Sunday, July 31, 2011

gold mint

Beaver pond just before the five-mile marker.

I'm on a mission to ride some routes I've not been on before. Or routes that have been improved or built in the last few years and offer great mountain biking. So Saturday after hitting the farmers' market then watering the grass seed in the patches of lawn I've stripped of the evil orange hawkweed, I loaded my gear and headed for Hatcher Pass to bike the Gold Mint Trail.

And then the trail met the Little Susitna River.

I know people worry when I bike alone, but it would have taken some effort to round up a riding buddy at 3pm on a Saturday and I figured there would be enough people on the trail that I wouldn't really be out there alone. Which did turn out to be the case, but when my rear tire spun on a loose rock on a steep little hill causing me to tumble off the bike landing on my hip and getting slammed in the chest by something, I kind of thought about it a little more.

I stood up and did my body and limb check, knowing there would be new bruises (though I didn't notice the chest soreness until I was back in the car driving home). I talked to myself. Told myself to take it easy, don't take risks. I was nearly five miles into the ride. I continued up the trail, chatted briefly with some hikers - tourists from Germany and Boston. Then I came to a spot where the main trail seemed to drop down and cross a creek that was draining through a large beaver dam, then joining the Little Su. I wasn't sure, so I checked a few alternate paths before returning to the intersection. I looked across the creek to see what it looked like. From the bank, I spotted a sign through a gap in the brush and decided that was the 5-mile marker. The trail is supposed to be bikeable for another mile after that point before becoming a steep hiking-only route.

The only other time I've been on the trail was over 10 years ago when Jon and I backpacked it. We hiked up valley, then climbed the steep pitch up to a high valley where a cabin owned by the Mountaineering Club stands. We planned to camp that night, but after a short hike to a glacier above the cabin and a change in weather to rain, decided that if nobody was using the cabin, we would sleep there. Of course there's more to this story, but we have a bike ride to finish:

Cross here to continue up the valley.
(Just below the beaver pond.)

I looked at my watch: 6:15. It was overcast but not raining, though the trail was wet with puddles and mud from showers earlier in the day. You can do the rest another time, I told myself. Get an early start and make a day of it; bring a friend or two who will appreciate this kind of trail. I ate a snack and turned the bike around to start the descent. Boy, was that fun!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

bulbous beginnings

It began not five minutes into the ride. A thump, thump, thump, evenly spaced like the sound and feel of a thump when riding over sidewalk cracks or highway seams. Thump, thump. I veered to a smoother section of the gravel road. Thump, thump. I looked down at my front tire and could see a bump making its way around again and again. I yelled for Jon and stopped the bike.

What I saw resembled a small turtle clinging to the tire*. I immediately found the valve stem and started releasing air from the tire. All I could think was that this tire was about to explode and our 30-mile bike ride was about to become a much shorter hike.

I knew the tire had a hole in it. It's tubeless and since reinstalling it on the bike this spring I've needed to put more air in it before each ride. I've been meaning to patch the hole ever since Jon found it one day when he was kind enough to clean my bike. But I just haven't taken the time: it's easier to pump it up every few days and hope it lasts.

Now I was worried that my deferred maintenance was going to cost me a ride I've been meaning to do: A loop that had us staring at the Primrose campground on Kenai Lake, biking the Seward Highway south to the Lost Lake Trailhead, then riding the 15 mile backcountry trail back to our starting point. I've always biked the trail in the other direction, sometimes completing the loop with a ride up the highway after finishing the trail. I wanted to see why people like riding the trail from the Lost Lake Trailhead to Primrose. Call it research.

