Sunday, March 28, 2010

spring biking thoughts

In an effort to clear the clutter from my brain, on Saturday afternoon I headed out for a bike ride in the park near where I live. I wanted to link together all my favorite winter trails, well, most of them, and because it was mid-afternoon, the temperatures had warmed up to the high-30s.

View Larger Map

Most of the snow trails I rode were bomber: hard-packed with a glazed crust on top, though not so icy that I was slipping around. In other places, out of the trees, a layer of slush had developed during the day. A few stumps that were buried most of the winter were now exposed. And in one spot, the trail had a touch of bare ground where a tree root was exposed. The winter riding days will soon be coming to a close.

Another sure sign that the winter season is almost over, last night a friend who loves to ski said she's sick of skiing. She wants to ride her bike on the road (she happens to not do much winter cycling). Apparently lots of people are ready to be done with winter so they can ride their bicycles, because they're showing up at area bike shops, at least that's what Jon told me. Paramount has been a busy place since about the middle of the month, and that's great news for the upcoming biking season. Especially after last year.

Last year Paramount had their slowest March since opening in 1998. Typically, March and April are the busiest months of the year as people gear up for summer cycling. In fact, it's always interesting to hear about retail economic predictors which are so focused on the Christmas holidays. For the bike business in Alaska, even with the growing snow-bike business, Christmas is a blip. March and April will tell you what the year is going to be like.

That's why last March's low numbers were a big concern. I was still working at the shop, and we were trying to figure it out. People weren't buying. They weren't even shopping. As the season progressed, we realized that people in Alaska were finally feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Or, at least they were worrying about it. You can talk about competition from other stores, but that's not enough, especially after the previous March had been the busiest on record. There was something else at work here, too.

In 2008, Anchorage had one of its rainiest, coolest summers on record. But gas prices were over $4 a gallon. So people cut down on driving. They were buying commuter bikes; adding fenders to existing bikes and rain gear to their wardrobes. They were biking to work so they could save their gas money for out-of-town getaways. They were stay-cationing in Alaska.

By contrast, the summer of 2009 was one of the most beautiful we've seen in a couple years, and gas was a dollar lower. Some people kept up with their bike commuting, but lots of them got back into their cars and SUVs and returned to their old habits. Never mind that continuing to save money is a great idea during a recession or when you're worried about your 401(k).

If March is truly an indicator for the mood of consumers this year in Anchorage, I'd say we're on the road to recovery; people are optimistic about their financial futures. Could warnings about staying active help? Sure. As does the passage of the Bike Plan which recently came before the Anchorage Assembly. (I did hear the plan has been recalled to discuss one specific pathway, but I'm sure the approval will stand.)

I hope Paramount and other shops have a good year. It says a lot for a community to have this kind of vibrant bike culture where shops are locally owned and so many people buy locally. Busy bike shops means more bicycles that I hope people consider will riding more than they drive their cars. Since I haven't been commuting to work (a friend suggested I get up and ride around the block a few times before returning to my home-office), I admit to feeling a little out of touch with other cyclists. Never fear, one ride through the slush and ice along Tudor Road last week and I felt the kinship!
At the Loussac Library - full bike racks
on the night of the assembly meeting.

During the second half of my ride yesterday, snow began to fall in oversized clumps of flakes. It turned to sleet just as I decided to ride Blue Dot trail. Water dripped from the brim of my helmet onto my nose. My shirtsleeves were getting wet but it was too warm for a jacket. It was a perfect day to just spin a big loop around the park. When I was done, my head was clear and my legs were tired. A perfect ride. Happy spring.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sarah Palin's Alaska

Hello friends. I know, this is a departure, with not one word about cycling (except that one). I seem to have lost control of my keyboard today, and have been inspired by recent news events and feel compelled to share. I hope you enjoy it.


