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Tim's Blog About Skiing Stuff

This blog is where I occasionally post entries about Alaskan backcountry cross country skiing news, issues, ideas, gear reviews and other random stuff that doesn't fit the format of my yearly trip report web pages.


09 September 2010: Proof That Anderson, AK Is A Cool Place ...

Literally millions of people driving the Parks Highway pass by the tiny town of Anderson, AK without stopping.  So ... millions of people don't realize how cool of a place Anderson is.  Why do I say Anderson is cool?  Well, any town that has a "ski shack" on the front of their school is definitely a very cool place in my book.  Go Grizzlies!
 


11 August 2010: Ski Heroes, the Real Kind

Recently a plane went down on the Knik Glacier.  The passengers in the plane survived the crash and activated an emergency beacon, triggering a National Guard rescue operation that was long and eventful due to bad weather.  Here is the story about it in the Anchorage Daily News: http://www.adn.com/2010/08/11/1405574/guard-launches-new-attempt-to.html

A helicopter could not reach the accident site due to inclement weather, so four pararescuers were dropped off 4 miles from the downed plane to ski in, while pulling 150 lb. sleds through heavily crevassed terrain.  Here is an excerpt about their ski trek from the article:

"
The Air Guard picked up the beacon at about 1 p.m. and sent a helicopter with four pararescuemen, identified as Maj. Jesse Peterson, Master Sgt. Al Lankford, Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte and Tech. Sgt. Angel Santana. Lankford said in an interview Wednesday that they found a thick layer of clouds between the them and the glacier, making a landing impossible.

The crew returned to the base of the glacier and was dropped off just above a large stretch of crevasses, about four miles and 2,000 vertical feet from where they thought the stranded party was located. Outfitted with two sleds full of extra clothes, food, sleeping bags and emergency supplies -- weighing up to 150 pounds each -- the pararescuers skied up the mountain.

It was slow going. Lankford said it felt like the wind was whipping at 40 miles per hour. They couldn't see any terrain around them. It was a complete whiteout.

"You'd see sky and mountain ranges and five minutes later you'd see nothing," Lankford said. "The weather was absolutely heinous."

The weather was so severe they lost track of each other, he said.

"We were split up into to two teams of two and, with the whiteout conditions on the glacier, we were separated from each other," Lankford said. "There were some pretty hairy crevasses to cross."

Finally, there was a break in the clouds and the rescuers spotted a red stripe in the snow -- the tail of the plane. The crash victims were hunkered down inside. It had taken the pararescuers roughly 20 hours to cover the four miles to the crash site.

"The four PJs that came up there, those guys risked their lives," Erbey [the pilot] said."
 

Summer 2010:  If You Outlaw XC Skiing, Only Outlaws Will XC Ski

This sign, posted at the Alyeska Resort Ski Area, is kinda funny in a historical perspective.  There once was a time, the 1970's, when cross country skiing was cool and snowboarding was banned at most downhill ski areas.  Now snowboarding is cool and cross country skiing is the banned form of snow travel.  So I guess that snowboarders and cross country skiers do have something in common after all ... in that we take turns being outlaws in the minds of downhill skiers.
 

14 June 2010:  Long Live The Earthquake Tire !!

A few years ago I found out that the famous "earthquake tire", an iconic symbol of the 1964 Alaska earthquake, still exists.  46 years ago the force of an earthquake-triggered tsunami wave, that slammed into and decimated the Whittier harbor, caused this truck tire to be impaled by a board.  Recently while in Whittier, after a ski trip and waiting for a tunnel opening, I remembered to take a picture of this historic junk tire.  If you are in Whittier ... see if you can find this famous '64 quake relic !!

The famous 1964 "earthquake tire" photo (USGS) 2010 (46 years later)
   

05 May 2010:  Getting By With "One Pair Of Skis"

Photo by Cory Smith

Cory Smith took the above picture on a recent ski trip with Benji Uffenbeck and me.  Besides that fact that it's a nice photo, I like this picture because of the statements it makes: Our backyard in Alaska is a beautiful mountainous playground.  Fun in Alaska often takes place next to danger, like steep mountain faces and avalanche areas.  And a key statement is made by Benji ripping a turn and fanning powder, which is: You don’t always need heavy randonee, alpine or telemark gear to shred turns in the backcountry.  Sometimes lightweight cross country racing skis can do the job.

You can shred backcountry turns, get in evening workouts, go on adventurous backcountry trail rambles, race cross country skiing events and skate effortlessly over spring crust … all on the same pair of skis.  And when you think about it … that’s pretty cool.  This versatility helps keep the xc side of the sport of skiing simple and a bit more affordable so more people can enjoy it.  And it addresses modern day concerns about hyper-consumerism and the world using raw materials to produce more stuff (skis in this case) than people really need.

Before I go on, I want to point out that I was careful in choosing the title words of this blog entry.  I mention “getting by” with “one pair of skis”.  By one pair of skis I really mean one type of skis – 44 millimeter wide cross country racing skis.  Most of us skinny skiers have multiple pairs of 44 mm skis, but the differences between skinny skis in our quiver usually aren’t that dramatic.  You can skate on classic skis and stride on skate skis if you have to.  Any "one pair" of the 44 mm skis has a lot of versatility.

I also used the term “getting by”.  You can get by skiing on 44 mm skis in a lot of conditions, but there is no question that more specialized skis do a better job in certain conditions.  Alpine skis are more stable at high speeds.  And fat skis float much better than 44 mm’s in deep snow.  But I, and many other xc skiers, get around these limitations by going where our skis work best.  If it is deep snow in the mountains and nice packed-snowmobile trails in the valleys – we stay in the valleys.  If the valleys melt out and the snow in the mountains firms up … we head to the hills.

Yeah – you likely will not see skiers on 44 mm boards heli-skiing huge vertical around Valdez or Haines.  And you probably won’t see skinny skis adopted by folks riding the lift at Alyeska.  But then again, you won’t see skiers like me with a ski rack full of expensive “fashion of the day” wide or shaped or specialty skis that are infrequently used, collecting dust and going “out of style”.  Instead, I’ll be the guy with one pair of normal xc racing skis that I ski the heck out of year after year until they wear out.

"One pair of skis".  It puts the focus on skiing, and not the gear.  It’s simple and pure.  It seems to work for me and my friends.
 

30 April 2010:  Dinglishna Hill - 28.8 Million Years Young


Dinglishna Hill is a 479 foot tall landmark in the Lower Susitna Valley.  It has long been used as a navigational reference by travelers.  Dena'ina Indians used "Dinlishla" as a guidance feature to find their way back to their village at the mouth of Alexander Creek - "Tuqen Kaq".  Today - pilots, boaters, snowmobilers and even a few cross country skiers use this hill as a reference feature in the relatively flat Lower Susitna drainage.  Over time folks that pass by Dinglishna Hill have learned of the mysteries and fables that surround this hill.  And people have learned that the folks that live on or near this hill are crazy crazy, crazy ... so you never want to stop here.  It's safest to just keep moving!  But that's another story ...

A fact that that people now will know about Dinglishna Hill, thanks to USGS geologist (and skier and speed skater) Peter Haeussler, is its age.  Here is an excerpt of the email Peter sent me about Dinglishna Hill:

"FYI, we just got our date back on volcanic rocks at Dinglishna Hill - 28.8 +/- 0.3 million years old. Pretty cool age actually. There's no other rocks nearby that are the same age. There's some a bit to the northwest that are 32, but even that is a bit unusual. Most rocks in the region are no younger than about 52 million. Thanks again for your help with collecting the sample."   Thank you Peter!

Yep - I helped by getting the rock sample for the USGS.  But I had to ski really fast and worry about my life, 'cause folks that live near Dinglishna Hill are crazy, crazy, crazy!  So don't ever go there!  Stay in Anchorage where it is safe!

Dinglishna Hill, in the distance, on a moonlit night. Dinglishna Hill as seen from the summit of Mount Susitna.

27 April 2010:  How To Save The Day (or your workout or ski trip) ...


A real bummer for skiers is forgetting stuff.  After you drive to the start of a ski workout or ski trip it is frustrating to find out that you left behind some gear that you really need.  The fact that you may have left major gear behind, like your skis, can be a show stopper.  But even the lack of less significant gear can cause you to bail out of a workout or ski trip, or have to make an unexpected trip back home.  Yep - over the years I have forgotten just about everything at one time or another.  But forgetting stuff doesn't bother me any more, because now I carry extra boots (combi boots) and a backup gear bag in my vehicle.  No matter what I might space out and not bring ... I have a backup of the forgotten item in my backup gear bag.  If you don't do this already - you might think about doing it.  After a "save" of a ski outing - you will be glad that you stashed backup gear in your vehicle.

Recently I was in a hurry to leave home on a perfect crust skiing day.  And judging by the 10 year old combi boots I'm wearing in the above picture ... you can tell what I forgot to bring.  But when I got to the trailhead and realized I had left my ski boots at home I wasn't phased at all, because I always carry a backup pair of ski boots in my vehicle.

