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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.


Fall 2011:   The Kincaid Park Beluga Watchers

If you were running or hiking the southern bluffs of Kincaid Park this summer or fall, you likely came across this beluga lookout shelter.  A couple has been here spotting, monitoring and recording activities of beluga whales.  They were getting paid to gather this data for use by upcoming projects, such as the Fire Island wind turbine farm and the Fire Island to Point Woronzof undersea power line.  They were nice folks and had interesting stories to tell - like watching a pod of 66 whales feeding just west of the bluff and watching the Anchorage Police Department perform a mud flats rescue of clueless teenagers that don't understand the concept of 30 foot tides.  This lookout shelter will be removed before winter.

On a historical note:  This is not the first lookout in this area.  During World War II there was a lookout on the edge of the woods at the southern tip of Fire Island (left point near the sun in the picture below).  I've seen the remains; here is a 2005 picture of it.  The Fire Island lookout was used to watch for Japanese ships and planes coming up Cook Inlet to attack the military bases next to Anchorage.  I figure the beluga watchers have a lot more to look at than did the soldiers who watched for invading Japanese forces.
 

Pictures of the beluga lookout shelter.
A few photos taken during an after-work run on the bluffs.
Late Summer 2011:  The "Spouse On A Leash" Workout

If you paddle a kayak at a different speed than your spouse or friend(s), you can equalize paddling speeds with a bungee rope.  Just buy a 16 foot length of 3/8 inch bungee rope at your local hardware store (Alaska Industrial Hardware sells bungee rope in Anchorage).  Tie one end to the slower kayak and the other to a quick release belt (or drink belt) that goes around the waist of the person in the faster boat.  The bungee rope absorbs shock so it is more comfortable than towing with a rope.  The quick release belt allows you to unhook in a hurry if you have to.   If you are the faster kayaker you will get a better workout and you won't have to wait around for the slower boat.
 

     
Pictures were taken on Skilak and Eklutna Lakes.
Early August 2011:  Hiking In Alaska ... It's The Bomb!

If you spend time hiking on steep ridges next to highways or railroads in Southcentral Alaska, or above the Alyeska ski resort,  you may find a bomb.  What are bombs doing here?  The State of Alaska occasionally uses 105 mm howitzers to trigger and release avalanches to reduce the risks of a snow slide occurring without notice and causing casualties.  The ridge above the Seward Highway between Bird and Girdwood was heavily shelled in the 60's through 90's before the road was relocated out of range of avalanche run-outs.  So you can occasionally find old unexploded howitzer shells while hiking this ridge.  The ridges near the end of the Placer River Valley have been shelled a lot by the Alaska Railroad, so hiking there can also yield some exciting finds for hikers.  And the Alyeska Ski Resort has long fought avalanches with big guns to keep their skiers safe.
 

My dogs always have found unexploded ordinance, like the shell above, before I've noticed it.  Dogs are good at picking up the scent of explosives. Don't ignore these signs at the Alyeska Ski Resort.


So what do you do if you find an unexploded howitzer shell?  Do you yell to a spouse or friend: "Hey!  Take a video of me tossing this sucker of this here cliff!  This is gonna be awesome!"  Well, that might be a fun thing to do, but it's probably not that smart.  Do you say: "Wow, this will look cool in my room!".  Then put it in your pack and take off?  Actually (true story), a 12 year old boy did just that in the 1990's, unbeknownst to his parents.  The parents found out the kid was packing a 12 pound bomb, that he had found while hiking at Alyeska, when the folks running the carry-on x-ray machine at the Anchorage airport gate noticed it in the kid's pack.

A better course of action if you find such a bomb is to tell folks you are with to be aware of it.  And definitely keep any pets away from the ordinance.  Then build a small rock wall around it to mark it and make it unlikely for another person or animal to disturb it.  Next mark the location on a GPS if you have one.  If you don't, then make sure you can identify accurately on a map where the bomb is.  When you finish your hike call the State Troopers and give them information, like GPS coordinates or an accurate X on a map, as to where the unexploded ordinance is.

If you find an unexploded shell at Alyeska, go to the hotel and let their security staff know about it.  They will ask you to mark the location on the map and off they will go to take care of it.  I once reported a howitzer shell that my dogs found high up on the ski slopes to Alyeska security.  It was impressive how fast they responded and got folks up on the mountain to remove it.
 

Mid July 2011:  "What the Heck is That Down BELOW Us?!"

Recently my wife and I were doing the "Bird to Gird Traverse", which is a long day-hike on ridges in the Western Chugach Mountains of Alaska from Bird to Girdwood.  Often when you are up in the mountains in Alaska you hear planes and spot them flying below you.  While doing this hike we heard a plane and saw a sight below us that we'd never seen before while hiking or climbing - a Blackhawk helicopter refueling off of a Hercules C-130.

"What the heck is that down below us?" It's a Blackhawk helicopter refueling from a C-130, above Turnagain Arm.

A nice day on the "Bird to Gird" ridge traverse.  My wife and I tried doing this traverse 15 years ago with our dogs.  But we were forced to descend off the ridge near Girdwood by a huge and violent thunderstorm that was a factor that same day with the tragic death of a young woman who was climbing Byron Peak near Portage Lake.  That was not a fun day.  I did this trip in reverse (California Creek to Bird), and then biked back to Girdwood a few years ago.  Fun traverse, but it's tougher than it looks from the road.  It's 11-12 miles and 9000 feet of climbing.  There are some sections with a lot of exposure.  Choose a perfect weather day and bring a lot of water.

17 June 2011: Death of Yukon Quest  Icon - Carl Cochrane

“What makes Alaska unique?  What makes Alaska "Alaska"?”

Depending on who is asked these questions there are many answers. 

But if you asked me these questions I would give a quick answer:

“The people that live on the fringes of society … that’s what makes Alaska unique.”

Over the years while on skiing trips I have met folks living in very remote places in Alaska.  Some times I have met these people by accident, sometimes I have made it a point to find them and meet them.  But no matter how I met them, I always make a point to do one thing well … and that is listen to what they have to say.

It’s amazing.  In a city environment you can meet a person, get introduced to them and two minutes later someone will ask you: “Who was that?”  And your answer will be: “I didn't catch his/her name.”

But when it comes to people I have met that live in the far reaches of Alaska, many of the conversations I can still remember.  Vividly.  Talking to these people for a half hour or so has left me with stories and memories that will last my whole life.

Some examples of such people I’ve met are Mark and Laurie Richards who live on the Kandik River, I met them as they were mushing up the Yukon River to Eagle to get their mail, and Seth Kantner who I met at his sod igloo / riverbank cave on the Kobuk River and Native hunters on the North Slope.  Then there was the guy living in the back of a truck in a snowdrift in a canyon on the unplowed Taylor Highway.  I asked him if it was kind of tough living there all winter.  His response was: “Tough is relative.”

And of course, there was Carl Cochrane.  But sadly, recent news tells us that Carl has just passed away.

Carl lived alone on Birch Creek south of Circle, Alaska.  The 1000 mile Yukon Quest dog sled race trail goes by Carl’s cabin and this area is one of the coldest spots on the trail.  Carl was involved with the Quest since the beginning of this race and the Quest was probably the most exciting time of the year for Carl.  When Bob Baker and I skied the Yukon Quest we knew we were getting close to Carl’s cabin because his homemade signs started showing up along the trail:

“Hot coffee – 2 miles”  “Hot Coffee – 1 mile”  “Hot Coffee – 100 yards”  “Warm Guest Teepee, Get Some Rest”.

When we got to Carl’s cabin we didn’t have much time to decide whether to stop or not.  Carl immediately came out of his cabin and yelled at us: “Hey you skiers!  Come on in and have some hot coffee!”

I had to laugh when I recently read a quote in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner from a trapper and friend of Carl Cochrane who said about Carl: “You end up getting your ear talked off and it was the worst cup of coffee I ever tasted.  The coffee was always cold and Cochrane never fully heated his cabin. You slept with your boots on.”  That's exactly what Bob and I experienced.

When Bob and I went into Carl’s cabin he talked to us about everything: his past, problems with neighbors, the replica Plains Indian artifacts he makes (which were impressive) and the fact that too few Quest mushers were stopping at his cabin.  And the cabin was cold and the coffee tasted like beaver piss.

But every story Carl told was interesting and I learned something that I hadn’t known from each story.  He was passionate about life and one tough SOB to exist in this frigid and desolate location for so long.  I listened (and I listened) and I skied away with respect for a unique individual that makes Alaska "Alaska".

