Thursday, May 29, 2008

Here Kitty, Kitty...

After stocking up in Anchorage we headed to Denali. We stopped for the night in Talkeetna, a small drinking town with a climbing problem. Arriving in Denali the next day we planned out our backpacking trip. We got zones 6 and 7, and planned to hike through zone 8 and get picked up by the bus there. Now, Denali is divided into 80 some odd wilderness zones and they limit the number of people who are allowed to camp in the zone at any given time. This number ranges from 2 to 8 depending on the zone. Before you do anything you have to show up at the backcountry office and reserve your zones and figure out a basic hiking plan. After consulting the ranger and a topo map we figured out our basic route: zones 6 & 7 and hike out of 8. Here are some thoughts on the trip

* Walking on tundra is best experienced by going to a mattress warehouse and lining up random beds and walking across them; some are extra soft, some are hard, some higher, some lower, some are dry, some are soaked and some are little islands in a very wet bog filled. You never know what you are gonna get until you step on one.

* It hailed (yea, it seems hail follows me everywhere...) and snowed while we were hiking in Denali. This caused us to call the trip two days short, as Dave put it "I'm prepared to survive this weather, but I'm not prepared to enjoy it."

* We saw tons of animal tracks: moose, bears (brown and black) and a few other unidentifiable animal. We also saw a lot of Snowshoe Hare fur, most with the feet nearby; we assume killed and eaten, not shed. Along the riverbank we found pieces of a caribou, first the jaw, then the skull and finally the antlers. This is where the comment "Here Kitty, Kitty..." comes in. In dense bush where you don't have a clear view you are supposed to make noise in case there is a bear nearby. One of the worst things to do to a bear is to surprise it, as it will react unpredicabily. The other two are to mess with its cub or disturb its food source. So you make noise to alert the bear you are there and it will most likely move away. "Here Kitty, Kitty.. come and get your food..."

* The picture I'd paint for this part of the trip would be: It's 11pm at night, it's snowing and I'm in my tent reading a book. I'm stripped down and ready to sleep but I need to take a piss. So, I decide to crawl out of my warm comfy sleeping bag and run out into the snow storm in my boxers, t-shirt and Chacos, and take a piss in the tundra. It's still very bright, like late summer afternoon bright and there is snow blowing all around me...

* Dave, Marty and I hiked up to the famous Flattop Mountain in Anchorage. There is a hill there that everyone slides down; it's about 300ft long at least. So Dave on the way up thinks it's too steep but I know he wants to do it. We asked the other hikers about the slide and everyone says they've done it but no one will do that day. Finally Dave meets a local who decides she'll go first, cause Dave said to her "It's not OK to kill the tourists." So after seeing her, her friends and her two dogs make it down fine, Dave and I decide to slide down. Boy was it fun, we were giggling non-stop like schoolboys the whole way down and on the hike out. Would recommend everyone to do it!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Land of the Midnight Sun (Sort Of, more like the land of Midnight Twilight)

* The Sun here plays games with your internal clock. People who live in a place for a while can generally tell the time of day by the sun, ie early morning, late afternoon or late evening. When you get someone from the Maryland and have them to tell time in Alaska, that person is usually off by 3-4 hours. When we think it’s 5pm,- the sun is a couple of hand-width above the horizon,- it’s actually 8-9pm. When you see the sun setting over the mountains, it means it’s 11:30pm, not 8-9pm. This has been playing havoc with my sense of time, I can usually tell what time it is down to the 30min-1 hour range without looking at my watch, here, I’m usually off by at least 2-3 hours.

