Posts Tagged ‘Valdez’

AK Ingenue: Tweener season

Written by leehart on May 1st, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

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 tern

Arctic Tern

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.

One of the season's first fishing boats unloads at Peter Pan dock in Valdez AK

Commercial fishing gets under way in Prince William Sound.

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.






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.


AK Ingenue: Sticker shock

Written by leehart on March 10th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

I’ve started a list of the things that take my breath away here in Valdez: the stunning scenery – like the Alps on steroids, the cold when the wind blows out of the north, nearly eating it walking on the ice-caoted streets, the steepness and length of the descent and the price of groceries.

This, coming from someone who has lived in Telluride where I remember audibly gasping at the price of butter the first time I went to the Village Markup, as the Market is called by locals, to buy groceries. My roommates in Revelstoke thoughtCooper’s the lone grocery option in town was price gouging, and prices were steep. But Telluride, Revelstoke, Hawaii and New Zealand are bargains compated to Valdez.

Not only are the prices high but the breadth of selection and depth of quality are just depressing. Tuesdays are tragic. The delivery truck comes in Tuesday night. You could diet and save money at the same time if you committed to shopping only on Tuesdays. Wednesday’s a different story. Fresh and different produce arrives and is priced on the shelves priced .

Thankfully,there is a health food store. Rogues’ Garden on Fairbanks St., that has a pretty decent selection of groceries but again the prices are just silly high. I stood  a long time deciding how badly I wanted to make homemade Hummus as my mind reeled at the $11.95 price tag for a 16 ounce jar. It went against my savvy shopping instinct. I put the jar in my basket then put it back on the shelf twice before deciding that this was simply a new grocery reality I’d have to buck up and pay. Still, by far, THE most expensive jar of tahini I’ve ever purchased.

Welcome to Valdez.




AK Ingenue: Riding the School Bus

Written by leehart on March 9th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Moonlight Basin, Thompson Pass, Valdez, AKJosh McDonald, Alison Sayer, Moonlight Basin, Thompson Pass, Valdez AKAlison Sayer, Moonlight Basin, Thompson Pass, Valdez AKThe view from Moonlight Basin, Thompson Pass, Valdez AK

Pictured from left to right: The Ingenue, Josh and Alison, Alison, the view

It was a spectacular day in Valdez on my grandma’s birthday this week. As far as the eye could see it was blue. In Valdez, when the going goes blue, the skiers get going.

Blue days like this are so incredibly beautiful they should be a local holiday. But today, the kids were in school and I was on my way to the School Bus on Thompson Pass. Thompson Psss has a reputation for lots of snow. Wikipedia claims is “the snowiest place in Alaska.” With good reason. In the winter of 1952–1953, 974.5 inches of snow fell—the most ever recorded in one season at one location in Alaska.[2] The pass also holds the Alaska record for the most snow in a single day: 62 inches fell on December 29, 1955. This year is on track to break the records.

It was only my second time on the pass so I was grateful that veterans Alison and Josh were kind enough to let me tag along. Multi-talented Alison does a lot of things, like being a  nanny, a researcher, a substitute teacher and heading up the kitchen at the Wrangell Mountains Center in MCarthy in the summer. Josh lives on his 27-foot sailboat in Valdez Harbor and guides multi-day sea kayak tours in the summer through his company Unbeaten Path Sea Kayaking.

There’s a lot of choices of places to go around skiing around Valdez so the hardest part of our morning was settling on a place to go. Brand new to the area, I was just happy to be along and listened and tried to learn as Alison and Josh debated various routes as we toddled up the Richardson Highway in Alison’s little red Subaru. The passenger side window was frozen half open and the suspension is missing in action but the brave little car got us to where we were going and back. Given time constraints and a desire to soak in the sun, the route settled on was to skin up Moonlight Basin, take a look around and then decide the best route to ski down. The skinning wasn’t all that strenuous; we got to the col around Noon. Each of the three of took turns breaking trail although Josh did the lion’s share of setting the track as Alison’s dog Thule bounded along. Aalison kept marveling at our good luck a) there wasn’t anyone else around us on this normally pretty popular route b) there were no snowmobiles c) it wasn’t windy. It was just a perfect day.

Looking at our options from the top of col we agreed to go “up and over” and ski the north facing slope known as School Bus. Made sense to me. The southerly slope we just skinned up was getting getting hit by the sun and the School Bus was in the shade. Looking down at School Bus, it looked wind affected, but looks can be deceiving. The School Bus delivered 3,000 feet of surprisingly soft, easy skiing snow. Sweet and deep!

Under normal circumstances we should have had to hitchhike back to Alison’s car. A pickup truck with a camper shell on the back was parked right where we hit the road and the truck’s kind owner Karen offered to shuttle all three of us and Thule back to Alison’s car. Sweet!




AK Ingenue: Hanging out at the Glacier

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

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice

I tagged along today as the H2o Guides staff  ventured out to practice crevasse rescue. The magnificent Valdez Glacier is on the outskirts of town, just past the airport. In true AK style, we got on our skis and were towed up behind snowmobiles to the practice site. We traveled over a frozen lake to a big iceberg that had a nice vertical wall. Glaciers are alive so the feature we played on today may not be here next season or it may just relocate to another part of the lake. Once the main route miners took inland during the great Gold Rush of the late 1800s, these days this area is a snowmobilers playground. In the summer, local outfitters guide people to this same spot  . . . by boat.

