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Showing posts from March, 2010

Last day at the office

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I have the best view from my office. True, my back is turned to it most of the time, where I sit facing a wall, planted like a slug with eyes fixated on a screen while my fingers frantically adjust imaginary words and pictures. But on rare (increasingly more rare) occasions, I stand up and walk to the window, where my second-story workplace looks over Gastineau Channel. In the summer, the salmon return to the hatchery across the street. Their smooth bodies churn up the shallow water, a roiling silver mass of gulping mouths and leaping tails. People line the shoreline with fishing poles — snaggers — plucking the fish out of the chaos in fantastic leaps and fights. Sea lions come too, and every once in a great while, orca whales, plying the narrow channel between two civilized towns. In the fall, I watch ribbons of fog caress the mountains, flowing like silk down a thick carpet of spruce trees. Snow creeps lower until it touches sea water, and then I know it is winter. During long stret…

As I gaze into your skies

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As the reality sets in that this is my last week in Juneau, I find myself obsessing about the surrounding mountains. If the clouds lift just enough to reveal steep, spruce-clogged hillsides and snowy ridgelines, I can't take my eyes off them. In fact, if you live in Juneau and at any time during the next week happen to see a red Geo Prism with four tires strapped to the roof driving down the highway, you should probably just swerve well clear, because there is a good chance I am not looking at the road, but rather gazing up at the towering skyline.

These oh-so-accessible and yet mysterious mountains have long been my favorite thing about living in Juneau. A friend and I went out Saturday night, and I was trying to explain to her my "Juneau Burnout," which I insisted not only existed in my job and living situation, but even singed the edges of my favorite recreational activities.

"That makes a lot of sense," she said. "I mean, how many times can you climb Mou…

These last days

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This post-race week has been more than a bit of a blur. After I rolled into the finish I waited nearly four hours to catch a ride back to town. At first I just sat in the "heating" tent and shivered; then I finally wrestled my boots back on and schlepped the 500 frigid yards to John's wind-blasted truck to grab my winter sleeping bag. I sat in a camp chair and cocooned myself in a -40-degree down shell and completely passed out as finishing racers, Arctic winds and commotion swirled around me.

Chris and I caught a ride back to Fairbanks with Robin Beebee and her husband, and we each succeeded in catching about a two-hour nap before John arrived at home and it was time to eat a half dozen meals and swap race stories. Skiers shuffled in and out of the house all day, telling tales of the trail, showing off battle scars and trying to remember faces and names as the line between consciousness and dreams became more and more blurred. I was up chatting with Ed and company until…

White Mountains 100, part 2

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I pulled into the Windy Gap cabin, mile 62, at 7:25 p.m. A sliver of evening sun still hung above the mountains — one of the glorious benefits of spring. But it didn't feel like spring, with a sharp wind tearing down the canyon as air temperatures plummeted. I ducked inside the small cabin, which was packed with racers. Ted, Brian, Chris and Scott were all there, as were two Fairbanks cyclists — Rocky Reifenstuhl and his wife, Gail Koepf. It seemed I had joined a tight-knit group of bikers and skiers, although on the outside we mostly traveled alone. I greedily accepted my allotted serving of three meatballs and rice. I didn't even wait for it to cool before I wolfed down the deliciously throat-searing meal. I could have eaten three times as much, and was beginning to understand why the race organizers limited the servings — otherwise, it would probably already be gone. Every scrap of wood, food, water and supplies had to be hauled in over dozens of miles of trail by volunteer…

White Mountains 100

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When I say it was spectacular, I mean it was really hard. And easy, too, because it never once became a burden or a chore. There were times I was so cold I couldn’t breathe, coughing and gasping for air as I pulled off my face mask even though my nose started to freeze within seconds. There were times that my right knee became so stiff that I couldn’t bend it as I limped up hills, wondering if I’d be able to “de-rust” the hinge enough to pedal the last 10 miles to the end. But these issues seemed unimportant, the inevitable fee for coming to the White Mountains 100 somewhat under-prepared. And they were a small price to pay for a chance to spend a day in my happy place — a place cut into a small, wind-swept mountain range in the heart of Alaska, a place where wildfire-scorched spruce trees stoop over frozen swamps and people grin through ice-ringed face masks. They too understand the beauty and discovery of these journeys through the soul.

