Thursday, July 31, 2008

Goodbye July

Date: July 2008
Days of rain: 30
Total rainfall: 8.2"
Wettest day: July 18, 1.88"
Only dry day: July 2, 0.0"
Days the high temperature was over 60: 7
Days the high temperature was over 60 since July 5: 2
Days the high temperature was below 50: 2
Mean temperature for the month: 52.6
Forecast for the first four days of August:
... Priceless.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sometimes, all you need is elevation

The call from my co-worker came at 10:09 a.m. "Do you think you'd have time for four extra pages today?" he asked.

"Wait, what?" I replied, still a little groggy from waking up late and lingering way too long over breakfast and blogs.

"If I told you Ted Stevens was indicted today, and we were going to create a whole big package to cover it, would you be able to do a few extra pages?"

"Wait, really?" I said, again, feeling a little stupid that in all of my blogging, I had missed that little news item. "Wow, so that finally went down. Yeah, I can do it. Do I have time to go for a hike?"

"I encourage it," my co-worker said. "It's finally nice out today."

I looked out the window. The mountains were obscured by a large bank of fog. Little drops still rippled through the massive puddles on the porch. "Um, OK," I said. "I'll see you at 2." I got dressed, laced up my shoes and darted out the door. I forgot my watch, so I had to pace myself by snapping photos and glancing at the time stamp on the screen.

Time: 10:30 a.m.
On the iPod: "Supermassive Black Hole," Muse
Thoughts: What is that bright light up there? Could that possibly be the sun, breaking through the clouds? It seems impossible, but ...

Time: 10:37 a.m.
On the iPod: "No Peace, Los Angeles," Mike Doughty
Thoughts: I can't believe they actually indicted Sen. Stevens. It seemed inevitable, but at the same time ... wow. The guy is beloved. He has an airport named after him. I wonder if they'll change the name of the Anchorage airport if he ends up in a federal prison? Uncle Ted "Jailbird" Stevens International.

Time: 10:43 a.m.
On the iPod: "Blame it on the Tetons," Modest Mouse
Thoughts: I feel so much better than I did yesterday. I was just going to go to the gym for an hour, try to wait out my funk, but I'm glad I decided to go out. I think those clouds to the south really are thinning. Maybe if I can climb high enough, the fog will clear.

Time: 11:09 a.m.
On the iPod: "I'm Not An Addict," K's Choice
Thoughts: Hmm, when did I download this song? It reminds me of 1997 ... that perfect spring morning with the windows of Liz's car rolled down and my arm stretched out in the warm air. I think we were commuting to a drawing competition at that west-side high school. Taylorsville? Strange that's all it took back then to create a memorable day - warm air, a little sunshine, the freedom of legally ditching school on a weekday to draw all day and flirt with west-side boys. I remember I won a T-shirt in the contest, but I think everyone did.

Time: 11:28 a.m.
On the iPod: "Girl Sailor," The Shins
Thoughts: This looks so much friendlier than it did a week ago. Where is all of the snow?

Time: 11:31 a.m.
On the iPod: "Sleeping Lessons," The Shins
Thoughts: Oh ... great.

Time: 11:47 a.m.
On the iPod: "Happy," The Wrens
Thoughts: I must have this song stashed in every one of my mixes by now. It still takes me back to the Kuskokwim River, walking my bike through an endless sugar bowl. When I first heard it that dark morning, with the sound of crickets chirping through the soft introduction, I just assumed the crickets were real. It never occurred to me back then that it was 30 below, and there were no crickets. I wonder how long it took me to figure that out? And wait, how much time do I have? Oh no ... it's 11:47? I should have turned around 15 minutes ago. Oh well, I can just skip lunch. 100 more feet ... then I'll go back.

Time: 12:02 p.m.
On the iPod: "Hate," Fiction Plane
Thoughts: What are you doing? It's after noon! Turn around now! Ted Stevens indicted ... could be the biggest news day for Juneau all year ... lots to do ... not the day to be late for work ... people will be angry ... but look at all that blue sky ... and the peak is right there.

Time: 12:12 p.m.
iPod: Off
Thoughts: Dear Mount Jumbo,
Thanks, I feel much better now.
Sincerely, Jill.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

SAD-light summer

Date: July 28
Mileage: 38.2
July mileage: 631.5
Temperature: 48

I felt just over the blah side of awful on my morning ride today - couldn't turn my legs over very fast; couldn't climb; couldn't zone away the general malaise after several miles of warm-up. Every time I have a bad ride like that, I look for reasons why. Overtraining? Hardly. I'm not even training right now. Too much time on the bike? My bike time is barely half what it was in May, and likely would be less if I had more opportunities to go hiking. So, I concluded, the struggle must be psychological.

It's sinking in, this summer. My friend confided that he had resorted to cooking himself all of his most desperate winter comfort foods. Several people have told me they dug their full-spectrum SAD lights out of storage and switched them on. Then today, I was walking by a cubicle when I was hit with a blinding flash of white. "What is that bright light?" I wondered, and squinted toward it. "Oh, it's a SAD light. How sad." The jokes about pot roasts and SAD lights in July were pretty funny, until they weren't jokes.

I know I have no mandate to complain about the weather. No one in Alaska moves here for the weather, and I distinctly signed up for Southeast Alaska knowing full well what I was getting myself into. But my status as a former desert baby and northern country expat means I have no background to draw on when the coping gets tough. We are products of our environment, and it's been a long time since my last vitamin D fix. So I joked about how ready I am for summer to be over already so snow can rescue us from some of this rain, and it was pretty funny, until it wasn't a joke.

During the dark winter, I always believed that getting outside every day would help me push through seasonal malaise. Until now, it always did. But that's not so much the case this summer. I actually feel worse when I'm outside, and start to feel a bit better as the work day drags on, when my eyes are fixed on a computer screen and my back to the window. Maybe the fact that it is summer makes coping harder. Deep down I know that September and October are coming, and there will be no respite or relief. Geoff has been hinting that he's not coming back to Juneau after the Wasatch 100 in September. His plans for extracting himself from this place made for pretty funny jokes, until they weren't jokes.

