Monday, October 30, 2006

While I was sleeping

Michael Penn, a photographer at the Juneau Empire, took this photo last night at about 12:30 a.m. At that time, I was just about to doze off in an effort to go to bed at a decent hour so I could get up early and take this picture:

Not to disparage the Blackerby Ridge or its fresh coat of velvety snow, but I'm feeling a little cheated. The northern lights only come to Juneau on a clear night once every 487.3 years or so, and I missed them. Missed them so I could wake up marginally early, hike up the geological Stairmaster known as Blackerby Ridge, stair-step my way down, go to work and wait for the end of Daylight Savings Time to kick the sunset up to 4:15 p.m.

I did have a good morning, though, all said and done. The upper portions of Blackerby Ridge are covered in nearly a foot of new snow, deep and heavy atop ice-caked mud and partially frozen streams. I dressed well for the sub-freezing temps but not for the slippery conditions. I spent the last half of the morning wet from the knees and elbows down.

The biking season here is definitely in transition. Geoff and I headed out yesterday morning and didn't make it more than a half mile from the house before we both crashed down on a steep stretch of black ice. It must have been a funny sight to see. I hit the downhill slope and my front wheel slipped almost immediately. I dipped into what I feel was an unusually graceful fall - hanging at a 45-degree angle for several fractions of a second, I tucked slowly into the skid, landing square on my left hip, where I and my bike continued to slide down the road for about 20 feet. Geoff tried to swerve around me and down he went as well, also taking a fairly minor fall - although from his road rash I can tell he wasn't as lucky to land on top of the ice. We decided to turn around right there. I walked the whole way home to put off dealing with major chain suck. I really am going to put my studded tires on my mountain bike now ('tis time). I'm also going to start building up my snow bike.

The beginnings of it came in the mail earlier this week. Right now it's nothing more than a Raleigh frame and 2"-wide snowcat rims. (I love these things. The rim tape doesn't even cover half of the rim's surface.) I have to start buying parts. I still have some decisions to make. Like V-brakes versus disc brakes. How to set up the drive train. I've wrestled with everything from single speed to single-ring crank to triple ring. I think I may just go with the triple ring. Although I like the simplicity of a single speed, I'm more drawn to the versatility of a 27-speed. Weight is truly not an issue with this bike. And although it's nice to have less moving parts that may seize up in the cold, I really believe I'll need the low gearing for new snow or bogged-down slushy conditions. After all, my goal in building up this bike as opposed to just riding Sugar all winter long is to do less walking.

Anyway, if any out there has experience with snow or wide-rimmed bicycles (or just bicycle building in general) and has some good advice for me, don't hesitate to tell me why I'm an idiot. Does anyone know if there's such a thing as gear grease formulated for lower temperatures? Anyone have any bicycle parts lying around that they're looking to get rid of? Your comments are always appreciated.
Saturday, October 28, 2006

mmm ... slippy

Date: Oct. 27
Total mileage: 41.3
October mileage: 373.6
Temperature upon departure: 38

That's it. Time to break out the studs.

Well, it's not quite that time of year yet. But it is approaching that time of year when nightly freeze-ups and a snowline down to 1,000 feet means it's not a great season to take the roadie up to a ski resort. But, like I said, snowline has crept down to 1,000 feet, and I love snow. I wanted to take some crunchy steps through the frosted grass and wrap my fingers around an dripping early-season snowball. So when I woke up to a blindingly clear morning, it seemed a no-brainer to ride up to EagleCrest. And I did get my feet on some snow. I also had the opportunity to do plenty of walking down the ice sheet that had once been a canyon road. 'Tis the season to keep roadie at sea level.

When we finally did hit the thaw during the descent, I amped up to 30 mph and received my annual lesson in the degrees of windchill. I've never learned the math, but I do know that my odometer screen begins to black out when the temperature drops into single digits. My odometer screen blacked out. I nearly did too, by the time I reached sea level with frozen tears still clinging to my face. 'Tis the season to dress in many layers. Why must I relearn this every year?

In all honesty, I am excited about this semblance of a cold snap. Last winter, I lived in a marginally more temperate climate, where the temperature actually varied by more than 5 degrees from week to week. This winter, I essentially live in the Pacific Northwest - Seattle, if you will, but take away 20 or so degrees Fahrenheit. Like Seattle, it doesn't snow all that much here. At least, it doesn't snow much on the sea-level population center. However, a healthy annual precipitation means that once you hit a certain elevation - terrain located almost solely on steep, foreboding mountainsides - it snows lots and lots and lots (and lots). So winter activity, I hear, is mainly a choice between freezing rain and avalanches.

I know. I have it soooooo tough. But I do think it's a unique situation that poses a lot of outdoor recreation challenges many people never think about. Challenges that I have yet to learn about. But I did get an important first lesson today - wet snow, overnight freeze, skinny tires and gravity are never a good combination. Now where did I stash those studs?
Friday, October 27, 2006

Herbert Glacier Trail

Date: Oct. 26
Total mileage: 13.2
October mileage: 332.3
Temperature upon departure: 39

Here is one trail that I would just love to give myself most of a day sometime to ride repeatedly, again and again, five or 10 times. Geoff thinks I'm crazy in this regard - why ride the same trail even twice, let alone over and over in the same day? (and it's not even a 24-hour race) But the Herbert Glacier Trail is one of those rare trails that I could lose myself entirely in. It's flat and fast, protected from the bog by a fine layer of gravel and sand. But upon this narrow strip of civilization I can move freely through the dense forest, skimming virtual walls of sky-blocking trees at 10, 15 - even 20 mph, if I felt so motivated. The flow becomes so natural that it's easy to forget I'm destination-bound, until, after about 4.5 miles, I arrive at a stunning dead end.

The trail may be on the easy side - but it's not mindless. There's a few quick rock jumps, some mud holes, some stream crossings, some tight edges. Geoff mulled this tight spot for about five minutes before deciding that the margin of error was too small, and the consequences of error too high.

