From the shores of Lake Dezadeash, Part 1

Allons! the road is before us!                                                                                                           It is safe-I have tried it-my own feet have tried it well-be not detain’d!

-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

 

I generally fly by Moe’s house on the first pass, just because I’m mostly on autopilot in that part of the Yukon.  It’s easy on long roads with a bit of scenery.  I meld into the gears of my car and we toss back the miles.  Before I know it I’m flying past my exit, pumping brakes on iced-up roads.

Three Guardsmen at Haines Pass.  Photo by Mike Ausman, http://www.alpenscapes.com/

Three Guardsmen at Haines Pass. Photo by Mike Ausman, http://www.alpenscapes.com/

But it’s easy to miss, because Moe doesn’t live in a town.  The closest human establishment, barring the odd ranch or cabin, is Haines Junction.  It’s about an hour away on snowy roads.  I’d tell you how many miles, but I don’t rightly know, as the Canadians don’t believe in them.  The property sits in a pancaked glacial valley along route 3 between Haines and Haines Junction, just north of the British Columbia border.  Snow capped peaks rise above, mirrored in juxtapose on the surface of Lake Dezadeash, cold and deep.  When traveling north from Haines Alaska, Moe’s is the only hostel on that very empty stretch of the Alaska-Canadian Highway, commonly known as the ALCAN.  It’s a lonely road to drive in the winter, and  I think that’s why I always stop.  Moe’s is the only friendly face I can count on seeing in the 800 miles between Haines and Girdwood, and somehow that’s important.

We're talking about the bottom right hand corner

We’re talking about the bottom right hand corner

The first time I stayed at Moes hostel was my very first drive north on the ALCAN in November of 2011.  I was fleeing Prince of Wales, the summer season was over.  The money had been earned, the resume inflated, and now it was time to go enjoy some snow and spend the winter skiing.  I was headed north to a little town in Alaska called Girdwood where a friend of a friend was hopefully going to get me a job working at the ski resort.  To get there I would have to ferry north to Haines, then drive further north into the Canadian Yukon, west from there back into Alaska, and finally south to Girdwood.  A long road.  My ferry had wheeled into Haines a few hours before, and I had set out driving with a simple plan to drop 100 bucks I didn’t really have on a motel room for the night in Haines Junction.  Sadly, Canada has a tight ass about vagrants like myself, and will issue you a fine for camping in your car.  Not like there are really all that many cops out in the Yukon, or Mounties I guess, but I generally I do my best to keep up the appearance of a normal law-abiding citizen.

It's weird, he never moves

This is actually the only cop I’ve ever seen in the Yukon

So my plan was to bite the bullet on a pricey room.  And I was tired.  It had been a long trip already.  Two boat rides and a few days of waiting and feeling grubby as the Blue Canoe chugged north to Haines.  But the road was under me again and there was a shower and heat in my future, so onward I pressed while the dry snow blew all around and the temperatures hovered in single digits.  I had been driving for a few hours, and had seen precious few vehicles since crossing the border.  Only three in the last two hours, one had been a snowplow.  The road went winding along the tundra valleys, sweeping me north.  I had been dodging ptarmigan left and right, and the road surface was white with snow and ice.  But I was getting close to Haines Junction and rest.   That was when I saw the sign.  It was a simple sandwich board on the side of the highway at the end of a long driveway in the very middle of nowhere.  “HOSTEL” is what I read as my car mached by, and I tapped my breaks carefully, slowing to a stop in the center of the empty highway.  I sat there in the middle of the road for a second as I weighed my options.   Deciding that this warranted further investigation at the very least, I threw my Honda in reverse, heedless down the centerline of the empty highway.