Jon rode up to me and saw the turtle. "Let air out," he said. Already did, I told him as I squeezed my now-flat tire. It wasn't in the same location as my puncture, he assured me. Best he could surmise was that there was a hole in the inner lining of the tire that allowed air in and quickly caused the tire layers to separate, resulting in the goiter-like bulge. He told me he had never seen this happen before. Oh, I'm sure if we looked it up, we could find instances where this has happened, but it was a first for us.**

To fix the bulge that remained even after I deflated the tire, Jon pulled the tire from the rim and cut a hole in the inner lining to release the air, then we installed an old-fashioned inner tube. We had nearly 13 highway miles to cover, plus some more gravel road before hitting the trail. My paranoid self thought she saw a little wobble in the tire as we rode the highway. Though it was a beautiful summer day and a great ride, I kept dreading a pinch flat on one of the countless rock waterbars along the trail. By the time we reached the car, about 6 hours after we began, the only thing I wished I had more than an extra tube was some sunblock. I'll chalk it up to experience and bring two spares on my next long ride. I'll also remember the sunblock next time.

*I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the crazy bulge on my tire. My camera has been in for repairs (yes, sometimes you can get cameras repaired) & we don't have a backup. Rest assured, it has been sent back from the repair center and is in transit. I'll be glad to have it back.

**I did a little more looking and found this interesting thread. "Tire hernia" is a good description. My tire is a Maxxis, but I wasn't using Stan's or any other sealant in the tire.

out, damn weed!

So temptingly pretty, you invaded me.
Once, we gazed at your orange blooms,
Hieracium aurantiacum,
even cut your stems for the vase.
Now, each day for an hour or more, I dig.

The rain of yesterday softens the ground
I push the weed digger into the matted web
of grass and clover and you: orange hawkweed.

I tug at your pale green, soft and fuzzy leaves,
pull up a ball of roots, follow the stolons and rhizomes across the lawn
to your offspring, smaller, yet sprouting, about to flower.

I scan the lawn, blink and see more small patches,
far-flung colonies building their own networks
A series of creeping roots, connecting the plants like highways
or a sewer system.

Each day I get closer to annihilating my foe
Taking time out from other tasks
To, foot-by-foot, quell the invasion I let go too far.

How fitting a punishment for the lazy gardener
who just wanted the simplicity of a small wildflower garden,
who planted the seed mix and watched it grow, hoping it would bloom for years to come.
Only to have this dominant escapee force me
to my hands and knees on the moist lawn.
Digging. Ever digging.

Monday, July 11, 2011

all-night road trip

The first 100 miles of the race.

I don't process things well when I'm sleep deprived so I'm still processing the weekend that included a 600-mile road trip, in particular, a 28-hour overnight drive.

Jon and I returned Sunday morning from the trip that took us from Anchorage to Valdez and back. We were driving support for our friend, Leonard, who was racing the Fireweed 400 (mile) road bike race between Sheep Mountain and Valdez. From noon on Friday until 4 p.m. on Saturday, we leap-frogged Leonard and a handful of other riders and support cars in the all-nighter that took us along a two-lane highway that passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the state.

There was no mechanic (except Jon), no propane and no cafe.

View Larger Map

I'm a little sad to say it's the first time I've been to Valdez since the year I moved to Alaska, and I don't think hanging out at Captain Joe's Gas Station (someone has a sense of humor) for maybe 20 minutes even qualifies since we never saw the water. But it sure reminded me that I need to get farther from Anchorage more often.

The closest I've been to Valdez in the last few years was the week I spent at a writing workshop at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, an old mining town at the end of a 60-mile gravel road. On the way back from Valdez with the sun shining and views of Mt. Drum and Mt. Wrangell off in the distance, I thought it must be a beautiful day in McCarthy. But we still had a job to do.
Leonard at the start, before climbing from the fog.

Along the way the drive included a start in the fog before we emerged into the sun and low clouds. Roaring, misting waterfalls, seemingly-endless spruce forests. Glaciers and wide, braided rivers; sunken, overgrown log cabins; a rock-strewn mountain pass that reminded me of photos of Ireland; hundreds of miles of the oil pipeline that ends in Valdez. By the end of the drive, clouds were taking on animal shapes and I might have been dancing along the side of the road.

Donut cloud. Just before a sighting of a moose cloud
bouncing trampoline-style atop Gunsight Mountain.

