Sunday, January 31, 2010


On Saturday, Keith and Leslie surprised me with overnight reservations at the Skoki Lodge. Skoki is a National Park backcountry lodge with no running water and no electricity that can only be accessed by skiers and snowshoers. The trail starts at Lake Louise, heads up a canyon, crosses two passes and drops into a narrow valley surrounded by hanging glaciers and spectacular peaks. The lodge itself is a historic building built in the 1930s by the Banff ski club.

Five of us skied in for the night - Stuart and Anna - a couple of Brits now living in Banff - my friends Leslie and Keith, and me. I was nervous about going there as a "second-day skier," but my friends assured me that some guests went in on cross-country skis (crazy people, I tell you) so it was probably doable by me on heavy powder gear. The trail turned out to be a nicely packed, gently inclining snowmobile trail that would have been perfect for Pugsley. Thanks to its national park status, Pugsley wouldn't be allowed on that trail; still, I couldn't help but daydream about all the great "pedal turns" I could be making. But I was stuck on skis, so I made the best of it. :-)

Climbing up Deception Pass. The weather was gray with occasional snow flurries, but it wasn't socked in enough to destroy the view.

The trip into Skoki only involved one downhill run long enough to take off the skins, which I was grateful for. Despite my perception that I'm in decent shape, I was feeling exceptionally tired from the day before. I tried to explain to my friends that skiing downhill was a lot more work for me than skinning uphill, even up steep hills, because once that terrain sloped downward, I had to use so much more muscle power to fight gravity. Stuart said, "You know skis are easier if you use them instead of fighting with them." This is probably true, but when a person has two strips of fiberglass, which they can barely control anyway, that are threatening to carry them off the edge of a cornice into icy oblivion, I don't think the person can be blamed for fighting them with every ounce of energy they have. Pugsley may be a beast to push uphill, but at least he has brakes.

Look at that wedge! That's pure technique right there. But I have to admit, once I got going and no longer had time to mull over my certain doom, I actually had a lot of fun.

First tracks! Awkwardly executed. But, hey, you can't beat the scenery.

In the early afternoon we arrived at the lodge, complete with a roaring wood fire and a large spread of snacks. Even though I had already sustained some fairly mean blisters after two days in the hard boots, I also seem to suffer from something my friends call FOMO disease, which is short for "Fear Of Missing Out." So I went out for an afternoon tour. Leslie and I looked for a route to an alpine lake up a side canyon. We stopped at this lightly dusted, boulder-strewn slope for several minutes, considering the dire consequences of my trying to ski down it. We decided to turn around. Now, if I had my snowshoes, I might just have beautiful pictures of a hanging glacier over a frozen alpine lake. Yes, I know skis are more efficient. But not if your trapped in noviceland. Then you can't go anywhere fun.

Well, I guess you can go to Skoki Lodge, which is a fantastically fun place. It's a bit like a classic 1930s Euro ski experience with a bit of Bush Alaska hunting lodge thrown in. Highly recommended by this Banff tourist.
Friday, January 29, 2010

Big first day

Before I came to Banff, I'm not sure I was completely forthcoming about just how little experience I had on skis. That back when I was a snowboarding teenager, two or three times I traded gear with a skier friend for a single run, just for giggles (at each other's expense, of course.) That in 2006, I dabbled in cross-country skiing but had pretty much given it up because I spent more time on my butt and face than I did on my feet. No, when Keith asked me what my level of skiing was, I told him "beginner." I should have said "essentially a first-time beginner whose handful of ski outings only served to convince me that I was incapable of the activity."

Today, we hit Sunshine ski resort first thing in the morning. I was a complete stress case up the first lift of the day, trying to swallow an urge to hyperventilate as Keith calmly explained what we needed to do at the top of the hill. But as I coasted off the lift, much to my amazement, I didn't fall. And to my further amazement, the skis turned when I told them to. I guess it makes sense - skis are just like big extensions of feet. And when I started to think that way, flow just started to happen.

We made four runs on the lift and Keith was a fantastically enthusiastic teacher. He kept yelling out, "I didn't even tell you to do that! And you just did it!" I kept the wedge but started to make tighter turns as the day progressed. I was completely surprised that the skis were allowing me the simple pleasure of surviving down a hill. I've never been anything but a flailing mess on cross-country skis. I'm just not sure what changed. Maybe it's fat skis. Maybe it's edges. Maybe I just wanted it this time. By our fourth run, Keith took me up the intermediate lift, and I was started to forget I was even on skis, with the movement and flow evoking the feeling of being on my board, until I lapsed into a mindset that I was on a board ... which usually resulted in a few seconds of confused terror as I approached a horizon line and tried to lean onto my "back edge" (yeah, leaning back on skis ... not a good idea.)

