Sunday, March 25, 2012

Diamond Creek to Bishop's Beach Hike

Denver has been needing to get in a 5-mile hike using a compass and map to orient to fulfill a rank requirement for Boy Scouts, and we've planned to do the Diamond Creek to Bishop's Beach hike numerous times this winter and had to cancel due to horrible weather conditions. This weekend, with relatively little planned and the weather forecast for 'partly sunny and 30's', we decided it was worth a try.

I was nervous about the conditions of the road and trail down to the beach so on Saturday while Denver was in basketball I drove out to Diamond Ridge Road to take a quick scouting hike. The mile-long road from the Sterling Highway down to the trailhead was not plowed (in fact, it was under about 5 feet of snow), but snowshoers had packed it down, so while there was 5 inches of fresh snow on top of the packed trail, it was still relatively easy walking. Twenty minutes got me to the trailhead, so I figured we'd just have to add that much time to the hike. The trail down along the edge of the Diamond Creek canyon was in good shape too--just snow, no ice, so I was comfortable with taking the kids down it.

Scouting done, we started our plans. Low tide was at 10:54 a.m., so we figured if we got started by 9:45 we were in good shape. Douglas was just getting back from 4 days of chaperoning so we didn't think he'd want to join us for the 8 mile hike, so he would drop us off at the Sterling Highway. Sunday dawned completely clear without a cloud in sight and calm, but we still each brought an extra layer for feet, legs, head and face just in case the wind came up. A few snacks and water rounded out our packing.

A half hour hike brought us to the beach. The trail down, despite steep dropoffs, was comfortable hiking. Mudslides had already begun, covering the snow with the muddy fingers, some of them extending clear down the gully towards the creek. Every time I hike this trail I wonder how much longer it will be there before the entire hillside slides into the canyon, as there are fresh slides often, and the trail continues to be rerouted as the trail slides away.

The hike is simple. At the bottom of the trail, turn left and start walking till you get to Bishop's Beach in Homer. We walked close to the cliff at first, but when the tide was further out and hard-packed sand exposed, we opted for that since it is easier walking. We are not leisurely hikers. We tend to be pretty focused, so I wasn't surprised when Aurora took off, setting a tough pace. Denver had to keep re-orienting with the map and compass (kind of a strange thing to do when you can see exactly where you are and where you're going, but he was using the skills he needed).

Exactly two and a half hours after we'd started, we walked up to our car in the Bishop's Beach parking lot. We'd seen over a dozen eagles, a bunch of ravens, a few gulls, a couple rocks covered with cormorants (I think) and that was about it. It was a glorious, sunny day and a few times before a breeze sprang up I wished I had shorts on. The kids were down to t-shirts. It all looked so different than the other times we'd hiked it--probably because it was winter and the leaves cover things. And I was wondering why it was such a big deal...just an eight mile hike on the beach. It made me realize how the kids getting older makes activities like this easier. I don't wonder now whether they can make it or not. Now the question is how fast they will make it. And I appreciate once again living in a place as beautiful as Homer and that has opportunities for mild adventures like this.
When we do this hike from Diamond Creek to Bishop's Beach I get the sense that we are on a desert with the large expanses of sand.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

An Alaskan Spring Break

We opted out of spending thousands on plane tickets Outside (the Alaskan term for everywhere else) for spring break, and images of hanging out at home briefly floated through our heads, but with jobs, sports and school our travel time is limited so we decided we needed to do something fun for break. One thing led to another, and pretty soon we had a whole week planned--from a wilderness campout to a fling in the big city!

Our trip started with packing. Our Durango was out of service, so we were going to pull off a camping trip, city trip and ski/snowboard trip with 4 of us and gear packed into a Subaru Outback wagon. We gathered items, condensed, repacked and finally ended up strapping the skis on top of the car and foisting a few items off on our friends who were going to meet us at the Upper Ohmer Lake cabin in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Area near Skilak Lake. I kept laughing every time I looked at the car, thinking of the family vacation movies where the car is loaded down. That is what we looked like! The kids were squished into the back seat, with gear on their laps and under their feet. Caveat: I personally would not have put them through that level of packing, but I asked both of them if it was worth it to them to be squashed in there like sardines in order to go skiing/snowboarding at Alyeska. Both of them very adamantly said YES! so if they were willing to suffer so much for it, I was willing to go along with it.

