Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September I'm in love, still

Frost-crusted silt crunched under our boots as we walked along the Mendenhall Lake shoreline. It was nearly midnight; the sky was washed in stars; the orange tint of the setting moon cast a warm glow over the water, sparkling with the night. Mountains cut massive silhouettes through the encompassing shimmer. I glanced upward in wonder, startled by the simple vastness of the moment, sandwiched as it was between two mundane workdays.

We lingered late by the fire and set up camp atop a thickening layer of frost. I own but one truly warm sleeping bag. It's rated to 40 below zero - my favorite piece of gear. I curled up in my own private mountain of 800-fill down, billowing heat and perfect comfort, lulled to sleep by the vast simplicity of life.

We were up at sunrise, a direct consequence of the mundane demands of a Tuesday, but the world stayed still for a moment, frozen in ice.

First snow, first frost - the drum beat toward winter. It makes me feel excited and anxious, content and alive.

I still had several hours to kill before I had to be at my own job as the morning brightened into the kind of day that touches on the sublime. Some northern municipalities have "powder days." In Juneau, we have "sun days" - those days where all of your co-workers call in sick; people wave as they pass you on the street; commuters grin from their cars. Everyone wants - no, needs - to get outside, even if they have laundry to do, even if their leg muscles feel slightly shredded and they have to eat Twix Bars for breakfast because they haven't been grocery shopping since August. It doesn't matter. Sun days trump all.

I hiked up Mount Jumbo because it's convenient, fast, and I've climbed it so many times that I understand the obstacles well enough to jog on the way down. Plus, it's west-facing and washed in sunlight.

Temperatures rose quickly, into the mid-50s, but the ice of the morning still clung to the trail. I moved with speed and purpose and didn't slip once - one of my smoothest mountain traverses by far.

An awesome way to wrap up an awesome month.

September I'm in love

As a general rule, Juneau has "two months that just suck," also known as the rainy season - September and October. One of my largest apprehensions about returning here a couple months ago was that my fourth fall in Southeast Alaska was quickly approaching, and I faced the reality of enduring a swath of changes beneath a mood-dampening ceiling of liquid gray.

Then September came in a rush of mountains, flickering windows of sunlight and brilliant color. I feel like nearly every day offered something exciting and new, familiar and reflective. All the right moments came at all the right times. I'm a bit blissed out on the whole month right now, exhausted and just about ready for the crushing rain of October to force me to take a break - but not quite.

I woke up early Monday morning to take John to the airport, leg muscles still tender, nursing a large cup of the "high octane" tar water from the Breeze-In. But the day was nice ... the cloud ceiling was high ... there was clearing to the east ... and I had a lot of time to kill before work.

I headed up Heinzleman Ridge. It was really, really hard to get going at first. My "hiking" muscles didn't hurt at all, and the effort helped mask the soreness in my recently overworked biking muscles - but mostly, I just wanted to sleep. Still, there was a genuine frost to the air that prompted me skyward. First snow - even the mere prospect of first snow, somewhere up there, up high - always ignites my "kid on Christmas Eve" sleep-busting synapses.

Then I found it above the 3,500-foot level. Climbing a few thousand feet doesn't feel as difficult as it used to - do it three to seven times a week, and you get a lot better at it.

I came across a fresh wolf kill near the second "summit" of Heinzleman. Clean bones and a frenzy of fresh tracks in the crusted snow.

Those sure are some big puppies.

I think it used to be a mountain goat. I circled the area, examining their tracks, trying to determine the size of the pack and which direction they went. I couldn't discern either. I guess I should have been somewhat afraid, loitering as I was around a fresh carcass, but I had a hunch those wolves were long gone.

Quickly, the high peaks are being enveloped. I'm still trying to figure out how to shape my winter here in Juneau. Sadly, it can't involve a glut of mountain trekking I've enjoyed this fall. I still lack the required skill set and gear. But I do plan to start at the ground level of learning. I am a perpetual enthusiastic beginner.

