Sunday, December 11, 2005

Elevation

Date: Dec. 11
Today's mileage: 25.1
December mileage: 157.3
Top speed: 28 mph
Slowest speed: 2.5 mph (didn't know it was possible to ride that slow until today.)
Temperature upon departure: 31

Great ride today, sponsored by my good friend in Salt Lake City, Chris. Chris spent three months living out of a van with me, Geoff and our friend, Jen, towing four mountain bikes across the length of Alaska. We traveled from Prudhoe Bay to Juneau, and pretty much everywhere inbetween. We all developed an Alaska lust that none of us has been able to kick. I'm happy to see Chris is still with us in spirit, nudging us along as we navigate these northern climes.

A freezing rain hit overnight that iced all the roads. I headed out for what I intended to be a short ride. As I headed upward, the ice slicks turned to snow cover, and I began to think about riding to the highest elevation in town - the top of Ohlson Mountain, 1,513 feet. I thought the ride would give me great practice for conditions I am likely to encounter on the Iditarod - snow that had softened, been driven on with snowmobiles, and frozen over in strange shapes. Also, I was feeling some lingering rebelliousness stemming from an e-mail I received this morning (my first angry e-mail! I'm so proud.)

The writer took me to task for my statement yesterday that McNeil Canyon Elementary, at 1,350 feet, is the highest school in Alaska. While I can't vouch for that claim, which is listed on the school's official Web site, I did have some objections to his final statement: "I've been to Homer. It's as flat as a baby's bottom there. You people have no concept of high."

First of all, the simile is all messed up. Baby's bottoms aren't flat. They're round. A more proper simile would have been "the Platte River Valley," or, if he was holding out for a cliche, "a pancake."

Secondly, I'm sure the "Homer" he's been to is in fact the Homer Spit, a thin strip of sand where Homer funnels most of its tourists. I have nothing against the Spit - I rather enjoy it there (see yesterday's picture.) But municipal Homer ranges in elevation from sea level (the Spit) to 1,500 feet (Ohlson Mountain). I wouldn't exactly call that flat.

Thirdly, while I don't in any way claim to be a world-class mountaineer, I have been to the top of Mount Whitney, 14,496 feet. I think I have a pretty good grasp on high.

I'm guessing the anonymous writer probably lives in Anchorage or some other area in Alaska that sits in the bottom of a basin surrounded by huge mountains. Indeed, Alaska has the highest mountain in North America, multiple mountain ranges that stretch across the state and volcanoes that reach more than 10,000 feet from base to tip. However, the sheer extremes of climate created when high elevation is combined with northern latitudes make it impossible for most people to live more than a couple thousand feet above sea level. Alaskans are lowlanders in a mountainous state - I think that's one fact many residents never really wrap their heads around.

That said, I had a really fun ride to the top of Ohlson Mountain. Maneuvering over thick chunks of ice had the technical feel of riding the rocky trails of the northern Uintas. Coasting down those iced-over gravel roads gave me more confidence in my studs. Then, about five miles from home, I literally watched winter return to town as a thick fog enveloped the Bay. (The photos posted here have a time elapse of about three minutes). Within two minutes of the last photo, an icy rain began pelting down. By the time Geoff came to rescue me (I had been gone nearly three hours after telling him I was going out for a 45-minute ride), it was snowing hard. Now there's about two inches accumulation. Yes, winter is back.