Our first stop on our vacation was the cabin at Upper Ohmer Lake off Skilak Lake Road about 2 hours from our house, heading north past Soldotna. Skilak Lake Road is plowed irregularly in the winter (meaning, it will get plowed sometime, but who knows when?), but it hadn't snowed recently so I figured we wouldn't have trouble getting through. It was hard-packed snow, and was actually substantially faster than in the summer when washboards, potholes and sinkholes slow us down. Eight miles off the Sterling Highway, we pulled into the cabin parking area and began to unload.

It is a .3 mile easy walk back to the cabin. We had a sled that held a cooler and tub perfectly, and it was all downhill, so within 15 minutes we had all our gear and firewood to the cabin and we were ready for some fun. Trails meandered a few different directions so we followed one up the ridge across the lake from the cabin. As long as we stayed on the snowy trail it was firm, but if we stepped off it we plunged crotch-deep in the snow. A couple hours of exploring and we were ready for some mellow activity. We all grabbed our books and read, ate dinner and then decided to go visit Engineer Lake a few miles away to see the quintzee (snow shelter) that Denver built while on a Boy Scout trip there in January. Aurora ran the mile across Engineer Lake while the rest of us walked it. The quintzee had sunk down so wasn't habitable anymore but it was fun to see the site of Denver's 30 below zero campout. An evening of card games and reading was relaxing. We were feeling pretty luxurious sleeping in a cabin with a woodstove and table--comfy digs.

Next day our friends arrived in the afternoon. One of the advantages of being friends with a professional photographer is getting really good photos of shared events! Our friend Don had fun hiking around looking for good shots, so you're getting the luxury of his awesome photos in my blog for a change!

Karen and I skied up the lake, the kids ran around outside, chopped wood, sledded and had general kid fun. Later, after dinner we built a fire outside and ate s'mores and we got our purple squishy football out and the kids had a blast tackling each other in the snow. We ended the night with card games, gazing out the window at the falling snow.

Next morning we had to get out early to get to Anchorage for a doctor's appointment. It had snowed about 6-8 inches since we'd gotten there and the road hadn't been plowed so it took some attention to stay on the road. All was well till we got to Girdwood and they were shooting down avalanches. It was going to be a 40 minute wait, making us late for the doctor's appointment, so I called and got it rescheduled for the next day. We dropped off Aurora's snowboard at our favorite ski shop to get waxed and had lunch in Girdwood. By time we got back to the Seward Highway all the traffic had been let through but they'd closed the highway again so we ended up having to wait 50 minutes anyways!

The rest of that day was a whirlwind of shopping. It had been awhile since we'd been to Anchorage and had time to shop, and our list had grown long. We were short on space, though, so looking at rocketboxes (car-top storage) was first on our list! We ordered one, but that wasn't going to help our space issues for this trip, so the Costco run was a relatively skimpy one.

It was a radical change to go from remote cabin to hotel in the big city, but we adjusted to the luxury of hot showers and 24 hour coffee! Friday our plan was to go to the high school 3A and 4A (big schools) basketball consolation and semi-final games at Sullivan Arena. Douglas and Aurora had a much bigger capacity for that than Denver and I, so we dropped them off and Denver and I continued running errands. Sullivan Arena seats about 8000 fans, and for basketball they had a divider across the gym so two games could be going on at once. The best game was the boys Wasilla vs. Service Friday night which was very close.

Saturday morning we hauled all our gear out to the car and began the packing process once again. Amazingly, despite many purchases, we had space to spare once everything was packed! We headed up the road to Girdwood, were able to squeeze Aurora's freshly waxed snowboard in and headed to the slopes.

The amount of snow in Girdwood was amazing. Douglas was there a few weeks ago with the Boy Scouts for a ski/snowboard trip, and I hadn't really believed him when he said all the snowbanks were 12 feet high. After we'd gotten a day of skiing in and were waiting for the kids to finish up, we walked around town a little. The snowbanks were up to most second stories--easily double my height in snowbanks in every single yard. The picture here doesn't do justice to the amount of snow, even though those snowbanks are double the height of a car!

