Saturday, March 17, 2012

K'enaanee Kkaazoot

This Friday we were excited to host K’enaanee Kkaazoot.  In Koyukon, the Athabascan dialect from down the Yukon River, it means “skiing is fun”.  It is also the name of a local ski club dedicated to getting rural youth out skiing.  Hailing from Fairbanks, made up by volunteers from the Tanana Chiefs Corporation (TCC) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).
All afternoon we played a variety of games, had relay races, and went for a long ski.  While sizing up the students with ski boots someone came running from across the school.  “There’s caribou on the river!”, an aide shouted.  We all rushed to the library and were able to watch at least 20 caribou slowly pick their way through the snow up river.  It was spectacular, and a treat for the out of town ski club guests.

After dressing in ski gear we headed out for fun.  First we played a version of “sharks & minnows” called “caribou and wolves”.  All the caribou lined up shoulder to shoulder.  The wolves, taunted the caribou to ski across a vast open tundra, attempting to tag, or gobble up as many caribou as possible.  Once tagged by a wolf, you become a wolf.  The game continues until all the caribou have become wolves.  I was reminded of my days swimming across Grafton pool during the dog days of summer playing sharks and minnows.
After a round of ski hockey using foam noodles, we had relay races.  Students grouped up in two teams, racing back and forth in front of the school.  Some races were without poles, some races students could only use poles.  It was a great way to practice skiing skills and have fun!
Our last event was a distance race down to the river, around teacher housing, and back to the finish line in front of school. First the girls all lined up and raced each other. Then the boys raced.
After a quick snack we headed out for a long ski. Our route was chosen following the caribou tracks from earlier in the day. Clear blue skies and warmer temperatures made for a majestic ski.
We crossed the Chandalar River and dipped into the woods on the shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The trail twisted and turned across open lakes, then in and out of spruce stands. Though the caribou had moved on, the signs were everywhere: foot prints in the snow, tufts of fur, and shrubs nibbled away.
As a small headwind grew we turned around and headed back to school

Gretchen living the mantra, skiing is fun!

Luckily our ski coaches could carry some of the littler skiers back

Dan blazes into the arctic wilderness

A big thanks to all the folks from K’enaanee Kkaazoot for donating ski jackets, ski equipment, and for spending time teaching us to ski. 

Finally, SPRING!

If you're coming to Arctic Village, don't forget your sunglasses.  And oh yeah, watch out for all the caribou.  Since the beginning of February the caribou have been slowly trickling through the area.  What began as a drip turned into pouring waves of caribou not just on the surrounding frozen lakes, but crossing through the village.  Just yesterday we watched from the school classroom windows as a group of 20 walked across the river, less than 200 yards from the school.

Earlier in the week we heard reports of the herd nestling about a mile from the school.  So we grabbed our skis and camera to investigate.  I have shared a few photographs on FaceBook, but I hope to have several more posted to the Lost in AK Photo site soon.

Skiing amongst them was amazing.  At times they are very self aware of our presence, scurrying away.  Other times they possess the land and don't budge an inch.  Last Sunday I decided to take Gretchen skiing up Daschen'le.  This has become one of my favorite 2+ hour workouts.  Its about 4.5 miles to tree line, just below the main ridge.  Nearly all the ski is up hill, which makes for a fun ride back down.  Check out the video:

Clear blue skies have been pulling night temperatures to around -25.  Day time highs have been approaching -5.  This is my favorite time of year in Alaska.  I wouldn't trade March and April for anything in the world.  You can keep "the great summers" which typical Alaskans enjoy the most, for me its early spring.  For now, if you want to find me, I'll be out skiing!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Summer Planning: Mount Rainier

With less than one quarter of school remaining (9 weeks) and exodus fast approaching, its time to start planning for the summer.  I'm totally stoked about phase one- climb Mount Rainier!  What began in a brief conversation with my "best man" is actually coming to fruition.  Its been way to long since Kevin Shon and I had an adventure together, thus a plan was formulated.  While I've spent the last 6 years tromping around Alaska, Kevin has been spent several seasons in Patagonia.  Beyond just temporary work with Outward Bound, Kevin has really invested himself and become passionate about this new land.  Investing chunks of time into serving others and learning how to be a better steward of the land.  So, we knew our next adventure had to be somewhat on the scale of Alaska and Patagonia.  Not that just getting together wouldn't be enough, but as a friend of mine likes to say- "go big, or go home".

This past week I mailed our permits to the National Park Service office in Washington.  They open for business April 1 to start issuing permits, but allow them postmarked by March 15.  Also along for the climb will be my wife Gretchen, our best friend Amelia Payne, and a good friend of Kev's, Dino.

