Living in Alaska

Spring is coming…but it’s dragging it’s feet!

#37 Christine Roalofs passing through the crowds during the Anchorage ceremonial start of the Iditarod

#37 Christine Roalofs passing through the crowds during the Anchorage ceremonial start of the Iditarod

Much has happened since my last post, but only recently have I had anything Cabin-worthy to write about!

The last post I was looking forward (with some anxiety) to my friend Christine’s running of the Iditarod. I’m very, VERY pleased to say that she completed it in one piece and all of her dogs came home healthy. Although she got the Red Lantern (last place) she completed nearly 1000 miles of trail that even race veterans said was the worst they had ever seen. Warm temperatures created sloppy trails and dangerous overflow on river and lake crossings. When the temps finally dropped enough to firm up the trail, she was hit in the face with a blizzard. We were all thankful when her GPS tracker finally showed her in Nome…and NO ONE was more thankful than she was!

A few weeks ago I joined some friends for a vacation to wine country in California. Thanks to the incredible hospitality of a childhood friend of a friend, we were able to stay in a guest house in the middle of a private vineyard. The grapes were still teensy green specks, but the foliage was thick and green and glorious to us color-starved Alaskans!

We spent 10 days exploring and touring in the hot sunshine before coming home to our dirty grey city. Even the snow on the mountains is grimy looking this time of year, but each day a little more green shows up in the yards around town.

While we were in California I celebrated a milestone birthday. (50…gasp!) That’s all I have to say about that. (eye roll!)

This last weekend we did a quick dash to Kenai to pick up the motorhome. The camping season is upon us, starting with a big group campout in Seward over Memorial Day weekend, so we have some work to do to get Winnie cleaned up, flushed, charged and restocked. In spite of that to-do list, I managed to sneak away on Monday to run up to the Cabin.
Much, much to tell about that terribly brief trip, so I’ll save that for the next post…

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Ready, set, go!

My friend, Christine, made the front page this morning! Follow her on Facebook at Kinetic Kennels and read up on her kennel with this Anchorage Daily News story and photos. I can’t decide if I’m nervous or excited for her!

(if the link above doesn’t work, just go to – it’s the lead story for today, February 26)

She has invited several of us to join her at the musher’s banquet on Thursday, which will be a treat. There the mushers will draw for positions/bibs. Then on Saturday morning they run across Anchorage in the ceremonial start. The real thing starts on Sunday in Willow.
Then we have a week and a half of worrying and watching race reports!

Go Christine!

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How to learn to downhill ski…

Writing about the ski train the other day made me think back to the day I learned how to downhill ski. OK, let’s be honest…by most skiers standards, I didn’t really learn anything. Instead let’s call it the first day I made it down a hill with skis on. This was in the 1980’s and my then-boyfriend earned some mighty big karma points that day for his patience with me!
It was a double date. Both of us girls were new to skiing. In fact our friend’s date, Debbi, had never been on skis at all as I recall. I had a teeny advantage of having done some cross-country skiing as a kid.
The first part of the adventure was getting fitted for rental skis. Even slim as I was then, my chubby ankles – cankles – required that I get extensions on the boots. Embarrassing and frustrating to say the least, as boyfriend and rental dude fussed over my fat legs trying to squeeze them into the hard plastic torture device they called a ski boot. Finally I was outfitted and on my way.
Anchorage has a lovely little ski area called Hilltop with a single chair lift and two or three basic trails from the top of the lift back to the chalet at the bottom. The trails are short and easy, perfect for a beginner, but to us beginners it looked like we were going to the top of Mt. Everest. The boys had their first chore getting our butts onto the chair lift.
“But it’s moving!”
“Don’t SWING it!” (Girly screams)
As the lift chugged its way to the top, I was torn between the beauty of the view and the terror of having to exit the chair without getting bonked on the head as it made the turn and headed back down. Never mind the terror of having to get myself back down the hill… (Both boyfriends insisted that we could NOT just ride the chair back to the chalet!)
Luckily we picked a fairly quiet evening to do this. Fewer witnesses…
At the top of the hill, having successfully gotten both of us girls out of the chair lift and out of the way of other skiers, the real lesson started. Poor Debbi was the first to go. It went something like this:
“How do you make the skis go?”
“Just point them downhill…” (Exasperated sigh)
“Like this? AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh…….” (Long, LONG drawn out scream, followed by a distant thump and a little puff of snow as she crashed halfway down the hill.)
Then it was my turn. I didn’t know her well, but she seemed like a nice girl… How the hell am I going to get down this hill? I’m ashamed to say there may even have been some tears…
I was still standing there arguing and procrastinating when Debbi came up behind me.