I had decided long before that I wasn't about to risk a five-foot dive into a fast-flowing glacial river while air temperatures struggled to hit 40 degrees (and the water was most definitely a bit colder.) But the time spent off the bike was short, and was quickly reimbursed by four miles of flight, tearing through deep, winding canyons of trees as the Herbert River gurgled alongside.

As we pounded out the last mile, the sky broke open into a fierce hailstorm. Chunks of ice trickled down my collar, hit my nose, landed in my eyelids. I held my eyes wide open against the sharp edges, waiting for the hailstones to melt rather than brush them away. I didn't want to take my hands off the handlebars and risk a disruption. I was moving, flowing, a river.

We tried another nearby trail - made, mostly, of wood planks and muddy roots - and both took a beating. I went down hard on a wet wooden bridge and developed a throbbing goose-egg the size of a softball on my left arm. Geoff's water resistant coat soaked through and he was fastly approaching hypothermia. But I still felt tempted to do another run up to Herbert Glacier. I didn't tell Geoff that.

Maybe someday I will go back and do it again. And again and again. To see what it's like. To feel the hard effort of a good endurance ride. To feel the soft rain filtered through thousands of evergreen branches. To feel the smooth flow of the forest in silence.

To feel like a river.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Sugar in pieces

All this time I've been desk surfing at work - busy, busy election season, you know - Geoff's been overhauling bikes like it's his job. He spent the past two on my mountain bike. Since yesterday he removed just about every moving part, greased it up, installed a new chainring and chain (my last one was stretched two inches from its original length), massively degreased the drivetrain, re-adjusted both the derailleurs and pumped up the rear shock. I don't even knowing what else he did to it when I wasn't looking. I, um, cleaned the cassette. Yeah, I've been working pretty hard.

I haven't had a chance to ride it yet, but I feel confident in making the statement that this is pretty much the best Gary Fisher women's specific Sugar 3+ mountain bike of unspecified year ... ever. I think the green sticker on the handlebars is what really puts it on top. That sticker has survived more rain and mud and abuse than even the headset could handle. You know that's quality craftmanship, right there. Thanks, Carlos :-).

As this all came down, and as my mountain bike became temporarily unrideable, I had a little time to reflect on how emotionally attached I can become to certain inanimate objects. It's interesting, because I'm not exactly one of those people who goes nuts about "stuff." I make a terrible consumer. I never buy anything new. I wear all my outdoor gear into the ground and then grind it further into the dirt just for good measure. Then, when it finally comes time to toss it away, I never give it a second thought.

But every once in a while, something clicks. I think about a happy memory or a harrowing adventure, and I remember the object and the way it carried me though. It's rare, but therein lies the beginning of an attachment that runs deep, a vulnerable yet sincere emotion so close to human that when I say I "love" my Sugar, I'll almost mean it. I actually feel this way about my car. People give me a lot of crap for this - it's a 1996 Geo Prism, 145,000 miles, lucky if it's still worth more than $1,000. But I've had it for six years. It's taken me across dozens of states and most of the Canadian provinces. It's been driven over boulders and 100-mile-long dirt roads. It's been bashed into a parked car and pummelled by a downed sycamore tree. I'm convinced that when it does cease to run, I'll cease to own a car. But not until then.

Now, I look at Sugar in his dozens of pieces, and I think that I'll probably just continue to fix him up, add new parts, do what I can to keep him on the trail until the frame disintegrates (or I do.) I know that's not what's actually going to happen. Mountain bike relationships aren't meant to last forever. But it's romantic to pretend it could.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

My weather prediction

Date: Oct. 21 and 22
Total mileage: 49.4
October mileage: 319.1
Temperature upon departure: 43

I should be a weather guesser. Predicting the weather in Juneau would be my easiest job since I worked as a hamburger bun warmer at Wendy's. Why, just now, I pounded out a 195-day forecast that should get us through May 6, 2007. I'm betting on 75-percent accuracy, which is a better average than the NOAA. Our current weather guessers wouldn't dare put out such a report - they probably can't deal with the bleakness of reality. But, I gotta tell you, that one day of partial sun is worth living for.

I installed fenders on my road bike about a week ago, and I was happy to discover that they do in fact dispel road grit with about 95-percent accuracy. It's also nice to have water continuously splashing on me from only one direction - the sky. Someday they'll invent fenders to combat that pesky precipitation problem. Until then, I'll just have to rely on a marginal rainsuit and a helpfully high tolerance for wet feet.

It would be interesting to hold a vote for the absolute worst cycling weather. Although I enjoyed today's ride, I'd have to nominate 35-40 degrees and raining. I've experienced a range of conditions ... -11 degrees and windy, 18 degrees in a blizzard, 107 degrees with heat waves wafting off the pavement. On second thought, -11 degrees and windy is probably worse. But 40 degrees and raining would at least be a close second. There's just about nothing you can do to stay warm, except ride hard - and even the slightest cooldown will make you uncomfortable for miles. It's a challenge. It really is.

But that could just be me, watching my wet wool socks and leggings drip gray water all over the carpet and feeling compelled to gripe about it. What's the worst weather you've ever ridden in?
Sunday, October 22, 2006

The precedent

I read in a recent issue of Backpacker (yes, while goose-stepping on an elliptical trainer) an article exploring the argument that adventure is dead. Obese accountants can eat filet mignon while rafting through the Grand Canyon. Weekend warriors with low-grade GPS units can trek the furthest reaches of the Brooks Range. The summit of Mount Everest can be bought. This article made a lot of points, but the basic idea I came away with was that the age of information has rendered the death of discovery.

It didn't leave me with any lasting disappointment. My opinion about exploration has always been that if I've never been there, it's new to me. I'll probably never vie to be the first person atop random peak #37 in the Alaska Range or to ride my bicycle across the frozen Bering Sea (not that I wouldn't love to ride from here to Russia.) But as long as I can wrap my adventure around dodging porcupines on a leaf-littered trail or carving tracks through thick, crunchy snow, I stay satisfied.

