Thursday, December 19, 2013

Farewell, Mona Lisa

Anchorage is a strange place, transportation-wise. I remember growing up and living in a pseudo-suburb. I worked in a bigger town 15 miles away while in high school. Therefore I drove from my home to work everyday and most days the first first question I asked myself was "Which way to go?"

There were five routes from my town to where I worked. Granted, it was in the midwest and what else is there to do with the land but to put roads on it. I'd venture that any towns or cities of any size are in a similar situation with multiple ways in and out. Anchorage is not like that at all.

The biggest city in Alaska has one route in from the north and one from the south. One. And it also has a large commuter population to the north - Eagle River, Chugiak, Peter's Creek, Palmer, Wasilla, Big Lake, and even further north. And at 5:00 on any given day, the one route from Anchorage to the north looks like any freeway in Los Angeles. Okay, maybe that's a bit unfair. We generally aren't stand-still or gridlock. Maybe more like Omaha Nebraska - traffic moving, but moving slooooowwwwlllly.

It seems that in the event of some type of catastrophe folks in Anchorage would be FUBAR. Can't get people out or supplies in. Not a good situation.

There has been a push for years to get a bridge over the Knik arm - the infamous Bridge to Nowhere - to help split the traffic. Folks going to the more northern parts of the valley would be able to cut quite a bit off their trip and it would hopefully reduce some congestion on the main route.

However, in Alaska nothing gets done without a fight and a lot of finger-pointing and teeth gnashing. This article gives a bit of history and background as well as discussing the changes that the governor proposes.

First off, let me state that in general and in principle I find Gov. Parnell about as repulsive as the governor he replaced. He has proven himself to be generally a close-minded, bigoted, homophobic, and, most importantly, short-sighted leader who willingly whores the state out to the highest bidder. But at first blush, I agree with his approach on this one. Read the article here, then come on back, ya hear?

I get that transport funds are always in short supply. But shouldn't the lack of egress and ingress to the state's largest city be considered not only a matter of transport, but also public safety?

I've heard a lot of arguments against the bridge - many focused around the cost vs. benefit. (Toll road ideas just don't fly up here - roads should be free, right? This is Murica - where the car is king, after all.) But I've also heard arguments from the people who live in Government Hill, where this bridge would connect with Anchorage and they don't like the idea of having increased traffic in their neighborhood. They're generally fine with the bridge, but route the traffic through someone else's neighborhood - like Mountain View. The people there don't really matter as they are minorities and the working poor anyway.

The other argument, or conspiracy theory, I've heard is that the city fathers - Sullivan, et. al., don't want the bridge to go through because that will potentially eat into their tax base as people leave the city for the new, roomy, and white bread housing tracts that will go up on the other side of the Arm when the bridge goes in. And there is some validity there. That's one reason we moved to the valley. Couldn't afford a house in Anchorage, couldn't get as much house, as much space here. And I'd be paying twice to two and a half times as much each year in property taxes. (This is a discussion for another day - how much I miss the services that the Anchorage property taxes provide...)

But the biggest argument is just that people don't think they should have to pay to drive. And because the idea of a toll was connected to the bridge, there is a vocal majority who will never, no matter what, try to shout down any idea or plan that is connected to the Knik Arm Bridge.

Anyway, read the comments on the story. They tell the whole story and, unfortunately, provide a good representation of many Alaskans - quick to spout off, speaking only in either/or options, unwilling to discuss any opinions that do not mesh with their own, and generally really iffy in the grammar arena.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Meet Your Master

At eleven below zero the sound of tires rolling on snow sounds just like rubbing two pieces of styrofoam together. Not a pleasant nor unpleasant sound.

At this temperature any moisture on a bike freezes quickly. Like the moisture in my rear brake cable. At this temp either the muscles start to get stiff or the grease in the bike gets stiff. Things freeze. It's no fun. Except when it is.

 I don't want to spend too much time talking about the cold and how it is soooo unbearable, but I ride in it anyway. That's just silly.