Back at the sandwich board, I got out of my car and looked around.  The landscape around me was barren, empty rolling plains with mountains distant.  Lake Dezadeash loomed to the north like an inland sea, white with snow but dark and deep, already frozen in early November.    I gazed down the drive.  A hundred yards distant, a cluster of buildings sat dark under clouded skies.   Somewhere a diesel generator hummed.  The sunset was decaying behind my back and darkness was slipping in around me.  Shadows sat heavy in the drive, growing deeper as the cold wind howled.  It felt desolate and empty, the skies ominous.  And I was tired, already sick of travel after piling hours of snow-covered Yukon road on top of two days at sea.  Sometimes all I can feel is excitement as I plunge down a new road.  Other times, all I feel is weary.  I wanted a warm shower after my last two nights on the ferry, bright lights and hot whiskey to chase away the dark and cold.  I stood there thinking all these things as the skies darkened.  It was barely 4 pm.  I looked again at the group of buildings and shook my head; This was stupid and I was stupid for considering it. But I could save some money here, my pragmatic self pointed out.  I could disappear forever here to and no one would ever know what had become of me, my paranoid self countered.  The wind was blowing lonely down from the mountains, and I just stared raccoon-eyed, tired and wondering how I had stumbled my way into the opening scene of a horror film.

And que the banjo music

And cue the banjo music

Deep down I knew I was just being overdramatic, but still.  I was alone and exhausted in a strange, cold, and remote place.  I was driving hundreds of miles to a whole new town, a place I’d never been where I had no friends and no guarantee of either a job or even a place to live when I got there.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing or why I was doing it, but here I was, alone in the Yukon with the sun going down.  Such are the moments when a man totters on his edge.  And barring all this, when it really came down to it, I was a little frightened of those lonely buildings.  In the end I think that was what pushed me down the driveway.  I try to hide from it, but on some level I’m just another suspicious, semi-suburban, overworried American.  It’s something that I find myself at constant war with.  And it’s a tough thing to break yourself of, the idea that the world is out to get you.  I think it’s a mentality cultivated by affluent America, even though I’ve never been affluent and I doubt I’ve ever been a very good American.  From an early age we’re taught to be distrustful of strangers, we’re taught, encouraged, to be afraid of what everyone has billed to us as a big scary world.  News channels cram stories of muggers , nukes, terrorists, AR-15 rampages, and swine flu down our throats every night.  And sure, the world is big and crazy and scary as shit.  But it’s beautiful and great too; if you’re busy worrying and being scared, you’ll miss all that.  I decided long ago that the luxury of fear is something that life is simply too short for.  Better for us to be brave when we can and live with intent. Of course I don’t always practice what I preach, in fact like anyone else I tend to err on the side of hypocrisy.  But as I stood there in the wind, thinking about a hot shower in Haines Junction that I didn’t really need, I realized that this was just another opportunity to retest my bullshit theories.  Besides, I had a can of bear spray and a rock hammer under my seat.  And I couldn’t really think of anything important that I had to lose anyway.

Galvanized, I jumped back into my Honda and nosed down the driveway.  On cue a cavalcade of mutts came pounding up the rutted drive, four big loud dogs.  They circled my car, barking furiously as I nosed along at 2 mph, doing my best not to hit them.  What was I getting myself into?  I drew near the buildings.  Alerted by his hounds, Darren Moe came strolling around the side of the building from where I could hear a saw running.  Medium height, brown hair, a slow drawl and a thoughtful way about him,  he had the look of a man who had spent the better part of his life outside absorbing the many beneficial side effects of prolonged exposure to good things like cold wind and wood smoke.  I learned later that Moe had been a big game hunting guide for many years in Alberta and British Columbia.  He yelled to the dogs and they quickly backed down, wagging their tails and grinning at me.  Moe and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before asking me if I was interested in staying in a cabin.  Without hesitating I said yes, and he pointed to a little green shack with a stovepipe protruding from the roof.

I'll take it!

I’ll take it!