(if reading aloud, use that crazy Minnilaska accent)

“Hello God-fearing, freedom lovers and welcome to my home, the Great State of Alaska. Today, we’re going to get a bird’s eye view of an absolutely beautiful part of the state. Maybe you’ve heard of the (reads from her hand) Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. Probably not, but maybe. It’s in eastern Alaska near the border we share with our friendly, but socialistic, neighbors, the Canadians. And we get to fly in a helicopter.
“With us today are our pilot, Robert, and Eugene. (shakes hands with each) This is going to be a great trip. Boy, when was the last time I was in a helicopter? Maybe it was at the end of the 2008 election leaving the McCain compound. Golly, for a Republican, he sure is, you know, kind of liberally, you know. Anyway, whoo! Flashback over! Focus, focus.
“So, Robert we’re heading up and Eugene is going to spot some wolves for us.”
“That’s right, Ms Palin. He’s got a pretty high-powered scope on that baby, so he’ll have a great view from the air.”
“The fellas in the spotter plane told us exactly where the wolves are, so we won’t have to waste any time.”
“Let’s do it!” (winks at camera)

(Up in the Air - sweeping views of the landscape - all three are wearing headphones)
“Look at this, it’s early March and it’ll be over a month before the river ice goes out, so the only travel is by snow machine, planes or helicopters. Lucky for us, we get to use this chopper. I’ve bundled up because it’s pretty chilly up here, and it’ll be even colder when Eugene opens the door so he can get a shot. Oh, looky what I see down there...”
(Camera pans down to a pack of 5 wolves.)
“Oh, they’re gonna start runnin’ I just know it.”
EUGENE (opens door and holds gun to his shoulder)
“Lean us just a little, Robert”
“Nice shots.” (pats him on the shoulder)
“Thanks Governor. You want the next one. It has a collar.”
“Oh, do I?!” (places hand over heart ala Pledge of Allegiance)
“Here you go, safety’s on.”
“Safety first!”( she pulls the gun to her shoulder, releases safety, sights and pulls the trigger) BANG “There’s another one over to the right, Robert!”
“Copy.” (He maneuvers toward the fourth wolf.)
“Perfect, perfect. Another collared one!” BANG “Yes!”
“Well done, Governor.”
“You know what I did? I was just thinkin’ of Osama Bin Laden and Putin’s ugly head and kablooey!”
(All laugh)
“I’m gonna put her down now.”
(All disembark with snowshoes and walk out toward the wolves)

SP (talking to camera, with Robert and Eugene standing behind her, also looking at the camera)
“I know what you’re thinking. Two of those wolves did have radio collars. Sure, we saw them. But just like when I buy a new pair of Naughty Monkey shoes when God knows I don’t need another pair, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Right, Todd?” (turns to the guys) “I’m sure you guys know that line!”
(All laugh)

(Later, all surround a wolf and are handling it.)
SP (lifting a paw to her hand)
“Just look at his paw. See how big it is? Wow, look at that. And what fur! This is going to make a beautiful coat for somebody, or maybe a ruff for a musher’s jacket. There are so many things you can make out of wolf fur. This guy will be auctioned off to the highest bidder and that money will go right back into the state coffers. And our caribou herds will increase in this area because of the program run by the Great State of Alaska. Shout out here: you're doin' a great job, Governor Parnell!”
(Stands and walks toward the camera)
“I know some people think we should just let nature run wild out here in the wilderness, but we need more caribou and moose for our hunters so they can feed their families. I know, you want to go to the park and look at the wolves and that’s fine if that’s what you like to do. Me, I see the beauty of these creatures and I thank God that He has given them to us so that we can do with them what we must. But, c'mon God, there are a few too many, don'tcha think! Anyway, if we can use them for good, like to keep us warm, well, I think He would want us to do this."

Monday, March 22, 2010

silence = complicity

Follow me here, if you will...

"Silence = complicity"
That's what I wrote on a friend's Facebook wall when she commented on the events that happened over the weekend in Washington, DC. I was referring to our former governor's tweets that failed to condemn the spewing of racial name-calling or anti-gay epithets. Instead, the Incomplete Governor called the Tea-party activists "patriots." And by her silence, she was as guilty as those who uttered the words.

