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! 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Late winter storm a bonus for skiers and riders

April continues to fool the senses. April 7th, winter weather advisory? Spring planting time (though inside in our community, its confounding)? Migrating birds, any uncovered wetlands in south central? I have seen gulls at Potter’s Marsh, sitting determinedly on the snow covered grass. It will melt, eventually. At least Turnagain Arm has extremely low ice coverage this year. Our winged friends can hunt for bi-valves in the mudflats. 

I am sure skiing and riding has been at premium conditions since this winter storm began on Saturday. A few rounds of howitzer let Girdwood know the snow safety team is making sure the conditions are optimal for the last few weeks of human powered snow fun at Alyeska Resort. If you can ditch work this week, I highly recommend the effort!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fresh snow a nice treat in early April

In case you were wondering, yes, its is a great week to come to Girdwood to ski. The snow is soft, new and fresh. An April storm blessed us with a gentle storm. After last weeks beautiful, blasting sun, the snow curface had become quite crusty and hard. Glacier Valley has probably had about 6 inches of fresh stuff making a nice surface for skiing. 

The week has been full of weather phenomena. Sun, rivers through melting ice, sun dogs, gulls at Potter's Marsh, and the snow geese are now in Fairbanks! 

The weather forecast calls for more snow over the next three days. Get out and enjoy the spring fluff, the mountain closes to skiing on April 28! 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The view on the Seward Highway, unique everyday

Everyday the drive on the Seward Highway is a different experience. This is a brief view traveling from Anchorage back to Girdwood, Alaska. 

A constant object of interest for me is the ice on the water in the Turnagain Arm. The sea ice can be thin or up to feet thick. It builds up in layers much like the sediment is layered down on the sea bed. Chunks of ice can be as big as a car. Even so, the ice still moves and breaks, and floats like cream puffs on the incoming and outgoing tide. When the tide goes out, the ice is left resting on the mud flats, heavy and solid. 

Vast swaths of mud and ice looks like a foreign planet. Some day I will brave stepping over the guardrail timing the tide just right in order to get down with the ice a photograph the bizarre landscape. 

Meanwhile, back in Girdwood, The deep end of Penguin ridge rises over the park.

Friday, April 5, 2013

What is it like in the morning, before the crowds of skiers?

Everyone who lives in Girdwood knows it exists for a reason–skiing (present day). Those who work at the Resort are here to serve that purpose. Sometimes there are wonderful days when all the guests are nice, happy to be here, and loving the outdoors. Sometimes, unfortunately many times, the guests are whiney, ask for more than their share, rude, dangerous, and demanding. Because of those guests, I  myself enjoy this moment, the quiet before the storm. This morning the sun bursts between Mount Alyeska and Max’s Mountain as if it was shot forth by a giant slingshot between the two mountains. The billions of groomed crystals on the ground sparkle under the bright sun, fresh, un-carved terrain. All that riotous color belies the quiet in the air. The calm snow, the trees still, the sun warm, I could just lie down and take a nap. 

That is not to be, as its a great day for everyone to drive into Glacier Valley to hit the slopes. The afternoon will be filled with bull wheels being turned by closet-sized motors, skis and snowboards slipping over the firm snow pack, kids laughing and having a good time, and lots of requests for lift tickets accompanied by beeping computers and printers grinding out the tickets. Throw in three, four, or five dogs romping around the base, parents pulling little ones in plastic sleighs, boots and binding clamping down and clicking off, and the random mix of music in the daylodge and you have a wild mix of audible waves. The evening will be closed out with hundreds of cars crunching in the gravel on the way down Alyeska Highway back to the Seward Highway. By 9 pm, the town settles back down to one or two cars humming up or down the road, being a Friday, maybe they just returned from a night out in the big city. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring Break up no fools for April 1!

No kidding, it is spring, again! I have lost track of how many springs there have been in Girdwood this winter. However, considering it is April now, this could be the real spring. Where do you think the above photo was taken? The Yukon? Tanana? Nenana? Campbell Creek? No, none of the above, its a road!

Though the day began cool and overcast. break-up was happening on all the roads. This side street in Girdwood could have been mistaken for a small river when viewed up close. As I was walking home, I could see the gravel on top of the ice thinking “wow, thats the road surface already.” Not so fast, once I turned the corner and saw this vast crevasse, I was stunned at how thick the ice had built up over the months. 

There is plowing all winter, not on a regular schedule, but enough. And as referenced many times, spring has come upon Glacier Valley enough to melt the ice on the creeks, but this ice road would not let us forget our valley is the snowiest in the state. 

Some other ice and snow features I find fascinating are the waves that roll off roofs in this community. Just looking at it, my monkey brain processes that as snow on the roof, and my simple brain thinks I could just go up there are knock that wave off. Fat chance, that snow is packed to a mini-glacier state. And it flows of the roof at a glacial pace. Very cool looking, and, very dangerous, never stand under one of these. 

Here is another cool snow phenomenon, the ripple snow blanket sliding down the roof. This snow blanket has a large pile of snow already built up below the roof line so the snow does not have space to form a wave. The snow at the base of the roof stops moving and the rest of the snow ripples up against the pile. I find it fascinating how it looks like fabric. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ah, the perfect winter day... in March!

