Archive for April, 2012

AK Ingenue: A change of perspective

Written by leehart on April 26th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

In high school I went through a phase where it seemed the more openly I expressed my dislike for a boy the more inevitable it was to find myself on a date with him months later. Such is my latest love story from Alaska.

Like most backcountry ski enthusiasts, the noise and smell of snow machines – or dirt bikes in the summer – feels like an intrusion on the peace and tranquility earning your turns brings. I’ve chimed in with my ski partners in grumbling about the stench and cacophony of the machines and our self-righteous presumptions about the political leanings and world views of the riders.

So it is with no small measure of wry irony that I find myself saying this out loud: I want one. I really do. So much so that I’ve been asking opinions of horsepower and track sizes, brands and even model years. I am not the first nor do I expect to be the last backcountry greenie to be lured to the dark side that is mechanized access to the mountains. I have two girlfriends who want one too, making next year’s rookie class of snow machine riders estrogen dominant.

skidoo Valdez AK

While I consider myself an environmentally conscious outdoor enthusiast, I have always also been a very practical person. Snow machines are a very practical tool in Valdez.In the same time it takes to heroically skin in for one or two descents you can zoom deep into the range and score multiple steep completely pristine lines.

You can double a buddy or at least be a better ski partner if you own or at least know how to pilot a snow machine. You can come and go when and where you want, unrestricted by other people’s schedules and logistics.

You can free your back, strap the packs, skis and boards to the machine. Snow machines create other aches and pains that can be more intense than the fatigue that come from being your own porter.

From what I can tell, you don’t just buy a snow machine, you adopt a vocation. The machines have a tendency to be a bit hard on parts so the better you can get at repairing them yourself the lower the cost of operation. Crystal balls says one of my new friends next year will likely be a snow machine mechanic. Of course there are the other necessities of snow machine ownership like a trailer and car sturdy enough to tow it, or an old pickup truck.

Even though the leaning curve can be steep, expensive and painful, like the boys I once thought there’s no way I’d date, I find myself gearing up for first relationship with a snow machine.









AK Ingenue: All You Need

Written by leehart on April 21st, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Tucked in the woods beyond the end of the road in quiet little neighborhood at the base of Thompson Pass, my friend built a little house that is a model of harmonizing with your surroundings. Built of seemingly equal parts wood and so much glass it feels more like a fishbowl, the log two-story house both melds with and celebrates its surroundings. Walk up the snow machine track that is the driveway to the north side of the house and step aboard the short gangplank for the final few steps to the front door.

Stomp the snow off your shoes, open the door and you are instantly enveloped in the living area. Light and airy, the blond logs are as as structural as they are artistic, supporting the giant picture windows on all four sides of the house that don’t so much frame the mountains just beyond his little slice of forest as make you feel at one with the viewscape. To the right, cushion-covered and bookended with pillows the cozy practical bench seat is hinged to provide storage underneath, the lone log table topped with locally quarried and smoothed stone. Sit up to eat or put your back to the wall and stretch out your legs to lounge and gaze out the windows and let your mind unwind. A couple bar stools accommodate a few more friends for dinner or can be shoved out of the way for space efficiency.  A small electric heater backs up the wood stove that keeps the house toasty. Just enough strategically placed lights are handy for cooking, reading, computer time while also creating a soft, welcoming glow for visitors approaching at night.

In the kitchen, tapestry reminders of travels afar conceal kitchenwares, cleaning supplies and dry goods. Pots and the tea kettle on top the stove are kept topped off with water. There’s running water, though not in the traditional sense. Though you can drink straight from it, for cooking and cleaning purposes, my friend hauls buckets of water from the pristine creek at the base of a small waterfall he can see out his kitchen window. A compact under-the-counter refrigerator keeps a couple days worth of produce fresh, with room for other perishables and condiments; beer can stay outside the front door naturally refrigerated.

Heat rises eliminating the need for a second heating unit in the sleeping/yoga room at the top of a short climb up a wood ladder with handhold cutouts on the stringers. Built-in floor to ceiling wood shelves make it easy to quickly see, grab, dress and go. More windows and a glass door invite you to step out onto the small deck to inhale the pine-scented forest and, depending on the day, lets the sun caress your face, wind comb your hair, snowflakes kiss your cheeks, raindrops freshen your face.

