Thursday, January 26, 2017

San Diego Trans County Trail 2017: A Trip Across the County

Kelley with the Salton Sea in background
We've been living in Seward, Alaska since October, where we've been settling into the rhythms of small town Alaska life in the winter. We have delighted in the slower pace of life and the walkabilty of our town. We bought a tiny home here in Seward last year, and finally this past fall, we got to move in and stay in the house. It's 400 square feet of luxurious comfort and shelter from the elements. We love it. At the same time, we love long distance hiking and sleeping outside, which is tough to find in an Alaskan winter, without gaining major new skills and buying super winter gear. The search for a place to hike and sleep outside with more than five hours of daylight led us back to southern California, a place we fell in love with last winter. 

Remnants of greenhouses near the Salton Sea
The desert in winter is a wonderland for backpackers! The only major drawback is finding enough water, and that is much simpler to deal with than rain and snow in 20-40 degree temperatures. The group that we hiked the San Diego Trans County Trail with last year had been planning its dates and details for a while, and 10 days beforehand, we found Alaska airline miles that allowed us to jump on board. One of the joys of being minimally-employed is the flexibility to jump on opportunities. Reed booked us a flight for Palm Springs and we began our preparations. The excitement in our little house was huge, as we packed foods and clothing, trying to remember what would be useful in the desert climate. Our crate of summer clothes was dug out of the corner and rummaged through, to find sun shirts and hats. 
Walking in the Arroyo Salada
The drive from Seattle to Seward took us 11 days last February. At that time, we were hauling a trailer full of our belongings, and the day time temperatures were well below freezing for most of the trip. This time, we would be traveling the opposite direction and even farther south. But, we would be flying on planes for most of the distance, and it really is amazing how airplanes have changed our perceptions of distances. Our first step was to get to Anchorage and leave our car with friends. Our flight out of Anchorage was scheduled for the middle of the night, as many flights to the "lower 48" are. We parked our car and decided to walk the 4.5 miles to the airport, because we had plenty of time, it was a reasonable 15 degrees outside and our luggage was our backpacks, and thus portable. We laughingly talked of the walk to the airport as our "approach" to the San Diego Trail. 

Sunrise over the Anza Borrego Desert
Upon arrival in Palm Springs, we began undressing from our layers. We were surprised to find ourselves in a tropical, open air building. The next few days were spent acclimating and eating enormous amounts of fresh produce, something we miss in Seward. I remember particularly well a luscious cantaloupe that we bought and devoured. It was perfect! Additionally, we bought a bag of grapefruit that I tore through. All of this is representative of a couple of changes in our lives these days. First, what I already mentioned, that we don't get as much luscious fresh produce in our lives these days. And second, the balance between time and money has shifted dramatically. We needed to use airline miles in order to get to southern California, and doing so meant that we could arrive 5 days early. Since we're both only minimally working, there wasn't a problem with missing extra days of work. Lodging once we arrived in California could have presented a problem, but we figured that worst case scenario, we would walk and sleep in the desert. As it turned out, we were offered a place to stay with a lovely couple at their home in Indio, California. Reed and they connected via Couchsurfing. They were hikers and we delighted in spending those days with Rod and Fran, going on hikes and, as I said earlier, eating produce. They were amazingly kind and generous with us, taking us into the slot canyons of the Mecca Hills and feeding us well. 

The hike itself began on January 5th, in the warm hours of the afternoon. Our group gathered over a number of hours, coming in various vehicles, including a Uhaul truck. Oh, hikers! It was a fantastic group of kind athletes who use the hike as a kind of hiker "family reunion," as the core group has been hiking the route together for four years now. For Reed and I, it was our second year in a row, and a delight to see familiar faces, especially our friend Girl Scout, with whom we hiked last year. These's lots to say about the hike, but I grow weary here in Seward. As Girl Scout would say, "it's hiker midnight." I'll let the photos speak for themselves and write more in the coming weeks about our upcoming trip, which will be along the Arizona Trail.