But the four runs more than served their purpose, so it was time to go touring. We hopped the boundary line, put on skins, and delved into a part of skiing I could really get into: ski walking ... which peacefully carries skiers into beautiful and quiet places.

Here I am skinning toward some fantastically beautiful place. I should note that all of these pictures were taken by Keith, who took my camera because he wanted to document my "first time touring." I really should have just clarified the documentation as my "first time skiing," because it essentially was.

We skinned for about two hours along a ridgeline of the Continental Divide (crossing from Alberta into British Columbia), did a few turns in the powder (resulting in two serious entanglements on my part. That's one advantage of snowboarding over skiing. One piece of gear and it's difficult to get tangled in it.) We took an hour to skin back, floating over the knee-deep postholes left by boot-packing snowboarders (yeah, a skier advantage, for sure.) Then we did a few more lift-served runs. We finally ducked into the lodge at about 4 to sip coffee, dry our skins by the fire, meet up with Leslie and Stuart, and eat pizza and sweet potato fries for dinner.

By 6:30 we were back up on the hill for a "moonlight tour." We skinned up a pitch so steep I'm pretty sure it would have caused my well-worn snowshoes to slide backwards, but the skins held it together, to my amazement. We walked to the top of the lift and the scooted into the backcountry again, working our way though a thin layer of powder up yet another ridgeline. Because I had a mental image of the steep terrain we skinned up, combined with the darkness and weird depth perception, I started fight back an increasingly strong surge of fear. It almost overpowered me near the top (you know, mild panic episode.) But as soon as we started down, the fear just melted away. In the full moon light, the landscape glowed silver and blue. My friends' ski tracks carved dark shadows into a blank slate of snow, and I followed their turns like a child tracing a curving line - not perfect by any means; not even pretty. But the flow was there, and with it I found peace and satisfaction.

We returned at about 8:30, after a 12-hour day that included more than nine hours of downhill skiing and ski touring, all of it new to my brain and muscles, full of the stress and tension and fear of a novice. I'm deeply tired. My knees are sore. My hip flexors feel like a rubber band caught in a stretched-out position.

And I can understand why people love skiing.
Thursday, January 28, 2010

School is in session

I have been saying since July that this year, instead of training for a crazy difficult Iditarod cycling race, I wanted to spend the winter learning more about the ins and outs of winter backcountry travel - that is, beyond the established snowmobile and ski routes where I've ridden my bicycle and hiked in years past. It's not that I've all of the sudden become crazy about skiing - if anything, it's just the opposite. I'm starting to realize more and more that sliding down mountains (yes, even through sweet powder stashes) doesn't really thrill me all that much. I'm perfectly happy to put aside my mediocre snowboard skills to clomp into tougher, less accessible terrain with snowshoes and crampons, with which I have more control and maneuverability. Just like I am at my core as a cyclist, I am an unapologetic tourist. I am all about the traveling aspect of outdoor recreation. My turn-ons are exploration, distance, and mule-like physical labor. In other words, I'm an endorphin junkie; I have little use for adrenaline.

But I recognize that skiing is still the most efficient way to travel through the backcountry, both up and down, so I'm willing to give it a try. I'm horrible at being a beginner. I want to do things NOW and I want to go where I want to go, so I've avoided learning how to ski. But that's partly what my Banff trip is about. Learning new things.

Today, my first day in Banff, was not a ski day. I have two good friends here who are patient and understanding and willing to teach me the way I want to be taught. So instead of dragging me up bunny slopes at the ski hill (there will be some of that this week, but only some), they are taking me to more enjoyable, nontechnical places in the backcountry. And before we do any backcountry skiing, I have to learn backcountry safety. So today (which was a spectacular, beautiful, minus-10-Celsius day), my friend Keith and I went snowshoeing and he taught me the basics about scoping out avalanche danger.

We hiked up Observation Mountain, and I was thrilled that my sea-level lungs felt fine at 8,000 feet elevation. We made a quick trip up to the ridge, and because it was so comfortable out, spent a while up high gazing across the valley and picking out different avalanche scenarios and safety zones. Keith even gave me pop quizzes. I think I passed. Keith happens to be an avid skier and continued to emphasize that he must "really love" me, because the skiing conditions were ideal and he was stuck on snowshoes.