After Thompson Pass, taking a break in Keystone Canyon.

After crossing Thompson Pass and driving through Keystone Canyon the first time, I asked Jon to jot down some notes for me. I wanted to remember how a river looked. A braided river with trees growing on some of the rocky islands, fog shrouding their bases. It was around midnight and almost as dark as it would get: a deep twilight. I was tired, having been on the road almost 12 hours and everything I saw began taking on the magical quality of a dream that is so quickly forgotten upon waking.

Almost at the top of the pass, more than half way through the race.

Jon provides tech support, lubing the cleats. Mt Drum in the distance.

It didn't have the same effect as we drove by again, this time with me in the passenger seat. But as we neared the top of the pass, we watched, pacing behind Leonard (the rules say we must drive close behind him from midnight until 5 a.m.) as we cut through the fog layer, hitting the top of the pass at 4 a.m. with a semi passing us as we began the descent. It would be another 12 hours before he finished the race taking 3rd place, an achievement I can barely comprehend.

Here we are: crew for Team Fancher!

But the prospect of doing the 200-mile version of this race, from Sheep Mountain to Valdez, is starting to seem like something I might just want to do. Crazy.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

are we there yet?

Carey with wildflowers in the rain.

Last Sunday evening after Jon successfully installed a new bathroom fan, we decided to celebrate. Dinner? A bike ride? Do we only have time for one or the other? We decided to bike to Spenard Roadhouse for dinner, knowing they were open until 11 and have pretty awesome food. We ran into our friend Alan who was dining with one of his friends, and,of course, began talking about the rides we'd done recently.

I did Russian Lakes trail the other day, Alan began. "That was the longest 16 miles I've ever done." "Um, Alan," I said. I had just done the trail two weeks earlier. "That's because it's over 21 miles." Ah! No wonder. We all laughed about it, but when you're out in the wilds, there's nothing funny about being on a trail and thinking it's shorter than it actually is. Maybe you'll run out of food; maybe run out of water. You'll bike at a different pace knowing how far you have to go. Imagine someone telling you you're running a 5k and it turns out to be a 5-miler. And you're not a runner. Ouch!

Two days later I met my friends Carey and Amber for a ride on Resurrection Trail. Carey had suggested riding the entire trail from Hope to Cooper Landing and that the 33 miles, plus a leisurely lunch break at the pass would take about eight hours. Something sounded not quite right to me. At breakfast that morning, I pulled out a hiking guidebook and broke the news: the trail is 39 miles. I could see Carey hitting the reset button as she considered how long it would take and how much food to bring. Good thing they shuttled the car the evening before.

Amber and I teased Carey as we rode along. At the six-mile mark we let her know "your ride starts now." I'm glad I'd brought the book on the trip because I didn't want Carey hitting the mental wall when our odometers hit the 33-mile mark before we passed Juneau Falls. Considering we were riding the second half of the trail in the rain, I'm glad we never had a false sense of the end being just around the next bend.

Amber & Carey at Juneau Lake, in the rain.

On Friday a similar thing happened before a ride on Johnson Pass. Only this time, it was information in a dated guidebook that mis-set people's expectations. A mountain biking book for Southcentral Alaska lists the ride as a 21-mile trail, so that's what my three companions were expecting. I grabbed the same more-recent hiking guide I'd used earlier in the week and saw that it listed the ride at 23 miles. Since I haven't biked the trail all the way through from north to south in several years, having the right number in my head at the start of the ride really helped me pace myself and not wonder, as my odometer hit 21, why we weren't closer to the fish hatchery on Trail Lake.

At Johnson Pass, just before the rain.

Compared to Tuesday's ride on Res., 23 miles sounded like a piece of cake, though it had lots more pushki threatening to swallow the trail and a couple places where the water was running down the trail instead of in the stream channel. When it began sprinkling just after the pass, I was a bit bummed, but relieved that we were only about 12 miles from the end. Still, a part of me was hoping the old guidebook was right.