To counter the odd times I forget stuff - I always carry a pair of combi boots in my vehicle.  With combi boots you are covered for the technique of the day.  And in a stuffbag I carry older versions of EVERY bit of clothes I might need: socks, long underwear, shirt, ski pants, jacket, hat, ear muffs, balaclava, light and heavy gloves.  I never  take the gear bag out of my vehicle so it's assured to always be there.

 

12 April 2010:  Ladies First!


"Ladies First".  This old traditional practice may not be subscribed to by many folks these days.  But I think that this old tradition still makes a lot of really good sense! 

My wife, Eagle River, April 10th

11 April 2010:  No Sense Census


A few weeks ago I was skiing in the lower Portage Valley.  I had remembered seeing, while kayaking, a couple of cabins on the road-less north side of Portage Creek.  So I figured I'd see if I could find these cabins on skis.  I found the cabins and was a bit surprised to find 6 cabins total.  And I was even more surprised to see that most of the cabins had 2010 Census bags hanging on them.

Any Alaskan with a bit of outdoor sense would know that these hard to access cabins are recreational cabins.  They are used infrequently for fishing, hunting and leisure.  They certainly are not permanent residences, they are just plywood shacks that keep the elements out for occasional visits.  Nobody lives here.

But apparently the blatantly obvious doesn't deter census takers from billing the gub'mint $25.00 an hour to snowmobile out to these shacks and hang 2010 census bags on them.  Heck ... in 2020 I need to become a census taker.  I could get paid to ski out to remote, rarely-inhabited cabins to leave census forms.  Sure, it would be a pointless waste of money ... but that's exactly why the federal government would think that paying me to be a skiing census taker would be a great idea!!  ;-)

 

08 April 2010:  A Local Anchorage Skiing Story That Should Not Be Forgotten

 

Are you thinking about taking your cross country skis and skiing from Glen Alps and going around Powerline Peak (Avalanche Mountain) and back through Powerline Pass?  Or are you thinking of skiing over Powerline Pass and on to Indian Pass or Indian?  Well ... before you go you might want to read the story below.

In 1975 four Service High School ski team members were traveling from Glen Alps over Powerline Pass and on to Indian Pass when two of them triggered and got caught in an avalanche.  A girl was buried and miraculously was found and dug out by hand in an avalanche debris field the size of a football field.  Tim Moerlein, a former standout Alaskan xc ski racer, wrote about this incident in an article that appeared in the March 1982 edition of Alaska Magazine (see below).

Page 1 - Click on above image and expand it to readable size. Page 2 - Click on above image and expand it to readable size.
   

07 April 2010:  Gear & Idea That Worked Out Well This Winter

 

This winter I replaced my worn-out Fischer SCS Classic skis with a pair of Fischer RCR Classic Vasas.  Bottom line: I love these skis.  They have been my "go-to" skis ever since I got them.  They stride and they SKATE well.  I got 197 cm skis,  5 cm shorter than skis I would use for classic racing, for skiing narrow snowmobile trails.  The tips and tails seem more torsionally rigid then the SCS's I had - so they skate well on snowmobile trails.  And because I got them at AMH - they fit me great, so they are fun to ski whatever technique I am using.  Light and tough, responsive and not too expensive ... if I could only have one pair of skis for the kind of skiing I do - these would be the skis.

     

The two pairs of Salomon Pro Combi boots ('08 and '09 models) I had previously blew out in the toe before one ski season had completed.  So this year I used Goop on a new pair of boots to give the toe-box to sole seam a better bond and create a toe-box "bumper".  This technique worked out OK.  No rip-out problems this year and I have used the heck out of my combi boots.  After I did the initial application of Goop - I had to apply 4 or 5 touch-ups until I got the to point that the Goop was solidly bonded to the boot. More info about "Gooping" boots can be found further down on this web page.
 

06 April 2010:  Salomon's Little-Known Combination Boots

 

I use the Salomon SC Pro Combi ski boots a lot.  The "SC" stands for "Skate & Classic".  What a lot of cross country skiers may not realize is that Salomon has made attempts to branch out into radically different kinds of combi (combination) boots.  Here are a couple of obscure Salomon combi boots I have bought in the past ...


 
This is the Salomon SS Combi boot.  "SS" stands for "Skiing & Snowmachining". About 15 years ago I owned a pair of Salomon SD Combi boots.  "SD" stood for "Skiing and Dog Mushing".   ;-)
   

04 April 2010:  Remote Alaska's Dog Requirement

 
It seems that there is an unwritten law in Alaska: If you live in a remote area you have to have a dog or dogs that are a pivotal part of your life.  This is definitely a good "law".  You see it all the time.  And in historical readings and pictures you can see that this "law" has been in affect basically forever in Alaska.  Who knows. maybe it would be impossible for most people to live in remote Alaska without dogs.  I know that I couldn't survive living in remote Alaska without a dog to manage my life.

On a recent ski trip on the Denali Highway my wife and I stayed at three lodges.  And each place had their "lodge dog(s)" that greeted you and made sure everything was operating smoothly.  They were all very cool dogs.  Some of the dogs are pictured below.
Borealis and Aurora of  Denali Highway Cabins (with their pet human - Audie).  Photo by Jenny.  Alpine Creek Lodge Sr. Manager - Sampson ... providing bedside security services. Bandit is the Chief Executive Canine that oversees the Maclaren River Lodge.

25 March 2010:  Portage Mystery Cabin

 

Recently I was skiing along the base of Portage Mountain.  This is a peak to the northeast of the Portage Road - Seward Highway intersection, where the Twentymile River and Portage Creek drainages meet.  This is a very wet and marshy area that, in my opinion, would be very hard to get to in summertime.  As I was crust skiing along, looked up into the old growth spruce trees on above me and did a double take.  "What!?  There's a cabin up there!?".  (Note: This is not the area where there are a few cabins on the south of Blueberry Hill where you can walk in from an electrical substation next to the Seward Highway.  This is across the valley to the east of that area).

So - I clipped off my skis and hiked up to check out this remote structure.  I would guess it was made in the 60's?.  And it likely hadn't been used for a very long time.  A big spruce tree had fallen and punched a hole in the roof.  I wonder what the history behind this old cabin is.  I figure the Maxwell clan might know.  They are folks that have had cabins for many decades in the Twentymile River drainage (and they are considered to be very cool folks by certain crust skiers).  I'll have to ask them sometime.
 

25 March 2010:  Roadkill, Railkill ... It Happens

 

In Alaska road travel and rail travel kill a lot of moose.  It's unfortunate ... but it happens.  One thing that seems to be a good deal in Alaska  is that police and troopers and railroad employees seem to often help folks salvage roadkill and railkill.  And the folks on the list for road and rail killed moose-salvage are ones that appreciate this extra food and help.
 
The marks in the middle of the tracks show where a moose was dragged after it was hit.  Scattered moose hair affirmed this fact. The Alaska Railroad has little problem helping people easily dress-out a moose. These pictures are probably "old news" on the web.  The young girl on the left had a camera and was documenting every step of this process!  So, as soon as she got home her moose pictures were probably all over mySpace, fb, etc. ... days before my pictures hit the web!  ;-)

23 March 2010:  GPS In Spaz-Mode ...

 

Check out the GPS track above.  Looks like someone was really lost, right?  Actually - somebody wasn't lost, some thing was lost.  My Garmin GPSmap 60CS handheld GPS kept losing its satellite reception.  Beep.  "SATELLITE RECEPTION LOST".  Beep.  The jumps on the GPS track above show where it struggled to determine an accurate position.  This is a decent GPS unit that will track up to 12 GPS satellites.  But dense wooded areas and convoluted terrain can often hamper a handheld GPS unit's ability to lock onto satellite signals.  Such was the case shown in the above image.

GPS units work great when there is little to obstruct the satellite signals - like in planes, boats and automobiles.  But in situations when you REALLY would like a handlheld GPS to work, like during nasty bushwhacking forays on mountainsides, you should be happy when it actually does work.  Because it seems quite often that handheld GPS units won't work reliably in these situations.

Bottom line: Never assume that you can use a GPS alone to  navigate your way to wherever you want to go in the boonies.  Hone your navigational skills and use your GPS as a back-up confirmation device.  Maps never loose satellite signals or run low on battery power.  Dead reckoning using the sun or stars for reference angles, pacing and using distant landmarks as guides should not be a lost art to you.  Or you AND your GPS ... could become really lost.

On a related note: You can see two waypoints, "F1" and "F2", in the above image.  These are locations of large open areas that I wanted to hit on this backcountry ski route.  I determined the GPS coordinates of these fields before I did the trip, and uploaded them as waypoints to my GPS.  So the point is - for effective GPS navigation in the backcountry ... it's good to plan your route before you go and pre-load helpful navigational waypoints into your GPS.
 

22 March 2010:  Neat Rig Seen While Skiing ...

 

Recently I was skiing up Alexander Creek and thought I heard something behind me.  I looked back and did a double take and started gawking.  It was a Suzuki mini-truck on tracks.  These are pretty cool little rigs.  They are used trucks imported from Japan and modified a bit for off-road Alaskan travel.  They are relatively cheap compared to big ATVs and they can get 50 mpg.  The brother of a guy that lives at Alexander Creek sells them in Anchorage.  For more pics and info, here is their web site.