I didn’t know Carl well.  But his passing makes me sad in a way.  Eccentric folks living out in the middle of nowhere used to be a common occurrence in the old days in Alaska.  But due to many reasons, most of these types of people have left the bush … or they have died.  And it doesn’t seem like anyone new is taking their places.  The culture of Alaskan bush eccentrics is close to extinction.  And as these types leave us, a big part of what makes Alaska "Alaska" is lost.

Carl talking to a Yukon Quest musher. Carl Cochrane's cabin. Bob Baker leaving Carl's cabin and skiing up Birch Creek. Me near Carl's cabin.  800 miles into the YQ.
07 June 2011: Misguided Tourist T-Shirt
Recently I saw this "Real Women Drive Trucks" t-shirt for sale at the gas station in Girdwood.  Women driving trucks is definitely cool.  And Lisa and the IRT show are also cool.  But come on, the truth about real women should be told.  In Alaska the truth is that ...
Real Women Drive Jets!  (and they xc ski).
14 May 2011: Low Snow Allows View of Old Rope Tow Remains at Manitoba Mountain


Recently while skiing at Manitoba Mountain on the Kenai Peninsula I noticed some remains of the old rope tow that was there during 1941 to 1960.  The snowpack was thin so some rope tow guide wheels were poking out.  I also noticed where the anchor cable for the top of the rope tow was attached to a tree.  And a cradle that once held the rope tow power plant could be seen.  Now that I know this stuff is here ... in a couple of weeks when this area is melted out, and before things start growing, I plan to go back and get more pictures of lift remains for ALSAP.

UPDATE:  I went back to Manitoba Mountain after the snow melted some and got pictures of all the rope tow remains I could find.  The pictures are now on ALSAP ... here.
Rope tow guide wheels.  Cable anchor tree for top of tow. Power plant cradle.  Judging by the shape of the front bracket, I believe this is the same cradle as seen in this 1941 picture.


13 May 2011: Go Crust Skiing, and Make Your Employer Happy


Recently I learned the lesson that you should go crust skiing whenever possible, and never worry about showing up late for work.  Because you could end up helping the business you work for by going crust skiing. 

A month ago I went crust skiing one morning and when I showed up at work a co-worker said: "We have to update our web site.  We need a picture of a glacier."  I said: "No problem.  I took a picture of a glacier this morning."   Next thing I know the picture is the background image for the company web page header.  Bottom line:  A business problem is solved simply by going crust skiing and showing up late for work, with a few pictures from the ski.  So help out your employer and go crust skiing as often as you can!!

 
Picture from a morning crust ski.
Same picture as it ended up on the GSI web site.

07 May 2011: Huh?
Does the road painters' union in Alaska have a drug and alcohol policy?!  I'm guessing the answer might be: No.  ;-)

01 May 2011: It's Springtime ... Time To "Spruce" Things Up


Springtime is a good time to put to use all the cool stuff you found while out skiing this winter.  The "cool stuff" I'm talking about are unique wood products you often discover while skiing backcountry in Alaska: spruce burls, diamond willow and fire-killed black spruce.  My wife and I enjoy making things out of spruce, especially with burls.  We end up with unique and very Alaskan creations.

So if making stuff out of spruce burls interests you ... then just keep your eyes open when you are out skiing in the boonies (and not on private property) and maybe you will have luck as a burl hunter.  And remember - never take off on a ski trip without a chainsaw in your pack!

A couple of years ago I posted info about making benches from spruce burls.  Search for "Skiing for Furniture" on this web page. A master burl artisan works on an end table.
I check out my wife's work.  Perfect ... as usual!  When I'm out skiing and find spruce burls on dead trees (like this one), I GPS them.  "I'll be baaaaack ..." In Alaska there are hundreds of thousands of acres of fire killed black spruce.  This is hard and beautiful wood that when peeled and spar-varnished can be used for a lot of projects.
Update: Finished end tables … that incorporate a wife’s propensity to collect “cool rocks” and a husband’s habit of collecting spruce burls.  Burl is from the base of Mt. Susitna, rocks are from the Sagavanirktok River on the North Slope (such as the fossilized coral river rocks) and the beaches of Tyonek (fossilized amber).  Rocks are set in black epoxy grout in a routed cavity in a glulam remnant.  The burls and glulam are coated with spar varnish.

21 April 2011: The Economics of Backcountry Trail Skiing Gear


When it comes to skiing in Alaska, folks have a lot of choices: alpine skiing, AT/backcountry skiing, heli and snow cat skiing, sail skiing, telemark skiing, groomed track cross country skiing (classic and skating), Nordic ski touring, ski-joring, crust skiing and the ugly stepchild of all of these modes of skiing – backcountry trail skiing, which is skiing on any trail not groomed specifically for Nordic skiing.  Each of these variants of skiing has it's own base gear cost.  Some are really expensive, some not so expensive.

As this web site is dedicated to backcountry trail and crust skiing … how much does the gear cost to do this variant of skiing?

The short answer: Backcountry trail skiing is one of the cheapest types of skiing you can do in Alaska.  My total gear cost is less than $600, for brand new gear.

The long answer:  You can make any sport less or more expensive based on your choices, wants and willingness or ability to spend money.  You could choose top of the line racing skis and make backcountry trail skiing as expensive as xc ski racing.  Or you could opt for low performance gear and make backcountry trail and crust skiing as cheap as Nordic touring.

Coming from a racing background, I’m not willing to give up the performance factor of ski gear for backcountry trail skiing.  But I can’t see taking fine and expensive racing gear that is designed for impeccably groomed trails and go thrashing it on rough trails.  Plus, I think that ski racing equipment has gotten ridiculously expensive, so I like to show that you can get good performance gear at a reasonable price.

For backcountry skiing I end up using just one pair of skis for all of my trail and crust skiing.  I use a good pair of performance level classic skis and stride and skate on them.  This works out well as some of my trips are a combination of skating and striding.  And the tips on classic skis keep the skis from auguring into loose snow, like what can happen with low-profile tipped skate skis.  Plus, the classic skis I have just plain skate well on trails, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything in the skate department.

Besides saving money by only buying one pair of skis, I also only use one pair of boots – a performance level pair of combi (skate and classic) boots.  For poles I cut a pair of poles to the half-way point between classic and skating length.  This way I have one pair of poles that works with any technique.  I use Salomon boots, so I choose the cheaper and simpler, and less likely to fail, Profil bindings.

So by choosing to use the minimum of gear, and gear that is not the top-shelf race stock, I save a lot of money.  But I still get good performance and equipment that is fun to ski on.

I have been using this approach for the last two years.  This is how my gear cost breaks down for me:  skis: $225, boots: $200, bindings: $60, poles: $110 – total: $595.

Considering that you have to pay $600 or more just for one pair of top of the line cross country racing skis, before you invest in bindings and stonegrinding; and considering that you need $400 boots, $250 poles, $110 bindings, etc. - all times two (skate and diagonal) to play the xc ski racing game … the $600 total cost, for brand new gear, to be a trail and crust skier is pretty darn cheap.

"So there must be a lot of backcountry trail skiers because it is such an economical sport, right?”  Ha!  Excuse me … I just laughed so I hard I snorted soy milk out of my nose!

Seeing a backcountry trail skier in Alaska in mid-winter is a rarity.   No, the way winter sports work in Alaska is that the more expensive it is, the more popular it is.  Just look at the endless parade of $8,000 to $12,000 snowmobiles being hauled down the roads, the $1000 alpine and backcountry skis being pulled out of car-top ski boxes and the $2000-$4000 snow bikes everywhere.

Doing a sport that is economical, like backcountry trail skiing, is just not cool in the minds of many Alaskans.  Whatever.  I think it’s ironic, and I'm somewhat proud of the fact, that the winter sport that I and other like-minded skiers love to do the most is one of the cheapest winter sports in Alaska. 

Backcountry trail gear outfit.  Total cost for skis, boots, bindings & poles - less than $600, brand new.

4 April 2011: A Rare Sight ... Pigs on the Yentna River

These pictures have been circulating the Internet amongst cabin owners and snow travelers of the Susitna Valley.  They are pictures of something most people have never seen in their lifetime ... pigs roaming the Yentna River.  Or as one could say - pigs on the Iditarod Trail !!  For those not familiar with this area - it is a long way from any road to where these pigs are.  Apparently there is a person on the Yentna River that is raising free range pigs.  So it looks like these pigs decided that it was time to break out and go enjoy some spring sunshine and get come celebrity attention along the Yentna River snowmobile highway. 

