Saturday, January 22, 2011

lake monsters

After Monday's misadventure, I needed a redemptive ride. Weather reports called for warming temperatures, snow and even blizzard conditions for Wednesday. But is was also Jon's day off and possibly our last chance for an adventurous ice ride this season. After seeing a friend's photos of skating on Kenai Lake, we were sold. We had to go.

We loaded the car, picked up our friend, Alan, and headed south. As predicted, the wind was blowing in Turnagain Arm. Some snow was falling in the pass, but it was much warmer than it's been in a couple weeks, almost 20 above zero. We parked close to the Forest Service office on the lake's eastern shore and began getting ready. I was sitting in the front seat putting on my boots, but I had the car window open so I could listen to the sounds of the lake.

The ice was thumping like the bass in your neighbor's car stereo, but more drawn out, moaning. Two skaters headed for the ice and skated toward the center, quickly disappearing into the snowstorm. A few minutes later we heard a long rumble and a loud, explosive boom that sounded for several seconds, much like the sound of an earthquake whose epicenter is very near. I saw masses of ice rock when it broke, heaving the ice up, then back down, splashing water to the surface as it shifted. Some sections of ice were still rocking or shifting a minute later.

We couldn't see the skaters and once the ice stopped moving, we decided to go ahead with our bike ride. When I say "decided," I mean we didn't really discuss it; we just kept getting ready. We rode a short distance and came upon what turned out to be the main break in the ice. Alan stepped across and took off riding (that's him in the first photo). Jon rolled his bike across the wet gap then made a small leap over. Skeptical at first, I followed by aligning my bike across the break then using it as a pole vault to leverage myself across.

The skaters hurried back but had gone north around the lead
to get to shore. We continued riding toward the western arm of the chair-shaped lake, keeping somewhat close and in-sight of the north shore as snow fell and blew around us. The gray-scale day was only brightened by some of our colorful gear: jackets, poagies, mittens.

Jon and Alan in the blizzard.

After following the north shore for a few miles, we turned around, crossed the lake, then following the west shore of the south leg of the lake. At one point during the crossing, I placed the camera on a thin layer of snow and set it to record in film mode, hoping to catch the continued groaning of the lake ice, which sounded like a distressed monster that was sometimes tapping the underside of the ice. The camera rolled, catching Jon and Alan and millions of falling snowflakes, but no ice sounds. We stopped to explore a campsite situated across the lake from the Forest Service office, then continued toward the Primrose trailhead where we had some snacks and hot tea.

The return trip over some refrozen jigsaw puzzle pieces of ice reminded me that the lake can break up any time, especially when the weather changes as it did on Wednesday. We pedaled north, following the eastern shore back to where we'd started, checking the open water before finally ending the ride.

We learned later that the skaters (or at least one of them) worked for the Forest Service and had just gone out for a lunch-time skate when all ice broke loose. The story even made a local online paper. Guess they didn't notice us riding out there. Or maybe they shook their heads when they saw us and hoped that we wouldn't need a rescue.

Jon at the open lead as our ride ends.

I sometimes wonder at things I've done. I don't think of myself as a risk-taker; in fact I think I'm one of the most cautious people I know. And, despite the ice break, Wednesday's ride didn't feel risky to me. I was with two other people. We had rescue gear and there was little chance of an avalanche pouring onto the lake to further disturb the ice. I felt more nervous on the drive home to Anchorage in the blowing snow on the Seward Highway. More people have died there.

Monday, January 17, 2011

twenty mile: a series of events

My friend Scott was thinking of organizing another ice ride - this time on Twenty Mile River - for today. When I hadn't heard any firm plans by Sunday evening, I set my alarm and went to bed. This morning, I shot off an email letting him know I'd decided to run an errand (to Pilates class) but would be available after 11.

To make a long story short, I found out when I got home that he and another friend were heading off, meeting around 11. I called both numbers but they were gone. I figured I'd head down and check it out anyway. So, I gathered my gear and headed south, stopping at Huffman for gas. The north wind was biting at my fingers as I tried to get the self-pay machine to work. I wondered to myself why these machines rarely show which direction the magnetic strip should face. I began manually punching in my phone number, then it canceled the transaction because I didn't see the "enter" button.

After going inside to pay and fueling the car, I was cold. I wimped out and decided to not go. Jon had asked me to drop my camera off at the shop after my ride so I stopped in to give it to him. "You should go," he encouraged me. "It's probably not windy there." Though I hate making long drives solo, I was again convinced: I should go. At least check it out. Back in the car, I turned onto the Seward Highway and headed to Twenty Mile.

