw a moose along one road. I can see myself being an avid biker if I had easy access to Kincaid, and the skiing would be incredible. Now that I know what it has, I will plan my trips to Anchorage a little differently and take my bike, rollerblades or skis. This is too good to pass up!

If you're interested in reading about the history of Kincaid Park, the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage put together a very complete history. It can be found at