Last night, Jon and I finally watched The Cove, the award-winning documentary (Spoiler Alert...) about a town in Japan and what it does to the dolphins. What we as a human society do to dolphins and to each other. For entertainment, for profit. Much of it was about one man's quest to bring to light the capturing and killing of dolphins. But it was also about unscrupulous business ethics that cause people to sell contaminated food to the public. Paired with the movie Food, Inc. and other movies and books about our food systems, it gave us something to talk about, specifically, mercury levels in seafood.

But here's the thing, the guy in The Cove, Ric O'Barry, who spent his younger years training dolphins has spent the last 40 years trying to get the word out. Refusing to be silent, even admitting that he was part of the problem by training dolphins for the Flipper television series. He admitted he had no idea the problems it would lead to - dolphins being captured, then held and trained for our amusement - and now he's trying to make things right. There aren't many people who are brave enough to step forward and be held accountable for their actions, or even to step forward and have their voices heard on issues that are important to them. But O'Barry has something many don't: a conscience.

I have pretty strong views on things like politics, religion, the environment. (Hell, if it was up to me the polar bears would be allowed vote on whether churches should be tax exempt or whether congress should have to pay for their own health care. Assuming the ballots were printed in a language they could read...) But I don't always speak out to the right people when something is important. Instead, sometimes Jon and I might just talk about it over dinner.

Today, I was thinking about the vote that happened in the House yesterday and the diligence of the people who stepped forward to work on and support changes to health care, including President Obama who would not give up. If you really believe in something; if you really believe that what you're doing is important and will help other people or other creatures and this good old planet, you have to be tenacious. These people are good examples to follow.

With all these thoughts fresh in my head, I realized that I sometimes talk a good talk, but I don't always take the time to do something - such as write and send off a letter to the Powers That Be. Which takes us to this: There's a trailhead I'd like to see the state put in to access the Chugach State Park from the Stuckagain neighborhood; there's the Bicycle Plan that Anchorage has been working on for a couple years that might not be adopted because of the costs. So I sat down and put into words three paragraphs on each topic, spell-checked and reread, then hit the send button.

Mine is just one voice, but it felt good to send out these comments - and certainly it feels a lot better than kicking myself for not speaking up only to have someone later say that nobody supported these positions. And tomorrow? The assembly meeting and a chance for public testimony on the Bike Plan. Hope there's room in the bike rack.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the tracks you leave: Austin Helmers

My memory is a little fuzzy on what years things happen, but I first met Austin Helmers at an IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) trailbuilding school classroom session in Palmer back in 2004 (I think). During the session, an elderly man sat near me and as people introduced themselves, I learned that this was the man who drew a map I'd used for a few years. Now, I had the chance to thank him...

About four or five years earlier, I'd found out about some great riding on the trails of Kepler-Bradley State Park, just outside Palmer. The singletracks wound along ridges and between lakes that were left behind when the glaciers receded. Riding through the spruce, birch and cottonwood forest, the trails twisted and swooped. They intersected with other trails; they connected to ski trails in the adjoining Crevasse-Moraine ski area and wagon paths on the University's experimental farm. There were few signs and it was easy to get turned around. But the park had some of the best singletrack in the area.
Jon riding @K-B last May.

One day at work, I was talking with a local trail advocate about the maze of trails and how I wished I had a map so I could figure it out. She told me she knew somebody who had drawn up a map and would get one for me. A few weeks later, she brought me a map that had been drawn up by Mr Helmers. When I say "drawn," I mean hand drawn because this was before ordinary citizens were using GPS to map routes. It was the only map of the trails I had seen. Not long afterward, I was working with a ranger to get a permit for a group ride. (In the process, I also learned that the trails weren't technically open to bikes; that would come later.) Mike Goodwin had worked at the park for a few years, but he had never seen the map!

Thus began my photocopying and distributing of the trail map. I'll admit, I was stingy, doling out copies like rations. I wanted to keep the information to myself while we worked to get the trails opened. But Mr Helmers' map was making the rounds. The trails were officially opened to mountain biking and IMBA was planning the 2004 trailbuilding project. They used the map to find their way around and to determine where to have the hands-on school where we would build the switchback.

