Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Paved roads improve quality of life in Girdwood

This curb is a big deal. When I moved to Girdwood there was only one paved road, Alyeska Highway. You can almost say Arlberg Avenue, which leads to the Alyeska Resort was paved, if you are ok bobbing and weaving to miss the ill patched pot holes. My husband and I moved here for work, we did not have a plan to live in Girdwood, we just had a plan to earn income. The first month of our employment we commuted from Anchorage. Looking at rentals in Girdwood we were unpleasantly surprised. This town, with one paved road, had either too proud of itself small condo rentals starting at $1200 per month or an $800 per month apartment in the dirtiest complex this side of east Anchorage. 

My husband and I don’t like to use sarcasm as a form of communication, but let me get this straight. The road to the post office and local grocery store is not paved and is riddled with holes and rivulets? These pricey rentals rarely have garages or carports in a town that receives up to 600 inches of snow? Dog poo litters the walking path and nordic ski trails all year? And you want to get an average of $300,500 for a house here? Really!? Our first year we rented a 450 square foot cabin for $900. The previous tenants had dogs, and in a town with no paved roads, why was I to expect landlords to professionally clean their rentals between tenants? The cabin had a washer and dryer, that balanced living in the small space, the mustiness, the orange well water, and the inefficient appliances. My husband made pets out of the steller jays, we watched the black bears wander through the yard. 

At the end of that rental year, we moved into a modern garage apartment. That heralded an upgrade for the whole town, the Girdwood paving project began! My year of complaining relentlessly about the unpaved roads had paid off! I soon found out after attending some Girdwood Board of Supervisors meetings, this “improvement” had been in the works for 10 years. TEN YEARS! to pave less than a mile of heavily traveled, heart-of-the-town, two-lane roads! really. 

For two years now, the Arctic Imperatives conference has met in Girdwood. Attended by representatives from other countries bordering the arctic, I realized, oh yeah, there are other countries that survive in this climate. And oh yeah, those Scandinavian countries have some of the highest rates of citizen happiness in the world. And, those countries have been building homes, roads, and other infrastructure for centuries. So why can’t we, in the United States, with all of our resources, build homes that don’t out-price hourly wage workers, and pave the damn roads that lead to everyday resources!?

The road project was completed just before the first snowfall in 2012. It is a great pleasure to circle town square wether on bike, foot, or in a car. Lest we not forget Girdwood should be called Dogwood, the sidewalk reminds us. (Actually, I prefer Glacier City.) The paving projects included the road, curbs, landscaping, and light poles! 

My degree is in Environmental Design. Though I do not practice architecture, I am constantly curious about structures, their design, efficiency, and material use. My husband and I have lived in 6 different structures in South Central Alaska. It is not a high percentage, however, most have revealed poor building quality considering the price. A few years ago I attended a presentation by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, take note new home builders. That and the attempt to improve the quality of life in Girdwood led to more research on why Nordic countries are satisfied with their quality of living. Here are some articles and papers regarding those subjects I found interesting. Alaska need not be exactly like these other countries, but we could learn to improve our cities. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Real warm summer weather continues in the rain forest

83 degrees on the porch at Telemark Drive in Girdwood. Who’d a thought? When we chose to move north because the lower 48 was heating up, who’d a thought it would be in the 80’s in Girdwood, Alaska. Girdwood is the northern terminus for the pacific coast temperate rainforest. The average summer temperature is generally 65 degrees, in July. It is June now, and we have seen high 70s going on four weeks now. 

There has been high pressure over the region since mid May. NASA posted a lovely clear satellite image of the Alaska land mass, no cloud obstructions!

A remarkable image indeed. 

We are not complaining, we are wishing we planted tomatoes, roses, bell peppers, beans, anything that loves the warmth. It only took a week to warm the soil, normally decorative planting begins June 1st in Girdwood. This year I began planting on May 24. I speckled my flower boxes with herbs and kale. I had to pinch the bolts off cilantro once, hoping it would keep producing. The sun would not allow this, and it bolted again a week later. Unusual indeed, but not unique. There have been other summers with record high temperatures. According to The Weather Channel.com, the highest recorded temperature was 88 in 1972. Long time Girdwood residents say there was a long sunny spell in the early 2000’s. 