An inexhaustible wood supply was stacked a few steps from the door.  Perfect.  I fished some US bills from my wallet, Moe was completely unconcerned about the conversion rate.  So I parked my car and settled in.  The cabin was cozy with gas lights and hard bunks.  I got to work splitting wood, and soon had a ripping little fire.  I was just patting myself on the back for being such a big brave boy, and had settled into reading a book when Moe returned and asked if I had eaten dinner.  I had cooked a big pot of rice and beans before leaving Prince of Wales days ago.  This I had divvied up into mason jars, and it was my traveling food to avoid spending money over the next few hundred miles.  Better that Sal Paradise and his bag of salami/cheese sandwiches, I thought.  I told Moe this, omitting my thoughts on Sal, and he nodded slowly, then asked if I wanted to join him and his ranch hand for bison backstrap steaks in an hour.   This was a bit of hospitality I had been totally unprepared for, and I immediately accepted.

Dining Room at the ranch house

Dining Room at the ranch house

At dinner I learned that Moe had only recently acquired this property, and had set about to make it into an organic hay ranch and hostel called Moe’s Yukon Ranch Adventures.  I was his third visitor.  His ranch hand was actually a young man from Germany named Johan, who had come here to work through the WWOOFer program, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.  Anyway, I passed a really pleasant evening there and now I always stop on my way through.  The business has grown since, and Moe now has teepees you can stay in, and a very nice, official-looking sign.  And I now always bring a growler of microbrewed ale to insure an invite to dinner.  And sometimes there are kittens.

Kittens that know good beer, aparently

Kittens that know good beer, apparently

You can check out Moe’s website if you plan on passing through anytime soon.

Lastly, I’ll tie all this up with a fitting Mountain Goats song.

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Posted in Being a transient, Haines Junction, hostel, Moe's Yukon Ranch Adventures, Yukon | 2 Comments

Reflections of a Ski Bum

Ski bums.  I’ve been meaning to write a post on this one for a while now, but time just seems to slip away here in Girdwood.  These days melt seamlessly from one to the next like a series of linked turns down a snowy face.  Looking back on the weeks and months of this winter, my memory is just a long haze of shoveling and hiking and explosive powder.  There’s simply no time for anything that doesn’t involve water in its solid form, and that’s all there is to it.  Winter is just an indescribable time to live in a mountain town.  Everything is all frantic madness and excitement during a big snow winter like the one we’ve had here in Girdwood Alaska, and the best thing you can do is hold on for the ride.

This February, we got over 250 inches of snow. During a few storms, it was dumping at 3-4 inches an hour; that garbage can above my head in the picture was half buried well before we even opened

It’s been an insane winter here in Girdwood, a good time and place to be a ski bum.  But I haven’t been writing much, and I forgot about this blog entirely for a while there.  So here I am at the end of my season, just now realizing that I never got around to talking about this lifestyle.  So what is a ski bum?  And what makes a ski town?  And why in God’s name did I choose to move north for the winter?

Because I like good scenery?

Well, whenever a collection of buildings springs up around a ski resort, or vice versa, a ski town is born.  Ski towns come in all sizes and characters, and each one has its own distinct flavor, its own special brand of crazy.

Quirky

No ski town is the same, but they all share some basic qualities, and are all inhabited by ski bums.  So what is a ski bum?  The first, and most obvious thing you must know, is that a ski bum loves to ride snow.  Our means differ, but no one gives a shit if you snowboard, sit-ski, tele, mono, alpine, kite, randonee, snow skate, cross country, skijor, or snowmachine.

Randy doesn't need his legs to shred down a slope

It doesn’t matter if you are a park rat, a racer, a powder hound, or a backcountry snob. What’s important, what binds us together, is that we all love our snow activities with a fierce passion.  It’s why we live where we do.  That simple fact is the foundation of our mountain community, and it brings a weird measure of instant comradery to the table whenever you meet anyone in town.  I share a single common interest with just about every person I interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Early in the season, I left my ipod sitting out on a table in the Chalet, the small building that serves as operational HQ for the lift department.  I came back later to grab it, but plenty of random people stroll through that building any given day, and of course it was gone.  I figured I was screwed.  But the next morning before work, my boss Michelle handed my ipod back to me.  Someone had seen it sitting out and stuck it in the office for safe keeping.  I was ecstatic, but Michelle just shrugged and commented that “Lifties don’t steal.”  She said it casually, dismissively, but at the same time cast her eyes around the circle of lifties at the morning meeting to be sure everyone was paying attention, and understood.  It set the tone for my season and reminded me that in a ski town, we’re all on the same team, and you can feel it.  Not to say there aren’t still shitheads around, but I’ve found that there are less per capita in ski towns.  Surrounded by like-minded people, friendships can come very easily if you decide to look for them.  All this builds on that strong sense of community, and these towns have a very bizarre way of choosing those who inhabit them.