This human need to explore one's own surroundings is trumped by the even more primal need to do so before anyone else beats us to it. But we have satellite technology that can peer into every window on earth. Scrutinizing the detailed topography of Sibera is a simple matter of having $9.95 and an active eBay account. We know this, and so we're inclined to settle into life, taking comfort in the fact that everything's been mapped out for us. We sometimes feel a tinge of pity for people who whittle their time and savings away to become the first 37-year-old grocery store clerk with a bum knee to paraglide across XY glacier.

"That's, like, so been done."

I guess this is how we compensate for doing what's been done - we claw our way to the fringes, the furthest extremes, the only places left on earth where we feel like we can distinguish ourselves. In Alaska, I always hear about stomach-dropping new adventures, like the cyclists who ride the frozen Iditarod trail for 1,000 unbroken miles. But it never takes long to discover stories like those of Ed Jesson, a Dawson City caribou hunter who rode his bicycle over 1,000 miles over the frozen Yukon River to Nome. After spending one night at 48 below, Ed wrote in his diary:

"The oil in the bearings was frozen. I could scarcely ride it and my nose was freezing and I had to hold the handlebars with both hands, not being able to ride yet with one hand and rub my nose with the other."

He sounds so edgy yet vulnerable, so tied to the postmodern notion of exploration on the extreme fringes. Except for Ed wrote this particular entry in the year 1900. Ed was a gold rusher.

Adventure is more a way of being than an actual path, exploration more a state of mind than an actual game. I try to remember this with I head out to face a road route I've ridden dozens of times, or a fitness jog down a well-worn path.

I never fail to find something new.
Friday, October 20, 2006


Date: Oct. 19
Total mileage: 36.0
October mileage: 269.7
Temperature upon departure: 49

I'm really not a sports fan.

I'm fair-weather to the very extreme. Meaning: I have no clue about backstories or statistics or strategies or, sometimes, even the basic rules. I carry all of this eye-rolling apathy into random games where everything is on the line and everything matters and everything comes down to one heart-stopping moment.

I always get sucked into the drama.

I always have my heart broken.

It happened in 1996 when the Alta High School basketball dynasty dropped right out of the bottom.

It happened in 1997 when the Utah Jazz lost the last two games in the championship series, both of which came down to three or four points right at the very end, to the Chicago Bulls.

It happened to me in 1998 when the University of Utah clawed their way into the NCAA championship series only to lose to Kentucky.

After the late '90s, my interest in basketball mostly dried up. I was happy again, as apathetic as ever. Then I had to go and meet a person who talks continuously about baseball, even in January, and somehow dragged me into the forlorn world of the modern Mets fan.

So the Mets lost to the Cardinals in Game 7 of the NLCS. How does that affect my life? How does it change anything for me?

Exactly. So why did I sit there for three hours, fresh off a fairly hard bike ride and coping with a stress-induced 90-beats-per-minute heart rate?

Why did a literally, involuntarily, jump off the ground when Chavez leapt like 14 feet beyond the back wall to steal that home run away? Why did I sneer and become so incensed by that Cardinal guy with the stupid red soul patch hanging off his chin like a dead caterpillar? Why do I feel so sick inside? I could barely eat dinner.

I'm so confused. I don't even like baseball.

I think that's it for me. Destiny has given me the rare (or maybe not so rare) ability to be driven to emotional extremes by distant events but the wherewithal to choose apathy.

Sweet, stagnant apathy.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On again, off again

Date: Oct. 17
Total mileage: 25.2
October mileage: 233.7
Temperature upon departure: 42

Many cyclists I know, especially those who race their bicycles on a regular basis, have begun to talk about the "off season." As in most sports, cycling has found its drastic ebb and flow, which means from March to September all I hear about is trainingracingridingracingtraining. Then, October hits ... a couple of leaves drop ... and suddenly ... nothing.

Up in Alaska, far away from the velodromes and crits and Cat-4's and what have you, this "off season" is still very much a mystery to me. For what little racing I do - and for how liberally I'd have to use the term "athlete" to call myself one - I tend to have events spread fairly evenly throughout the year. I've been in a bit of a slump - I'll call it an "off-season" - since July. But pretty soon, at about the beginning of November, I'll have to think about upping the training and scheduling focused workouts if I want to be in shape come February. It's the depths of cold, dark winter. It's when I like to be "on."

So now that I have to gear up, and watch my fellow cyclists wind down, I can't help but speculate on the mystery of it all. Where do cyclists go during the "off season" to give it such a defeated, fatalistic name? I have some theories:

"Beer and television:" I think the smart athletes would give themselves some real time off, and do as Lance Armstrong does. You know: go for easy spins with President Bush and party all night with celebrities. And if, unlike Lance, they were willing to give all that up to go back to the lonely, relentless life of a racing cyclist, I would think that beer gut would give them all that much more motivation in the spring.

"Trainer hell:" These cyclists I know, they're so preoccupied with going fast that they forget they can just put on a big poofy snow suit and mount some flood lights to their Bianchis so they can keep riding outside during cold, dark winter days. Instead, they put their poor bicycles on rollers and spend two to three hours a day dripping sweat all over the carpet of their cold, dark basements. As a former gym rat, I actually have no problem with the concept, especially if you have access to a good iPod lineup and all three seasons of Arrested Development on DVD. But every day? All winter long? Eee.

"Cross-training:" I don't how many cyclists also Nordic ski. But I definitely think more should. Not only do you work all the important leg muscles, you also have an excuse to continue wearing spandex all winter long. Mountain bike racers should snowboard ... good practice for dodging trees and grabbing that sweet, sweet air. I'd also suggest snowshoes, but I don't know many cyclists who also run (except for those crazy triathletes). The rest of us, I believe, are opposed to unaided human power on principle.

"Real jobs:" Some people who race all summer long take so much time off that they have to buckle down and work day and night throughout the winter just to support the habit. I admire that, but I don't really have any good advice for such a person.

"Hibernation:" This is different from beer and television, because to actually be in hibernation, I don't think you can be doing what 95 percent of everyone else is doing. No, you actually have to be fast asleep. Dreaming of green trails and dry roads. I also don't have any good advice for you.

