29 March 2009

Sh!t's blowin' up

So, apparently there's active volcanoes in the AK.   About a week ago, Mt. Redoubt started going off. 

This was after about two months of.."It's gonna blow.....no, it seems ok.....no, it's gonna blow anytime now.....nope, looks ok......oh, any second now......"   Finally, after a few weeks of total radio silence....ka-boom. You can chek out the Alaska Volcano Observatory's extremely ugly & poorly designed website to follow the latest 'splosions & what-not.   These cats make FEMA look competent. (yeah, I know....I just took a shot at underfunded scientists.....who, by the quality of their work, are still stealing money... )

The site does have some good photos, though, including this one......FROM OUTER SPACE!!!

directly beneath the
photo was the notation: 

Ash cloud seen in the geostationary MTSAT data, courtesy of the National Weather Service, processed by the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison . We are at the extreme edge of the view for the satellite which is over the equator in Asia.

Picture Date: March 26, 2009 17:30:00
Image Creator: Dehn, Jonathan
Image courtesy of the National Weather Service.
Please cite the photographer when using this image.

So who do I cite here?  Hal-9000 satellite actually took the photo, no?  Does Jonathan Dehn have any credentials?  A quandary.....

Anyway, here's a dope nightime shot, featuring lightning in the plume...

There's been a couple of eruptions per day, each one followed by the best "sky is-falling" hysteria the local media can muster.  "AshHole Watch 2009" is how the Daily Show might bill it.


What's it meant for DK?  Well, I check "Deal With Fall-Out From Volcano Eruption" off my list. 

The stuff does get everywhere, and it's not recommended for machines, animals, etc.  So a combination of preventative (tarping equipment, putting wee little dust masks on all the chickens)  & post eruption (broom, shovel) measures are taken.  It's also wreaked havoc with the sattelite wi-fi connection, as this is the first I've been able to get on-line in several days.

this was post-shoveling this morning after snow & ash fall yesterday   (the gray is ash)

the ash floating in the air has produced some interesting skies, however - starlight at night is quite twinkly, and this sweet double sun-dog appeared the other day:

followed in the evening by a nice sun-set dog  :

All in all, the volcano's been a low-impact diversion thus far. 

The real story of my past week has involved multiple runs to town for supplies.  "The Big Melt" is beginning, and were racing the river to get everything in.  Last night was the 4th straight day of roundtrips, preceded by 3 days of running.   Had trouble lifting my arms to wash my face.  Going out again tomorrow.  Details (just how much fuel could 3 people possibly need?  when does one determine if their snowmobile is on fire?) and photos to come....

16 March 2009

where I live

just a quick pic as a reference to what I mean by "out in the woods" - came across this while looking for other shots.    It's a summertime photo taken out of the window of a float plane on it's way into land.  The little white shapes on the right side of the lake are the cabins/compound, the two big white shapes on the horizon are Denali and Mt. Foraker.

06 March 2009

Making a Beer Run, Part II

At 5:15 a.m. the alarm on my cell phone goes off.  Being that I don’t get any cellular signal out here, the device has become a glorified alarm clock and note pad.

I arise, climb down the stairs in my cabin, throw a few logs in the wood-stove, and begin to apply layers of clothing.

Polypropylene union-suit, polar fleece sweatpants, blue jeans, wool sweater #1, wool sweater #2, polar fleece hoodie, insulated Carharrt over-alls, polypro socks, wool socks….and I’m good to go.

Before I actually pull out of the yard, I’ll add a polypro face-mask, beaver fur hat, thin wool gloves, and fingertip-to-forearm fur mitts to the ensemble.  Lookin’ good, lookin’ sexy.  I’ve also got chemical heat-pads in the toes of my boots and in my gloves.  No sense being cold out there or anything.  And frost-bite really sucks, trust me on this one.

Three cups of coffee later, I’m outside in the dark, starting my snowmobile.  If it’s a clear sky, there’s enough moon and star light reflected off the snow that it’s no worries in the seeing things area as I’m walking around and loading the machine.  If it’s a new moon or overcast, then it’s pitch-black time, and I’m using a head lamp to light my way.   With the advent of LED’s, head-lamps nowadays are tiny, sporty things, and they’re a godsend…..but part of me wishes I had one of those big-ass old style coal mine lamp helmets.   Anybody spots one of those on Craig’s List lemme know.

Mike meets me outside, fires up his machine, and we hit the trail.   If we’re out of the yard by 6 a.m., barring any bad weather or mechanical difficulties, we can be at Deshka Landing by 8-830 a.m.

Weather conditions, as you’re reminded daily in the AK, you have no control over.

Mechanical difficulties, on the other hand, you can at least try to see coming.   So part of yesterday’s preparations (post trail grooming) included a snow mobile tune-up.   Fueling up, checking oil & fluids, looking for busted parts (replacing those parts), looking for parts that are on their way to being busted (replacing them just for kicks), checking nuts & bolts, etc, etc.