Those they choose tend to be kind of bizarre too

We are the locals, the mountain community.  We are not tourists or interlopers or those bastards from the nearest faceless big city.  And we take great pride in that distinction, knowing that there are those of us who are here to vacation and those of us that are here to live.

It can be easy to get mad at tourists, but it isn't like I bother to read shit when I'm on vacation either.

As ski bums, we’re here because this lifestyle makes us happy.  None of us are getting rich.  Aside from the occasional trustafarian, for the most part we live paycheck-to-paycheck.  These paychecks buy our disgustingly expensive gear and take care of our disgustingly high bar tabs.  We buy groceries when we can afford it; ramen use is rampant.  Some of us work for the resort to score a free ski pass.  Some don’t.  We are lifties, wait staff, bus drivers, snow groomers, bar tenders, ski schoolers, gas station attendants, short order cooks, ski patrolers, terrain park crew, rental workers.  Some of us, the smart ones, are just unemployed.  We are the local crowd, and the distractions brought by outsiders are really only a big deal around Christmas and Spring Break.  The rest of the time, ski bums live and die by the storm systems.   In a ski town, it is never, ever, cliché to talk about the weather.

"Oh hey, the roof collapsed" -Someone discussing the weather

Knowledge of storms and the way pressure systems interact is required.  You know how everyone says that eskimos have a bunch of words for snow?  So do ski bums.  Chunder, butter, death cookies, fresh, crust dust, cold smoke, blower, corn, glop, mashed potatoes, corduroy, and cow pow are all used to describe what’s going on outside, and we take it pretty seriously.  There’s also a whole vocabulary list of other weird words and phrases that I only hear when speaking with ski bums, or maybe 14-year old surfers.  Listening to a 35 year old man talk about a “mad sketch line” still throws me sometimes.

"Yeah the flatlight lis a little sketch but the face is gnar and there's turnable fresh out there"

In these places you meet a few hometown heroes, but most of us are from somewhere else.  We’ve each been drawn on some strange road from our hometowns in far-flung sections of the country or world.  East coast, west coast, and everywhere else, you can find incredible diversity in any group of people hanging around a resort town.  It adds just one more level to the community, and small bonds form whenever you meet someone who has lived or traveled somewhere you’ve been as well.  By nature these are transient towns, and the people you meet passing through tend to be pretty interesting.

Excited ski bums, waiting for the resort bus

So I have to say, I like ski towns.  Girdwood especially has grabbed hold of me well.  Like I said, these sorts of towns tend to choose those who live here, and Girdwood has personally suited me better than Jackson did.  I like the small town vibe, it just feels like a good fit.  I know that I’m probably growing nostalgic now that my time here is running out, but it’s been an amazing winter.  One of the best seasons I’ve had actually, though I think I say that every six months.  I did some good learning, good growing, and forged some great friendships.  I’m glad I came here.  But I can already feel the tides pulling, and I’m leaving Girdwood behind tomorrow.  It’s time to start looking forward again.  Time to head back down the long road to Haines where a blue canoe waits to take me south for my third season on Prince of Wales island.

Posted in Alyeska Resort, girdwood, Jackson Hole, Lifty Life, Mountain Life | Leave a comment

Ski-Cutting Hangfire

So this week two of my POW friends, Mike and Angela, were visiting.  They’ve made appearances in a few of the adventures I’ve recorded here, and I think that pattern will continue.

Mike and Angela, doing what they do best

So we went up Corn Biscuit out on Turnagain Pass.  The plan was to drop a north-facing coulier, and after a few hours we were at the top, looking down.  There we found something interesting.  It was very clear that the wind had been blowing snow off the ridgetop and down into our chute.