"IceBike:" It's everyone's favorite novelty Web site, but so few seem to actually do it. Trust me, once you experiment with the wonders of snowbiking, you'll understand why I consider late summer the "off season."

But seriously, "real cyclists," where do you go during the winter? I used to pass you on the road all the time. Now your numbers are diminishing. Soon you'll all be gone, and I feel lonely just thinking about it.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Zen and the art of ...

Date: Oct. 16
Total mileage: 40.2
October mileage: 208.5
Temperature upon departure: 48

Geoff informed me today that I'd have to be a very cold-hearted person, or, in better words, an idiot, to even think about riding my mountain bike before it gets a complete overhall, which includes new parts that have to be shipped to Juneau on a barge. Somehow, over a few months of tender, loving abuse, I managed to almost completely wear down all of the teeth on the middle ring. Then I rode it long enough in that decrepit state so it now also requires a new chain. And pedals. And shifter levers. And I think that in one or more of my many crashes, I may have slightly bent the rear derailleur. Other than that, it's golden! Why can't I ride it?

On the bright side, Geoff has been working almost nonstop for a week on our five bikes, and roadie has never been in better shape. Geoff even installed fenders. So the theory is now that I can go for a ride and not be sprayed continuously with road grit. I'll believe it when I see it. I have perfected my rain-riding ensemble, however: waterproof jacket over a thin fleece liner, rain pants over nylon longjohns, earwarmer and neoprene socks, booties and gloves. You'd think with all this armor I could manage to stay dry, but you would be mistaken. I don't know why I didn't just give up early and buy a wet suit. If you can swim in them, I bet you can bike in them. And they're so aerodynamic!

I found a couple hours to ride in beautiful weather today, so I'm not in a position to complain. It always amazes me how much less physical effort the same distance requires when there are no elements to fight. A 40-mile rain ride is downright epic, and yet the same ride, just one week later, in sunlight, feels like a boardwalk cruise. It's always faster, too, even though there's typically more wind when skies are clear.

I haven't really had very many chances to observe the bicycle maintenance routine during the past week - although the truth is I have little patience for it. I'd like to become a better steward of my stuff, but how do I overcome a severe personality flaw that makes me want to scream and start throwing things every time I wrap my fingers around a screwdriver? The theory is in the next month or two I'm supposedly going to start building a snowbike, and I hate the thought of recruiting Geoff to do all of the grunt work for me. I need to set some goals.

I will watch Geoff rebuild the crank.

I will help clean out the hubs.

I will read Web sites on bicycle building, even if the my chances of understanding them are about as good as Sugar's future chances of selling on eBay as anything but a hurricane bike.

I will try meditation.

I will practice the power of positive thinking.

I will stay dry.
Monday, October 16, 2006

Glaciers melting

My co-worker likes to tell stories about his childhood in Juneau - in the late 70s, I believe - when he and his friends could play touch football directly in the shadow of Mendenhall Glacier's tilting skyscrapers of ice. Back then, the calving terminus stretched almost a mile beyond where it ends today. My co-worker predicts that in another decade, the glacier will climb away from Mendenhall Lake and recede up the canyon it carved during many millennia of slow, steady grinding.

It's sad, he tells me, to see something that held so much permanence for him as a child, and to watch it so quickly and effortlessly fade away. But when I look at Mendenhall Glacier, I don't feel his same sadness. My emotions are closer to the sadness one would feel watching a snowman grow emanciated in the March sun - a nostalgic sadness, dulled by the inevitability of it.

A poll published October 4 in the Anchorage Daily News said that four out of five Alaskans believe global warming is behind the physical transformation of their homeland - not only the melting glaciers, but also big coastal storms, summer lightening strikes, shifting salmon runs, disappearing polar bears and forest fires. Eighty percent is a robust number for agreement in what many of the higher ups in the United States call "a theory, at best." I think it points to a trend as obvious as glaciers shrinking a quarter mile a decade. It's the trend of acceptance, the third step in the 12-step program to recovery.

I was an environmentalist kid with progressive science teachers, so even in the early 90s, I watched satellites map the hole in the ozone over Australia and accepted global warming as fact. I believe that this current generation of children will be the last to have the option of understanding climate change as a theory or a vague idea. Future students will know the temperature change of this era only as cold fact, like entropy, or gravity. Whether the world will ever agree on whether global warming is human-caused or a force of nature, history has yet to decide. Although it seems most likely that history will determine the root cause of climate change to be a complicated combination of both.

The fourth step of recovery is to make "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." This is the part where we begin to experiment with the things we know we can control, such as alternative sources of power (especially human power), energy conservation and reduced consumption. We'll never know how much it can help unless we're all willing to try. Otherwise, we're no better off than the alcoholic who says, "Well, God made me this way, and all this booze I buy really helps the economy, so why should I stop drinking?"

Why? Because your future depends on it. No one denies that truth to someone in AA. It won't be long before the world sees global warming in the same way.
Saturday, October 14, 2006

iHeart iPod

Date: Oct. 12&13
Total mileage: 45.3
October mileage: 168.3
Temperature upon departure: 41

I had a decent Friday the 13th with some unlucky twists. On the bright side, I got out for a road bike ride and a separate mountain bike ride. On the unlucky side, I skidded out on a metal-lined bridge on my mountain bike and slammed into a railing at about 15 mph. I also bonked pretty hard on the way home (I've been out of milk for three days and apparently am not eating enough for breakfast.) And it rained the whole day. And the Mets lost. Other than that, it was a good day.

I was thinking about the controversial issue of iPod use and bicycles after Tim posted an anti-bikePod article the other day. I am an unrepentant iPod user, and while I respect the arguments against it, I don't think it's fair to make blanket judgments that all bikePod is bad all the time.

I own a little iPod shuffle. I bought it solely for use in bicycling. I bought it with gratitude after a little FM radio literally saved my sanity during the late night hours of the Susitna 100 race. I've used it on roads and trails, in training and in a couple of races I've done. I don't feel it's adversely affected my safety in all this time, and am skeptical that it would ever make a real difference as long as it's used responsibly (i.e. at a reasonable volume.)

