Saturday, August 27, 2011

granite counter tops

Jon rounding the first corner.

On Labor Day two years ago, Jon and I began our odyssey of home upgrades by tearing the deck off the back of the house. What followed was two months of work that included a garage expansion and some structural repairs. We also added a prow-front to our early '70s split-entry house. (Now more than two people can stand in the entry at one time.) The project involved a new foundation for both additions.

After the initial work was done by the contractors, we had an energy audit and began an 18-month (with gaps here & there) campaign to improve the energy efficiency of the house. Insulated the attic to R-49, replaced the windows and the sliding deck door, added caulking to gaps and installed new bathroom fans. Oh, and we had a new boiler and water heater installed. We came in just under the deadline for an Alaska program that reimburses part of what people spend on energy upgrades based on how much their homes improved. In June, our home was declared "5 Star" by our energy rater. That's pretty darn good.

But before the energy rater left, Jon and I asked if it would be worth it for us to follow through with Jon's plan to excavate and insulate along the outside of the foundation. The entire foundation. The answer was "yes." Since we plan to be here for some time, Jon really wanted to do this project and had been researching for months by talking with experts, visiting a few informative websites (including this one) and making plans. I was not so keen on the idea.

Where Jon sees a challenge he wants to take on, I see an insurmountable project that will take over every part of our daily lives, take us away from doing fun things (like hiking, biking & camping) or going on trips. I really like going on trips. I wasn't always as enthusiastic and encouraging as I could have been, but when it comes to Jon and his ideas about the house, he is usually right.

After a few dedicated days of digging a trench around most of the foundation (with the help of a friend), removing shrubs and a tree we didn't want to remove but had been planted way too close to the house and pressure washing the dirt off the concrete, we were ready for the materials.

There are a few methods for doing this outer wall insulation. Some said to put the sticky vapor barrier against the concrete, then put the foam board against it and back fill. The more we researched and thought about it, the more this didn't make sense. Why leave the foam insulation outside the barrier when we've read that even foam loses some of its insulating value when wet? Jon posed the question on one of the building sites and another person concurred. Now we were set.

On Friday, our friend Kip came over to get us started. First they applied the barrier along the footer, then glued the foam board to the foundation. After that, we added the barrier over the board and up onto the wood sheathing just above the foundation. After Kip left, Jon and I continued into the evening until two sides of the garage were done. By then, we were much more confident working with the tar-like sticky backing of the barrier and we were still getting along.

One of the things that bugs us (Jon especially) is that our general contractor never talked about this method (or any method) of insulating when he was working with us daily on this expansion. When talking with our energy rater about it in June, he commented that most people would rather spend that money on a granite counter top which people can see rather than on something nobody would ever see because it's buried under the back fill. But I know we'll see the difference in the gas bills over the next two decades we expect we'll be in the house. And in case you're wondering: we will be redoing the kitchen. And the counters, I think we'll use laminate.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


A few weeks ago, trail building began on the Kincaid singletrack project. About nine miles of skinny trail will wind through the park on the west side of Anchorage. Not as steep as the STA trails that were built in 2008 on the east side, but the same group is in charge: Singletrack Advocates.

It's been a rainy month but the handwork is coming along. The volunteers go through after the Sweco to cut remaining roots from the tread, then shape the trail so that water will flow off instead of pooling in low spots or eroding a channel on slopes. Did I mention volunteer crews are spending a few hours a night doing this work?

This moose knows the trails aren't ready yet.

Imagine the dismay and utter frustration when one crew last week was working on building a banked turn, only to have a pair of impatient mountain bikers ride by on the unfinished, soft trail. Mind you, at every possible trail entrance are orange fencing and signs announcing the trails are under construction and not open to ride. Imagine how much more incensed our group is that one person has complained, yes complained, on a forum that our trail project is affecting access to the places he's biked for years! You can read my friend Tim's open letter to the guy and others like him here. Tim's good at using the f-bomb; I am not.

That doesn't mean I'm any less ticked at this guy & people like him. But you know, in this world, there are givers and takers. I always hope that I can balance what I gain by helping with building or maintaining the trails and encouraging my friends to do the same. When I go out on the new trails when they open, I want to go out knowing I helped, not thinking that I cut a rut in new trail that another crew had to then fix.

But there will always be takers who think it's only about them. Fortunately, in this project, they are outnumbered.

Friday, August 19, 2011

making plans

Last month I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to do a beach ride from Kasilof to Homer on the fat-tire bikes. Then I didn't make any plans. When she brought it up a week or so ago I realized that the summer was fast slipping away and we'd better get planning. I pulled out the tide table book and started studying, looking for the lowest high tides in an area with tides that rise over 20 feet.

On the beach near Kasilof with my Mukluk.

Now it looks like we'll head out sometime around Labor Day. We may start at Clam Gulch instead of Kasilof, but we're still working on the plans. I think biking the western shoreline of the Kenai Peninsula to Homer is going to become one of those summer rides that is anticipated by fat-tire cyclists as much as a hard-packed singletrack through snow on a moonlit night. I know when I got my taste of it while at our set-net site in June I wanted to just keep on riding to see how far I could go.

