Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Visit to Barrow

As principal at the local high school, my husband gets the opportunity to travel with sports teams, acting as the official liaison for the district and preventing problems that might occur with students. Last week when the wrestling traveled to Barrow for 4 days, Douglas ended up going with.

It was a process getting there, with a cargo plane ride from Homer to Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay to Barrow (the flights up to Prudhoe Bay were full, shuttling oil field workers back and forth). Just a few days before Douglas got there it was 50 degrees below zero, but he lucked out and it was 15 to 30 above the 4 days he was there--the same temperatures as Homer. The current principal at Homer High School was principal in Barrow for two years. He said that when it was 50 below, the two block walk from the airport to the high school was the longest walk he has ever taken in his life. Douglas was prepared with long underwear, coveralls, boots and all sorts of cold weather gear and was fortunate in not needing it.

The sun didn't rise the whole time Douglas was there, and the brightest it got was a mid-evening twilight (I lightened my pictures so they represent how dark it was). The school took the 6 or 7 wrestling teams that were there on a tour of the town. Pictured above is the sign at the highest latitude of land in the U.S. Behind it is the Arctic Ocean. The football field was under snow, which was a bummer because we've heard much about this high-tech wonder.

All of the buildings are built on stilts to prevent the thawing of the permafrost. Douglas described Barrow as "Any American town, a little run-down fishing village." There are 4 schools serving the 5000 or so people in Barrow: 2 elementaries, a middle school and high school. When sports teams come the high school houses them and feeds them, slightly alleviating the huge expense of getting there (approximately $1000 per ticket round trip, Homer to Barrow).

There was one store, with clothes, groceries, 4-wheelers and everything else sold in it. Prices were about 20% or more higher than Homer (which is already 20-50% higher than the Lower 48. For example, a can of soup was $3. A 5 pound bag of fresh apples and oranges was $14. A small container of laundry detergent was $15. Electricity, on the other hand, is relatively cheap because they pump the natural gas out of the ground and right into their generators.

As they were leaving, one of the coaches asked a local if they had some muk-tuk the kids could try. The lady said a whale had just been harvested and the blubber had been shipped in. She gave him a 10 pound box of muk-tuk. He shared it with the staff back at Homer. It was very chewy--impossible to bite off a piece in fact. A lady mentioned to me that her husband worked in Barrow and he would chew on two little pieces of muk-tuk and it had enough energy to last him for hours (despite that he lost 40 pounds while working in the 50 below weather). What you see pictured below is about four inches long. The dark part is the whale skin. I chewed on a piece like this for a minute or two this afternoon. Seven hours later, even after eating lunch and dinner, the taste of the muk-tuk is still in my mouth. It reminds me of a buttery flavor. I can understand how this would be a staple in the Eskimo diet. It is pure energy and it lasts a long time. I can also see why the Eskimo's teeth would get worn down from such a diet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ice Skating Beluga Lake

In 3 years of living here, we've never gotten to Beluga Lake in Homer during the 3-5 day window in early winter when the lake freezes over and the ice is perfect for skating. This year, despite having to play musical skates (both our kids outgrew their ice skates, plus we have our exchange student to fit with skates), I was determined to make it out on the lake to skate.

As you can see, it is a good sized lake, and nearly the entire surface was smooth as an indoor skating rink. It was glorious, skating along, completely free, with the sunshine and mountains and a huge expanse of smooth ice. We went skating every day for the past 3 days, and at times there were over 100 people on the ice, but it never felt crowded with so much space to spread out.

From here on out, we will make sure we get out on the lake for the few days a year when it is skateable!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

High School Sports In Alaska: What a Trip!

Two events have changed our perspective this fall: my husband got the assistant principal job at Homer High School and we got an exchange student from Mexico. Both of these events have initiated us into a new group: high school sports.

Anywhere else, kids just hop on a bus and ride to their destination. In Alaska, if schools in the bush (not on the road system) want to have sports, they must get other teams to come and play them, in addition to getting out of the bush to go play other teams. Plus, the distance between schools can be immense. The Kenai Peninsula School District requires an administrator be at nearly every home sports event as well as some of the larger away events. Thus, Douglas ended up traveling nearly every weekend from mid-August through October for sports. Our exchange student, who was in swimming, traveled a great deal too. Here are some of their adventures in the name of high school sports.