Today I overheard some youngsters repeating a conspiracy theory regarding government experiments with ways to keep high pressure systems in place for extended periods. I find it hard to agree, with so many factors involved: jet streams, marine layers, transpiration, blowing dust, the variables are too large to control by humans. And even if we could control them the climate deniers would have to admit is it human caused! 

Due to the low humidity, lack of rain, and dry conditions, Girdwood Fire and Rescue has issued a ban on outdoor burning. Please, all residents and anyone visiting Girdwood, respect the burn ban in order to prevent wildfires and damage to wood cabins! 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Two clouds floated through our streak of blue sky days

A varied thrush hopped around on the ground collecting small bits of gravel. I do not usually seen them on the ground, near people, much less in the parking lot of a busy hangar. The robins, yes, and most common the little redpolls and finches taking dirt baths. The thrush normally stays in the brush. 

Glacier Creek is rushing with run-off from snow and ice melt. I can easily hear it 100 yards away. Yet the small drainages and puddles are drying up. Our “creek” has dried up behind the house in Girdwood. We live near the foot of Penguin Ridge. Penguin is 99% clear of snow. Are the little birds looking for bits of water when they stalk? I think tiny bits of gravel for their crops and insects mostly.

Who would ever think to say they were hot in Girdwood? For the past four weeks, there have been maybe two days of rain, and not even full days. Not the normal weather pattern for the northern tip of a rain forest. I have concern for the trees. The trees are not adapted to this dry air for such an extended period. Their offspring may adapt in the coming decades. Or, adapted species will move north overtaking the present species. 

Here are two clouds seen in over Glacier Valley today. Beautiful blue skies really show off the green mountain sides and the few spots of snow remaining. With more than 14 days of temperatures in the 70’s, it is hard to imagine bits of snow still on the ground. The cool nights of the north help them remain. Homeowners with large picture windows are surely grateful for the cool nights here in the valley. I look forward to an early crop of strawberries.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kite skiing and kite boarding on Portage Lake’s frozen, slushy surface.

Alaska is known as a land of opportunity for outdoor sporting types, make-up-your-own-sport, and adventure seekers. I live along the Turnagain Arm in Southcentral Alaska. The Turnagain Arm (part of Cook Inlet) is known for having the second highest tide change in North America. The tide differential can be up to 36 feet, although averages of 32 feet are more common. (This June, 2013, one of the 36 foot tide changes is predicted.) This tide differential combined with the knowledge that the water is quite cold since it is supplied by numerous snow melt sources, may be part of the thrill for the kite-surfers. 

Many times over the summer, drivers on the Seward Highway witness the kite-surfers in the Turnagain and stop to marvel and take photos. The surfers are usually seen toward what can be considered an Alaskan sunset in the summer, the sun far north creating a warm glow and a rich backlight to the colorful kites. If you happen to be driving the Seward when you see the surfers out, please lower your speed limit and watch for crazy people parking all over the road side to get out and watch. One thing the Seward Highway is in need of is more safe turnouts (which actually the DOT should be working on this summer.) If you are a kite surfer and plan to get out on the water this summer, I would like to ask that you please park in one of the larger pull-outs. In the summer of 2012, I passed the sporty crew many times in one of the small single wide car turnouts. I am just concerned for everyone’s safety on the highway.

Anyway, I digress, what I really want to showcase is the adaptability of the kite surfers to kite skiing and kite boarding on Portage Lake while the lake is still frozen. Feel free to oogle these photos as long as you like, they are rather spectacular. I have been driving to Portage often this late winter and imagine my surprise as I approached the Begich Boggs visitor center and saw these kites floating in the air against a bright blue sky. The vision of these kites in the sky over stark white mountain tops was magnificent. Seeing the kites also indicated there was a manageable breeze over the lake, not the gales for which Portage is known. 

After parking is the clearest spot available near the visitor center, I scrambled for my ever present camera and crept quietly toward the walled overlook. Once I stopped walking, I could hear them, the skis and snowboards cutting and racing over the crispy frost covered surface of snow. You have to understand how stark the sound of skis scouring over days old frost can be so distinct, because Portage and Bear Valley are very, very quiet. At this time of day, at this time of year, before the tour busses, before the cruise ships, before the school groups, it is extremely quiet in Portage. If you sit still by the moraine there are sounds to be heard, ravens of course, squirrels scurrying, occasional magpies, and redpolls. There can be coyotes, but we have not heard them yet this year. In the summer the sound most commonly heard is the lapping and splashing of the lake water on the shore, thrown around by the gale force wind. 

