Saturday, January 18, 2020

Oh Anchorage, 'til now I never knew thee

In the past 15-plus years, I've spent a fair amount of time in Anchorage — preparing for the Iditarod in February, free-wheeling around the state in March. From April to June 2010 I lived in the Fairview neighborhood — did a bunch of spring hiking in the Chugach, rode my bike everywhere else and never really learned the city streets. I've raced mountain bikes in July, tent-camped in a rundown RV park in August, shopped at Costco before heading down the Kenai in September, visited friends during the gray months of October and November, and sled-dragged many Hillside trails to train for the Susitna 100 in December. Still, over all of these years, there's one month I had yet to experience in Alaska's largest city — January. 

For years now — almost seven — I've been a freelance contractor for several rural Alaska weeklies, working on editing and layout. Recently these weeklies were acquired by the Anchorage Daily News, which I thought meant the end of my favorite paying gig. Instead the ADN offered to keep me on and even make more work available. Yay, I can still work for Alaska newspapers! But it was necessary to learn their system, and the ADN editor thought it would be best to bring me up for a week to work directly with employees at the Anchorage office. The week that just happened to work best for everyone was Jan. 2 to Jan. 8. The main problem on my end was that I was flying to Denver from Fairbanks on Jan. 1, and had to be back in Colorado to drive across Wyoming en route to the Fat Pursuit on Jan. 9. So the whole trip involved an extremely tight turnover. Indeed, we weren't home from the Denver airport until 9 p.m. Jan. 1. I unpacked all of my winter camping gear and threw it in another pile for Fat Pursuit, compiled a small suitcase for Anchorage, then headed straight back to the airport at noon Jan. 2. 

The training started right away with long days at the office. It was fun to work in a newsroom with real journalists again, something I haven't been able to do since I left the Juneau Empire and went freelance in 2010. But I've also gotten used to doing my own thing, and it was weird to effectively punch a clock again. The weather outside was gorgeous and we were all just sitting at desks, wiling away the best part of the day. Then again, nobody I was working with seemed to agree with me. Indeed, Anchorage was mired in its most prolonged cold snap since 2012. This meant temperatures between -15F and 0F. Following ten days in Fairbanks where it was frequently -30F and lower, this seemed fairly pleasant to me. I'd walk to the office beneath the soft light of street lamps filtered by fog and sparkling from tiny ice crystals coating everything, and smile the whole way. Meanwhile, my office companions were grumbling or outright freaking out ... one because he also had to walk to work. People were not thrilled with this weather. Temperatures don't often drop below zero in Anchorage, despite its reputation.

 Over the weekend I was still doing homework but had a little more time to get outside. On Saturday, the temperature was -7F in midtown when I hopped a city bus to the eastern edge of town. My aim was to run some of the Hillside trails that I remembered vaguely from Su100 training in 2011, but I neglected to take into account just how sprawling Anchorage can be. After I exited the bus and ran through several neighborhoods, I'd already covered two miles just to reach the trailhead. I'd dressed relatively lightly, reasoning that this would be a "short" run, and didn't take into account the microclimates of Anchorage. While it may have been -7F near my hotel, the low-lying swamps near Campbell Airstrip were -18F and even -20F ... something I didn't learn until later. While running I felt comfortable, but recent snows meant the trails weren't well compacted, and the surface was too loose to be runnable. I didn't feel as comfortable walking, but it wasn't too bad, so I continued. I reached a patch of open water on Campbell Creek and nearly turned around, but decided it would be good visual practice to at least look for a safe way across the creek. Crashing through brush and knee-deep snow, I actually found a narrow bridge, which was a surprise. But I suppose these are urban trails, probably quite popular in the summer.

 Less than a hundred yards later, I met this cow moose. As soon as she noticed me, she turned from her grazing and started walking toward me. She wasn't charging, but it was clear she wanted to intimidate, and I definitely felt intimidated. I turned and walked back toward the creek, making an effort not to look back. But she kept coming. I knew if she started galloping, I couldn't move fast enough to get back to the bridge, so my plan was to cross the open creek, hope she didn't follow, and sprint two miles back to the closest commercial building (a McDonalds) before my feet froze. It wasn't a great plan. Luckily she paused and I was able to pick my way back to the bridge and beat a swift retreat off of that powerline trail. $&@#! urban moose. At least I'd warmed up.

 I wasn't ready to give up on this run just yet, and indeed I found a small trail leading up the hill. It was steep and there was only one set of footprints through five inches of powder, but it was perfect for hard hiking and continual generation of heat.