Perched on pilings, underneath the house itself keeps chopped wood dry, snow off the hot tub and weather off the chef as he grills the catch of the day on the small travel size Weber. Copper Valley Wireless and an air card keep him connected to friends, family, news and business near and far.

Minimalist, efficient, easy on resources, and positively humming with good energy, though it may seem a bit too rustic for most folks, in so many ways, I think it’s just perfect.

Best little outhouse in Valdez AK

Giant picture windows and space heaters make for a pimpy reading room



AK Ingenue: Graybird Day Option

Written by leehart on April 13th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Chugach, Prince William Sound, sea kayaking, ValdezPrince William Sound, Valdez, ChugachSea Kayaking, Prince William Sound, Valdez, ChugachPrince William Sound, Chugach, Valdez, Unbeaten Path Adventures in Prince William Sound

In Valdez, there are mostly two genres of weather: jaw dropping beautiful Bluebird Days and the complete opposite – Graybird Days. I have been spared the Hellacious Wind Days when the winds crest upwards of 160 mph for days on end. So one of the best things to do in rainy weather has always been kayaking so I called my friend Josh McDonald to see if he was game to go for a paddle. Josh runs a multi-day kayak tour company called Unbeathen Path Adventures. He’s a wicked good snowboarder and snowboard instructor and an avid paddler, sailor and like so many people here, entrepreneur. Mereidi, nursing a pre-surgical injured ACL, joined us. We girls paddled tandem. Word on the street was that there’d been a whale fiesta in the sound. That word started with Josh actually, who had taken some heliski clients out for a casual tour around the Sound (Prince William Sound) on a recent Graybird Day and came across a herd of whales loitering around. My friend Scott Hocking with Chugach Coastal Cruising had seen a fin whale a couple days previously so I was hopeful we’d see some giant sea mammals. Alas, like my luck with snow, northern lights and wildlife viewing, the whales, along with virtually every other kind of wildlife that frequents these parts, took the day off. No porpoises either, just a lone sea otter.




AK Ingenue: One Step Further Away

Written by leehart on April 5th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

As I gaze out the window at snow-capped mountain-ringed Prince William Sound, the impending debut of Google’s sci-fi glasses gives rise to conflicting reactions: James Bond cool vs. obnoxious, handy vs. intrusive, useful vs. detrimental. The “glasses” set to debut later this year stream a steady flow of info – inputs and your responses to them – in front of your eyes essentially acting like a nosy personal assistant on your shoulder or, quite literally, in your face in this case. Check out the Mashable post and watch the short video to better and quickly understand this new sci-fi technology.

The glasses have a certain Jetsons vibe to them but I worry that as all the little pop-ups and messages flash in front of my face I may bump into more things – people good, light poles bad. Will I love them so much I never want to take them off – cool if they could record dreams, though that’s undoubtedly a long way off.  Will all the input just turn into annoying foreground noise? People are already abusive enough with cell phones, answering calls and texting at restaurants or other face-to-face meetings, how much more distracted will they become with glasses that turn up the volume on our already always-on multitasking society? Will such glasses improve my life or just distance me even further from real life connections to people, surroundings, happy coincidences and chance encounters. Undoubtedly more useful in urban settings, would they be of any use or would I even want them if I was in the middle of nowhere or the end of the road in an outpost like Valdez.

Can they smell the roses?

Whether in some far flung corner of the world, here in Valdez, or deep in a national park closer to home in the Lower 48, any place where the raw environment demands undivided attention, the senses become re-connected and recharged. It is liberating and humbling to re-focus on the rhythms, mysteries and instincts that most of we residents of First World nations have long since forgotten yet peoples of Third World countries are often so much more intimately knowledgable. Living in harsh or extremely fragile environments, as well as more privileged pursuits like blue water sailing, climbing unnamed peaks, or backpacking deep into the wilderness, heightens awareness of the signals around you and can profoundly change your priorities.

Here in southeast Alaska, if the storm is coming from the Bering Sea it will be an entirely different experience than if it’s coming up the Pineapple Express from Hawaii or any other directions. The clouds, wind direction and temperature changes all offer clues to what’s in store. Internet technology and color-coded satellite imagery grant access to dozens of weather cams to help estimate the expected arrival and intensity of the approaching storm.

People in more remote places as well as folks like farmers who are more rooted to the earth are more keenly attune to whether the harbingers of seasonal change are earlier or later than usual – the annual fall rut, the return of the robins, the sprouting of crocuses, changing of the leaves – and other hints on what’s in store for the coming season.