* Kayaking in Aialik Bay in Kenai National Park was a blast. Dave and Marty had dry suits and I had my basic synthetic clothes. We were dropped off in Bear Cove and the water was so clear and calm. This was awesome because the previous day we were practicing in 2 foot waves and choppy water. We kayaked and enjoyed the scenery and arrived at what was supposed to be our first stop, the Aialik ranger station. However the beach on which we were supposed to camp was covered by 5-6 foot of snow and the Ranger Station was still boarded up. We did find this flat spot that we were sure was above high tide and had minimal snow. However in the process of moving our gear, Marty noticed bird eggs in the middle of the rocky beach. We debated whether we should setup camp there or not; whether the birds had already abandoned the eggs. We decided to go a ways a bit and eat lunch and see if the birds came back. If they did, we’d move on and find another spot, if they didn’t we’d have poached eggs for dinner. The birds, which we later found out were endangered Oystercatchers, did return to their nest. Because of that we decided to head to our 2nd night spot a day early, the Aialik Cabin. This cabin we found buried under 6 food of snow and still boarded up. The outhouse was completed covered with snow and was un-useable. Upon examining the heater we found that the thermostat was busted but Dave managed to jerry-rig the thing with a safety pin making it stay on the whole time and thereby making the cabin unbearably hot. That night (10pm in broad daylight..) Marty had to return to the kayak to fetch something for Dave, on the way there she surprised a black bear less then 30 feet away from her. They both freaked out and the bear ran away as Marty slowly backed away towards the cabin. The three of us returned to the kayak a bit later and found the bear 200-300 yards away foraging for food. The next morning I went out to dig a hole and lose some weight... on the way back I noticed tracks in the snow that crisscrossed mine. On the way out, I was sure that I had the only tracks in the snow, upon examination of the tracks I realized they were bear tracks; so I had a bear walk less then 50 ft away from me while I was taking a dump... That day we explored the area and glacier. We even kayaked through the mini-icebergs, termed growlers. We watched the glacier calve while we had lunch. We had a blast over the next two days, as we had to be picked up a day early because of inclement weather; they weren’t sure they’d be able to pick us up if we didn’t leave a day early...

* There are two pictures I’d paint that would define this kayaking trip. One is me at 11:30pm walking out of the cabin in my boots, pants and t-shirt to brush my teeth. I walked up to the edge of the snow as it met the beach (6-7 ft drop-off as the tide washed the rest of the snow away..). Standing there brushing my teeth, I watched the sun set behind the Aialik Glacier, watched the birds swoop in and out and a random seal poke it’s head out of the water. Then I’d rinse my mouth with filtered snow-melt and then walk back to the snow covered cabin and go to sleep in daylight. The second picture I’d paint is the three of us would be kayaking and we would notice at least 1, if not more, seals would be stalking us. They would play this game of peek-a-boo; they’d poke their heads up just long enough for you to notice and the disappear back under the water and they would do this for a fairly long time and distance before they’d leave. They were also especially interested in Marty; we’d joke that Marty had a stalker.

* Our kayaking adventure wasn’t exciting enough we decided to have a gas adventure, this is where you run the gas tank down to the fumes in Alaska. According to my GPS the was only 1 gas station between us and Anchorage and that was a 10 mile detour off the highway to Whittier. We arrived at the junction exit and our uber-smart car told us we had 10 miles left in the tank. Then on the way into Whittier we found out that you have to pay a $12 toll to use a single lane tunnel that is also sometimes used by trains. The ironic part is the gas in Whittier costs $4.60 a gallon and the reason we didn’t fill up earlier was because all the stations we passed charged $4.30 a gallon and I knew Anchorage at $3.87 gas. So instead of saving money we had a 10 mile detour, paid 30 cents more per gallon for gas and had to pay a $12 toll. Dave has instituted the half-tank rule; we must fill up when the tank is less then half full.

* Food here is just expensive, a basic house salad (in most places would be considered side salad) costs $3.00, a cup of soup $3.00 and a bottle of Moosejaw beer $4.00, making a very light dinner $10.00 plus tax and tip. A full dinner in Alaska has been easily costing me $30, just crazy!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sunny in Seattle

Seattle is a very beautiful city, especially when it's sunny. So far, the weather has been awesome for me everywhere I've been so far, even with the brief 30 minute hail storm. The 3 days I spent in Seattle was the best weather they've had for a while.