At the low point you can see lines in the snow formed by wind scouring from right to left. This tells us that snow has been swept by the wind off the ridge and into our chute.

So what does that mean?  Well it could mean a few things.  All we know for sure from the markings of the wind scour is that the wind blew south to north.  Snow probably went with it, and that could mean that there is a fresh deposit of snow in our chute.  Maybe that means the snow will be bottomless and amazing.  Or maybe it means that an unstable wind slab is waiting for us down there.  Or maybe it means neither.  But we know that there are wind slabs out here, both from reading the morning avalanche report and from signs in the snow we’d noticed earlier.

Some cracking in a very shallow slab of wind-deposited snow. Noticed it first about 2/3 of the way up. Not a big deal on it's own, but it tells us to be on the lookout for wind slabs that might be unstable

The report had warned of a “Considerable” danger rating for skier-triggered avalanches on some specific terrain features.  The primary danger was wind slabs above 2,00 feet, which was where we were and what we were concerned about.  It was a yellow light scenario different from any I have been in before, and I wasn’t keen to go first.  But Jared is a bold skier, and he dropped in very carefully, finding the slab.  He triggered it on his 3rd or 4th ski-cutting turn, hugging close to the ridgeline above the point where the chute dropped off steep.  The wind slab fractured, breaking and running out below him.  It was close to a foot deep, but wasn’t very heavy or with much volume, being in such a narrow chute.  Not terribly dangerous.  The terrain wouldn’t have allowed a burial, you just would have tumbled a very long way before you and the snow spread out shallow-like at the bottom.  But when there are giant rocks nearby and you are in the middle of nowhere, you really just don’t want to go on any long, fast, uncontrollable rides.  Falling down always sucks.  Especially when you’ve just spent 2 hours climbing to the top of the mountain.  I feel kind of silly wasting any of the ride in tumbling.  Also, knowing that people are probably taking pictures of you as you gather up your skis can make it a bit aggravating.

"Above you dude, it's above you!"

But the slab had released, so the slope was now safe to descend.  One at a time we dropped off the edge.  I was last to go, and traversed over to a piece of leftover slab.  It’s called hangfire, the remaining piece of unstable slab that has not slide.  Traverse across the top of it, cutting it with your skis, and you can safely cause the remaining snow to avalanche.  So I decided to try it, remembering youtube training videos. I figured something cool would happen, so putting my camera in record and holding it in one hand, I dropped in, cutting to the right.  Blink and you’ll miss it, but a hunk of foot-thick slab breaks off and goes pummeling downhill.  Awesome.

I recently got a hold of a John McPhee book, “Coming into the Country”  It’s a great read, especially for someone living in Alaska.  I picked up a quote from it that I really like:  “There is no substitute for being on the ground, for experiencing a landscape close at hand, for feeling the earth underfoot.”  Couldn’t agree more.

KT skis our Corn Biscuit line. I'm standing at the top, waiting for her to be clear. -Photo by Mike Ausman

Posted in Avalanche, backcountry, skiing, Turnagain Pass, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Let’s talk about Powder

No friends on powder days

We love it.  Powder.  Just the word can get a ski bum’s heart pounding, and I’ve found no high like blowing down an untracked slope.  I dip through trees and navigate roll-overs, popping off snow pillows and hauling ass while my choking lungs cough in the powder.  Turn turn turn, I am a series of white explosions.  Turn turn turn again, the cold smoke is flying past my cheeks.  I hit a drop, miss my landing, and tumble rag-doll style with snow flying and there is ice in my hair but I am rocketing back to the bottom and I don’t care about anything other than that feeling of weightless speed.

I chew on the ice crystals in my mustache for hydration on the way back up, and with every creamy turn I’m shot through with electricity.  The snow is without bottom, and no matter how I fall, it’s always like landing on a mattress. We all dissolve into frenzy trying to eat up every untracked inch.  Here’s Kris, demonstrating the 2012 March depth here in Girdwood at Alyeska Resort.

