Wednesday, April 9, 2014

knik glacier: a tale of two trips

A snowy April day was the perfect day to reflect on some recent bike rides. We had over two weeks of clear, calm weather in Southcentral Alaska, spanning from mid-March into the first week of April. Temperatures each night were dropped into single digits while in the daytime they soared into the low 40s. Those conditions, matched with longer days, meant it was time to visit Knik Glacier.

I last did this bike trip back in 2011, before my shoulder injury. Last year I didn't feel I had the miles under me to attempt the trip. But after a year of biking, I was ready. On the first visit (March 26), we began riding at 9 a.m.

Along for the ride were Jon, our friend Alan who has done the trip several times, our friend and co-worker Peter and our Giant Bicycles product rep Paul who was visiting from Portland, OR.

A light-snow year meant more biking on large river rocks.
First river crossing. Don't worry, Paul, it's frozen.
Paul is speechless!
We're here! Icebergs encased in ice then blasted by
wind-blown snow to give them the bumpy surface.
They remind me of scaly dragons.
Now that we've reached the glacier, we'll turn south and go
through that gap between glacier and mountain. I've never been
that far before, but I also don't remember the gap being so large.
Alan after the gap (and a pressure ridge).
Peter and Kobuk on their first trip to Knik.
Jon.
Alan brought up earthquakes: "Probably not the best place to be during an earthquake." Nope. And the time to talk about earthquakes is probably not while you're resting on a frozen glacial-fed lake listening to the echoing groans of that ice as the glacier moves down-valley, pressing the lake ice against the opposite shore. But I imagine earthquakes were on a few people's minds. The 50th anniversary of the 1964 Alaska earthquake was the next day and it was earthquake awareness week. We were already over 15 miles into the ride and if a quake did hit, there would be little to do but ride it out and hope we remained on a good-sized chunk of ice. The easiest thing to do was to not think about it. I later read this story about some geologists who were on Portage Lake during the '64 quake.

During our lunch break/turnaround spot just before another
pressure ridge we watched a group of people who had just
flown to the glacier from Anchorage - a little hour-long
excursion. We'd been on the bikes for over four hours!
Paul, Jon (standing) Peter, Alan and Kobuk the dog.

Jon chatted with another pilot who made a short stop at the glacier
as we begin our return trip. Paul, Peter, Alan, pilot and Jon.

Jon pedals toward the gap for the trip home.
A few hours and lots of soft conditions later,
back at the Hunter Creek bridge.
I made a few mistakes on that first trip: I wasn't careful enough checking the fresh ice in a pressure ridge and ended up putting one foot into the water. I finished crossing the opening, and then starting yelling, "Wet foot! Wet foot!" I'd forgotten to bring an extra pair of socks, but Alan offered me a sock. I removed my left boot and insole and poured out the water, removed my socks (wool outer and silk liner) and wrung them out. I was relieved that Alan had brought spares, but chided myself for forgetting this critical back-up gear. Luckily, the day was warm enough that my foot didn't get cold even after the fresh sock had absorbed the moisture that was left inside the boot.

The next week, we returned. We had a few changes to the group. Joining Jon, Alan and me were Alan's girlfriend Beth and my co-worker Zane. We got an earlier start, leaving the parking lot at 8 a.m. I had made a few changes to my equipment: Instead of clipless pedals and my biking shoes I rode with platform pedals and waterproof hiking boots. I also wore my gaitors. I brought spare socks this time (ensuring that if anyone needed them, I could pay back the favor).
The water had risen in the previous week and the river
crossing was gone, so we went around one of the river bends.
Part of the detour - lots of river rock and gravel. To get to
the glacier, we went between the mountain that angles down
on the right and the low moraine just to the left of it - you
can just make out the gap in this photo.
Alan leads the way across a pressure ridge, followed by Jon,
Beth and Zane.
I approach yet another pressure ridge.
Icy canyons.
Sculpted forms of ice and snow.

Jon's pedal on a frost-covered section of the lake.
Riding near the icicles.
Jon explored an ice cave as Alan and I watched.
Okay, that made me a bit nervous, but maybe next time...
Less blue at the edges.
Alan looks at the sculpted ice.
In only a week conditions had changed. One river crossing was gone; we rode (or pushed) on more rocky surface and punched through more thin overflow ice. Pressure ridges opened and the lake ice made more noise and movement than the week before. In one instance, Jon asked me to ride a certain route while he took some photos. When I stopped to ask him a question I felt the snap of cracking ice resonate under my feet and quickly moved away from the area. I could feel the sheet moving slightly.
Jon searches for the best route across a pressure ridge.
Sometimes the ribbon of snow-covered ice between the river
and the moraine was wide enough and firm enough to travel on.
At other times, it was best to just push through the boulders.
While walking with my bike along the thin line of snow between the river and the boulder field, both my feet dropped straight through the ice and I landed a foot lower than where I had been, splashing into several inches of water. I looked down, relieved that I wouldn't get a drop of water in my boots. Zane wasn't as lucky. He ended up in a few puddles, but the warm day saved his feet from getting cold. He spends a lot of time standing in rivers fishing so I'm sure next time he'll use different footwear. After we passed the boulders, the riding got better, but we still punched through the thin overflow ice that hovered above the older ice. It was not only a physical challenge to ride through this, but also a mental challenge since you can't always tell when the ice will break or how far down your wheel will fall.