But just because I'm a little blue right now doesn't mean I'm ready to follow him out. I still love this area, in the same way I'll still love my cat even when she's old and smelly and can't always make it to the litter box. I always knew we'd come to a tipping point. But why did it have to be July?
Sunday, July 27, 2008

New road

Date: July 27
Mileage: 35.4
July mileage: 593.3
Temperature: 50

As this soggy month trickles to a close (and we all just want it to be over already), I have been dredging the dregs of motivation for reasons to go out for a ride. No longer can I drag myself out there with half-hearted musings about how fresh everything smells in the rain, or scoldings about all of the chocolate chips I have eaten this month, or ambitions to train for races in which I may or may not even be able to afford to show up at the starting line. No, I don't want to ride today. Simple and plain.

But Geoff and I started talking about possible new routes yesterday and he asked me if I had seen the new road the city is building to the top of Eaglecrest Ski Area. They've been at it all summer, they're probably halfway up the mountain by now, and I had never even bothered to check it out. I envisioned a gentle access road switchbacking all the way up to the ridge, where I could chug to the top, grab a narrow deer trail through the pristine wilderness, and ride down to the other side of the island, where Christian Bale would be waiting in his yacht to whisk me away to places where the sun comes out in July. It was a beautiful dream, and I was suddenly excited to set out Sunday morning on an exploration ride.

But Sunday morning did not make it easy, with a hard wind out of the south, pissing rain and the temperature just a click or two above 50. I just put my head down and squinted at the white line on the road for 15 miles. But as I rounded the final curve to the ski area, I looked up just long enough to see a dark brown scar carved into the slope. There really was a new road there, and I half hoped it would end in a half mile so I could go home and take a hot shower already, and half hoped it would take me to the west side of Douglas Island, my imaginary yacht, and the warmer climes I deserved.

The road was steep and rough and a beast to climb, which in itself was a nice diversion. I redlined up the final pitch and found an abrupt dead end about two miles beyond the pavement, so I set down my bike and waded through calf-deep mud around a couple of construction vehicles to see what lay beyond. There wasn't much - a swamp, a few distressed spruce trees, and the profile of the ridge still hundreds of feet above the half-finished road. But there was promise ... the promise that someday soon I will be able to ride my bike all the way up these mountains; the promise of greatly expanded access to winter trails across the expanse of the Douglas Island Ridge; the promise of more miles.

I feel really excited about the possibilities of the new road, especially once the snow flies and covers up the mud and swamps with sweet, packable powder. It's not much to keep me going through this soggy summer, but I'll take it.
Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tram run

Date: July 26
Mileage: 21.4
July mileage: 557.9
Temperature: 52

On Saturday, just as it did the night before my second-ever running race on June 7, the weather forecast called for high 40s and rain. So I stacked up my wool socks and my water-resistant jacket and a bunch of other stuff I thought I would need to slog through four or so miles in the cold mush. And today, just as it did the morning of my second-ever running race, sunlight streamed through a fluid opening in the clouds. Sunlight! Real sunlight! The first I have seen, in any capacity, since July 1. Three weeks. Three and a half? I stood by the window, struck still in a sort of appreciative awe only deprivation can generate, never mind I had this running race, my third-ever, to be at in less than an hour. I choked down two bowls of cereal, never quite taking my eyes off the window. I cast aside my wool and water-resistant layers and adorned myself in free-flowing synthetics. I packed up my bike bag and darted out the door.

Into the sunlight with the iPod pumping Sublime, I was encompassed in a manic rush I could hardly contain. I laid into the pedals, 23 mph, 24 mph, heart racing, head spinning, legs so light I half-believed I could launch off the pavement, into the air, right there. Never mind I was commuting to a running race, hardly the time for a bike sprint, but the sunlight had this hold on me, and I rushed toward it as though it were already fading away from me, which it was. Thick clouds were already creeping in from the south. I didn't look that way. I looked north, to the future. North to the Mount Roberts trailhead.

Unfortunately, by the time I reached the race start at the Mount Roberts Tramway, my sprint had caught up to my breakfast, and I felt really queasy. I pinned on my number and stood on the sidewalk staring straight ahead, which is what I do when I'm trying to combat motion sickness. Geoff caught up to me and we lined up with the other competitors. The clock struck 9 a.m., and then some more time went by, and then some little kids finished the one-mile dash, and then we were off.

(At the start of the race, staring up in wonder at the sky. That patch of blue is what people in Juneau call a "sucker hole," because if you believe it means the weather's clearing up, you're a sucker.)

Weaving through traffic, I settled in behind two guys that I thought were setting a good pace for me. But as we curved up Franklin and merged with Sixth Street, their pace didn't slow with the rapidly rising gradient, and for some reason I stayed with them even as my stomach lurched and head spun. By the time I reached the the Basin Road bridge, my shadow was already fading beneath the gray pall in the sky, and I was a sputtering flame. Did I really burn up all my matches before I even reached the trailhead? I didn't want to think about it. But I let those guys pull away as I began the determined hike (yes, hike) up the steep, muddy, rain-soaked trail.

Once I was walking, I started to feel better again, and actually started passing people (I learned later that many competitors walk most of the Tram Run, unless they're Superfreaks like Geoff.) Through the thick tree cover I could see the clouds closing in. I removed my sunglasses, bid another silent goodbye to the swift summer, and marched, onward and upward.

By the time I climbed above treeline and touched the cross, I was finally starting to feel normal. My endurance muscles were kicking in; my head was settling into auto-zone; I saw more elevation and I wanted to march, march, march ever higher. But, in the nature of all of my short races, this one was over just when I was starting to feel warmed up. I greeted Geoff, who won the race in an unfathomable (to me at least) 32:54. My time was 49:36, which was actually good enough for fourth place out of 13 women. The winning woman had a time of 44:12. I have no idea how long this race is. My guess is four miles. Climbs about 2,000 feet.