Instead, let's talk about rumors and trains. Trains and rumors. For a number of years, going back to at least 2009, there has been talk of a commuter train from the Valley to Anchorage. To this point, there's been a lot of roadblocks. Not the least of which is the cost of upgrading rail lines in order to bring the travel time below an hour.

Yesterday I heard from an older woman on the bus that the talk of a commuter run is in the works again and that the Alaska Railroad Company plans to have it started by mid-summer.

My initial thought is that this is great. Anything to offer the types of choices that will get folks off the road and into mass transit.

Then I actually stopped to think about it. And there are a number of issues I foresee. First, the Valley Mover bus is in a constant state of flux trying to match service levels to ridership numbers and right now we are in the midst of discontinuing another bus from the schedule. So, the addition of a daily commuter train or trains likely means that a portion of the VM riders will migrate to the train, thus reducing rider numbers, thus requiring a consolidation of buses. My only concern, as a rider, with this is that with fewer options for bus schedules, the harder it will be for some riders to make the bus work with their schedule - thus possibly reducing ridership further. You see where this is going. A downward spiral.

Another issue I see is with the train service itself. In the winter it would be wonderful to be on a train and not have to worry about the traffic and road conditions. And if the train runs faster than the bus, that's another plus. But at what cost? Right now the VM is $125 for a monthly pass. Can the train meet or beat that? Maybe so, but something tells me that it's not likely. If the train is not reasonable, not less than what it would cost to drive, then why would someone use the service? And where are the train stations to be located? The VM has the benefit of really being able to pick up and drop off anywhere. The train does not have this luxury. Though, one might be able to purchase a hot cuppa Joe on the train. And I'm sure the ride would be warmer in the winter than the busses are.

I'm excited to see how this plays out - if it plays out at all. More choices, on the whole, have to be a good thing. Getting more people into mass transit is the ultimate goal and if the train helps with that, then that is awesome.

Monday, December 16, 2013


You don't get a second chance. There are no re-dos here. So why waste the time by taking pictures?

I get it, this blog could use more pictures. The problem's are these, though - 1) When I'm riding, I like to ride. Every moment in a life is unique. There is no way to repeat anything and have it be the same as the first time. You can only do something the first time once. And each time you do something it is the first time for that time doing it. I just don't like breaking my experiences up into disconnected first times by stopping to take pictures.

2) Pictures make for weak writing. Yes, a picture is worth however many words, but they also allow us to not focus as much on telling the stories in an engaging ways using words. And I need as much help as I can get on that front.

3) I don't like the overhead of carrying a camera. I don't have a cell phone. Well, I have a work iPhone that I don't want to have with me on the trail. I have an emergency pre-paid cell that I often "forget" to bring with me and even if I did, its camera is worthless. I also always have my iPod with - a classic with no camera. I just don't want to carry anything else extra. Which leads me to my next point.

4) Riding is supposed to be a way to get away from the daily grind, right? For me, having a camera with and worrying about getting "the" shot to share with the world keeps me from being able to get away.

I love looking at other people's pictures, but I don't think I'll be joining their ranks more than occasionally. When I ride, I like to ride.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


What is the criteria to call for a ride? I don’t have any hard and fast rules, but here is a story about a time when I hadn’t the choice.

Early October in Anchorage Alaska. We’ve got some snow on the ground and I’ve been working on the north slope for the past two months and things have been frozen up there that whole time. I’m riding my fat bike and trying to do some exploring on some trails I’ve never ridden before.

There is a large swath of land in Anchorage that is swamp or muskeg. This means that for part of the year there are areas that are not rideable. But on the converse, once it freezes, there are some wonderful riding options that open up.

Riding new areas presents challenges, particularly when you are breaking trail and don’t know exactly where the trail goes or how to link up the trails you know with the new areas you’re riding.

