Posts Tagged ‘Chugach’
Spring has arrived here where the Chugach Mountains spill straight into an arm of Prince William Sound. During this Tweener Season Valdez takes a breather. The streets are deserted, parking lots have emptied, customers in stores and restaurants are few and far between. Hitching rides up and down the Pass will require longer waits and better luck as vehicle traffic, if you could have ever really even called it traffic, thins out to as little as one car or few truck every 20 minutes or more. The lull won’t last long. In about two weeks time the summer parade of RVs come to town. Fish, fishermen and fishing derbies take front and center stage. Summer is far busier here than winter so Tweener season allows time for the locals to recalibrate and recharge for the next wave of visitors.
Springtime in the Rockies has nothing on Springtime in Valdez when it comes to fickle weather which can change dramatically from day to day and even within a day. The morning can break under a thick blanket of clouds and fresh snow up high then get sunny and turn to perfect corn fields at night. The long days this far north mean you can work a full eight-hour day and still have another full day’s worth of light left to play. The other day, we didn’t even start our ski tour until 7:20 p.m. and, though we were cutting it right to the wire, the light lasted until we skied to the road 3 hours later.
Elsewhere there are plenty of other common markers of springtime in North America, the crocuses are poking up through the snow; a random robin flies by.
Arctic terns have returned. A little more than a foot long with a wing span of 26 – 30 inches, these cool little birds are strongly migratory. These terns never deal with darkness as they migrate from their northern breeding grounds along a winding route to the oceans around Antarctica and back always in summer, a round trip of about 44,300 miles each year. According to Wikipedia, Arctic terns win the prize for, by far, the longest regular migration by any known animal.
At the Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn, H2o Guides is packing up its heliski season offices while Stan Stephens Cruises readies theirs for the annual influx of tourists. More than just a glacier cruise, the guides help guests spot a wide array of wildlife – whales, sea lions, puffins, seals, sea otters, eagles, goats, bears and more – and regale visitors with stories about the history of the area. Topics include Alaskan Natives indigenous to the Sound, gold & copper mining, commercial fishing, the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the 1989 Exxon oil spill, and it’s aftermath.
The Robert Magnus showed up today, and while maybe not the very first, it’s the first commercial fishing boat I’ve seen unload at the Peter Pan Seafoods facility across the harbor. Just as the last of the skiers heads out of town, the season’s crop of a couple hundred cannery workers, is trickling into town. Peter Pan processes halibut and black cod in addition to the much prized Copper River Salmon. Next door, Silver Bay Seafoods will open tomorrow for onsite fish sales of the million pounds of mostly salmon and herring they harvest each season. During the five-month season from May through September, the cannery workers live in on-campus dorms steps from the unloading docks, freezing and processing facilities.
Elsewhere around the harbor it’s cool to see signs of life on the docks that rested dormant during the winter. Owners and captains, often one and the same, are returning to get their vessels ship shape for summer. Giant boat lifts keep busy all day long transporting boats from dry dock back into the water.
Geographically speaking Valdez enjoys two unique claims. It is the northernmost port in North America that is ice-free year-round, which is why it is the terminus of the Alaska pipeline. It is also the northernmost point of the coastal Pacific temperate rain forest is in Valdez, at the border with the sub-polar rain forest. I wish I were staying here for at least a taste of summer. My friends tell me the various shades of green that break out here, too numerous to name or count, is when Valdez really shines. I want to venture up into Sawmill Bay State Marine Park where 4000 foot mountains jut straight up from the sea. I want to lose myself kayaking around the icebergs at the mouth of the Columbia Glacier, and I’d definitely like to kick back, maybe do a little yoga session and enjoy the scrumptuous food at the Prince William Sound Lodge in Ellimar.
I’ve only explored a fraction of Valdez which is an even smaller fraction of all that is Alaska but I do know this for sure: I’ll be back.
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.
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.
We left the not-kiters before fully wearing out our welcome and wandered back toward Tailgate
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
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.
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.
Per capita, pound for pound or however you want to measure it, I’d have to say Valdez AK has some pretty awesome outdoor women.
The women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in Valdez are all pretty accomplished, if understated, athletes. They are confident, competent and self-reliant. They are skiers, snowboarders, sailors, climbers, kite boarders, hikers, learners, educators, teachers and friends. Like a lot of other folks here they the love the mountains and the ocean and the way both come together here in Valdez.
Some say I’ve just gotten lucky to fall in with the right crowd. I do feel lucky about that but give all credit to Allison who has introduced me to her friends all of whom make up one pretty cool circle of friends that just keeps rippling outward. I’m finding too that the women attracted here to heliski - sadly the vast minority of heliski clients – could easily fit in with the locals.