Squinting into the sun of the Anza Borrego Desert, east of Borrego Springs

Sunset near Borrego Springs

Early morning light on downtown Borrego Springs

A female Borrego, or Big Horn Sheep

The lure of the high desert trail

High desert burnt cactus

Heading towards the Mason Valley Truck Trail

Rain! and Wind! near Lake Cuyamaca

Walking the connector roads towards El Cajon Mountain
Salt Marsh as we approach Torrey Pines and the Pacific Ocean

Reed and Kelley with one of the Route's Mapping Geniuses, Brett Richey

The Torrey Pines cliffs as we walk our personal finish, to La Jolla

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Almost to Winter Solstice in Seward on a Sunday Night

Alaska Sealife Center's Christmas tree lights the waterfront
Seward's Christmas Tree high on Bear Mountain appears as a distant star above Tony's Bar
Seward's Downtown - 4th Street looking north

We've been taking Sundays as our Sabbath day, a day of rest and recuperation, a day to do whatever we want. We start Sundays with our group run, meeting up at Resurrection Art on 3rd, a cafe that many refer to as Seward's living room. We did that today. Five of us jogged out Lowell Point Road, around the loop at the end of the road, and then back again. On the way out, we saw a pair of sea lions and many birds. Reed jokingly tried to identify them, as yesterday had been Seward's "Christmas Bird Count" and we'd enthusiastically listening as one of our new friends described the birds that his crew had seen the day before. "One crow" said Reed.

After our hour's run we proceeded over to the American Legion with our new friend, Jamie, who's in the Coast Guard. The Legion was hosting a public hot breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon and biscuits and sausage gravy. I luxuriated in the meal, breakfast being my favorite combo of food options. We enjoyed a bit of conversation about Seward's Christmas tree, high on Bear Mountain. It had been slow in getting lit this year. I had learned at City Council that the wiring up to the tree had been vandalized, and it took a long-time Sewardite's actions to get it back in operational order. Now it shines down on Seward, casting an encouragement to us in the darkness of winter, where we start and end our days in thick darkness.

This evening I decided to take a leisurely walk around town. The air is crisp and fresh, just 35 degrees farenheit outside. It's warmed up quite a bit in the last few days. Our streets and sidewalks are now a sloppy, slushy mess. The wind has picked up speed throughout the day. I delighted in the fact that I could easily walk to the post office (dropped off a letter), the library (dropped off some DVDs) and walk Seward's waterfront path, all in a leisurely paced 20 minutes. What a fantastic place to live & how fortunate to be home, snug on the couch in our tiny home, with everything that I need. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

How Winter is Shaping Up: October & November in Seward, Alaska

3 Historical Forces in Seward: WW2 Era Quonset Hut, AVTEC (red building) & Mount Marathon

Winter Night Hiking on the Lost Lake Trail

This winter we've been living in Seward, Alaska, located on the Kenai Peninsula, at the head of Resurrection Bay. It's a deep fjord, with tall mountains on either side. As newbies to Seward, we've been hesitant to get out on the hiking trails since the snows have begun sticking. Even so, it's been fantastic to be able to run around town twice a week thus far, and we've been out on a couple of hiking trails that are closer to home. 

There's not many hours or much intensity to the sun this time of year, and each day gets less light, until December 22nd. We are looking forward to that change, to when daylight hours start to lengthen. Even so, we've been doing all right. In late October & early November, I started to get anxious about the increasing darkness and marked a countdown onto our daily calendar. We started forcing ourselves up and out, even when it was still dark in the mornings. We committed to doing running group twice a week, starting and ending at Resurrection Art Coffee Shop, considered by some to be "Seward's living room." It's helped! As of today, there are 17 more days of increasing darkness and then the cycle reverses itself.
Mount Marathon's Jeep Trail on a snowy day

Alaska Sea Life Center parking lot in winter

Seward has proven to be a friendly small town, just the kind of place for which we hoped. When we left Seattle last spring, we knew that we were headed for Denali, to work the season. Beyond that, we didn't know where we'd be going, or what would come next. Our choice to leave the city was terrifying, and exciting. And then we were on the road, in various incantations, for about 18 months. What a relief that Seward is proving a great place to make our home. So here we are, living and learning the area and the people. Each day has its own chores assigned to it, something I remember was true of the Laura Ingalls family out on the American Frontier. Today is Sunday, which we honor by making it our day of rest. The idea is that we do the things that revive our spirits on Sundays. Today we did running group in the morning, followed by more than an hour at Resurrection Art, drinking coffee and visiting and reading the Anchorage newspaper. Then we walked the three blocks to home, took hot baths and ate a hot lunch. 

Winter life in Alaska has a slower pace, especially for those of us who work mostly seasonally. I'll be starting work at Providence Mountain Haven long term care facility tomorrow, where I hope to work 2-3 days per week going forward. And I've begun writing for Seward City News, an online newspaper / magazine / blog. This has afforded me the opportunity to be out and about around town, meeting, interviewing and photographing people and places. Our life here is developing slowly and steadily, and so far, it's a great life with kind people welcoming us into the community. 

Today it's 20 degrees out, windy with tremendous gusts that shake our tiny home and cause trembling sounds from outside. The sky was clear, the ground frozen and the cafe warm. Life is good.