View Larger Map
Of course, we wouldn't be on the road.

And as if I wasn't already planning it, the crew from Salsa, a filmmaker and some friends made the ride earlier this week. Doesn't that give you something to look forward to?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

garden tour

In a prelude to August, on Sunday I joined my friends biking the annual Anchorage Garden Tour. The more than 32-mile loop took us to the Anchorage Hillside, to South and West Anchorage and even to good old Spenard. Corinne and Paul have biked the tour each year for several years. Their friends, Roger and Pam, started joining them a few years ago, and now I think I'm hooked as well.

The day started out teasingly warm and sunny as we climbed from Main Tree to Hillside Drive. We could see a storm in Turnagain Arm as we began descending on De Armoun Road. It was while we were exploring the third garden in all its creativity, that sprinkles began and stayed with us for most of the afternoon. Luckily, we had all packed our rain jackets and the fast descent on De Armoun was behind us.

My friend Corinne took this photo; you can see her reflection
in the garage window. Her husband Paul is on the right.

Some things I liked about the tour: exploring neighborhoods while we picked our route through the city; the surprises in the gardens be they whimsical sculptures or carvings, or interesting uses of driftwood. Of course I liked seeing how people designed their flower beds, using similar flowers in a bed or using contrasting flowers. I often wonder how people pull together great ideas to come up with something so pretty to look at. I also liked the structures: benches, gates, water gardens.

Besides being an opportunity to get garden ideas, bicycling around different parts of Anchorage gives me all kinds of inspiration for our ongoing remodel project. It is reassuring to notice that ours is not the only renovation happening. And once the outside of the house is done, maybe I'll be able to put some of those garden ideas into play in our yard. There's a goal.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

untangling the threads

A couple of missing segments; that's what
happens when the lines are made of tape.

Alaska has such a variety of trails. Point-to-point backcountry routes on which you cannot get lost (like Johnson Pass); routes that have a few critical intersections for which making a wrong turn will redirect you a few dozen highway miles from your intended destination (I wonder how many people have accidently started down Devil's Pass Trail when they should have been headed to Cooper Landing). Then we have the twisty-turny looped networks of trails such as Kincaid Park in Anchorage. But even more confounding to many riders are the mysteries of Matanuska Lakes & the Crevasse-Moraine trail systems.

Now collectively referred to as the Matanuska Greenbelt Trails, the area includes a state recreation area, a borough (like a county) cross-country ski trail network, trails on a university's experimental farm and some nature trails on a college campus. Wide trails, singletrack and in-between; it's all there. Ask many Anchorage area cyclists and they'll admit they get lost when they ride the trails. A local guide is helpful, but one of my goals is to map out my own big loop that includes a taste of everything and invites people to explore off my route. So last week I headed for Palmer to do a little ride.

Very helpful to find this map on a sign post.

I have always started my rides at Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area (formerly Kepler-Bradley State Park) since the trailhead is closest to Anchorage and I don't have to pay a fee beyond my annual state parking pass. But I wanted to take my time exploring the routes that would most quickly lead to the newest trail loops in the greenbelt: Mooseberry Mesa and the Moose Poop Loop, built in 2005. I didn't have a very detailed map of the route, but picked up a copy of the Crevasse-Moraine map at the trailhead kiosk.

Before starting the ride, I highlighted the route I planned to take so I wouldn't have to guess where my next turn would be. I reset my computer to zero and got my voice recorder set up. Then I was ready to ride. At each "you are here" sign, I snapped a photo to make sure I could keep track of where I was on the map. Having biked it before, I knew roughly where Mooseberry was, yet it wasn't shown on my map. It wasn't until I was close to the Mooseberry entrance that I began seeing it listed on the new signs that have been installed (thanks to generous donations).

See, that really is the name of the trail.

One thing I've learned about trails is that with a good map, time and some patience, I can find my way. So, while it would have been easy for me to ask someone which route to take or ride with someone familiar with the route, I knew I needed to find the way on my own so that I can learn it, write a description and lead people on it. And now that I've got the Crevasse-Moraine side figured out, Mat. Lakes will be next. But I've spent some time out there over the years; that ride will feel more familiar.

As a side note, before I hit the trails, I stopped in Palmer and spoke with Tony, owner of Backcountry Bikes. He mentioned that someone he knew had recently gone out for a hike at Crevasse-Moraine and quickly gotten turned around. I assured him I'd call if I got lost. I didn't have to call, but it's a reminder that even a lifelong local can sometimes get turned around. Bring a map or pick one up at the kiosk. And don't forget the bug dope.

bike lanes are not parking lanes

Seriously, the mayor would like you to not park in the bike lane!

It may have been a publicity stunt, but it got our attention, didn't it? Read more about it at the Guardian.