Kodiak is an island 45 minutes away by plane and 9 hours away by ferry (on a good day, or depending on whether you're going with or against the winds and tide). Kodiak's football program is relatively new. In order to be part of the conference, they have to help pay for teams to come play them. This year they wanted to go cheap and make the Homer football team take the ferry both ways. This would have meant the students would have to take a bus to Whittier to get on the ferry, take the ferry to Kodiak, and then take the ferry back. They would have missed 3 days of school for a Saturday game to make all the connections. After much negotiation, they flew there but took the ferry back.

Even taking the ferry back can be quite an ordeal. They had to be at the ferry terminal 2 hours before casting off, which was 9 p.m. They were supposed to get out of the harbor at 11, but the ferries carry freight, and the day the football team was heading home it took an extra 2 hours to unload and load the freight, so they didn't even get out of harbor till after 1 a.m. The kids were sprawled all over the ship in any comfortable place they could find. There are often a number of different sports teams or groups on the ship at any given time. At noon the next day, the team arrived in Homer. With a plane ride they would have been home the evening before, but the cost was prohibitive for a team of 40.

The next weekend Douglas got to spend 5 days going to a volleyball tournament in Cordova. The kids took a bus to Whittier, hopped on the ferry for what is normally a short ride to Cordova, but the ferry had to stop by Valdez to pick up volleyball players so that added a few hours to the ride both ways. Once, teams from an entire tournament got stuck in Cordova for a week because of bad weather, and some administrators were ecstatic to get cots in the water treatment plant. The little town wasn't equipped handle that many people for that long.

This year swimming regionals were in Kodiak, so the swim/dive team had to figure out how to get their entire team to Kodiak, house them and transport them. All the other teams on the Kenai Peninsula had to do the same. The swim team coaches opted to charge the students $300 to go to Kodiak, which was basically their plane ticket, and fundraising paid for the housing and transportation. Some kids didn't go because their families couldn't afford it.

Nearly every swim meet that was more than 4 hours away (there are only a few high schools of Homer's size that are closer than Anchorage), students had to pay $50-$60 for the hotel and then they were on their own for meals. This adds up. Our exchange student probably spent $600 or more to swim this year.

Next week Douglas is going to go to Barrow with the Homer wrestling team. He has to figure out when he needs to be there, find connecting flights from Homer to Anchorage to Fairbanks to Barrow. At this point all the hotels in Barrow are full the first night he is supposed to be up there so he has to find a place to stay....somehow, somewhere. Hopefully all the flights won't be full by the time he makes his reservations.

When teams travel, sometimes a the hosting school is willing to house them and even feed them. Homer is good about that: this past weekend they hosted a wrestling tournament for 11 schools from all over the state. All the teams stayed in the high school. When the volleyball team went to Cordova the school there fed all the teams breakfast each day. This relieves the fundraising burden, and as well as family finances, but it is partly because many communities don't have fast food restaurants or other quick food options.

Now our exchange student is on the cross-country ski team. Parents are required to help volunteer and fundraise. The athletes themselves must volunteer at least 10 hours to fundraising during the season, and a chart in the locker room keeps track of their progress. That is on top of training and waxing their skis, never mind about homework. Sports become their life.

I am blown away by the commitment of families to their kids' sports. In Homer High School, 60% of the students participate in sports (not counting other extracurricular activities). Some students are in 3 different sports. I can't even begin to imagine how expensive that could get. This year we have been initiated into this culture, both from an administrator's perspective and as parents. It makes my head swim to think about it, and I don't know if I'm glad that I now know what is in store for me in a few years when I'll have two kids in high school!