For now, we have two months to train and "get in the best shape of our life"(as the guidebook suggests).  Our hope is to summit before Memorial Day weekend.  I anticipate that as a high time for visitors with excessive traffic on the mountain.  So we'll have to leave home as soon as school gets out.  Originally I really wanted to remain in the park and hike the Wonderland Trail.  But, as I've been reading several hikers blogs it sounds like large sections of the trail are still covered in snow as late as June.  So, we'll consider returning later in the summer to complete our "Rainer Double Header".

As for the rest of summer, my canvas is still blank, waiting to be filled with colors of adventure.  I'm thinking maybe some sea kayaking.  I'm hearing the Brooks Range calling.  And of course, a requisite visit to McCarthy.  The theme for the summer will be endurance.  I'd like to trek further then ever before.  Staying out longer, traveling lighter, and seeing new places.  So, stay tuned to my blog for updates, videos, and of course photographs.

 These photographs were taken in 2005.  Kevin rode along with me as I drove from Virginia to Washington, reporting for duty my first days as a Lieutenant.  Later, while working on Fort Lewis, I got a weekend pass and went hiking in Rainier National Park.  Hoping someday to return and climb this awesome mountain.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fielding Lake Retreat

After a week of sitting at inservice training, I was ready to get back into the mountains.  Sadly my district doesn’t provide spring break to teachers.  So I did what every rational person sould do, take three personnel days and disappear.  Ever since hiking the Castner Glacier last Fall I have been continually interested in exploring the eastern side of the Alaska Range.  So we rented the Fielding Lake state park public use cabin for two nights.  The cabin and lake are about two miles from the Richardson highway, around mile 200.  If you’re heading North from Glenallen the pull off is right after Paxson and Summit Lake.

The southern side of the lake is dotted with private cabins.  In the Summer it might feel crowded, but in the Winter we had it all to ourselves.  It was obvious heavy winds rip through the valley.  The lake was crusted over with some of the hardest wind slab I have ever seen.  The western side of the lake was blown down to exposed ice.

I had a funny experience prior to leaving town on Friday.  While waiting in line at Fred Myers Grocery in Fairbanks I felt a slight tapping on my back.  I turned around and saw one of my 7th grade students.  Several of my students came into town with the native dance team for a competition.  We briefly chatted until he noticed I had three bundles of firewood in my shopping cart.  Suddenly his eyes grew big and a confused look came over his face.  “Why are you buying wood from the grocery store” he asked?  I had to explain I was going camping, and wanted to be prepared, but he wasn’t buying it.  I asked if he thought I could just walk around Fairbanks with a chainsaw cutting down trees.  He still couldn’t comprehend why anybody would buy wood here.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Iditarod 2012

As it is quickly becoming a tradition, Gretchen and I made the pilgrimage to Anchorage for the start of the Iditarod sled dog race.  This year was extra special.  Our friends Justin and Rebecca at SnowHook Kennels asked for last minute help as “handlers”.  This meant Gretchen put on her official arm band and went behind the scenes escorting sixteen rambunctious canines to the starting line.  Despite a sled carrying three full grown people, and the help of ten people, sixteen dogs managed to drag them forward.  After a few moments its not hard to see the power these creatures have.  They are magnetically drawn towards Nome, a continuous thrust of power forward. 

Racing dogs are just so photogenic.  I lingered for a while, every few seconds snapping a photograph as they continued to model and show off for the crowds.  All images are reduced to small thumbnail size, but click on an image to view in larger slideshow format.

The center blue eyed dog reminds us a lot of our Jack-Jack, though not related by blood.

This is the infamous Whitey-Lance that ran away during Justin’s 2010 rookie year.  Despite having to drop from the race, thankfully after a couple days he was found near a checkpoint.  Now Whitey always wears his official “Where’s Whitey” waldo-striped bandana.

Gretchen provided a lot of moral support and love during the pre-race activities.  Most of the dogs were already booted, harnessed, and hooked up, so she just sat for a quick visit.

Justin and Rebecca Savidis of Willow, Alaska.  Team Showhook Kennel.

One of the things I love most about Iditarod is how everything is centered around the dogs.  They are the ultra athletes.  The blissful joy they get from running and competing is obvious in the energy they exhibit from the streets of Anchorage to the frozen Yukon River.  The mushers are merely the means for which these dogs get to compete.  I’m not trying to down play the importance of the musher as care giver or decision maker in this race.  But merely emphasizing the admiration I have for these dogs, and the attention they get.  I can think of few other sports where animals take on this esteemed status, almost overplaying that of the humans involved.
We’ll be following the Last Great Race closely online.