This was the inaugural year for the White Moun…

Into the Interior

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Well, I made it to Fairbanks. It's a beautiful first day of spring, sunny and warm - 33 degrees. Downright tropical in this part of the world. I haven't been to this region of Alaska in nearly seven years; I'm actually surprised how much of it feels familiar to me. We had a great trip up, traveling overland - the only way to travel. We took the ferry to Skagway and chugged up White Pass in my friend Bjorn's old Subaru (crossing our fingers the entire way). We visited friends in Whitehorse and continued north on the Alaska Highway to Kluane Lake, where we geared up for an overnight "ski" trip (I was on snowshoes) in the frigid mountains of the Yukon.

We started up Sheep Mountain on the grade of an old mining road. The surface was knee-to-thigh deep sugar snow with occasional - and often completely invisible until you punched through and twisted a knee - thin-frozen crust. It felt like wading through a bottomless bucket of sand. Strenuous and slow going. Bjorn …

Auspicious beginning

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I admit I crawled back into bed after my alarm went off at 8 a.m. I do this a lot of mornings. It's a bad habit — a manifestation of my general mood during the past several weeks. Ugh. Morning. Why bother?

I forgot that I had specifically set the alarm today so I could finish packing. My friend showed up at my house at 9:45 to load my stuff in his car. "Um, did I wake you up?" he asked.

"I fell back asleep," I mumbled. I rubbed my face until the world finally came into focus. I blinked rapidly as my eyes and mouth jolted wide open.
"It's, it's so blue out," I stammered as I stared up at the sky. "Where did the three-week storm go?"

"It's a sunny day," Bjorn grinned. "An auspicious beginning to our trip."

I darted around my room, gathering up a huge assortment of gear. First we crammed Pugsley in the hatchback, along with all of the bike's winter gear. Then went in my big backpack, stuffed with my 40-below slee…

Pugsley's Sunday best

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So, happiness, home, taking big leaps into the unknown ... Now, let's move on to more important things, like bicycles!

This coming Sunday is the White Mountains 100. I've been so focused on life in general that this reality just slammed into me, hard. When I first started talking to friends and family about the Anchorage move, I assured them (and myself) that I was going to drop out of the White Mountains 100. It was too much to deal with, at exactly the wrong time. But as I really started to work out the logistics, I realized that I could pull off this race for fairly low expense, and because of that, I'd probably always regret it if I didn't at least try.

The White Mountains 100 is a 100-mile snow trail race in the Interior, near Fairbanks. The fact that it begins the day after the spring equinox doesn't really mean a whole lot in that part of the world. It's still stark winter and temperatures can drop to 40 below. So far, weather reports call for temperatures…

Leave the city, part 3

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It broke my heart to know you waited
I had so many things to do
It's true as far as a lot of stuff
You could have had a little better luck
But with you, I'm not givin' up
Tonight I'm not givin' up
— Magnolia Electric Co. "Leave the City"

It's one of the great cliches in life coaching — if you had a million dollars, what would you do? It's the kind of question people usually laugh off, but if you are stalled out and genuinely unhappy about your situation, I think it's an important one. The answer has always been very easy for me — I would live in a place where I had access to a lot of different adventures — good singletrack, long open roads, mountains and extensive winter trails. This place would have a community of like-minded souls — snow bikers, endurance athletes and mountaineers — that I could look to and learn things from. It would preferably be a small town, but I could stomach a mid-sized city. If you think this sounds like Salt Lake City, y…

Leave the city, part 2

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Half my life spent on a highway
Half my life I didn’t choose
And I have seen the North Star
Shining in the freight yard
And I knew it was a hard time that he'd come through
It’s made him thankful for the blues.
— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

The abstract notion of going home begin to take shape as I drove north. It was a strange feeling to leave Salt Lake City, the place that had always been my home, and return to a city where I had no house, no family, no real belongings besides a few boxes, stuffed in the corner of a storage unit, whose contents I had long since forgotten. I was leaving behind all the good things that happened during the summer and going home to my disappointing history and personal failures and 9.85 total miles of singletrack bike trails.