While I'm on the subject of animal life in the Lower Susitna River ... a lot of people don't realize that in the spring many seals swim up the Susitna River.  At the mouth of the Yentna River, about 15-20 miles from the ocean, I've seen groups of 20 or so seals sunning on sand bars.  At the end of May and early June they follow the protein mass of hooligan (smelt) up into the Big Susitna and Yentna River drainages.  Many people don't realize that the sand bar on the Susitna River they are skiing or snowmobiling over in late March may be home to a bunch of seals with gorged stomachs two months later.

A tidal wave of protein, courtesy of hooligan (smelt) runs, entices seals to swim many miles up the Big Susitna and Yentna Rivers.  The hooligan sometimes run so thick in the Big Su that you can catch a dozen at a time with your bare hands, as can be seen in the above picture.

Eagles also feast on Big Su hooligan.  Actually, eagles get so gorged on hooligan that they run away from you because they are too stuffed to fly.  The picture above shows an eagle that has been in winter "vulture mode".  You can see blood on its neck feathers, it had been feeding on a dead moose.

28 March 2011: Random Pictures From Recent Ski Trips
The Last Days of the Big Susitna River Bell Island Trappers Cabin

In recent years the main channel of the Big Susitna River on the east side of Bell Island has shifted radically to the west.  Because of this channel migration and erosion - a few years ago the Enstar Natural Gas company had to reroute a mile of the gas line that ran underneath this section of the Big Su.  They had to do this to keep the gas line that energizes Anchorage from getting damaged by the powerful force of this huge glacial-fed river.

Just downstream from where the Enstar gas line goes under the Big Su is this old trappers cabin.  This cabin has stood on Bell Island for about 60 years.  But there is a good chance this cabin will not be here next winter.  When the Big Su kicks into full gear this summer it will likely erode underneath the cabin and wash it out to sea.

Besides trappers using this cabin in the old days, it has been adopted and used by many, hunters in particular, for temporary shelter.  This winter I encountered two bikers that were a bit off course and out on the Big Susitna just before sunset.  I pointed out this cabin in the distance to them and they headed for it.  So these two bikers may well be the last people that used this cabin.

What this rustic old cabin lacked in architectural appeal it made up for in history, peoples' memories of adventures and provision of basic shelter for travelers when the weather turned ugly.  This old cabin will be missed.
 

Other stuff ...
I've been seeing small tracked vehicles out and about more and more.  Maybe we all drive "snowmobiles" but don't realize it.  A set of these tracks allows cars and trucks to go off road on packed trails where tires would sink in. This composite picture sums up our winter: wind.  With a bonus added in - an apogee moon. Need some new skis?  Head to this 'round-the-calendar yard sale in Willow, AK.  For a limited time you can get a sweet pair of VR17s with your choice of a stuffed animal ... all for one super low price !!!
24 March 2011: Snowmobiling Secrets - Revealed to Skiers

Scratchers

"What are those wiggly lines that you sometimes see in the snow alongside snowmobile track marks?"

They are tracks from things called "scratchers" that snowmobilers install on their snowmobiles to make them work better on hard packed and icy trails.

Scratchers have tips that drag on the snow, which causes a fine spray of snow and ice particles to kick up and accumulate under the snowmobile.  Snowmobile tracks have metal clips that slide on plastic rails (slide rails).  Snow is needed to keep the slide rails lubed so there is less friction and the engine doesn't work as hard and doesn't overheat.  So scratchers help keep snowmobiles from overheating on hard packed trails.

Snowmobile Trail Drags

"Groomed snowmobile trails are great to ski on, but how do they groom them?" 

Snowmobile clubs use big Piston Bullys (or equivalents) that pull specialized snowmobile trail drags that look like cross country ski trail drags on steroids ... lots and lots of steroids, they are huge.  They have to be huge to smooth out big snowmobile moguls.  The wheels you see on the drag in the above picture are used to raise the drag so it can be moved over roads without doing damage to the road or the drag.


09 March 2011: LED Headlamps ... Better Reliability Than Old School Headlamps?

I'm no Luddite.  I switched from incandescent to LED headlamps years ago and I will never go back.  The extended battery life, uniform beam with no dark spots or dark rings and multiple power settings are all features I love.

But so far this year has been a bad LED headlamp year for me and my wife.  I had a Brunton L3 that I had been using for several years that failed.  Then I had my backup L3 and my wife's L3 fail.  Three headlamp failures so far this year.  Brunton honored the warranty on all of them, so that was a good deal.  But it makes me worry a bit about reliability of LED headlamps.  Having a headlamp die at the wrong place and time is not good.

When you read about the life expectancy of LED bulbs, it's in the tens of thousands of hours.  And that's great because the big problem with the old incandescent headlamps was that the bulbs would burn out too frequently.

Yet with old school headlamps it was easy to get them going again.  Just replace the bulb.  And maybe twiddle with some wires of the extremely simple circuitry used by these headlamps.  Even a cave... er ... anybody could fix old school headlamps.  And you could even fix them IN THE FIELD.

But not is the case with new age LED headlamps.  When one of these headlamps die there is often no resurrecting it by yourself.  If the battery connections are okay, then you have to look to the circuit board for the problem.  Yes, a circuit board.  All of the advanced and cool features of the LED lamps are digital, so it requires a good deal of circuitry, solder points, wires and electronic components.  And any of these parts of the puzzle can fail and cause your LED headlamp to go south.   Unlike the old school headlamps, you are not likely to fix the problem by yourself.  And definitely you won't be fixing it in the field, unless you are packing a soldering iron, oscilloscope, volt meter, circuit diagram and a PhD in electrical engineering.

So are LED headlamps more reliable than old school incandescent headlamps?  If you are talking bulbs, then no question - LED headlamps are far superior.  But the catch with LED headlamps is that due to the circuitry, soldering, additional wires and electronic components - there are exponentially more parts of the LED headlamp that can fail compared to the old school headlamps.  So ... I for one will not claim that new LED headlamps are any more reliable than old burning-bulb headlamps.  That said ... I'm an LED convert for good due to the great features the new LED headlamps offer when they are working.

Old school incandescent headlamp circuitry.  Simple.  Nothing you can't fix yourself.  And you can fix it in the field. Modern day LED headlamp.  Complicated.  If the circuit board goes bad you aren't fixing it yourself.  Especially in the field.  You will have to send it back to the manufacturer.

01 March 2011: It's Iditarod Time ... So Here's A Funny Martin Buser Story

It’s Iditarod time.  Like many Alaskans, I’m a fan of the Iditarod and follow it closely.  I’m a fan of sled dogs.  And I’m also a fan of certain mushers.  It’s pretty easy for me to become a fan of an Iditarod musher.  If I meet an Iditarod musher while I’m out on a ski trip and the musher stops and talks to me … I’m their Iditarod fan for life.

But no matter how many Iditarod mushers I meet, I think my favorite Iditarod musher will always be Martin Buser.  Why?  He’s always seemed genuinely super nice when I’ve talked to him.  And he was a really good SKIER and SKI RACER before he became a dog addict.  But most of all, I find myself smiling and chuckling whenever I hear him talk.  He’s a character.

Speaking of Martin Buser, here is a funny and strange Martin Buser story.  And it’s not even about Martin Buser.  "Huh?" you say.  Read on …

In 1993 I was skiing the Yukon Quest trail from Whitehorse to Fairbanks with Bob Baker.  We arrived in Central, AK late one evening and were to pick up a box of food from the general store owner.  But the store was locked up, and no one was around.  Apparently the owner had to head to Fairbanks because of a death in the family.

So we started asking anyone we could find where our food box might be.  Eventually a lady pointed to a trailer in back of the store and said the owner’s mother lived there and to check with her.

Bob and I walked over to the trailer.  We soon noticed this huge and powerful Akita on the landing of the steps that led to the trailer door.  I said to Bob: “Wow, that dog is even larger than my 140 lb Malamute!”.  Unspoken words from Bob said: “OK, you’re the big dog guy.  You go see if you can get past that monster and knock on the door.”

Talking softly to the big Akita I approached him.  He stood up and towered over me from on top of the steps.  His curly tail wasn’t wagging and he was sniffing intensely at me.  I kept talking softly and tried not to show any tension and squeezed by him.  I patted him a few times and told him what a good dog he was.  Then I knocked on the trailer door and backed down the stairs.

In a moment a very tough looking older woman came out the door.  And then she slammed the door and screamed:

“MARTIN BUSER!”