I was digging through the race results page to figure out what my and Geoff's times were, and discovered that I did a lot better than I thought in the June 7 Spring Tide Scramble - seventh place out of 32 females. I think I could really get into this whole trail running thing. Well, except for the training part. I like racing. I don't like running. So as long as I have bicycles, I don't really envision myself heading out for a training run. But maybe I will enter another race this summer. Next weekend is the half marathon. Should I do it? I will if it makes the sun come out.
Friday, July 25, 2008

To the point

Date: July 24
Mileage: 20.0
July mileage: 536.5
Temperature: 55

Ever since I acquired my Pugsley, about a year ago, I've had this desire to use it to circumnavigate Douglas Island. I guestimated about 45-60 miles around - 15 of that is highway; the rest is unimproved shoreline. I was certain I would need at least two days for the trip, so I mostly put it out of my mind until I found a good time to do it. But inspiration from Epic Eric's recent off-trail adventures planted the seed again, and today I set out on a scouting trip to assess the summer conditions.

I didn't get out of the house until a half hour before low tide, which I knew wouldn't leave me much time to explore. Ideally, beach travel should straddle the low tide. High tide swallows up the rideable sand and gravel and forces land travelers up on the rocks ... slippery bouldering in areas almost impossible to climb around while hoisting a big bicycle on your shoulders. I decided I was limited to a short trip. And, in my own bad tradition of trying to hold myself to short trips, I didn't take any food.

Early riding at low tide was a lot of fun. It's been a while since I've ridden out toward South Douglas. There are always interesting things washed up on the shore. This one was new. I couldn't figure out what it was. Some kind of barge? A Tom Sawyer raft? It had a couple of bald tires stapled to the side. You're not far from civilization out Douglas Island, but the mysterious shipwrecks do add to the adventure.

Of course, after about three miles the riding starts to get pretty rough, and continues to deteriorate with only patchy spurts of gravel to break up the barnacle boulders and slippery shell minefields. Once you pass the last reaches of Sandy Beach, it seems for every half mile of riding, there's a mile of really rough, 4 mph technical riding and a mile of walking. That's the nature of off-trail though, and I was making good time despite all the hoofing. The afternoon was really peaceful - a light drizzle with no wind, and rich silence peppered with occasional chirps from seabirds or the hum of a float plane. I was always itching to see what was around the next bend, so I kept going.

I rounded the southern point of the island, cutting across a field to skip a small peninsula that I always thought was an island, and turning the final corner to meet the western side. What I found was tight, steep, almost unnavigable terrain. I left the bike behind and tried to pick my way along the cliff, curious how long it continued like this. Even without the bike, the climbing was a little treacherous - so narrow in points that I had to place my feet on slippery rocks that dipped directly into the deep water. If I slid at all, I'd have no choice but to swim backward through the cold water until I reached a point that I could climb back out. Could it be done before the hypothermia set in? That was the burning question, and not one I longed to have answered, so I was very slow and deliberate with every step. I knew someone like me would never get a bike around there. But I still wanted to see where the shoreline widened again. I continued that way for a half hour. Through the clouds, I could see the long profile of Admiralty Island that told me I was essentially on the other side of Douglas, and could still see no end to the rocky shoreline.

By then nearly three hours had gone by, and the tide was well on its way back up. I tried to pick up my pace, but I was starting to feel the tedium of bike pushing, and pretty hungry, too, and as I moved north, I discovered that all of the gravel bars and sandy beaches I had ridden earlier had disappeared beneath the rising water. So I weaved through the grass and plodded over seemingly endless stretches of big rocks, moving slower by the minute.

Nearly back to town, just minutes before the high tide mark, the water met the cliffside. I had no choice but to hoist Pugsley, in all of his nearly forgotten obesity, onto my shoulders as I waded through knee-deep and sometimes hip-deep tidewater. At one point, I had to wade for more than 150 yards with nowhere to put the bike down and rest. Feel those biceps burn! I was more than ready to have my little adventure over by then, and I still had to cross the big creek, which was so swollen with tidewater that I had to cross up high with the fast-flowing whitewater, pick my way through the rocks and grass of the last narrow beach, and stumble home. It took me less than three hours to ride out and four and a half hours to limp back. Not an epic day by any means - but definitely a longer one than I had bargained for. Although once you add in the "no food" aspect, it was nearly Epic-Eric-esque ... in a small, wimpy way.

It also opened my eyes to the fact that I will probably never ride my bike around Douglas Island. I agree with Geoff now. The way to circumnavigate Douglas Island - faster and easier, I'm now convinced - would be to do it on foot. Bring some waterproof gear bags, and I could swim if I had to. I'm learning more and more with my Pugsley that just because I want to take a bike somewhere, doesn't mean I should. But that's a good lesson to learn.
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nugget Creek

Today I had to drive out to the Valley to pick up my bike wheels and pay my rent, so I thought I'd hit up the Nugget Creek trail while I was out there. In all of my two years living here, Nugget Creek is one of the few established trails I've never ventured down. It's strange, actually, that I've never seen Nugget Creek before. It's an easy, quick morning hike ... about nine miles round trip, fairly flat, skirting the sideslopes above a stunning (and incredibly hard to photograph) gorge. But I never did it because it was just one of those "eh" hikes. It reminds me of the vacation my family took in Disneyland. We bought three-day passes and my sister and I vowed to go on every *every* ride in the park. We had a whirlwind first two days, but by the third day we were slogging our way through Dumbo and Toon Town. By the time we got to Small World, we stood in line with a sour feeling in our stomachs. Were we really waiting in line for Small World when the Matterhorn was right over there? Just so we could say we'd been everywhere? I guess this is the way I've felt about trails like Nugget Creek.