 

 

21 March 2010:  Cool Finds In The Woods ...

 

Damn right this is a cool find.  The temperature of liquid nitrogen is minus 321 degrees F. !!!

"Wow Mrs. Spruce Tree! ... You sure have a huge pair of b ... b ... b... burls!"

 

 

18 March 2010:  A Moose Dig

 

Here is a picture of a "moose dig".  A moose was traveling along a snowmobile trail, the moose noticed some scrub brush that looked edible sticking out of the snow ... and then used its hooves to dig away the snow so more of the brush was exposed and could be eaten.  I seem to notice these moose digs more often in mountainous areas (this one was in the Talkeetna Mountains).  I've seen moose digs quite a lot on Mount Susitna.


 

15 March 2010:  Flutter Holes?

I'm not sure what you call this snow phenomenon, so I made my own name for it: flutter holes.  I was skiing near Mount Susitna after a strong wind storm and came across an area all pock-marked up with these little trenches.  Seems that when snow conditions are right - grass stalks bent over and fluttering in strong winds erode a downwind trench in snow that is soft enough to be eroded by the grass, but not loose enough to get blown away by the wind.  The trench remains when the wind stops.

 

12 March 2010:  Skiing in Bear Haven Country

I think this is my favorite picture of Charlie Vandergaw (at his Bear Haven homestead in the Yentna River Valley).  Yep, there's nothing like a real bear hug.  Soon I should be skiing up-country from Charlie's place.  That's where his buddies sleep during the winter.  Hopefully none of them will wake up and feel the desire to hug a skier.

 

10 March 2010:  The Last Time I Skied At Kincaid Park ...

I haven't skied at Kincaid Park in a long time.  This picture shows the last time I skied there.  I tried crossing the sprint loop when a race was in progress.  I spazzed out and accidentally fell in front of some racers.  Whoops ... those girls got REALLY pissed at me!!       ;-)
 

06 March 2010:  Following Through ...

 
When you find interesting stuff while skiing or hiking, it's easy to say: "I could make a <fill in the blank> with that!"  And then the thing remains in the corner of your garage or shed or yurt until you throw it out.  On this web site I've posted that I was going to make things from certain stuff that I found out skiing and hiking.  So here is some proof that I've been following through on my words ...
Burls on a dead spruce tree.  Found while skiing. Burls cut in half. Bench 1 Bench 2
Caribou antlers found while hiking in the Brooks Range. Moose antler found while skiing in the Alaska Range. Antler chandelier under construction.  Antlers are the ones in the pictures to the left. Moose antler ski boot drying rack.

02 March 2010:  A Little Known Alaskan Skiing History Fact ...

   
Buckethead, the shred guitarist The cross country skiing Alaskan Buckethead family in 1910

It is a little known fact that Buckethead, the eccentric shred guitarist (that once played for Guns N Roses), is a descendent of the Alaskan skiing Buckethead family.  The guitarist carries on the time-honored tradition of his old-time Alaskan family by wearing a bucket on his head.  Yeah, the Bucketheads have always been a bit weird, but they sure were fast skiers ... and even faster guitar players!
 

27 February 2010:  Easy With That Double Pole!

If the Point MacKenzie ski trip postings on this web site have given you the urge to go skiing there, that's great.  BUT ... I'd like to offer you some advice before you go.  And that is: If the snow cover is thin when you go skiing there - try not to double pole with a lot of energy and ooomphf.  Because you never know what you may be skiing over!

Here is a good article about the unexploded ordinance that has been found on Point MacKenzie courtesy of the 1950's Susitna Gunnery Range.  Below is the picture of the gunnery range.  I've skied across the gunnery range several times.  I guess I've been fortunate ... so far I haven't lost any ski pole baskets to artillery explosions.  ;-)


 

26 February 2010:  The Best Winter Athletes in the World

If you read my web site trip reports regularly ... you might have noticed that I occasionally refer to racing sled dogs as the best winter athletes in the world.  Well, it looks like I'm not the only person that thinks this way.  Here is a quote from a recent article in Outside Magazine:

"When it comes down to sheer capacity for prolonged exercise," says Ken Hinchcliff, an Australian veterinary physiologist who's done more research on sled dogs than any other scientist, "there is no other animal, including humans, that comes close to competing."

If a sled dog does both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, that is over 2000 miles in 20 days.  How many humans can crank out 100 mile days at 15 miles per hour in sub-zero temps for three weeks, on foot with no glide or rolling down hills and sleep out in the cold in only the "clothes" that they travel in, and never change?  Answer: None.  We humans are very pathetic creatures compared to sled dogs.

 

23 February 2010:  Trails Debate in the Valley

Big loop - potential Government Peak-Bald Mountain Ridge 50 mile loop (solid line is existing trail, dashed line designates "needed" trail to complete the loop).  Red circle is approximate area where Nordic skiing area is proposed.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough (MSB) has long been involved with recreational development attempts at Government Peak near Hatcher Pass.  You can find a lot about  the MSB's past work with developers to develop Government Peak as an alpine ski resort documented on the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project web site (here).

The latest attempt by the MSB to advance recreational opportunities at Government Peak has some good merit to it (in my opinion).  The MSB, at the Assembly level, is now debating going forward with a Nordic Skiing Center at the base of Government Peak, with access via the Edgerton Parks Road.

At the same time, there is lobbying by motor sports groups to have a motorized corridor through this same area.

I think the MSB should work to get BOTH a motorized corridor and a Nordic Skiing Center at the base of Government Peak.

First, a "motorized corridor" is not what folks should be calling this.  It will be a multi-use trail.  It will be open not only to snowmobilers and ATV'ers, but also skiers, mushers, ski-jorers, bikers, snowshoers, walkers, hikers and bikers.  Mat-Su multi-use trails are what makes the MSB such a winter trail Mecca.  If you peruse this web site you will likely see what I mean.

What would be great about a multi-use trail passing below Government Peak is that it could be a link to complete a phenomenal winter trail loop around Government Peak and Bald Mountain Ridge.  This 50 mile loop, of which most of the loop already exists, would be a showcase trail for the Mat-Su Borough.  It would be an unbelievably unique and spectacular winter trail.

Of course there is worry on the Nordic skier side of the debate about skier-snowmobiler conflicts if a multi-use trail is adjacent to a skier-only groomed trail system.  This is a valid concern.  But it is nothing new.  You have groomed ski trails next to snowmobile trails at Independence Mine, Nancy Lakes and even at Upper Huffman in Anchorage when there is enough snow for snowmobing to open there.  This is not a show stopper.

Again, I hope that a solution can be worked out so both a multi-use trail and a skiing center can both exist here.  But if push comes to shove, I think that a multi-use trail has a higher priority than a Nordic skiing trail system.  I say this because this is public land.  And if it is public land then the wants of the majority should come before a special interest group's desires, like xc skiers.  Yes, I am a cross country skier.  And I am a member of the Mat-Su Ski Club.  But I am also a citizen of Alaska with open eyes.  When I drive down the Glenn Highway and see 50 snowmobile trailers to ever car with a ski box on top ... I know that groomed-trail xc skiers are a very, very small winter recreation special interest group in Alaska.  So in my opinion, pro-Government Peak Nordic skiing center advocates should consider being good citizens and work and coexist with other much larger winter recreation user groups.  Like snowmobilers and Mat-Su multi-use trail users.
 

17 February 2010:  New Rides

 
Old: O5 SCS skates, 06 SCS classics New: 08 RCR skates, 09 RCR classics

This year I phased out my beloved SCS's.  They were great skis for the kind of skiing I like to do.  I had a lot of good adventures with them and I'll miss them (sniff, sniff, sob, sob).  But they were used and abused to the point they couldn't be trusted to not blow up out in the boonies (see pictures below).

So now I'm riding RCR's instead of SCS's.  Why?  Well, for one - it doesn't seem that there is much difference between OLD SCS's and NEW RCR's.  I don't know for sure, but it almost seems like the construction of the old SCS's is now branded as the RCR's.  And the new SCS's are "dumbed down".  But like I said, I don't know that for sure.

What has given me clues to make this statement are things like the tip construction on SCS and RCR skate skis.  SCS's used to have contoured, performance tips.  Now they are simply up-curved and heavier composite laminates ... and the RCR skates have lighter tips similar to the old SCS's.  Another clue: by hefting my old SCS's classics with the new RCR's classics I can't tell any difference.  But the new SCS's are heavier than my old SCS's.  And (hooray!) - the RCR skaters are straight cut skis, and not the goofy, skate-cut, hourglass design that was a big mistake that Fischer made. 

For my first substantial trip on my new RCR classics I took them on the 86 mile run from Hatcher Pass to Alexander Creek.  They worked out fine ... they felt just like my old classic SCS's.  I pretty much skated this whole route.  But I like skating narrow trails and packed powder snowmobile trails on SCS or RCR classic skis.  They track smoother and the fore and the tail of the ski soaks up more of bumps and ridges you find on snowmobile trails.   Often rigid skate skis wash out more in these conditions.  But that's only my opinion.  When it comes to crust skiing however- skate skis are the way to go.

