Friday, January 30, 2009

Redoubt Ready to Blow

Alaska is once again making the national news, and not, this time, because we are the "Coldest State with the Hottest Governor", as the bumper stickers say. This lovely mountain, which I am so fond of posting photos of, may be getting ready to explode. In the last week, Mt. Redoubt has moved from green to yellow to orange on the volcano alert scale; the only thing past orange is an actual eruption. That would be red, I guess.

The last time Redoubt erupted was almost twenty years ago. I was living in Seattle, working at Harborview Medical Center, and several of the physicians I worked with were avid mountain climbers. For several days there was little talk of anything else. That 1989 eruption was nowhere near as devastating as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, but it did blanket the town of Kenai in a thick layer of ash. Dutch's admin assistant, who has lived here all her life, remembers it well. She says it was like driving through a black cloud, the ash was so dense, and it lasted for days.

The volcano has been burping gases at an increased rate since sometime after Christmas, and there has been a lot of small earthquake activity around Cook Inlet in that time. Last Saturday we had a 6.1 magnitude quake, which is a lot stronger than the 1- and 2-magnitude shakers that have been occurring daily, but nothing like the famous Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, which was a 9.2.

If she blows, I'll do my best to get photos.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dog Mushing Season In Full Swing

Dog mushing is the official sport of the state of Alaska. Does any other state have an official sport? Surfing in California, snowshoeing in Maine? If so, I’ve never heard of it. Having a state sport seems to be another way that Alaska is unique.

I have written quite a bit about dog mushing over the years of this blog. You can see all previous posts on mushing by clicking the label at the bottom of this (or any other) post that says Dog Mushing.

Being January, the competitive dog mushing season is well under way and there are sled dog races happening all over the place, pretty much every weekend from New Year’s until March. Competitive mushing generally falls into one of three categories: long distance races of a thousand miles or more, such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest; mid-distance races of two hundred to five hundred miles; and sprint races of less than a hundred miles. There is a fourth category, stage racing, which is a variation of sprinting: teams compete in several consecutive days of sprinting with the winner determined by best overall time.

My favorite has always been the mid- and long distance races. They are as much about strategy, dogcraft, and the musher’s relationship with the team as they are about speed.

Any musher who wants to run the Quest or the Iditarod has to prove his or her ability to manage a dog team over many miles of trail. Both races require rookies to have completed two mid-distance races with an accumulated total of 500 miles; the Iditarod rules further stipulate that the musher must finish the qualifiers in the top 75% of the field or not more twice the elapsed time of the winner.

January abounds with mid-distance races that provide qualifying opportunities for rookies and excellent training opportunities for both rookies and veterans. The Knik 200 was the first weekend in January, won by Ken Anderson. Then came the Copper Basin 300 last weekend, won by the incredible Lance Mackey. This weekend there are the Klondike 300 in Wasilla and the Kuskokwim 300 and the Bogus Creek 150 in Bethel. Next weekend will be the Tustumena 200, not far from Kenai.

Following the sport of dog mushing can be a challenge. It isn’t as simple as turning the television on to Wide World of Sports and watching interviews with your favorite mushers interspersed with gorgeous shots of dog teams traveling through jaw-dropping scenery. The Iditarod has become well known enough to garner some television attention, but that’s about it. Otherwise you have to be present for the races or follow them on the internet; almost all have websites and post photos, video clips and commentary. This requires more knowledge of the sport, as there is no commentator explaining things.

The Alaskan dog racing season so far this year has been beset with incredible weather challenges. First we had a high pressure cell take up residence over most of the state, bringing record-setting low temperatures that stayed what seemed like forever. It was -56 degrees around Fairbanks for three weeks, -65 degrees about a hundred miles north of Fairbanks, and even southerly Kenai had -33 degrees. It is difficult—if not impossible—to do much dog training in that kind of cold.

Then, as so often happens in Alaska in the winter, our prayers to warm up (just a little!) were answered by a visitation from the Pineapple Express (known other places as a Chinook, a Santa Ana, a Fohn), the warm, dry wind which comes in and changes everything. Be careful what you ask for! Kenai is now at +38 degrees, with rain, slush, and melting everywhere. Fairbanks was +50—more than a hundred degree change in a few days.

You might think we’d be so happy for a break from that deep, deep cold that anything warmer would be better. Well, we are, and not to get too picky here, but staying ten degrees below freezing is far preferable. Rain in the winter sucks. The world turns into an ice rink and every step outdoors risks busting your ass.

And where before it was too cold to train dogs, now it is too warm. Sled dogs get overheated from working in these temperatures, so only short runs are possible.

Colder temperatures have been predicted for this weekend, so hopefully we’ll be back to our ideal winter range of single positive digits. Zero to ten above is just perfect.

The Kuskokwim 300 and Bogus Creek 150 were supposed to start Friday in Bethel, but have now been postponed until Sunday in the hope of dropping temperatures and improved trail. Forty degrees and raining earlier this week made a mess of everything. My weather genie tells me that today it is +10 and sunny in Bethel, so things hopefully will improve enough for tomorrow’s start.