Putting Up the Rope: Ohlson Mountain Rope Tow

We got dumped with nearly three feet of snow this past weekend in the Homer area, so downhill skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts were itching to get the Ohlson Mountain Rope tow up and running to take advantage of the unseasonably early snowfall. We are friends with people who are friends with some of the Ohlson Mountain organizers (sounds like a small town thing) so we got a call Sunday that the rope tow was going to go operational. It sounded like an interesting Sunday afternoon expedition, so despite the snowstorm we packed up our vehicle with snowshoes, sleds, snowboards, downhill and cross-country skis, warm clothes and snacks and headed out to Ohlson Mountain.

Luckily the plow had just come through on Ohlson Mountain Road, otherwise it would have been a treacherous drive. As it was, even the parking area for the rope tow had been plowed out (with snowbanks about 4 feet high--as deep as they were much of last winter!). We unloaded our equipment of choice: snowshoes, sleds and snowboards were on our list for the first foray. We dumped all our things in the warming hut and left the kids there to haul firewood into the warming hut and to play.

The adults, about 7 of us plus a couple who had been planning on skiing, grabbed the thick pads that are attached to the rope tow poles. We got those snapped on and headed up the slope on snowshoes. The snow was mid-thigh to nearly waist deep in places and the incline near the top is steep, making for a tricky climb. I was gasping for breath and sweating most of the way and was immensely relieved to get to the top.

There we were met with a huge pile of rope that needed to be dragged down the mountain and then threaded onto the rope tow machinery. After figuring out which was the top rope and which was the bottom, each person grabbed a section of the rope and started dragging it down the mountain. Ladders were found to climb the poles. Luckily we had a couple young guys who were willing to climb them with the heavy, frozen rope over their shoulders and heave them onto the wheels. Each time they climbed, the rest of us would pull the rope to give them enough slack to get the rope up, with at least one of us holding the ladder to stabilize it for the climber.

It was a messy process carrying the ladders through the deep snow from pole to pole, setting them up, getting enough slack for the person to carry the rope up the pole and then moving on to the next one. We got into the rhythm of it, though, and the project was completed in a little over two hours.

Much to the kids' disappointment, the snow was too deep to snowboard well. The couple on skis were able to get to the top of the hill where it was steeper, but they were having a hard time turning in thick, waist-deep snow. They looked like they were swimming. The kids weren't able to make it very high on the slope (it takes considerable strength to hold onto the rope tow, and it seems to take specific muscles, as attested by our upper body soreness at the beginning of every rope tow season) so they ended up boarding down on the rope area where they came up.

After a week of compacting, we're hoping that the snow conditions will be better this weekend! One of my friends posted pictures (better than mine!) on his Facebook. I will include the link here (not sure if it is public or private; you'll find out!): http://www.facebook.com/#!/album.php?aid=2101590&id=1210874850&fbid=1722964833205

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Crow Pass-Eagle Eye Retreat

Fr. Nathan from Ohio is the founder of the Eagle Eye Retreats which he puts on for young adults around the country each summer. This is his third year leading a backpacking retreat in Crow Pass.

Each year a couple of monks come up to Girdwood (one from Ohio and one from overseas) and lead the Eagle Eye Retreat for 18-40ish year olds. It begins with 4 days of backpacking Crow Pass, 26 miles from Girdwood to Eagle River. Then there is an additional 3 days of theology and education at the Our Lady of the Snows Chapel in Girdwood, interspersed with hiking and socialization. Last year my husband and I did the 3 days of theology; this year I wanted to do the Crow Pass hike with the group but my husband couldn't make it. We managed to swing it for me. It was the best retreat I've been on in many years.

Nearly everyone on this hike was from the Lower 48 and had never backpacked before in their life. This made me one of the more experienced people in the group. I was also one of the oldest people, and I was the only mother in the group of 19 people. The retreat organizers spent $600 on food for 19 people for 4 days. Everything was weighed (2 pounds of food per day per person) and was all add-water-only food. Each person carried their own supplies and food. There were 3 campstoves for the group plus fuel, which were dispersed among everyone. Nine tents housed 17 people, with the 2 guides sleeping under a tarp.We packed up and slept in a school Sunday night and headed to the trailhead in Girdwood Monday morning after mass.