The courses and livelihoods of sailors and fishermen are intrinsically tied too other ocean factor like tides, currents and the life cycles and migration habits of various species of fish and sea mammals. Though modern telemetry and GPS takes a lot of the guesswork out of navigation at sea, the best mariners as well as airmen can, when the electronics fritz out or fail as electronics invariably do, rely on good old-fashioned celestial navigation like their predecessors from long ago times.

Here at the intersection of small town America and impossibly vast stretches of wilderness I have become keenly aware that I and my fellow humans are decidedly not at the top of, but rather part of, the food chain, a Scooby snack for needs-driven predators with no conscience or discrimination between the different options for fresh meat on the hoof. On the way back from our ski tour above the Shoup Glacier the other day, we spotted fresh bear tracks following the skin track we’d put in a couple short hours earlier. We scanned the terrain around us. Maybe the bear was waiting for us at the cabin or perhaps licking its lips while watching from a lair we couldn’t see.

A few short days after arriving, the Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, put on a spectacular display though sadly, I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the vicinity who missed it. The next day, a friend turned me onto the Aurora Forecast app that helps predict the arrival of the ethereal light show and while the forecast was good I still missed it, though not for lack of getting up every few hours and stepping outside to try to catch it. Technology has never been an antidote to bad timing or luck.

Improvisation, creativity and resourcefulness are valued traits and even key to survival for anything from car and home repairs to cooking, clothing and even those times, more prevalent than in the Lower 48, when even the most innocuous outing turns suddenly and unexpectedly desperate.

In places like this, ignoring your gut instinct can cost you your life.

So where do Google goggles and other such tech in the pipeline fit into the big picture? Though not their intended target market, would or could Google goggles be of any use to less technologically conjoined communities like indigenous tribes in the Amazon, a drought-stricken family on the brink of existence in sub-Sahara Africa or a nomadic herder on the Mongolian steppe? As mom and solo traveler Darcey wrote:  “My time on the steppe gave me a feeling of freedom that was unusual and healing. The girl in me who still lives with the upturned cardboard box as an end table doubly appreciated that freedom . . . In Mongolia, I found everything I sought for myself: peace, quiet, stunning beauty, and a way of life that persists doggedly in the modern world, despite an increasingly vulnerable environment.”

I’m sure the goggles will sell well and be embraced by urban hipsters and high rollers. Such products will likely increasingly become an intrinsic part of daily life, especially once future iterations make them smaller and less obtrusive. Wistfully, I would argue that Google goggles are yet another gadget taking us yet another step further from primal connections to people, animals, and all the natural drama, force and beauty of nature that are already available to us if we just make space to tune into them by filtering out some of the modern noise we’ve collectively come to accept as essential to our lives but really isn’t. For that, I guess we still will have to have the self-discipline to unplug, turn off the electronics from time to time and get out there and, in a manner of speaking, run naked and connect with the wild again. Even less poetically, how many happy coincidences and chance encounters will we miss out on by being guided by our goggles.

Ultimately, as Forbes noted in their tongue and cheek pro/con review about how Google goggles will and won’t revolutionize life, love or hate them, there’s no turning back; the future is only a matter of time.



AK Ingenue: Twas the Night Before Tailgate

Written by leehart on April 4th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Cody Freitag, Tailgate Alaska, Thompson Pass, Valdez AK

"Cowboy" Cody Freitag

Tailgate Alaska started Sunday up on Thompson Pass. The 12-day festival features snow-science and survival education, sled-riding and sled-maintenance clinics, side events, live concerts, vendors, beer garden and parties – official and heaps of unofficial camp parties – throughout the duration. I looked through the list of sponsors and can’t tell who the beer sponsor is but if the parking lots are any indicator, it should be a tossup between Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rainier.

The day before Tailgate started my friend Kate and I got a leisurely start on the day and headed up to the Pass in uncertain weather. It was gloomy in town and the collection of webcams from around the area were not painting an encouraging picture but frequently, as was the case Saturday, weather in Valdez is entirely different than on the Pass. Just as we arrived under party sunny skies, Cowboy Cody, who’d stood us up a week earlier, called to say he was at the Pass and offering us a sled bump. Cody Freitag is a Valdez local and one talented snow machine rider. His rig is fast and powerful and Cody is young and fearless and knows how to make his machine carve and charge. Which all combine for a scare-you-shitless maiden voyage for two virgin sled bumpers.

