Showing posts from November, 2005

Sunrise, sunset

9:45 a.m. I've been working for nearly three hours now, long enough that the room goes dark when I move my eyes away from the computer screen. My coworker walks in just as I stuff another handful of Fruit Loops in my mouth. "How long have you been here?" he asks. My shoulders go up in a halfhearted shrug. I answer with some loud crunching. "Well, you should go outside." I shake my head. "Why?" More crunching. He points to the digital camera sitting on my desk. "The sunrise is killer today."

4:35 p.m. I forgot my headlight again. I'm pedaling toward home, but at the last minute decide to turn left instead of right. Twilight's disappearing fast, but I want to get a good sprint in before the ride's over. The temperature's single digits ... again. I feel like I'm used to it, but the renewed wind tears into my eyes - the only body part exposed to it. I can barely see, but I'm not deterred because I know this road by heart b…

Chasing sunset

So studs rule. I blew out of work today just in time to catch the last hour of depleted daylight - the 3:45 p.m. sunset and subsequent hour of twilight. Most of the ridge roads are packed snow and ice - a little precarious on treads, but as solid as pavement with studs. I climbed up a steep hill, one that's gravel in the summer and loose enough that you really have to throw all your weight on the back tire. Today I just cruised up it, standing, as sunset's shadow inched over the crest. I thought I could beat those last orange rays to the top, but the packed road quickly gave way to a soft snowmobile trail. I upped the RPMs but just kept grinding into the powder and falling over. I'm learning that when you're an ice biker, powder is bad. Especially when there's two feet of it, and a handful of snowmobiles do not a packed trail make.

Oops ... I forgot that I'm in Alaska now and need to call them "snowmachines." But I'm rebelling and keeping my nativ…

Becoming frozen

A four-day weekend means putting in a long, long, long day on Monday. I had to dig into the archives today for an illustrative photo - this is the Kasilof River, shortly after the first deep freeze. There were nearly two more hours between sunrise and sunset when this picture was taken - we're down to just over six now. Life does slow considerably in the winter, and the dark and cold seems to spark a subculture of people affected by SAD, or "Snow Activity Disorder." In Idaho, almost no one I knew ever even heard of ice biking - the only one who had said, "well, that's one way to ruin your tires."

My group of friends in the spud state went skiing occasionally; the hardcore among them tried ice climbing once or twice, but most curled up in the winter and watched "Survivor." Even with the Tetons nearby, I never found anyone in eastern Idaho who felt any urge to break a winter trail in knee-deep powder in the dark, ride a bicycle on a snowmobile path …

Susitna dreams

Scenic drive back down the Peninsula today. A blanket of frost gave the trees a skeletal look and new snow oozed down evergreen branches like frosting; the air was as clear as a cold day and the sunrise sent steams of pink light down the whitewashed mountains. A rather rough freeze has transformed the Turnagain Arm into a boulderfield of ice. I looked out at the tortured seascape and instantly thought of Death Valley, a beautiful, rocky desolation born of heat, not ice.

We stopped at a bike shop in Anchorage and bought studded tires for our mountain bikes. And it looks like we'll have snowcover to practice on for a long time now. We returned home to nearly two feet of new powder on everything, as demonstrated by this photo - I call it "Geo Prison." We spent a better part of the clear and cold evening stamping through thigh-deep snow to find the snowshoe trail we've been working on.

Anyway, Geoff and I were so giddy at the prospect of extending the cycling season indefi…

-1 at noon

Cold day today. Geoff couldn't get his car started this morning because ice had clogged up the ignition. By the time we successful thawed it and rolled away, the outside thermometer read -1, with a bright sun rolling over the southern mountains. It was just after 12 p.m.

We have been doing a lot of cross-country skiing this weekend. Today was a short trip around the groomers near town. I ran behind Geoff and Craig on snowshoes, breathing so hard that my eyelashes froze - hence the self portrait above.

Yesterday we drove up to Hatcher Pass to ski along the "Little Su" River. The trail rose ever so slightly, and we didn't even really notice we were climbing much until we looked back to a lateral view of snow wafting off the mountains. The trip went long, and one guy we were with eventually dropped out. But the ski down was exhilarating, with enough gravity-forced sliding to finally stop Geoff from saying "Hey, Jill, I think you forgot that you're skiing again.&q…

Just eat it

Oh why, oh why is it so psychologically impossible to turn down that second helping of homemade mac 'n' cheese or politely decline a slice of pumpkin pie the size of a baby's head? Why must we close businesses and cook enough potato dishes to supply a Mormon funeral, only to end up slouched in our chairs in a bloated stupor, staring in sheer wonder at the ruin that replaced the kitchen? I know this holiday is supposed to leave us with warm feelings of familiarity and well-being, but the excess is as much as tradition of this holiday as anything. I'm as wrapped up in it as anyone ... I, too, feel all the more thankful for my existence with a 20-pound turkey in the oven and more pies than people at the table. But the aftermath is absolute, it leaves that final impression, and it always leaves me feeling more overstuffed than overjoyed. I guess I'm just experiencing some post-Thanksgiving remorse, maybe a little hint of tryptophan hangover.