Third Avenue looking north towards Resurrection Bay

Monday, October 31, 2016

Autumn in Seward: Hike-Running back to Town Along the Seward Highway

Along the Bike Path leading into Seward
Thermostat at Trail Head to Grayling Lake, mile 11

October in Seward has been fantastic, as we settle into our new lives here. My love for hiking and jogging coalesced this past week with my desire to learn a bit more about how Seward is connected together with Bear Creek along the Seward Highway. On a frosty morning, Reed drove me out past mile 11 on the Seward Highway, where I exited the warmth of our old red Rodeo with a shock. I wore my small red and black trail-running backpack full of essential gear, gloves on my hands, a fleece vest and two layers of pants. I didn't look like a runner since my second pair of pants was maroon corduroy and my pace was glacial. The cold and down hill slope exacerbated my shin splint pain, and the cold air was tough on my nostrils. 

That section of the highway is through thick woods, and the sunlight still wasn't touching the pavement after 11am. It became a delightful run after a couple of miles. When my 45 minute timer alarmed, I rewarded myself with ingesting a Capri Sun. The sugar surged me forward to the Bear Creek area, where homes and businesses began to appear, about mile 7 on the highway. From mile 7 all the way into town, there were occasional dwellings and other structures, including the Bear Creek volunteer fire station. I listened to the Fresh Air podcast of Teri Gross interviewing Tom Hanks, learning of his deliberate career move away from playing the role of the washed up baseball coach in "A League of Their Own." I could see his point about not wanting that to be his role for the rest of his career, but I loved him in that film. 

Miles plodded by and I arrived at Spenard Builders Supply, which happens to have an excellent bathroom. Many thanks to them for providing this crucial public service. I rested for a bit while I ordered a stove hood vent for our little house, something that we've been researching for a few weeks. When that transaction was complete, I got back under way and continued jogging into town. My final stop was at Subway, where Reed met me for lunch and we enjoyed their seasonal sandwich, turkey and cranberry. It's just one more mile from Subway to home, and I walked that portion. It was wonderful to find a simple, accessible autumn route for running a decent amount of mileage. I counted my total at 11 miles. 

Settlement near Exit Glacier turnoff

Seward Boat Harbor with Mount Alice in background

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Road Tripping Alaska: Making Our Way Towards Home in Seward, Alaska.

We finished our jobs at the Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotels almost a week ago, and have been on the Alaska Road system ever since. Fall is a wonderful time to drive and hike around Alaska, especially this year, because the snow has been sparse thus far. We left Denali on Friday, the last day in September, with a vehicle packed chock full of our belongings as well as food stuffs and bottles of water. We were bound for the Denali Highway, and wanted to be prepared in case of getting stuck. The State of Alaska stops plowing the road at the end of September, so in the event of snow, we figured that we might need to be ready to spend a day or two waiting for the snow to melt or get pushed down by other vehicles. As it turned out, the road was in excellent condition and the driving was spectacular. We've driven the highway in its entirety once before, last summer and a few times we've driven big chunks of it. My, the fall tundra was gorgeous! A further bonus was seeing the happy hunters driving out, their ATVs loaded on trailers, caribou antlers sticking out from beneath tarps. We later learned that the caribou had been late in coming down from the high country, and the state had responded by lengthening the caribou season. The close of the season happened the same night that we began our drive, so the exodus of hunters was in full swing.

We spent three peaceful nights at the Maclaren River Lodge, with few fellow guests since the hunters had departed, and the lodge was technically closed for the season. The staff there graciously let us stay a couple more nights, as they began their shut down procedures. We slept late, and went hiking in the afternoons. The tundra was surface-frozen, so walking across it made for a satisfying crunch with each step. One afternoon, we watched a small herd of 8 + 3 caribou run around on the ridge above us, keeping distance between us as we advanced towards Glacier Gap Lake. As we trudged around the tundra and marshlands, we stayed warm by virtue of our labor expenditure. The icy water was kept away from my feet thanks to my xtra tuff boots, except when I hit an especially boggy spot, I sunk in to my knees and I had to fight to extricate myself. After that, I walked faster to regain warmth.

