Monday, September 24, 2012

Alaska Adventures Part 2 - Exit Glacier and Harding Icefield

From the Better Late Than Never files, below is part two of the report from my adventures in Alaska.

After running the Lost Lake trail race on Saturday and having a good time hanging out at the finish line party stuffing my face and drinking lots of good local beer, I was unmotivated to pursue any additional mountain adventures that afternoon, so I spent the remainder of the day hanging out in and around Seward taking in some of the local culture and admiring the views over the bay.

As I walked around Seward and interacted with the locals and the tourists, I made two interesting observations that defined the primary ways in which I could very easily distinguish between the local townspeople and those people who had just wandered into town off the cruise ship or by way of their rented RV. The first distinguishing factor is that all of the local men in Seward had beards. All of them. Even the male children as young as seven years old had beards, which is impressive. The second observation had to do with the preferred footwear of the locals vs. the tourists. I suspect that Seward must remain submerged under several inches of water, mud, and ice for the majority of the year because all of the locals wore boots, and usually not just plain work boots but heavy duty waterproof rubberized boots that look like they are built for trekking through a swamp. I felt lucky to have avoided the mess of watery muck that would dictate such footwear while walking around town, as all of the streets and sidewalks were at that time clean and dry.

After experiencing all of Seward's best local attractions in an alarmingly short period of time, I made my way back up the Resurrection River a short distance and once again found a great campsite along the river with some great views back down toward the bay.

The weather the past two days had been fantastic, and I was hopeful that this would continue. I checked the weather forecast and found that at exactly 6:00 am the next morning, the clear skies which I had been experiencing were predicted to completely vanish and be replaced by heavy cloud cover and a constant deluge of rain until precisely 6:00 pm the following day, at which time the rain would stop, the clouds would vanish, and the birds would resume their singing as the sunshine once again made itself known. I was skeptical to say the least about the prediction of going from clear skies to 100% chance of rain in almost zero transition time, then returning to clear after exactly 36 hours. I would soon find out that not only is this sort of weather transition possible in southern Alaska, but apparently someone knows how to predict it.

I woke up a couple of times during the night and peeked out from below the tarp that I was camped under and observed the starry sky above me. Still no clouds moving in. Shortly after 5:00 am I woke up and poked my head out once more and could no longer see the stars. Since it was still very dark, I was not yet ready to believe that cloud cover had moved in, so I busied myself with breaking down my camp and getting ready to head out for the day.

By the time I got to the parking lot for the Exit Glacier visitor center, which lies within Kenai Fjords National Park, it was apparent that in fact there was heavy cloud cover that looked to be building rapidly. With only one other car in the parking lot, I knew I would have relative solitude on this usually heavily traveled trail. I climbed up the initial portions of the trail quickly and in short time I began to have some fantastic vantages of the exit glacier running parallel to the trail, as well as the surrounding mountains.

As I climbed higher through alpine meadows just above treeline, a small black bear scampered across the slope above and perched itself on top of a ridge approximately 200 feet above me before ducking out of view. The trail wound up to the top of the ridge to the spot where the bear had been standing, and as I crested the ridge, the bear popped its' head above some rocks a short distance from where I stood, and quickly began bounding down the slope on the opposite side. I had my camera ready and was able to snap one quick picture during the brief moment that the bear was in close proximity.

After descending the opposite side of the ridge, the bear busied itself digging in the tundra for something edible, as can be seen in the lower center portion of the picture below.

As I continued up the slopes and through a talus field, I came across a marmot which was a mixture of tan, gray, and blond in its' coloration, which is something I've never seen before.

Climbing higher, the icefield above the glacier began to come into view. The views opening up in front of me were somewhat overwhelming, as I had never before seen anything as massive and extensive as this sea of ice stretching for miles and miles, filling huge valleys and leaving only the very peaks of the mountains visible above its' surface. Even though I was walking on an established trail only a few miles from a parking lot that is regularly flooded with tourist traffic, I knew that the views unfolding just in front of me were of a truly wild and untamed part of the natural world.

As I began traversing snow fields leading to the edge of the main body of the icefield, the weather continued to deteriorate and began to alternate between misting rain and light snow. At times it was difficult to distinguish between the gray sky and the field of ice below it, with only the dark nunatak peaks providing a clear separation.

Further to the west, the icefield stretched on for many miles until the view was swallowed into the massive gray clouds overhead.

I assumed that the one other vehicle in the parking lot belonged to the owners of this tent, who had one of the greatest camp site views imaginable.

The views from here were beautiful beyond words, and I spent a significant amount of time just observing the intricacies of it all.

As I began venturing back in the direction I had come from, I came across this friendly old mountain goat who was more than happy to pose for a quick photo shoot for me.