Case in point: I do understand why commuters in busy urban areas would not want to use iPod. In cities, you have all sorts of things that require uber-alertness - things that don't make a lot of noise, such as pedestrians and dogs and little old ladies on Rascals. But I live in what is for these practical purposes a rural area. I do most of my riding on long, unbroken roadways with wide shoulders and cars that go by at an average rate of about one every two or three minutes. And say what you will about cars, but they make a lot of noise. Even with iPod, I have never failed to hear one go by, and usually first hear it when it's still two or three seconds behind me. At 18 mph, iPod mostly becomes soft, ambient sound anyway. This doesn't bother me. I'm not inclined to turn it up because I don't like loud noises blasting through my head. I think it's safe to say that most iPod users older than 25 feel this way.

I also use iPod trail riding. My iPod use mountain biking is a lot less frequent, because usually mountain biking is exciting enough on its own, or I'm on a short ride, or I'm mountain biking with another person, and tuning them out would be rude. But I have used iPod on longer trail rides, an I have used it in races. I have never had a run-in because of iPod. I hear riders coming up behind me. I hear them say "On your left." And I move to the right. I have never been surprised, nor have I had an angry rider swerve around me because I didn't hear them coming. Alaska also has the wildlife issue. But if you're moving along at trail at 8-15 mph, chances are pretty good that you're going to see a bear before you ever hear it - or you're going to neither see nor hear it - regardless of what's stuffed in your ears.

As to the argument that cyclists shouldn't need iPod to enjoy themselves, I completely agree. I don't need iPod. I was perfectly happy for all those years before I became an iPod user. But I do like the way iPod breaks up the inevitable routine of riding the same routes week after week. It livens up frustrating experiences and also enhances already enjoyable experiences. Because I have an iPod shuffle, which switches songs at random, I'm sometimes pleasantly surprised with the way music completely beyond my control can match the mood of the moment. When I'm rounding a heavily wooded corner of Douglas Island road into the liquid gray infinity of an open ocean view, and suddenly Modest Mouse starts chanting with increasing intensity "The universe is shaped exactly like the earth, if you go in a straight line you'll finally end up where you were" ... well, the non-iPod experience just can't beat that. Sorry.

In closing, I'm sorry if those little white earbuds offend you. If you feel the need to rip them out of my head as you're passing me on the road so you can tell me that I'd be going a heckuva lot faster if I wasn't so self-absorbed, I wouldn't disagree with you. And then, I'd probably stick them right back in.
Friday, October 13, 2006

Elevation's good

Ever since I learned the reality of fog in this area, I can't wake up to a view of blurry cloud cover and not feel the instant urge to head up. The fog here starts thick, and with temperatures in the 40s, could stick around all day. But I'm greedy and when I know the sun is up there, somewhere, I can't just let it hang out alone. So Geoff and I headed up Mount Jumbo, right here on Douglas Island and towering over our house every day. We rode to the trailhead and pounded out a quick "Pre-Mets-Game" hike. This is my Juneau-peak-bagging photo essay #2.

We finally started to see sunlight emerge from the fog at about 1,000 feet ... just about the time I was starting to get worried.

First view

I think this shot is interesting because I'm accustomed to hiking peaks in Utah, where everything is 11,000 feet high. So today, after we began to emerge from treeline, I saw this exact view and told Geoff it was going to take me all day to get up there. But this became a good example of how much my perspective has changed to accommodate the smaller open spaces of southeast Alaska. From here, it was less than 35 lumbering minutes to the top.

Mount Jumbo is still 3,500 feet high. For starting at sea level ... and walking up a trail only 2.5 miles long ... that's not too shabby.

Coming down was much harder and actually took longer than going up. I fell five times. Steep and slippery are not my allies.

This is the view looking across the channel to downtown Juneau just as the fog finally began to move on. The mountain directly behind it is Mount Juneau, which I climbed to the top of just Sunday.

It's funny to talk about all this sunny madness because, as far as I can tell, Juneau is about the only place in the country where the weather is nice right now. Southcentral Alaska is swimming in floodwater. The Northeastern United States is being deluged by rain. A major cold snap in the Lower 48 has been sending snow to the Midwest. It's all relative, really. I'm writing about a "perfect weather" day that featured temperatures in the low 40s and thick gray fog below 1,000 feet. But I've learned to appreciate it for what it's not.
Thursday, October 12, 2006

When the sun comes out in Juneau

I have 25 minutes left to burn off before work, ticking away on an elliptical trainer display. Streams of sunlight seep in from a narrow windows of my gym. Strange new shadows on the floor tell their own story, not of frumpy people engaged in pointless frenzy, but of kinetic energy breaking through illuminated dust. The woman who shows up every day at noon sharp, who has lost 10 pounds and made a point to record it for the "Juneau's Biggest Loser" registry, sighs loudly from the machine next to mine. "Ever feel like you're wasting your time in here?" she asks, not taking her eyes off the three ceiling-level TVs that have blasted plane crash news nonstop for the past 30 minutes. "Every time," I say.

I leave the gym at the height of lunch period, with high schoolers packed in the parking lot like spawning salmon. They dart in and out of the street and throw unidentifiable objects toward the sky, enjoying rare freedom from their narrow awnings and dripping huddles. I notice for the first time in weeks I can see teenage faces sans hoodies.

I pass the hatchery where a little girl runs barefoot in the grass. A man, her father, puts his fishing pole down and chases her down the thin corridor. They kick up swirls of leaves that seem to vaporize midair. Their smiles are so contagious that I start laughing.