We're up in Palmer righ…

Out in the weather

I've been having reoccuring dreams about going to Disneyland in a snowstorm. The dream is very lucid and blue-tinted, and kind of absurd because I always end up on Splash Mountain. Anyway, it inspired me to visit the beach today, only the second time since I moved here that I've actually been within touching distance of the water.

An isolated snowstorm whipped overhead as the sun set in streaks of magenta behind rolling clouds on the horizon. The air was a frosty 19 degrees, with the wind chill it felt at least 10 degrees colder. I had only my work cloths to wear, though I have to admit I dress rather substantially indoors to survive my Alaskan boss's perpetual miserly-ness with the heat. I walked along the tideline, scanning the sand for shells in an effort I haven't made since those family vacations to southern California. I only picked up two ... the effort of removing my hands from my down vest was saved only for the most promising. I rotated them in my fingers unt…

City dweller

One thing I'm still adjusting to in Alaska is wildlife - or, more specifically, the wildlife that adapts to urban life. Living stateside, people usually never think twice about the animals that occupy their space. Many even regard them with outright disgust. I used to watch my hopelessly awkward cat stalk squirrels almost as large as she was and laugh. Or I'd smile in passing as a humming bird buzzed by. Moments like that felt basic, domestic - they never changed the outcome of my day. But here, all you need to do is glance outside, and often you'll see something that has the ability to trample or maul you to death, or that has national notriety second only to the Flag ... "oh, another moose is walking down the road." "A bear stepped on my car!" "Hmmm ... looks like one of those $#&! bald eagles landed on the power box again." Alaskans yawn. I'm still caught off guard.

I didn't want this to become the "Gee Whiz" journal of…


In many ways, winter is the ideal season for hiking in Alaska. Set out in the summer, and you're stuck on the trails - unless you want to try your hand at land swimming in a sea of shrubs and mosquitoes. But in the winter, with the landscape stripped of all but its most basic elements and covered in an indiscriminate layer of snow and ice, overland travel is a breeze. You don't even have to have a good sense of direction ... if you get lost, just follow your own trail back. Geoff and I set out today from Ohlsen Mountain and walked toward the Anchor River for a couple hours, traversing the open fields, forests and streams with relative ease - that is, it was as easy as something can be when you're stamping down fresh tracks in calf-high powder. It was fun to think that summer exploration of this area would require rubber boots, a machete, 100-percent DEET, strong protection against scratches, a partner for crossing large streams and more than a passing awareness of bears. I…

Powerline run

The snow returned today. Geoff and I headed behind the house to get a few runs on our snowboards. We found a powerline run that was short but sweet; however, that did not change the fact that beneath five inches of fresh power was a rain-drenched layer of glare ice. On the way home a couple of kids called out to us from the hill. When we looked up, we saw them beckoning us toward a jump they were building, with the crest approaching the tops of their heads and an instant drop-off into a steep gully. It looked like a blast and would have been tempting if not for the whole certain death aspect. And my family thinks I'm not going to live through the winter.

This evening I took a backstage tour of the tallest building in Homer ... the Mariner Theatre at the high school. The production manager of our hometown Nutcracker ballet led me up the twisting staircase to the "deck," a full seven stories above the stage. Already a bit dizzy and disoriented from climbing those stairs, I …


Geoff and I went to a global warming presentation today. There was no earth-shattering information. Well, not in the metaphorical sense, anyway. Just the simple facts ... Alaska’s melting. The ranger from Kenai Fjords National Park didn’t want to get political at all. He just wanted to show us cool overlapped photos of glaciers that were there ... and then gone. While the guy’s speech tended to veer toward the glossy confusion of fifth-grade science, the graphics were intriguing: one hundred-foot walls of ice that just vanished into lush, green valleys. A continent’s worth of polar ice, melted into the sea. Thunderstorms and tornadoes in interior Alaska. The most interesting part was the time-lapse. Thirty years. That’s it. I’m starting the understand a tourism campaign that parodies Alaska’s license plate pitch: See Alaska, B4ITMELTS.

