Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Unit 1 of Denali National Park: Climbing Flat Top Mountain off the George Parks Highway

It's been another busy summer of work and play here in Denali Park, Alaska. We're both working for Grande Denali, LLC again, Reed as maintenace at the Grande Denali and I as the Housing Manager for both the Denali Bluffs and Grande Denali. We've been grateful to have our jobs for a second season, to settle into them and get to explore the area more. 

This summer I wanted to try learn something new by working a second job that would allow me to get familiar with working in a small business, and would help me to meet people outside of our company. I was fortunate to get a one-day-per-week job working at Black Bear Coffee shop, down on the strip / mall of Denali's 'downtown.' This job has given me the chance to work with a skilled group of people, and to learn a little about what it's like to operate a small business.  
I still have two days off per week, but it means less time off during the work week to prep for weekend outings. Reed's done an excellent job at stepping up and doing the work of getting us ready to go camping each weekend. We've also been helped by our experience this past winter of prepping for outdoor adventures, which taught us to whittle down our packing to the bare essentials, as less weight and bulk allows us to do more, go farther. 
Last weekend Reed secured us a backcountry permit for Unit 1 in Denali National Park, accessible from the George Parks Highway. I worked until 9:30pm, then walked home and decompressed for an hour. By the time that we were on the trail, it was nearly midnight. Yes, it was still light, which is one of the amazing things about Alaska in June and July. We parked at the Triple Lakes Trailhead and then set out up the Triple Lakes trail. When we crossed the Alaska Railroad, we followed the tracks south, to the faint traces of earlier footsteps. The beginning was fine, walking across foamy-tundra and knee high blueberry bushes. Pretty soon, though, the vegetation thickened, the ground got muddy and we found our best option was to follow what was clearly a moose trail. Their recent footsteps were clearly visible, and the vegetation had been pushed back. Trying to depart from this narrow thread was less appealing. It was 90+ minutes of type 3 fun. Reed wanted to stop and set up our tent for the night. So did I. But there was nowhere flat or dry enough. So on we went. When we crested the top edge of the ridge, it was amazing to find that the mountain really way flat up top. 
By 2am our tent was set up, and we were snugly in our sleeping bags. We slept well until 9am, when we awoke, did our morning routine including eating granola bars smothered in peanut butter, (retrieved the Ursack from 100 meters away & watched a moose in the distance) and then went back to sleep. 

We were glad to get a bit of catch up sleep. We slept most of the day, until after 2, then got up and gobbled down more granola bars with peanut butter. The best part was that there was more up still available to us. We had camped on the low ridge, and the peak was clearly visible since the clouds and fog had moved along to the next set of peaks. We walked for another hour to get to the top. It was like a park at the top, with low grass and evidence of dahl sheep all around. I would have liked to continue on, but our time was running short, so we turned around and headed back the way that we had come. We passed near the moose we had seen that morning, or perhaps it was a different one. Their tracks were abundant. We picked blueberries; their deep blue caught our eyes and our attention. Then we found a chute to descend. It was steep, but so much less dense brush than the way that we had ascended. 

We were down by 8pm, having seen and experienced quite a lot for less than 24 hours. I love the proximity to the park that we enjoy working right here at the park entrance. On the way down, we passed by one of the remnants of the Alaska telegraph line, from the early 1900s. Glass insulators still atop the badly leaning pole. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Up Sugarloaf Mountain: Springtime at Denali

View from the windy top of Sugarloaf Mountain

Yesterday I got the chance to take my first hike up Sugarloaf of the season. I am hoping to get up there once per month this summer, for a total of five times: May, June, July, August & September. Denali is beautiful again, with far less snow this year. We are happy to be back to work another season at the Grande Denali & Denali Bluffs Hotels. This year we get a special treat - my mom came up to work alongside us all summer. It's such a joy that we'll get to spend the next few months together. 
The hike up Sugarloaf was tough, steep, crumbly, snow drifts to get over and around. I loved it! At the top, all I could do was take a snapshot, and turn around quickly while I still had a bit of body heat built up. It was crucial that I get myself out of the frigid wind before I lost that heat. Then there was the trip down. I continue to be grateful for my trekking poles, which saved my knees undue stress and strain and saved me from plummeting down the ridgeline. And all that joy was packed into just 3 hours. I got back to the Grande Denali employee dining room in time for a hot lunch! Here's to a summer's worth of hiking! 

Requisite selfie at the top - gotta prove that I was there! 