After Girdwood and just before the road to Portage, I could see people on the ice in the distance. I could catch them. I turned onto a short access road that runs next to the railroad tracks. There were two other cars in the parking lot: Yvonne's and one I didn't know. I geared up, crossed the tracks and headed out, following two sets of tracks. Not knowing the route, I tried riding up a slough, but didn't get far. I turned around and decided I'd follow closer to the river. That's when I noticed my front tire was losing air.

Out in a clearing I looked at the tire. There were several thorns embedded in the soft rubber. I'd picked up a few of these thorns before when I'd done a ride on the mudflats in Anchorage two weeks before. I laid the bike down and pulled out my pump, figuring I'd put in a little air so I could ride out and fix it later. Then I noticed the rear was a little lower than when I'd started riding. I'd made a huge mistake in riding where I should have known I'd pick up thorns. I should have stayed on the river bank or gotten onto the river ice, but since it was my first time there, I hadn't known the route. I started walking my bike. Then I heard a gunshot.

I looked up and yelled. I could see two people standing on the railroad tracks. I guessed one was a guy I'd seen earlier on my outbound trip. Hunting for rabbits, he'd told me. The second guy must have been the friend he'd mentioned. I didn't have time to take any more steps. Another shot rang out. I heard it land in the marsh grass. I didn't have time to panic. Terrified, I began yelling.

I yelled and waved my arms, sure I'd grab their attention in my green jacket and orange mittens. "Stop shooting! Do you see me? Stop!" Suddenly, I was afraid for my life. They must see me. How could they not? Why would they shoot toward me if they see me? Were they trying to scare me? I shouldered my bike and kept walking, then noticed they'd left the tracks. I hiked under the railroad bridge and to the parking lot. There I ran into a friend but told him I had to have words with these two guys.

"Were you the ones shooting?" I asked, recognizing the rabbit hunter. They were. "Didn't you see me out there?" "We saw you." They told me that those bullets hadn't come as close to me as I thought: "you were hearing the echoes," one said. "That was not an echo," I told them, "it was just feet away from me." I replayed in my mind the sound of the bullet sailing past me then hitting something in the grass. "But we were shooting into the ground." I suggested that it had ricocheted off something, like a rock. I didn't have much else to say. They didn't think they'd done anything wrong. If they had, they probably wouldn't have been in the parking lot when I returned.

I should have written down their license plate so I could have reported it - something about this had to be illegal - but I didn't. Instead I wrote a note to put on my friend's windshield so they would know that I'd tried.

It was a beautiful day at Twenty Mile. The sun was shining, there was barely a breath of wind. I didn't do much riding, but I am glad to be alive and unhurt.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

icy rides

Bicycling on river ice is a bit like riding on the narrowest singletrack next to a steep drop-off, because for both, you don't want anything else on your mind. Just focus on the line. Where to ride. As soon as you stop paying attention, something bad could happen.

The worst thing that happened on my ride on Monday was that my toes got a little wet. But when the temperature is hovering in the mid-teens and you're maybe five or six miles from the car, the last thing anyone in a group wants to hear is: "Water got into my boots." Dang.

Following Jon up-river.*

It was my third ice-biking outing in four days thanks to the big melt that arrived with the new year. Snow had been blown away or melted as the temperatures soared into the 50s. After several days of warmth, temperatures dropped, freezing the mudflats and rivers. The cold refroze ice on Portage Lake that had begun to break up in the warmth. It's not unusual to get a few of these Chinook-driven warm spells followed by a good long freeze each winter, but I don't remember any last winter. That would explain why I did so much snow biking and skiing while my ice bike sat neglected until spring break-up.

On Monday, I was riding with Jon and our friend, Scott, on the Placer River. We'd started on the frozen slough between the two channels of the river that flow under the Seward Highway and into Turnagain Arm near Portage. We dropped onto the west channel, wary of the mirror-like reflection on the ice that made it look like it was still wet from a recent overflow event. Then we made our way up the river. An ice skater had been there before us which helped mark the sections of good ice.

River ice has so many different characteristics. Black or clear ice seemed to be the most solid. White ice was usually very thin and often suspended a few inches above the next thin layer which could have other similar thin suspended layers beneath it from the changes in the water level. (It reminds me of the dough of baklava which seems almost impossibly thin and flaky.) In a few places thick, clear ice held white shelves of ice in place beneath the surface. Sometimes bubbles were frozen inches below the surface. I could have spent hours just studying all the shapes in the ice.