After a day of skiing and snowboarding, we were tired and ready to head home. Five days on the road in a packed vehicle and we were ready to see how much snow had fallen in our absence that needed shoveling (only 3-4 inches!). Longer daylight hours and clear roads made the 4 hour drive home fly by.

One of my friends said the longer she lives in Alaska the more she feels the need to "get out" during spring break. I know the feeling, as sometimes I have an incredible urge to get on a plane and visit "the rest of the world." However, our Alaskan spring break was packed, active and outdoors, so it eased our itch to get out--till summer!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Homer Ski Marathon

At the end of our 25k ski race! Yeaaa!

A few weeks ago my daughter decided, for some random reason I'm not sure about, that she wanted to do a long ski race. We looked at the Tour de Anchorage, which was last weekend, but after adding up expenses (gas to get there, hotel, food, entry fee @ $75) I decided that was more than we wanted to spend on a ski race. The Homer Ski Marathon was just one week later on March 10. When I suggested that to Aurora, she said, "Yes! I want to do it!"

I have skied the Marathon Trail. It can be something of a wild ride as ski trails go, with a number of vertical downs and vertical ups, as well as long, curvy downs and long, long ups. And it is a point-to-point race, starting at the Lookout Ski trails off Ohlson Mountain Road and going all the way to the DOT trailhead on the Sterling Highway as you drive into Homer. For a few days (or more!) I pondered. I wasn't sure Aurora could do it, or that I wanted her to do it. Finally, I emailed Megan Spurkland, the coach of the Homer Women's Nordic. She'd worked with Aurora during the middle school ski season, and also at Wednesday night circuit training at the Bay Club. I asked her what she thought, and she was confident Aurora could do it.

Decision made, we went into action. Aurora was planning to classical it, because her favorite style right now is classic skiing. I wasn't comfortable with her skiing the race by herself, so I signed myself up (2 weeks of training is plenty, right??!!) Somehow one of her good friends decided she wanted to do the Ski Marathon too. As Aurora and I started training, going out for long classical skis after school, Aurora came to the conclusion she didn't want to classical it after all; she was going to skate it. I had already decided to classical it, and with only 2 weeks of training (my previous month's exercise was maybe a couple mellow skis, walks, snowshoes, random games of racquetball, perhaps a get the idea.) I knew I was not in skate skiing condition. By this time I was taking both Aurora and her friend Aziza out for skis after school, and just did skating with them most times. Snow conditions were awesome, with a huge base, and not too much fresh snow so it was actually groomed, and weather was in the 20's.

The day I did the whole outside of Baycrest Loop, 16 kilometers, classical, was the day I knew I could finish the Ski Marathon. The day I skated the Baycrest Loop, I knew I was in good enough shape to actually have fun on this race. Those two skis were my confidence builders (if I can go 16k, what's another 9k, especially since the last 5k would be downhill or flat?!), and they were also the longest skis I'd done since I was in high school.

Pre-race day arrived, and we planned what clothes we would wear (stay warm since it was supposed to be windy), what food we would bring, who would carry water, and coordination of rides. I thought I would be nervous, but was not. I was just eager. I was more nervous about getting to the race on time and staying warm on the race than actually racing it. We also got the girls skis waxed. I opted not to wax my skis. I had 2 weeks worth of kick wax on, which I had added to each time I'd gone out. It had great kick. I was afraid that if I took it all off, glide waxed them and then put new kick wax on that the kick wax would wear off by race's end, and that would have been a nightmare, not having enough kickwax on. So I went sans waxing.

Race day we dropped our vehicle at the DOT trailhead, and Aziza's mom drove us up to the Lookout Trailhead. We could have taken the bus up that they had provided, but we appreciated the luxury of our own vehicle! The registration table took about 30 seconds to sign one additional waiver and get our bib. I puzzled over where to pin my bib on. Front? Back? The girls opted for their leg, which was a good choice in case they decided to take layers off. I opted for my jacket, which I could not imagine taking off! It was about 10 degrees with an icy windy, and I knew many parts of the trail were on high, open, exposed areas.