Here are a couple of close-ups of my old SCS's and the wear and tear they had taken:

The SCS classics had delaminated behind the heel.  Probably from all the skating done on them.  These boards can be epoxied-up and used as rock skis.  But after a delamination like this - I don't have trust repairing them and taking them a long ways out.  Overall - they were great skis and I got my money's worth out of them. Besides a bit of delamination, my SCS skate ski base material was worn down to the ski core in  a few places.  With the edges rounded or missing like this - these skis often got a bit squirrelly in situations when you don't want them to be that way and you need edge control.  I sure liked these skis a lot.

 

09 February 2010:  Be Prepared, Dress Down

It's that time of year again.  More light is showing up.  More winter events are happening.  And it's more likely that folks from Anchorage will be taking trips to remote areas for some wilderness recreation.  Maybe it's snowmobiling with friends out to watch the Iditarod.  Maybe it's heading out to someone's remote cabin.  Or maybe it's getting a chance to try mushing, go flying in a Super Cub on skis or driving out onto lake and going ice fishing.

For many Anchoragites these are common activities they do all the time.  They know how to dress for these activities so they don't get cold.  They are prepared, have fun and are not phased by what nature throws at them.

But this blog post is not directed towards those types of Anchorageites.  It's for the unknowing and unprepared urbanites that inevitably flock out into the cold this time of year and freeze their asses off.  They find that riding for hours in the cold on a snowmobile, standing around a bonfire for hours in the cold or riding a dogsled for hours in the cold ... is just friggin' cold.  And the clothes that keep them warm for walking from the parking garage to their office, or schussing down Alyeska in 10 minutes, just don't cut it 50 miles up the Yentna River at 10 below.

The other scenario you often see is winter savvy folks, like climbers and skiers, heading out to do something unfamiliar to them in their nice designer gear.  They might be wearing a 600 dollar down coat and someone says: "Hey, cay you pass that quart of 2 cycle oil ... whoops, I didn't know the cap was loose.  Sorry!"  Or: "Just hang those wet bib overalls ($450) by  the wood stove to dry out."  Ahhh - the sweet smell of melting Goretex.  You get the idea.

There is a simple solution to the problems mentioned above.  Get some warm and crappy clothes.  Wear the warm and crappy clothes over the good clothes you already have.  You will be extra warm when you have to be.  And you don't have to worry about trashing your good clothes.

What should you buy?  It's simple: Carhartt, Polar King, Refrigiwear or equivalent insulated winter coveralls.  My favorites are the Polar King overalls that you can buy at Alaska Industrial Hardware for about $80 dollars.  Buy them big enough to fit other warm clothes underneath them.  Get some real winter boots too - like Sorel Glaciers (or equivalent).  Add a serious hat and mittens (not gloves) and you will be ready for prolonged cold when you are not exercising hard.

And when you are not using this stuff out in the boonies, keep it in your vehicle all winter.  You never know when you will be happy that you did this.  Last night I passed some folks changing a tire in the dark, during a snowstorm, on the Glenn Highway just before the Knik River Bridge.  A kid with them was waving a flashlight to let oncoming traffic know they were there.  That was smart.  But the kid was wearing a T-shirt.  So were the adults.  And it was 20 degrees F and snowing.  I bet they all wished they had Carhartt overalls.

 
She's ready to ski.  Underneath her Carhartts are ski clothes.  All she has to do is whip off her "Carhartt Cocoon" and hit the trail. Besides being versatile bush warm-ups, overalls are handy for keeping your good clothes clean.  I take pride in having so many grease and oil stains on mine that even my friends that live full-time off the road system look at me and think I'm a savage.  ;-)

 

02 February 2010:  Ah-woooooo...


31 January 2010

The pre-sunrise photo above is a panoramic shot I took recently that shows a "wolf moon".  A wolf moon is the largest full moon of the year.  It occurs when the moon is at its closest point to the earth on the lunar orbital path ... a mere 227, 557 miles away.  The closeness of the moon makes this full moon appear 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger (info from the National Geographic web site).

Before I took this picture I noticed something odd.  And you can see this in the picture.  And that is - the brown smudge across the middle of the picture.  That's smog trapped by a temperature inversion.  Normally a day's worth of Anchorage smog dissipates, due to air mixing, and by early the next morning the skies over Anchorage are clear again.  But this is not the case when a temperature inversion is settled over Anchorage.  Smog gets trapped over Anchorage and keeps accumulating.   And skiing in this bad air is not a good deal.  So when temperature inversions skank-tify the air in the low areas of Anchorage - go skiing in the mountains where the air is cleaner, and warmer.

 

29 January 2010:  Easy now!  Simmer down ...


25 January 2010


A few days ago I noticed that Mount Redoubt was belching (or maybe burping, or farting?).  Redoubt's volcanic spew put a big damper on late season skiing last spring.  We don't need a repeat of last year's ash fall ... so easy Redoubt girl!  Easy now!  Simmer down!  <Please!>

A few pictures from last year's ash attack:

 

26 January 2010:  One Guy's Face Warming Theory.

First ... a disclaimer:  This is simply my theory and opinion.  It works for me.  It has worked for me for over 20 years.  That does not mean that it will work for you or that there is not any better solution.  That said ...

The problem: Keeping you face warm while skiing in sub zero (F) temperatures.

Solutions:  There are many.  You can buy all kinds of face masks, balaclavas and head wraps for cold weather skiing.  Lots of these products are great, I'm guessing, for sports where you don't have to breath hard.  But when you breath hard in cold weather - condensation from your breath inevitably causes frost build-up on anything near your mouth.  And if fabric is covering your mouth and becomes frosted-up, then a problem occurs ... you can't breath, at least not well enough for optimum athletic performance.

Besides the frost issue, there is also the insulation issue.  What do you think would be warmer ... an eight of an inch of polypropylene fabric covering your skin?  Or hot air blowing on your skin?  Chances are the hot air would be warmer.  A car windshield doesn't stay defrosted in the winter by being covered with a fabric.  It stays frost free from hot air being blown onto it.

With this hot air theory in mind, 20 years ago I made a bunch of neck gaiters  that could be adjusted to fit loosely around ones neck.  The neck gaiters extended down to the shoulders, so warmth from your chest and neck was trapped and channeled upwards toward the openings by your face.  As you exercise an "atmosphere" of warm air flows up onto your face to keep it warm.  With such an arrangement you can dip your head slightly to protect your nose, or tip your head back a bit to breath above the gaiter.

Here is a picture of a 20 year old Kelley neck warmer ... still in use today:

In the above picture you can see a section of 1/8 inch shock cord (sticking down on the right side) that runs around the neck and is adjusted with a spring loaded cord lock.  I've never seen any product like this that was as simple and light.  These are of course very easy to make.  You just need a regular sewing machine and some fleece material.  The picture on the lower left will give you an idea of the pattern you need to cut.  If you decide to try making these neck gaiters ... make a bunch while you are at it.  And give some to folks that deserve to have warm faces in the winter.
Simple to make yourself. "Thanks for the great neck warmers Tim!"  TT, supermodel

 

19 January 2010:  Otters and Wolves ... Still A Mystery To Me.

The more time you spend in the outdoors, the more you are likely to see interesting stuff.  And if you see stuff that you makes you wonder ... it's fun to try and find answers and information about what you see.

There is something I've seen quite a lot in the winter that I haven't yet figured out.  I often see river otter tracks in the winter.  The tracks show that these guys are a long way from the safety of water and traveling cross country, usually in pairs or triplets.  Their tracks are unmistakable as they hop and belly-slide through the snow.  The mystery to me is: a) what are these otters, that spend most of the summer living in rivers, doing running across hill and dale in the winter?  And b), the big question, how can otters get away with traveling so much in open country when there are so many wolves living in the same areas the otters choose to wander in?  You'd think that wolves would wipe out the otter population.  If a pack of wolves can take down a moose, they probably would have no problem hunting down and dispatching a pair of river otters.

So what gives?  Are otters just fearless risk takers?  Do wolves not like the scent or taste of river otters (I doubt this)?  Are otters alert and quick enough and good enough climbers or burrowers to escape from wolves?  Whatever the answer - otters seem to have survival in wolf country figured out.  Just how they can pull this off is still a mystery to me.
 
River otter tracks Nearby wolf tracks

 

12 January 2010:  Life With Garmin MapSource.

Like many Alaskans, I often find a reason to laugh at Garmin GPS MapSource maps for Alaska.  MapSource maps are the maps that you can download to handheld Garmin GPS's.  For the Lower 48 - MapSource maps are great.  But for Alaska the contours are 50 meters (165 feet) which is too low of a resolution for most any human powered recreation.  100 foot cliffs often don't show up on these maps.  Also, lots of roads and geographical features are misplaced.

I've emailed and even talked to Garmin reps about how sub-par MapSource maps are for Alaska.  And I've asked why they don't use USGS base maps instead of their proprietary low resolution maps.  These days, with memory chips so large and cheap,  there is no doubt that USGS maps for Alaska could be loaded onto a handheld GPS.  The usual response is: "Yes - many Alaskan users have asked us to allow USGS maps to be uploaded to our handheld units.  Thanks for your input!"