 I crossed Campbell Creek on another small footbridge and climbed an extremely steep hillside that required digging my mittened fists into the snow for leverage. Finally the trail spit me out near the top of the Stuckagain Heights neighborhood. I was relieved, and did not intend to leave the road again.

The climb was worth it. The views were fantastic. One of my heart mountains, "The Sleeping Lady" was out in full form, as were Iliamna and Redoubt to the south. Also out in force was this poodle, who become more aggressive and eventually chased me away from my revery.

To the northwest I had a perfectly clear view of Mount Foraker and Denali — more than 120 miles away. Thick fog still blanketed the Mat-Su valley and the coastal stretches of Anchorage. It had been a little rough getting here, but I was glad I came. I loped down the road, running all of the seven miles back to my bus stop. I thought I was running quite well, but Strava later revealed 11-and 12-minute miles. Aw. I suppose there's only so much you can do with cold muscles. Beyond my adrenaline-charged escape from the moose and hard uphill hike, I never felt comfortably warm. Soon my glycogen stores were depleted ... because I had no snacks and this was a 3.5-hour outing in subzero cold. Well. If you're not going to be smart, you're not going to be fast.

I took this photo in Spenard on my way to the bus stop on Sunday morning. My walks to and from the ADN offices were all in the dark, as the sun didn't rise until 10 a.m. and set again by 4. Even coming from three hours of daylight in Fairbanks, this was a bit of a sensory adjustment, as my memory is used to the relatively abundant daylight of late February. But this is why I was in such a good mood after walking to work — frost added a delicate beauty to everything.

 For my Sunday run, I took the bus to a random stop in South Anchorage, near an access point for Campbell Creek trail. I was much better prepared for this outing, although I could only do so much with the limited gear I'd brought on this trip. I didn't have my knee warmers, for example, so I wore a pair of lightweight rain pants (I had basically not checked the forecast before quickly packing for this trip, and thought I should be prepared for rain, since wet weather seems to be a winter norm in Anchorage these days.) But the four-ounce pants added a lot of warmth, and I felt much better than the previous day, jogging comfortably through what the newspaper reported to be "the coldest day in Southcentral in three years."

My destination from the random bus stop was Carr-Gottstein Park, a scenic nook along the Cook Inlet. Somehow I came across a photo of this park online and thought, "That looks nice; I want to go to the beach." Then I figured out how to get there.

It was a lovely spot, but windy and -10F. I couldn't linger long.

After my short visit to the beach, I jogged back to my hotel along Campbell Creek Trail. The wildlife viewing here was surprisingly good. I saw a bald eagle, grouse, and this moose who was considerably less grumpy than the Hillside moose.

Nearby, this red fox watched me for more than a minute before diving into a foxhole in the snow.

Making my way home via C Street. "Even C Street is pretty!" This run ended at 11 miles. It wasn't fast, but felt much shorter and easier than the previous day's 13-mile shivery excursion. I was able to have dinner with a couple of college friends, Chris and Becky, on Sunday night. The place where we planned to meet turned out to be closed Sundays, so I jogged circles around the parking lot until they arrived. Commuting on foot when it's -10 is not the easiest.

Case in point: On Monday night, my friends Dan and Amy invited me over for soup, homemade bread and Amy's famous cookies. I'd planned to take the bus, but before leaving the ADN offices decided it was "only" 3.5 miles mostly on Chester Creek Trail, and should be a nice walk. Of course I was again poorly prepared with only my "walk to work" clothes, which included a cotton shirt and pants as a base layer. Still, the trail was lovely with its frosted trees, and nobody else was on it. Google maps chirped encouraging directions, and everything was going well until my phone died — the battery was too cold.

Dammit. I've spent a fair amount of time with Dan and Amy and thought I could remember the way to their house, but it's been about four years since my last visit, and I'd never traveled the trail in the dark. As I fiddled with my phone my hands went numb, and then my legs felt uncomfortably cold. I started jogging. City lights faded farther away as I entered Sitka Street Park, and then my feet felt uncomfortably cold. A little panic started to build. "I am lost in the woods and I don't have enough layers and my phone is dead and I am lost!" I started running.

A kind of autopilot took hold. I passed several soccer fields, and knew I needed to turn somewhere at at a soccer field, but this one didn't look quite right. I came upon an intersection that I also didn't consciously remember, but thought of a photo of my bike on a bridge that I took back in 2014 and thought, "I should turn left toward that bridge." Then I passed a soccer field and thought, "I need to go to the end." Past the field was a faint foot path that I followed, emerging on a familiar 20th Avenue. Rejoice!