We went out to the base of Nick’s together. Kate and her board rode on the saddle in front of Cody while I towed behind. This was good. It slowed Cody down but heated up his snow machine. So he dropped me and Kate’s board and then took my unsuspecting friend on a cool-down ride which involved cutting doughnuts in the snow at an alarmingly fast rate. While her voice was muffled it was clear enough Kate was a little unnerved . And then, perhaps not used to donoughting while doubling, the sled tipped over and slid to a rather abrupt stop on its side. If Cody was trying to impress Kate, this was not the way to do it.

Properly dusted off and righted, Cody and Kate returned to where he’d left me and Kate’s board, picked up the board then whisked away toward Berlin Wall, popping wheelies and arcing high speed carves. It looked scary. Then it was my turn and I got to discover what riding a snow machine on the edge of control felt like. Holding my skis and poles across my lap with one hand while holding onto the steering column with my free hand. I wished desperately that I had both hands on the machine and wondered if Cody understood how close those skis could be to catching and being wrenched from my hands if he leaned the machine over far enough that they could grab a bite into the snow. Going fast and steeply up made me slide toward the rear of the saddle, Kate was sure she was inches from falling off entirely. By the time I arrived, Kate had been able to shake off most of the after-effect of sheer terror. Knowingly, she gave me time to do the same before we started our descent. We had been scared shitless. We were both certain we had just flirted with and miraculously cheated Death.

Once we dropped off the wind packed ice at the top of the knoll, we had some nice turns down the face before the gray set in and created vertigo-inducing flat light. Flat light on a wide open snow slope tricks the brain into wondering whether you’re skiing up ordown, left or right, off a cliff into oblivion or about to slam onto a flat road, there was just no telling. You can’t see a thing. The usual resort trick of skiing near trees doesn’t work on the wide open snow slopes of the Chugach. There are no trees. The best I could do was pick up the tracks of the folks before us and parallel those. Thankfully I had skied this slope once before and was relatively certain there weren’t any unavoidable death-defying obstacles.

Cody was waiting for us at the bottom and gave us a ride back to camp, saving us a long slog. Once back, Kate and I decided the best way to prep for a possible second sled bump with Cody was to fully embrace the moment and our surroundings. We also had a decision to make. head down to town to change and come back up or just stay up at the Pass and ask Kate’s friends to bring us some jeans.

Tailgate AK, Thompson Pass, Valdez AK

They don't call it Tailgate Alaska for nothing

We made the eco-decision to stay and not burn more gas driving up and down the pass (about 30 miles each way). We made the eco-choice and rather than burn all that expensive gas (4.35/gal) opened up the rear hatch of Kate’s car, popped a couple tall boys and got into the spirit of Tailgate.

Emboldened by PBR, we went to visit our neighbors down the road where we’d seen some kiters. We didn’t find kiters but we did find a crew homesteading a deluxe encampment using shovels to carve deluxe built-in snow couches and a high-rise igloo alongside another buddy’s homey car/utility trailer home the entire back end of with was consumed by a king-size wood frame bed.

Mark shows us the grand entryway

We left the not-kiters before fully wearing out our welcome and wandered back toward Tailgate

Tailgate AK, Valdez AK, Chugach Range, Thompson Pass

Kicking back in the deluxe ice couch with Jay & Blake

base to say hi to a couple girlfriends who introduced us to more friends at Alaska Backcountry Adventures (ABA). Flitting about this way, comparing notes on the cute boys we were

Tailgate AK, Valdez Ak, Chugach

Taking the tour of the deluxe trailer digs

meeting, laughing and staying on the move, we were able to whittle away at the hours until the music started at the Tsaina Lodge at 9. But as the sun set in the Chugach, like any other mountain range,

the temperatures drop precipitously so we headed to the Tsaina about an hour before the band started mostly because it was warm there. We pulled into the lot at just about the same time as some friends had driven up from town with two pairs of jeans, one for Kate and one for me so we didn’t have to geek out in ski pants all night long.

We went to the Tsaina’s spacious and clean women’s bathroom to change and freshen up. The heat was sublime. We then went back outside to where some friends gathered around a raging pit fireplaces. The heat was sublime there too. We ate reindeer sausage sandwiches, a novelty, not to mention an absolute at only $4 each. Definitely the best food deal in Valdez. After more mingling around the fire we adjourned to the inside bar and quickly staked out space at the fireplace in the Tsaina’s Great Room where our friends gathered round us.

