Friday, December 21, 2007

The longest night of the year

Sunrise: 10:58 AM, Sunset: 2:40 PM, Length of Night: 20hr 18min

Time lapse photo of the sun as it makes a low arc across the southern horizon on Dec 21st over Fairbanks, Alaska. Each photo was taken about every 30 minutes. (Courtesy Todd Paris). I posted this photo again this year because its a really cool image. The steam rising in the foreground is the UAF power plant.

Its a time of celebration for many in the north because starting tomorrow the sun will gradually be climbing higher in the sky and the days will be getting longer. I have this unnatural passion for the winter and the dark, cozy December days. So this time of year there is a part of me that is always a little sad as we make the turn towards increasing daylight and the inevitable melting of snow and ice.

There were an abundance of parties and pagan gatherings taking place this evening. Brian and I wanted to escape the bustle of the city so we decided to spend solstice out at a cabin tucked back in the wilderness of the Chena Recreation Area east of Fairbanks. We skied to the Nugget Cr cabin under a nearly full moon and crystal clear skies. No headlamps were need because the moon illuminated the frosted boreal forest with almost as much light as the mid-day sun.

We arrived at the cabin around midnight and the small wood stove warmed us up after skiing for several hours in -20F temperatures. We spent the remainder of the evening drinking hot buttered rums, eating pizza, and telling stories. This cabin is quite rustic and has a lot of character. It was apparently built in the 1970's by some trappers. The state began maintaining it a couple of years ago and added it to the cabin network in the Recreation area.

The ski to this cabin is quite beautiful as you traverse along the base of rocky bluffs above the S. Fork of the Chena River for several miles.

Ouch! Only the very first section of trail had been snowmachined and we ended up breaking trail through a foot and a half of snow for over 5 miles. Somewhere along the way I ended up snapping my ski in half just behind my heal plate. I didn't notice it until we were getting ready to leave the following morning. Fortunately I made the 7.5 miles back to the truck limping along on my busted ski as it slowly disintegrated.

My friend Chris just finished a 4 month sauna building project and had christening party this afternoon. This was a great way to end the day after skiing. Chris is a sauna masochist. He fired it up to 220 scorching degrees Fahrenheit. It was unbearable as he splashed water on the stove and sent the heat index through the roof. The "real feel" must have been approaching 300F. I had to escape after I dropped to the floor gasping for air and as my skin began to singe. I am still trying to determine if this was a pleasureable experience or not...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The meeting of Farenheit and Celsius

Brrrrr....2pm and the temperature was hovering at a chilly -45ºF (-42.8ºC) this afternoon. What most Alaskans would term as "real cold" arrived this week. This is when the thermometer plunges to the point where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales cross paths---the magical number of -40ºF (-40ºC).

I snapped the above shot when I was out snowshoeing on a trail just down the hill from my house in mid-afternoon. Only 200 vertical feet higher up at the house it was a balmy -28ºF (-33.3ºC) -- almost 20 degrees warmer. And if you go up higher in the hills the readings were even warmer. The dense, cold air sinks to the low lying areas (or valley bottoms) and sits there until clouds or a warm breeze can scour it away. The deep cold is going to be short lived but the forecast is for temperatures to remain from around zero and below for a while.

The sun at high noon peers through the thickening ice fog.

This time of the year the sun barely climbs above the horizon for a few hours and provides absolutely zero warming. So the temperatures will not budge upward until a warmer airmass arrives. This is different from more southerly latitudes where the heat from the sun will warm things up during the day. We wont see any heating effect from the sun until sometime in late January. So during mid-winter in far north its pointless to forecast afternoon high and nighttime low temperatures because the high and low for the day can occur at anytime.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Plummeting toward normal...

My skate ski boots dry in front of the wood stove one last time before being stashed away for the foreseeable future.

After a really warm start to the ski season the temperatures in interior Alaska are finally going to slide to the negative side of zero Fahrenheit (-18C) for a while--which is more or less normal for this time of year. Skating on skis is gruelingly slow in sub-zero weather. Classic (aka diagonal) skiing is much more enjoyable when the thermometer plummets because every passing ski moves across the same track of snow...which in turn wears down the sharp/cold snow crystals and results in a surprisingly good glideable surface even when its really cold. So up here in Fairbanks...the heart of the winter is typically spent on classic skis.

So with the colder weather today I got talked into running a 10k race which circumnavigated the perimeter of the UAF campus. Everyone was frosted over by delicate layers of ice crystals.

This is Keith--he had some superb snot icicles to accessorize his frosty beard.

And of course--Trevor is smiling as usual with a steaming cup (paper not Styrofoam) of hot chocolate.

Lisa and I both live on a network of ski trails that hook up with the trails on we skied home right from the gym after the run.

Dea the bartender whipped up a variety of martinis at our house over the weekend. There were traditional ones with gin/vermouth and a variety of colorful sweet vodka based ones.

