Sunday, March 29, 2015

Takin' a Spring Break in Cordova

Just returned from a trip to Cordova and four days on  a saillboat in the scenic harbor there.  Our friends on the Muktuk wintered in the Cordova hoping to teach their boys to ski on the slopes of  Mount Eyak Ski Area, home of one of America’s oldest operating ski lifts. Unfortunately, the Alaskan winter offered little opportunities for Austrians to practice their nation sport of alpine skiing.

Cordova and Mt Eyak Ski Resort from a past winter with snow. 
      But, as with most adaptable people, they found that Cordova and the Cooper River Delta offered other riches to those who sought them, and we got to sample a few in our short visit including Prince William Sound venison served in a stew with Austrian knodel.  Knodel is a large dumpling made of bread cubes and parsley that is sliced and served with meat and gravy.  We enjoyed fresh winter king salmon paired with a fine home-brewed ginger beer.
      Once we pushed ourselves away from the table we roamed the streets and museums of this fishing village at the base of rugged mountains then drove out the road to the Cooper River Delta to walk the flats along the beach then up short mountains trail to Sheridan Lake a the base of Sheridan Glacier.   Earlier this winter Sheridan Lake was the local skating rink and we could only wonder if it isn’t the most beautiful skating around with mountains in the
background, and the lake rimmed by the subtle blue of glacier and iceberg. We were awash in spring sunshine so the ice was rotten and wasn’t inviting for skating.   
      The people in any town are spice in the stew and Cordova is no exception.  The winter king was a gift from John, the oysterman, who rears infant oysters for the local farms in his mad scientist lab of a shellfish nursery on a barge in the Cordova Boat Harbor.   We talked to a man tending his ducks that he rears in an eight by eight float beside his live-aboard boat.   

   The harbor residents form a little neighborhood of self-sufficiency during the winter when the place is quiet.  People who live aboard their boards whether cruising the big blue or tied up behind a breakwater, are models for simplicity and innovation.   These people have to get all the luggage and furniture of their lives into the small space of a boat, which means they tend to have what they need little in the way of extra, luxuries, and toys.  There is a lesson in such living.  These people travel  and see much of the world, but we find in fact that their though their trails are long, their footprint is small.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Turning Heads Kennels; Getting it Done Old School

      Our friend Travis Beals, a lifelong Seward boy, just finished his third Iditarod Wednesday night, placing eleventh in a field of close to eighty.  This was a big improvement over his last year's finish of thirty-seventh.  In fact, both of his first years he placed thirty-seventh.  At the start in Anchorage last week, he told the world that his goals was top fifteen and most improved musher.  Early in the race, he worked his way up to run with the top third of racers.   Then leaving Shaktoolik he was in seventeenth place, right on pace to reach his goal.  But Travis and his team logged the fasted time to Koyuk, grabbed a bale of straw and a drop bag of food, and pressed on toward Elim, jumping into tenth place.   With that bold move and steady runs the rest of the race, Travis finished eleventh, catching the eye of race watchers around the world.  
Madelyn and I were ecstatic to watch him cross the finish line.  
      We have known Travis for a long time.  Madelyn helped him develop his fundraising and promotion skills when he was a high school musher trying to build a team and raise funds to race in the Junior Iditarod.  Travis grew up recreational mushing with his mom, but his dreams were bigger.  He wanted to build a racing kennel and compete in the Iditarod.  
      Today, Travis is twenty-two years old with a racing kennel, a dogsled tour business, glacier mushing concession, and three years of competitive Iditarod credential.  He and his fiance, Sarah Stokey have built Turning Heads kennel a Seward business that's running on all cylinders.   
       I find great pride in knowing and supporting people like this.  Travis and Sarah exemplify the Alaskan tradition of having a dream and and investing blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen.   They work hard, they take risks, and they own their mistakes.  When you live like that you get to own your successes too.   Take a bow Travis and Sarah!  