Early October.  In the 20’s. No wind. Sunny. Still riding the clipless pedals. Light gloves. Light jacket. Rolling through the woods and building a nice sweat. Four miles from home. Two miles from the nearest main road. Less than a half mile from the nearest road in general.

The trail I’m on is used in the winter by dog mushers. In the summer it’s a swamp. Right now I’m the only one out there.

Seeing no other bike tracks should have been a hint. Hit up some kind of familiar single tracks. Then cut through the woods following what appears to be a social trail that ends up dumping me onto a wide trail through the woods, clearly a dog sled trail. Good ups and downs, some nice corners, then a drop into stream crossing. The stream is frozen over, but there is some overflow. Nothing to worry about though. Ride through it without issue, but once through, the sled trail seems to disappear. Rather, multiple trails branch off. I take the one to the north, figuring that this trail will meet up with the trails I know.

After a half mile and no roadway coming into view, I start to worry that I might have made the wrong choice. Another quarter mile later I came to a stream that wasn’t frozen. I had no choice other than to cross it. It was small enough that I was able to jump it without getting my feet wet.

The next stream crossing wasn’t quite so easy. It was about six and a half feet of open water with another two to three feet of ice on each bank. I laid the bike down across the gap to use as a bridge. Hell, it’s a Pugsley, so I figure it can handle it. I just wish the ice would’ve been able to handle it. I get half way across the bike bridge when the ice ahead of me broke, spilling the front of the bike and me into the water. Water up to my shin. Icy. Almost instantly my toes go numb.

I hike a bike a ways, cross a few more streams. Well, the same stream, just different bends of it. By the third or fourth crossing both feet are numb and soaked. I’m walking more than riding as there are no paths here.
Eventually I come to a large flat field. I hop back on the bike and start winding my way among the humocks – hunting for the easiest riding. I can see that it is ice that I am riding on. I’m nervous because of the amount of open water I’ve already crossed and who knows how deep the water under the ice is.

The thing is, I know right where I am now. I know that I have less than a half mile until I get to the roadway. I can see the power lines that run parallel to the road. But I don’t know about the ice. I don’t know how deep the water is. I don’t know if I can make a straight shot to the road or if I’ll have to wind around and take the long way. The other option is to backtrack to where I last knew where I was and then make the ride back home – six or seven miles versus a half mile to the road and then two miles of road riding to get home.

So I keep moving forward. I’m able to ride. For a while, anyway. Until my front wheel breaks through the ice. Well, through a top layer of ice. Back to hike a bike, but no water. Each step breaks me through the top layer of ice and through a six inch void before landing on a second layer of ice.

I continue on, though. Pushing the bike, breaking through the ice. I know that the road is right there. I just need to make it there, then I can head for home and be warm and toasty in no time flat.

I can see some open water where a moose has obviously punched through, but I can’t tell how deep it is. I detour around, trying to avoid thinner ice. Instead I punch through myself. Water sloshes into my shoes and over my calf. I can feel my foot sinking into the mud and hope that my shoe doesn’t get sucked from my foot.

My next step takes me deeper into the water. I’m to my knee now. What do I do? I decide to take another step to see how deep that one goes. Just to the knee again. I push forward, water to my knees for another 75 yards or so. I can’t feel anything below my knees, so I figure there’s no use worrying about getting wet at this point.

My next step I only sink to my ankle and I think this is a good thing. Besides, I can see the road now. See the cars moving back and forth. What? 500 yards, 1000? I step forward, the longest journey beginning with a single step and all. And I sink to my waist in nearly freezing water. The bike floats and keeps me from submerging completely. I am sinking in the mud and ooze and know at this point I have to move forward even if that means that I have to swim.

I hold onto the bike as a life preserver and take my next step, tentative. Same depth. Again and again, the water doesn’t get any deeper or shallower. Then it does. Knee deep. Shin. Ankle. Then dry land. A small rise before the drop into the ditch and the road on the other side. The ditch, too, is full of water. I have one more gauntlet to run.