As I once again made my way down the trail, the rain and snow became constant and slightly heavier. One last look across the upper glacier and the edge of the icefield, and then I was off down the trail.

I made good time running back down the trail, and enjoyed opening up my stride and letting loose on some of the fast downhill portions. I passed a number of parties who were on their way up as I was descending. By this time the rain was getting heavier, but not to the point as to discourage some of the more ambitious hikers. When I reached the trailhead, there were dozens of bodies walking around under plastic rain ponchos and looking very unhappy about the current state of things. I got a lot of odd looks from the poncho people as I bounded down the trail back to the visitor center, which is something I've become quite used to. I do always feel somewhat sorry for these types of people wandering around under their ponchos who will undoubtedly not get to experience the same things that I've just been a part of, whether due to a lack of motivation, ability, or any other numerous factors. This sort of thought always serves to make me increasingly thankful that I have both the motivation and the ability to experience the types of things that I do, and bolsters my desire to encourage others to pursue the same types of adventure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Alaska Adventures Part 1 - Lost Lake Run Race Report

Staring out the window of the Boeing 737 as rain starts falling at the Denver airport, I can hardly believe that that I'm actually about to depart on this trip I had looked forward to for so long. Alaska has been at the top of my list of places to travel to for as long as I can remember and I was finally about to go there.

This is a CFM56-7 turbofan engine, and it is about to carry me to Alaska.

Usually when I fly, I'm asleep before the plane leaves the ground, despite the miserable sleeping conditions usually found outside of the first class cabin of major airliners. I've always been great at sleeping in uncomfortable places, which is something I'm thankful for. Tonight though, the vibrations and drone of the engines is not enough to overpower the excitement and anticipation going on within me, and I'm forced to stay awake and watch the sun set behind the clouds. It was just terrible.

I was flying up on a Wednesday evening and would race the Lost Lake Run on Saturday, giving me two full days to explore and face every opportunity to tire myself out and ruin myself before the race. I was determined to not waste any of the precious time I had to explore Alaska, but was determined to take Thursday and Friday relatively easy physically so that I could push myself during the race.

Waking up at daybreak Thursday morning, the rain which had been sporadic through the night was now coming down in full force. I thought to myself "The rain should be a great incentive not to do anything too physically demanding today." Half an hour later I was running through the muddy trails of Kincaid Park on the western edge of Anchorage, overlooking the mud flats of the Cook Inlet as the rain continued to fall. As I was making my way back to where I had parked my car, I saw two enormous bull moose grazing in a large field next to the trail about 100 meters from me. This, of course, stopped me dead in my tracks. I've seen bull moose before, but never any this big, and never this close. After watching the moose graze for a few minutes, not seeming to care about my presence, I decided to try to run back to my car to grab my camera and come back to snap a few pictures. The moose didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave that area any time soon so I was hopeful that I had adequate time. Ten minutes later I returned to the same spot in the trail and slowed my pace rapidly to a stop as I spotted one of the moose just a few feet off the trail directly in front of me. I made my way cautiously a little bit closer, then stopped and started snapping pictures. As I did so, the moose continued to graze on the plants on the side of the trail and move slowly toward me, once again unbothered by my presence.

As I attempted to make my cold and wet hands function enough to snap a decent picture of this moose standing not more than 20 meters from me (sorry for the blurry picture; my hands were numb), I heard a rustling in some bushes just below me, and when I turned around I saw the second moose just below me, about 15 meters from where I was standing.

These being urban moose, I expected that they're very used to seeing people which explains why they were so calm in my presence, however I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable as they continued to walk slowly toward me as they grazed. I'm fully convinced that if I had stayed in the middle of the trail the two moose would have passed within a few feet on either side of me and then gone along their way. I wasn't about to test this theory though, and after I was satisfied with the number of pictures I had taken and had let the excitement of the position that I was in sink in a little, I got out of there and made my way back to the car. First adventure of the trip: complete.

After recovering from the excitement and numbness of my cold, rainy run I spent some time completing the boring tasks of grocery shopping for a week in the mountains, going to the Anchorage REI to get some maps and a few forgotten gear items, and checking out downtown Anchorage (which was thoroughly unimpressive). After lunch, I was ready to get out of Anchorage as quickly as possible, so I did just that. I drove south along the Turnagain Arm to a small trailhead, admiring what I could see of the still mostly cloud-covered mountains around me. I hiked a short distance up the trail and found a good place to cook lunch by the creek, which was especially convenient for keeping the essentials nice and cold.

 After eating, I noticed a nice waterfall along the trail below me, and I went down to take a picture of it. This is one of a select few pictures that I took of waterfalls on this trip. The reason is that I quickly discovered that there are far too many waterfalls in Alaska to waste time trying to take pictures of all of them, so generally I didn't bother unless the waterfall was especially spectacular.