The race start was casual. Everyone just grouped up at the hayfields start, on an honor basis as to who was faster in the front. I and another guy were the only classical skiers in the group that I saw. An hour earlier, at 9:30 a.m., people who didn't want to race had started skiing the 'tour' option. They were not officially timed, and it was only for the 25k (not the 42k). This man from Eagle River and I stayed together for the first 8 or 9 kilometers until just past the Crossman Ridge Aid station, when he took off.

Aurora and Aziza were just in front of me from the start, always in sight. When we started some of the long climbs, somewhere around the 5k mark, I passed them and stayed ahead of them the rest of the race. Come to find out they were fairly close behind me the entire race, but I never saw them again till I crossed the finish line and Aziza's dad had his camera trained on, not me, but someone behind me. It was the girls, finishing about 15 seconds after me. But I get ahead of myself.

The vertical up and vertical down hills that cut through gullies did not bother me. I like that kind of hill. The long uphills were not too bad for me because I was classicalling and could shuffle. I had nothing to prove, besides to finish, and so wasn't in a contest to have awesome technique. I could go as slow as I wanted. That being said, for my conditioning level, I pushed myself the whole race. I kept up a steady pace, always at that max of what I could handle without getting too tired and having to slow way down. I admit, I bit it on two curvy downhills. I was getting a little bit woozy and not quite as sharp mentally or physically. I'd taken 2 little cups of water at the first aid station, and when I started feeling out of it, I drank from my waterbottle I was carrying and I pulled out the almond bark (white chocolate with almonds) that Denver had made the night before and nibbled on it. I'd eaten half of it when I got to the top of the only marked Caution! hill of the whole trail when I dropped it. There was no way I was going to stop and pick it up, but it did it's job, and the timing was good because shortly thereafter I arrived at the bottom of The Kill Hill (different parts of the trail are labeled!), which is climbing Diamond Ridge up to Diamond Ridge Road.

I knew once I crossed Diamond Ridge Road it was an easy glide in to the finish, so my goal was just to get to that point. I was hoping for a sub-3 hour time. At the Diamond Ridge aid station I drank a cup of juice, which was perfect. Again, I barely stopped. I was feeling good. Tired, but still had plenty left. The ski around Sunset Loop, down Farside to College Way and then Raven's Loop to the finish is just a blast--my absolute favorite. It is so fast and curvy. I was really regretting not having my skating skis on at this point as that would have made it even faster and funner.

The final kilometer to the finish line was so hard! I was really tired at that point, but not so tired that once I got onto the flats that I couldn't pull out some nice classical technique. It was sweet to cross the finish line to cheers of friends, and then I was so surprised to look around and find Aurora and Aziza blasting in to the finish line as well! All my worries about them dissolved (mom worries, like "Did their pole break?" or "Did they crash?" or "Did they hit the wall?") and I was so proud of them! We'd done the 25 kilometer course in 2 hours and 30 minutes. While I know plenty of people who skied the 42k course finished it before us, I suspect they trained a whole lot more than I did! I was (am!) proud of my finish. That was by far my longest ski in the past 25 years, since I skied the 39 kilometer Korteloppet (shorter version of the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin). I have probably only skied 2 1/2 hours two other times in my life.

The girls had a good experience. They are very closely matched when it comes to pace so while Aurora led the whole way, Aziza said her pace was just right. It wouldn't have been as fun to do it alone, especially the first time. They were impressed at how well marked the course was, especially with the kilometer markings. It was a really good experience for them, and it will be a memory that sticks with them for a long time.

It is now the day after. There is a sense of unreality of having completed that race, and having done it so much better than I expected to (I was shooting for the 3-4 hour range). And there is an awesome sense of pride in the girls for doing it as well. I saw maybe 10 kids under the age of 18 doing the race, and many of those were high schoolers.

Next time (and there WILL be a next time!) I will let Aurora dress not-quite-so warmly (she had a jacket tied around her waist the whole time, took off her neckwarmer, all very clunky). I won't take food next time or just some chocolate. I will for sure take a waterbottle again, and I would probably dress the same. I would probably classical it again, though I know if I trained for it I would be tempted to skate it. Conditions might be very different another year, so I can't say for sure about all these things. And next year we'll make it to the after-party at Alice's Champagne Palace, where I hear we missed drawings for $1000 worth of cool stuff!