We stopped and dug a snow pit, conducting different tests so he could help me see the difference between weak and strong layers. Avalanche danger today was quite low for this region. Banff hasn't had a recent big snow or wind event, and many of the area's typical "death zones" were littered with ski tracks.

The bottom 30" (out of about 38" total) was completely solid. Keith said, "You never see this in the Rockies, never."

But you can't beat just being out on a day like today in a place like Banff. That's what I'm about. Keith said he could tell I was in my "happy place."

We took advantage of that nearly full moon to go for a night hike up Telephone Mountain just outside town. I know this isn't a great picture, but keep in mind all I have for a camera is a point-and-shoot - this is how clear and bright it was outside. Great first day on vacation.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Off to paradise

It's that time of year again, the late January lull. This is the time when most Alaskans have grown weary of several months of cold and darkness and book plane tickets to somewhere else, for a week or two of respite. We consider it our right as Alaskans. I think it might even be written into the state constitution.

I think the idea of the winter respite is to go to somewhere warm like Hawaii, and this is the track most Alaskans take. I did this last January - flew to Oahu, walked in my bare feet on the beach, rode a road bike, hiked a volcano. This year, I decided to travel to a place a little closer to my heart - albeit colder, more wintry and hopefully snowier than Juneau. I'm sitting in the Sea-Tac airport right now, waiting for a flight to Calgary. Then, it's on to Banff.

It's a completely frivolous trip. No, I'm not going there for a race. No, I'm not even going to be doing any biking (well, maybe a little). It's a ski trip (yeah, really wish I had practiced that), with a little snowboarding thrown in, and if the skiing doesn't kill me, possibly some good long runs. This trip is all about being outside in the mountains It comes at a bad time for my employer. I feel guilt about that. But right now, I need this winter respite into the wintry paradise of the Canadian Rockies. I really do.

Both of my previous visits to Banff came at anxious, angst-ridden times in 2009. The first was prior to the Tour Divide in June, when I was nervous and extremely uncertain about the prospect of undertaking that race. The second was during my drive north following my completion of the race in July, when I was feeling a lot of uncertainty about returning to Juneau. And both times, just being in Banff was a soothing, healing experience for me. I found clarity and a level of peace during my frivolous, small excursions around that mountain town. I fell in love with Banff. And the whole time, my friends told me, "If you think Banff is great in the summer, you should see it in the winter."

I planned this trip several months ago. But it just happens to come at a similarly angsty time. Only this time, instead of having a big, scary goal or a return to a difficult situation in front of me, I have all of those things behind me and only uncertainty in front of me. You could say I need some time in Banff now more than ever. And I am really looking forward to it.
Monday, January 25, 2010

I hurt

Do you ever have one of those days where you wake up in the morning and try to roll out of bed, only to be stopped by a tightly wound rope of pain? You know, those times when most of the muscles in your body contract like frightened turtles and bind you to the bed, and only a burst of willpower will release you from the sheets? Maybe you had a really hard workout the day before; or maybe you, I don't know, unintentionally did a cannonball off a small cliff, and instead of splashing down in a pool, you landed on a hard rock. That kind of pain.

But as you get up and stumble around your room, you notice that the dang addicting sun is still out. And you think that maybe what you're experiencing is just a little muscle soreness, the kind of thing you can push out with a few hard strokes on your bicycle. After all, it was just full-body contact with a rock from from five feet up. No need to be a baby about it.

And then, in a further stroke of brilliance, you decide to spin out the soreness on six miles of Mendenhall Loop road and then hit up the Lake Creek trail for a little "fun" snowbiking. You know, because the Lake Creek trail is usually a sheet of ice, and it's not like it rained a lot and then froze or anything.

Oh wait, yes it did.

But you forget about this small detail as you pedal gingerly along the pavement, thinking that this doesn't feel so bad. Those muscle pains aren't too hard to pound into submission. Then you hit the trail, and it quickly becomes obvious that it's a solid sheet of ice, so you put your foot down to turn around, and even though your tires were getting decent traction on the ice, that dang foot that slipped off the cliff yesterday just can't hold it together, and it skids backward and you and your bicycle tip over sideways.