I go full bore, running, figuring I’m gonna get wet no matter what, so… The water is mid-thigh deep with a sheen of road grime and oil. I plow through and make it to the road. I hope on the bike, click into the pedals and start riding. My legs don’t want to work and as I come to a stop to cross the busy roadway I can’t disengage from the pedals – I’m frozen in and the bike tips with me on it. Every sense is dulled. I slowly get up, walk across the road during a break in the traffic on wooden legs, take the emergency cell phone out of my pack, and call the wife for a ride. I know that I could make the ride, but the combo of wet and weather would likely result in hypothermia. Even in the city in Alaska the land can kill you. 


Last night the ride home was the very definition of nucking futs! Get to the valley and hop off the bus. It's windy. Not breezy or blustery, but f*cking Windy. With a capital W. 37MPH. From the north/north-east. Thus a head or head cross wind. 

So I cover every bit of exposed skin and start pedaling. Trying to anyway. For the first 20th of a mile it's going great. I'm able to keep moving and am not getting blown around too much. Then I get my first gust. It hits me and pushes me and the bike from the east side of the MUP to the west side and tries to push me up the plow berm and off the trail. I get off and push for a bit until it dies back down enough to actually ride. Ride another 100 yards before I get punched in the face with a huge gust that stops me dead. Literally stopped dead. I'm pedaling, but my rear tire is now just slipping on the ice. I dismount and walk again. Or try to. I have to stop walking because it is gusting so hard that when I lift a foot to take a step it is pushing me backwards on the ice. I top 260 lbs. And the wind is pushing me backwards. 

This wind hates me. It lets me ride in 100 yard stretches and then kicks in again just as soon as I hit one of the numerous glare patches on the trail. Wind + dirt + blowing snow = mirror finish ice. Negative friction. 

Did I mention that this is all on an uphill? Yeah. A long, slow uphill. 

Eventually I get out of the open and am able to ride again and it goes slow, but better. It took me 50 minutes to go three miles. 

I have no idea how high the gusts were, but the weather service had predicted 60MPH gusts yesterday. The thing is, I've been in 60MPH winds before and these felt a lot stronger than that. 

The upside of last night's ride is that it made this morning's ride with 16MPH winds and gusts of only up to 25MPH much more reasonable. Heck, I didn't have any problems getting to the bus stop at all.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lemon Cake and Wine

How hard must it be to decide to cancel bus service based on weather reports and warnings. Think about the backlash to deal with from the folks who rely on that service to get to their jobs. Think about the bosses whose workforce is cut for the day due to transportation challenges. Think about the talking heads taking to the interwebs to either crucify or sanctify you. Not a job I'd want to have. But that's the job someone had at the Valley Mover yesterday.

I assume that the choice to suspend service for the day was in large part due to the two prior freezing rain events that brought traffic to close to a standstill and resulted in a couple of dedicated drivers risking their lives in order to safely bring home a hundred or more riders safely.

For me it ended up being a nice little remote work day. Started working a bit early and knocked off a bit early. I ended up getting a lot done I wouldn't have otherwise.

Today was no such dice. The busses ran. I rode. I had a hell of a time getting to the bus stop this morning. See my route to the bus stop takes me first a touch south, then east and north before I turn south again. In the winter, our prevailing winds are from the north/north-east. Today they were blowing like banshees.

So much so that I was stopped dead in my tracks a couple of times. Couple the wind with a poorly working set of ders, and, well, no fun. Until I turned to the south. Then it just got scary. 30+ MPH winds pushing at my back as I'm trying to keep it wheels side down on a path that is covered with a mix of textured ice, frozen road grime, drifted snow, and glare ice. At one point I was topping 30 without touching the pedals. Scary. As I get almost to the bus stop, there is a sharp curve to the west where I am broadside to the wind. And it is glare ice - scoured smooth by 12 hours of wind and snow blowing across it. Take a guess what happened.

