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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion

March 1
I was determined to not let the fact that this weekend's Tour Of Anchorage was canceled ruin my weekend. I had to develop a plan to break the downward spiral that was my emotional state. Linda and I thought about heading north into the mountains for a couple days of skiing, while staying at a rustic mountain lodge. Sounds great, doesn't it? But our other option was to stay in town and watch the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.

Being new Alaska residents, we figured we could miss out on this quintessential Alaskan event. Especially since the trail passed only a few hundred yards from our house. So I hatched another plan: First, we would watch the Iditarod. Then, since the city had gone to so much trouble to truck and groom snow along the Iditarod trail through town, after the race I figured I would go ski on it. Then, on Sunday, we would make a day trip north for some better skiing.

The Iditarod was pretty cool. We had heard great things about the festivities at the start in downtown. They cover the streets in snow and then give each team a cheer as they start at two minute intervals. It was a neat atmosphere, but I think the lack of snow made it less festive than previous years. Plus, we were unable to work our way behind the start line, and that is where the best action is: the dogs barking and going nuts as they sense their time is near. We watched the first 15 racers start (there are 64 total) and then drove across town to watch them come through the woods near our house before crossing the street (on a ski bridge) into Bicentennial Park. From this vantage point, I was amazed at how close you could get to the teams. If this had been a ski race, there is no way spectators would have been allowed on the course, but I was able to walk up and down the trail through the woods to snap photos. I guess that over the long haul, these guys (and women) encounter a lot more serious stuff on the trail than just spectators.

Since the ceremonial start, I have been following the race on the internet. It is fascinating to watch race strategies and plot lines develop. Should you disguise your team speed early or go out fast? Who rests where? How many dogs does each team have? As I write this, the race is about 2-3 days from finishing. You can follow the action for the next few days here.

A few pictures:

The start on 4th Ave in downtown Anchorage

In the woods of Anchorage

A few hours after the race, I grabbed my rock skis and hit the trail. My plan was to ski backwards from mile 5 near Bicentennial Park towards the 4th Ave start on the trails/bike paths that the Iditarod followed. The trail was muddy in places, cement in others, and pretty icy the whole way, but I never had to take my skis off. I was able to ski the whole way to where the trail left the bike paths and headed onto city streets. I had planned to turn around here, but the bike path kept going and though it was icy, my skis had pretty god purchase on the snow, so I pushed on. I received a number of smiles and "You must be a die-hard" comments from other trail users (bikers and runners) as I skied along. I even ran into a friend who said I must be a little crazy. I just smiled at everyone and said that the skiing was surprisingly good.

For those familiar with Anchorage, I was able to ski down the Chester Creek trail all the way to Westchester Lagoon. Here I hit the Coastal Trail, which looked skiable, so I pressed on. Skiing along the Coastal Trail was great. The snow/ice was minimal, but definitely skiable, and the scenery overlooking the Knik Inlet was great. I made it all the way to Earthquake Park, which I guessed to be about 9 miles from where I started. I could have kept going but I had only planned to ski for 2 hours, so I really needed to turn around and head back.

Almost all of what I skied was supposed to be used in tomorrow's Tour of Anchorage. There is absolutely no way they could have held the race, but as I skied back, I got an idea. What if I got up tomorrow morning, and skied the whole race anyway! I could line up on the start line at 10:10am and do the whole race on my own. I suspected that if I did indeed do this, I would not be the only one. There are some real hard-cores in this town. Most of the trail, as I discovered today, would have been skiable but the first part through Hillside Park would have required some running. I was still entertaining the idea when I went to sleep tonight.

March 2
Any ideas I had about doing the Tour this morning were quickly put to rest when I woke up to pouring rain. The trail I skied yesterday had been barely passable and it would now be much worse. Instead, Linda and I decided to escape the rain and head north for a day of skiing along the Glen Highway at Majestic Valley and Sheep Mountain. First we watched the Nordic World Championships on TV (thanks to NBC for showing the only two hours of Nordic aired in this country this year), then we hit the road.

Majestic Valley Lodge and Sheep Mountain Lodge are two lodging establishments separated by about a mile, both about 30 miles from the nearest village along the Glen Highway, the main (read:only) highway from Anchorage to Canada and Southeast Alaska. They are about a two hour drive from Anchorage. Each lodge grooms about 15-20K of trails to attract skiers in the winter. We had passed through this area in October on our drive to Anchorage, but I had never been skiing there. Many of the skiers in our local club had been mentioning it recently, and it sounded pretty good. Besides, it couldn't be any worse than Kincaid Park at this point.

As soon as I put my skis on at Majestic, I was in heaven. The trail was wonderfully groomed, the trails were exciting and the mountain scenery was spectacular. I could not contain my joy as I zoomed down the trail, anxiously awaiting whatever might be around the next corner. Every once in a while I would stop to take in the great views of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains, but most of the time I was skiing fast and hard - knowing I might not see snow like this for many days. We skied at Majestic for about two hours which was enough for me to hit every trail, and do most of the loops twice. It was great skiing and I did not want to leave, but I was getting tired and I still wanted to check out the trails at Sheep Mountain before heading home. Linda and I headed back to the car, grabbed a bite to eat, drove a mile down the road and set out on the Sheep Mountain trails. Sheep Mtn's trails were more challenging, especially since I was very tired. They were not groomed as well and had lots of ruts and sticks all over the place. But it was still fun skiing with some great downhills. After an hour, I had covered most of the terrain and could go no further. I was exhausted and ready to head home.