I was a little shocked by this.  So I started babbling: “Ah no, we’re skiers and we …”

She screamed at the top of her lungs again: “MARTIN BUSER!”

“Whoa”, I thought to myself, “this is getting weird”.  So I started to speak again: “No, we’re skiers and we are looking for a food box.”

“MARTIN BUSER!” she screamed yet again.  “MARTIN BUSER … NOOOO!”

Then I realized what was going on.  Martin Buser was the name of the dog!  And Martin Buser had gotten into a bag of garbage on the trailer porch.  And now Martin Buser was in big, big trouble!

Yeah, I’m a Martin Buser fan.  But as you can tell from this story there are some really fanatic fans of Martin Buser in Alaska.  Why heck, some of his fans will even name a huge dog that guards their trailer: MARTIN BUSER!


PS: Here's Martin's web site.  If you notice a young guy named Magnus on Martin's blog ... he helps Martin train his dogs up in Big Lake.  I talked to Magnus a couple of years ago and he said he used to be a biathlon racer in Norway.  Yet another skier getting hooked on sled dogs.  It happens.  Could you be next?!  ;-)
 


21 February 2011: Making A Case For The Legendary "Jimmy O"

Recently a Alaskan Native athlete named Elliot Sampson was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.  In 1981 Elliot travelled from his small village of Noorvik to the Alaska state cross country running championships at Settlers Bay in Wasilla, AK.  Currently the Alaska state cross country running championships divide runners into separate races depending on school size: small or large.  But this segregation had not begun in 1981.  So Elliot raced against every good runner in the state.  And Elliot won.

This was an amazing feat by an unknown kid from small-town nowhere showing up at states and blowing away the big city favorites.  This event definitely makes Elliot Sampson deserving of a place in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

But hold on.  If Elliot Sampson get’s inducted, then surely another more successful Native athlete needs to be inducted.  An unknown Alaskan Native cross country ski racer once showed up from a village MUCH SMALLER than Sampson's Noorvik and went on to win not only the state championship but also the JR. NATIONAL championship.  In 1990 this Alaskan Native kid from the tiny village of White Mountain on the Seward Peninsula was the best junior cross country ski racer in the country.

Let me repeat.  This unknown Native kid, from an Alaskan bush village so small and remote that none of the homes even had septic systems at the time, not only won the state meet - but he also won the Jr. Nationals which made him the best junior cross country ski racer in the ENTIRE COUNTRY.  Hats off to Elliot.  But Elliot was only a state champion, not a national champion.

So, who am I talking about?  I’m talking about the legendary James Oksuktaruk.  Or as his fans, like me, liked to call him: "Jimmy O".  In my mind I can still see Jimmy O racing - smooth, powerful, determined, his blue Landsem skis eating up his competitors.  He was an amazing young athlete, an inspirational First Alaskan and he was a very likeable kid.  If Elliot Sampson is inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, and Jimmy O isn’t eventually inducted also … that will make no sense.
 


15 February 2011: Technique ... Does it REALLY Matter?

Earlier this year I posted that you can learn a lot from Alaskan sled dogs.  "Like what?" you might ask.  Well, how about this: Technique Doesn't Matter.

I learned that technique doesn't matter from a phenomenal athlete named Bluto.  Bluto was a sled dog, a Malamute / Mackenzie River Husky mix.  Bluto did not have the makings of a great athlete when he was a puppy.  He was fat.  He ate like a glutton.  He was uncoordinated, clumsy and slow.  His brother and father would push him around.  His mother and sister would beat him up.  He had a distended testicle and one floppy ear.  He was at the absolute bottom of the pack hierarchy of his sled dog family.  He was a dork.

And to top it off, Bluto was a "pacer".

"A pacer?  What's that?"

If you think of dogs' front legs as arms, then the movements of most dogs are the same as humans.  They move their left arm forward as their right leg moves forward.  Right arm forward when the left leg moves forward.  It's the same motion as a human uses when walking or running.  And the same motion that a skier uses when classic skiing.  Most dogs move this way, and they are called "trotters".

A dog that is a "pacer" moves in a counterintuitive way.  Left arm, left leg forward.  Then right arm, right leg forward.  It's kind of a weight shifting waddle.  If a human moved this way it would look odd and inefficient.   Left, left.  Right, right.  Left, left.  People just don't walk this way unless they are kidding around.  It's spastic.

But occasionally a dog is born as a "pacer".  I remember hearing that Iditarod musher Susan Butcher would put such dogs just in front of the dog sled and twitch them with a stick to break their pacing habit.   I think such a practice is sick and cruel.  I figure if a dog decides to run a certain way, who am I to tell them to do it differently?  If they are having fun running the way they want to run, then that is all that matters.

So getting back to Bluto.  One day I was out mushing our team of 5 Malamutes which consisted of the father, mother and three young 100 lb litter mates.  I was giving each a chance to lead the team to see which ones wanted to lead the most.  Finally I figured I'd let the runt of the litter, the lowly Bluto, try leading.

When I put Bluto in lead it was like a switch flipped in his brain.  Here was his chance to be the top dog.  And he was determined that this was a chance he was not going to let slip away.  And from that day on Bluto became the heart and brains of our dog team.   For many years and thousands of miles on Alaskan trails, all the other dogs and the musher (me or my wife) would key off Bluto and his decisions as he led our pack.  It was amazing to watch Bluto's quick transition from a total dork puppy to an Alaskan sled dog god. 

"So, what does this have to do with technique?  And isn't this a skiing blog?  What about skiing technique?"

Bluto had the worst technique imaginable.  It was completely bass-ackwards.  But it didn't matter a bit to him.  He soaked up the excitement and adventure of Alaska to the fullest, and loved life to the max ... all with terrible technique.   Though Bluto was a bad technique "pacer" his whole life, he likely never gave technique a second thought.  He was too busy having fun, his way.

With skiing - technique work is helpful, but it is often overdone.  Kids and racers need some technique work for sure.  But it blows me away when I see older masters skiers working on the nuances of skiing technique year after year after year.  I don't think these people get it.  Cross country skiing should be about covering lots of trail miles, experiencing new places on skis and getting big doses of full body exercise.  Skiing should  not be endless technique sessions on a short track in front of a coach and fussing about arm angles, weight shifts and kick timings.  Life is too short to worry about technique.  Just go do it.  And I'm sure that Bluto would agree with me on this.

Fraetre (l) trotting.  Bluto (r) pacing. Pacers, like Bluto, make distinctive tracks in soft snow. Bluto and his pals in the White Mountains.

05 February 2011: Tracks In The Snow Remind Me Of A Story ...
Ski and foot tracks on a remote Big Su riverbank Ski-waddle tracks on the Big Su

Recently while I was travelling on the Big Sustina River I noticed where several people had crashed out of the woods and down the river bank.  It looked like one person was on skis, the others on foot or carrying their skis.  Out on the river I could see tracks where a person was waddling on wide skis, likely with skins (see pictures above).

This area is quite a ways from the Su 100 course.  So it seemed unlikely these tracks were from wayward competitors in training, especially given that the skis were so wide.  You usually don’t see any ski tracks on this stretch of the Big Su, unless they are mine.  Or occasionally if they are the tracks of Army guys that have been dropped off by helicopter.

I’ve seen this situation a few times now.  The Army will drop guys off, say at Flathorn Lake.  And then pick them up a few days later 20 or 30 miles away at an arranged rendezvous point.  So the tracks shown above are probably from Army guys out training.

Looking at these tracks makes me grimace a bit.  Throughout my ski life I have made acquaintances with older guys that used to be skiers in the Army.  Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s these guys were good.  So it’s kind of unbelievable to see Army guys these days out stumbling down river banks like Laurel and Hardy.  And waddling across flats at less than one mile per hour.  The level of Army ski competence has taken a huge dive over the decades.  Oh well.

When it comes to Army skiers, I am reminded of a time in the early 90’s when my wife, our dog team and I arrived at the site where we were building a remote log cabin.  When I got there I looked down at the creek near our building site and saw several white North Face dome tents.  The next morning they were still there.  So around 10 o’clock, after seeing no movement, I went down to investigate.

I approached one of the tents and said: “Hello!  How are you guys doing?  Is everything OK?”  A guy zipped open the tent, said “Hello Sir” and said everything was fine.  He said that they had “accomplished their mission”.  They had “covered 35 miles in 4 days” and “were going to be picked up at 14:00 hours”.  I said: “Would you guys like any water?”  “Yes sir!  That would be great.” he replied.  So I went and got them some water.  Later I saw them trudging on skis down Alexander Creek with M16’s slung on their backs.  And soon a Blackhawk helicopter swooped in and whisked them away.