Today, no one is talking, no motors are running, no winds are howling. Today there is just energy of movement. The movement of a waxed six foot long, lacquered, pressed wood board bearing a 200 pound mass that is lifted by just enough wind held in a brilliantly colored silken tapestry. The waxed boards slicing back and forth, yawing and pitching over the frozen liquid that no one has told, is frozen. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

On Mirror Pond, or, reflections on Turnagain Arm Alaska

Occasionally there are days when the wind does not blow through Turnagain Arm. Hard to believe because most folks who drive the Seward Highway are not on it everyday. So odds are, the few times they are out and about, the wind is blowing somewhere. As evidenced by these photos, I am offering proof that on this one day, the wind was not blowing gales through the passes. 

These images are from the pit of the Turnagain Arm between Girdwood and Portage Valleys. The view is across the Arm toward the Kenai Mountains around Hope, Alaska. This was a really frosty morning, so once the car engine warmed up, it was a cozy calm drive on the Highway. 

I encourage everyone with a little spare time to take a nice road trip this week or next weekend (the 27th & 28th) before the Highway becomes too crowded. Remember, the Portage Glacier Daylodge is open on the weekend from 10a to 5pm with fresh baked goods and sandwiches. After the Portage stop, cross over the highway to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, the animals will appreciate your visit. Leave Anchorage or the Valley by 9a, it does not even have to be super early, and enjoy the mountains, the water, the eagles and all the other feathered migrants passing through south central Alaska. 

Thanks for reading and viewing! 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Girdwood and Portage, make it a two-fer!

Such a lovely blessing this high pressure continues to bring to south central Alaska. The bright blue skies, the blindingly white mountain tops, the clear air. Most of the air that is, with the exception of roadsides. Pedestrians are victim to the gravel dust being disturbed by everyone one out for a sunlit drive. 

If you need some encouragement for taking a scenic ride this weekend, the Portage Glacier Daylodge is open Fridays through Sundays in April until full time opening in May. Your lovely hosts are baking delicious treats such as cookies and cinnamon rolls and steaming up frothy lattes for your morning respite. If you are going to Alyeska for Slush Cup, just add an extra hour to your morning. The Portage Lodge opens at 10 am, you can have a quick late breakfast. Afterward, head back to Alyeska, the mountain does not open until 11 so nothing will be missed. The Portage Daylodge is only 15 miles from Girdwood, and a beautiful drive. Above is the view in Portage Valley with the Portage Daylodge to the right and the Begich-Boggs visitor center ahead. Below, Byron Glacier is still covered in snow as seen from the Portage Daylodge. 

While soaking in the views on your sunny jaunt through the mountains, be aware of the traffic. Our neighbors to the south are already streaming in for early season specials and all the adventure the great land has to offer. I have seen numerous small RV’s already camping out in Girdwood. On my drives along the Seward, there are countless boats being shuttled to water (mostly from the Valley I am guessing). Also be aware of late season snow machiners heading toward Turnagain Pass. The high pressure weather system has been holding the night temperatures down enough to keep the snow from melting rapidly. I imagine most of the snow is just evaporating under the dry air and sunny skies, oh, and the incredible winds. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

High pressure clears skies and keeps the snow around

The April snow storm that thoroughly covered Glacier Valley and Western Prince William Sound has left some perfect snow for all types of outdoor activities. The helicopters were non-stop Thursday, Friday and I expect today too, ferrying skiers to pristine mountain tops in the southern Chugach Range. Groomed trails are perfect at Alyeska for skiing and riding. 

Moose Meadows was soft and pillowy, very nice for off trail classic skiing. Come layered, it is 10° at the T in Girdwood this Saturday morning. With the sun out all day, we expect it to warm up, maybe to 30!

There was a huge solar flare on April 11 which made it to our atmosphere Friday. There are great forecasts for auroras tonight 4/13 and Sunday 4/14. Check the Geophysical Institute's web site for the summary. A link is on this page. Get a good workout today, have a big dinner, nap and then head outside after midnight for an evening show!