Kris on the Lolos cliffs

dropping!

Land it man!

Man, this stuff is deep

Shit this stuff is deep!

oh fuck, this stuff is deep!

Emergence

"What's next?" -Kris

It’s a wonderful thing.

Posted in Alyeska Resort, backcountry, girdwood, Lifty Life, Mountain Life, skiing | Leave a comment

Turnagain Pass

A half hour drive south of Girdwood is Turnagain Pass, a long valley that leads south into the Kenai Peninsula.  Route 1 runs through the pass, giving access to a series of peaks with a large range of skiing conditions.  It’s one of the most popular backcountry skiing spots in this area of the state, and somewhere that I’ve been trying to spend as many days as possible since arriving in November.

Climb high enough and you get to see the sun!

Backcountry skiing is something that I’ve only really gotten into in the last year.  To be honest I’ve never really been that big on mountain climbing.  I’ve always preferred the outdoor activities that directly involve one with  beer and grilled meat.  Neither of these things are practical in the mountain setting, so I never really got into it.  I mean, I like backpacking and canoeing long distances.  But setting out in a stripped-down, ultra-light fashion, specifically to climb to the top of something so that I can pee off it and eat granola?  I didn’t get it.  Even when I was a boyscout, it just seemed dumb to me.  The only way you could ever get me to climb a mountain was if everyone was going and I didn’t want to get left behind.

"Eh, I mean, we could go climb it. I guess. You sure you don't just want to look at it?"

Then somebody pointed out that I could be climbing up the mountain with skis.  Somehow, that just made sense to me.  So I improvised with the gear I already had and started thrashing about in the wilderness loaded down with skis, snow shoes, ski boots, and full camping gear.  Climbing goddamn mountains with a 70 pound goddamn bag.

The only reason he's smiling is because he doesn't know how stupid he is

But there are easier ways to do it.  You only have to go out with an alpine touring skier once to realize how much better of a system that is.  AT skis are essentially downhill alpine skis with a binding that can pop up in the back.  So they can function like a cross country ski, or downhill ski, depending on what you want.  Removable “skins” are attached to the surface of the ski.  They create friction between your ski and the snow so that the ski can only move forward, and not slip back.  Put all this together and you have a ski that allows to walk straight up a mountainside.  Then at the top you peel off your skins, lock the bindings into alpine mode, and ski down.  So I decided that I needed to switch over.   It’s such a conflicting feeling, that moment you realize that you need to buy a new piece of gear.  You are pumped for what it will mean for your adventuring, but a little ashamed of yourself for how much you will need to shell out.  Spend enough time outdoors and you soon begin to form little lists of shit that you desperately need to take things just a little further or faster or crazier.  So I scraped and saved this summer and bought skins, backcountry skis, backcountry boots, and AT bindings.  I’d already gotten a shovel, avalanche, and probe in Jackson Hole a few years ago, a reaction to that night at the top of the gondola.  So when I arrived here in Girdwood I had all the pieces.  I fit them together and started attending a free avalanche class.  Quickly made a few friends interested in the same sort of expeditions I was, and have since been spending a day or two a week in the backcountry.   These skis have given me what feels like limitless access to the most remote winter terrains.  I can hike out of town in my ATs and be miles from anyone skiing my very own mountain in just a few hours.  Its been great, bagging new peaks, skiing new routes, keeping up with the snow conditions by submitting to and checking the report.  I’m becoming obsessed with this activity very quickly.  Anyway, this is Turnagain Pass.

Peak of Lipps, we dropped to the right down the south face

Send it buddy!

I prefer these lines over the resort

Dave shreds the gnar

Descending lower Tin Can, Turnagain Pass in the background

Poach a cabin a few miles up the mountain to serve as base camp, and you can really get far out into nowhere

Up by Notch, closer to Girdwood proper

Sunnyside

I've never seen anything as still as a northern forest under snow.