And as you lay on the ground, with all of those sore muscles shrieking in a dissonant chorus of old and new pain, you start to wonder if your body really hates you, or maybe it's the other way around, because, really, what the hell were you thinking?
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Meek effort

This morning dawned partly cloudy with temps in the mid-20s — absolutely beautiful. I dragged myself out of bed at 8:15 a.m. (so early). I felt a bit downtrodden from going out for a long snow bike ride on Saturday, after a fairly brutal Thursday and Friday in the mountains, but I packed up my trekking gear anyway. Even though we've had a fair number of sunny days this year (for Juneau), I'm still essentially incapable of wasting even a single available second of good weather. I drag myself out of bed around sunrise even though I don't tend to go to sleep until 2 or sometimes even 3 a.m., then I drag myself outside until the very last minutes before I absolutely have to be at work. If the nice weather streak goes particularly long, I can find myself at the tail end of a 25-hour training week, sleep-deprived and sore. My house is an absolute wreck, my closet is empty, my boss is annoyed with me, my bills are stacked up on the table, my cat acts neglected and my fridge holds only string cheese and mustard. But I feel happy, so I keep at it.

Today I was all set to hike up Blackerby Ridge. But as I was driving down Egan Drive, I noticed a near-solid wall of snow tearing off the ridge in the Taku Winds. When the weather at 3,500 feet looks bad from sea level, you have to assume it's going to feel downright apocalyptic up high. But we also have a saying here in Juneau: "If you don't like the weather, drive 10 more miles."

So I looped around Douglas Island and headed to the base of Mount Meek. Because Taku Winds blow from the northeast Interior, the coastal range blocks the wind from all but the alpine regions of Douglas Island. So while Blackerby was being sand-blasted with face-freezing ice shards, Mount Meek was cool and calm. Plus, a friend already told me he had been up there on Saturday, so I knew I'd have a fresh trail to follow up what is usually a somewhat difficult route to navigate.

Mount Meek is an interesting climb, because all the tough, technical stuff is below snow line, but up top it's a straightforward hike through the powder. Before you can reach the buttery soft snowshoe stroll, though, you have to surmount a steep and icy cliff beside a gushing waterfall, using exposed tree roots for handholds as you scale glare-ice-coated notches in the near-vertical slope. It's not horrible on the way up but it's a nightmare to downclimb. I considered putting on my crampons but thought better of it, only to take a pretty bad fall near the bottom. My boot slid out on the ice step as I was groping for a branch and I fell a full five vertical feet down a small cliff, landing right on my butt. Luckily, I have a lot of cushioning in that region, and I don't think I sustained anything worse than a large bruise. One of my cheeks is almost entirely purple and I'm having a difficult time sitting in my office chair, but the bruise is high enough that it shouldn't affect bike riding too adversely, so I feel lucky to be otherwise unscathed.

It was fun to at least get one January summit, and I realized I can see my house from the top of Mount Meek! Well, not exactly, but I can see the area where my house is located, on the shore of Auke Bay in a little nook called Fritz Cove. I drew a little red dot in the general vicinity, so you can get a sense of where Juneau residents such as myself can live on the cheap. We have another saying here in Juneau: "There's no such thing as a bad location, unless you live in the Behrends avalanche run-out."
Friday, January 22, 2010

Baby steps

I had a rather unsuccessful weekend of beginner mountaineering - mainly unsuccessful in that I didn't meet my objectives, didn't really push myself too hard, and don't feel like I learned much of anything. Such is the drawback of being your own teacher. But life circumstances have left me without a viable partner who has similar hours to mine. I was just going to give it up, but I better liked a friend's recommendation to "Slay peaks anyway."

So on Thursday I got a fairly early start (cough, cough, 9 a.m.) on the Grandchild approach. I was hoping to summit the first Grandchild peak. I think her name is Jennifer. I forget who is who. Anyway, in the summer, this hike involves a 1.5 mile approach along Montana Creek followed by a ~4,000-foot climb in about three miles up the ridge. It's strenuous, but it can easily be done in an afternoon. I thought the seven-odd hours of daylight I had would be plenty.

But the weather was not conducive to fast movement. The temperature - at sea level, nearly 40 degrees - was so warm that even on the relatively flat trail along the river, I was in full-on slog mode, slopping through shin-deep snow that had the consistency of wet cement. My heart was pounding, and I hadn't even started climbing yet. As I started to gain elevation, I was sweating so profusely that I stripped down to my short-sleeved T-shirt - in January!

The heat was not doing me any favors. Because it was so warm, the snow remained heavy and soft even at the higher elevations. I had become so accustomed to cold crust that I couldn't believe how hard I was working for what felt like a snail pace. The cement snow caught my snowshoes and threatened to hold me in place with every step. My calves and thighs were burning, so I leaned hard on my trekking poles until my biceps were burning as well. In the distance I could see the Chilkat Mountains. Such a beautiful range. If and when I am ever good enough for this remote and rugged span of mountains, I would love to explore them.

