Wednesday, May 18, 2011

bear aware

Biking to work on Tuesday, I took our summer route: up Campbell Airstrip Road and crossing the Campbell Tract to reach Elmore Road. I was looking forward to being away from the roadway; away from the noise, traffic and fumes. A short ride through the woods. I threw the camera in my vest pocket just in case I saw anything interesting.

Just before I crossed the second mushing tunnel on CA Road, I saw three bears. Possibly the same bears I'd seen almost two weeks earlier. They were at the bottom of the embankment. I was on the road, the path and steep slope between us. I almost kept riding, but pulled up to the guardrail and leaned my bike against it while I pulled out the camera.

The bears behaved as we hope they will: they began moving away without taking much interest in me. A car went by. I snapped pictures as the sow and cubs began weaving among the birch, stunted spruce and tussocks of the park. I noticed a light tremble in my hand as I watched. My cleats scraped against the asphalt and one of the cubs jumped. They slowly moved away, deeper into the tangle of brush and last year's tall grass.
not much color yet

I guess it's appropriate that this evening I'm going to attend a "bear aware" event with my mountain biking group, the Alaska Dirt Divas. I'm sure I'll find out what I shouldn't be doing. Good timing; the bears are out, the trails are drying and I want to go mountain biking.

what do i think?

I was working with a customer at the shop on Saturday. Nice guy; pleasant to work with. Then I learned that he was a lobbyist, representing a diverse group of clients. Doesn't matter who. We were talking about something and I don't know how we got on the topic of taxes. But Alaska doesn't have a tax, he said. No, I conceded, not directly out of our checkbooks (for those who still use checks now and then). But there are other ways we pay for things that make them feel like taxes. For example? he invited.

Not the typical conversation I get into when helping someone pick out shoes for their new mountain bike. I had to think fast of an example. And so, I began: In basic introductory economics, we learn the idea of opportunity cost. What we spend on one thing prevents us from spending on something else. We spent millions in public money on a jail we can't afford to open; how much on a ferry that has no docks between which to sail. Yet, thousands of Alaskans have no health insurance. For all the money we've spent on those and other projects that have received federal and/or state funds, we could have funded coverage for all those people.

The "tax" is how much more my employer has to pay in premiums. It's how much more I have to pay out-of-pocket before I've reached my deductible ($2,000). It's how much more each of us is charged to help cover uninsured individuals. And I'm one of the lucky ones: working retail and getting benefits is a rarity.

I know people who work hard, but whose employers don't provide any benefits. For many small businesses that do, the costs are becoming very high and they may end up canceling their coverage.

The lobbyist didn't give me his view of my opinion. Maybe he'd never looked at it that way; I don't know if I'd ever looked at it that way. But if nothing else, if I could influence the person who talks to the people who make the laws, who knows? If you never speak up about what's important to you, nothing will ever happen. I think everyone in our country, no matter their income of job status, should have access to affordable, quality health care. Nothing radical about that. Is there?

On a side note, the day after I began writing this, an article appeared in the paper about yet another Alaskan project that has gone over budget and will now be scaled back because it's harder to get federal funds for these kinds of large projects. More opportunity wasted. Such a shame.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

adventures in commuting

I had a great ride home this evening, and it wasn't just because my Fargo was dressed up with flowers on the handlebar. The air was cleansed by the rain. Just a few sprinkles landed on me after I left the shop at around 9. I could see some clouds moving over toward the inlet, but there was hardly a breeze.

Drivers cooperated as I rode through the construction at the Seward Highway. Pickup trucks waited for me. People backed away from intersections when they saw me. They yielded when they had the right-0f-way. Along Elmore Road, I saw two moose browsing in a meadow near the mushing trails.

I turned onto the path alongside the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, passed the ballfields and climbed a small hill at Tudor Center Drive. That's when I saw three black bears on the north side of the avenue. I stopped and turned my bike sideways on the trail, prepared to backtrack if I had to.

It was a sow and two cubs. They were shiny and their fur rippled as they moved together and began running across the road. Bear cubs sometimes seem like they could tumble head-over-heels at any moment; their legs seem so small in proportion to their bodies. The family crossed two lanes of pavement, the median and another two lanes as a few cars slowed to let them pass. I watched and waited; saw them disappear around a fence and into the forest.

People have been seeing bears on the trails on the edge of town: in a municipal park a little closer to the mountains and in the state park. I wasn't expecting to see this family tonight but it put a big smile on my face to see my first bears of the year.