Not sure what this one's called at the end of the valley

If you are running around in the outdoors without at least one dog, you are having less fun than you could be having

At Eddys

So yeah, the winter is flying, and good times are being had.  I’m already pumped for the spring though, I could use some sunlight and warmth.  Also beer and grilled meat.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep doing this.

Posted in Alaska, backcountry, girdwood, Turnagain Pass | Leave a comment

Ode to Chair 6

Man I have not being keeping up with this lately.  Life has been going pretty well for me here in Girdwood, and working for Lift Operations at Alyeska Ski Resort has been a really good experience so far.  One of my favorite aspects of work at this resort is that instead of being confined to a single ski lift for an entire winter, we are rotated around the mountain every day, and have the opportunity to work on different lifts with different crews.  That was one of the big downers as a lifty in Jackson Hole.  I was at the bunny slope every day I worked.

On the other hand, I once saw a a moose chase a tourist.

I had been at Chair 6 for some of my work days, but I guess that lift is going to be out of commission for an unknown period due to some technical issues.  It’s a shame, because 6 is the highest lift on the mountain.  From the top, you can’t go any higher on the mountain  without legwork.  So it’s a pretty awesome place to be on an inversion day.  I was scheduled to work there on Monday, and decided to bring my new camera along to play with throughout the day.  Hopefully we’ll be spinning again soon and booting up that Headwall.

Posted in Alaska, Alyeska Resort, girdwood, Lifty Life, Mountain Life | Leave a comment

Dark and Stormy Nights

Today was the longest day of the year, and the sun rose here in Girdwood at 10:14 am, setting at 3:41 pm.  That gave us just under five and a half hours of daylight to work with, though due to the moutains that surround town we actually ended up with much less than that. These days the sun rises to the south, peaks just above the mountains, and then recedes.   I haven’t seen it often though, the weather has been stormy these last two weeks.  So stormy that I’ve been sent home from work twice now due to two separate gales that each dropped 35-40 inches on the top of the mountain.  The big blizzards are accompanied by high winds, avalanches, and toppling trees.  Predictably, Girdwood’s power is routinely shorted out for hours at a time.  Generators kick on in  the hotel, the bar, and the mercantile (or merc for short, it’s the town grocery/general store).  Here at the hostel a collective groan shudders through the house as we are plunged back into the winter dark.  Everyone sits, cursing for a moment, and then we begin to pull out flashlights and candles, winter steeping bags, camp stoves.  Someone drives down the road to collect a five gallon jug of water from a natural spring.  Then we sit in the dark drinking beer and playing music or poker.  I found an old pulp fiction Conan novel laying around somewhere and have been reading it.  That’s been strange.

I swear on my life that this is the cover. The content is actually just as homoerotic and racist. The 70's must have been weird.

The other option is to go hang out at the bar, which I don’t really have the funds for.  Anyway, it’s a strange reality, how quickly my town can go all to shit.  Our current record for the season is 14 hours in the dark.  But we haven’t seen anything yet.  In late January and early February of 2000, a huge storm (70 inches in one week) started the Millennium Avalanche Cycle, which caused massive havoc across this section of Alaska.  Route 1 was blocked by over a dozen avalanches between Girdwood and Anchorage.  With this single road down, the entire Kenai Pennisula was cut off.   The power grid, supplied by Anchorage, was no more. No power and no water, and anyone headed north to Anchorage was stuck.  Travellers and skiers were stranded, crashing on the floor of the school or in their cars.  The mercantile was quickly overrun.  State troopers attempted to close down the liquor store in an effort to keep the peace, but buckled under the weight of a lot of pissed off people.  It remained open.  At the gas station, gas was rationed to 3 gallons per person per day, and only if you were using it to fuel a generator.  The rest of the gas was reserved for snow-clearing machinery.  Meanwhile similar catastrophes were unfolding to the south as small towns ran low on medicine and food.  It was days until the road could be cleared.  So now when the power goes out people get pretty excited about going to the store, and for good cause I guess.  It might be a downed tree.  Or it might be forty feet of snow somewhere between here and a real grocery store.  It gets taken seriously.

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