* My first flight was when I was 5 and a half year old from Beijing to JFK. I still remember how I marveled at the experience even though I at the time couldn't grasp the great distance, both physically and psychologically, that I traveled that night. I still remember the empty 747, the stewardess who gave me toys and the search for the empty window seats. To this day I still marvel at modern transportation. The world's busiest airport boasts 89 million people a year, or 244,000 people a day. Assume an average of just 1/5 for the rest of the airports we are talking about 40,000 people passing through an airport a day. Just think about the number of people we aren't on the ground at any given time... Anyway this thought came up because as I was walking through Seattle-Tacoma, I marveled at the fact I had woken up that morning at 6am in Yosemite, and in three weeks I had gone from Baltimore, to Montreal, to San Francisco to Seattle and in a few more weeks from Anchorage to South Africa.

* In Seattle, the Pike Market Place is an INTERESTING place. Blind yodelers, hula-hooping guitar players and flower painted ninja warriors. Fish throwing and the world's first Starbucks. Alex took me on some cool hikes and then an awesome BBQ party.

Anyway, this is my short post from Anchorage, will post more after my Kayaking trip.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Hotel California

It's a been a while, I'm sitting in the preverbal Seattle Coffee shop, catching up on my photos and blog.. here are a few thoughts and happenings...

* I had been living out of my tent for the past bit and it has been beyond awesome. I'd wake up in the morning and look at a map and go 'Where do I want to spend the night tonight?' and the only constraint was that I had to pick up Patrick in San Diego Wednesday, May 7th. I had 3 and a half days to work with, it was fun! Spent one night in Big Basin SP, one in Big Sur SP (agressive squirrels), and one night in Jalama Beach, camping one dune behind the beach.

* I went into LA to check out the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood sign. I drove down to where Vine met Hollywood Blvd. Found a parking spot nearby and parked, had 1 hour parking. Walked real quick, took lots of pictures and I headed back to the car. About a block away I saw a traffic cop writing me a ticket. So I ran over as fast as I could and talked to him. I knew I was under 1 hour, so I asked him what was up. He said I was parked illegally, but I pointed out the 1 hour parking sign and the white T's on the road for the parking spot. He said it was a Red Curb (which means no parking) and a bus stop. $300 fine he says, we argue a bit, finally he agrees to write it down to $70 and tells me to take pictures and go argue my case with the courts. Take a look at the picture and tell me what you think... I personally think it's scam by either the cop or the city...

* I saw some elephant seals basking in the down the California Coast. It's something I heard about but never experienced, and never would've thought I'd see. A beach full of seals, take a look at the pictures, even my best description can't match that.

* Joshua Tree is so otherworldly. I've had it described to me before but seeing it is just different. Even pictures have difficulty capturing the weirdness of it. The best description I've heard is "it's like a Giant's Sandbox, where the Giants stacked rocks on top of each other in the most bizarre way." That is just the way Joshua Tree is, you have some of the most precariously balanced boulders I've ever seen; someone must have placed it there.

* Yosemite was just packed. Patrick and I got tired of Joshua Tree, our hands were raw from climbing sandstone so we figured we'd give Yosemite granite a try on a Saturday night. Turned out it was a bad idea. Every campsite, every hotel, every motel within 20 miles was booked for the night, we were really lucky that we did find one that had vacancies, for $129 a night. Even with the crowds I'd highly advise everyone to visit this place; the valley is just beyond-BEYOND gorgeous.

* Patrick and I (yes Patrick, we BOTH made a decision) to climb Snake Dike (5.7R) on Half Dome on our 2nd day. It's a 8 pitch 800 ft climb. With a 3-4 hour approach, 6 miles and 2500 ft in elevation change, 3-4 hour climbing and a 3-4 descent at 8 miles. So at a minimum it was a 9 hour day, to probably an average a 12 hour day. For us, it was a 16 hour day. We started hiking from the car at about 7:45, 4.5 hours later we arrived at the base of the climb at 12:30 or so. This was after some strenuous bush whacking as we could not find the trail the first time. We had a party ahead of us just starting to climbing, some people who worked for Google in Ireland. Now, the day started sunny and beautiful, by the time we got to the base of the climb it was partly cloudy and windy. Half way up the climb it started hailing on us, about small bead size hail... Lucky for us, the R sections of the climb was 5.4 so I didn't have too much issue leading it, but it didn't make me happy. I was also underdressed for the hail storm... However, as the theme of the trip has been so far, close to disaster but in the end, everything works out. Cause in the end, we summited in clear blue skies. We descended via the cables- however the uprights weren't there, so it was a bit hairy. So, in summary in 16 hours we climbed Half Dome in a hail storm, Patrick led a pitch of it, scrambled 800 ft to the summit, and hiked 8 miles back to the valley. Over all a good day.. ;)