While the guides worked to dig in anchors, prep their lips and set up their mechanical advantages, I took photos. It was a bluebird day at the glacier and bonus: uncharacteristically wind-free. Setting up for a crevasse rescue is tedious business. I got bored and happily volunteered to be the “victim” and get hoisted up the iceberg face. I walked to the base of the ice face with Chris who made sure I got my crampons on, rigged up and a gave me a few pointers about being rescued, namely, help if you can.

I had fun front-pointing on the ice as Mike single-handedly hoisted me up the ice face using a 6:1 mechanical advantage. Cool! Thinking that was fun I volunteered to be a victim again. This time, I was asked to act unconscious. The iceberg wall here was slightly overhanging so I couldn’t front point and walk up the face anyway so “acting” unconscious was easy. I was going to just dangle. After being hoisted a couple dozen feet off the ground my progress stalled. I took pictures of the surrounding scenery. I took pictures of myself. I could eavesdrop on the conversation a couple hundred yards away where Dean was leading the beacon search practice. I was getting dripped on by melting ice from the overhanging wall. I thought about Chinese water torture. It made me remember why ice climbing never held that much appeal. I tucked my camera away to keep it safe from the drips. Clouds started rolling in. I dangled on.

Suspended animation continued. I was tried spinning around for a different view.  I saw Dean look my way then get on his snow machine to come see what was up. After checking out the scene, he yelled down to me what was already pretty obvious, the rope was fouled. So basically, what started as a practice session had turned pretty real. I dangled a while longer. Once the rope situation was finally straightened out, the guys made short work of hoisting me the rest of the way up the ice face.

They thanked me for being a good victim. I’m thinking someone owes me a beer.

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice, sunnier times

Jeremy (on the rope) and Max (on the ground)

Dean Cummings, Valdez Glacier, crevasse rescue practice

Dean Cummings inspects Max's anchor

Valdez glacier, practice crevasse rescue

Aaron hoists solo

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice

Self portrait, hanging out at Valdez Glacier









Introducing: Alaska Ingenue, a Cinderella story

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

Welcome to incomparable Alaska

Welcome to incomparable Alaska

This marks the start of the chronicles of my first adventure in Alaska with my client Dean Cummings’ H2o Guides. I had just barely started to scratch the surface of all the amazing in-bounds, side- and backcountry terrain in Revelstoke and then opportunity knocked and poof, gone! So from a 24-hour drive north of Salida, Colorado I’ve landed norther of Colorado. The goal of AK Ingenue is to share with you what I expect to be an amazing introduction to living, working and  playing Alaska-style. Watch my Facebook page to find out about the next installments where you’ll join me for the full gamut of winter fun including all kinds of skiing, snow machining, ice-climbing, some insider glimpses of the heliski biz and more.

Karen Cummings, Salmonberry sidecountry

Karen Cummings, Salmonberry sidecountry

It’s been a week since I touched down in Valdez thanks to the unflappable piloting skills at Grant Aviation. The day after I landed was a momentous occasion, the official opening day of Salmonberry Ski Hill.  I sprang for the $10 season pass and  joined Dean’s wife Karen, and kids Wyatt and Tesslina – in breaking in the new rope tow.  It’s actually a kind of re-opening since there was a ski hill in the same location in the late ’80’s that’s been dormant until Karen rallied local civic leaders to bring the hill back to life. The four-minute rope tow takes folks 1100 feet to the top of a rolling hill. While Wyatt and Tess did a lap, Karen led me off-piste for a couple fresh turns – literally – a couple.

The next day, I needed to get to town for some shopping – it’s just a 20 minute walk but – but Dean offered to give me a ride. In case you haven’t heard, while many ski areas in the Lower 48 were languishing in drought, Valdez was getting hammered. There’s just under 40 feet of snow in town, about a 100 foot base in the

Yellow Taxi, Valdez style

Yellow Taxi, Valdez style

mountains. Fun to play in, deep snow creates havoc on buildings and roads and big equipment to move it all is a pretty common sight around town so it was little surprise that my commuter vehicle was big and yellow. This past week has been all work work work. So I joined the gym to keep in shape in between ski excursions. Prince William Sound Community College has a public fitness center where you can “rent” nordic ski gear and snowshoes for free which came in handy when I joined Karen and her friend Jen on a quick snowshoe jaunt at Dock Point.

Snowshoe view, Dock Point, Valdez AK

Snowshoe view, Dock Point, Valdez AK

All work and no play, at least no real ski play, was starting to make me and the H2o crew a bit twitchy so when  Dean gave the guys – Ryan, Chad, Paul, Elliot and Max – the day off, we all hopped in a van and headed up to Thompson Pass. Quite the views on the way up and we saw two moose (meese?). The ice in Keystone canyon is amazing.

It was a first in many ways today. Just before leaving Revy, I had transferred my Dynafit bindings from my retired Sugar Daddys to my new sweet, fat H2o Outdoor Gear Kodiak 162’s (120 under foot). Today was their first test drive. I was also test driving new skin technology from Gecko. The skis are amazing and the Gecko’s worked just fine. I’m still dialing in my Scarpa Gea’s which I love because they’re so light and comfy and easy to get in/out of but they’re just a wee bit big for me and it became really clear today I still need to work to fill up some volume and get rid of slop.

Couple o’ quick takeaways from today:

Scale is out of whack here: The terrain is bigger than it looks; it’s colder than it seems.

You can gain an astounding amount of vert in just three hours of skinning.

I need to work toward a bit more graceful steep uphill skin track kick turn.

I can’t wait to go again. It’s dumping right now and expected to do so for the next couple days and taper off by the end of the week.

Sorry about the background noise in the video below. It was a little windy on the saddle.