Nenana River, view south from the ridgeline of Sugarloaf Mountain

Monday, March 14, 2016

Day Tripping around Seward

View from Lowell Point on a sunny winter's day

On a Sunday morning run
 We've been in Seward for two weeks now and finally we can walk freely through our small house, unimpeded by boxes and plastic crates. We've been getting out and enjoying the cold, cool and bright weather. We're loving the chance to settle in here and enjoy this small town. Yesterday, Sunday, we did a Sunday run, trying to replicate, to some extent, the Sunday runs that I do with my group in Seattle when we are there. Yesterday we ran from our house, down to the waterfront and along Resurrection Bay out to Lowell Point, about three miles, and then back to the Cookery Restaurant, for brunch. The total route was a little over 5 miles and we were fairly winded and tired by the end and eager for food. We are out of practice of running and don't have nearly the endurance that we did just two months ago. It's time to start building back up so that I'll be able to run the half marathons that happen in Denali this summer.

These past two weeks have been slow paced, and quite different in that we've been based around our home and getting it unpacked and organized. It feels different to not be figuring out where we will sleep each night, as we were much of the winter. It amazes me how quickly that we adapt, though. It now seems normal to sleep in our same bed every night. It seems normal to wake up to our same house each morning. And now that we've gotten accustomed to this lifestyle, it's time for a change! On Friday we will be flying out to Dillingham, on the Bristol Bay, for a month's work. We will be working as research assistants for a UW Ph.D. project, interviewing salmon fishermen. We have two more free days to explore Seward, delight in the beauty and then we will be traveling again!

View of our house from First Avenue, shed in foreground

Friday, March 11, 2016

Early Seward Life: Unpacking and Exploring

Greetings on a snowy day in Seward. The morning's rain has turned to heavy snow falling steadily. The view out over Resurrection Bay is thus obscured, but the giant flakes are gorgeous in themselves. We arrived here ten days ago and have been unpacking and rearranging and getting acquainted with the town little bits each day. My trepidations from the drive north melted away as we have been able to walk to this cafe (Resurrect Cafe), to the library, bank, grocery store and hardware store. There is ample road running available as well as trails close at hand. There is the salt water of the bay, which delights Reed and will allow him to do plenty of kayaking in the coming years. I also enjoy the waterfront, especially for jogging and walking along, on the lookout for marine mammals. 

High above the Matanuska Valley,
on the Glen Highway between Glennallen and Palmer

  We found our little house much as we had left it last October. It was snug and cozy and much smaller than the last space that we inhabited, the two bedroom apartment on Beach Drive SW in West Seattle. We are struggling to rearrange in order to fit all of the necessary belongings inside of the space and still have room to move about. Each day the chaos decreases a bit. I am eager for when we can move about freely, without boxes blocking our path.
Soon after arrival, exterior wall of our house. 

The town is beginning to come alive for the spring, after what seems was a quiet winter routine. It seems that many people go away for a few weeks or months in the winter, to get away from the dark, see new places and visit their families. The gearing up for the summer season of many visitors and employment for all who want to work is beginning. All of a sudden, it seems that everywhere in town is hiring. We have committed to go back to work at Denali again this summer. We are looking forward to spending another summer up near the park, and at the same time, as we settle in here, we also long to stay and work here through the summer. Reed especially longs to work on the water here, as a kayak guide or deck hand. We reassure ourselves that we will do that next summer, and perhaps the summer after that. We still have time.
Low tide on Resurrection Bay, view from Seward waterfront park

Seward's Library - one of my favorite places in town! 

Some of our favorite things about Seward thus far are its accessibility. It's wonderful to be able to easily walk to the library, where there is comfortable seating, free wifi, plenty of books, magazines and movies to peruse. I sometimes can't believe my good fortune to be living in a town with a gorgeous library with a number of massive mountains jutting up all around it. Another new favorite is the restaurant, The Cookery. We went out for a celebratory lunch last week because Reed finished our 2015 taxes, which was quite an undertaking. The winter lunch program offers two different meals each day, so we got one of each. I had halibut tacos and Reed had a green pork burrito. So delicious! And the meal finished off with a homemade chocolate chip cookie. Last night we went out for dessert on the treat money that our friend Katherine gave us before we left the Seattle area. Her instructions were to spend it on chocolate or a dessert, something decadent that we wouldn't have bought for ourselves. So we ordered a dutch baby dessert, with all the extra fixings - blueberry syrup, cream cheese ice cream and bacon!

We just have five more days here in Seward before we depart for Anchorage, to catch a flight out to Dillingham. We will be working alongside two other people, doing interviews of salmon fishermen as economic research for a phD thesis. We're quite looking forward to getting to spend time in another new part of Alaska. In the meantime, we've got lots of unpacking and repacking yet to do. We're grateful to be in Alaska, and especially glad that we get to call Seward home!