Finally on the summit ridge, the wind-scoured slope became easier to navigate but much more daunting. I took off my snowshoes so I could walk on the frozen tussocks and gravel. The snow to the right is little more than a huge cornice. I don't think I took a very good picture from the bottom, but it overhung by several feet and I was terrified to touch any snow for fear the whole thing would break off.

This is the part where I struggled mightily with what I acknowledge is a fairly straightforward scramble. But the windblown snow wouldn't consolidate under my feet, and once I ran out of gravel to scramble up, I became very nervous about my footing on the loose snow.

Here is the crux point I couldn't surpass. This picture is taken from a ways back, so it doesn't look nearly as daunting as it did standing right underneath it. On the bottom left you can see my footprints where I first got spooked by the unconsolidated layer of snow on a steeper slope and turned around. I did this on several aspects, often backtracking two or three times before I reanalyzed the situation and worked up the courage to continue. (The angle was about 45 degrees. Funny how straight-up that looks when you are standing right on top of it.) Anyway, I finally got over that obstacle only to be shaken up by that next pitch. On the right is crumbling rock that I wouldn't scramble around even if it was completely ice-free. But on the left is that overhanging lip. No way around it but to punch right through. I hemmed and hawed on the prospect for nearly a half hour (it was warm enough that I could stand around.) I don't have the experience to accurately read snow, and all I could imagine was the whole cornice breaking clean off that knife ridge and plummeting to the bowl far below. Whether or not that was a realistic scenario, it's very difficult for me to take risks when I am all alone. I finally psyched myself out. It was 2:30 p.m. already and sunset was in an hour and a half. In defeat, I turned around.

But at least the sunset was nice. I finally stumbled out at 6 p.m., after nine hours on the Grandchild, completely spent. A similar hike during the summer would take me four hours, tops, at about half the level of effort. I'm beginning to appreciate more and more just how many challenges winter can dole out.

Today I decided to do something "easy" like Gastineau Peak. However, I don't have Internet access at home and neglected to check the weather before I left. Turns out it was a windy day. Northeasterly winds. And on days like that, there's pretty much no worse place to be in Juneau than the Roberts ridge.

It was crazy windy. I think it was blowing steady at 50 mph and gusting to 75 mph. I bundled up every square inch of skin so the windchill didn't bother me, but I had a difficult time staying on my feet. A gust would kick up, and I'd drop to my knees and plant my ice ax. The whole time, I scolded myself for being overly cautious. "Real mountaineers deal with wind so much worse, on actual steep and exposed terrain," I thought. But the lecture rang hollow when I could stand up and lean into the wind at a 45-degree angle without falling over. Snow pummeled my coat and if I turned to face it, even through my balaclava, I could feel the blast of ice shrapnel.

I kept at it for about an hour, until I was sufficiently mentally worn down, and those little voices that say "what the hell are you doing?" started to win out. Someday, I'm going to figure this out. But I suspect that I may not be able to do it on my own.
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Road biking in January

The only bike shop in all of Juneau, Glacier Cycles, shuttered its doors on Christmas Eve. Before I left town for my Christmas trip to Whitehorse, I stopped in one last time to clean them out of all of their lube and 29” tubes, and say goodbye to the great guys at my soon-to-be-former LBS. I felt a mixture of guilt — for all of the bike parts and gear I had purchased on the Internet — and low-level panic, because without access to a commercial bike mechanic in town, mechanically incompetent cyclists such as myself are pretty much screwed.

I knew the time would come, sooner or later, when one of my bikes would be rendered inoperable by a mechanical I could not fix. I was hoping that time would come later rather than sooner, but sure enough, yesterday I discovered a broken spoke in the rear wheel of my mountain bike (on the cassette side.) In addition to this broken spoke are several loose spokes, and a severe wobble that tells me this wheel is not far from total collapse. I’m a bit frustrated with my options. I can’t replace the spoke because I don’t have a tool to remove the cassette, and even if I did, the wheel is so out of true that I shouldn’t ride it anyway. I could go online and buy a new wheel, which is probably what I will do. But how do I install a new cassette? Is this something I’m going to have to figure out how to do myself? Am I going to have to buy tools? I am not happy. Not happy at all.

In the meantime, I can’t ride my mountain bike. I don’t like to ride Pugsley on wet roads — the result is not unlike taking a shower in a fountain of grit. Which leaves me with my road bike. I never ride my road bike in the winter. Juneau’s heavy precipitation and continuous freeze-thaw cycle guarantee a constant mess of ice, slush, gravel and mud all over the pavement. A bike with skinny tires and no studs - though considerably faster - just isn’t worth the risk. But today I wavered on my “No Road Bike In The Winter” rule. Although it still drops below freezing at night, we’re at the tail end of nearly a week of temperatures in the 30s and rain. I thought maybe, just maybe, the rain had scoured enough of the slush to make skinny tires viable.