Interesting thing about deep-woods trails like Nugget Creek is I always have the distinct feeling that I'm inside an amusement park ride. Not an exciting one like the Matterhorn, but an unintentionally spooky one like Alice in Wonderland or Small World. Since I grew up in the West and did most of my vacationing there, my only experience with that rainforest brand of clammy, stagnant humidity was inside those rides. Like inside the Terror Ride - the air was so dense it breathed on you. So now, when I'm slicing my way through the liquid air of the rainforest, if I lose myself too much in my memories, I'll start half-expecting a naked mannequin streaked in red paint to jump out at me. Especially when the trail's destination is this place:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Date: July 22
Mileage: 35.6
July mileage: 516.5
Temperature: 52

I was all set to write another grumpy post about cycling in the rain when I clicked through Fat Cyclist's blog and noticed I had been tagged with a new, bike-specific meme. So I will spare this blog my latest summer lament and answer Elden's riveting questions instead:

If you could have any one — and only one — bike in the world, what would it be? Well, of course that bike would be Pugsley. Pugsley is not, as some of my purist cyclist friends like to call him, a "novelty bike." Pugsley is the perfect bike, the only true "everything" bike. He floats effortlessly over snow, sand and mud, bounces joyfully over roots and boulders, and crushes everything else. He's also perfect for pavement. Wait, you ask, how can this be? Well, if you're like me and can't hold a paceline to save your life, now you finally have an excuse! When your roadie friends ask you why you're so slow, just point out the 4-inch tires and say "My bike weighs 36 pounds unloaded. What's yours?" They won't bug you anymore.

Do you already have that coveted dream bike? If so, is it everything you hoped it would be? If not, are you working toward getting it? If you’re not working toward getting it, why not? Pugsley is everything I hoped for and more! Burly, strong, impervious to abuse, handsome ... oh wait, I've said too much.

If you had to choose one — and only one — bike route to do every day for the rest of your life, what would it be, and why? This is a mean question to ask. I was going to say the Golden Circle, but then I realized that I wouldn't want to ride 371 miles every day. Then I wondered if I had to pick somewhere in Juneau, because I'm pretty sure I would rather poke my eyes with sharpened pencils than ride the same Juneau trail daily. But if I had to choose, I'd say Dredge Lake trails in Juneau, and if I could pick anywhere in the world, it'd be a long, fun loop in Whitehorse (preferably one that snowmobiles use and pack nice and smooth during the winter.)

What kind of sick person would force another person to ride one and only one bike ride to to do for the rest of her / his life? I don't know, Elden, maybe the person who thought of this question? Just kidding!

Do you ride both road and mountain bikes? If both, which do you prefer and why? If only one or the other, why are you so narrowminded? Of course I ride both, although it's arguable that the road biking I do is actually just mountain biking on pavement. As to which I prefer, I'll pick hidden door number three: Snow biking! Seriously.

Have you ever ridden a recumbent? If so, why? If not, describe the circumstances under which you would ride a recumbent. I'm fairly certain that I would tip over if I ever tried to ride a recumbent. Then not only would I look ridiculous because I was riding a recumbent, I would look ultra-ridiculous because I would be tangled in said recumbent in somewhere in a ditch.

Have you ever raced a triathlon? If so, have you also ever tried strangling yourself with dental floss? I have raced exactly one triathlon, the 2006 Sea to Ski in Homer, which was a 5K run, an 8K mountain bike climb, and a 5K ski. All the 12-year-olds passed me while I was plodding out my nine-minute miles during the run, so I went ahead and crushed them on the bicycle climb. But when it came to the ski, I was so unbelievably awful that even the 80-year-old ladies on wooden skis passed me. I think I spent an hour trying to scoot out that 5K, mostly by crawling on my hands and knees and dragging my battered skis behind me. After that, I told Geoff if I was ever forced to Nordic ski again, I was going to strangle myself with dental floss. Interesting side note: I'm actually pretty good at swimming.

Suppose you were forced to either give up ice cream or bicycles for the rest of your life. Which would you give up, and why? Ice cream! Ice cream! I'm terrible at self discipline, and could use some real motivation to give it up. As it is, I'm still working on killing the Cocoa Puffs habit.

What is a question you think this questionnaire should have asked, but has not? Also, answer it. If you could race anyone in a mountain bike race, who would it be? I'm going to go with George W. Bush.

You’re riding your bike in the wilderness (if you’re a roadie, you’re on a road, but otherwise the surroundings are quite wilderness-like) and you see a bear. The bear sees you. What do you do? Yeah. This is not all that interesting of a question, if only because this has happened to me on more occasions than I have fingers to count. If I see a bear, and the bear sees me, the bear runs away. Every time. As to what I'd do if the bear didn't run away - now there's an interesting question. I'm going to go with "pray."

Now, tag three biking bloggers. List them below. I'm not even sure they'll see this post, but I'm going to go ahead and pick three burly northern biker grrrls.

And finally, Sierra, who recently posted the best picture of a Pugsley I have ever seen:

Is this a great bike or what?
Monday, July 21, 2008

Snain in July

Date: July 21
Mileage: 12.1
July mileage: 480.9
Temperature: 49

I shuffled across yet another petrified snowfield, rain-washed to an icy sheen and so slippery I was sure my soon-to-be-horizontal body was destined to slam into a tree. But I kept it vertical and splashed down into yet another puddle, beginning the climb anew atop foot-repellent roots and glistening boulders. The weather forecast had called for a 20 percent chance of rain - 20 percent! Which in my experience means little to none, and I dressed for it. But now my thin shell felt about one ounce of liquid away from dissolving completely, my polyester pants were saturated, my toes and fingers were numb beyond usability, and still the rain came down. It showed no signs of letting up. If anything, the rain was picking up velocity, and the temperature was dropping, and I was woefully underdressed. And why was I still climbing Mount Jumbo in the rain, when the storm was so socked in I couldn't see beyond the next boulder and the footing so treacherous and tentative that I couldn't even count it as good exercise? I think I was afraid of the mild chill already creeping into my core, which only promised to get worse once I stopped climbing. And the snowpack wasn't as bad as I'd feared and I was making good time, so there was still a chance of making the peak. And after everything I've put up with while hiking this month, I deserve a peak.

But then I started to feel a strange sensation on the back of my neck - still like driving rain, but with an edge. A sharp, icy edge. I looked up from the slippery trail to see thick, spear-like drops shooting through the air, mostly gray but with flecks of white. They hit my skin like needles, like daggers, like ... could it be? ... that icy mixture of snow and rain that plagues this place for much of the winter? Snain? Snain in July? Even at 3,000 feet, I could hardly believe it. But my reaction was swift and decisive. Peak was out of the question. I will now forever call my arbitrary turnaround spot "Snain Summit."

And I will return to hike another day. I am not going to let this anti-summer month beat me.