In the following days the stories started rolling in about the details of these Army guys’ “mission” in the unforgiving harsh arctic region of the Susitna Valley.  Out in this area a lot of retired veterans live.  As would have it, these vets are all really friendly and have big hearts.  So when they would catch sight of Army guys skiing in formation down the creek in front of their cabin, they would quickly jump on their snowmobiles and go check the situation out.

One guy I talked to said he talked to the Army guys and found out they were planning on camping out near his cabin.  He told them: “Camp out in the snow!  Screw that!  I got a rental cabin a mile down the creek that is empty.  I’ll go fire up the wood stove and you guys can stay there!”  And so they did.

Another guy talked to them and asked what they were eating.  “Army rations!  I know for a fact that sh*t will kill you!  My wife has got a fresh pot of moose stew, so you boys follow me and we’ll get you some REAL food!”  And so they did.

So to me, a guy that likes to ski a lot, initially this “mission” of skiing 35 miles in 4 days seemed rather lame.  But eventually I became amazed that these guys made that this many miles in four days through such a gauntlet of hospitality.  Yep, being an Army skier training in the wild Susitna Valley can sure be a tough life.  “Would you like another bowl of moose stew soldier?”  “Yes, thank you sir!”  Burp.
 


02 February 2011: White Baggies: Timeless?  Or Back In Fashion?
Eklutna Glacier - 1961 Caribou Hills - 2011

The above two Alaskan pictures are 50 years apart.  They show that white baggy wind clothes are time honored garments for Alaska outdoors people.  Are white baggies timeless?  Or are they back in fashion after 50 years?  Or did they never go out of fashion?  The musher in the picture on the right certainly is an indication that white baggies are definitely in fashion today.  I mean - what other outdoors person in Alaska would know more about fashion than Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure, who was a runway fashion model for 12 years.  So if you are still skiing around in tight pants ... maybe 2011 is the year to go retro, and go back to baggy!  ;-)
 


30 January 2011: Be Smart If Skiing On Dog Mushing Trails

Dog mushing trails can make good skiing trails.  But skiers need to realize that mushing trails are for dogs first, not skiers.  Sled dogs can be harmed if skiers do dumb things on their trails.  So here are some tips to help you keep from doing dumb things on sled dog trails.

First you need to know if you are on a dog sled trail or not.  Signs that say "This is a Dog Sled Trail" are a good indicator that you are on one.  And if they say you shouldn't be on them, like the signs below, then you should ski somewhere else.

In the Susitna Valley there are a lot of unmarked mushing trails that you can ski on if you are careful.  To know if you are skiing on a mushing trail, without signs you can look at the snow.  If there are ruts that look like ski tracks only narrower - those are dog sled runner tracks.  Parallel scratch marks are another sign - those are drag marks from the claws of dog sled brakes.  Lots of little paw prints are another hint.  And of course - poop that looks like it was ejected from a pooch on the run is another sign.

Skinny runner tracks, brake claw marks, paw prints - you are skiing on a mushing trail.

Now that you know you are on a mushing trail, it's time to be attentive.  Listen intently for dogs panting or a musher talking to his dogs or you.  Strain to view around corners for oncoming dog teams.  Look behind you a lot for teams approaching.  When you see a team coming get completely off the trail and stop.  Get your ski poles away from the trail.  Wave to the musher so he knows you see him and let the team pass before you get back on the trail.  If you are with another skier you should say "One more skier ahead!".  Always say "Hi" if you get a chance because 99.9% of mushers are cool and friendly folks, and they will probably stop to talk to you.

When it comes to getting off the trail for a musher, there can be at times a very important decision you need to make - and that is what side of the trail to get off.  Naturally you will have the tendency to follow "rules of the road" and get off the trail to your right.  But on corners 50% of the time you will be making a mistake.  This picture below should help show what I'm talking about.

The picture above shows a beautiful musher woman (my wife) taking a corner with her dog team of Malamute monsters.  The catch here is when she steps on the dog sled brake to slow down, the sled will tend to pivot and drift to the inside of the turn.  So in the picture above, if you are following the "rules of the road" and go right off the trail, there is a good chance you are going to get nailed by the dog sled ("X").  The dotted line to the left shows where you should go.  Always move to the outside of turns as a dog sled passes you in either direction.

This picture shows the dangers of the inside of turns on dog sled trails.  Here, on the Tustumena 200 course a dog sled swung inside a corner and took out a sign post.  If a dog sled can snap a 4x4 wooden post, it can hurt if it hits you.

If you find dangerous obstacles in a sled dog trail - take the time to move them out of the way so others won't get hurt (sled dogs, mushers, skiers, ski-jorers, bikers, snowmobilers).  We're all on the same side and should look out for each other.

 

10 January 2011: Two Years ... Is That Asking Too Much?

I've got a 12 year old pair of Fischer RCS skis.  They work great.  I've got a pair of 12 year old Swix CT1 poles.  I use them all the time and they work great.  I've got a pair of 10 year old Salomon RC9 skate boots.  They have a lot of life left in them and ski well.  I even have a 15 year old pair of Duofold wind briefs that I still use.  Gross ... yes.  But they work fine.

But when it comes to Salomon Pro Combi ski boots, I'm on my forth pair in four years.

I may be a dreamer, but I would think that a $220 to $250 dollar pair of ski boots should last more than one season.  I would think they should last at least two seasons.  I see people skiing in black and yellow "bumble-bee" Salomon RC9's on Anchorage ski trails all the time.  These vintage boots are 10 plus years old.   So I would think that the "latest and greatest" Salomon boots would last this long too.  If not, then surely they should last for at least two years.

Not the case.  I once again find myself with a pair of Salomon Pro Combi ski boots with a blown-out toe.  Last year I thought I figured out how to make these boots last - by using Marine Goop to protect and reinforce the toe box to sole bond on the boot.  This technique actually made the boots last an entire season, which had not been the case for the previous two pairs of Pro Combis I had owned.

I really like the Salomon Pro Combi ski boots.  They fit and ski great.  But the fact that they use a toe box that is made out of recycled Chinese takeout food boxes covered with the same vinyl used to make cheap, one-time-use beach balls and then glue this pathetic material to the sole with leftover chewing gum ... doesn't lend itself to the making of a quality ski boot.

Salomon once had quality in ski boots so dialed in.  What went wrong?  Was quality sacrificed for profits?  Gee, I bet I can answer that last question.

Salomon Pro Combi ski boots - nice boots, but only seem to last for one ski season. Last year I thought I had my ski boot problems figured out ... by protecting and reinforcing the toe box to sole bond with Marine Goop. The Goop treatment made the boots last slightly longer than usual.  But eventually the boot ripped out beneath the Goop bond, and then the Goop gave way.
     
04 January 2011: Old Picture Sleuthing
Photo credit: Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks

One of my pastimes is that of a skiing historian for the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project.  And research for ALSAP brought me to the picture posted above.  This old picture of a cross country skier was recently published on the Alaska Visual Library of Digital Archives, but no date or location was logged with this picture.  So the challenge was to fill in the blanks and figure out when and where this picture was taken.

The key to this puzzle is the fuzzy cross-hatched thing in the background above the skiers left pole.  Searching through other pictures of this collection you could see that this thing in the background was one of the unique 6-tier power poles that were used on Front Street in Nome in the 1920's and early 30's.  Mystery solved. 

The 1920's makes sense, in Alaska back then some folks were still using poles without straps.  After viewing a lot of old skiing pictures over the years, I gotta say - this is a good one.  It shows the equipment and clothing of the era well.  Plus the skier looks like a tough guy that is ready to tear up to the top of Anvil Mountain and back.
 

29 December 2010: Park Pass Renewal Time

It's that time again.  If you use Alaska State Parks regularly it's time to get a new 2011 parking decal.  Otherwise you could get ticketed and have a mark go on your "permanent record".  I get grumpy about paying some fees - property taxes and income taxes in particular.  But I have no problem paying to use Alaska State Parks.  Like many Anchoragites I'm proud to have the Chugach State Park as our backyard.  I know the CSP budget is never overflowing these days (or they'd have better parking on the south side of Flattop by now).  And I know and like the CSP rangers.  So I'm happy to pay to help fund the paradise to our east.