He was just hanging out near the open water.
Looks like a good place for me to take a break, too!

Cruising back to the trailhead with a tailwind and sunshine!
So happy to have smooth riding! No gloves and riding with
my hands atop the pogies, the roughest part of the route is done.
One final stretch on the ice-covered slough.
By 4:00, the ride was nearly over and the bridge in sight. Alan and Beth continued to their car. I wasn't ready to be in the parking lot so I stretched out on a downed tree that had been scoured of its bark by the silty river. I rested in the sun and wished Alan or Beth would read my mind and bring the beer from the car to where I was. Eventually, it was time to leave my perch; time to rejoin the gang, load up our gear and head back to Anchorage. I don't expect there will be another trip to Knik for me this year, but when late March rolls around next year, I'll be there.

Monday, March 10, 2014

homer biking

I went to Homer for a few days last week with my friend Katey who was visiting Alaska for a book tour and a teaching gig for 49 Writers. She has been to Alaska several times, but never to Homer. I'd never been there in winter.

After a few hours of driving, we were heading south on the Sterling Highway with the mountains of the Alaska Range in view. I think we stopped at every viewpoint that overlooked Cook Inlet.

Pushki in March.

We arrived at the overlook above Homer where the mountains across Kachemak Bay seemed to float above fog that hung over the water.
Almost to Homer, looking across the bay.
Finally arriving at the home of our hosts who have a guest cabin tucked in the trees and perched above the shore. After dropping off our things in the cabin, we found our way to the beach.
Receding tide.
The view from the deck in the morning light.
Mt Augustine sunset.
We took these stairs down the bluff to get to the beach.
I made use of that rope, esp. when carrying my bike.
Not much beach at high tide.
Low tide is another story. Think I'll head that-a-way.
I brought my fat tire bike on the trip and on the first morning there carried it down the steep stairs to get to the beach where the receding tide let me ride far from shore.
While Katey is working on her novel, I'm exploring
the beach. It's all research.
I'm not the only one on the beach.




The outgoing tide reveals
ripples on the sand
sea plants anchored to rocks
a clam anchored to the stem
a small world awaiting water.

Tuesday night was windy and cold. We stoked the Jotul stove and stayed warm all night. When we woke we found a skiff of crunchy grapple snow covering the ground. Though the day began cold, I couldn't resist the vacuum created on the beach as the tide pulled away. I made plans to meet Katey for lunch and biked a short ways to the Bishop's Beach official access point in town just off Main Street...

Poor thing, left out in the cold!
Another day at the beach!
Where I met up with artist Kathy Sarns, her friend and their canine buddies. Kathy used to live in Anchorage and for a short time I worked with her husband Pat. We pedaled west on the beach (after I first adjusted the brake pads on her friend's bike so they wouldn't drag on her rotor). The dogs ran alongside us, wove in front of us and flung themselves away toward water or bluff. When we reversed directions to return to the beach access point, the headwind became a tailwind and we were soon parting ways.

History of Fat Bikes 101: Kathy is riding a prototype
Surly Pugsley from about 2004 or 2005. I'm riding one of the most
recent entries in the fat bike market: a Borealis Yampa.
This Pugs has spent lots of time playing in saltwater.
Beach, bikes, women, dogs. How cool is Homer?
After a bite to eat, Katey and I took a walk on another beach with a Homer author who shared local knowledge about the sea life and geology of the area and filled us in on her experiences as a writer and a teacher.
I was most fascinated by how the plants and creatures of the sea created jumbled communities as they floated in the water. Here's one I found in the rocks:

I see artists' inspiration in this tangle.
Katey near Land's End Resort on the Homer Spit, site of the annual
Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference. How is this as an enticement
for her to return to Homer?

Early Thursday we bid farewell to our hosts, our favorite barrista and the fishing town on the bay. Katey had more events in and near Anchorage while I needed to get back to work at the shop. It was a different kind of beach vacation and I hope to make it back soon.

If you go: We were in Homer a week after their annual Big Fat Bike Fest which I heard was loads of fun, so watch for it in 2015. If you're going beach riding on your own, be sure to get a tide table and ride during the lowest tides when you can ride on the firm, wet sand. Then, clean your bike. If you can rinse it in fresh water, that's best (tho not with a high-pressure hose). I didn't wash mine. When I returned to Anchorage, my bike had dried off and I spent some time with a soft brush sweeping off dried silt and sand. After cleaning the chain, I re-lubed it (I felt a bit bad about the little bit of orange on the chain from putting it away wet). Despite the need for extra maintenance on my bike, I would still recommend beach riding. It's a completely different scene from riding in the snow.