But for 15 years Garmin has not  budged from using MapSource maps for Alaska.  No doubt it is a money issue.  Garmin would lose revenue from sales of their proprietary MapSource products if they allowed public domain USGS maps to be uploaded to their products.  So the safety of Garmin GPS users in Alaska continues to be compromised by Garmin's pursuit of the almighty dollar.

After a recent ski trip I pulled up my route on MapSource.  I started chuckling when I looked at the MapSource info for the Point Mackenzie area just across Knik Arm from Anchorage.  Check out this segment of the map:

The red arrows point to roads that don't exist and never existed.  And note how these roads that don't exist extend out into the water, and then stop.  Huh?  You'd think that would be an easy catch if they had anyone reviewing their map products.  But who knows, maybe Garmin is planning to build some Bridges to Nowhere!  ;-)

Also - take a look at the three names that are underlined in red.  You will see that they spelled Point Mackenzie three different ways: Point Mac Kenzie, Point Mackenzie and Point McKenzie.  Nice error checking and quality control.

This is the tip of the Gamin MapSource mapping errors iceberg.  The whole state is covered with blatant MapSource errors.   When will things get better for Alaskan Garmin GPS users?  Maybe when the iPhone can work as a better GPS than Garmin products?  Who knows.
 

 

06 January 2010:  Are Fluorinated Waxes Legal To Use in the US?

Recently there was an article on fasterskier.com about the health hazards of waxing, particularly with fluorinated waxes.

This article made me wonder ... is it legal for places like ski shops or universities in the US to use fluorinated waxes?

Here is my logic:

OSHA (the Occupational Safey and Health Administraion) requires HSE (Health Safety Environment) managers to post MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for all workplace chemicals.  Whew – lots of acronyms!  MSDS sheets itemize the composition, properties and hazards of all chemicals in a product.  It's the law to have MSDS available for all chemicals used in the workplace.  If you don't have a MSDS for a chemical, you shouldn't be using it.  And if you do use the product with no MSDS, you are breaking the law.

So – do companies like Swix and Toko have MSDS sheets for their fluorinated waxes?  According to the fasterskier article, researchers are still discovering what the bad stuff in fluoro waxes is, so it seems that accurate MSDS data is probably not available.

There are web-accessible MSDS databases where you can search for MSDS data for products.  I used www.msdssearch.com to search for "Swix" and "Toko".  For Swix I found 1987 and 1991 MSDS data sheets  for klister, violet kick wax and non-fluorinated glide wax.  Nothing for fluorinated wax.  For Toko I found nothing at all.  I also searched swixsport.com for "MSDS" and found nothing.

At universities, for example, you will have a janitor closet filled (or it should be filled) with MSDS sheets..  There are even MSDS sheets that spell out the health hazards of Lemon Pledge.  So it is ironic, and probably against US workplace laws, if down the hall from the janitor closet is the ski team wax room where people are working with a product with potential health risks and no MSDS data.  If there is no MSDS data available for Swix and Toko fluorinated waxes, then hopefully OSHA won't find out about this.  Or there could potentially be a bunch of US ski shops and universities getting fined.

The other scenario is with coaches and wax techs that are hired to prepare skis.  If there is no MSDS for the products they are working with, that is a situation where there are liability and legal worries for their employers.  The best would be for wax companies to come forth with OSHA approved MSDS for all of their fluorinated products.

Of course, the OSHA law of having MSDS data for workplace products could be circumvented by having all fluorinated waxes applied at home, away from the workplace.  OSHA doesn't care about what you do at home, as long as it doesn't affect you when you come back to work.  So in the case of a ski shop - it seems that it would be legal for the shop to sell fluorinated ski waxes, but questionable whether it is legal to apply them in the workplace should no MSDS data exist for these waxes.

If I'm wrong and MSDS sheets do exist for Swix or Toko fluorinated waxes ... then someone please send me a link to these MSDS web pages and I will post the links and update this blog post.


 

29 December 2009:  So What Is This Lake's Website?

You’re skate skiing along a spruce-lined Susitna Valley snowmobile trail and pop out onto a picturesque lake.  You look across the snow-covered ice and see some cabins lining the shores, a few docks, maybe a parked plane or a snowmobiles, maybe some light at a cabin and wood smoke coming out of the chimney.  Mountains off in the distance.  Quiet.  Nice place.

But what you don’t see about the lake … is its web site.

Yep, it’s true – the Internet is everywhere.  Full and part-time residents of some remote enclaves in Alaska now have web sites to share trail information, community events, local stories and goings-on and their love for their nook of Alaska.  For example, here are the web sites for Flat Lake and Red Shirt Lake.


 

27 December 2009:  Digital Cameras Don't Forget

Today I was out skiing north of Big Lake.  As I was skiing two snowmobilers pulled to the side of the trail ahead of me and stopped.  When I got us to them I said "Hi" and asked them how they were doing.  They said they are having a good day, except for one thing - they didn't know where they were.  So I pulled out a printout I had made of a Big Lake Trail system photo I had taken last year, see below:

I told the snowmobilers that I had taken a picture of one of the local trail map signs last year for use as a map in the future.  That way you can print out the map photo or upload the jpeg image to your camera and zoom in or out on sections to help figure out where you are.  "Hey, that's a pretty good idea!", they said.  They didn't have a camera on them (to take a picture of my map printout), so I gave them the printout of my map photo and off they went.

So the moral of the story is - your digital camera can do more than just take pictures.  It can serve as a "knowlege base".  When you pass trail signs that have maps of where you are traveling, whip out your camera and take a picture of it.  Even if you have a map, it's sometimes more convenient to grab your camera off your waist belt and cursor to your map photo.  You can even take pictures of maps displayed on your computer before you leave home.  When you get into a maze of trails (that don't show up on GPS maps), like those around the Big Lake area, it's easy to get mixed up and forget the trail layout.  But with a map on a memory card - your camera won't forget.


 

17 December 2009:  The Goal: Make Salomon Combi Boots Last More Than One Season

I really like the fit and performance of Salomon Pro-Combi ski boots.  But as for the quality of these boots ...  it's horrible. 

Salomon used to make good ski boots.  The ugly old Salomon yellow and black "bumble bee" boots of 10 plus years ago were great boots.  Proof of this is the fact that in Anchorage, for example, you see a lot of people still skiing in them.  Salomon boots in those years were made in Romania and the high quality plastic and leather parts used resulted in way better xc ski boots than Salomon makes today.  I still have a pair of the bumblebee skate boots and they are going strong.  They are amazingly tough ski boots.

As an example of how cheap the construction of Salomon boots are these days, take the Salomon Pro-Combi boots.  I have now used 08 and 09 models, and neither pair of these boots lasted a complete ski season.  And I don't even use these boots exclusively.  I also use skate and classic skiing boots during the winter.  The toe of these new Salomon combi boots rips away from the sole, the cuff springs break and the zippers go south.  Here are photos, all of my last pair of 09 Pro Combis,  that show what I'm talking about:
 
Ripped toe box. Broken cuff spring. Blown out zipper.

The other day I started using a new pair of 09 Pro Combi boots.  The first thing I did to them is modify the tongue so they would fit comfortably (click here for how to do it).  Then I set out to try and remedy the main durability problem with this boot - the toe box fabric ripping away from the sole.  Before I go into how I did it, let's first take a close look at the toe section of a brand new, never been skied Salomon Pro Combi boot.  See picture below:

Just look at how cheap the construction of the toe of this boot looks.  It looks like it's barely glued on.  And the toe is dimpled from careless assembly of this boot.  It kind of looks like the toe of this boot is made from Walmart Christmas wrapping paper that was Elmer glued onto cardboard from leftover Chinese food take-out boxes.  This boot is cheaply made out of cheap materials.   It's no wonder the toes of these boots rip out before you get a season of use out of them.

Well, the only thing you can do is try to make these poorly constructed ski boots last.  So I am trying a technique I have used with some success for making climbing boots last longer.  What I do is cover the seems with Goop sealant.  This sealant does two things: 1) it makes a better bond between the fabric and the boot sole and 2) it creates a small "bumper" to protect the seam from abrasion.  Here are some pictures of the boot toe seam being 'Gooped".
 
Breaking out the Goop.  I like Goop products. Applying Goop to the toe box seams. The Goop "bumper seal" after about 20 hours of skiing.  Still holding pretty well. but touch-ups will be necessary eventually.

By "Gooping" these boots I hope that this pair will last the rest of this ski season and through most of next season.  Is it a wild dream to think  that a pair of Salomon Pro Combis will last such a long time?  Will they last for more than one entire ski season?  Actually, it's pretty pathetic to have to ask these questions when Salomon ski boots, like the bumble bees, used to last 10 plus years.  So you can pretty much say that the quality of modern Salomon ski boots is one tenth that of Salomon boots that were made ten years ago.  Progress?  Maybe for Salomon's accounting department, but not for skiers.


 

14 December 2009:  An Aversion For Inversions

Anchorage in a temperature inversion

Temperature inversions are a common winter phenomenon in Alaska.  On days when there is no wind and little sunlight to trigger mixing of the air, cold air flows downhill and pools in valleys and depressions.  This results in low lying areas being colder than higher elevations.  With a warm air layer capping an inversion of cold air below it, there is hardly any convection or mixing of the air.  So if the inversion is over a populated area that is emitting fumes from vehicles, planes or wood stoves – the air becomes more and more polluted over time.  Until the inversion breaks, the air becomes colder and less healthy to breath every day.

