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Late October 2016: A Haystack of Needles

Everyone's heard the expression "needle in a haystack".  But you rarely hear the twist of this saying, a "haystack of needles."  Well, recently Anchorage skiers at the Hillside Trails have been skiing past a "haystack of needles" of sorts.  One of the few tamarack trees along the ski trail underwent quite the massive shed of its needles for the winter.

21 October 2016: First Ski-able Snowfall in Anchorage.  Skiers Excited.  Cats ...
Mid October 2016: The Case For October Escapes From Alaska

It took me a while to figure this out (like 30 years), but October is often a good time to leave Alaska.  The fun Alaskan summer stuff is wrapped up, the days are getting shorter (and darker and often wetter) and there usually isn't ski-able snow yet.  I remember older skiers telling me October is a good time for road trips to the Southwest US.  They were right.  My wife and I went a couple of years ago.  And we went again this year.  The draw?  Cool geology for hiking/running/biking/etc.  Slickrock and canyons in particular.  It takes a bit to learn to deal with (i.e. avoid) the people and heat.  But once you get it a bit dialed in ... it sure is a good time.  And if your are lucky, you will get back to Alaska just before it snows.  Here are a few pictures from this year in UT, AZ and NV.

Off-trail canyon exploring Slot canyon Checking out Anasazi Indian ruins.
Hiking slickrock Canyon paddleboarding A Kaibab squirrel.  These cool little guys only live in a 20x40 mile area of ponderosa pines on the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon. 
Desert bighorn sheep I though this was interesting.  A 150(?) year old tree supporting a 150 million year old petrified log.  Old wood contacting new wood with an age difference factor of one million (approx).  Escalante, UT.  
I'm guessing the Owachomo Bridge in Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument has never been cross country skied?  With snow, it would be doable, the top is flat and accessible.  Won't be me skiing it though. I took a break from hiking and running and tried birding for the first time.  I went looking for the San Rafael Desert Duck.  But I didn't see a single bird.  I guess the ducks blend in with the rocks or somethin'.  Alaska's Governor Walker took half of our Permanent Fund Dividend this year.  So that drove some Alaskans to Las Vegas to try and recoup our $1000 loss.  I turned $20 into $32!  Enough net winnings to buy a tin of Swix Extra Blue ski wax.  But I spent it on pizza.  First time to the Strip.  Fun.
Signs Seen In The Southwest That I Haven't Seen In Alaska, Yet
I haven't seen a "no drones" sign in AK yet.  I get it, drones in the hands of dumb-asses are obnoxious.  But I'm thinking this sign may prove ironic over time.  I would guess that 10 years from now it will be common practice for SAR in national and state parks to use drones to find people in distress and assess the situation before sending humans to the scene. I haven't heard of "cairn police" in Alaska yet.  Cairns can be very helpful in marking trails.  So not all "stacked rocks" are bad.  But my wife and I had a running joke when we saw a cairn trail marker.  "Hey!  Give me Ranger Rick's number!  I have to text him about these stacked rocks!  He needs to get here FAST and knock them down!" I hope Alaska doesn't see signs like this for a very long time.
We're not in Alaska anymore.
Early October 2016: LowellThomas Jr. Leaves Us
Lowell Thomas Sr. (left) and Lowell Thomas Jr. (center) skiing at Tuckerman's Ravine in 1936.  Photo credit: Winston Pote. Lowell Thomas Jr. in 2011, with his Helio Courier

Recently skier and long time Alaskan resident Lowell Thomas Jr. passed away.  Son of famous pioneering news broadcaster Lowell Thomas Sr., Lowell Jr. was once the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, operated Talkeetna Air Taxi for many years, was a world traveler and a philanthropist.  Lowell was a generous supporter of Alaskan cross country skiing.

I knew Lowell, and his wife Tay, through their son and daughter.  I was roommates with his son at Dartmouth College, where his daughter also went to school.  All three of use were on the ski team.  Lowell's son once introduced me to a girl that was on the Dimond High School ski team with him.  I've been married to that girl for over 30 years now.  So I owe the Thomas family a big thanks for that.

When I first moved to Alaska in 1981, Lowell nabbed me to help him deliver supplies to a trapper's camp in the Alaska Range, south of Rohn.  I flew out with Lowell, where he dropped me off with a big pile of boxes and equipment.  I would ski to the trapper's cabin, get the snowmobile there and then ferry the supplies to the cabin.  Meanwhile Lowell would go back to Anchorage and get the second load.  This was my first time in the Alaskan bush, and I can remember Lowell's words clearly as he got in the plane to take off.  "I'll be back in a few hours.  But this is Alaska, so it could be two weeks."

In the mid-80's Lowell flew me in to the Kahiltna Glacier for the start of a Mt. McKinley/ Denali climb.  After the trip, Lowell flew me out.  It was fun to sit next to Lowell and see the world of his Talkeetna Air Taxi operation.  (Side story) And thanks to Lowell's Talkeetna Air Taxi, I became a dentist (I'm joking).  A climbing trip partner lost a filling while eating an apple an hour before we were supposed to fly into the Alaska Range.  I rummaged around in Lowell's first aid kit and found a couple tubes of emergency dental filling compounds.  I mixed the goop together and applied it to my friends tooth.  Six months later I saw him out skiing at Kincaid and asked if he got the filling replaced.  His response was: "Damn! I forgot I still had your dental work in my mouth!"

Lots of good things have been said and written about Lowell.  As there should be, because he was a genuinely wonderful person and his wife Tay was too.  But one important thing has been said too infrequently about him.  And that is: Lowell was a skier.  Skiing was important to him and a passion of his.  A note he left in the Whiteout Glacier cabin log book in 1978 (see below) says it all, in my opinion.  After spending time in Juneau being a politician, when he gets free of that - he hops in his plane, flies to the Whiteout Glacier and cruises around on his cross country skis.  Not many politicians like that these days.  Lowell will be missed by many.

1978 Whiteout Glacier cabin log book note by Lowell Thomas

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