I'm starting with working through my fear factor by coping with knife ridges. I inherited a natural dose of vertigo from my mother, but if I can push instinct aside and focus solely on the intellectual challenge of negotiating the route, I've found that mountain puzzles can actually be a lot of fun ... after you're down, of course.

Down just in time for work, body only a little bit worse for the wear, with my soul soaring through the clearing skies. I can't even keep track of how many "mountain highs" I've experienced this month. I don't get sick of them, not in the slightest. I am slightly worried that I'm becoming addicted to them, but I'll deal with that amid what will almost certainly be a long October withdrawal. After all, Juneau's rainy season has to pay out eventually.

Meanwhile - Thank you, September.
Monday, September 28, 2009

Fall Tour

I haven't had a chance to post my pictures for a couple of days. It was a whirlwind tour and it's been a whirlwind since, but I have a few minutes to breathe as I wait to pick up a friend at the airport on a frosty clear fall morning.

The Golden Circle, which is actually shaped more like a broken triangle, is a 370-mile route of connecting roads between Haines and Skagway, Alaska, two towns that are geographically only about 20 miles apart. I'd done the ride twice before, once in each direction, and this year invited my friend John from Connecticut to join me on what is becoming my annual fall tour. He was able to secure a tight window before a business trip and scheduled the six connecting flights it takes to get here from the East Coast. We were on the ferry within hours of his arrival.

I was apprehensive about this trip because it really is a long distance, with climbing, to cover in three days on a loaded bike. In the past, I've trained specifically for this trip. This year, my late-summer riding has been limited between recovery from the Tour Divide, followed by heavy focus on hiking. Sure enough, my biking-specific muscles, namely my quads and lower back, started to feel sore before we even crossed into Canada.

But the weather was much nicer than expected - cloudy and only light sprinkles instead of the anticipated 40 degrees and pouring. In the rush and confusion of packing late the night before, I had basically brought enough gear for an Arctic expedition. I guess I decided that what I lacked in muscle strength, I'd make up for in sheer bulk.

It was a nice security blanket to have as we chugged toward Haines Highway Summit, however. The Canadian border guard issued us a dire warning about snow at the pass and certain death to all who chose to cycle through. Snow swirled through the clouds surrounding us, but never hit us directly.

I've ridden the Haines Highway more than a mountain-bike owner who has to endure a three-to-five-hour boat ride to get here probably should. It still takes my breath away every time.

Day one was a 160-mile leg between Haines and Haines Junction, on top of a four-mile early-morning ride to get to the ferry terminal. Due to a less-than-ideal ferry schedule, we weren't on the road until after 11 a.m. I had braced myself for a 1 a.m. or later arrival into Haines Junction, but a forceful tailwind pushed us north. I knew we'd have to pay for that prevailing wind in the next two days, but it sure made the first day go smooth. We coasted into Haines Junction at 9:30 p.m. Alaska time, headlights reaching out into a cool, traffic-free night.

I'm practically useless in the morning, and I haven't yet convinced John that I'm slow enough to require a full day to ride a century, so we lazed around Haines Junction, had a huge breakfast, and weren't on the road again until after 11 a.m. Friday.

It was a beautiful day on the Alaska Highway. The 100 miles between Haines Junction and Whitehorse on the Al-Can is generally considered to be a "connector," a necessary chore to pound out between the Coastal Mountain legs. But for not being very "scenic," it sure is pretty.

Despite our late start, we still stopped for a long lunch. We're on vacation, after all.