In terms of skiing, temperature inversions are a skier’s concern for two reasons: cold temperatures and air quality.  The cold temperature part of inversions is pretty straightforward to deal with.  Wear more clothes when it is cold.  And don’t exercise at maximum levels when temperatures are a long way south of zero F.

A trickier factor to skiing in inversions is dealing with polluted air.  Breathing second hand truck, car and airplane exhaust is not healthy.  Neither is gulping down lung-fulls of wood or coal smoke from home heating systems.  All of these pollutants can cause respiratory system problems.  Plus … the fact that these pollutants have carcinogen elements to them is a bad thing too.

So how do you know when a temperature inversion has made air quality too bad to exercise in?  Well, you can go by the rule that if you can smell or taste the pollutants in the air you shouldn’t be exercising in it.  And if you get a headache, stomachache or nausea from the air you shouldn’t continue exercising in it.  Though not quantifiable metrics, these common sense tests can be used.

If you are lucky enough to live in Fairbanks, then likely the local government will let you know when air quality is bad.  Fairbanks is no stranger to temperature inversions or thick smoke, especially from forest fires.  So local agencies are set-up to monitor air quality and warn residents when it’s bad.  This recently happened in November 2009.  With a temperature inversion settled over Fairbanks, the municipality let people know that the air quality was below federal air quality standards.  And people were asked to voluntarily stop burning wood in their homes.  So – skiing in the lowest parts of Fairbanks, say on the Chena River, would likely not have been a healthy-wise choice at that time.

I personally am not lucky enough to live in Fairbanks when it comes to air quality warnings.  I live in Anchorage where temperature inversions can create overpowering pools of polluted air.  These health hazards are not well monitored, ignored and often outright denied by Anchorage-ites, even Anchorage cross country skiers.

From the tone of that last sentence you might think that I have had a bad experience with skiing in polluted temperature inversion air in Anchorage.  Yes I have.  And here is the story.

First some background.  Kincaid Park is Anchorage’s premier cross country skiing venue.  It is located on the west of Anchorage on Point Campbell.  The northern edge of the park borders the east-west runway of the Ted Stevens International Airport.  This airport is one of the busiest cargo airplane hubs in the world.

Often when there is a temperature inversion over Anchorage, the northern section of Kincaid Park is awash in exhaust fumes from jumbo jets.  The worst locations, of course, are the lowest pockets of the park.  Here the cold air pools and the highest concentration of pollutants are encountered.

In the winter of 2004 I went skiing at Kincaid one night after work when there was a temperature inversion over Anchorage.  I started my ski by heading out the Mize Loop trail.  When I hit the lowest point of this trail I was engulfed in the stench of jet fumes.  Not only could I smell the fumes, they were so thick I could taste them.  I quickly started to get a headache.  I kept skiing until I got out of the stench.  But by then I was feeling crummy from inhaling the fumes and didn’t feel up to skiing any more.  So I left.

I pretty much shrugged off that episode of Kincaid jet fumes.  Then came the ski from hell in the winter of 2005.  Again I went to Kincaid after work during a cold evening with no wind and a temperature inversion parked over Anchorage.  This time I headed out the Elliott’s Climb trail.  When I hit the low point before the climb I found myself again engulfed in thick pool of jet exhaust.  And again I could smell it, taste it and I quickly got a headache.  But it didn’t stop there.

I kept skiing up Elliott’s climb.  But by now my mouth, throat and stomach felt like I had just swallowed gas.  My headache got worse until I had to stop at the top of the hill, where I began dry-heaving.  I struggled back to the chalet where I sat for a while and drank water to try and get the jet fuel taste out of my mouth.

At this point I was pretty out of it.  I had a splitting headache and felt like crap.  I shouldn’t have been driving, but I wanted to get home.  So I struggled to drive home.  I had to stop a couple of times to gag and dry heave.  It was a brutal drive home.

When I got home I stumbled to the bathroom, threw up spew that tasted like gas, curled up on the floor and just laid there not wanting to move.  Eventually my wife came home and found me lying in the bathroom.  After she got the story from me about what happened she wanted to take me to the ER.  She called our nurse neighbor and she said that if my vital signs were good (breathing, pulse, temperature), there was nothing the ER could do.  I’d just have to suffer until the toxins worked out of my system.

That was a Friday night.  All Saturday and Sunday I spent lying in the bathroom with a headache, no energy, no appetite and a mouth, throat and stomach that burned with a gas taste.  It was a weekend from hell.  I swore that I would never again ski at Kincaid.  And I have held to that vow.  The day in 2005 that I got sick on jet fumes at Kincaid Park was the last time I skied there.

I’m surely not the only one that has had problems after skiing into a cloud of jet fumes at Kincaid Park.  Others have told me their stories.  One acquaintance of mine that got a bad dose of Kincaid fumes once made a post about air being sometimes unsafe to exercise in at Kincaid Park on the major cross country ski racing web site – fasterskier.com.  The post was on an article about some race series being held at Kincaid, maybe it was the Jr. Nationals or something … I can’t remember.  Anyway, this post turned out to be an amazing social experiment.

In response to the statement that air can sometimes be unsafe to breath at Kincaid, a fact that is common knowledge to anyone in Anchorage that owns skis and has a pulse, there was a vehement outcry from ski club officials and race organizers.  They claimed that this statement was “hogwash”, that “they had skied Kincaid for decades and never smelled fumes”.  One race official said that there were no fumes at Kincaid, only the slight smell of “burning rubber” from jet tires now and then.  Actually, a lot of skiers got a laugh out of that last one.

As far as this web site post being a social experiment, it showed the true colors of some of Anchorage skiing community.  It showed that ski racing in Anchorage is a business at all costs, and not a health oriented game.  It showed that ski club race organizers place more importance on bolstering their resume of holding major race series than caring about the health of athletes.  Proof of this is seen years later.  Major races are still held at Kincaid Park and there is no air quality monitoring procedures in place.  That’s insane.

So the bottom line is – it’s up to you to determine whether it’s safe or not to ski in air of questionable quality, especially when a temperature inversion is parked over you.  If you live in Fairbanks, local agencies may give you a heads up that the air is bad.  But if you live in Anchorage … you are definitely on your own.

Anchorage at night in a temperature inversion.  The white line on the left are the lights of a cargo jet, spewing jet exhaust fumes, as it heads for a landing just north of Kincaid Park.

[December 30 update]  Here is an example press release, from the AP, about a bad air quality situation in Fairbanks.  Note that a temperature inversion is stated as the reason pollutants are intensified over Fairbanks.

Air quality alert issued in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS -- Fairbanks residents have been warned to limit prolonged exertion because of worsening air quality. The Fairbanks North Star Borough's Air Quality Index on Tuesday showed fine particulate air pollution at more than twice the level deemed acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and remains high today.

The borough has three air quality monitors in Fairbanks and one in North Pole.

The National Weather Service says a mass of warm air is resting on top of colder air, holding down pollution. It should disperse by New Year's Eve.

Meanwhile, the borough is asking those who can burn oil instead of wood or coal to do so.
 

 

09 December 2009:  Planet-shine?

What does this post have to to with skiing?  Not much, other than I took this picture while I was out training/ ridge rambling a few nights ago.  It shows something I don't think I've ever seen before ... the reflection of a planet on water.  In this case, the reflection of Saturn on Turnagain Arm.  I wonder what you call this?  Planet-shine?  Saturn-shine?



 

07 December 2009:  Go with the Glow

When it comes to navigating at night in Southcentral Alaska, we have some navigational aids that were not available 100 years ago.  Yes, we have USGS maps and GPS … but that’s not what I’m referring to.  I’m talking about glow from city lights.  During the darkest of nights in Southcentral Alaska, glow from cities, towns and villages can be used as a quick navigational reference.

Often while skiing, biking, hiking, snowmobiling, mushing or whatever at night in Southcentral Alaska, for example, you don’t need any sort of navigational aids.  Usually you know what trail you are on.  Maybe you are even following tracks of others, such as during the Susitna 100 race or during the Iditarod qualifier mushing races in the Susitna Valley.

Often when I’m skiing at night in the Susitna Valley I don’t have any worries about where I am.  Over the years I’ve tried to explore every trail I could find, and I think I know the place pretty well.  But then when you get overly confident ... the unexpected happens.

The unexpected I refer to has happened to me a few times.  The end result is not being sure where I am.  Yeah, as a guy … it hurts to admit this.  Anyway, one time this happened was when I was doing a bigger-bite-than-maybe-I-should-have-taken-on-a-day-when-a-storm-was-predicted ski loop.  I had been out about 10 hours and was heading south across Flathorn Lake at night.  A big storm had blown in from the north and visibility was very poor due to wind-driven snow.  I found Fish Creek at the end of Flathorn Lake and figured I’d ski it to the Gasline Trail and then head across the Big Su, into the woods of Bell Island and back to Alexander where I had started.  But as I skied down Fish Creek, with the wind roaring across the banks above me, I took a wrong turn onto a branch of Fish Creek I had never been on.