Lake Affect, Snow, and Spring

The vernal equinox is before us and like last year we sit in mid march as snow orphans, neglected by winter in a way that has people talking yard work and boat maintenance instead skiing and snowpack.   Winter has been like a weekend spent waiting for house guests to arrive that never show.  We spent December, January, and February waiting, and we we are now at mid-March and all such longings have proved fruitless.  We are faced then with and easy spring and expect breakup will be only a brief pause followed by a flood of green as hillsides, lawns, and lake margins burst with chlorophyl drunk plants getting a jump on the brief subarctic growing season.  
Daylight has become  suddenly plentiful with the twelve hours days, and today for the first time this year I looked out at mid-evening daylight and felt the guilt of wasting daylight.   A summer frustration that comes to anyone to can’t play into the late evening like a twelve year old any more.  I remembered then that Alaskan summers are for kids, and those who think they are.
A week before the equinox we spent at Pear Lake where we have a remote cabin.  Yes, we have a linguistic anomaly with a House on Bear Lake and a cabin on Pear Lake.  Pear Lake is few miles west of the parks Highway south of Petersville Road.  And we go there to get away from the rat race at Bear Lake, Ha-ha.  We really go there to get way from home chores and bad weather or to find snow for skijoring.   We always end up reading a lot, talking to each other, and pacing our days at different rhythm.  
Pear Lake is about a hold mile long and get’s it name from it’s shape.  Our place is one the west side of the lake near the south end.  The cabin is small simple quaint log place with no plumbing, propane lights, and a cook top.  We built it our selves and part of the plan was for it be simple and aesthetically pleasing.  We get there by driving six hours north then fourteen miles after we leave the pavement.   In summer we park at Kroto Creek and hike a mile and half through the woods then canoe across the lake to the cabin.  In the winter, we leave the car at Amber Lake about mile ten and then skijor in.  We have found over the years that we spend more time there in the winter.  If the weather is foul or the snow is no good we spend more time reading and listening to to KTNA, the Talkeetna public radio station, writing or working on little projects to make things more comfortable or easier. 
Sometime we hike up the hill behind the cabin and monitor coyote and moose traffic and then later sit around birch campfires waiting for coals to form for grilling steaks.  -- Birch is great for grilling.   Aurora shows start after dark when the owls are singing and the dog team out on Kroto Creek sings for their supper.    

it is hard to define the effects of three days isolation in a cabin in the woods.  We don’t live a hectic lifestyle that we must escape in order to maintain our sanity.  Madelyn and I are semi-retired, but we’ve been know to bring work with us to add to the chores we do here like hauling firewood, shoveling the outhouse path and toting water from the spring at the end of the lake.  We call it pack-time for the dogs because they get be closer to us and have more freedom to romp in the woods without neighbors and and roads in the way.   But mostly we don’t do much but revel in the pleasure of being.  Perhaps that is enough.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Seward Highway; the Long Road Home


The traffic advisory billboard was lighted and displayed a long message that said,  “Avoid picking up hitch-hikers between miles 53 and 60. TRPR cars in area.”    

       “What now?,” I wondered out loud, “and what are TRPR cars?”  I was several miles farther down Turnagain Arm before I realized what the message was: don’t pickup hitchhikers near the Hope cutoff and Summit Lake and troopers would be in the area.  This was after midnight at the end of a very long thirty-six hours trying to get home from Hooper Bay, and the last thing I needed was to pick up some serial killer hitchhiking along the Seward Highway.   Thanks for the warning.
       Hooper Bay is a Yup’ik village on the Bering Sea almost due west of Anchorage, and when I say “on the Bering Sea” I mean it.  The air strip is about a hundred yards and ten feet elevation from the high tide line, and the only protection from the onshore “breeze” is a row of low dunes.  Landing in Hooper Bay on time is a rare experience especially in winter.  If the wind isn’t howling, fog may roll in or snowfall and wind create may collude to create whiteout, or perhaps freezing rain or icing condition will keep the runway closed.  Or Hooper Bay may be open but Bethel may be “down”.  
      I am usually in Hooper Bay all week, and Friday I start checking the weather reports and watching the horizon.  This Friday was a mild day with warm temperatures, light winds, and high overcast, one of those rare days when one doesn’t worry about being weathered-in.  By four p.m. though, the wind dropped and fog rolled in off the Bering, and we couldn’t see the airport from the school -- not good.  
      Sure enough after several calls, delays, and weather holds, all flights were canceled, and I made arrangements for another night in Hooper Bay, changed my Bethel to Anchorage flight for the next day, and called my wife.  Saturday was a mild windy day -- not too windy to fly.   Just before my Ravn flight was due, they  announced they were canceling because of a cloud of Russian volcanic ash drifting into Alaskan air space.  Luckily, I was able to jump on a Grant Aviation flight that left before the alert, so I made it safely to Bethel where my Alaska Air flight was cancelled due to the same cloud of ash.  The evening flight was full so I was booked for the next day. 
      I chose to try standby on the evening flight, and after a leisurely day sitting around the Bethel terminal -- ironically, the only place left in America without wifi or coffee.   By ten o’clock Saturday night I was napping on a 737 bound for Anchorage.  By 11:45 p.m. I was scrapping ice off my truck windshield and thinking of completing the last leg of a long journey home.  It should be a pleasant late night drive on a bare and empty Seward Highway, just me watching for northern lights and listening to the oddballs on late night radio.  With the lack of snow this winter I wasn’t even worried about moose on the road. 
          Then the sign, the one about not picking up hitchhikers.   I wondered if there are outlaws hanging out in the mountains preying on unsuspecting motorists or some guy cabin-fever crazy on a killing spree chased into the mountains by the troopers.  I turned off the late night talk radio; these alien abduction fantasies weren't helping.  At portage I pulled over to watch the northern lights, turning off my headlights for the full effect.  Then I rolled on over Turnagain Pass, gawking at the lack of snow to reflect the light of the half moon popping in and from behind the mountains. 