It had been a great weekend. Despite all the miserable weather, I have tried very hard not to get down on Anchorage. After all, every place is going to have a bad snow year once in a while. It was just bad timing for me. ANd really, if you can have the worst snow year in 30 years and still have a 12K loop of good skiing in town, plus a few places with great skiing only two hours away, you have a very special town. I returned home tonight content that I had skied my heart out this weekend. I knew that the 'no-snow blues' might come back at some point, but I had definitely fended them off for a number of days to come.

March 8 - Ski Train
One of the first social things we did after arriving in Alaska in October was to attend the Nordic SKi Club of Anchorage's season kick-off party at the Kincaid Park Chalet. This was a chance for us to see some of the people in town that we already knew, buy our season trail pins, have dinner, and buy our tickets to the ski train - even though the ski train event wasn't until March.

The ski train was an event we did not want to miss. We had heard a lot about it from others in town and it sounded like a great experience. 700 skiers pile onto the Alaska Railroad train at the Anchorage Depot at 7 in the morning and the train takes them about 4-5 hours into the Alaskan wilderness and then just stops. Everyone piles off, grabs their skis, and plays in the snow for 5 hours or so before piling back on for the ride home.

Going on a ski train

You might be thinking that is a long time to spend on a train for a 5 hour ski. But the train is the best part - it is one big party. On the way there, the mood is festive, but subdued because everyone is still waking up. People sip coffee and read the paper or talk with their neighbors. As the train gets closer to the destination, the energy level increases. People start to dig into their picnic baskets, and start putting on the warm ski clothes. Volunteers come through the train with maps to show everyone where you can and can't ski. Safety is taken very seriously - after all you are in the middle of the woods, miles from civilization. There are no rescue or medical facilities. The only way out is on the train, and when it leaves you better be on it. Just in case, they always leave behind an emergency overnight kit, just in case someone is not back on the train by the 4:00 PM departure. I don't know how often it gets used.

Linda and I debated for a long time over what skis to bring. No one we talked to had any idea what the snow conditions were. We heard rumors of 2 feet of new snow, so we backed our backcountry skis. After all, there are no trails, except those made by your fellow skiers. When we de-trained in Curry (our ski stop for this year), we realized that our rumor information had been wrong. The snow, though there was plenty of it, was covered in a rock-hard crust. It would have been perfect skating! No matter, I skated anyway, though it was much slower going with my backcountry skis, poles, and boots. The skiing was fun, but it was tough to find the good spots. Usually the ski train heads south from Anchorage to a place called Grandview, which apparently has lots of terrain for both gravity-driven skiing and the cross country type, and everyone knows where the best spots are. Here in Curry, no one had been here before so we were all left to explore on our own. We started out by following the crowd for a mile or two. Most of the 700 people were all headed the same way, so I figured that some who knew the area had taken the lead and was showing us all the way.

After a couple miles, I began to doubt that this was the case, and as we twisted and turned through less-than-great conditions, I began to think more and more that we were all lemmings, following someone more lost than we were, and the cliff couldn't be far off. I broke from the pack and headed out into unexplored terrain.

Once on my own, I had a great ski. I explored a wide area (much wider than what we were supposed to, but still very conservative so that I knew I would make it back for the train departure). I even got fairly proficient at gliding along on my heavy gear.

Some nice scenery, well beyond our boundary - but don't tell the ski patrol!

I met back up with my friends about half an hour before departure and loaded the skis back into the ski car. We stopped in the concession car on our way back to our seats and got a couple of beers, some chili, and a bratwurst. Mmmm.

I would be grossly negligent if I did not mention the polka band that plays on the train. On the way back to town, the band takes over the last car and opens up a dance floor. I had never seen people mosh to Polka before, and I'm not sure I ever want to see it again. But that's about the only kind of dancing you can do when you put about 50 people in a train car no wider than an SUV. I did my share of moshing and then returned to my seat for a nap. It was a long day, but a ton of fun.

For more Ski Train pictures, go to the gallery.

March 30
I've got to say that the rest of March was very disappointing. Even when we lost all our snow in February, I knew it would be back at some point. No way was that it for the season.

It wasn't until March 15 or so that I finally began to accept that we were not going to get any more snow. Indeed, the season was going to end before I had the chance to ski at Kincaid again. I tried to overcome my sorrow by getting away for a race - may the Yellowstone Rendezvous, or the California Gold Rush. But it is nearly impossible to get decent airfare from Alaska without at least three weeks notice. I tried to get away to a Forest Service or State Park cabin for a weekend, but Linda's school schedule never allowed us to take off for more than a day. So instead I sat at home, skied at Glen Alps, and tried to cut my losses and look forward to spring.

I tried to get excited about the only race left on the schedule - the Oosik Classic. I was very excited for the race, but I just couldn't get up the motivation to train seriously for it. Sure I was skiing almost every day, but since I had not done a race since Jan 16, I had a hard time convincing myself to do intervals. Why should I suffer through intervals for weeks just for one race that no one has ever heard of outside of Alaska? I tried to do intervals one day, but the motivation just wasn't there. I decided that I would just enjoy the skiing and not worry about being in race-shape. After all, it is almost April.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.