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. 

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