Maybe the presentation was more effective because it’s been raining continuously for two days. That’s not an anomaly in coastal Alaska in November, I’m …

'til November

It's mid-November, and the weather reflects it. A steady drizzle of rain hits the snow like acid, burrowing into the pockmarks and emerging in gray streams of slush on the city streets. Evening's coming and everything's gray, monotone, shadowless, as you're driving toward the Spit with a camera that only has one shot left on it. You're heading due south on the narrow strip of land, so you scarcely notice the sun slipping below the cloudline into the thin sliver of clear sky to the west. You don't have time to notice because the change is instantaneous anyway - as sudden as a camera flash, the distant shoreline erupts in a magnetic shade of turquoise you never even imagined existed in nature. It startles you so much that you pull over that second, like one of those finger-waving tourists that just spotted a the hindside of a bear, and you get out of your car, and take that one picture. Then, when you look at the image reflected on the tiny camera screen, washed …


Today I interviewed a local writer, a longtime resident that these Alaska-types refer to as "old-timers" or "sourdoughs" though no self-respecting Alaskan outside the Chamber of Commerce uses that "s" word. He's just the type that grew up on a homestead, remembers the '64 earthquake ... a longtime resident. They're a minority in Alaska.

As often happens during a phone interview, he turned the tables on me toward the end.
"You new here?" he asked as I was trying to wrap things up.
"Yeah. I just moved here two months ago, from Idaho." (with the apologetic tone I tend to develop when I tell people just how new I am.)
"You like it here?"
"Sure. It's a beautiful place."
"It is. So why'd ya move here?"
"To Homer?"
"To Alaska."
(At this point it's getting close to lunch, and the conversation has rambled on for nearly a half hour.) "I don't know. To live in Alaska."


So I know this is a diversion from my regular subject matter, but I saw this rather unflattering picture pop up on Geoff's rotating screen saver today and instantly thought "yikes." I didn't even recognize it as myself at first, but after a few minutes I just had to dig through the archives and look. Sure enough, I came across a photo taken in June 2004 at a friend's wedding, and sure enough, it's me. Blah. I guess I really don't have a very observant self image, but I think now I finally understand why I weigh nearly 30 pounds less than I did at the height of my post bike-trip weight binge. I used to think that the numbers on the scale were a big joke and I hadn't actually changed much at all. Hope I have. Hope I actually have. Anyway, the reason I post it on the WWW is sort of akin to putting a butt-crack picture on the refridgerator. It's an effective way of saying to myself, "44 oz. Pepsi = BAD! Step away! Step away!"

Learning to ski

So I took the new cross country skis out for a little slide today. It was my second time ever - the first being at least four years ago. It was an experience that left both my ego and knees so bruised that I put the memory out of my mind to the point of repression. But I remembered today as I snapped into my brand new bindings and started to slide forward ... wait ... I’ve been here before. It was the kind of thing that comes flooding back in a moment of silent dread ... the borrowed boots that were too small, the pair of battered skis waxed too much and a small misstep that sent me careening into a creek.

But it’s funny how much you can learn about something in the space of four years, even when you haven’t revisited it even once. Since that humbling first experience, I learned to downhill ski, took up bicycling for the first time since I was a child, learned to ride with 60 pounds of weight dangling from the frame, began riding in mud and gravel and even snow. My balance has improved…

Too warm for biking?

Temperatures here have started to inch just above freezing again - which means slush everywhere. Yesterday I finally convinced Geoff to go winter biking with me, but my "it will be great now that it’s warm" argument backfired. As we dropped off the ridge, we were bombarded with black goo, mostly melted snow mixed with dirt and gravel fragments. Pretty soon I was only able to keep one eye open, then only half open, and my steering wobbled as I furiously wiped mud from the small part of my face still exposed to the elements. When we reached town I was laughing out loud and Geoff was looking at me through his mud-caked bike mask, obviously annoyed. I know what you’re thinking - fenders, Jill, fenders! But acquiring gear doesn’t happen overnight, especially when you live in a town that doesn’t even stock underwear. I still need to buy studded bike tires and biking booties and gloves (all I own now is a pair of mittens.) And I need a tail light and long johns and weatherproof pan…