Also - folks that get RAPs (Recreational Access Permits) to do your favorite outdoor activities on Fort Rich ... remember that they expire at the end of the year.  So you have to go through the process to get a free, new one after the 1st.  Also - if you want to drive onto base, remember to have a current proof of auto insurance card with your auto registration to get on base.  Our you will be out of luck to get in.  Done that.

   
  DNR State Parks parking decal web page  You can also buy them at AMH and REI.  
27 December 2010: "Ski Peoples" - Anecdotes from the Trail

For many cross country skiers, or parents of cross country ski racers, the basic concepts of this ski sport are ingrained and instinctive knowledge.  And we cross country skiers assume everyone in Alaska knows about our sport, at least the basics.

But you don’t have to travel much in Alaska to find out that this is not always the case.  Cross country skiing is sometimes not understood really at all by non-cross country skiers.  Here are a few anecdotes to make my point:

In the mid-90’s I was skiing between Selawik and Noorwik, Alaska with Tim Miller.  The race director of the Kobuk 440 sled dog race went by on a snowmobile.  Later he would say to us: “I saw you guys crabbing up that long hill in the windstorm”.  A retired long distance musher, this guy had travelled much of Alaska’s winter trails.  But he had never seen people skate skiing, nor did he know what you called it.

In 2006 I was skiing down the Kuskokwim River south of Kalskag.  I had found a bend in the river that was protected from the wind, so I stopped to refill my Camelback from the reserve water bottle in my sled.  Soon 4 snowmobiles approached and stopped.  These were the first people I had seen this day.  The guy that seemed to be the leader of the group, maybe he was a guide, walked quickly towards me and he looked to be excited about something.

“Hey!” he said, “For the past twenty five miles I have been racking my brain, trying to figure out what the heck the tracks were that I was following!”  He was referring to my skate ski tracks as I pulled a sled.  Continuing he said: “I thought maybe it was something loose on a snowmobile or a snowmobile sled flopping back and forth or something.  Damn I just couldn’t figure it out.  Never seen nothing like that before!  So it was you, a skier!  I’d never have guessed that!”   Soon he started hiking back to his snowmobile with the parting comment of: “Thanks for the morning mystery!  Wow!”  I had to chuckle at this encounter.

And in the spring of 2010 I stopped to talk to several snowmobilers near Cantwell on the Denali Highway.  The next day I would meet them again and one of them would say: “Man!  We followed your tracks for 60 miles!  You were covering some ground.  But your ski tracks weren’t going straight, they were sticking out side to side.  What’s with that?”

Again, this person had never seen skate ski tracks before.  He was a retired dentist from the Anchorage area.  A smart, fit and well traveled man you could tell, but his interests had never intersected with cross country skiing.  It doesn’t matter where people live, if they are consumed with work, family life or passionate interests it’s easy to be unaware of the basics of other peoples’ passions. 

Many Alaskan cross country skiers assume that Alaska is a skiing-savvy state; that most Alaskans are in the know about our sport.  Many in Anchorage know the sport well.  Fairbanks too.  But get off the road system or away from skiing communities and folks that know, or care, about cross country skiing are few and far between.  So it never hurts to be a diplomat, and show fellow Alaskans what cross country skiing is these days.  And to try to show non-skiers that xc skiers are, for the most part, ok people. 

A final anecdote:  Once near Tuluksak in Western Alaska a Native snowmobiler stopped to check on me.  He was pulling an old woman in a leather-lashed spruce basket sled.  The old Native woman was friendly and talkative and said: “You are traveler.  You travel alone.  You are ski peoples!”

I smiled, looked at her and responded: “Yes indeed!  I am a crazy ski peoples.  But you should like me.  Ski peoples are good!”  She laughed and said: “Ha!  Ski  peoples are crazy!”  Smiling, she waved a big beaver fur mitten at me and sped off down the trail.

   
  Tracks of a "ski peoples" on the Kuskokwim River  
21 December 2010: Arctic to Indian Trail Users ... Give Thanks to the MCA!

The immensely popular Arctic (Valley) to Indian winter trail wouldn't be very popular if it was choked with alders.  Luckily for skiers, Mountaineering Club of Alaska members regularly organize trips to fight back the brush on the northern section of the trail.  Recently Stu Genier, Greg Braigel and a few others were out in sub-zero F weather working on the first 4 miles of the trail.  Thanks guys.  If you want to know what the adventurous and cool folks at the Mountaineering Club of Alaska are up to - join their Facebook group.  And maybe become a member of MCA yourself and get emailed the Scree trip reports newsletter that editor John Recktenwald does a great job of compiling each month. Scree has been published for over 50 years and John's tenure as editor has made Scree the best it's ever been.  Scree trip reports give you ideas about where to adventure in Alaska, and these trip reports show what club trips are like that folks like Stu and Greg lead.

   
  Photo by Stu Genier  
20 December 2010: Cold Weather Review - Soft Shell versus Mesh-Lined Nylon Shell

This is a comparison of two ski jackets I own and how they compare to each other after skiing several hours in -15 degrees F.  Though I choose two specific jackets, the point here is to compare different jacket designs: soft shell versus mesh-lined.  What I say here likely applies to other brands of jackets that use one or the other of these designs.

Mammut/ Toko Soft Shell Nordic Skiing Jacket Craft Mesh-Lined Ski Jacket
The Mammut/ Toko jacket feels great when you put it on.  The material is solid and the brushed fleece lining is super comfortable, at first. But after skiing several hours in sub zero temps, like many ski jackets this jacket allows frost to accumulate on its inside.  The catch here is - the frost comes into contact with your shirt, so you feel wet and clammy a lot once the frost starts to build. Craft jackets with mesh lining seem to be more comfortable for sub-zero skiing.  The jackets collect some frost, but the frost on the jacket shell is kept away from your shirt by the mesh lining.  So you end up not feeling as wet and clammy as in the Mammut/ Toko soft shell jacket. I'm certainly not making a pitch for Craft clothing.  Like Mammut and everyone else these days, Craft looks to Asia to make their garments as cheaply as possible - so quality can be hit or miss.
A jacket lining that you NEVER want to use for active sports in sub-zero weather is nylon (tricot, ripstop).  The reason is that water vapor can go through the nylon lining, freeze to the inside of the outer shell fabric and then have no way of getting out of your jacket.  This happened to me once while skiing over Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway in a wind storm coupled with sub-zero temperatures.  I was working hard to get out of there and soon I noticed lumps forming at the bottom of my sleeves.  Water vapor was freezing to the inside of the outer shell and then falling down the inside of my sleeves to form frost clumps at my wrist.  Eventually I had "golfballs" of frost in my jacket with no way for it to get out.  Not good.  "Single wall" softshell jackets don't have this problem.  And with mesh lined jackets you can usually take the jacket off and shake the frost out through the mesh if you have to.
19 December 2010: Headlamps and Hats ... Recent Experiences

Headlamp: For the last few years I have been using the Brunton L3 headlamp.  I like it a lot.  But as it is with all gear, if you use something enough it will eventually fail.  I had a wire that frayed and broke which killed my headlamp.  Very luckily this happened at my home, and not out in a remote location.  So - based on this recent experience here are some of my thoughts:

1) Take a close look at your gear.  Often.  I didn't see this failure coming because I didn't pay attention.  If I inspected my headlamp I would have caught this problem before it caused a failure.
2) Consider always carrying a backup headlamp on trips.  It doesn't have to be a fancy full-blown headlamp, maybe even a small LED flashlight ... anything to give you enough light to function and be safe.  And it's best if your backup light uses the same type of batteries as your primary light.
3) This headlamp caused me no downtime because I had a brand new headlamp already purchased.  For critical gear that doesn't cost a super lot - you might consider doing this too.  If you have something that you use a lot and really like, get two of them.  I do this with headlamps, combi ski boots, hand-wear and eyewear.  That way when you send the item with a failure off to be repaired or replaced or trash it or lose it you don't have any downtime.

Brunton L3 LED headlamp.  I've used these for several years now.  I like them a lot. Here's the wire failure I recently had with my Brunton L3.  Like with all gear - if you use it a lot it will eventually fail.  And you need to be prepared for that fact.
   

Hats: Recently I got an Under Amour ski hat to try out.  It fits great and it is comfortable.  And the price is right - it's about 1/2 the price of Swix hats.  But the thing I don't like that much about it is the lycra lining.  Lycra just does not wick as well as the micro-fleece linings of most "standard" cross country skiing hats.  This isn't that much of a problem if you are going out for a quick hour ski.  But it seems the longer you go the wetter the lycra gets.  And eventually your hair starts feeling wet and then long downhills in cold temps definitely chill yer noggin.  I'll still wear this Under Armour hat, it's fine for most ski outings.  But for really long skis I'm going to stick with the "standard" wool and micro-fleece liner hat ... like the Salomon hat below.