The first day was a relatively easy hike for me: 3-4 miles, 2000-2500 foot climb up to the summit of Crow Pass. (I got different answers from various people on distances and elevations, thus the approximations.) When backpacking I am used to grueling 8-14 mile hikes, so 4 miles was a piece of cake even though I had a 45-50 pound pack on my back. I was just getting warmed up when they said we were camping at the top of the pass for the night. The only wildlife we saw that first day was 4 sheep far off on a mountainside.

The group coming off of Raven Glacier.

We set up our tents, and then headed to the Raven Glacier about a mile further along the trail. Our guide, Beav, has experience ice and rock climbing among other adventures, so he took us out onto the glacier. Apparently last year the group could walk comfortably all over the glacier, but this year it was icy (I know, that sounds silly, but the surface of glaciers are not consistently the same) so we settled for a short expedition, cautiously choosing our footing and avoiding crevasses and black ice under the gravel.

The weather continued to deteriorate from cloudy to windy to windier, with the cloud cover lowering and misty rain covering us. I put on layer after layer, finally ending up with a thermal undershirt, long sleeve thermax shirt, short sleeve shirt, rain jacket and wool-lined rain/wind jacket. On the bottom half I had 3 layers on. On my head I had my bandana, winter hat and rain hood. At times I was still shivering.

At the top of Crow Pass near where we were camping there is an A-frame and doorless pit toilet, the only "facilities" the entire length of the trail. We women-folk took turns holding the door closed for each other (we were above treeline and there really was no out-of-sight spot in the area). Dinner warmed us, and then we had a group discussion about the use of technology in our lives. For bedtime, each person got their water bottle filled with hot water to put in their sleeping bag. I had the misfortune to have my water bottle leak, scalding the bottom my foot and soaking my pants, socks and sleeping bag. It was a slightly uncomfortable night with the wind howling and tents flapping.

Next morning we were up early, got breakfast, said morning prayers and headed out down the trail, retracing our steps towards the Raven Glacier. Past the glacier the trail began to descend, crossing several snowfields. We saw two bear foraging on a distant hillside and we began to see bear tracks on the muddy trail. We took frequent breaks (again, by my standards), taking our time. We had 8 miles to go that day, down to the Eagle River. We saw numerous marmots and tundra squirrels, and were blessed to see a moose with a huge rack napping in a field (In 3 years in Alaska I have only seen a moose with a rack that size once before). The trail had pushki, alders and other shrubs hanging over it, and there were some muddy spots, but overall it was a pretty good trail.
At the Eagle River we decided to stop for the night rather than cross the river and push on another mile to Thunder Gorge. A group was put in charge of building an altar of rocks, decorating the cross of branches we'd made the first day and had been carrying. Everyone else set up their tents, set up the group tarp, gathered water for dinner and otherwise helped out. We had evening prayer and mass and turned in. There were 4 bear scats in the vicinity of our camping area, so we put our food out of the way (no trees to speak of to hang the food from) at night.

The next morning we had morning prayer and mass and then got ready for the river crossing. Most of the group seemed nervous about it. Beav gave us instructions for how to cross (3 or 4 abreast, arms locked, with the upstream and downstream people with poles, and with packs unclipped in case we fell). We had to head slightly downstream to the white post, cross a gravel bar, then cross a couple more side streams to the white post on the far side. The water was up to mid-thigh on most of us, and the rocks underwater were large, making footing tricky. In addition, the water is fresh from the Eagle Glacier a few miles upstream, so it was extremely cold. When everyone had crossed there was a great deal of enthusiasm, and most everyone agreed it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be.

Day 3 was a long 8 miles following the Eagle River downstream. There were many streams to cross, and there were ladders to climb and ropes to hold onto. The trail went up and down as it followed the contours of the land. In one place there is an upper and lower trail, with either being acceptable routes. The lower route was washed right out--gone--and quite recently from what our guide said (he'd hiked the trail just a few weeks prior and it was still there then). Thus we followed the upper trail, picking our way across the base of talus slopes.

We ended up camping on a gravel bar at the confluence of 2 rivers that night, in sight of the Eagle Glacier. It was bittersweet, with many retreatants feeling sad that their Alaskan backpacking adventure was about to end. A group of girls, rebelling against the lack of showers, washed their hair in the glacial river, joking about "glacial facials." Sharing time that night was insightful and special, creating strong bonds of caring and friendship. The weather was relatively warm (only 2 layers instead of 4 or 5) and there was no wind or rain, making it an enjoyable evening at camp besides some bugs.