       Then movement on the side of the road, I slowed, I looked.   I realized I had just past the Hope cutoff, mile 55.  Some one stepped from the opposite shoulder, signing with the near hand, flagging me down.  A shadowed face under a hood, a figure in grey on the road.  The truck cab was suddenly ice cold and I could have been watching a thriller at a drive-in theater, but this was 1 am on the Seward Highway.
        I came to a near stop.  Then my brain engaged and I drove on.  The warning sign flashing in my memory.  But  I came off the gas,  haunted by my homestead Alaska upbringing.  How could I leave someone on the side of road at night in the dead of winter?  But I don’t have a gun and he might.  I should call some one, I should turn around, maybe someone’s car ran off the road. Shit, my cell phone is dead and the charger cord is in the other car.  A mile marker appears in the headlights and I lean in, Mile 54.  The debate played out in my head, “Do you want to get shot, carjacked?”  “It’s winter, after one in the morning.  You don’t leave people.”  Twice I slowed to turn around and then restarted.   
         A trooper phone!  Wasn’t there an emergency roadside phone along here.  I started looking for it.  Did they still have them with all the cell phones in use?  MILE 55, Adopt a Highway, Scenic Pullout  I was reading signs for the first time that I have past for forty years.  SHIT! Dan. Just go home, but the image stayed in my vision like a light bulb does when you’re looking at it when it turns on.   That grey hooded figure waving me down in the halo of the electric transfer station or whatever that mass of lights, poles and transformers was on the side of the road at near mile 54. 
        Then I saw it, the "emergency call box ahead" sign.  A white old fashioned telephone on a blue background.  I wondered -- strange to think of it then -- how no phones look like this now, the bent barbell look of a receiver on a boxy base.  Would some kid today even know what that was?    As soon as I saw it, I remembered that the phone was in the parking lot of the Summit Lake Lodge.  I pulled in excited and, in a way, disappointed that I was abandoning this rescue to the authorities, definitely not the old homestead way.  The phone was high on a pole so that even I at six foot two was reaching up to open the box.  Even with the latches released, it wouldn’t open so I used my ice scraper to pry the frozen door open.  No phone, not like I was expecting, just a red button with directions to push it to talk and release to listen.   And I did just that.  The 911 operator asked me some questions and said troopers were en-route.  I wanted to ask questions, I wanted the backstory, and wanted closure, but I knew better.  They were working on closure, the troopers were and still are.  I was left empty-handed after passing the buck with the press of that red button, but I couldn’t quit thinking maybe I should have turned around. 
        When I met the troopers a few minutes later, roaring north from the Y all lights and sirens, I imagined that shadow in grey disappearing into the trees choosing one more night of freedom, cold and scary as it might be there in the mountain winter forest alone. 
       Because I travel for work, I’ve spent many late nights on this empty winter highway in every kind of weather, and the man in grey is not my first encounter.  There was lynx at two a.m. near Devil’s Pass trailhead.  He was crossing the highway and paused at the edge of the right-away and turned back to hold a stare-down with me in the minus-ten, white glare of moonlight on snow.  The cat was so lean and ghostlike that its shadow looked more real than the cat itself.  I remember a anther night along Snow River when a bull moose stood the same way on the shoulder looking into my truck cab like he might recognize the driver from some other highway.   Ptarmigan, rabbits, and porcupine, -- one so big I turned around to make sure it wasn’t a black bear -- all out on the road at night.  Most nights though, the road is desolate of life and of mystery, and it’s just a long drive home.  But this night I am the passerby on the road in a film noir, a pair of headlights no more distinct than the mileposts. 
       Home at last in my house on the lake, I read the news on the laptop with a whiskey in my hand, finally reading the back story and watching the video by another pair of headlights on that highway.  Now I wait for for closure, waiting for the troopers to call and say, “good job! Thanks to you we got him.”   But no call came, and I feel bit sorry for those people on the highway tonight while I sleep, the ones in uniforms and squad cars, and the one alone in the cold mountain woods.