Motivational poster

This one is for Geoff ...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Glug, glug, glug

Date: July 20
Mileage: 30.4
July mileage: 468.8
Temperature: 48

Was it really just two weeks ago I was singing the praises of riding in the rain?

Yeah. I'm over that now.
Saturday, July 19, 2008

I totally called it

Date: July 19
Mileage: 31.1
July mileage: 438.4
Temperature: 49

I think it was about a week or so ago when I woke up mid-dream - a rare occurrence for me - with the images still lingering in my mind.

"I just had this dream that you took fourth in Crow Pass," I said to Geoff, who was sitting at the computer.

"Huh," he said, completely disinterested. As my friend (who has a 6-month-old daughter) likes to say, 'No one cares about your babies or your dreams.'

But still I persisted. "Yeah. You were on the Crow Pass trail. It was really snowy. Almost winter-like. There was snow on the trees. You ran across the finish line and you were in fourth place."

And Geoff, who at one week before the actual race was still sleeping 10-12 hours a night and had struggled through only a handful of short training runs since the end of the Great Divide Race, just laughed. At that point, one week before the actual race, he wasn't sure he was even going to bother starting. "If I do," he told me. "I'm going to run it as a slow training run. I'm not going be anywhere near the front."

Today Geoff called me to report that he not only started, but actually finished the Crow Pass Crossing. In fourth place.

He actually remembered me telling him about my dream. The first thing he said when I answered the phone was, "You were right."

All said and done, Geoff had a really good race. He finished in 3:17:53, which is about 10 minutes slower than his winning time last year. But the conditions were tougher this year - a ton of rain yesterday made the trail pretty wet, and there also was a lot more snow at higher elevation. The winner's time this year was 3:09. Considering the Geoff was almost ridiculously undertrained and still complaining about physical fatigue left over from the GDR, going into Crow Pass with a plan to race it was huge risk. But he said he felt good during the race, and doesn't feel too bad in the aftermath.

"I felt like I didn't have a low gear and I didn't have a high gear," he said. "I didn't have much for the climb. And then at the flat stretch at the end, when everyone in the pack started to break away, I couldn't keep up."

Although I wanted to scold him for pushing his limits when he was just barely starting to show signs of real recovery, I'm glad that Geoff did well in Crow Pass. It's one of his favorite races - the kind that he'd put A-game focus on in any other year. Plus, I think this will give him a good mental boost as he starts training for the Wasatch 100. He was pretty despondent after the GDR, and I was worried some of his passion would slip.

The article about the race is here.

And the ADN did a preview article in Saturday's paper.

On the home front, we've had 2.93 inches of rain fall since Friday morning, which is nearly an inch more precpitation than the rain that fell in all of June. It's been a bit soggy. Yesterday, as some friends and I huddled inside during our summer "barbecue," my friend Libby said, "I have this terrible feeling that summer is over." "Oh, it's bound to get better," I said. But then I thought about it. The 10-day weather forecast doesn't offer any optimism, and that takes us through the end of July. In 2006, Juneau was dark and cold and rainy during the entire month of August. And by September and October, sun optimism belongs only to the religious and the crazy. Summer really could be over.

I hope I don't have a dream about that.
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Granite Creek Basin

Date: July 17
Mileage: 16.0
July mileage: 407.3

I rolled into the Rainbow Foods parking lot covered in mud and soaked to the skin with melted snow and rust-colored creek water. Geoff was sitting outside with his cell phone, trying to clear up yet another FedEx bike shipping debacle. Since FedEx is the only bike-shipping option in town, we just have to put up with the prospect of sending our bicycles into a delay vortex where there is always that 3 percent chance they may never emerge. We have learned to take it in stride, like the weather, although the sun hasn't come out, once, since before Geoff returned to town on July 4. "But it was so nice in June," I protested, to deaf ears. That frightening "M" word, Moving, is seeping into our conversations with increasing frequency. There isn't much I can do about it, so I take it in stride.

Geoff asked me how my ride went, and I told him the Perseverance Trail was fun as always, but the ride was really more of a commute to a hike than anything. "How did that go?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "I wandered around lost for a while. And then I kicked up some snow fields. Then I wandered around lost some more. Then I found the approach to the ridge. Then I wandered around blind in the clouds for a while. Then I found what I was pretty sure was the frozen lake just before the ridge. But since I could no longer tell steep from flat, or up from down for that matter, I opted against climbing any higher. Then I turned around. Then I slipped on some ice and fell a long way down a snow field. Then I wandered around lost. Then I finally found the trail to my bike, and then I rode here."

I had to laugh at myself, because the summary made it sound so awful. It was true that all of that happened. The stubborn, lingering-into-late-July snow fields did make the route particularly hard to navigate. I could see where I wanted to go, but never knew if I was going to end up at the bottom of an unclimbable cliff or beside a raging stream hidden beneath the rotten snow. I did lots of turning around. When I finally did find my way to (well, near) the top, I couldn't tell the ground from sky. Everything was gray snow and gray fog, interrupted by streaks of black that were either rocks or drops into a deadly void. And when I did finally drop below the cloud level, I stepped on a frozen-solid patch of snow and went hurtling down the mountain on my butt at an uncontrollable speed, frantically digging my bare fingers into the hard, ice-shard-studded snow until I finally stopped. Then I wiped the slush off my clothes with my bleeding hands, and from that point on took every step very tentatively. It took me forever to baby-step back to the basin, where I would wander around lost looking for the trail until the bitter end.

And yet I was feeling great when I finally reached Rainbow Foods, muddy and soaked just in time for dinner. A day's hard effort was behind me, and that felt good, despite the truncation of my original plans. I thought about the break I took, crouching down on a snow slope just above the Granite Creek Basin. I ate my Power Bar and listened to the roaring streams and wind echo through the valley. Clouds crept up from the lower canyon and closed in around me while little gray birds hopped around on the snow near my feet. Everything about that moment felt right, and earned, and I don't think I would have traded it for a sunny day on perfectly dry trails.

I love it here. I love hiking here. Even when the weather is crap and fog chokes the sky and its starting to rain and there's no end in sight. I love these places, and the adventure of getting to them.

Although I really do need to obtain an ice ax and crampons.