DK as grease-monkey, you say?     Indeed.    Cracks me up every time as well. Early on I learned that living out here means that whatever you break, you'll be the one fixin' it.   No mechanics, no repair shops.   Necessity is a helluva teacher & motivator.   And you learn not to break things.

At times though, regardless of how many ounces of prevention you pour in, shit just breaks.

Some of the mechanical difficulties we’ve run into with the snow-mobiles when making a run include: broken skis, broken suspension parts, dead spark plugs, burning out an engine cylinder, a wheel actually flying off, and my personal favorite…the moment when I looked behind me and saw that the sled I was hauling had actually ripped the hitch out of the back of my machine.

Those are the things that turn a 3 ½ hr ride into a 6-12 hr ordeal.   Fixing a machine on the fly, with make-shift parts (because no matter what tools & spare parts you’ve packed in the snowmobile that day, you won’t have the ones needed at that particular moment), in the middle of a frozen river, with your hands icing up, & then limping home.   Not good times.

But those things won’t happen this time.   So we run out on our freshly groomed trail, drop down onto the Yentna River, roll down the Yentna (which runs roughly East-West) for about 10 miles until it hits the Susitna River, head North on the Su for about 10 miles until it hits the Deshka River, then shoot up the Deshka for about a mile until we hit the landing.   Deshka Landing is a boat-launch in the summer, and a snow-mobile staging/launch area in winter.   Drive the machines up off the river into the parking lot where the truck awaits, and the morning portion of the trip is done.

Another note on nomenclature in the AK: So, the point where the Yentna River runs into the Susitna River is referred to as “Scary Tree” by 90% of the population up here when relating trip stories, giving trail directions, etc.   This is due to a huge, spooky old tree being located on the shore right at the point.   Or it was located there, until it fell into the river 10 years ago. Apparently, creativity and “if it ain’t broke…” go hand in hand up here.   Hearkening back to myPittsburgh days, I like to refer to the point simply as “The Confluence”…. until the blank stares become too annoying…and I say “Scary Tree”.

So, the snow-mobiles are parked and the truck is warmed up.   All that’s left now is to drive 60 miles into Anchorage(the ugliest city in the state, and possibly the hemisphere), pick up mail, go to Costco, go to Wal-Mart, go to Home Depot/Lowes, pick up any needed meds at the Pharmacy, pick up any needed meds at the Liquor store, fill up a few 55 gallon drums with fuel, fill up a few 100 lb Propane bottles, do any other errands my sister has put on the list (who knows? maybe today is the day we pick up 1,000 lbs of chicken feed), drive back out to the Landing, load everything onto the sleds, drop down on the river and do this morning’s 42 mile ride in reverse.

Because we don’t go to town that often in the winter, when we do go, we haul as much as possible to make the trip worth our time.   We have 3 or 4 different sleds we’ll use depending on the loads, and each of our machines can haul about 2,000 lbs max. (we try to keep it around 1,800 to avoid punishing the machines, but we’ve pushed it to 2,200 – time was running out on the rivers staying frozen)

So, what does that look like?

plywood and a giant sack o' miscellaneous (I wouldn't recommend stacking a load quite so tall, as the sled do get a bit tippy.....)

below is a shot of about 1/2 of the 9 tons of cement we hauled in two winters ago....18,000 lbs....in 60 lb bags....loading & unloading them 2,000 lbs at a time....good times....it's really good times when it's 1 a.m., you're in the middle of the Susitna river, and the sled breaks down. So you unload each one of those bags, fix the sled, load up and roll on. Awesome times. That was also the night, however, that I witnessed the most amazing display of Northern Lights that I (or Mike) had ever seen. We just stopped dead and sat on the river for 20 minutes watching the dance. So I got that going for me.

plywood, lumber, insulation

the sawmill ( I can't say enough good things about this gem...it'll get it's own entry soon enough)

can you ever have too many pallets? (that's Kobuk the Dog in the foreground, the new cabin we're building in the background)

somebody order a spiral staircase?

the shots below are at Deshka Landing, on the absolute final run of the season last year. the "big melt" had already begun, and no one in their right mind was hauling anymore. perhaps the grass & mud peeking through, as well as the fact that we were the only vehicle in the parking lot shoulda been a tip-off. We were about to be isolated for 2 months though, and we needed beer, fuel, groceries, and (of course) plant fertilizer.

fixin' a sled on the Yentna

On a normal run, if we’re home before Midnight, the trip is considered a smashing success. Another reason why we only go to town once a month or so in the winter. As well as the fact that it’s far, far prettier out here in the woods.

05 March 2009

Making a Beer Run, Part I

or……..”How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Trail Work”

or……”Getting Around on the Ice-Planet Hoth”

So, a trip to the grocery store.