* The day after Half Dome Patrick and I took it easy and did the tourist drive. We were so sore, the old ladies were looking at us weird while hobbled up and down the stairs. So at night we dropped by the Ahwahnee Hotel to check the place out. The place, in my mind, is the ORIGINAL high end wilderness lodge. All those resort lodges you see in all those ski resorts are just wannabees. This hotel is just stunning- big fire places, uniquely and originally decorated rooms and even the faux candles added to the atmosphere rather then detracted from it. The dining room was full of people in dinner dresses, high heels and sport jackets- who brings high heels to Yosemite? The dining room itself reminded me of the vaulted dining rooms of old English castles; the whole place was lit by faux candles, which again made it even more tasteful. On top of that each room costs at least $439, Patrick and I paid $5 each for a campsite at Camp 4.

* So in the theme of close calls. We had 1-ish flights from San Francisco. It's 180 miles from Yosemite to San Francisco, so we figured 3 hour drive and we budgeted to be there by 10am, giving us 3 hours... First we started late, instead of 7am, it ran into 7:30. Then Yosemite had road construction, some of the roads had 35mph speed limits and then we hit traffic. We got to the car return place at noon, got to the terminal at 12:30. So we were both very worried about catching our flights, Patrick's was 1:10 and mine was 1:30. Lucky for Patrick, his flight was delayed to 1:30 and for me, there was no line at the check-in or at security, so we had more then enough time to catch our flights. So again with the theme of things, close calls but all is well in the end.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Random thoughts...

So I can't write much about the last week, suffice to say it was a blast! Though I do have a few thoughts to share...

* If any of you have flown over Quebec and then over Western Canada or the US, you'd notice something interesting about the farm land. In Quebec the land is divided into long rectangular tracts while land in the US and Western Canada is divided into mostly square tracts. There is a very good explanation for this, the French vs the English. You'd find the same difference in land if you were to fly from France to England. The French divided their land into long tracts extending away from the river, the English into square blocks. When the settlers came to the New World they each bought their own customs along and that is how it is. Haven't we learned something new today Boys and Girls?

* In the past week, I've had a lot of time to contemplate life and such. I have no new wisdoms to pass on but... I have some old ones to rehash. For some reason I thought this trip would change me almost immediately; I'd wake up one day and there be the new me in the mirror (and not that the old me was bad). Like everyone else, there are always a few things about yourself you'd like to change, it may be physical or psychological but there is always something. You always wake up with the sense of dissatisfaction with something, yet you can't always tell what it is. Well, just say that I've decided that whatever it is, it'll come. Life is a journey, an experience and all things come to those who wait. As an example, on one of my flights, I asked for a window seat in the back of the plane. The attendant nodded his head and said ok. He gives me my ticket and I head off. Upon reaching the gate I look at my ticket and it's 9D, an aisle seat at the front of the plane. Lucky for me, the plane was virtually empty and I just moved to an empty row and got what I wanted anyway.

* Was in Montreal for Game 5 between the Canadiens (the Habs) and the Fliers. Was at a sports bar when the game was going on. As we were in line to get in, all the riot police with all their gear were getting into place (the bar was 2 blocks from the actual game). The bar was loud and rowdy and so were the cops. We were sitting by the window and the Habs had just scored a goal and the cops walking by outside were smiling and waving, I guess they figured if the Habs won tonight, there be no riot. I have a grainy shot of the cops in gear, didn't bring my camera to be bar. By the time we got back to the house, it had started raining so didn't get a chance to go out and look for the riot... j/k... sort of.

Anyway folks, this blog has been bought to you by the letter C and the number 5. Have a good day!