Thursday morning we took our time getting up, packing up and hitting the trail. More river crossings were on the docket for the day. It was a fairly easy 6 miles in to the Eagle River Nature Center, with the last 3 or 4 being on wider, hard-packed trails. The berries were ripe along this section, so I was grabbing raspberries, blueberries, high bush cranberries and watermelon berries as I walked. The final couple miles to the end it began to rain, though not hard enough to drench us. We were relieved to finally reach the nature center and civilization.

Busses and private vehicles transported everyone back to the school where they picked up extra gear, and then we headed to a chalet in Girdwood where we were staying. Showers were welcome, as was a hot dinner of grilled chicken and corn on the cob. Everyone felt a sense of accomplishment and was filled with the beauty of Alaska. It made me appreciate the beauty that surrounds me every day as everyone was ooooohing and aaaaaaahhhhing over things that are a regular part of my life now.

I had to admire our guide for being willing to take 19 mostly-green backpackers on a 4-day, 26-mile trip. Some of the people had never been out of a city before in their lives, never seen berries, never exercised. And yet no one complained. There were smiles and small kindnesses shared the whole way, with stories and laughter standard fare. It filled me up in a way that conventional retreats don't, and I found myself aching to be back with the group the past few days since the hike ended. It was a special time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Grace Ridge--Kachemak Bay State Park

Grace Ridge, an 8.2 mile hike, climbs and then follows this ridge above Sadie Cove and Tutka Bay.

A friend emailed me the other day and asked me if I wanted to do a hike across the bay. After the usual calendar check, I was like, "Sure!" Grace Ridge was our destination, an 8.2 mile point-to-point hike off of Tutka Bay. Sadie Cove, as seen from Grace Ridge.

A couple from Miami, Florida and a local guide were also doing the hike that day so we all got in the water taxi for True North Kayak Adventures, swapping stories on the 30-40 minute ride over to Tutka Bay. We were dropped on a gravel beach, one of many that dot the shores of Kachemak Bay. The bright orange triangular T sign marked the trailhead. We started climbing. Three hours and 3150 feet later we reached the top.

Tutka Bay

The trail was a nice singletrack, not too muddy, with blueberries lining the lower reaches of the trail and fresh berry-filled bear scat punctuating our walk at regular intervals. It was a 1700 foot climb to reach the alpine where snow patches, marmots, and alpine blueberry plants abounded. As we climbed to the ridge clouds enveloped the peak so we were afraid we weren't going to get a good view. Eventually the clouds blew over so we were able to see Sadie Cove to our left and Tutka Bay to our right, thousands of feet below us.

The ridge went on and on, 3.6 miles to be exact, climbing peaks then descending saddles between them. At some points the ridge was a razor edge with steep dropoffs on each side of us. Mostly it was a pretty easy walk, though, and the views were stupendous. Once the clouds even thinned enough to see Mt. Illiamna in the distance. We were surprised at how much volcanic ash was still sitting in piles all over the ridge, thinking at first it was a fine mud but then realizing what it was.

As we got to the end of the ridge and headed down, the salmonberry plants, skunk cabbage and pushki hung over the trail, making it difficult to see where we were going. The sun came out in full force and roasted us, but we wore long pants anyways as pushki protection.

We managed to hike the 8.2 miles in 6 1/2 hours (the hike estimate is 6-8 hours). On the uphill and downhills we kept up a steady pace, while we dillydallied along the ridge, stopping to eat twice, take pictures, and talk, which only gave us a little bit of time to spare for our boat pickup at 5:00.

On the way back our boat captain got a call and he made a detour over to one of the gravel beaches. As he pulled up we saw a dog whose collar had gotten caught to a bouy. He was stuck, and it was too far out for the woman to swim to, well over her head and with large waves breaking. Two toddlers were watching as we unhooked the dog from the bouy, hauled him on board and took him to shore. He was petrified and didn't want to jump down so we had to push him off where his owned thanked us profusely. Apparently she'd called one of the water taxi companies or someone in Homer and our boat was the closest so we were able to get there quickly and save him.