For a couple miles, I felt almost unbelievably light and fast, like I was riding on a cushion of air. But then I came to the end of Fritz Cove Road and the beginning of the slush and gravel surface of the highway shoulder. I cut a narrow groove at least an inch deep, but the tires seemed to hold decent traction beneath the goo, so I continued.

Farther out the road, conditions deteriorated. The slush became deeper, and soon it was coated in a thin veneer of crunchy ice. As I was coasting down the long hill toward the Shrine of St. Therese, I inadvertently rolled onto a solid layer of wet pack ice. When I realized this, my heart jumped into my throat. I knew braking would be suicide — pressing the brake pads against the rims all but guaranteed the wheels would slip out. So I did the only rational thing I could do: I screamed. Then I death-gripped the handlebars and straight-lined it all the way down the hill. Eeeeeeeee!

By providence or sheer luck, enough gravel was embedded in the hard ice to keep my tires upright. As soon as I reached a more level section of road, gravity generously slowed my death plunge and I was able to veer into a narrow track scraped bare by traffic. Scary! It was perhaps the scariest thing I have done on a bicycle all winter — certainly more frightening than any of my Pugsley ridge descents so far.

Then, on the way home, I got a flat tire after running over a particularly sharp chunk of road salt. I only had a patch kit with me; my hands went completely numb while I waited for the glue to dry at glacial pace in the cold air. I began to rethink my rethinking of the "No Road Bike In The Winter" rule. Which means I'm down to one bike.

I miss you, Glacier Cycles.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fun with cameras

I am a big advocate of cyclists, runners and hikers carrying cameras during their outdoor activities. In my opinion, anytime one doesn't bring a camera along, it's just an opportunity lost. Yeah, yeah, I know, fitness, health, fresh air - these are all perfectly good reasons for outdoor activities that don't require photographic documentation. But the main reason I go outside is to experience the world, and being the natural-born journalist that I am, images only serve to enhance these experiences.

People are always asking me what kind of camera I carry. I use only one camera, a little point-and-shoot called the Olympus Stylus Tough. (Full disclosure. I received this camera as part of an Olympus sponsorship ahead of the 2009 Iditarod Trail Invitational. The only thing they really got out of that failed race from me is this Web page.) I love this little waterproof and shockproof camera, and it goes everywhere with me. It doesn't matter what the world doles out - rain, sleet, snow, blowing sand, 20 below, falling off high ledges during self portraits, bearing the brunt of the force in a mountain bike crash, smacking pavement after falling from a moving bicycle - the Stylus Tough can take it. It has seen a lot of loving abuse over the past year - hundreds of small adventures, thousands of miles and thousands of photographs.

Friends often urge me to break down and buy a "real camera." While I'm not opposed to owning a nicer camera, the fact is I would never take it on any of my bike rides. I've watched many of my avid shooter friends pull huge dry bags out of their packs, painstakingly remove their awkwardly large camera, spend five minutes screwing on attachments and adjusting settings, and shoot 40 images of the same ptarmigan, only to put it away and have it stay in their packs for the rest of the outing. I'm sure they get great images this way. But it really isn't my style. I like to stay on the move and document as many moments of my rides and hikes as I feel compelled to, without thinking about it.

That's why it's important to me to carry a camera I essentially cannot break, no matter how hard I try. I once read a review of the Stylus that sums it up as thus: "This camera is like a dancing bear - the appeal isn't in how well it dances, but the astonishing fact that it can dance at all." I disagree. Sure, like any point-and-shoot, the Stylus has its limitations. Some are more limiting than others. But at 12 megapixels, it can capture decent images. Beyond this, I haven't really bothered to play with very many of the camera's features, writing them off as probably worthless given the tiny, relatively cheap, indestructible nature of this camera. But today I experimented with the "digital zoom" feature for the first time.

Here's a naked-eye image of a bald eagle perched on branch overlooking the Lynn Canal and Chilkat Mountains. Nice setting, but the bird is pretty much lost in it.

Here's the same bird using the optical zoom. This is as far as I've ever gone with my camera, because digital zooms on tiny lenses generally suck - pixilated, grainy, unfocused, yuck, yuck, yuck. I'm perfectly willing to accept these lens limitations in exchange for the ease of carrying a camera everywhere I go. After all, I'm out there all the time. I'm bound to see some good stuff at close range eventually. I can let a few of those Kodak moments pass me by.

