Thursday, October 3, 2013

Ester Dome Singletrack

Autumn mountain biking on my favorite single-track trails in the state: Ester Dome.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs, a fall tradition.

My sister was visiting, so we brought her along on our fall tradition of enjoying the colors from Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs in the Chena River State Recreation Area. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Manley Hot Springs

Hurry, take a picture quickly.  The brilliance of fall colors in Alaska does not last long.  In just a blink of an eye between warm summer days under the midnight sun and moments before the frozen landscape of winter is cast...autumn strikes!

Alaska doesn't have the variety of hardwoods I grew up surrounded by on the East coast; maples, oak, and poplar, but birch and aspen create orange and yellow hues across interior Alaska and the low brush of the tundra turns a burnt fiery red.

On a quest to enjoy the fleeting fall colors, we drove from Fairbanks out across the Minto flats to the end of the road, Manley Hot Springs!

Manley, like most end of the road destinations in Alaska has the quaint charm of a place where time seems to have stood still.  The single store in town that sells gas, groceries and basic necessities is only open from 4-6pm.  Mail comes by plane three times a week.  People give friendly waves and no one rushes anywhere.  The illusion of time standing still was quickly shattered as we watched a helicopter fly over installing a 180 ft cell tower.  Even here at the end of the road, technology pushes us forward, just when we thought we could escape.

We had our choice of prime camp sites along the slough in Manley.  As we sat around our campfire we watched hunters launch boats, motoring down the slough and out to the Tanana River.  We made the journey on foot, via 4 miles of road between Manley and the true end of the road, the banks of the Tanana River.

 Jack and Jodi love to be in places where they can run free and explore.  New sights, new smells, light rain and a cool breeze make for a pre-winter husky heaven.

 Stopping to take in the views we heard geese honking good-bye to Alaska as they headed south, chasing warmer weather.

Ah, the beauty of a birch forrest.  Kesler Woodward's paintings of birch have fueled our fascination with birch forests.  Read Peggy Shumaker's poems in Blaze to further the experience even more.

 When we got to the banks of the Tanana we attempted a family portrait.

The sun shone between the clouds in a brief reprieve from the rain! Twenty-three miles up this river is where the bartender/cook from the Manley Roadhouse told us he spends his winters.  No need to feel crowed by the confines of town with 70 other people hanging around all winter.  He came from Florida to live out in the "bush" and experience real Alaska.

I saved the best of Manley for last!  There isn't actually a commercial hot springs resort still open in Manley, but Chuck and Gladys Dart have concrete pools in their greenhouse where you can soak in water piped from the hot springs while looking up at a canopy of grape vines.  We called ahead from the inn to make a reservation and for $5 per person we had the whole place to ourselves for an hour.


Gladys told me on the phone that we were in for a real rustic Alaskan experience.  I'm not sure rustic would be the way I would describe it at all, it was an exotic romantic getaway!  The baths at Manley Hot Springs were well worth the journey!

~Gretchen (photos by Sam)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wood Fired Cedar Hot Tub

For years Sam has dreamed about getting a wood fired cedar hot tub.  Whenever we would get back from a long run, bike ride or hike Sam would mention, "wouldn't it be great if we could soak in a hot tub right now?"  So recently we decided to quite literally take the plunge and we purchased a kit to build our own cedar hot tub.  

With the help of a few good friends, Sam poured a concrete slab a few weeks ago to be the base where we placed the hot tub.

The tub rests on four cedar joists and we installed a drain that we can thread a garden hose onto for easy emptying.  In the winter, emptying it will probably mean that we have our very own ice skating rink as well!

Sam pounded as I held staves in place.  It was like assembling a giant puzzle, making the pieces fit together with just the right spacing.

We read and re-read the directions, trying to make sure we got each step just right.  The trick was making all the flat boards  come together to create a circle.

The wood is gorgeous western red cedar.  It smells wonderful and has beautiful natural color.  Cedar is supposed to weather well and not need any finishing or coatings.