The company was the highlight of this hike--but the views were tremendous and it was a great training hike for me as I am doing a 26 mile backpacking trip in a week so I'd carried a 25 pound pack. If I were to do it again I would like more time before taxi pickup so I could pick berries, but it turned out to be just about right for the hiking part of it. I would not have wanted to do it if the cloud cover was low or it was rainy; along the ridge there is no obvious trail and I wouldn't want to chance missing the trail down.

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 http://www.anchoragenordicski.com/Trails/trailsKincaid.htm.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mt. Marathon

Mt. Marathon offers superb views of the Seward Harbor.

Monday I dropped Denver off at the Challenger Center for space camp and stopped by to see my cousin Ronna. They were going over to Seward to climb Mt. Marathon that afternoon since 3 of their kids are doing the July 4th race, and she invited me along. Never one to pass up an adventure, I ran to the store to buy a pair of shorts and a little after noon we were on our way, braving summer Alaska traffic for the 2 hour drive from Kenai to Seward.

Minutes after we headed up the trail, I mentally began shaking my head. Who would let their 9-year-old kid race up a cliff?? I was a bit nervous myself as I saw the "trail," and I couldn't imagine letting 300 kids at it, unsupervised, to run 3/4 mile up a not-quite-vertical-but pretty-darn-close-to-it slope covered with loose rocks and mud. Hm. Obviously I'm not truly Alaskan or tough enough. You see the picture to the left. What do you think?? As we continued up I got a little more comfortable with the trail. "Trail," singular, is an oxymoron. There is more like 2 or 3 or 4 or more trails one can take up, so it is constantly a multiple choice. Which one is best? All of them were overhung with Devil's Club, pushki and whatnot. Some were slicker than others from the rain over the weekend. All were steep.

Let me pause for a moment and fill you in. This "race" is up the 3000 foot (give or take), 1 1/2 mile (one way) Mt. Marathon every year on July 4. If you're under 18 you're considered a junior and only have to go halfway, which still gets you above treeline. The race starts in town and there's about 7-10 blocks of running uphill on pavement before getting to the base of the mountain and the trail. Each year 300 kids, 300 women and 300 men are allowed to race to the top to see which maniac is fastest at managing not to kill or maim themselves and still get to the top and back down. So many people want the honors to run this race that there is a lottery held each year. Applications must be in by March 31. If you've run the race the previous year, ever won the race, or raced it more than 10 times you are exempt from the lottery and can get in. What spots are left are up for grabs.

Well, it took us an hour of f
requent stops to catch our breath, admire the view of Resurrection Bay and the Seward Harbor and attempt to ignore our burning calves to reach the half-way mark. We had to help 7-year-old Sonora and 9-year-old Darius up the cliff section, and they managed to not whine or complain too much. Then for the descent. Coming down is certainly faster than going up, but in some ways more nervewracking since the trail was loose scree, snow, and a creek. The "down" route follows a creek. The fastest way would probably be to plow right through the middle of the creek, though one would need to be cautious of slippery rocks. But then, I imagine that anyone who is serious about getting down fast doesn't care too much about falling on slippery rocks anyways. There was another little section of rock climbing that took a good 15 minutes to get the kids down, coaching them on every hand and foothold so they wouldn't go tumbling and take us out too. We walked through the creek part of the way as well.

People take this race very seriously. The parking lot just behind the Seward Hospital was full. There were old women in jogbras with not an ounce of spare flesh on them, parents interrogating their kids on how they did on their training run, and moms with kids in baby backpacks. Higher up people were practicing their descent technique. My cousin kept up a commentary much of the way up, coaching her 9-year-old on the right path to take, when to go fast, when to go slow, and more, since this will be his first time racing it. It all seemed a bit overwhelming. When we were done Ronna invited me to come and watch the race with them on July 4. I am curious and can't quite imagine it so we just might do it!

Gorgeous view of Resurrection Bay from partway up Mt. Marathon.