Across the wetlands, the sunlight burns streaks of orange in the tide. There are more people walking out on the mudflats, and I wonder how they got there and whether they'll sink. And I wonder if they're looking at those mountains, way, way out in the distance - mountains so buried by the distance that they're almost never there. But when they emerge from the clouds, they remind us that we don't live in boxes. We live in a world that stretches toward eternity, a world with contours built for a million lifetimes. And we want to strive to live them all.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sorry, Sugar

Open letter to my battle-scarred mountain bike:

Dear Old and Busted Sugar,

It seems you haven't been very happy with me lately. Seems like you're mad at the world. I guess I would be too, hunched against a damp corner with swamp water seeping out of my frame. We've been together, oh, about 18 months now - maybe you expected something better of your life. I just wanted you to know that this hasn't been easy for me, either.

I remember the day the UPS guy dropped you off. They called you a used bike, recently dumped by an anonymous eBay stranger, but you looked brand new to me. I still remember the first time we went out, joyriding the foothills outside Idaho Falls. We were both so young then, and inexperienced, and you seemed so fragile. I was terrified to get too close for fear you (we) would break.

Maybe that's how this all started. The early neglect. I had commitment issues. You were an inanimate object. Everything changed the day we up and moved to Alaska, with the winter setting in, I suddenly began to realize how much I needed you. I've had other bicycles, but they no longer mattered the day the snow started to fly. I only had studs for you.

But weren't those great times, Sugar? We were like a couple of newlyweds - spending every day together, rolling the frozen roads and trails, just you and me and the stunning quiet of those long winter nights. You weren't accustomed to the lifestyle, but everything was so bright and new that it didn't seem to matter. I didn't even notice the shadows beginning to creep in beneath your hubs, the resentment that started to build as ice caked your moving parts. I guess that's my fault. I was so excited about us, I never stopped to think about what you needed.

But it all started to come down when summer arrived, and our world changed from silence and snow to motion and mud. You could hardly comprehend the transition, and I wasn't much help - still so new to mountain biking, bouncing off rocks and somersaulting down hillsides. Those daylong races didn't help, and the strain started to show - broken spokes, bent fenders, chipped frame, and endless coats of grime, so thick that it no longer washes off. I thought you could take it. After all, you were my Sugar. But then came the rain rides ... then the slimy root roller derbies ... then, finally, swamp biking. I can see now the rust covering your once-bright bolts. I can hear the slight creak in your pedals. Your crank is so worn that the middle ring no longer holds tight to the chain, and I worry that I may have cut you down before your time, that you may not be long for this world. And yes, it's my fault.

There must be a way I can make it up to you. I know our relationship hasn't been a conventional one, but I wish there was a way I could make you understand that I always have, and still do, care about you. You may feel scarred by life, like the world has beaten down on you, but you have to know that. Can't you see? I hurt you because I love you. And love does hurt. It can be almost be no other way between a novice rider and her mountain bike. I know promising to take better care of you won't make up for 18 months of neglect and abuse. But I still need you, Sugar, and I'd really like to try.

Will you ever forgive me?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Did Juneau

Date: Oct. 7
Total mileage: 22.5
October mileage: 145.5
Temperature upon departure: 45

I finally got around to hiking Mount Juneau today. It almost didn't happen. I woke up - late again, of course - to a blanket of thick fog smothering the valley.

"What's the point?" I asked Geoff. "We won't be able to see anything up there." I thought I wouldn't have time before work anyway. I told him I would just go for a quick bike ride instead. He talked me into it.

Before we hit the trailhead, we were already climbing out of the clouds and into the bald blaze of a rare clear day. And then we just hiked - up, not out. The mountainside was so steep that we could peek over the edge at a nearly direct vertical drop into town. If I owned a base-jumping parachute, I think I could have landed on top of the capitol building.

As we watched the cloud cover slowly thin and drift away from the channel, all I could think about was how amazing it was that I could be standing there, on a mountaintop,

less than two miles from my house, on a warm and sunny Sunday morning, two hours before I had be at work for my regular shift,

and I thought, this,

this is why I'm a happy person.
Saturday, October 07, 2006


Date: Oct. 6
Total mileage: 11.5
October mileage: 123
Temperature upon departure: 46

I went mountain biking today. I didn't take my camera because I worried it would be swamped with water. I made a good choice.

We tried out the Dredge Lake trail system today. This area is actually a winter ski trail system, but where there's ski trails in the winter, there's bike trails in the summer, right? It was raining lightly and I expected standing water from heavy showers earlier this week, so I dressed to the nines - neoprene socks, neoprene booties, neoprene gloves, waterproof snow pants, waterproof (read: industrial plastic) shell. Also good choices.

What we found on the web of trails snaking across the rolling moraine beneath the Mendenhall Glacier was mountain biking unlike any I have experienced before. Both comfortable in its ease and confounding in its complexity, I don't know how to reconcile it into a comprehensive description. But I do know this: I like it. Love it. I'm drooling to go back.

We started on a narrow strip of sand separating the flood-level Mendenhall River from a thick wall of trees. The trail quickly disappeared beneath long puddles - nothing unusual, but there was something ominous surrounding these benign mudholes. "I feel like we're in the bayou, and water's just about to come rushing toward us," Geoff said. I laughed. I had no idea.

Less than half a mile from the trailhead, we rounded Dredge Lake and dropped into what appeared to be a small pond. But since we were such a short way into our ride, and since the rain was already finding its way through the armor anyway, we had nothing to lose. We took the plunge.

Held up by glacial gravel as smooth and hard as concrete, we splashed through the clear, cold water, pounded a few hard strokes up a large mound and rolled into the next pond - butts hanging over the rear wheel, lips and eyes pursed shut against the rush of water ... Splashdown. Pretty soon we were kicking against water up to our knees. And then our stems. A mile into the trail, the water level reached waist deep. With legs completely under water, we had to spin frantically against the deadly slowdown that that threatened to inundate us. I can only describe the sensation as kickboarding upstream, or bicycling in one of those dreams where you can't help but move in slow motion. If this kind of riding were its own sport, I would call it BikeSwim.

This ride has so much more going for it, too. We'd rise out of the swamp to hairpin singletrack carving through a canopy of trees so thick that the clearance on either side of my shoulders would have to be measured in centimeters. Then we'd drop back into the water, cross the swamped moraine, and hit the high, root-covered rollercoaster trail in a swirl of autumn leaves. At one point we were paddling (pedaling/paddling, what's the difference?) down the trail when a foot-long carp darted by. And any ride where you can bike through something the map calls Crystal Lake is a good ride.