Tsaina Lodge, live music, 33 degrees

Ric Nielsen, left, is joined by cool stepdad Bruce Good

On stage, Ric Nielsen and his stepdad Bruce Good laid down some fine acoustic tracks as it started to snow outside. The snow created a beautiful backdrop. Lots of folks drove up from Valdez for the party. Some were friends I’d already met since moving here, Kate introduced me to some more, we had drinks, made even more friends, had more drinks and generally having a big time.


Whitewater Park Builders Team with Teen Kayak Champ

Written by leehart on April 4th, 2012. Posted in Biz Buzz

Innovators in whitewater course design see synergy with athlete who is writing new chapters in the evolution of whitewater

Triple World Whitewater Kayak Champion Dane Jackson

Dane Jackson photo by Corey Rich Photography

Lyons, CO – RapidBlocs, a division of S2o Design and Engineering, has signed Dane Jackson to an exclusive partnership as both seek to influence the future of whitewater kayaking.

Olympian and World Champion Scott Shipley, founder, president and lead engineer of S2o Design, believes the synergy between his company and Jackson is natural. “We’re a next-generation whitewater park design firm and no one more than Dane represents the next generation of whitewater paddlers,” Shipley said.

Shipley has known the Jackson family since he and Dane’s father, four-time freestyle kayak World Champion Eric Jackson were teammates on the 1992 US Olympic Slalom squad.  Shipley has known him since Dane Jackson was a baby and has watched closely for the past 18 years as Jackson not only followed in but, at times, eclipsed his famous father’s footsteps.

“Dane is young, exciting, fun to watch and able to accomplish things in a boat that could not have been imagined just a few short years ago,” Shipley said, what better way to ensure our parks are pushing the edge of the design envelope than to design to the needs of Dane Jackson.” Dane won three gold medals at last year’s ICF Freestyle World Championships and a few weeks later, swept up three more Golds at the USA Canoe Kayak National Championships.

For his part, Jackson will serve as an ambassador for S2o and the company’s proprietary RapidBlocs system, developed with European partner EPD. RapidBlocs is the world’s first three-dimensional, moveable obstacle system that enables whitewater course managers to easily shift the configuration of the blocks to change the hydrology of the course, thus keeping it versatile and fresh for years after initial construction. RapidBlocs first deployment is at the site of the London 2012 Olympic Slalom Course.

Jackson said he believes S2o has the ability to help move whitewater paddling forward by designing innovative whitewater courses and river parks that will make learning and training more accessible to more aspiring paddlers.

Shipley believes signs are pointing to a future where there is more crossover between slalom and freestyle.  Two relatively new events including the fledgling T’Ville Triple Crown in New England, the two-year-old Invitational Whitewater Grand Prix in Canada, and a couple whitewater festivals in Europe combine slalom times and freestyle points among other events to determine an overall winner.

Shipley added that more and more clients, notably including those seeking to host future World Championships and Olympiads, are asking for freestyle features to be incorporated into whitewater course designs.

Ultimately, both Shipley and Jackson dream of a future when the International Olympic Committee designates freestyle as an Olympic discipline. Currently, only Canoe Sprint and Canoe Slalom are Olympic disciplines.

ABOUT S2o DESIGN. Founded in 2003 by Scott Shipley, S2O Design prides itself on innovative and holistic approaches to whitewater park design that ensures clients get a park that meets all their economic, environmental and recreational objectives.  Committed to reinventing whitewater, S2O is the only design firm that has developed patented solutions that make whitewater parks easier and more profitable to operate as well as more enjoyable for whitewater enthusiasts of all skill levels. For more information, visit the S2o Design website.

ABOUT DANE JACKSON. Hailing from the First Family of Whitewater, Dane Jackson has been heralded by some as the future of the sport. The holder of numerous National Championship titles and World Championship medals, in 2011, Jackson became the first person to ever medal in all four freestyle disciplines in a World Championship with Gold in Junior Men’s K-1, Men’s C-1 and Men’s Squirt; Bronze in OC-1. Weeks later, Jackson repeated the feat at the USA Canoe Kayak National Championships, winning Gold in every event except Squirt, which was not offered. Jackson was named US Olympic Committee Athlete of the Month in June. For further information visit Dane’s page at the Jackson Kayak website.