Thanks, Don Pitcher, for the finish line photos!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Young Drivers in Alaska!

When I was a kid, I remember being in awe that my cousins from Alaska were driving when they were 14 years old. When we moved here I thought of that occasionally, but the reality of it hit recently when my daughter turned 14. Wow! Old enough to drive! This is quite the rite of passage! What driving entails in Alaska is going to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) after your 14th birthday, fill out a form, show them your birth certificate, pass a multiple choice test of 20 questions (allowed to get 4 wrong) and pay $10.

I took Aurora to the DMV right after school last week. After we got there, a boy from her ski team walked in to take his exam, and then a girl from her basketball team walked in also. All were 14 and there to get their learner's permits. It was a sense of camaraderie as the kids waited with bated breath to see if they'd passed the test. A quick vision test, snap their photo and pay the fee, and they walked out legally able to drive!

I could tell Aurora was excited because she didn't want to let go of her license. She carried it with her here and there, and we studied every word and image on it. For 2 years she gets to drive, family only and with a parent, and then when she turns 16 she'll make an appointment for the behind-the-wheel test. I remember all the challenges of squeezing in a semester-long drivers ed class when I was in high school. This seems like underkill rather than overkill.

I'll admit that one bad part of getting a license in the winter is that I don't want to give Aurora much driving time on icy, snowy roads! But she has plenty of time to practice!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Deep Snow Tough on Moose

A moose calf recently was found dead outside the college campus in Homer, and my husband mentioned that the moose that hang around the high school have been very lethargic lately. A few days ago a moose calf was laying on the snow right outside the door to our house. Normally I'm pretty nervous walking so close to moose as they can be unpredictable, but this calf was so woebegone, barely lifting its head to look at us as we walked in and out of the house. Four hours later, it was still there when I returned from errands. My next door neighbor had to walk right by it to get to her house, but as she started to walk by, the calf finally got up. I shooed it away so our neighbor could get by and it plodded off.

Today when I came home from a ski a dog was picking at something in our front yard. Curious, I investigated. The baby moose was laid out on the ground, quite dead, and the dog had started eating it.

I called the Homer Police, but they don't come out as far as we live so I called the state troopers. They said Fish & Game would come get it in the morning, but I really didn't want that dead moose in our yard till morning, attracting all the loose dogs and eagles around for a feast. Because it died of natural causes, it is not donated to charity, which means the moose list. That was fine with me. The trooper I spoke to called their list and found a trapper who wanted it for animal meat. The interesting part was that the troopers were very specific about the type of vehicle the people who were coming to pick up the moose were driving. Apparently when word gets around that there's a dead moose, people will just show up to grab it.

Two hours later a man in his F-150 pickup showed up to pick up the moose, bringing his son and a friend for muscle power. They tied a rope around the legs and dragged it the 100 feet or so to their pickup and minutes later they were gone. A bigger moose would have had to be cut up before they could even think about moving it, and it could have taken hours of work.

This is a hard, hard winter for the moose. The snow is just so deep. Twice in the past few weeks I have been driving along East End Road and all of a sudden discovered I was driving alongside a moose that was using the roadway as its trail. Luckily, the moose were not inclined to swerve into my vehicle, otherwise we could have had serious trouble. The snow is so high the moose have been able to strip the branches off our trees above their normal winter 'strip line.' Much as I don't like the moose eating our trees, I don't care to see them die of starvation either.

I keep thinking, "If I were a 'true' Alaskan I wouldn't have called the authorities and I'd have just butchered it myself," but we're not. It was so sad to have this dying moose hanging around. I just wanted it gone to someone who would appreciate the meat more than we would. It does remind me of the winter we drove from St. Ignace to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, across the Upper Peninsula. We saw hundreds of dead deer on the side of the road that trip. Somehow, it seems different with moose: there are fewer, and we get to know them because they spend the winter hanging out in the neighborhood. But animals do die, and it is a natural process. It just doesn't usually touch this close to home.