And that was when I saw Mr Helmers in his element. Though he was in his mid-80s, he was on the trail, lopping branches and doing tread work on one of the hottest days of that summer; a day when people half his age didn't dare complain about the heat, the humidity or the mosquitoes because he was still working. Just over a dozen people put tools to the ground to build a switchback to reroute a badly-eroded fall-line trail. (This IMBA link shows the group: 3rd photo from bottom, Austin is back row, second from the left)

Once the new section was complete, we heaped cuttings onto the steep, fall-line trail we were closing. Mr Helmers stayed until the end. It was my first IMBA-sponsored trail-building experience, but what an orientation! More trails have been built in Kepler-Bradley since that day, but whenever I use one of my K-B maps, I think of the effort Mr Helmers went through to map the trails in the area.

I learned that Austin Helmers died last week at the age of 93. While I'm sad at his passing, I'm comforted that people in the Valley have been working hard to continue building and maintaining great hiking and biking trails. Next time I do trail work, I know I'll remember Mr Helmers and his dedication to making trails that will be enjoyed for years to come. We should all hope we can leave such a positive legacy.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

the gift

Feb 18:

It's tough to write about a vacation while it's in progress. I use the term 'vacation' loosely because, as you know, right now I don't have a job. By choice, mind you. But that is off the point. Which maybe is the point. This is a trip to clear the head. To empty the cobwebs that inhabit the recesses. A vacation should allow cobwebs to fall away. Along with most thoughts of home and work and all the things on the to-do list.

In just over a week's time, I've read about 1-1/2 books. Not much for my vacation reading. Why is that, I wonder. Is it because I have my laptop with me to connect to the world of my friends, family and the daily news of the world? That could be. But I will tell you about the book I did read.

On the plane ride over, I began reading a book that was given to me 30 years ago. That feels like a big forever ago because I was in high school and knew so much more than I do now. My Aunt Maxine gave me the book as a confirmation gift. Confirmation is supposed to represent a coming of age in a particular faith, a commitment, you could say. The book was Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. When Aunt Maxine gave me the book, I'm sure I opened it, read a page or two, then put it away. It stayed at my parent's house for many years. Where it migrated next, I don't remember. But eventually, I brought it to Alaska, where it sat on a shelf in our living room.

Aunt Maxine remained single all her life. She served in the WACs during WWII, then had a long career with the State of Wisconsin. There were many things I didn't know that I should have, like that in her younger years she'd become a pilot. Maxine had a stroke back in 2006 and died shortly afterward. I remember the year because it was also the year I participated in the Gold Nugget Triathlon. I'm not religious, but maybe I am a bit superstitious. During the tri, I remember thinking of Aunt Maxine and for part of the way, I was racing for her and with her, to make her proud. To show her I was strong, like her.

So, as I was reading my book, naturally, I thought of my aunt. I tried to think about what message was in this book that told her it was the right gift for her 15-year-old niece. And it was a message of strength, of independence, friendships, relationships. But mostly, I saw that it was a message of discovering your own sense of self at each stage of life. And the stage of life Lindbergh was in when she wrote the book? Her early 40s. And so, the book I received as a teenager, strangely turned out to be a good book to slip into now that I'm in my 40s.
Some of her musings might seem a bit dated, but in the 1950s, Lindbergh recognized the value of the feminist movement in helping women give meaning to their lives beyond family and into the professional realm. What, after all, would be her value after raising the children? Thinking of the context of the times, after so many women had spent the 1940s in the working world helping the war effort, were all of them going to be satisfied being homemakers? My aunt's generation kept open the doors that had been busted down by the suffragists who fought for our rights. Rights to make all sorts of choices, not only at the ballot box.

To marry or not. To have kids; to not have kids. To have a career, or not. To follow our creative spirit. To be adventurers in this big world. There's a lot of hope packed into the gift my aunt gave me. And sometimes it seems I've followed a crazy path, and I've sometimes made bad decisions. But absorbing this book and taking the time to think about where I am in my life and what I still want to do, what I felt was calm. A calm accompanied by the sound of the ocean. A calm that told me that at 45, I am in the right place.

Note: Now that we've been home for a week, I'm going through unfinished vacation posts.