The simplest way to explain it is an 84 mile round trip on snowmobile from the lodge to Deshka Landing, where we keep the truck in the winter.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

The details begin the day before, when Mike (my brother-in-law) and I go out on snowmobile and groom the trails we’ll be using the next day to haul on.

We maintain two trails from the lodge.

One is referred to as “the Susitna” or “the Iditarod” trail, as it follows for the most part the Historic Iditarod Trail (a national landmark, btw). It’s a 15 mile run to the Susitna River that involves a lot of twist, turns, and hills; most of it running through heavily wooded areas. This is not the course the Iditarod sled dog race currently follows, as it involves far too many twists, turns, and hills. It’s also fairly inaccessible to the general public, so until they get towards the interior of the AK, the racers mainly run on the rivers – wide, open, mostly flat, and relatively easy to get masses of spectators to. Those same factors (except for the spectators part) are why we only use this trail to go out from the lodge, hauling no weight. We’ll also completely abandon this trail early in spring, as it’s a major headache to maintain when the world starts melting around us.

The second, main trail we use is referred to as “the Yentna” or “Alexander Laketrail, as it runs to the Yentna River, crossing Alexander Lake in the process.

{You tend to notice a lack of linguistic creativity in nomenclature in the AK. There are at least three “Trail Lakes”, two “Susitna Rivers”, and half a dozen “Sheep Creeks”. I’d like to believe that it’s due to the overwhelming, awe-inspiring force that is Nature’s creativity encountered on a daily basis that humbles man into this meekness. Or possibly an inherited “simple Midwestern talk” trait, as it seems 70% of the people up here came from Michigan or Minnesota. Or, regarding the preponderance of “Sheep Creeks”, merely an asinine attempt at humour. Whatever the reason, I’m surprised I haven’t come across a peak called “Mountain Mountain” at this point.}

Anyway, the main trail is a 22 mile run from the lodge to the Yenta River. While being longer, it’s a much easier trail to run. It’s flat and open, crossing over frozen lakes and marshes for the majority of it.

On a clear, sunny day it’s a beautiful run. You have large mountains (Susitna, Beluga, Foraker, Denali) and mountain ranges (the Chugach range, the Alaska range – there’s that creativity again) in 180 degrees of your field of vision, and at points 360 degrees.

here’s some trail pics:

On a bad day….it has white-out potential. There’s been a few times coming home in snow-storms, heavy winds a-blowin’, when I honestly couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of me. You slow down, hope you’re on the trail, and strain your eyes to pick up the next trail marker.

{Trail markers are 4 foot wooden stakes painted high-visibility orange with a reflector attached, stuck in the snow on the side of the trail every 100-200 yds. We put these out at the beginning of the season when we first put in the trail. Slamming a stick into the snow, every 100 yds, for 22 miles, so that you can find you’re way home again, like some 21st century Hansel. These are the moments that cause reflections along the lines of “this is as asinine as it gets” and “livin’ the dream, Dave, livin’ the dream”. But whaddya gonna do? It does not behoove you to get lost out here. Oh, yeah….at the beginning of each season I also re-paint the high-viz orange on each stake. Takin’ NO chances on getting my ass lost.}

here’s a pic of that inanity:

A side note: I don’t think I’ve gone through a single month over the past few years where I haven’t been doing something and had the thought, “No, I was wrong….this is as asinine as it gets.”

My life is ludicrous. But at times it’s a surreal comedy that would make Fellini jealous, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

So….we try not to run on bad-weather days. Mother Nature can be a B, though, and oftentimes a morning that began sunny and clear has turned into an evening of snowflakes. When the choice is between spending a night in Anchorage (the ugliest city in the state, and possibly the hemisphere) or enduring a snowy, frozen, twice-as-long-as-normal trek back home, however, I’ll take the possibility of frostbite every time.

Once we hit the river (either the Susitna or the Yentna), the trails we maintain end, and we simply drive up the frozen rivers. These are snowmobile and dog-sled highways in the winter. Picture the Schuylkill, triple the width, and then freeze the whole thing with 3 feet of ice. After we hit the rivers, it’s another 20 miles or so to the landing.

So, back to getting to the liquor store. The day before, as I said, Mike and I will go out and “groom trail”. This involves hooking up a groom to the rear of the snowmobile & running the trail to smooth it out, cut down moguls, fill in the holes a 1,200 lb moose makes when it decides your trail is much nicer to wander on then slogging through snow drifts in the woods, & pack it down - prepping it for our run. This can take between 4-7 hrs, depending on whether were hitting one or both trails.

A groom is essentially a collection of flat-iron bars welded together at angles into a 4ftX10ft frame.

Here’s a couple groom & trail pics:

So….I’m running 22 miles out, 22 miles back, dragging a glorified coat-hanger, the day before I’m going to the store. Why? Because the next day I’m going to be dragging 2,000 lbs across that trail, and getting a ton of anything stuck in the snow sucks big-time.

Tomorrow: Actually going to town.