But that bald eagle was perched in such a perfect spot, I decided to experiment with the "yuck, yuck, yuck" digital zoom today. I'm not disappointed. Sure, the pixilation is there, a lot of the finer features are blurred out and the color is slightly muted. I'm never going to win any wildlife photography awards for it. But this image serves my main purpose, which is solidifying a memory of this great bicycle ride I did on Jan. 19, 2010, when I pedaled through a long and murky film of fog only to emerge in the first direct sunlight I've felt in two weeks, and to share this spectacular view of the Chilkats with a patient eagle. That's all I need.
Monday, January 18, 2010

It's easy

For the past two weeks, we have been mired in what my more settled friends call "A Real Juneau Winter." The three winters I'd experienced here before, with their relentless powder dumps, hundreds of inches of seasonal snow accumulation and occasional below-zero days — all of those were apparently fake Juneau winters. This one is the real deal. And it is not pretty.

Actually, that's not entirely true. December, with its long stretches of clear and cold weather, was exceptionally pretty, even though my skier friends whined about the lack of snow. But January thus far has lacked both sun and snow, plunging us into almost unlivable conditions with temperatures in the mid-30s and wintry mixtures of sleet, ice and heavy rain. I was almost lucky to be stuck inside with the flu for more than a week; that alone may have spared me a deep case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. As it's been, I've been riding my bicycle a lot since I came out of my flu haze. (I mean, relative to the beautiful sunny days of December, in which I spent a majority of my time just trying to get up into the mountains via any method possible.) Now that the weather is preventing enjoyable mountain excursions, I have been putting in miles. Good miles. Hard miles. Satisfying miles.

A friend of mine passed me in his car on Saturday and later mentioned the brief encounter.

"I saw you out near Tea Harbor. Man, that looked miserable," he said.

"Miserable? Really? I don't remember it being so bad."

"Are you kidding?" he said. "It was pouring. I think we got more than an inch of rain that day. And it was like, what, 36 degrees? Maybe 38?

"Yeah," I said. "I guess it was kind of wet."

He shook his head. "How do you do it?"

I just shrugged. I've lived in Juneau for three and a half years now, and I don't even give the weather all that much thought anymore. I always check the forecast the night before, and if it calls for temperatures in the 30s with rain (which it usually does), I just don a fleece pullover and polyester long johns, my Gortex or PVC coat, Red Ledge rain pants, NEOS overboots (with sneakers and one pair of wool socks), fleece mittens and a headband. Even with the pathetic fenders on my mountain bike, my set-up allows me to stay dry for one hour, damp through hour three, soaked but warm through hour five, and if it's still raining, after that I have to start racing against the chill. If the rain turns to snow or sleet (which it usually does), I have studded tires, along with my trusty goggles and dry gloves in the bike's frame bag. It's rare these days that I experience even a few minutes of cold-related discomfort when it's 35 degrees and raining. All the clothes and gear I need to ward it off are right there. It takes me five minutes to put them on. Another two to lube my bike, and I just go. It's easy.

To tell you the truth, I kinda miss the challenge.
Saturday, January 16, 2010

In defense of passion lost

I still remember the date of my first time snowboarding: Oct. 28, 1996. It was the first day of the first season in which Park City Mountain Resort allowed snowboarders onto its slopes. After a long history as a ski-only resort, Park City landed the privilege to host the 2002 Olympic snowboarding events, probably in no small part because it finally relented to letting non-Olympic snowboarders on its lifts.

The season opened early that year, and my knuckle-dragging friends wanted to be among the first to defile Park City’s pristine slopes with their boards. And even though I had no board-riding abilities of any sort, I loved the idea of horrifying rich ski snobs and witnessing Utah snow sports history in the process, and I wanted to be part of it.

I wanted it so badly that I took $300 I had amassed slowly and painfully while working for $4.25 an hour as an Albertson’s grocery bagger and cart dragger, and purchased an Airwalk snowboard and bindings. I stashed the set-up in the bushes in front of my parents' house and worked up an elaborate lie about why I needed my college-age friends to drive me to school the next morning (I was a senior in high school at the time, and Oct. 28 was a school day.) We stuffed five people and five boards into a Honda Civic and took off for Park City.

I still remember the exhilarating freedom of that autumn morning - the bright sunlight, the seltzer-flavored air, the giddy conversation, the stereo blasting AFI full volume into a day full of promise. As we stood at the bottom of the lift, one of my friends helped me determine which foot to strap into the bindings by pushing me forward without telling me exactly what he meant to do. As I panicked and caught myself, he determined I was “regular.” (I’m actually a goofy-oriented rider.) He helped me cinch up my bindings and we were off.