I went down. Luckily it wasn't hard. I was prepared for it. But it still wasn't fun. And I'll feel it tomorrow. Heck, I feel it already.

And this is what I get to face on the way home - the first 2/3rds of the ride head north. Up hill. Yeah.

See that wind speed? I've been watching it creep up all day. I'd hoped it was recording gusts. Don't look that way. I have a suspicion that there will be lots of hike a bike on the way home tonight, at least until I get to the relative protection of my neighborhood.

Not looking forward to it.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Things slow down. Rather, my mind slows as it gets gummed up with too much going on in my life. Or so it seems. Like a drivetrain that's been abused. Crunchy thoughts and a real desire to not do anything.

Must be the end of the semester blues again. And frankly I'm happy it's about over. It's been a rough one. Three sections with one a face to face three hour block class takes a lot out of a person. One more week, then final grading, then a bit of time away. Time away from my regular job as well. A vacation. I can't wait. It'll be nice to be able to relax a bit and just veg. I'm hopeful that during the time away I'll get to do some of the riding I've been wanting to do - Moose Range, Knik Glacier, others. At a minimum, there will be some time spent at a public use cabin over the vacation - no cell phones, no computers, no nothing. I hope we have enough wood to keep warm.

This past weekend was the second annual Global Fat Bike ride. My original plans were to ride Moose Range. Weather had other plans. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday we had a nice mix of freezing rain and freezing fog - thus making riding treacherous and visibility nearly extinct. As such I ended up putting in my ride time at the MatSu Greenbelt trails, planning to hit up the Bearberry trails and connecting up with Picnic Table and back home. In the end, I bypassed Bearberry, as things were slick enough that I was having a hard time staying upright even on the easiest single track. Better to be safe than sorry.

Overall it was a good ride, even with a bunch of hike a bike. Got some pictures that I may share someday.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What'r You Doing...

It's that wonderful time of year again - Global Fat-Bike Day. Well, for some of us, everyday is fat bike day. And that's okay. For others, it's a good excuse to get out there and go for a ride.

Honestly, for me, it'll be just another day and another ride. I may use the day to hit up some new terrain, possibly the Moose Range area riding on the snow machine tracks. Or I may just wait and do a midnight ride at the CrevMo trails. What's important is that I get out there. Which is what I would plan to do whether or not it is a "special" day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Center

Wow, it's been a while. With the holiday and all, I've not been commuting much, but have been getting in some great rides, just the same. The weather's been great for getting out there and laying tracks. Cold, crisp, calm, and just enough new snow to add to the base.

But this is Alaska, so nothing is as easy as it should be or as it seems. I ride my bike as a way to hopefully simplify my life a bit. No worries about gas or insurance, speeding tickets or red light tickets. Yet it feels like things are often way more complicated than they should be. It feels like I am constantly replacing parts on the bike just to keep it running.

The latest in the line is a new chain. I'd been dealing with a stuck link for a while and decided I'd best pick up a new one. In all fairness, it had been eight months since the last replacement, so most definitely due.

Of course, when putting on a new chain, there is always the possibility that you find that the cassette is also in need of replacement. Generally, I can replace the chain twice before replacing the cassette. Normally, though, I use Shimano cassettes. This last time I used a SRAM - cheaper initially. But the new chain caused serious skipping issues. So, after ruling out the possibility of a grimed up derailleur that was causing the skipping, I dug out an old Shimano cassette that was relegated to the parts bin as end of life. Threw it on and the skipping issue has been 99% cleared up. There is still one gear that will skip if I shift to it while under load, but it might just work to get me through the winter. That's what I hope anyway. I know I should just man up and get a new one, but when my bike looks like the following pictures too often for the next six months, it seems like throwing money away.

Yup, winter is tough on everything up here in the north. Sometimes it is enough to simply limp through another one before worrying about rebuilding all those things that the weather has broken down - bikes, bodies, houses, yards, cars. Baby them along as long as possible and when the sun comes back, work like hell to get them back into shape for another go round.