Our beautiful tailwind from the day before shifted just enough to become a 15-20 mph headwind, blasting our faces as we churned through chip-seal on our way into Whitehorse. We still made it by sunset. My friends Jenn and Ben cooked up a massive pasta dinner, and we kicked back and mostly talked about mountain biking. After two days of solid daylong effort, my quads felt like they had been pounded by a meat tenderizer, and Sierra's descriptions of Carcross trails and her new massive downhill bike were so tempting. We were facing 110 miles of solid headwinds and climbing the following day, but if we gave into temptation, Sierra was willing to shuttle us 50 miles in exchange for a few hours of hucking on dry autumn trails. I asked John if he was dead-set on riding the whole loop since he hadn't done it before. When he said he didn't care, Sierra and I set up the shuttle.

We got up late in the morning again and rode 25 miles out of town. Sure enough, the headwind had strengthened to a deafening roar, and my legs felt like mush. Sierra and Jenn rolled by in a truck loaded with squishy mountain bikes, and I was so thrilled to see them. We were on vacation, after all.

We headed up high to blast down the Carcross trail system, one of only a handful of trails I've ridden in my life that were specifically built for mountain bikes. I'm so used to riding gravel roads and choppy hiking trails that riding singletrack with that much effortless flow is an almost transcendent experience. It put my mushy legs and the hard southeast headwind far, far out of my mind.

Sierra bought an A-line downhill bike as a gift to herself for recently completing an Ironman. Not only is she an Ironwoman, she's also pretty fearless on big bikes.

I borrowed her all-pink mountain bike - Sheera, the Princess of Power. It convinced me that my next new bike is almost certainly going to be full-suspension. We rode over railroad ties and it felt like floating on pillows.

The trails at Carcross are fairly new and still limited, but this place seems to have the potential of becoming the mountain biking destination of the north - for Canadians, at least.

The scenery isn't too shabby, either.

After our ride, Sierra and Jenn shuttled John and me and our suddenly-pathetic-looking touring bikes several more miles south, dropping us off about 30 miles from Skagway, and 15 miles below White Pass. We churned our way to the alpine, where the southeast wind blew with spectacular stopping power. For me, fatigue set in hard. Even my downhill biking muscles - namely the fingers I use to squeeze the brake levers - were sore.

I was glad to not have an odometer so I couldn't see how slow the climb was going. At one point, John told me we were moving at 3 mph. I really have to be grateful to Sierra and Jenn, because not only was the Carcross trip a fun diversion, but I don't think I could have mentally handled 110 miles of that (which likely would have involved a bivy stop below the pass based on how late we got started.)

We crested White Pass in a light rain storm and fog, with temperatures in the high 30s. In preparation for the wet descent, which loses 3,300 feet of elevation over a mere 14 miles, I finally put on all the Arctic gear I had so dutifully dragged for 300-plus miles.

Overall, it was a super fun trip. I think John would agree. We were into Skagway by sunset, stoking our inner furnaces with spicy Thai food that night, and back on the ferry by the next morning. Maybe next September I will do something different, but there's something to be said about autumn traditions.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

See SPOT ride

This post is for the benefit of my family mostly, but I will be carrying the blinking paperweight known as SPOT around the Golden Circle this weekend. If you want to follow along with the trip, you can click on my SPOT Shared page, which should begin updating at about 11 a.m. Thursday.

I was hoping to catch the 1:15 a.m. ferry out of Juneau, but late deadlines at the Empire and last-minute bike stuff will probably force us to grab the 8 a.m. ferry instead. That means a late night into Haines Junction, or a possible bivy in the cooking shelter at the Million Dollar Campground at mile 98. SPOT will share all.

I'm pretty nervous about this trip. It's almost an understatement to say I haven't done much biking since the Tour Divide. I'm a little uncertain if I've logged 370 miles since July 16, and I'm facing that many in the next three days. But hopefully my summer base and mountain-climbing-forged quads will see me through. My butt will probably hate me come Sunday. I'm hoping that's the only unhappy part of my body.