We eventually got all of the staves onto the base and then made adjustments to ensure the gaps between the boards were as minimal as possible.


 Metal hoops hold the tub all together. The design is basically like a giant barrel.  We made many adjustments, hammering on the staves and hoops to get the tub as round and tight as possible.

I built the fence as Sam assembled the benches.

The wood stove is mounted onto the wall of the tub.  It will actually be submerged in the water, efficiently heating the water all around it.  The great thing about a wood fired hot tub is that it heats quickly and all it needs is wood, no electricity or other fuel.

The "Snorkel Stove" was designed by a UAF graduate student with his ski buddies.  So it is a Fairbanks original idea, although now they are sold by a Seattle based company.
Let the filling begin!  Our first filling took quite a while.  Initially the water leaked from many small cracks.  As the water level rose, the tub looked like it was bursting at the seams.  The instruction manual assured us that leaks are common and that as long as there are not large openings the wood will swell and become more water tight as it saturates. As of our second filling, it is already holding water much better.  We no longer have gushing leaks, just a few steady drips.  Hopefully we can get it water tight and heated up enough to soak very soon!

Our well water is a brisk 40 degrees and a fire cannot be started until the water completely covers the stove, so initially the tub was more suitable for polar bears than people.  Once it is full and a good fire is going it is supposed to be able to heat up 30 degrees an hour!

The Snorkel Duck was our "Free Gift" that came with the kit!

Monday, August 6, 2012


While cleaning up our armada of packrafts after the last trip to Denali I noticed several things about two  different generations I thought should be photographed, compared, and noted.  These little boats really are truly amazing.  If you don't know much about these boats, they are made by Alpacka.  Originally manufactured in Chugiak, Alaska.  The factory is now located in Colorado.

I'm not sure when I first heard about packrafts, it was certainly after moving to Alaska.  About four years ago I started looking out for these hot little boats.  Three years ago I was lucky enough to borrow a couple from a friend.  My first adventures were Crow Pass and 20-Mile River.  Click on the title to checkout old posts about these original adventures.  

Now, getting to the point.  The photographs below compare an older, maybe even close to original generation Alpacka, age unknown, with a brand new 2012 model I just bought from Beaver Sports.
The old green boat is comparable to a Alpacka Llama.  Its the largest of the sport packraft models.  It comfortably fits me, and I'm 6'3".  Gretchen had more problems piloting this large boat.  She is 5'9".  So we've been talking about buying a newer, smaller, Alpacka Yukon Yak for a couple seasons.  I'm really glad we waited for the new boat geometry to come out.  Despite having a smaller cockpit, the overall length of the boat is longer.  
The bow of the newer boats is much "pointier."  This really helped the boat cut through the splash while also keeping the bow from bouncing repeatedly off the water as my old model tends to do.  A lot less "tippy."

The stern of the new boats is also much pointier when looked at from above.  Overall the shape and geometry of these new boats is more in tune with traditional hard shell whitewater boats, I think.

The real difference of the stern is when you look at it from the side profile.  It almost has a bird beak shape to it, with a rise coming up above the back.
The bow of the new boat has a similar rise to the old boat, but again, being narrower, really helps the boat cut through the waves and stay closer to the water.  I think surface area of the bottom of the boat also has a lot to do with it, as you'll see in later photographs.

Here is the bow and stern of my much loved old Alpacka.  Very different when you compare side profiles of the new and old boats.

Looking at these boats from above the changes are also obvious.  The yellow Yukon Yak is made for a smaller paddler then the Llama, but the shape alone is also slightly different.  The new Yukon Yak only weighs five pounds.  I think my older Llama is a tad heavier around seven or eight pounds.

A quick search on youtube shows paddlers are doing amazing things with these new boats, and the epicenter is Alaska!

There are lots of places to purchase or order these fine boats.  There is also a great book out by Roman Dial called PACKRAFTING!