I don't really mean to sound so giddy, but honestly, this is like discovering that somebody dropped Disneyland's Splash Mountain in my neighborhood, and I can go ride it anytime I want. Only this is even better, because unlike those creepy robots that play the banjo in the dark, this ride's bears are real (I know, I saw a pretty big black bear at close range today.) And you don't have to worry about being wet at the end because, well, that's the whole point.

Next time I go, I'll try to take one of those waterproof disposable cameras. I'd love to take pictures, because describing BikeSwim just doesn't do it justice.
Friday, October 06, 2006

The trouble with commuting

Date: Oct. 5
Total mileage: 45.3
October mileage: 111.5
Temperature upon departure: 47

I made a decision a couple of weeks ago that I was going to work toward reforming my habits to minimalize if not eliminate the use of my car. It makes sense on paper because I'm already accustomed to cold-weather cycling, I already own a nice headlight and set of bike panniers, and I live in an area where I couldn't travel more than 40 miles from my house if I wanted to. Of course, what's easy on paper is definitely not always easy in practice. Gas-guzzling habits run deep, and I'm beginning to realize just how tough continuous bike commuting would actually be.

For starters, I can't figure out how people in wet climates would get around the whole social stigma of showing up at their destination wet and covered in road grit. And I don't mean walking into a store wearing a damp waterproof shell. I mean showing up in a public place looking like a jeep that spent the past hour spinning donuts in a wet gravel pit. I stopped at a grocery store on the way home from a three-hour ride today just to buy a newspaper, and I spent five minutes outside brushing my dirt-covered clothing in a failed attempt to look"inside" presentable.

This also is a huge problem for biking to work. At three miles one way, I can coast there without breaking a sweat, but I can't stay dry. Sure, I can carry dry clothing with me to change into, but this doesn't remove the aforementioned grit-stuck-to-skin problem, not to mention the whole wet hair thing. How do bike commuters keep their hair dry? I know I can lift up my hood before putting on my helmet, but this in the past has not exactly preserved "dry" hair. My only idea was to begin storing a hair dryer at work. I'm not crazy about doing this, though, and I'd love to hear better ideas.

Being wet and/or sweaty in the fall/winter also ups the chance of mild hypothermia. What's comfortable for me to wear while pounding out 20 mph on pavement is definitely not good for stopping for any length of time in a marginally heated grocery store, bank or library. Stop for more than five minutes and my core temperature plummets to noticeably uncomfortable levels. Like today, my wet feet and hands felt fine before my newspaper run, but afterward became numb and stiff. It's fine when I can go straight home and take a warm shower. But what about all the times I can't?

Then there's groceries. Luckily, Geoff does most of the grocery shopping, because I hate it something fierce. So much so that I usually suck it up and spend an hour shopping for two weeks worth of food in one large load. A bicycle necessitates frequent small trips to stores that aren't Costco (A new favorite of mine.) And how will I haul home my 24-packs of Diet Coke? I need these.

Look at me, making pathetic excuses. I'd love to hear some suggestions, especially on the issue of staying as socially acceptably dry as possible. I really don't think those skinny little road fenders are going to do much. I already have fenders on my mountain bike, which I'll begin using exclusively as soon as it gets much colder, and I already know they're pretty close to useless in that regard. But I do have an honest desire to become a dedicated bicycle commuter. I was doing really well before I left Homer, but it was easy in Homer. I Homer, I had a.) an awesome commute route (as opposed to the current one, which in three miles covers all of the only truly awful stretch of bicycling in town.) b.) an employer that didn't mind if I showed up to work looking like a lumberjack who had been out on the job for six weeks. c.) less than a quarter of the rainfall. Bike commuting in Juneau takes true dedication. But I'm working at it. I really am.

Also, I wanted to thank Bone, The Blasphemous Bicycler, for archiving my orphaned Web site on his server. I had no idea it was so easy. I now feel embarrassed to think about all of the money I've thrown down over the past few years just to keep this thing from fading into cyberoblivion because it felt like trashing a cherished photo album. Oh well. In the same respect, I should probably feel the same way about all of the money I'm tossing to Big Oil.

But I need my car.

Well, actually, I don't.
Thursday, October 05, 2006


In an effort to whittle down my expenses, I'm dissolving some old bills that are automatically charged to my credit card every month. In doing so, I just learned that at the end of this month, my old Web site will no longer exsist.

It's a sad day for me - not because I maintain this Web site anymore. In fact, there's a whole lot about it that annoys me. But it's a record of my past. It's my journal, my scrapbook, my photo album, my pre-blog blog, all in one. But because it's electronic, and because I was young and naive enough to register it with a fee-charging site, it's being ripped from exsistence without a tear or a prayer.

Maybe this will teach me to start using an old-fashioned pen and paper. But, for now, if you don't mind, I'm going to post a few of my entires - for nostalgia's sake, for posterity, etc. ... otherwise, I'll lose them forever. This one is titled "definition of bike touring," dated Sept. 14, 2002.

That annoying little voice inside my head tells me to crank it. My wheels are spinning, barely. Sweat drips through my helmet and streaks of red dust stick to my arms.You never realize it when you're driving, but the only way out of Moab, Utah is up, a nearly-continuous climb. As Geoff and I lumber up theshoulder of Highway 91, I fix my gaze on distant buildings scattered near towering vermillion cliffs. They take forever to reach me.

Before this trip, it's hard to remember what exactly I thought bike touring was. Lingering views, sprawling vistas, maybe a little work. Isure didn't imagine burnout on the first day. When daylight will allow us to go no further, we pull over and park a mere 50 yards from the road.