 I spent the rest of Thursday exploring some of the areas along the Turnagain Arm. A good bit of this time was spent simply sitting on the shore watching the tide come in. Seeing the bore tide along the arm was a real treat, but even just watching the water churn along the banks and over the mud flats as the tide was rising was pretty spectacular.

I chased a pod of beluga whales up the arm and watched them from several vantages along the highway, then finally watched the sun set over the arm.

Waking up the next morning, the clouds were starting to break up some on the surrounding mountains and the sun began to shine through. The views across the arm were spectacular with the sunlight playing off the mountains and the remnants of the clouds surrounding them.

The drive from my campsite to the Primrose campground along Kenai Lake should have taken about 90 minutes, but instead took over three hours due to the fact that I would drive for 5-10 miles then would have to stop somewhere to admire the views, drive down a side road, stop to get out and walk along a trail for a while just to see what I could see, and of course take countless pictures of all the scenery.

After coming back home and going through all of the photos that I took on this trip, I was amazed at the fact that some of the photos appeared more like a painting under gallery lighting than an actual photograph. All of the pictures in this post were taken with my iPhone, and none of them have been edited in any way. I point this out in order to emphasize the spectacular beauty of the Alaskan scenery and not to boast on my abilities to take a good picture, which is pure coincidence if and when it ever occurs.

I arrived at the Primrose campground, which would be the starting point of the Lost Lake Run the following day, and saw the organizers setting up the starting area as I headed out to scout the first couple of miles of the course. My goal in scouting was primarily to determine which shoes to wear during the race, and I decided that the Inov-8 X-Talon 190s would be the best choice for handling the soft and sometimes muddy trails below treeline. I felt great as I ran along the trails and could hardly wait to be running hard along these sections the next day. I also found some cool looking mushrooms along the trail.
After returning to the campground, I cooked and ate lunch on the banks of Kenai Lake with the backdrop of the mountains to the east providing a perfect setting.
I hung around the shores of the lake for a good two hours just admiring all of the views before driving down to Seward to scout the finish of the race.
Just in case you were wondering if and when I was going to actually talk about the race, the answers are yes, and now.

I woke up Saturday morning and made the short drive from my campsite along the Resurrection River to the fire station at Bear Creek, which was hosting the finish line for the race. I was early, and I stood with some others in the parking lot for a good while until a bus showed up to take us to the start line. Upon reaching the start, I did some additional waiting then decided to go for a warmup run up the trail. After warming up for 15 minutes, I did a few drills and stretches, then waited some more.

During my waiting, I began to notice a theme among my fellow competitors - in my estimation, more than half of the other runners around me were wearing Adidas shoes. Some of these were road running shoes, but most were Adidas trail shoe models. Of course scattered among the remainder of the people were plenty of Brooks, Salomon, Asics, Nike, Mizuno, Montrail, and a sprinkling of others including several people wearing the Inov-8 X-Talons. My conclusion was that Adidas must have some really good reps in this part of Alaska to get so many people into their shoes. Finally, in the latest race start I've ever experienced, we headed up the trail at 10:10 am.

The initial 5+ miles of trail were all below treeline on nice, mostly smooth trails, and I felt good pushing hard on the ascending portions. The trail made a rolling ascent through drainages until it popped out above treeline around mile 6. The views that opened up above treeline were spectacular. The weather the day of the race was immaculate and the surrounding mountains rising from the high alpine bench that we were running across were impressive. The run across the rolling terrain on the alpine bench among the small tarns and the much larger Lost Lake was easily the highlight of the race. Since I'm used to being at 10,000+ feet of elevation any time I'm running in an alpine environment, the fact that I could actually breathe easily and have my body be capable of running fast through this section was a wonderful sensation. The last 5 miles of the race was steady, fast downhill to the finish at Bear Creek. I tried to open up my stride and keep a hard, consistent effort all the way down to the bottom. I managed to hold my position on the downhill section, but was unable to go as fast as I would have liked - an indicator of my lack of speed fitness. The finish came quickly after a short dirt road section at the bottom of the trail, and I immediately made my way to the beer line, ready to celebrate the finish of what I am sure is the most beautiful course of any race I have ever run.

I finished an unimpressive 27th overall out of a very large 700+ person race field, which I was just fine with. I was just happy that my body felt like it was actually functioning properly when I pushed it, which has not been the case the last two races I've run. Shortly after the race, I began scheming of how and when I could return to run this race or one of the other spectacular races in this area. I talked with a group of people about the Crow Pass Crossing, and it sounds as though it would be a very fun race. Even though I visited Crow Pass during this trip, I still haven't actually seen any of the scenery in that area, so that would be nice (that story will come later).

Parts 2, 3, and 4 of my Alaska adventures will follow shortly.