Weather is looking to be marginal, as expected. High winds Thursday, although with any luck they'll be tailwinds. 60 percent chance of rain, highs in the 40s, lows near freezing. Snow is forecast for Haines Highway on Thursday night. I'm planning to bring the NEOS for my frostbite toes; I'm even debating pogies. Multi-layered rain gear is key. There's no way to beat hypothermia if you're out all day when it's 40 degrees and raining unless you don't stop riding. But we won't have much time for breaks anyway.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I probably would have cancelled the trip if I hadn't talked John into coming out and riding with me. But it's going to be adventure, and as we learned in the Tour Divide, misery is just so much more fun when you have someone to share it with.

Wish me luck!

The SPOT shared page is here.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Circling the edge of the neverending

Wow ... it's been four days since I posted last. The truth is, I haven't been doing anything. Well ... that's completely untrue. I haven't been riding ... or hiking ... or running. That's a true story. And now here I sit on the eve of the eve of my third annual Golden Circle tour, something that I am completely undertrained for. But that doesn't really matter. That's life. And right now, it's the kind of life that's really best just to roll with.

I've been digging through last year's Golden Circle posts, hoping I'd convince myself the ride was easier than I remember it being. I came across this paragraph from Sept. 24, 2008, that struck me, for both its parallels and its premonitions:

"When Geoff told me he registered to run the Bear 100 this weekend, he said he mostly just wanted a good, hard effort with the alone time he needed to think about his future. I told him that's the same reason I wanted to ride around the Golden Circle again. Now he's backpacking in the desert and I'm still planning to pedal into the Yukon, a vast amount of space in which to think, and a vast number of miles to ride on less rest than I should have given myself. But I look forward to all of it. I leave soon to catch the 12:15 ferry. Wish me luck."

September 2009 has been a big month for me. Huge, in many ways - the elevation I've climbed, the new places I've traveled, the intoxicating awe I've experienced and the new relationships I've forged. Planning this bike tour is a big way to end a big month, and it means something that it's the first non-solo bike tour I've planned since 2004. That thought occurred to me when I was sitting on Grandchild Ridge, talking about alpine euphoria with my friend, Dan, when my cell phone surprisingly caught a connection with the outside world through that beautiful, vast space, and it was my friend Keith in Banff calling to plot summer 2010 adventures. My friend Christina called later to say she had read my Mount Jumbo column and wondered if I'd climb it with her. My friend Abby and I have been plotting (although not yet executing, for me at least) monstrously long runs. Now I've convinced my friend John in Connecticut to endure an epic flight just to go on a weekend tour of the Yukon. For so long, I feel like I have been on a solo journey, and suddenly I am sharing these deep and lasting experiences with other people. And it's not, or at least it doesn't feel like, a desperate attempt to stave off loneliness post-breakup. It has been a genuine forging of deep connections with others who see the world the way I see it, with wide-open eyes and the glee of a child. (And, yes, I am aware of Geoff's latest post, and that is what got me thinking about all this. He and I, despite our general lack of communication these days, still share common views of the world.)

I guess I have him to thank for both of us expanding our perspectives.

Sean and I hiked the Treadwell Ditch Trail on Saturday. He wanted to walk the whole length of the thing, something I have never been interested in because I viewed it as 13 miles of tree-shrouded monotony. But on a rainy morning, I finally committed to traipsing through the forest on a muddy, deadfall-littered, badly maintained strip of trail. We pushed through misty thickets, traversed green and gold muskeg, crossed swollen streams and paused to check out the moss-covered remnants of long-ago mining ambitions. And as we approached Douglas, and the first downtown buildings came into view through the spruce branches, I was amazed at the distance we had covered. It felt like we had walked a mile. And part of me had to wonder if the Treadwell Ditch was really so interesting, or if maybe ... it was just Sean.