At the base of Mount Marathon,
ready for our 30 minute morning walk to greet the day

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Moving to Seward, Alaska ... in February!

Ready to disembark, our rig fully loaded! 

Greetings from the Northwood Inn in Fort St John, British Columbia. We've been on the road for three days now, moving ourselves and our belongings towards Seward, Alaska. We bought a tiny house there this past October after our season spent working at Denali National Park. The purchase process was quick (about a week) and then suddenly, after all our years of being dedicated big city apartment renters, we were homeowners in a small coastal town in Alaska.

We are now on our way back to Seward, Alaska, with our furniture, kitchen items and other things packed tightly into a 5' x 8' rented Uhaul trailer that we are towing behind our 1996 Isuzu Rodeo. Reed was able to amend the trailer hitch so that we could haul a trailer. Thus far, it's been a gift that we've been able to haul the trailer, as opposed to renting a moving truck. Most importantly, it allows us both to be in the same vehicle, and thus take turns between driving and navigating / fixing food / queuing up the next podcast / finding a place to stay each night. It also means less cost than driving a moving truck and a vehicle, so it allows us a bit more wiggle room in our budget for the trip.

Our current rig and the winter weather conditions and our trepidation have us going much slower than we ever have before. Our max speed is generally about 50 mph and we're driving only during daylight hours, so we're expecting this distance of 2500 miles to take about 10 days. Even so, we've felt pretty tired by the end of each day, and grateful that we have the funds to be able to stay inside to sleep. It's cold outside!

Our family sending us off (Reed's parents, Tanya & Scott)

This country is gorgeous, and it's clearly still February in the mountains and on the plains. Most of the lakes are frozen and even some of the rivers. People have been telling us that it's been a mild winter, with less snow than normal. In general, I am sorry that this has been true, but while we're driving, I am grateful that the roads thus far have mostly been clear of snow and ice.

Last year we drove up on the Cassiar Highway, but this time around we decided to take the ALCAN, or Alaska Highway, because it's a more main route, and thus carries more vehicles and has more population spread out along it, making for more potential help and more places to stop for the night. We spent our first night out with Deb & Bob, Couchsurfing hosts in Ashcroft, who have now hosted us three times, and thus are becoming like family for us. They were a great source of information and pointers on winter driving across Canada and it was lovely to be with friendly people that first night. I am excited to be moving to Seward, and of course I am always excited about traveling. At the same time, this departure was especially tough, because our plan is that we will be living in Seward for a few years and won't be seeing our loved ones in the Seattle area nearly as often. My adventurous spirit aches each time that I leave a place and people that I love.

Reed checking the oil and tires each time that we stop
This morning we have eaten a delicious meal of leftovers and canned foods heated up in the motel room's microwave. We brought plastic containers of frozen carnitas style pork roast that we cooked and then froze a few days prior to departure. We heated that up with half a can (yes, can!) of German style potato salad. That combo was luscious! In our other dish, we had canned butter beans reheated with brown rice and then a giant dollop of hummus on top and a smattering of green and kalamata olives. We're eating pretty well, and enjoying learning more which foods work for which type of traveling. We're well nourished to start our day of driving and the time has come to load back up in the car and hit the road north.

At the official start of the ALCAN, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia

Saturday, February 6, 2016

After the Salton Sea: Washing up & Reflecting

Standing atop Rocky Hill at the southern end of the Salton Sea
 We finished our counter-clockwise loop of the Salton Sea on Wednesday afternoon, nearly 8 days after we had started off from the same location, Obsidian Butte, on the south end of the Salton Sea. These 8 days included 6 full days of paddling and 49 hours of lay-over due to wind and ensuing dust storms. We had a delightful time. I am grateful that we got to explore this incredible body of water and see birds in numbers I never had before.
One of the more amazing daily occurrences was being surrounded by clouds of 1,000+ birds circling overhead, creating ripples on the water and an audible sound of beating wings. We never did get pooped on as the birds seemed to prefer not being directly above us. I wondered if this behavior was a protective measure that they've learned to help them avoid the shots of duck hunters.

Upon landing at Obsidian Butte, our after-adventure work began. I used a gallon of fresh water and a rag to thoroughly wash the interior and exterior of our boat. This was to remove the salt deposits that had built up. We later drove to Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge visitor center where we used their fresh-water & hose to spray off our sail and all its rigging, our life jackets and kayaking skirts and our paddles. The items were remarkably "clean" of dirt and grime, yet covered in salt deposits. The visitor center provided a delightful bit of shade and water in which to rehydrate ourselves. I continue to be amazed at how quickly my skin and internal body get parched.