As usual, many of the well-known professional mushers are in Bethel for K-300: Jeff King, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Ed Iten, Mitch Seavey, Hugh Neff, Aaron Burmeister. The K-300 has one of the largest purses in mid-distance racing: a total of $100,000, with the winner taking $20,000. Finishing in the top 20 means being “in the money” and this year there are 16 teams registered. That means the Red Lantern (last place) will take $2,300 just for making it around the course. Worth the difficulties of getting a dog team to Bethel.

I will probably post updates and comments here as I am inspired to do so. If you want a broader and more reliable info-stream, go to Sled Dog Central. They keep up with everything involving dog-powered sports.

Photo of musher and dog team by The Tundra PA.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snowy Moose

This morning I was out sweeping snow off the front porch when I noticed movement in the woods just across the small road in front of the house; a moose cow stepped slowly out of the trees and stood browsing the twigs and small branches at the edge of the road. I moved quietly to a bench near the door, sat down slowly and kept very quiet and still, hoping she wouldn’t notice me there. She was about fifty feet away. Moose don’t have great eyesight, but their hearing is quite acute. An old Native American saying is that if a leaf falls in the forest, Eagle sees it, Bear smells it, and Deer hears it. Moose is the largest member of the Deer family, and those big ears tell you that they don’t miss much, sound-wise.

When I sat down, she stared in my direction for a moment, munching and waiting. I barely breathed. Detecting no threat, she continued walking and stripping bark and twigs from the trees. I cursed the fact that my camera was inside the house.

She slowly crossed the road and walked directly towards me, peering in my direction frequently. She was now about thirty feet away. While her back was turned to me, I slipped in the house and grabbed the camera. The movement did not scare her and when I came back she had not moved far; I was able to shoot a few photos as she continued her peramble of the yard for several more minutes. Then she disappeared back into the trees.

The Alaskan moose is the largest of the species, and this one was a beautiful big animal. The bark she was stripping was about eight feet off the ground. There is something almost magical about being so close to such a large wild creature.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Warmer At Last!

This morning Dutch and I awoke to a welcome sight: the thermometer was reading a warm and toasty +18 degrees! And we got about an inch of fresh snow overnight--to frost the two feet that have been around for weeks--so everything looks clean and white, like a storybook winter. The air smells moister and it is great to be outside. The dogs feel it too; they want to romp and play instead of running back inside to the woodstove. After weeks of 20 to 30 below zero, this is divine!

While it was still Very Cold, I took this photo of the river with the fog moving down it just before sunset. It seemed worth sharing.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Getting Close

About noon yesterday the sky began to cloud up and the wind to blow. "Change is comin'!" I thought. Hooray! By mid-afternoon our thermometer almost said zero, and wow, was it feeling warm. I went out for armloads of wood to feed the woodstove without even wearing a jacket.

Yesterday Yahoo News had an article about this hard cold snap throughout Alaska since Christmas. They said it was the third most severe period of winter weather in the recorded weather history of Alaska. I wish they'd mentioned what took first and second place.

My last thermometer check at 10:30 last night still said almost zero, and I was hopeful that we were on the way back up to the +20s for a nice rest from this bitter intensity of cold. Alas and alack! This morning we are back down to 21 below zero. But hey, that's better than 31 below! Two steps forward, one step back.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Enough Already!

Cold. Damn cold. Freezin’ ass cold (or FAC as Dutch, the retired Coast Guard Captain calls it). It was minus thirty-three degrees again this morning, as it was yesterday and the day before, plus or minus a few. It is as cold here as Fairbanks, and colder than Bethel! Where’s my maritime influence, for Pete’s sake? I don’t mind a quick dip into Really Cold—a few days, maybe a week. It’s been about three weeks since we last saw zero, and life is taking a beating for it.

The water pipes to the kitchen sink (on an outside wall) have been frozen off and on for two weeks. With a space heater on high under the sink, the pipes would thaw every few days, for a few hours, and then refreeze. I was hauling a five gallon bucket of water from the garage for dipping next to the kitchen sink.

On Saturday, for no known reason, all the electrical outlets in the kitchen lost power. Including the refrigerator. OK, drag out the coolers, freezer stuff to the front porch (no lack of freezing capacity there), refrig stuff to the garage. Turn garage thermostat down to 48 from 58, pour 3” of water in second cooler, set outside to freeze (two hours), then pack refrig stuff in with a thermometer and keep next to the car. OK, this works for a hopefully very few days.

On Sunday water returned to the kitchen sink about 3 pm. I had the faucets on so I'd know if water started flowing, and promptly turned them off. About 5 pm I heard water flowing somewhere. All water points in the house were off and dry. Not good. I opened the back door to the loud sound of water, not running but gushing. A six foot strip of wall under the kitchen sink looked like Niagara Falls. OMGOMGOMG!