The lift ride was long. “Shouldn’t I be on the bunny lift or something?” I asked. They assured me I would be fine. We disembarked and I immediately fell flat on my face. When I looked up, every single one of my friends was gone.

And thus I was abandoned at the top of Park City with no clue how to get myself down. What followed still remains one of the more frustrating experiences of my life, a mixture of terror and pain amid long minutes of hovering on the horizon lines of steep slopes, inching down on my butt, standing, sliding, falling, tumbling, standing, and falling again. Eventually, a benevolent stranger taught me how to ride my toe edge and zig-zag down. When I finally reached the bottom, I got right back that same lift, battered but determined.

I came home so bruised and stiff that I had no choice but to admit to my parents that I had lied to them and skipped out of school to go snowboarding. I couldn’t sit down without excruciating pain for nearly a week. But inexplicably, I was hooked. I went snowboarding as often as I could afford with what little time and money I had in 1997 and 1998. I was always a timid, conservative rider, but I did eventually learn to carve powder turns through the trees and even tried a few small jumps.

In subsequent years, college and work and other demands took over. I started doing most of my riding at night, where it was cheap and convenient on the lit slopes of Brighton. There, in the tunnel vision of pale yellow groomers, the freedom and exhilaration I found in snowboarding started to wane. On the occasion I could get up there during the day, I found myself more interested in lingering on the ridge with its sweeping views of the Heber valley than I was in conquering the Snake Creek moguls. At night, I was more intrigued by the minus-20-degree stillness of an extreme cold snap than I was in blasting over the slick surface of the snow. And slowly, I started to realize that I was more interested in being in the mountains than I was in sliding down them.

The last winter I snowboarded more than once or twice in a season was 2001-2002. The following summer, I took $300 I had amassed a little less slowly and painfully while working for $11 an hour as the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin’s community news editor, and bought my first bicycle.

Sometimes I wonder how my snowboarding passion slipped away. I lent out my beloved Airwalk only to have it left behind at the resort, lost forever. I purchased another board from a friend, only to leave it out all summer long until the white surface had yellowed and the edges had rusted. I became rusty myself, increasingly more timid and subsequently worse. The winter of 2008-2009 was the first since 1996 that I didn't strap on a snowboard, even once.

On Thursday, I set out for my first long bike ride since I came down with the flu, basically my first long bike ride of the new year. In heavy snow followed by heavy rain, I spent the afternoon pedaling through four-inch-deep slush atop slick ice. The ride was grinding and tentative and cold, and I only managed a little over 60 miles in five hours. But I came home feeling satisfied, pleasantly tired and wholly alive.

On Friday, I decided to go snowboarding with my friends. We showed up early for "first chair." There was fresh powder on the slopes but the falling snow was quickly turning to sleet, and the fog had descended so thick that the white-out vertigo made me nostalgic for the tunnel vision of my night skiing days. Five skiers and I followed each other's turns in a coordinated posse that reminded me of my high school days of yore. After two years of abstinence, it was tough to get my "snow legs" back, but eventually we ventured off the groomers and tore through narrow corridors full of chop as the sleet glazed a deep layer of "Juneau powder" with hard ice. I enjoyed it for the same reasons I would enjoy an evening of bowling with a large group of friends. It was fun, definitely. Challenging, certainly. But passion? Satisfaction? All these rewards I can glean from a 60-mile slush ride that for all practical purposes should be miserable, are for some reason missing from my more recent snowboarding experiences - even the times I hiked it up the mountain myself before riding down.

I do think I could develop a lasting passion for snowboarding through backcountry excursions, but my skill set is a long way from allowing me to embark on the deeper backcountry I crave. Developing these skills would require many more days of lift-served boarding, honing my turns, gaining more confidence on the steeps, and practicing in deep powder. I'm just not sure I have the passion to develop the skills I need.

I'm also dubious about how much learning to ski will change my mind, although I would like to learn to ski. Skiing is a more versatile mode of travel, good for long traverses of places I'd really like to explore, like the Juneau Icefield. But I sincerely doubt that simply changing the hardware is going to suddenly turn me into a powder hound. Especially if I have no desire to let lifts cart me up to places where I can learn it.

Still, I have no intention of giving up snowboarding, just as I would never dream of swearing off bowling. It's a fun diversion, and a good way to spend time with friends. I just feel more certain now that passions my 17-year-old self cherished have changed.