After resting a bit, we walked the 1 mile path to the top of Rock Hill, where we were provided with a gorgeous view of the whole Salton Sea. We were seeing the Sea in new ways now, recognizing the various rocks and mountains and low areas around its perimeter as places where we had camped or come ashore for other reasons. The Salton Sea felt like it was ours, a place that we would now gladly claim and for which we would advocate. We had not found the Sea to be an ecological nightmare, or a post-apocalyptic setting. Instead, we had found it to be teeming with life and beauty. Yes, there were dead fish (water temperature gets too low in the winter for the tropical tilapia fish that inhabit the lake) and the water is exceptionally salty. It is not a dead sea, though. There were plenty of places to camp all around the sea, and ample resupply locations for both food and water. We even had three restaurant meals at various locations around the Sea - Bombay Beach, Desert Shores and Salton City.

Gorgeous view of the Salton Sea looking north from Rocky Hill, part of the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge

Plant life near inflowing "American River" at southern end of Salton Sea
We are grateful to have found a place to have spent a delightful week on the water. I would highly recommend the Salton Sea to experienced sea and lake kayakers looking for somewhere to spend a week in the winter. I'd be happy to help out with information on resupply and camping spots.

I want to send out a set of thank yous to a few local people who helped us have a joyous and successful paddle trip. We met "Popeye" / David in Bombay Beach. He lived in a sailboat on the Salton Sea for the first half of 2014 and thus was able to provide us with a plentitude of information on the sea, including the make up of the shore at various spots around the water and stores with food. Another huge gratitude to Gary & Roxanne of Ray & Carol's Motel in Salton City. Gary offered to drive out along highway 86 to pick us up and bring us back to his motel for the night, with stops along the way to resupply on food and a giant breakfast burrito, courtesy of the Taqueria in the Salton City AMPM. The next morning, Gary & Roxanne drove us back to within 2 miles of our kayak with all of our necessary supplies for the following 2 days of paddling. This included 4.5 gallons of water, so we were especially grateful for them getting us two miles closer than the highway!

Gary "introduced us" to a fellow Salton City dweller, Kerry F. Morrison, by way to telephone. Kerry runs Ecomedia Compass and the Save our Sea Foundation. When Reed & I finished our paddle of the Sea, we were able to connect with Kerry in person at the headquarters. We made a short video of our experience on the Salton Sea, which they'll be editing and will hopefully be available in a few weeks. They're doing exceptional work towards rehabilitating the Salton Sea. One of their proposals is to bring water from the Sea of Cortez into the Salton Sea in order to keep water levels from dropping any lower. In order to bring awareness to this idea, they'll be doing a "Sea to Sea" hike this fall, 130 miles from the Salton Sea to the Sea of Cortez.


It sounds awesome, and it's got me wondering if it would be possible and reasonable for Reed & I to come back down to southern California after our season of work at Denali. There's nothing quite as motivating to me as a hike, and this one is on an exploratory route and for a cause! We may be back... I hope so.

We love the Salton Sea!
Sunset & Birds on our last night camping shoreside of the Salton Sea

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Found Boat Launch on our last night out: Kayaking the Salton Sea

Gary, Roxanne, Reed & Kelley

A Lovely morning walk across the Desert back to the Sea
Yesterday we got back to paddling on the Salton Sea, after nearly two days of rest due to the high winds. It was a lovely, calm day with a light breeze that allowed us to use the sail for an assist. We coasted down the sea, and all through this tranquil scene, I was filled with anxiety. Where were we going to find a place to camp for the night? What if the terrible winds returned? We're we going to have to trudge through mud flats, dragging the kayak in order to get above water line? Were we going to have to paddle all night because we couldn't find anywhere to pull out boat out of the water? None of these dreaded fears came to fruition. In retrospect, it seems as though I was feeling the fears of a few days prior. At that time, I had needed to focus on solutions & this hadn't been able to feel the anxieties accompanying our situation. Yesterday it was safe enough to do so, and I felt all of them! As the sun sank lower, we found an impromptu wooden boat launch. Once again, we were able to get ashore without trudging through mud. We even found an adequate camp site just 200 yards away, on a slightly higher place, with sand & barnacle she'll beach beneath it.

This morning we begin our last day of paddling the Salton Sea loop. It's another calm day, sunny, birds making a racket of sounds. We are cheddar cheese & Nutella sandwiches for breakfast & I drank rehydrated Nestea. We're off to see what more we can see today, on this SW corner of the lake.

Graffiti artwork on an old military building on the SW shore of the Salton Sea