I ran back in and turned off the water valves under the kitchen sink, which was dry. Of course, no change. I could hear it outside, gushing away and freezing into a rapidly-growing ice fall. I had no idea where the main water valve to the house is. What to do, what to do? I didn’t know anyone to call, Dutch was in Texas. And then another dread thought. The water is not all going outside the house.

Eeeewwwwwww, the basement. I had never been down there. The landlady retained possession of it, to store incredible quantities of junk. And a few weeks ago, Bear, the mighty hunter, killed a mouse that got into the house as it was trying to escape under the door to the basement (since stuffed with a draft puppy). I had no idea what I would find down there, and did not want to look.

The rickety stairs had my attention more than the low beam over the steps and I cracked my head good on the way down, which did not help anything. Despite the stars, I got to the bottom of the steps; at least it was well lit. And yes, water was pouring down the inside of the concrete wall, spraying cardboard boxes of junk, and standing about an inch deep in a widening circle on the floor. Boxes were stacked against the wall three deep and six feet high with various camping gear thrown on top. I could just see a water valve at the ceiling level; there was no way to get to it until I moved all the gear and boxes.

It went faster than I thought; adrenalin is an amazing thing. Once the wall was clear, the valve was still about five feet above my head and there was no ladder or step stool around. I finally found a chair under some other stuff and, standing on it, was barely able to reach the valve. It worked. The flood stopped. And what a beautiful silence followed.

I spent Monday calling plumbers and electricians. The plumber came Tuesday and said the hot water pipe to the kitchen sink was not just cracked; a three foot section of it was shattered. He replaced hot and cold pipes both, moved them further away from the outside wall, and recommended not closing the cabinet doors to the space under the sink when it is this cold. So I have running water in the kitchen again, and at this temperature, consider it pretty much of a miracle.

The electrician was to have come today, but now it will be tomorrow. At $75/hr, I’d rather wait another day than pay overtime. I’m just glad they can come this week. The frozen food is NOT a problem. And now I have no excuse to put off scrubbing out the refrigerator.

Everyone I see has a look of dogged determination about getting through this cold snap. And nearly everyone has heard that “it’ll only be a few more days” until we get back to our more normal temperatures of +10 to +20F. They said it last week and the week before. It has to come true eventually. The crystal blue sky outside doesn’t give me hope that it will be tomorrow, but maybe by the weekend. I’m ever the optimist.

Photos by The Tundra PA: sunrise on Mt. Redoubt, 10:20 AM; and moose at sunset, 3:56 pm. Are you tired of moose pictures yet?


Saturday, January 03, 2009


When I awoke dark and early—well, dark anyway; it was nearly 8 AM—the deck thermometer cruelly told me that it was -30F outside. Yeah, minus thirty! That’s pretty darn cold. That’s when your nostrils slam shut and your hands go numb in about three minutes, despite gloves. I gave a silent thanks to the furnace gods for a warm house to wake up in.

No running water in the kitchen again (it came back yesterday for a few hours) and now the downstairs toilet’s water line is frozen. It will flush, it just won’t fill; so I have to do it manually with pitchers of water from the tub. Four pitchers per flush—I’m back to the Bethel maxim “when it’s yellow, it’s mellow”.

By mid afternoon we had warmed up to -12F, which actually felt quite noticeably softer and warmer. It is not painful to breathe once you get above minus twenty. Our perception of cold really is relative, and it doesn’t take long to reset your definition. Once we get back to zero it will feel balmy.

I was able to take some photos of the front yard where the moose have been visiting. The sign is cast iron, a Christmas gift from Dad and Stepmom. This yard is the perfect place for it. The moose have said so.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

When the alarm woke Dutch and me at 5 AM, the thermometer on our deck read minus 25 degrees F. The sky was crystal clear, inky black and full of stars. This cold snap has lasted for a week, holding the big dump of snow we received in last weekend’s blizzard, and also causing our pipes to freeze up. I’m getting used to the sound of a space heater running underneath the kitchen sink.

The reason for such an early rising on New Year’s Day was to get Dutch to the airport. His plane left at 6:30 for a twelve-hour trip to Texas to spend a long weekend visiting with his boys. He hasn’t seen them in two years, and is really looking forward to spending time with them.

Younger Son, now 27 years old and in Special Forces training in the Army, got married just before Christmas. Dutch had plane tickets to be there, but Mother Nature had other ideas. His flight out on winter solstice never even left Kenai (but not cancelled until after a two hour wait at the airport), and after we saw the news reports of hundreds of travelers stranded in Seattle, we were just glad he was not one of them.

He was disappointed to miss the wedding, but glad he was able to reschedule the trip before Younger Son returns to his Army base to resume training next week. Older Son is also around; he is in his last year of law school, and just finishing Christmas break as well. Older Son and his wife (who is also a PA!) are currently in training for a triathlon; Dutch just laughed when I asked if he would go run/bike/swim with them.

It will be a quick trip—he’ll be home early Tuesday. At least he was able to pack light. It’s seventy-something degrees there. Hope his blood doesn’t get thin. We might make it above zero by then. And maybe have running water in the kitchen.