Eventually I came to the mouth of the creek where it emptied into an unfamiliar part of the Big Susitna River.  At this point I had a “where the F am I” moment.  The wind was roaring down the Big Su and I wasn’t excited about stopping to pull my GPS out of my pack.  So I turned my back to the wind, waited for a lull and saw the glow of Anchorage in the distance.  That was enough to orient myself and provide logic for some dead reckoning progress.  And soon I found some scratches in the ice of the Big Su, that was now blown free of snow, and knew I had found the main snowmobile trail back to Alexander.

In this case, the glow of the city didn’t save me or anything like that.  But this navigational aid made for a convenient and quick orientation check.  The above situation took place in the Lower Susitna River drainage.  But the technique of using the distant glow of incandescent lights for navigation can be used in many areas in Alaska.

For Susitna Valley travelers, here are a few shots that show "night glows" that can be used for navigation:

The above photo is a shot taken on the West Channel of the Big Susitna River on a very dark night.  The "night glows" are 30-35 miles away.
Nights that have low clouds for the city lights to bounce of make for brighter glows.  This is the glow of Anchorage ... so I know approximately which direction ESE is from this location. Here is another photo that shows the glow of Anchorage (plus Elmendorf, Fort Rich and Eagle River) in the distance.
   

30 November 2009:  Put some LED on your head

In Alaska, winter means darkness.  Lots of it.  So a good headlamp is a must.  I’ve used lots of headlamps over the years, and I’ve made a bunch of headlamps too.  But nothing, in my opinion, beats modern day LED (light emitting diode) headlamps.

When LED headlamps first came they were pretty much useless for fast xc skiing.  The reason being – you could out-ski the light beam.  On downhills the beam was so weak and short that you had to slow down so that you could see what’s coming at the edge of the beam.  Now with the strong 3 watt Luxeon lamps you have a bright and long-throwing beam that doesn’t slow you down.  And with these LED headlamps you also have the advantage of long battery life, long (near forever) bulb life and minimal weight on your head.

Another thing I love about LED headlamps is the uniform beam brightness.  With incandescent bulb headlamps there is a dark spot in the middle of the beam.  On long night treks, like the old 200 mile Iditaski race from Knik to Swentna and back, this dark spot at the end of the tunnel would drive you nuts.  You’d end up turning your headlamp off and ski behind someone else, or just not use it on lakes and open areas, to give your eyes a break.  Gone is that problem with LED headlamps.

It used to be easy in Alaska to choose a headlamp.  You would just read Craig Medred’s yearly headlamp review in the Anchorage Daily News and then go buy what he suggested.  I know first hand that Craig uses headlamps for night skiing, snowshoeing and prowling the outdoors more than most Alaskans, so I never questioned his headlamp calls.  But Craig is no longer with the ADN.  Bummer for headlamp buyers.  But I still use, and am very happy with, his last suggested headlamp: the Brunton L3.

I like the Brunton L3 because its Luxeon 3 watt LED is great for all of my skiing needs.  The headlamp is light and snugs to your head well without the over-the-top third strap that lamps like Petzl’s use.  There are no external wires, so it’s simple.  You can get a belt pack battery case for it, but I don’t know why you would want to do that.  The LED mount is easy to adjust and doesn’t loose its adjustment when skiing bumps.  And what I really like is the fact that this headlamp uses 4 AA batteries.  So you can use rechargeable batteries with it, or switch to cold-impervious, long lasting lithium AAs for long ski trips.

Having 4 AA's powering this headlamp, versus the 3 AA's like you see in a lot of Petzl headlamps, seems to be advantageous for a couple of reasons.  First - 4 AA's are not much more weight and you get 25% more amp hours.  And secondly, some AA battery chargers, like the Duracell one I have, only work with 4 AA's.  Just taking the 4 batteries out of your headlamp and sticking them in the charger is simpler than taking three batteries out and wondering: "Now where did I leave that extra battery!?"

But most every product has its cons: The light switch is very small, next to impossible to use with gloves on.  The covers for the battery enclosures are flimsy, mine are now held on by duct tape.

Another gripe I have with this headlamp, and LED lamps in general, is with its low and mid power settings when used while skiing in falling snow.  To reduce the brightness and save battery drain, the LEDs are strobed.  In other words they are turned on and off very quickly; the less the LED is on the less the battery is in use.  This strobing is not noticeable to you when it is not snowing; everything is fine.  But when a strobed light hits snowflakes, they turn into unnatural, annoying dotted lines in front of you.  It would be nice to dim the light in falling snow to reduce the glare-back of the light.  But seeing a wall of  “disco snowflakes” gives me a headache.  Here is a picture of falling snow being strobed with the Brunton L3 at mid-power to give you an idea of what I am talking about:

Even though modern day LED lamps are great and reliable for xc skiing, they still are electronic devices being used in a wet environment.  So they can fail.  With this in mind, for long ski trips I bring a 2nd LED headlamp (because they are so light-weight).  There is no fussing around if your main headlamp fails.  Just grab the backup and turn it on.

Bottom line: It's not perfect, but I like this headlamp.  If I lost my Brunton L3 … I’d go out and buy another Brunton L3.

A funny story about homemade headlamps:  During my wife’s and my mushing days I built some powerful and bomb-proof (and very heavy) incandescent headlamps from Cabela’s 6-volt coon-hunting lamps that I mounted on hardhat headbands, with a cord that ran down to a heavy battery in a belt pack.  My wife still seems to prefer these beast-lamps over LED headlamps.  So choosing a headlamp is a personal thing.


 

23 November 2009:  Picky about pants

Over time I have used lots of brands ski clothes.  Some clothes I have been very impressed with.  Some not so impressed with.  I have seen great clothes come and then go, leaving me to say: “Dang!  Why didn’t I buy two of those when I had a chance!”  And I have purchased some clothes that I quickly sent to the Salvation Army after a ski season of infrequent use.

In general it seems that there are lots of good jackets and shirts out there for performance Nordic skiing.  But I have had trials and tribulations finding decent pants for performance backcountry xc skiing.  And … that is what this blog post is about.

Here is my list of wants when it comes to ski pants (or ski tights, or whatever you want to call them):

They should work in a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures.
They should be windproof in the front.
You should not need wind briefs for critical appendage protection when wearing the pants.
You should rarely need long underwear when skiing in the pants.
They should fit snug and not catch the wind or let snow accumulate on them.
The weatherproof fabric sections should be a one layer laminate, not two layers.
They should be breathable but have the ability to keep from getting wet when you kneel in the snow.
The fabric should be smooth and strong so it doesn’t catch and rip when you are bushwhacking.
The fabric shouldn’t pill (pilled fabric gets wet easier).
They should be sturdy and last several years before they wear out.
They should have reflective accents on them so snowmobiles can see you skiing at night.

In the early days (70’s and 80’s) the closest thing to these requirements was nylon/spandex ski racing pants.  Those gave way to Hind tights with windproof fronts.  Then came the Peal Izumi Amphib pants in the 90’s.

When the Pearl Izumi Amphips came out, they were great.  The only catch with them was that the Entrant windproof fabric in the crotch would eventually rip at the seams.  Pearl Isumi recognized this problem, so instead of fixing the pants … they ruined them.  They did this by putting a rather large stretch panel in the crotch THAT WAS NOT WINDPROOF!!  No doubt many male athletes, along with me, suffered horrifically when they replaced their Amphib pants with a new "improved" pair.  Of course, you could wear wind briefs to counter this problem.  But a) windproof front tights should not need a 2nd layer of windproof-ness underneath, and b) nylon under a layer of nylon is not breathable, gets wet, is uncomfortable, etc.

So I looked around for an Amphib-like pant that was better designed.  I tried some Craft ski pants that had a double front to them.  But they were weird.  They didn’t cut the wind and felt like cotton sweatpants.  Also, out skiing in them they would go baggy in a heartbeat … and I don’t do pajamas.  I also tried REI house-brand ski tights, which were kind of like the Crafts.  And Adidas Supernova running tights - which I really liked but they were too light for colder temperatures.  Then of course, Adidas stopped making them.

Finally I found the Sugoi Firewall Tights.  I’m now on my third pair of these.  They are not cheap, you can get them at REI for about $125 the last I checked.  But they are tough.  They have lasted me about 3 years per pair, and I come close to wearing them everyday during the winter (October through April and into May).  These pants meet all of the items on my wish list above.

What are the limitations of the Firewall Tights?  They are too warm to ski in when the temps get above 40F (but you can roll up the pants over your calves).  I don’t like wearing long underwear … so these pants reach their warmth limit when the temps get to 0F to -5F or so for me.  Below those temps I put on a pair of Toko/Mammut ski pants over them.

Note: If you buy Sugoi Firewall Tights for skiing - make sure you are getting the RUNNING tights, not the biking tights.  Biking tights are cut for sitting on a bike, not standing up and skiing.

Bottom line: Tough, comfortable, long lasting.  I like them so much that the last time I got a pair,  I bought 2 pairs just in case they stopped making them.  Or in case a former Pearl Izumi Amphip pants designer gets a job at Sugoi.