Jackson is fighting giardia and has been frequented by daily bouts of diarrhea and soft stools for the past month. So Dea produced her signature drink - the clogged toilet-ini. Or in this case it was renamed the giardiatini. A little brown surprise was lurking in the urine colored drink. This a beverage Dea concocted about a month ago at Lisa and Trevor's b-day party.

Brian is comforted by the disgustingly familiar drink and dives right in...

Dancing broke out in the kitchen as more alcohol was consumed.

Some satisfied martini drinkers...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Went to a fight and a hockey game broke out...

Fights--booing at the referee and the out of town team--dropping whiskey into our cokes--banging on the plexiglass--> that about sums up an evening at a Fairbanks Ice Dogs hockey game. I think we were in the running for the most obnoxious fans...well maybe. The number of fights was uncountable. At one point there were three going on at once and the ice was littered with helmets, gloves, and sticks. These games allow some of us to release the inner red-neck we keep closeted deep down within our inner-self. This is what an Ice Dogs game is all about.

Nearly everyone was sent to the penalty box after the big fight breakout....

Another rumble on the ice.
The out of town team were the Kenai Brown Bears---grrrrrr. Our sticky-note graffiti bashing the Brown Bears was well received by the Ice Dogs. Final score was something like 5 to zilch.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A day on the ice...

Bubbles frozen in time (at least until spring) on Harding Lake.

Drilling on the Salcha River. Around the 1st of each month during the winter I go out and measure ice thicknesses on lakes and rivers in the Fairbanks area. This provides useful climatological information about fall freeze-up, winter ice growth, and spring breakup. This data also aides in forecasting the timing of spring break-up and the potential for ice jams.

We also measure the snow depth and water equivalent of the snowpack on the ice surface. The amount of snow on the ice is one variable that controls the rate of ice growth. Deeper snow=more insulation=less ice growth.

Here is the weather station we installed at Chena Hot Springs resort in the fall. I returned there today to set up some software and get the weather data flowing to the Internet. Now anyone can see what the current weather conditions are out at the hot springs.

All of the vegetation around the hot springs was encrusted with a delicate layer of beautiful hoar frost.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The beauty of the northern sky

I work on a ridge overlooking the Tanana Valley and the Alaska Range to the south. The views of the sky are absolutely amazing, especially in the winter as the sun sweeps low across the southern horizon. Here are just a few recent pictures of the scenes that unfold outside the window.

Strong winds aloft blowing across the Alaska Range create these stacked lenticular clouds. The ragged one just above the ridge is formed as the winds whip over Denali (20,320 ft).

I call this one the "false" sun. This is NOT the real sun--I swear, I was there. The sun set about 3 minutes before this photo was shot. The bright orange figure above the horizon is caused by some crazy optics going on in the ice crystals of the cirrus clouds. I presume if the sun had still been up there would have been a nice sun pillar extending up above the sun. The silhouette of Denali can also be seen jutting up above the ridge on the right side of the photo.

A huge swath of snow can be seen blowing off of Mt Hayes about 70 miles away. The snow is probably being carried many miles away from the mountain.
And I couldn't go without a shot of the northern lights. A friend of mine actually took this photo.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Skiing into the wild - A night at Bus 142

A copy of "Into The Wild" signed by Krakauer, Carine McCandless and others was tucked away in a small suitcase filled with tattered notebooks inscribed with thoughts and signatures of previous visitors.

I skied out the Stampede Trail to Bus 142 -the magic bus - with Brian and Dan over the weekend. Its ironic that I ventured out there now especially with the increased publicity and interest in the bus since the recent release of the film Into the Wild. I read the book in the mid-90's and had never felt the desire or motivation to trek out the dilapidated bus perched above the Sushana River.

I remember reading about the discovery of Chris McCandless in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1992 and had similar thoughts as other Alaskans--another careless person went out into the wilderness unprepared and suffered the consequences. Krakauer's book changed my initial opinion of McCandless because it provided insight into the life and ideals of this young kid who perished just beyond the edge of civilization. It put a name and in a sense, a life, to the dead body which was so simply reported by the newspaper.

Even so...I feel that Krakauer went beyond just giving me the story of McCandless and instead sensationalized his life which in turn made this kid some sort of prodigy or hero of sorts-which I don't completely understand. I suppose this is the intention of an author in order to grab his readers and suck them in....which is understandable. The book sucked me in but certainly not to the point of idolizing McCandless. I very much admire his sense of adventure and I can relate to his desire to remove oneself from the pressures and expectations of society--and live simply in the wild where the chores of survival become daily routine. I am intrigued and inspired by the powerfulness of the wilderness and I understand the allure this has for others making there way north to see the bus and wilderness that McCandless found so special.