I was finally ready to take everything about Anchorage more seriously, and the next morning I left for work with all of my layers. I made plans to meet fellow ITI racer Lars and his wife, Dawn, for pizza at a restaurant about a mile from the office. However, I finished up my duties early enough to leave work at 6, and since we didn't plan to meet until 7:30, I thought I could squeeze in another run. I mapped a nice trail route, using my trusty Garmin eTrex to navigate rather than my phone. The route was 7.5 miles ... pretty doable in 90 minutes in normal circumstances, but on snow in subzero temps? I decided to go for it. And I felt so fantastic. I was finally dressed well, feeling strong, all by my lonesome in this big frosty city (where did everyone go? I know the temperatures were cold for Anchorage, but still. So pretty!)

I ran effortlessly down the Coastal Trail, enjoying the sparkle of ice crystals and an ethereal curtain of mist along the shore, thinking about how much I loved Anchorage, and why did I ever discount this place? It's not a bad city; really, it's a lot like my hometown of Salt Lake City: bland architecture and sort of annoying traffic and infrastructure, but incredible mountains next door. Just as I was plotting my move to Anchorage, I came upon another moose standing right on the trail. At this point, if I retreated, I'd have to run all the way back to Westchester Lagoon and wouldn't make it to the restaurant in time. The moose did not seem irritable, so I slowed to a walk, tightened my shoulders, and continued. While I was tiptoeing along the edge of the trail, a headlight approached from behind — these were the first humans I'd seen in more than three miles. As two riders on a tandem bicycle passed, the male stoker commented, "Nice night for a walk."

"Sure is," I replied. They continued, with no mention of the moose that was still right behind us.

Three miles later, I arrived at the restaurant at 7:25, taking a few minutes outside to brush off the snotcicles and make myself presentable. Dawn and Lars were waiting inside. As we got to talking, we collectively realized that they were the couple on the tandem and I was the walker, both taking the scenic way to dinner. Only in Anchorage, am I right? They said the moose also made them nervous, but they watched me pass without being stomped, so they felt comfortable riding past.

"So if that was you two, you must have been waiting here for a while," I observed, since I had to run the same distance that they rode.

"Not really," Lars said, which made me feel a little better about myself as a runner.

We had a wonderful time sharing trail stories and devouring a large helping of pizza and wine before it was time to head home. I was tipsy, still a bit damp and definitely not dressed warmly enough for walking, so I had no choice but to run 1.25 miles at my best speed. This did not feel great. And at -10F, it was still long enough to create more frost buildup around my eyes.

"Geez, it's been almost three weeks since I last did a run where my face wasn't crusted in ice," I thought. "And now I gotta go run the Fat Pursuit. Oof."

I paused at the hotel door and felt a glimmer of sadness. It had been a magical week and I wanted to stay, not travel on delayed airplanes and icy Wyoming highways to drag a sled 100 miles over two passes on the Continental Divide. But commitments had been made, to myself more than anyone.

"Well, I'll always have January in Anchorage," I thought, gazing up at purple and blue light reflecting from frosted tree branches. "Thanks for this," I said out loud before stepping inside. 


  1. You are definitely in the minority Jill (of people who like COLD). I'm on the total opposite end of that spectrum...if I could I'd live out my days in Hawaii, or maybe Costa Rico...tropics...T shirt, shorts and flip flops. Growing up in Wyoming and Montana, I've shoveled all the snow I need to for the rest of my life. But I do enjoy reading about your adventures for I hope to never need to know COLD WEATHER protocols for survival. And your pics of the cow Moose are awesome! As close as you were to them (and especially when the one started walking towards you), I think I'd do the frightened octopus thing (blow ink and escape).

  2. If the ears stayed up as the moose walked towards you, she might have been more curious than trying to intimidate.

    I've had moose around my house like that--but they still make me nervous and I do NOT want them walking up to me or my dogs!

    Last winter one of two twin bulls born a couple of years earlier was just off my skijoring trail when I was out with a long pole knocking snow off overhanging trees. I yelled at him but he just stood watching me. So I went on with my work but a bit later he was on the trail, calmly waking towards me, ears up, hackles down.

    When he got too close, I gently pushed on his forehead with my 15' pole. He turned around 180 degrees, then kept going around and started walking towards me again--still without any agitation. So I poked him gently again but this time after he turned around I poked a bit harder in his rump. This time he went back off the trail.

    I continued on and at the bottom of the long straight section I looked back and he'd come back out on the trail, watching me, but didn't come any closer.

    I've had his mom act similarly on the road near my house--following a dog and me. And another moose years ago that liked to hang out with one of my dogs.

    I consider moose, even "friendly" ones, dangerous, so I don't recommend getting this close. But they are pretty amazing animals.



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