Even though I had many reasons to love Juneau, these realities weighed heavily on me as I approached White Pass and the British Columbia/Alaska border. I was 20 miles from the ferry that would take me away from t…

Leave the city

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Broke my heart to leave the city
I mean it broke what wasn’t broken in there already
Thought of all my great reasons for leaving
Now I can’t think of any
It’s true it was a hard time that I’ve come through
It’s made me thankful for the blues
— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

I'll never forget my first few moments in Juneau, as I stepped off the ferry into a cold, black, startlingly empty summer night. It was July 2003. I wasn't an Alaska resident yet; I was a tourist, one of four friends spending an entire summer coaxing a sputtering Ford Econoline van around the 49th state. We left the van and our bikes in Haines. The ferry landed just before midnight. No one told us the terminal was 14 miles out of town. We stood in the dark with our overstuffed backpacks, somewhat stupefied by a sense of being stranded. After several minutes of indecision, we split into three groups. Geoff and Jen set up a tent in a gravel pit across the street. Chris hopped in a taxi. I started …

I guess this is the peak

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I only had one goal for this weekend, and that was to do a lot of biking. This was my weekend to "peak" my rather scattershot training for the White Mountains 100, but I figured it was time to finally buckle down and put some long hours in the saddle. I tried to get all of my chores done during the week just so I would have all day to ride and all night to relax and visit friends on Thursday and Friday. I was aiming for 12-14 hours of pedaling over two days. And since the weather was forecast to be less than stellar (read: truly miserable — heavy wind, sleet, 32-35 degrees), I had to nix any kind of snow riding in favor of tagging some dead ends, which is what we here in Juneau are referring to when we go "road biking."

On Thursday I set out in hard-driving snow. I rode about 10 miles south into the wind with my eyes practically clamped shut, then decided to loop north instead. I stopped and grabbed my goggles just in time for the snow to deteriorate into steady rai…

ITI, day four

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Photo by Sean Grady, Kuskokwim River area, March 2009

The two venerable veterans of the ITI, Pete Basinger and Jeff Oatley, on Wednesday night were battling it out on the home stretch of the 350-mile race, the Kuskokwim River. Temperatures were still warm, in the mid-20s. This year will probably be remembered as the "Pineapple Express Iditarod." I'll be interested to hear if the temperature even dropped below zero degrees, anywhere on the trail, in these first four days.

There hasn't been much chatter about the trail conditions out of Nikolai, but it seems this 50-mile stretch was expected to take the leaders 8-10 hours to ride. Pete left for McGrath at 4:50 p.m. and Jeff left at 6:19 p.m. Wednesday, and in eight to 10 hours, anything can happen. Still, Jeff has a big task ahead of him if he wants to catch Pete. A 90-minute head start is hard to make up if you have a determined competitor out front. Since I leave here in about 20 minutes, and hope to wake up early in…

ITI, day three

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photo by Cory Smith, Pass Creek, March 2009

This is the kind of weather I empathize with the most. I see it frequently in Southeast Alaska. It's 34 degrees. A gray mass blots out both ground and sky, and everything is swirling in a dynamic cauldron of slush. Gusting winds drive the sleet into skin like a thousand tiny bee stings; they needle into the tiniest imperfections in clothing until nothing short of an ocean-going survival suit is going to keep you dry. 40 mph winds drive the chill down to 0 degrees, and the frigid blasts of air find their way into your clothing as well, pummeling your wet skin until the entire surface of your body goes numb even as your core burns hot with the exhausting effort of pedaling. Ease up on the hard effort even a little, and hypothermia will find its way to you faster than all but the most sinister "freezing" conditions. Cyclists in this kind of weather pine for anything else, even 30 below. I know, because I have. You see, when it'…

ITI, day two

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It's 32 hours into the 2010 Iditarod Invitational, and the race leaders have been established — to no one's surprise, Jeff Oatley, Pete Basinger and Jay Petervary hold the top spots. Most reports point to somewhat difficult trail conditions this year, including fresh snow, warm temperatures (which make the trail surface slushy and soft), and somewhat hard-to-picture "holes," which I imagine are either sinkholes or trenches down the center of the trail.

It's interesting to me because the three leaders are turning in checkpoint times very similar to my first three check-ins in 2008 (which, again, point to the significantly increased level of difficulty on the trail this year compared to two years ago.) But the leaders were into Yentna Station at mile 60 around 10 p.m. Sunday, into Swentna at mile 90 around 3 a.m. Monday, and into Fingerlake, mile 130, at 4 p.m. Monday — my 2008 pace up to that point almost verbatim.

This fact is fun for me because I can mine my me…