And thus ends the first day of my very first bike tour, Moab to Moab via the San Juan mountain range and 600 miles of the most remote highway the lower 48 has to offer. It was supposed to be a simple day - 30 miles from the Colorado River valley to the base of the La Salle mountains. In front of me now is an expanse of sagebrush-dotted range cut off only by the horizon, deep orange and shimmering in the September sunset.We kick cowpies from a small clearing and set up our tent just as the landscape descends deeper into shades of purple. As a lay in the spiny grass watching erratic bats chase bugs visible only to them, I regret not getting in shape before the trip. Every muscle, every bone in my body is melting into the warm soil and I doubt my ability to get up, even to go to bed.

The camp site, hidden behind a barb wire fence in a cluster of pinion pines, feels stark and uninviting private property, a grazing range. We should have made it at least 10 miles furthertonight, but night snuck up on us. The next 500 miles feel like an eternity away.Geoff, most likely just as worn out and tired, musters up the energy to lean toward me. "Isn't it amazing?" he says. "We just biked here."

While working as a reporter during the 2002 Winter Olympics, I only heard mirror responses from everyone I talked to - "the experience of a lifetime," "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," "a lifetime of experiences in one." The Olympics were a splash of snow and whirl of color.The world blinked, and they were gone.

Bicycle touring is anything and everything but a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is tamarisk swaying on the layered shores of the San Juan river. It is a flapping tent standing against a lightning storm on an open plateau. It is a tiny roadside grocery store in a town that by car would be nothing more than a blur. It is wildlife in the form of flattened fur on a roadside and literature in the form of faded billboards. It is slow and lumbering, discarded bolts rusting on the highway. It is adrenaline-inducing at 35 mph and agony-inducing at 5. It is hills that will stop your heart and views that will quiet your soul. It is pinnacles and peaks and houses and streams and desert and forest and road, open road, endless road, but it is not, I am convinced, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It, simply, is life.

One that I should keep on living.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Soak up the partial sun

Date: Oct. 2 and 3
Total mileage: 66.2
October mileage: 66.2

City election night means I had to work late. Not late like "better order in dinner" late. Late like "wow when did it become 2 a.m.?" late. Elections always pump a little suspense and excitement into the newspaper business, but they always leave me with nagging guilt. I consider myself a fairly civic-minded person, but I carry the deep and secret shame of not having voted in a public election since 2002. The last presidential candidate I voted for was Ralph Nader (in 2000, not '04). I have a lot of excuses. I moved around a lot. I was out of the state at all the right times. But the truth is really much more superficial.

My name is Jill, and I am incapable of dealing with bureaucracy.

I know, it sounds completely silly. But it's true. I dread and put off simple things like registering a vehicle or filling out a change of address form at the post office. I've neglected to get an Alaska driver's license because that requires waiting in line for a new social security card. I wait until midnight on April 15 to do my taxes even when the IRS owes me money. I had the option to apply for public housing while I was homeless my first weeks in Juneau, but couldn't face filling out the stack of required forms. I carried Idaho plates on my car until a couple weeks ago, and only changed them because a cop said I had to. I'm afraid of cops. But nobody with a gun is telling me to register to vote in the state of Alaska.

I know it's unforgivably simple. But it's like that with everything government-related in my life. I can't deal with it. It's a sickness.

That said, I had a beautiful couple of days to ride some 30-milers before work. I go with Geoff, who likes to ride comfortable and site-see. I haven't been working my legs very hard, but I did get a chance to explore all sorts of new corners of town: narrow roads wrapped around cliffs, rainforest paths, footbridges. Say what you will about life in Juneau (and dreary is one I hear often), but I never imagined that the simple appearance of sunlight would have the ability to snap me into a instant, almost involuntary good mood, with a shot of free energy to top it off. What can I say? Deprivation breeds gratitude.

Deprivation breeds gratitude ... hmmm. Maybe that's why Afghan citizens waited all day in the hot sun just for a chance to cast a ballot in their first democratic election. Maybe therein is a lesson for me to learn. Their example tells me to get out and vote. And yet, all I wanted to do this morning was get out and bike. I blame the sun.
Sunday, October 01, 2006

First snow

October is my favorite month.

I live in a climate that doesn't see much fluctuation between summer and fall, which is all the more reason to embrace the subtle signs of seasons changing: clumps of yellow clinging to birch trees - the litter of dry leaves strewn along the streets. My favorite part of fall, though, is something Alaskans call "termination dust" — their phrase for the first snow. I like this phrase. There's a world of imagery in the word "dust," and "termination" implies an idea that is amplified by a lot of Alaksans who, like me, aren't from here: that snow equals winter equals darkness equals death.

Around here, winter is a season many people endure. It's time to recuperate from a mania of activity brought on by the endless light of summer. It's a time to drink Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle, one shot for every week until the next salmon run. I think it's funny how few "winter" people I meet in Alaska. Many even say they hate winter. They spend all those long nights wrapped in blankets in front of a TV, not even trying to fend off Seasonal Affective Disorder. Why the haters choose to live in Alaska is beyond me. That's what California is for.

Old-timer Alaskans don't suffer from this as much. Their heritage was built on snow and ice - all the way back to the gold-mining days when travel was quickest and easiest on the frozen rivers crawling across snow-locked tundra. I like to think that I have a little bit of sourdough Alaskan in me, even if it's not genetic. Sure, I come from a generation that hucks off snow-bound cliffs and trawls frozen wastelands for fun - but I also believe I have a deeper appreciation for it all, for the challenges and opportunities winter can bring.

Last winter, I learned to ride a bicycle on top of - and live beneath - a continuous cover of deep snow. This winter, I'll live in a part of Alaska that's wetter and warmer - but still cold and dark - and I'll have to meet a bunch of new challenges. This sore throat I'm fending off right now shows me that I still have a lot to learn.

But I was thrilled when I woke up this morning to a thin coat of "termination dust" across mountains 3,000 feet above my home. I love the cinematic effect the first mountain snow has, whitewashing dramatic strokes of silver over the Technicolor blaze of autumn-painted trees below. It almost feels like moving back in time, from the era of color to the era of black and white, back when stories were still told in silence and contrast.

That's what winter does for me - I often make the best discoveries in those stark shadows.

And despite its ominous implications, "termination dust" always gives me something to look forward to.