Just a side note:
I can't let this moment pass without mentioning that before I climbed the little hill near Tudor Center, I'd noticed the wide underpass that was built under the road. It includes a branch of the paved trail system and a wide grassy area. Planners said it would be a safe wildlife crossing, preventing animals from crossing the road and getting hit by cars. I think I'd rather I encounter the bears at street level as I did this evening instead of under the overpass.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

commuting encounters

I'm half-way through my commitment, working at the shop for the two busiest months of the year. It's a good time to put in some hours: it's consistently busy so the time flies, and the riding is not so interesting right now. It's that awkward season between winter's snow riding and the dirt trails opening. Riding to work on the pavement is my main form of biking right now. As Jon says: I'm pretty good at biking 9 miles fast.

During the commute, there's lots to watch out for. Glass on the paths, potholes and mispositioned curb cuts. Motor vehicles, of course. People and dogs and piles of gravel. Last week I had a few moments of frustration. First, there was the pedestrian on Lake Otis Parkway. I saw him from a distance as he looked at the bus schedule. I slowed a little as he stepped away from it. I called out to him. As I drew closer, he looked at the traffic that was coming from the other direction, stepped in front of me then began crossing the street. He neither heard nor saw me even though I was shouting to get his attention.

Finally, as I rode past, I said: Dude! You just stepped in front of me! He stopped in the street, turned around and looked at me with a blank stare, white cords dangling from his ears. Yes, I should always expect that pedestrians have tuned out and won't hear me no matter how loud I ring my bell or shout "Biker! Biker behind you!" I'm used to car drivers not paying attention and not seeing me; it becomes more annoying when it's a pedestrian.

A truck driver did notice me a couple days later. He noticed Jon as well. We were riding in. I was on my road bike and we'd decided that rather than biking on the root- and frost-heaved path along Abbott Road (between Elmore and Lake Otis), we would ride on the road. There was still lots of gravel on the shoulder, but we managed to find enough clean pavement between the white line and the loose gravel to make for a fast ride.

Then I heard some shouts and the words "bike path!" hurled at me. As the pickup drove by, I raised my hand in a wave and a peace sign. Whatever. Then he yelled at Jon, who also waved. (Jon later told me he thought the driver was someone from one of the other shops teasing him. I've had friends do that to me: shout at me to get off the road, then wave madly as they go by.) Just after he passed Jon, Jon made a left turn and I followed so we could cut through a parking lot. The driver was paying attention through his mirror because he turned into the next driveway for the parking lot and headed my way. I stopped and prepared for a chat.

It went something like this:
Truck man: You should be on the path, not on the road. Me: I was riding in the bike lane. TM: That's not a bike lane; it doesn't have a bike painted on it. Me: I'm on my way to work. I ride on the road because there are so many intersections on the path and people don't stop at them to look. More people are hit by cars on the path than on the road. Drivers turning right are dangerous. TM: I don't want to hear your reasons. I'm sick of you bikers everywhere. I have a bike but I ride it on trails, when I'm hunting. Me: Well, I'm on my way to work.

The encounter happened so fast. I'm not entirely sure of the order of the comments. His volume was rising (along with his blood pressure) as he became more excited. I felt strong. I knew I was right. He was the one who instigated this encounter when he could have just continued past. It was just after 10 a.m. and maybe his day had started out crappy and he was taking it out on us, but I figure every encounter is a chance to educate. Perhaps I should thank him for noticing us.

Me: I just appreciate that you're watching out for cyclists! TM: I'm going to call DOT about this. Me: That reminds me, I'm going to call DOT to get them to sweep the shoulder. Truck Man grumbled and was turning red. Finally he began driving away and headed out the parking lot, returning in the direction he came. I don't think Jon had a chance to get more than a few words in.

It's strange; about half our route is on paths and just before we'd hopped on this short stretch of road, Jon and I had been talking about bike safety. Earlier that morning I'd read a Compass piece in the paper by a friend of the cyclist who was killed in early April after being struck and dragged by a car. Anchorage police had ruled the accident to be the fault of the cyclist, but the writer wasn't convinced. I'm not convinced either. An experienced cyclist is ever cautious. Aware of the danger spots on our familiar routes. We make choices based on past experiences. We know where it's safest to ride.

Jon and I made a choice last week to ride on a short stretch of road. I was riding safely and felt safer than I do when riding on the path. I don't want anyone to think I'm a big risk-taker. Far from it. I'll ride the road when there's room and it's clear. I'll ride the path when the road isn't any good. I'll hope the cars give me some space when I'm on the shoulder and will stop before the path when I'm on the pathway. Yeah, it could happen. But I'm not counting on it.

Whether riding legally on the road or on the path, my goal is to get to and from work safely. Is it too much to ask other people to pay as much attention to their surroundings as I do? Whether they're in a motor vehicle, on foot or on a bicycle. Sharing the road and sharing the trails aren't just nice sentiments, they are good practices that require people to be alert. I'll do my best to keep my eyes open and to give people plenty of room. Including when I'm in my car.