Getting my road legs back

I basically just shot this silly photo to illustrate that, despite my retro-grouch pretensions, I am capable of wearing full-body spandex and clipless pedal shoes.

Date: July 15 and 16
Mileage: 42.2 and 53.8
July mileage: 391.3

I spent the last two months exclusively riding my mountain bike. I did so because: a. I was spending a lot of time on trails; b. I was training for a mountain bike race; c. My road bike was in poor, poor condition. Now that a. The trails are soaking up water again; b. I feel like I am killing time while I wait for a good weather window so I can go nuts on the hiking season; c. My road bike has been upgraded to poor condition ... it seemed like a good time to tempo-ride on pavement.

The 30-mile ride along Douglas Highway and back has taken me as long as three and a half hours to pound out. Those rides were among my most exhausting - rolling the balloon tires through six inches of unplowed snow into some ungodly cold windchill. In the summer, on a good day, those same miles are nearly effortless. The way to inject effort into them is to crank up the speed - something I'm not good at focusing on for any length of time because I too easily slip into daydreams and find myself riding on autopilot (my autopilot is slow.) But when I noticed a light wind and strong-feeling legs Tuesday morning, I thought I should try to crank out a faster-than-normal pace. Those tiny (28 mm) tires coasted over the tarmac, and after I crested above Douglas City, I was able to keep the speed over 20 mph for most of the eight miles to the Eaglecrest cutoff. After that, I fell off my pace a few times while daydreaming, and dropped a bit more climbing the last hill and then turning to face the wind ... but when I rolled home the odometer still clocked an 18.2 mph average. I was back in an hour and a half. Certainly not blazing fast by roadie standards, but not a bad start. I began to have crazy ambitions about time-trialing the route and establishing a standard that I can laugh at longingly as I launch back into my three-and-a-half-hour slogs this winter. But before I get any ideas about road time-trialing, I should probably think about getting a bike with some drop handlebars ... one that doesn't have a rear rack ... or fenders ... or fork-mounted bottle cages ... and weighs less than 28 pounds.

But I still felt good about the Douglas ride, so I set out today for more road riding out to the Valley. I made a few stops so my average speed wasn't as high, but I did take a lot of silly pleasure in leapfrogging a single city bus for most of the 12 miles between Auke Bay and downtown. Every time I passed it, I would look up at the windows and try to catch the eye of one of the bored passengers trapped inside. I hoped they see me and think, "Wow, this bus is so slow that even a person on a bike can stay ahead of it. Maybe I should ride my bike to town next time." Yes, I do have a rich daydream world.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

White silence

Date: July 14
Mileage: 8.1
July mileage: 295.3

When I woke up to rescue my drenched and crying black cat from the windowsill, I knew today was not going to be my lucky day. The sky was washed in liquid gray and clouds had crept down almost to sea level. The weather instantly drowned ambitions to wake up early and climb up Blackerby Ridge. Who wants to climb into soggy, foggy nothingness? I went back to sleep.

Later, some hours later, I woke up, again, groggy from too much sleep, and tried to reassess my morning plans. It seemed another damp bike ride was in order, but I could not get excited about it. When I'm in bike mode, the weather doesn't bother me as much. But lately, all I want to do is climb, higher, and it seems every day the weather hangs over my ambitions like a gray curtain.

But it's summer, short summer, and its briefness nags at me. I have so much I want to do and such a short time to do it, I might as well work on getting in shape so I can take full advantage should a good weather window ever open. The hike to Gold Ridge seemed good because it's short and well-defined and nearly impossible to get lost, even in the thickest, soupiest fog. As I rode my bike across the bridge, I saw four cruise ships moored at the dock. Not as bad as seven - but four ships definitely promised a traffic jam near mid-mountain, where the Mount Roberts Tram releases hundreds of tourists who tend to straddle the trail with cameras and generally block forward motion. Still not deterred, I pedaled up to the trailhead and set my watch. I wanted to reach the tram in a half hour.

I still can't run up this thing, but I can maintain a brisk, 4-mph pace. Even still, my heart pounded and my thoughts zoomed in on the rhythmic steps. I hardly noticed that the fireweed had started to come out, the blueberry bushes glistened with dew and the cow parsnip was nearly shoulder-high. This short summer is streamrolling by me, and I have to hike as hard as I can to keep up with it.

After two miles of seeing nobody, the trail above the tram, as expected, was packed. I try to be as courteous as possible but I often feel like I'm swimming upstream amid a swarm of lethargic salmon. So I weaved and expressed my apologies for cutting through and sometimes heard the funniest questions. One woman who did not seem to want to cross a snow field asked me if her feet would get wet. Another man said, probably to himself, that the wildflowers here weren't nearly as good as the flowers in Montana. Then, as the trail wound higher and the clouds really started to settle in, another man asked me if I thought the view would be any better at the top. "I really doubt it," I said. He seemed to waver in that spot, uncertain whether he should turn around. The view-seeking tourists thinned out. I charged higher.

The fog becomes interesting when it gets so thick that you can look down and your feet are obscured. It bunches and flows, so sometimes windows open up to points thousands of feet below, and sometimes you can't even see around the next bend. Fog makes the mountain a different world, even as dreamlike as the world above treeline is, fog takes that dream and cloaks it in colorblindness. It has no smell and no sound; it mutes the tourist chatter and masks the inferior flowers. It dampens the air to the point of equilibrium and covers every feature in papery flatness. It's a world without senses - a white silence. As I kicked my way up toward Gastineau Peak, the noise from my steps in the snow was shattering against that silence. So I stopped for the few short minutes I had left, to soak in my view of nothing.