Everywhere you want to be

Visa Quest's kind of a bluegrass festival started by three guys who used to live in Fairbanks and never lived in Homer; it's 500 people and makeshift bands packed into a tiny hotel lounge and overflowing into the parking lot, foyer and even rooms; it's a congregation of old-timey musicians from Alaska and California and Pennsylvania and West Virgina who meet in Girdwood for no discernable reason and take a beer-driven bus trip all the way to Homer in November just because someone, somewhere, a decade ago or more, thought it sounded like a good idea. In short, Visa Quest is a Homer tradition.As dancers herded the non-dancers into a neck-to-neck ring at the back of the room, I executed feeble attempts to get back to the stage so I could take photographs for the newspaper. People flailed everywhere and it was enough to make me nostalgic for the sweaty punk show mosh pits I used to swim laps in as a teenager. I must have looked pretty official with a giant Nikon around m…

Breaking trail

Today Geoff and I went on a backyard expedition of the rolling woods behind our house. And when I say backyard expedition, I mean we literally strapped on some snowshoes, tramped through our backyard and spent three hours traversing the moose tracks and ravines that weave through a veritable wilderness. Geoff has dreams of forming our own personal network of trails where we can cross-country ski, snowboard and hike all winter long; but, man, breaking trail is tough work. While bounding down a steep hillside toward Bridge Creek, I started sliding out of control. I instinctively turned my toes together right before I hit a large root, which sent me flying forward - knees, hands and even face into the snow. The only worse for wear I sustained was a slightly twisted ankle; and only later did I discover that the plastic protectors were still covering my back crampons (I recently bought these snowshoes on eBay and this was their virgin trek). So it was my fault, after all.

While I’m on the s…

Beautiful day for bikin'

"Wake up. It's a beautiful day for biking." During my cross-country bike trip this phrase became a euphonism for "Wake up. It's 35 degrees outside, we're in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio, and we have 50 miles of headwind to burn through before we reach the other side of Nowhere, Ohio, so get your lazy butt out of the tent."

However, today reminded me that this phrase can still be said without sarcasm; even in Alaska, in November. I went for a two-hour ride along the ridge above town. There were a couple new inches of powder on the road and I had to earn every pedal stroke - but it's no worse than thick mud. The new snow clung to needles and bare branches, giving the landscape a rich contrast that comes when color is removed. Near the reservoir I met a pack of cross-country skiers on the road. We nodded in appreciation of each other and moved on, crushing through grains of snow as they sparkled in the afternoon sun.

Homer in Homer

This is a painting by local artistLeslie Klaar, who I interviewed today. She had a contagious enthusiasm that you don’t find much, even in artists. We talked for more than an hour about her life story, and I have to whittle it down to a 700-word profile. Sigh. But she showed me this painting that sparked a little de-ja-vu tingle when I first saw it. My camera flash pretty much washed it out, but it’s a painting of the Sterling Highway right before it drops into town. You can see the Spit snaking out into Kachemak Bay in the background. I liked it because this is exactly what I saw when I first turned this corner on Sept. 11. It was like looking at a reflection of my own memory … an abstract illustration of what I was feeling at the time. I don’t know. It’s one of those weird art things you can’t explain.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people since I came to town, and Leslie was more polite than most when I introduced myself … a hearty handshake and nothing more said about my name. Most ofte…

I like ... art

This is a picture I took on Saturday at Dramaslam. It was a strange event to say the least – 35 locals got together Friday night and wrote, rehearsed and performed six short plays in the space of 24 hours. Geoff and I arrived at the Beluga Lake Lodge expecting a garbled mess of bad writing and flubbed lines performed for an audience of maybe three. What we found was a beyond-capacity crowd of at least 200, and six plays that were - well – real plays. Witty, well acted plays complete with props, lighting and coherent direction. I was beyond surprised, but I guess my expectations still reside in Idaho Falls, where the only well-publicized art event in the 10 months I lived there was a craft fair. If there’s one thing that unites Homerites, it’s that they love their art … and their halibut.

I wrote a review of sorts about Dramaslam – here’s the link to that and other ART-icles of mine. I feel the need to apologize for the 1994-era layout of the Tribune arts page and the fact that it doesn…

10,000-year increments

The best thing about a late sunrise is being awake to see it. Of course, it's coming late enough now that I'm often at work before any hint of dawn graces the horizon. I find myself going in to the office earlier and earlier, in hopes of catching the last rays of daylight before the sunset. No matter how sunny it is, though, it's hard to coax myself outside when the temperatures hover around 10 degrees. And I think, "someday, someday I'll be a real Alaskan and I will persevere no matter what." I said this phrase to myself when I ran outside at 6:30 a.m. today to start my car. I like to tell myself that when the winter gets to the point where my 1996 Geo Prism (2WD and 140,000 miles) is stopped dead by deep snow or cold, I'll just hop on my mountain bike and ride the five steep downhill miles to work. But today, as I pried the wipers from Geo's windshield and then tried to curl my nearly frozen fingers around the steering wheel, I wondered if I actuall…