Brian and I are planning to do the winter Wilderness Classic Race through the Wrangell Mtns from Nabesna to McCarthy this spring. We thought an early winter ski out the Stampede Trail would present us with some of the conditions we may encounter during the wilderness classic(open water crossings or overflow, breaking trails, etc) and also allow us to continue to fine tune our winter camping skills. The bus suddenly seemed like a good destination because this gave us a goal to shoot for...something to keep us pushing forward through the uncomfortable times, be it cold extremities, fatigue or malfunctioning equipment.

Stampede Rd is maintained for the first 8 miles or so - beyond that it becomes a rough 4-wheeler trail that crosses bogs, rivers, and traverses up small stream beds. According to my GPS its about 19.0 miles from the beginning of the trail to the magic bus # 142.
Here is the profile of the route. Some long gradual ups/downs but nothing really hair raising.

Getting ready to depart the truck and head out the Stampede Trail. Even though there was a cleared trail the skiing was still quite challenging the deeper we went into the wild. The snow cover was thin and the trail was super bumpy and uneven. Rivers/creeks are still freezing up and ice conditions are unstable and highly variable.

We encountered large areas of inclined overflow ice which would easily throw us off balance, especially with the 30 lb packs on our backs. We crashed down and slammed onto the icy surface a handful of times.

Some type of 4-wheeler had traveled out the trail and we were able to ski in the tire tracks. The snow in the middle of the trail was littered with rocks and was nearly impossible to glide across. The trail narrowed considerably after the first few miles and the thick brush would continuously grab our packs, ski baskets, slam into our shoulders, slap our faces and throw us off our feet--it was really frustrating especially after it got dark.

The Savage River--our first river crossing. We had to suck it up and walk through the icy water. The worst part was forcing our cold feet back into the confines of our ski boots.

Descending into the Teklanika drainage and our second river crossing. Our feet were just beginning to warm up after our little dip in the Savage River.

The late afternoon light on the Teklanika River was quite beautiful. This is the spot Chris McCandless was unable to ford in July 1992, the season when this glacially fed river runs high, fast, silty and cold.

Just below an eddy in the river the ice had accumulated and formed a narrow bridge which we were able to ski across. The water wasn't very deep but would have totally sucked to take an unexpected dip.

Water and bindings don't mix--bindings froze up numerous times

This plaque was mounted on an interior wall of the magic bus.

The first rays of sunlight shine through the windshield

The bus is on a linear knoll (probably an old moraine or esker) above the Sushana River where we could collect fresh water. It was quite a serene and beautiful spot and I can understand why Chris found this location quite special.

Smoke billows from bus 142's chimney on a cold frosty morning. The stove heated the bus up quickly but was so drafty it didn't take long to burn up the wood we had collected.

All aboard...

I didn't have any expectations prior to arriving at the bus. I was overwhelmingly surprised at how cool it was sitting there deep within the boreal forest in the shadow of the Alaska Range. It was hard to imagine this hunk of steel careening down the streets of Fairbanks back in the day. It seemed virtually untouched since the summer of 1992 when Chris McCandless spent his last days here living off the land. I was intrigued sifting through the various notebooks with words from fellow visitors and reading the inscriptions etched into the walls. I believe McCandless pilgrims will be completely satisfied, or perhaps, spiritually enlightened after visiting this site.

The hunter that found Chris's body said there was a red leg warmer, the type that would be worn by a dancer, hanging outside the bus. I was amazed to see a red leg warmer still at the bus.
Some inscriptions on the ceiling of the magic bus

We were able to warm up and dry out all of our gear in the bus. A small note asked visitors to respect this site and leave enough firewood for the next guest, sweep the floor, etc. We fully respected the bus as a memorial.

It took us 7 hours of steady skiing to get back to the truck.

The Teklanika River had risen some since the day before and we were forced to ski through an icy slurry on top of the river ice. We slipped plastic trash bags over our socks to keep them from getting wet but the frigid water still poured into our ski boots. The water froze instantly in the 0ºF temperature and Brian and Dans boots were permanently attached to their skis. We still had to cross over the Savage River.

So the ski back turned into a series of intervals of racing forward to keep warm, then stopping quickly to stuff food in our faces, stop again to shake our hands to warm up our fingers and toes. At one point I had to sit down and pull my feet out and change socks. As I was sitting there alone in the dark I heard wolves howling not far off through the woods. As I swept my headlamp around me the ice crystals on the trees looked like eyes peering at me from all directions. All in all it was a great trip full of a lot of unknowns--which is exactly what we were looking forward too.

I revisited Bus 142 in August of 2008 to find it totally vandalized. Details of that trip are here.

If you want to see even more pictures from our trip to the magic bus I posted them on Picassa.

Check out Brian's blog post about the ski out to the Chris McCandless magic bus on the Stampede Trail.

Listen to this weeks podcast from the Alaska Public Radio Network show "Talk of Alaska": The McCandless Bus - Move it or Leave it?