In my memory I knew there was a real view out there, sweeping along the ridgelines, touching the ice field and Admiralty and Douglas Islands, dropping into the city and along the Channel some 3,200 feet down. And I knew that just on the other side of this curtain there were stark snowfields and spiny little tundra plants and stacked boulders. But today at the top there was only the white silence, and I can't believe I nearly missed it.
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Great Divide dreams

Date: July 13
Mileage: 45.8
July mileage: 287.2

Well, Jenn Hopkins hit the Mexican border early this morning, making her the seventh and last finisher of this year's Great Divide Race. Given that this English singlespeeder who I had never heard of before last month is my new hero, I was really happy to hear she finished. But, like all endings, the news was bittersweet. This means no more call-ins, no more blog to update, no more racers to worry about and times to track. The Great Divide Race has been a huge part of my life this summer. Even beyond Geoff preparing for and competing in this year's race, which would have kept me glued to the updates in and of itself, I became intimately involved through the blog. Listening to the daily messages and attempting to transcribe them made me feel like I was right there on the sidelines, watching the racers struggle and succeed even as I went about my normal life thousands of miles away. It was great, really great, and I wanted to say thanks to Pete for letting me be involved, and also thanks to the racers for participating in the grand drama. There is a reason I no longer watch TV. Reality has forever ruined it for me.

It was hard when Geoff dropped out of the race. But the effort put in by the remaining racers, the heart and the grit, actually did help temper the disappointment - for Geoff as well as myself. I have to admit that when Pete first sent me the list of starters for the 2008 race - Geoff, Carl, Fred, a couple of previously unsuccessful GDR veterans and a bunch of people I had never heard of - I didn't expect much from this year's race. So it was even more exciting to watch John Nobile break the course record; for Carl, Rainer and Simon to pull in under 20 days; for Fred to tackle the granddaddy of the Mountain West's ultraendurance races, pretty much all of which he's finished; for Noah to finish on his second attempt and for Jenn to finish at all, given all the hardships she pushed through. A good year for sure.

And a good field - despite the recent division of Great Divide racing. Like many, I too was originally disappointed when I first learned about the creation of the Tour Divide. I feared a squabbling end to the Great Divide Race and bitter feelings remaining for most involved. But, as it turned out, both races worked out beautifully. Both attracted strong fields and both developed their own voices, their own compelling stories and inspiring efforts as the races progressed. One one hand, it's strange to divide what is really a small, small community. On the other hand, this year proved that there's not only room for two events in Great Divide racing, there may even be a need. Tour Divide has its passion and sense of community. Great Divide Race has its history and competitive spirit. Together, they coaxed more people to race this crazy route than ever before. I like to think of it as similar to the American League and the National League in baseball - separate but equal.

That said, my heart is with the Great Divide Race, and I really hope to see it survive. I noticed on the Web site there is already a "2009" stamped on the start date, so it looks like someone is thinking of giving it a go next year. This is great news for me, because it helps set some framework around my most audacious dreams, which simmer well on the backburner but tend to not stop once they start boiling over. Would I ever toe the line? Hard to say. I didn't think Geoff would actually do it when he announced his plans in June 2007, and look where we are today. I'm still not sure I'd even want to toe the line, though. Dave Harris put my conflicting feelings about the race well: "Every year I get excited for the first week of it, and then I see how much nearly everyone breaks down and it doesn’t look so attractive." The Great Divide Race does seem an impossible thing to do without digging a deep physical and financial deficit. That said, the best life experiences demand enormous debts - look at college.

Would I even stand a chance of finishing the Great Divide Race? Hard to say. Twenty-four days is a more-than-reasonable cutoff, accessible to most who are reasonably prepared, mentally determined and don't hit too many strokes of bad luck. I love the idea of riding fast as I can, pushing as hard as I can, out there alone - because no matter how many people show up at the starting line, you are in this race alone. But I also like the idea of touring with friends, soaking up companionship and scenery as the days loll by. Two very different approaches - both rewarding in their own ways. I'm still not sure which is right for me.

What I do know is this route has rendered its way into my dreams, stretching over my day-to-day thoughts like the distant horizon of the Great Divide Basin. I should see it because it's my country. I should see it because it's beautiful. I should see it because it's frightening. I should see it because it's humbling. I should see it because it's already a part of me. I should see it because otherwise it will haunt me. I should see it. Someday.
Saturday, July 12, 2008


Date: July 9-12
Mileage: 20.2, 18.0, 80.7 and 6.1
July mileage: 241.4

Well, I'm back from another 36-hour trip to Haines. In hindsight, this one wasn't a wonderful idea, given the expense, Geoff's crushing fatigue, and a less-than-stellar weather forecast. It's the kind of thing that happens on a Thursday morning when two people are lazing around a messy house with diminishing motivation and a "what should we do today?" conversation that lingers over hours. When it's decided that any daylong outdoor activity would be less than fun in the cold rain, it's only a matter of time before you start scrolling the Alaska Marine Highway site and grabbing up a couple of tickets for a ferry that leaves in three hours. Then, once you board the boat, you're kinda stuck with your spur-of-the-moment decision. As the ferry inched northward, Geoff and I set up plastic chairs on the solarium and gazed out at the gray-washed seascape. "It's too bad we can't just bike there," I said. "It would be faster than this." "We could swim there faster than this," Geoff replied.

But the fact was, Geoff wasn't about to swim or bike anywhere. He still feels tired most of the time, sleeps whenever he can and is becoming increasingly frustrated by his physical fatigue. He says the feeling is similar to having huge masses of dead muscle in his legs - an excess of tissue with no power. He did not want to go biking with me. Anywhere. And although I was itching to head up to the pass, I didn't want to be gone all day on a bike ride if he was just going to nap around camp. So I motored out to the border instead, trying to hurry but not pushing too hard against my own vicarious tiredness.

I was still surprised how fast the ride went, even with me failing to take full hammering advantage of the tailwind that became a monstrous headwind on the way back. I was able to knock off the 80 miles in 4:45, including snack and photo breaks, and beat my deadline back to camp even though I rode nearly twice as far as I said I was going to. I know that's not fast by roadie standards, but even the minimal speed advantage of my own rickety, flat-bar road bike surprised me after a couple of months almost exclusively riding 29-inch knobbies. I almost feel like getting a real road bike would make cycling too easy. Where would the fun be? Certainly not in taking the edge off 40 miles of harsh headwind (oh, wait...)

But it was nice for the cycling to only take a five-hour chunk out of the weekend, and sleep and food to consume the other 31. Geoff and I toured the town and found a lot of interesting hidden nooks. We ate at a few typically overpriced, underwhelming Alaska restaurants, including a little Mexican place that seduced us with unique atmosphere but proved to be unspectacular after all. All in all, kind of a lazy, lolling weekend - which I guess is what summer is all about.
Thursday, July 10, 2008

I knew it wouldn't take long ...