Under Armour hat - wool with lycra lining. "Standard" Salomon hat - wool with micro-fleece sweat liner.
Now this is a tough old (1995) Swix ski hat ! This Swix ski hat was lost while milling logs (cutting them in half length-wise with a chainsaw) for a log cabin project in the winter of 1996.  It was found in a pile of wet sawdust the next summer.  A quick bath in Woolite and the hat was as good as new and is still used today.  Old Swix hats never die!  The yarn used to make old Swix hats was spun with Kryptonite!  ;-)
05 December 2010: A Quick Ski Into The Past: Strange XC Ski Poles of the 1970's

Recently I was reminded of some of the strange innovations in cross country skiing that appeared in the 1970's and early 1980's.  Cross country skiing was going through a lot of paradigm shifts back then: skis were switching from wood to fiberglass, poles were transitioning from bamboo to aluminum to carbon fiber, skiing technique was adopting skating, knickers and wool socks were giving way to lycra, 3 pin bindings and leather boots were being replaced by minimalist bindings and synthetic boots.  Innovation was firing on all cylinders back then.  People were trying anything and everything.  It was an exciting time.  For an example, here is a quick trip back in time to visit some "out of the box thinking", or perhaps "off the wall", ski poles from the 1970's ...

In 1977 the Swedish Moon poles hit the scene.  The conical baskets on these poles turned heads.  Because ski racing tracks were softer in the 70's, these baskets worked pretty well.  But they didn't work well on icy tracks.  (click on the above image to expand it to readable size). "Hey!  Your poles are bent!"   Yeah, they are.  But that's the way they were made. A company named RS made these "Kangaroo" poles.  The idea is that you would weight these "pre-bent" poles and they would spring back and propel you forward.  Boing!  These poles were quickly relegated to tomato plant supports in gardens tended by parents of Vermont xc ski racers.
 
Ah yes, the original Swix paddle grip.  These were "revolutionary" grips you would be stupid not to use, according to Swix.  Too bad the grips weighed more than the poles.  It seemed like only skiers that were sponsored by Swix used them for any length of time.  The way the ski industry works, I'm betting the paddle grip will be back in a few years.  And after 30+ years, this time it will be a new, leading edge, "revolutionary" product.  No thanks.   Chickenfoot is an awesome, kick-ass rock band ... because it has Sammy Hagar singing and Joe Satriani playing guitar.  But I digress.  In the 70's Swix came out with their "chicken foot" ski basket.  Actually, they were a lot larger than a chicken's foot.  Maybe they should have called them the "pterodactyl foot" basket.  Pretty good baskets in the soft ski tracks of the 70s.
     
04 December 2010: Skiing The "New" Valley

I've been skiing the Matanuska-Susitna Valley since the Iditaski days of the 1980's.  While skiing in the Valley recently, I reflected on how things have changed a bit there since the 80's.  Here are some pictures I took this year that show what I'm talking about ...

Seems like some folks in the Valley have become a lot more polarized since the 1980s.  Heck, some folks have gotten as mean as momma grizzlies. In the 1980's you wouldn't have seen this sight from Wasilla ... now you can see the sun setting over Russia! I have wanted to climb this peak that you can now see from Wasilla.  It used to be off limits because it is in North Korea.  But now North Korea is our ally and I can go there! I go to the Valley to worship GOD - the Great Out Doors.  But nowadays it doesn't seem that is the god a lot of people in the Valley think I should worship. Seems like weed and meth in the Valley have given way to white poppies and opium.  Not sure what's with this.  Maybe the Tea Party figures - if it works for the Taliban it will work for them.
       
  Oh whatever.  The Valley is still a beautiful winter mecca with lots of people that love this place for what it is - just like I do.  So I will continue to go rouge and ski the Valley no matter which way the political storms are blowing.  You betcha.  
     
25 November 2010: Early Season Ice, It Can Trick Even The Most Experienced

Yentna River travelers, whether it's by snowmobile, dog sled or human powered means, come to have a high regard for Dave Luce and Luce's lodge at Mile 9 of the Yentna.  Dave is a super nice guy, always has good trail advice, kindly opens his lodge up as checkpoints for the Susitna 100 and dog sled races, is a very experience snowmobile freight hauler and river traveler ... and cooks some great roadhouse food.

But even veteran outdoors folks like Dave can run into trouble.  The Anchorage Daily News ran a short article about Dave and a friend having an early season mishap.  Here's a quote from the Anchorage Daily News article:

"Luce [65] and Bevans [71] told rescuers they'd been scouting a trail system Monday and were heading home when their snowmachines fell through the ice. All of their survival gear went in the water, as did any communication devices they had, troopers said."

For a more in-depth account of Dave's unplanned adventure, read Craig Medred's story on alaskadispatch.

Bottom line:  Be extra careful when out travelling on early season ice.  If a mishap can happen to 65 and 71 year old guys that have been travelling the bush for many decades, it can happen to you and me.

Speaking of Dave being a good guy and the fact he cooks great burgers at his lodge - for a recent birthday my wife asked me where she could take me for a birthday dinner.  I immediately blurted out: "Luce's Lodge!".   From Anchorage that's an 80 mile drive to Deshka Landing in Willow followed by a 30 mile ski or snowmobile trip on frozen rivers.  Yep ... sure glad Dave's still around to flip his awesome burgers!

Dave Luce's lodge - Mile 9 (or so) on the Yentna River. A wet day in 2008 on the trail to the Yentna and Luce's.
   

Update: Friends would later help Dave Luce recover his snowmobile out of the Yentna River.  They found it using a metal detector, from on top of the ice.  Then they cut a hole in the ice with chainsaws and man-hauled the machine out.  Photos by Allen and Cindi Thomas.

24 November 2010:  An Amazing Web Site for Alaskan Weather Conditions

Fred Trimble made me aware of the AOOS (Alaska Ocean Observing System) Real Time Sensors Application  web page.  This web application is amazing.  It has all of the Alaskan state and non-military federal remote telemetry data on one web page.  A huge amount of data - snow depth, weather data, web cams, river levels, buoy data.  It's all here.  And it's easy to use.  Click on the image below to access this web site and take a few minutes to check it out.  (Hint: Move your mouse over the right hand list, and see the related sites become highlighted on the map).  Thanks Fred!


 

17 November 2010:  Two Signs In A Ski Town, 100 Meters And A World Apart


Recently I was in San Martin de los Andes in Argentina.  This place is a very beautiful tourist town with Swiss influenced architecture.  And as you can see from the town's seal (shown above), this is a ski town - the large Chapelco ski resort sits above San Martin.

But just 100 meters or so from the beautiful carved-wood city seal is a mural painted on a building wall.  And this mural is a world apart from the persona projected by the surrounding town.  The mural depicts the "Dirty War" (Guerra Sucia).  In the late 1970's and early 1980's there was much political unrest and violence in Argentina.  During this time the regime of Jorge Rafael Videla carried out a campaign to weed out anyone with suspected Communist sympathies.  As a result over 10,000 people, such as intellectuals, artists and activists, were tortured or executed by the Argentine government.  The victims of this political violence are referred to as the desaparecidos (the disappeared ones).

This mural memorializes a "disappeared one", an artist, who met a demise courtesy of an out of control government.  You can see the faceless government agents in this mural whitewashing the situation and making their murderous deeds "disappear".

As I had read about the Dirty War, I was hoping to see some vestige of this horrific era during my time in Argentina.  So seeing this mural was a memorable and moving experience for me.  It's a strong reminder that extremists have taken, and can still take, control of governments quickly, and with horrific consequences... and that such events can happen anywhere in the world.
 

15 November 2010:  Skiing and Volcanoes ... Maybe We Have It Good

We Anchorage, Alaska skiers occasionally get grumpy when a volcano dumps ash on our snow and makes skiing miserable.  The ash usually comes from a volcano that is quite a long ways from Anchorage, like Mount Redoubt or Mount Spurr.

Mount Redoubt's vulcan spew in March 2009.

But just imagine the volcano headaches we'd have if we lived right at the base of a active volcano.  Or if our favorite skiing venue was on the slopes of an active volcano.  Such is the case in Pucon, Chile.  The town is at the base of an active volcano, and the local ski area is on the slopes of the volcano.  You can see steam coming out of the volcano as you ride the chairlift.