Homer bound

This is Giant Iron Pterodactyl Man; I think of him as GITMo. He guards the trailhead to Homestead, an amazingly scenic cross-country trail system that begins just a half-mile from my house. I walked by this thing at least five times before I first noticed it. Is that a testament to GITMo’s flawless integration into his environment, or a telling symptom of too much time in Homer? I suspect it might be the latter. Alaska attracts some strange people; strange people build strange things. It doesn’t take long before the topless mermaid statues and 10-foot burning baskets blend in like Starbucks on a Seattle boulevard.

I’ve been thinking lately about how different this place is from the place I grew up. It’s not just GITMo and the mermaid. It’s not just the art patrons showing up at a $75-a- ticket gala in evening gowns and rubber boots, or the environmental art that appears on a nearly daily basis somewhere along the Spit. It’s not what Homer is ... but what it refuses to be.

I come from th…


My friend Monika in Ann Arbor, Mich., sent me this picture today. She took this photo of me and Geoff in late August in the Salt River Range of western Wyoming. Several of us had converged from our various corners of the country (me, Idaho; Geoff, Alaska; Monika, New York; and Chris, Utah) in this remote national forest along the Grays River to camp, hike and reminise about life before dispersal.

I enjoyed seeing the photo because I figure it was taken about two days before I found out I had a job offer in Homer, Alaska. At the time I was still heavily conflicted about the prospect of moving to Alaska. It was a vague plan Geoff and I had for a while. But after he left in the early summer I grew more comfortable with my life in Idaho, and more leary of the unknown north. Employment was scarce, distances extreme and, if I suddenly found myself single, as my ex-boss in Idaho put it, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

After the trip ended, Monika made her move from New Yo…

Latitude 59

This is my requisite “Northern Exposure” shot - moose in the front yard. I took it this morning on my two-mile (OK, quarter-mile) hike to get the mail. Now all I need is a bear chomping on some salmon, a bright green streak of aurora borealis and someone in a bikini standing next to a snowman - and I’ll have completed the circle of Alaska cliches.

Speaking of cliches, being a “Cheechako” (that’s these Alaska-types’ term for people like me), I’ve spent a fair amount of time explaining some of the more popular Alaska cliches to the people “Outside” (that’s these Alaska-types’ term for all y’all.) And because some (you know who you are, Grandpa) keep bringing up the same myths every time I speak to them, I thought I’d try to debunk a few right now.

1. It’s not dark 24 hours a day here. Not on Dec. 21, not even in Fairbanks. Because Alaska is a very large place stretched across a very round part of the earth (well - aren’t they all), there’s a lot of latitude to cover. Yes, parts of Alaska …

November recreation

I'm just thawing my face after a brisk (to say the least) 25-mile bike ride. Every time I go riding I think "this is the last one of the season." On Tuesday I skidded out on a patch of black ice and hit the pavement for crying out loud. Today I rode down the ridge, into town and out to the end of the spit through a fierce west wind. I was getting sprayed by surf from the other side of the road. When I got home my toes were numb and my outdoor thermometer read 12.8 degrees. I think this may be my last ride of the season.

Everyone in town says it's unseasonably cold. The pictures I posted today are from our trip to Crescent Lake last weekend. Driving there was downright brutal. We stopped at a gas station shortly after sunrise (about 9:30 a.m., as this was still one day before the clocks set back) to get some coffee. The thermometer on the door registered vaguely in the single digits and every branch,
every blade of grass along the highway was coated in thick frost. I wa…

Alaska, again

So this is my new online journal about moving to Homer, Alaska — a place where it snows in October, where moose traipse through my backyard, and where everyone can spell my last name but if you can’t spell “Xtratuf,” well, so help you God.

This is kind of the obligatory first entry where I have to explain to people who I’ve really lost touch with that I live in Alaska. I lived for a while in Idaho Falls, Idaho – home of potatoes and the self-proclaimed “northern” Mormons, and life was good. But after a brutal hot summer and several months of distant coercion by Geoff, I somehow was talked into moving to Alaska, home of grizzly bears and the self-proclaimed “northern” Libertarians. And – life’s still good. I guess it’s possible to be happy anywhere – just as long as those studded mountain bike tires and stack of DVDs arrive soon.

So, now a little about what we’ve been doing for the past couple of months. We arrived in town Sept. 11, and by the next day found a cabin loft on the ridge abo…