For Geoff to want to get out of town.

But we're going to Haines this weekend, where I will try to convince Geoff to ride a bike and he will try to convince me to take naps.

At least I finally got my road bike in semi-working condition. It feels like a rocket ship compared to my Karate Monkey, although it's really as rickety as ever.

For those who have been watching the Great Divide Race updates, I will try to keep on top of those, but unless I can get ahold of Pete, they may be a bit sporadic in the next 48 hours.

But before I go, I just wanted to leave my fan-girl homage to one burly mountain biker from the UK, from one rickety road biker in the AK:

Go Jenn, go!
Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Rain's back

Date: July 8
Mileage: 37.1
July mileage: 116.4

When I told Geoff it didn't rain in June, he didn't believe me. So we looked it up: A mere 2.07 inches spread across 30 days. In Juneau, that's the same as not raining. "It would be just like Juneau to start up again the moment you came back to town," I said after waking up to another thick layer of liquid sunshine over the Channel. And it would be just like Geoff to miss the best part of summer and return to the waning daylight and strengthening precipitation ... prime conditions to temper new desires to get out of town.

I have been trying to drop hints that I want him to go hiking with me, but he is still in deep recovery from the Great Divide Race, eating multiple breakfasts and taking naps inbetween. Through it all, he's trying to train for the Crow Pass race. But I think he's just now beginning to realize what's left inside the shell of himself - amazing what eight days can destroy - but I know that any couch time this week can only do him good. So I set out on my own in the pouring rain, sticking to the bike because the mountains were socked in. It took me a while to work through the old gearing-up process. My PVC jacket was nowhere to be found. Same with my neoprene gloves - remnants of reality buried in the gear pile, somewhere, beneath my oh-so-rarely-usable short-sleeve jerseys. I pulled on my tattered rain pants and grabbed an extra pair of wool socks stuffed in a zippy. I felt no anticipation or dread about the conditions. Rain's just a given in Juneau, even when it's been gone for a month. It's like riding a bike. You don't forget.

The stream of water pouring off my front wheel had me squinting immediately. A friend in Whitehorse removed my front fender himself after mercilessly teasing me about it. "But I'm from Juneau," I protested. "We all have fenders and it's not even considered dorky." Then I neglected to put it back on when I came back to town. I regretted that move today, but not really. Plenty of water dumps from the sky; who cares what comes from the ground?

With eyes half open and mouth clamped shut, I began to hit my stride. Sharp raindrops rode the gusting east wind and I could smell the tidewater, rich with salt and sweet with rotting seaweed. Those are the kind of smells that dissapate with dryness until you almost forget they're there - like the earthy mulch, the bark and lupine, bursting out of the ground in a swirl of fragrance. Rain seeped through my helmet and dripped down my face. It tasted sweet and earthy, too. Tufts of fog rose from the treetops like steam as darker clouds crept down the mountains. There was something about the weather that was not just tolerable, but maybe even ... enjoyable? And I kind of missed the way rain felt, cold and refreshing against sweat and skin.

You know you've become a true Juneauite when you begin to miss the rain.

Remind me of that when September sinks in.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Date: July 6 and 7
Mileage: 22.0 and 8.7
July mileage: 79.3

I had nearly reached Gold Ridge when my watch hit 60:00:00, about three miles and 2,700 feet elevation since 0:00:00. Not bad for a walk. Could I take it to a run? I've never really been interested in running anywhere before, but for some reason I'm interested in running this Mount Roberts trail. I'm interested in running these mountains in general - to take it faster and farther than I've ever been able to before.

Faster and farther. With Geoff back in town and a few long-suffering racers still on the route, the Great Divide Race has been a heavy topic of discussion in recent days. When I am alone on my bike - and more often than that this month, on my feet - my thoughts often return to the question of whether or not I could ride the GDR. I feel motivated by the glimmer of excitement sparked by distant dreaming. But I end up kicking the scree or mashing my pedals when I arrive at the sheer absurdity of it all. All my past experience tells me I could not finish the GDR. All my past experience tells me it's impossible.

I was somewhere in the hills of Southern Ohio in fall 2003 when I just couldn't make the pedals turn anymore. My mind said go but my knees said no, and without another protest we were off the bike and walking, up the road, the finish line in upstate New York still unthinkably far away. Rather than becoming stronger every day, I was slowly breaking down, and I crossed those last three states on increasingly larger doses of pure willpower. And those weren't big miles back then. We were touring ... averaging 50 miles a day ... on pavement. The miles I've ridden since 2003 are exponential compared to the miles I put in before my cross-country tour. But still, the difficulties of that experience linger. They remind me that I am, at my core, just an ordinary person with ordinary abilities.

"It was really easy, until it wasn't," Geoff told me. "It was beautiful and enjoyable riding and great people, until my body gave up. And when my body gave up, my mind quickly followed."

I remember those hills in Ohio. More than all the mountains in the Rockies, they shattered me. Of all the things I learned from bicycle touring, I know emotionally there are wildly fluctuating days of good and bad. Mentally, the hardships get easier. But physically, the line seems to only trend downward.

And then there's faster and farther. I've watched Geoff scamper up Mount Roberts like a care-free mountain goat, fading into the clouds as I gasped and clawed my way up points far behind. He can coast up these trails effortlessly at a near-sprint; I get winded on a walk; and the GDR broke him. Where would that leave me? The ordinary person?

Faster and farther. If someone had pulled me aside on that road in Ohio in October 2003 and showed me a map of Alaska and the trails I would travel in the next five years, the rides I would not only attempt but finish, I would have never believed them. I was already on the bicycle ride of a lifetime, a lifetime, and it was harder than I ever imagined, and was more rewarding than I even anticipated, but Alaska would be another league entirely. Alaska would be impossible.

Still, it's fun to dream, even about things that may never, and maybe could never, happen. Because if there's anything I've learned from Alaska, I know where I take my ordinary abilities is entirely up to me. I get to set the limits. Faster and farther.