Things must be a lot more exciting for skiers at Pucon compared to a little ash fall that we occasionally have to deal with.  Ashfall is a regular occurrence.  And in the past fissures have opened on Pucon's Villarrica volcano and lava has flowed out.  Imagine riding up the Pucon chairlift and seeing a fissure open beneath you and red hot lava start gushing out.  You'd probably want your lift ticket money back ... if you were an alpine skier.  But no doubt this wouldn't phase snowboarders.  They would probably exclaim: "Dude!  Check out the sweet lava flow!  Awesome!  Let's build a kicker and do some jumps over it!"

I was at Pucon's ski area in November 2010. Pucon ski lifts on the slopes of active, and smoking, volcano Volcan Villarrica (click on the above thumbnail photo so you can see the lifts in a larger photo).

On the summit of Villarrica I found some "fresh" rocks on the crater rim - pumice that recently had been made from spurts of lava coming out of the the volcano (see picture below).  We in Anchorage don't like fine volcanic ash falling on our snow.  But imagine if along with the ash we had to dodge hot rocks falling out of the sky.  I wonder if the ski reports for Pucon have warnings like this: "Today there is a high probability of falling pumice stones and lava, so we ask all skiers to please don't forget to wear your helmets."  Also, it seems like every lift tower should have a fire extinguisher strapped to it.  That way if a skier gets nailed by some falling lava and their clothing catches on fire ... then nearby skiers could help put the fire out on the burning skier.

Just kidding around of course.  Pucon's ski area is unique and beautiful.  And the fact that it is on the side of an active volcano makes it even more unique, intriguing and cool.  There are not many places where the response to "What did you do today?" is "I went skiing on an active volcano".

Fresh pumice stones from the crater rim of Volcan Villarrica.  How would you like it if these started raining down on you while you were skiing?
 
13 November 2010:  XC Skiing Center At The "Fin Del Mundo" (End of the World)

Recently I was hiking in the mountains above Ushuaia, Argentina which, as the locals say, is at the fin del mundo (end of the world) on Tierra del Fuego.  After hiking I stopped by Argentina's premier cross country skiing venue - the Pista de Esqui de Fondo Francisco Jerman.  It was spring time in the southern hemisphere, so no skiing was going on here.  But I took a look around and took a few pictures to share with folks that might be interested.

By most xc ski area standards this venue would be considered modest.  But ski-hats off to Club Andino Ushuaia for promoting the sport of xc skiing in this beautiful location that has similarities to Seward, Alaska.  The goal of xc skiing, at least in my opinion, is to get people to xc ski regularly so that they reap the health and outdoor benefits from this ski-sport.  It surely doesn't require multi-million dollar xc skiing venues to allow people to benefit from xc skiing.  Though it seems that a lot of ski clubs in the US lose sight of this fact in the heat of fund raising, competition for major event hosting and capital project one-upmanship.  I hope the Argentines at the fin del mundo continue to keep it simple and real ... and get a lot of South Americans hooked on "esqui de fondo".

  Stadium Nice club house
 
Trail map Snowmobile for track setting.   This was another xc skiing venue I noticed a short ways out of town.
 
Late October 2010:  OK.  Now We Could Really Use Some Snow ! ...

It's election season in Alaska.  I actually like this insane circus in the 49th state. I follow the issues and candidates closely.  I get very engaged with the whole process.

But this year the election circus in Alaska has hit a new level of bizarre.  And I thought that wasn't possible after our last governor.  This year it's a candidate "arresting" and handcuffing a journalist because he didn't want to answer his questions.  Crazy.  Did earth just hit some kind of time warp and we are now all back in Germany in 1938?  Wait ... just checked my skis.  They didn't turn to wood so no time warp.  My watch still says it's 2010.  Whew.

I voted early, so now I am very ready to exit this insanity.  It would be great to be skiing someplace where there wasn't another human around, politicians in particular, for many miles.  Come ... on ... snow !!!

Anchorage - October 17, 2010

 

Mid October 2010:  Behold !  ... The Amazing Billy Biscuit !!

When out hiking or skiing it's always fun to find cool stuff.  And especially cool stuff that you can use, like the above caribou antlers drops my wife and I found in the Brooks Range and that our now destined to our cabin's "chandelier".

Photo by Billy Finley

A very unique thing I heard about being found this summer is something backcountry skier and climber Billy Finley found.  While hiking in the Snowhawk Valley of the Western Chugach Mountains Billy found a rusty, unopened can.  He brought the can home and opened it ... to find a military C rations fruitcake.  The area he found the can in used to be used for military training a lot in the 50's and 60's.  So perhaps this mountain biscuit was 40, 50 or more years old.  Despite its age, Billy said the old fruitcake still tasted pretty good !!
 

Mid October 2010:  Skate Boots Gone Flaccid.  Does RS Now Stand For "Really Soft"?

The short:  I went to buy a new pair of Salomon RS Carbon skate boots.  I tried them on and couldn't believe how floppy there were, they were much less torsionally rigid than RS skate boots of previous years.  I ended up not buying them.

The long: My Salomon RS skate boots are aging so I figured it was time to get a new pair.  I like RS skate boots because of their comfort, they are great for long skis on rough trails or for crust skiing.  I prefer the RS over the S-Lab and above because: a) they are warmer, b) they are more comfortable and c) they are easier to get on and off - no neoprene cuff.  I don't like funky neoprene boot cuffs that require you to contort your foot and put up a fight just to get your boots on and off.   And this neoprene material causes your feet to get wetter on long skis, which is not good.

When I picked up the RS Carbon skate boot from the display rack I did the first thing most people do - I twisted the sole to see how stiff the boot was.  A skate boot sole needs to be stiff so energy isn't wasted keeping the ski on edge.  But I was very surprised at how floppy the sole was.  It was much less rigid then some classic ski boots I have owned.  And it was nowhere near the rigidity of my Salomon Pro-Combi boots that I like a lot.  Never the less, I tried a pair on.  I just couldn't believe how soft the soles were for a skate boot.  I cringed thinking how much my feet would hurt while doing a long Su Valley trail skate in these boots.

The ugly Romanian RS9 bumblebee skate boots of a dozen years ago set the comfort and performance standard for skate boots  And after years of "technological advances" the successors of the RS9s are these boots with flip-flop soles?  How can this be?

A look at the sole of the new RS Carbon skate boots seems to tell the story.  Big holes were cut in the sole so that the thin layer of carbon weave fabric in the sole shows.  No doubt the Salomon marketing department thought this would look cool and maybe generate a few more sales.  I'll agree ... it does look cool.

But to make this boot look cool, a bunch of stiff plastic was cut out of the sole.  If your carbon composite layer is not thick and stiff enough to make the boot rigid by itself, then taking away the plastic that makes the boot rigid is a mistake.  And I think that is the design flaw with these boots.
The new RS Carbon.  In my opinion the sole is was way too soft for a skate boot. You could fix the new RS Carbon skates by adding homemade carbon sole stiffeners.  But you shouldn't have to do this. The 2009 Salomon Pro-Combi.  It's got a stiffer sole than the new RS Carbon skate boots. Yeah, it's a combi boot so this shouldn't be the case.  But it is. If you want the perfect skate boot when it comes to fit, comfort and quality, search ebay for a pair of old RS9's.  If you run across a pair of 44's for sale ... please let me know!

Early October 2010:  A Lost Cross Country Ski Trail Comes to Life, 40+ Years Later

In 1969 a cross country ski racing trail was made in Girdwood so that the Alaskan Nordic skiing community could host their first U.S. Junior National Cross Country Skiing Championships.  Now, just over 40 years later, a cross country skiing and multi-use trail is under construction in the same area that the 1969 ski trail once existed.  Recently I went to Girdwood to check out the trail building activity.  A couple kilometers, of the 5 k's targeted to be built this year, had been cleared.  And past then end of trail work I followed flagging around the rest of the loop.  Deep in the dark, hemlock groves I found a few of the old trail markers that had been nailed up by the original trail makers in '68 or '69.  I took some pictures and posted them on the other skiing web site that I maintain - the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project  (ALSAP).  On this ALSAP web page you will find all of the historical information I have collected over the last 6 years or so about this famous old Alaskan ski trail.
 

This new ski trail should be completed for the 2010-2011 ski season.  So take a trip to Girdwood this winter and go on a cross country ski into the past.  For current information on this ski trail, here is the Girdwood Nordic Ski Club web site.


2009-2010 Blog

 

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