On the marsh between the two channels of the Placer River.

Playing among the dead trees.*

Looking at all the layers and shapes, at the frost-covered plants and cracks could be pretty distracting if I hadn't always been aware that I was on a river where the frigid water could pull me under the ice and out to the saltwater. Nothing terrrible happened when I stepped onto ice that pancaked layer upon layer under my foot. The water went into the boot before I realized what was happening and had lowered my other foot. I climbed back onto the bank and stood there. Do I take off my boots and wring out my socks? Go immediately back to the car and get into dry socks and boots? Though I could feel the water settling between the toes on my right foot and barely drip onto the toes of my left, I decided to continue on, but promised to pay attention to my toes and to the ice.

Luckily, my battery-powered heated insoles were cranking out some warmth and both my sock layers were 100 percent wool. We kept riding up-river, over some crusty snow sections that had been tracked out by snowmachines before the warm spell. Finally we reached a section where the river was almost entirely open with running water rushing from the mountains to the inlet. After a snack, and studying the situation, we turned around, and with the sun at our backs headed down-river.

Open water on the Placer.

Riding where the water level has dropped.*

Sure, it's one of those weeks when the people with snow bikes are whining a bit, but having the option of riding the ice on studded-tires makes the cold days much more fun. I'd almost forgotten how much I love getting out onto the ice.

Me, Scott and Jon - soaking up the sun on the Placer.*

*These photos taken by Scott Christy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

a new year's writing vibe

I'm starting the year with a positive vibe. Maybe watching fireworks from our friends' deck as we toasted the new year with a group of friends was just what I needed to shake loose the melancholy which had taken hold over the last few months. As we were leaving for the party, I felt I was forcing myself out of the house. But once we were there, enjoying snacks, drinks and stories, I didn't want to be anyplace else. I gained inspiration by talking about ideas and projects for this new year. I know I'm lucky to have good friends.

The first few days of the new year have been active & very productive: a snow bike ride on the 1st; helping Jon install a window on the 2nd. Loading old aluminum siding for the recycler, sorting through boxes of inner tubes, organizing my office. Oh, and not writing.

I've been trying to figure out this dullness in my writing; this fear of putting much of anything (my thoughts & ideas) into words. I'd thought about working on my fiction, but something was holding me back.

Then I got an email from the 49 Writers to attend a "Resolve to Write" gathering. I want to go. I'll know lots of the people, but before I commit I need to actually resolve to write. I started thinking about what might be holding me back. It's not that I'm lazy; I'm a damn hard worker when I'm dedicated to a project. So what is it? On Tuesday, it occurred to me: fear.

This is very strange and it all goes back to what I was working on last summer. I was trying to remember some of the things my mom had told us while growing up; strange things people did. For example, she once heard that the township snowplow driver had gotten stuck and stopped at someone's house. The woman who lived there let him in to use the phone, then offered him something to eat. She then wiped a plate on her pants leg and served him pancakes on that plate! I know; that's a crazy strange thing to do. But I started thinking about what kind of distraction could drive a person to do something like that and used that as the basis of the story. I used a few of these mysteries as writing cues.

Then in early August, I began writing something that was somewhat based on my family. It was about a woman who returns from a wilderness trip and learns that her father has died. I described how he died with a level of detail that included him falling in his bedroom, hitting his head and dying. Ten days after I began the story, my dad fell, hit his head and died. He may have had a heart attack, but that doesn't matter. What mattered and what kept flooding my thoughts when I tried to write any other fiction was this story.

It wasn't as though I was prescient. He'd fallen before. When I'd visited two months earlier I watched him standing with the wobbliness of a child just learning to walk. I saw the fall coming and I chose to write what I saw coming. So when I got the call and went back to Wisconsin, there was a certain strangeness to knowing what I'd written.

I know that what I write is not destined to become reality. (Remember that show about the little boy whose drawings come true?) And maybe writing about this event ahead of time was my way of preparing myself for what was to come. My biggest challenge is to break away from this fear I have and start writing stories that hold the same level of intensity and truth as the one that I was trying to write in early August.

But truth (even in fiction) - truth about human nature and relationships - is very tough to write about. I guess the fact that it has haunted me for all these months means that I am capable to taking my writing to an uncomfortable level. The level where the truth of human existence can be found. I think I'm beginning to understand. And I hope that through understanding I can finally sit down and embrace my writing. It's a new year; I need to write.