Here I present the perfect winter day. Although, by some standards (re: the calendar our whole country clocks dates with) we are several days into spring. Ok, then this is the result of a country-wide phenomenon - the spring storm, Alaska version. 

Girdwood is the beneficiary of perfect geographical location for winter sports by way of abundant snow accumulation. Merely 20 miles west of Prince William Sound as the raven flies, Glacier Valley and Girdwood, Alaska is the repository of hundreds of inches of snow that falls from storms that swirl in the Sound with a westerly flow. Due to the locations of crevices and cracks between the vast spread of Chugach Mountains, the weather systems sneak through the mountains and rest on our valley and the Turnagain Arm. Snowboarders, resort skiers, back country skiers, and nordic skiers all are endeared to Glacier Valley for its diverse opportunities to ride the snow. 

Here once again, my favorite snow gauge in town, the picnic table in front of Girdwood Fire and Rescue. Today it is nearly invisible, in fact it took me a few passings by to be sure that was the table. And how gorgeous is the sky today? Of course it indicates the temperatures will be extremely cold tonight. I for one and happy to endure the cold for the beauty of retaining the white-white snow. The snow is so blindingly white and clean at this temperature and just after the fall. Once the temperature warms up, the snow dulls, grays, and becomes slick and icy. Not the prettiest landscape. 

Today, I enjoy the tremendous piles of snow resembling our nearby beloved glacier filled mountains, both sparklingly white. 

Blue bird day over the softest snow ever

The most beautiful day of the season. The lightest snow of the season. The softest snow of the season. 

The perfect day for a dog mushing adventure. Local dog musher takes guests for a ride in the soft, quiet snow under a blue bird sky.

Alyeska's upper tram seen from Moose Meadows.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Heavy spring blizzard lays it down on Girdwood

Well, how about a little spring blizzard to shake up the town! Wow! When we went to bed Sunday night it was quiet, cold and a little snow falling, enough but quiet. When we woke up Monday morning, BAM 10 inches of fresh powder! This is how the weather prediction goes for Girdwood. When there is snow predicted for an accumulation of 3-4 inches, that usually means 4-6 to 8 inches for Girdwood. When there is a blizzard warning with accumulations predicted of 4-6 inches, there is no limit for Girdwood. This early spring blizzard is a classic example of how difficult it is to predict weather when mountains collide with oceans and jet streams. 

At 9 am there was 10 inches of fresh snow at the T in Girdwood as seen in the photo of my foot on my driveway. Visibility in Glacier valley was low, I could see a quarter mile down the road but good visibility was only one eighth of a mile. Above is a photo of a car turning onto a road that is literally one house-lot away from my driveway. Usually I can see all the way to Crow Creek Road. This morning I cannot even see the bridge over Glacier Creek. Below is a photo taken from the front of the Daylodge toward Alyeska’s live christmas tree near the wooden sign. We are talking white out conditions. 

As for the skiers and riders, those who loved powder were in for a treat. By the time they made it back up to the top on the lift, the snow had already filled in tracks from the previous run, instant refills they call it! Cute. The fat skis were out en masse today!

Looking down Arlberg Avenue at 9 am, the Jade Shop is on the right past the green sign.  Below you can see the snow stacking up on snow.

The large solid wood sign marking your arrival to Alyeska Resort (this is the back) is my favorite part of the resort. It is heavy, strong, does not change and will not let you down.

Here is one of our few front end loaders clearing a back road. It is about 4 pm in this photo, still near white out conditions. Alyeska ski patrol had to close the upper bowl for fear of avalanche danger. I can’t wait to hear the counts of snow feet on the upper mountain! As for my house, by time I returned home after 4 pm, another 10 inches of snow had fallen. Thankfully, our driveway was cleared for a second time. Below is the afternoon view down the Alyeska Highway, very close to the same location of the first photo in this post, just from the other side of the road. Glacier Valley and probably all of the Turnagain Arm was experiencing this white out view.

The snowfall was relentless, heavier at times than others but never letting up until nightfall. The flakes were small too, not big fat ones. Usually when flakes are small they are wet but these were just falling so quick they did not have time to build up extra rings of crystals. Never-the-less, they were powder-riffic indeed! the piles of snow were soo sooo soft and fluffy. Below is one last view looking back toward Max''s Mountain, its there somewhere, really!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Snow! Perfect snow, powder day

Snow! Light, fluffy, white, and slow moving, real snow. Not wet, not sloshy, nice soft snow. When the snow piles up on the boughs like seen above, we know its quality. As we all have known since we were children, snowflakes have six points on them. This gives them "loft". Loft means the flakes stack up on each other at different points leaving space between flakes. When the air temperature is colder, 32° or below, the snow in Girdwood is drier with lower water content. This is what makes our snow so powdery, fluffy, and lofty. 

Its a beautiful day in Girdwood, all the skiers and riders have got to be loving it! The temperatures in Glacier Valley are just at freezing and they are expected to fall this evening and tomorrow.