2011 Update:  Well, perhaps a PI Amphib designer did get a job at Sugoi.  For 2011 Sugoi changed their Firewall tights extensively.  Now a much lighter material is used, so they are not as warm or durable.  And Sugoi put a zipper on the back of the tights in just the right place so your pack presses and grinds the zipper-pull into your butt.  A very poor design choice.  The new bottom line: I no longer think Sugoi Firewall tights are that good and I do not recommend using the new Firewall 220 tights.

Sugoi Firewall pants/tights in action ... and causing trouble.
 
20 November 2009:  "Saving the planet" while you wax your skis.

Before you read this blog post, you might want to check out this web page about recycling ski wax scrapings so you know what I’m talking about.

I’ve been recycling ski was scrapings for several years now.  And it’s been working out well.  I actually wax skis a lot.  I never let skis sit around un-waxed.  So by recycling I am getting way more use out of wax purchases.  Instead of melting wax onto my skis and scraping away and not using 90 % of the wax.  I now use 90% of the wax.  I’ve gotten to the point where I am recycling scrapings of recycled wax made from scrapings of recycled wax.  In other words – you can keep recycling wax scrapings over and over.

I can’t notice any degradation in skiing speed when using recycled wax.  The recycled wax works fine for me.

And another aspect of wax recycling that is also nice … is that I have not bought a cake of wax in 5 years now.  It saves me money.  Quite a bit of money.  Swix, Toko … sorry!  Oh wait, that's right - wax companies charge $150 for a thimble-full of flourocarbon powder.  So I guess I lied ... I don't feel really sorry for them.

The other factor of recycling ski wax that I like is the entertainment factor.  What do I mean by this?  Well, it seems that being green for some skiers is “tres chic”, it’s very cool these days.  So I like to test these people when they post on the web about how they are saving the world from the pickup truck drivers (like me).  Take for instance the Jr. Olympics XC skiing championships that were held in California a couple of years ago.  They had a post on fasterskier.com about how awesomely green their races were going to be.  So I posted a comment to them saying it was great they were being green, but were they going to recycle all of the ski wax scrapings from the race series instead of tossing this toxic petro-chemical waste into the local landfill?  I gave them the link to the above web page so they would know how to recycle ski wax.

Of course … no response.  My spies confirmed no wax recycling went on.  It seems that those that fancy themselves "green" don't like being told they are not green enough, or how to better be green.  Plus recycling wax would create an uneasy situation with the wax companies that support the race series.  So let’s just ignore that Kelley idiot, and not change anything.  I have gotten the same non-responses from certain New England private colleges that have purportedly "very green" ski teams.  Spies also report no wax recycling on this front.  Ha! … that is so funny.  What hypocrites!  The simplest and most symbolic thing an xc skier can do to “save the environment” is to re-melt and re-use his or her wax scrapings.  And doing this also saves you money.  This activity seems to be very taboo in the cross country skiing community.  But that just makes no sense at all.


 

19 November 2009:  A decent backcountry cross-country skiing boot

I’ve had a long relationship with Salomon Combi Boots.  You’ve heard of "love – hate" relationships.  Well, I’ve never loved combi boots.  So I've had a long "tolerate - hate" relationship with them.

Combi boots have their advantages when it comes to backcountry cross-country skiing.  The cuffed uppers offer more stability on rough trails than classic boots.  In cases like downhills on steep snowmobile trails where you are trying to keep your game in control - combi boots are way better than classic boots.  But as far as the free feeling of a classic boot when you are striding, well … combi boots don’t quite get there.

Combi boots are usually warmer than skate boots because there is flex in the ball of the foot which allows you to move your toes and induce more blood circulation.  Rigid skate boots don’t allow this flex, but they are better boots when you want to throw power into your skating.

I’ve used combi boots a lot because they were a compromise that seemed right for winter trail skiing.  With combi boots you are covered for multiple skiing techniques should conditions change on long backcountry ski trips.  But it seemed that my feet suffered for a decade-plus while using the original Salomon Pro Combi boots.  These boots were pretty good for classic, but too torsionally sloppy for skating.  To make these boots better for skating, I ended up making graphite sole stiffeners for these boots, see this web page for pictures of this.  These boots were also made on a narrow-toed last.  So on multi-day trips when your feet would swell a bit … you really learned to hate them.

In 2007 Salomon came out with re-vamped and upgraded the Pro Combi boot.  And they made more changes in the 2008 model.  As a result, it’s my opinion (for what that’s worth) that the 2008/09 Pro Combi is a decent backcountry xc skiing ski boot.  You notice I said “decent”, and not “super” or “great”.  And you should notice I said “backcountry xc skiing”, and not “xc ski racing” or “backcountry skiing”.

When I first got my 2009 Salomon Pro Combi boots I immediately hated them because they ripped up my feet (where my toes connect to my foot) and drew blood in less than 10 kms.  The reason was the rigid tongue padding that they added to this model, it dug into my foot at the flex point.  Pretty quickly I figured out a way to modify the boots so this problem was eliminated, click here to see how.  When my feet healed and I got a lot of mileage on the 08 Pro Combis I started really liking them.  It seems that Salomon finally got the right recipe of skate and classic features in this boot.  They skate nice, and classic … kinda nice.  They are also warmer than race boots, and are a whole lot less expensive.

A combi boot is by design a compromise.  And a compromise means it’s not great one way or the other.  But for backcountry cross-country skiing I like my Pro Combis.  And I am very glad to now have combi boots I don’t dread putting on my feet.


 

16 November 2009:  Does your home have a ski waxing hot box and you don't know it?

Hot boxes are enclosures that you can put your racing skis into, then adjust a thermostat and resulting warm air flow in the box will speed up absorption of wax into ski bases.   You can pay ski shops to hot box your skis.  You can make your own hot boxes or even buy them from Swix - for <choke choke> $5399.  Or you can say "what the heck ... this is good enough" and make a rack in your home's furnace room and have your own FREE hot box.  This option of course assumes that your house has such a furnace room.   You certainly can get by without a hot box.  But letting your skis soak in warm wax seems to help retain wax and cut down on the amount of waxing you have to do.  Here are a couple pictures of furnace room "hot box racks"...

A low-budget pipe and cord hot box rack. A nice, multi-tier hot box rack. While you're at it - put some ski boot drying racks in your furnace room.
     
14 November 2009:  Tips for replacing ski boot zippers

I hate it when ski boot zippers get damaged and stop working.  Because ... it means I've got to replace the zipper if I want to keep using the boots.  I've had to do this a couple, maybe three, times before.  And I had to do it recently.  It's not a whole lot of fun.  I have a sewing machine, but there is no way I can contort the boot enough to get the machine to do the zipper sewing job.  So I end up having to sew the zipper in by hand.  But of course I first make sure no one is watching ... because real men can't be seen using a needle and thread!  ;-)

If you need to replace a ski boot zipper but haven't done this task before, one tip I would suggest is to keep it simple.  Don't try to completely remove the old zipper.  Just trim off the teeth of the old zipper and then sew in the new zipper without removing any stitching in the boot.  Here are some pictures to show what I mean ...

 

Broken zipper in a Salomon Pro Combi boot. Trimming the teeth, or "coil", off the old zipper. The boot with the zipper coils removed. Here is a new coil zipper that I will cut to length and sew into the boot.

Sorry - I can't show pictures of the new zipper getting sewn into the boot because, as I said before, real men can't be seen using needle and thread.  I hope you never have to do this repair.  But if you do ... I feel your pain.

 

13 November 2009:  Gordini Vertigo gloves

Last winter was a cold one in Alaska.  And by accident, I ended up with some good gloves for xc skiing in the cold.  I was at the Sports Authority store in Anchorage in the fall of 2008 and saw some Gordini Vertigo Gloves on sale for 30 dollars (their MSRP is 60 dollars).  I figured I'd get them for general outdoor use - walking to work, outside projects, snowmobiling, cabin trips, etc.  But then I went for a ski one really cold day and forgot my Pearl Izumi lobster mitts, my favorite cold weather hand gear.  Luckily I had along my new Gordini gloves so I skied in them.  And I liked skiing in them a lot.  So I started using them more.  And more.  And I wore them so much last winter that I wore them out.  This year I bought another pair of these gloves.  I got a pair of '08 closeouts from the REI web site for 30 bucks again, with free shipping to their Anchorage store.

I like these gloves because they are really warm, but not too bulky.  And, most importantly, they allow good ski pole feel and control while skiing.  The insulation in the fingers is firm, so it doesn't compress and loose it's insulating loft over time like some gloves do.  "Lavawool" in these gloves is the main insulator.  Like with my lobster mitts, I put the gloves in my ski pole straps and don't take the gloves out of the straps when I have to handle something.  The material of the cuffs has enough structure so it's easy to slide your hands in and out of them.  And that's a good thing.  A limitation of these gloves is that they are not warm enough (for me) to go below the 10 degree below 0 F range.  At and below that range I use lobster mitts.  The other limitation is that they wore out after one season.  But I used the heck out of them so I surely got my money's worth.

Bottom line: These gloves sure work for me.  So they might be a worthy addition your cold weather xc skiing hand gear arsenal.

 

 

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