Now I'm looking ahead to a number of paths, and I have no idea where they lead, but I'm genuinely OK with that. In fact, I'm excited about it. Even wandering around in dark woods has led me to some amazing places. And I'm excited to push my overused, undertrained body around the Golden Circle again. It's a vast amount of space in which to think ... and to share.
Saturday, September 19, 2009

Grandchild awesomeness

Ever have one of those days when everything works out perfectly? Like when you go to Safeway to buy cheap sushi, and they have exactly one pack of California rolls left, and exactly two packets of soy sauce remaining in the bin? Or when your avid alpine junkie friend Dan is in town for exactly one day in five weeks, and the weather has called for a 90 percent chance of rain, and you wake up to fog and go anyway, and you get, well, let me show you ...

I posted a borderline obnoxious number of pictures today, but I feel justified in indulging myself because I'm pretty sure it is probably the awesomest bundle of photographs I have ever taken.

We decided to head up the Grandchild Peaks trail. There is something mysterious and almost secretive surrounding this trail. It's not on any Juneau map that I have seen. Its entrance isn't marked in any way. Few people I've talked to about it have even heard of it. The ones who have, haven't been there. Dan, who has lived in Southeast Alaska all of his life, fell into this latter group. I jumped at the chance to introduce him to a trail that contains the best of all of Juneau's ridge day hikes combined.

Dan was feeling pretty lousy today. He just returned from a trip to Utah, where he crewed for Geoff in the Wasatch 100. I found out today that Dan actually ran the last 25 miles of the race, in the dark, at high elevation, having never run nearly that far or high before. I was impressed. I almost felt bad for dragging him up a ridge in the fog. Almost.

Dan brought along a gun in case we ran into a deer near the trail. Carrying guns on hikes seems to be a common theme among males in Alaska. I think they bring them because it makes them feel like their hike has purpose, rather than just being the frivolous activity that it really is.

He didn't find any bucks, but we did see a lot of goats. Dan often stooped over to gather clumps of matted white hair on the ground, telling me that he collected goat hair all the time, and someday he would have enough to spin it into yarn and knit it into a mountain goat hat.

We were at about 2,800 feet when we saw our first breaks in the clouds.

The partially unveiled sun offered up some dramatic light. I expected fall color to be far past peak, but the tundra did not disappoint.

The view from our lunch stop. Keith, I took this photo while I was talking to you on my cell phone. I'm really sorry I did not call you back tonight. Do you forgive me now that you've seen this photo?

Clouds continued to move through, and we caught our first glimpse of the ridgeline.

We pushed on for the first Grandchild Peak, and were hit my a sudden downpour of freezing rain. Not just cold rain, but rain that literally freezes before it hits the ground. We stood on the knife-edged ridge for a couple minutes as daggers of ice pelted our coats, debating whether to continue. We decided to continue.

I'm so glad we did.

It was up there that I had a repeat of what I call my "Cairn Peak epiphany." I often complain that Juneau is a small place, limited in scope, closed in and cut off from the world. But when I climb to these high places and look out over an expanse of land rippled with jagged mountains, cascading ice, tree-covered islands and a web of sparkling salt water, I remember that Juneau is in fact an enormous place, an insatiable place, that I have only tasted with the tip of my tongue.

Token self portrait on the peak.

Even though it was time to turn back, we found a few minutes to assess terrain and point out all of the places we would go "next time" when we had unlimited time and overnight packs and less chance of freezing rain.

There was a lot of fresh snow on the Mendenhall Towers.

More dramatic light coming down.

It's cliche to say, but pictures don't do these places justice, even in the smallest ways. But they do capture tiny frames of quiet moments, and for that I value them.

Wondering when the clouds were going to engulf us again.

Filtered light in the rainforest.

After we came down, I stopped at Safeway for dinner, scoring the last sushi and soy sauce, along with my very favorite comfort food in the world - a jug o'soda. I settled down for dinner and a sunset in my front yard (full disclosure: I actually have to cross the street and walk 25 yards down a path to get to this place.)

From my picnic spot, I could look out and watch evening settle over the ridgeline where Dan and I had just been.

It was pretty much the perfect day.