Our journey continued from the Denali Highway south along highway 4, through Glenallen and on to the Wrangell St Elias National Park Visitor Center. There a ranger discouraged us from going on the McCarthy Road, quizzing us on whether we were properly prepared to face the challenges that the road might throw at us. Eventually, we gave up on getting information or encouragement from her, and decided to try our luck. When were we going to have another chance at getting all the way out to the small town of McCarthy! The drive out was incredibly beautiful and the road was very much passable. No flat tires! Even though we were adequately prepared with a good spare tire and an air compressor and plugs for fixing flats. What stupendous beauty! We stayed the night at an off-grid cabin in McCarthy, one among 5 cabins that constitutes the Blackburn Cabins. Mark, the proprieter kindly picked us up at the McCarthy side of the pedestrian bridge. The deal is that one can drive 60 miles from Chitina to McCarthy, but then a river with only a pedestrian bridge blocks ones way. People leave their cars on that west side of the river and walk across the pedestrian bridge.
That night we witnessed the magic of the northern lights dancing white, green, purple and pink acorss the sky, while listening to rock and ice bounce around off the Kennecott Glacier and in the river. We stayed outside watching even as our bodies grew increasingly cold as we really were spell bound by the surprise of dancing colors in the night sky.
The next day we walked up to and around the old mill town of Kennecott. Although it was cool to see, and I can add the area to my wish list of places to work, my energy was low the day that we walked the 3.5 miles to Kennecott, so I am limited in what I can say about the experience. I am grateful that we went, and that even on a low-energy day, my body was able to carry me there and back. We even extended the trip a bit by walking out to the Root Glacier, another 3 miles roundtrip. We stood and walked around on a glacier. Hard to believe that we were looking out on miles of ice.

So much beauty and wonder and we still have a few more days left on our travels. Today we drove from Kenny Lake to Valdez. It was another amazing drive, especially the section through Keystone Canyon. The sun was out and the temperature ideal for fishing. Reed practiced his fly fishing skills at Blueberry Lake, while I cooked in the parking lot on our Svea Stove. I cooked up a batch of cranberry apple sauce, using the cranberries that Reed picked walking around Thompson Pass. I picked some too, but I ate all mine while lazing in the sunshine. And we cooked the fish that Reed had caught the night before, a kokanee salmon! It was luscious flesh, and represented success for Reed in that he caught a land-locked salmon in a lake in Alaska, one of his fishing goals.

Tonight we are in Valdez, staying with a Couchsurfing host, Jeremy, a kind and generous host. We've had a full evening of talking and eating his delicious food, while learning from a local Cordova resident about what we have to look forward to in our travels there. Emily shared with us some of the good things soon to come our way in terms of sighs and experiences. Tomorrow afternoon we will board the Alaska State ferry bound for Cordova, which will meant crossing the Prince William Sound. It's been a while since we've been on salt water, and I can already see Reed's mood further brightening because of our proximity to coast.

We've been fortunate this year. Reed said that it's been one of our best and I think he's right. All the way from San Diego Trans County Trail at the start of the year to exploring around south central Alaska, plus so many other places and wonderful people. Gracias a la vida!

Early Winter on the Denali Highway
Hiking on Frozen Tundra near the Maclaren River, Denali Highway

The red of tundra in fall. 

Marsh walking near Maclaren River. 

Some of the not boggy walking. 

Walking near Kennecott. 

Our Blackburn Cabin at McCarthy. 

Kennicott Glacier in the background on a sunny and cool day. 

The old Mill Town of Kennecott. 

Walking on the ice of Root Glacier. 

The color scheme of a mill town. 

Evening fall fishing at Strehlna Lake. 

Happy Reed, thank you fish. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Hiking the Park Road: 46 Miles in Autumn

Camper Bus: 3:30pm departure from the Visitor Center

The 35 mile hike turned into a 46 mile hike, because I love the miles! We had planned to start at Highway Pass, but the park was so beautiful and we wanted to get nearer to Mount Denali, so we stayed on the bus until Stoney Pass. 

It was just a few miles between Stoney Pass and Highway Pass and there was still light at 7pm, when we got out that way, so we walked on. That was how it went for two days, continued, steady pace and lots of foods. I love hiking and I love food, the combo is fantastic. 
At present, I'm weary from a couple of late nights and early mornings, and the end of the season busyness. We are nearing shutdown and a few employees depart each day, bound for their next adventures and employment and school. It's tough physically - the cleaning and laundry, and it's tough emotionally, saying goodbye to so many kind and hard workers. 
Today my mom departs Denali. It's been a gift having her here. We've never gotten to spend this much adult time together. Now I will go and drive her to the Grande Denali Lodge, so that she can finish her paperwork, and then I will drive her to the train station where she will board the Alaska Railroad bound for Anchorage. 
Summer is gone, I am now 35 and it was a fantastic hike. I'm grateful for it all. 

Site of our first night Campsite
Toklat River behind us

East Fork braided river

Sable Pass on our second day of walking

Teklanika River

A Birthday Feast provided by my mom, who came to meet us on the bus

Walking together east of Teklanika

Sanctuary River Campground, mile 22 and almost to the finish.

Looking down on Savage River as we near completion

At the Finish - Savage River Bridge.