She was grinning from ear to ear. “That was awesome!”
“But I was sure you were dead!”
It was what I needed to finally get me moving – proof that she not only survived but was eagerly doing it again, complete with screams and crashes and laughter and crazed exhilaration.
Needless to say, I also survived and enjoyed myself to boot. If you’ve never done it, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s like flying, complete with the spectacular aerial views and the soft shoosh of the skis on the snow.
I went many times after that, though never often enough to justify buying my own equipment. In other words, I enjoyed it enough to deal with the rental place each time! When my knee blew up, my downhill days were done, but our evening trips to Hilltop and our one big (expensive) trip to Alyeska are wonderful memories of younger days.

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Ski Train

Know any avid back country skiers or snow shoe enthusiasts?  We have an annual event here known simply as the Ski Train, sponsored by Nordic Skiing Assn of Anchorage every March.  It really is a train, chartered by the group for a day-long party in the back country of Southcentral Alaska.  The train includes a fair number of regular passenger cars, a food and beverage car, and best of all, a POLKA car complete with a live polka band and a dance floor that literally rocks! 

Folks board at 6am, checking their skis and other equipment at the ski car with the attendants there.  The train makes one stop at a second boarding depot and then heads on to the back country, which used to be Grandview, high in the mountains between Anchorage and Seward.  Now they go to Curry which is on the northern line towards Fairbanks. 

LOTS of skiers take part in this annual event

LOTS of skiers take part in this annual event

The trip out takes about four hours and is relatively quiet.  Folks are excited but still in morning mode.  Many have coolers with breakfast and other snacks and drinks to supplement purchases made in the food car.  Upon arrival, the skiers spill out of the cars and line up to collect their gear and hit the trails. 

The train pulls out on its return trip at 4pm and that’s when things get rowdy.  To date the polka car has never derailed itself and I’m not sure how that’s possible.  In years past the wine and beer flowed in impressive amounts and the dancing and singing could be heard several cars away.  I say the dancing could be heard…and I meant it.  These folks dance with athletic energy and the wooden floor boards vibrate with the rhythm like a rail-car sized drum.  The whole car sways from side to side in an alarming fashion, but pretty soon you find yourself jumping and stomping along to the primal beat of music you can’t even hear anymore! 

Many years ago I joined a group of friends for this experience.  I had a bum knee, so opted not to ski or snow shoe, instead bringing a paperback to read while I waited for the group to come back from skiing.  Friends would ski for awhile then come back in to warm up and get something to eat or drink before heading back out to try another trail.  Eventually most of them were back on the train, changing into dry clothes and preparing for the ride home.  Most …

Three of our ladies were yet unaccounted for and the clock was rolling down towards the all-aboard whistle.  Finally, just as we were beginning to gear up to go looking, they showed up, red faced, sweating and swearing in equal measure.  They had gotten down into a bowl of snow that was a little off from where everyone else was skiing.  They could just see the train, but kept punching through the crust so couldn’t make any real time climbing back out of the bowl.  Once they made it to the rim, they had to really hustle to make it back to the train. 

Yes, stragglers do get left behind!  There's shelter and a radio, but you will have to wait on the next train and it will cost you $$

Yes, stragglers do get left behind! There’s shelter and a radio, but you will have to wait on the next train and it will cost you $$

I can still hear C’s drawling voice as she stated “Y’all shouldn’ta let the girl from Tennessee tell you where the trail was!”

I still don’t ski.  Although my knee has been repaired, I don’t trust it much and I actually worry a little about my future winters at the cabin where skis and snow shoes will be my best bet for getting around. Anyway, these days the Ski Train sells out every year, so I don’t feel right about taking a seat when a real skier has likely been denied a ticket. 

The March 2013 train has long since sold out, but if you’re thinking this would be a fun thing to do one day, I recommend joining the Nordic Skiing Association and getting on their email list.  (Plus you can get discounted Ski Train tickets that way!)  Tickets back when I went were about $45.  These days they go for $140, but if you join you can get them for $110. 

Skiing, beer and live polka…who could ask for more?

Categories: Living in Alaska | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Dog Park

Chugach Mtns east of town as seen from Univerity Lake


I had the day off so got to be the one to take the dogs to the park today. The weather was spectacular, but this day before solstice I should have remembered to start earlier! Sun was already going down at 3:00.


Starting tomorrow the days get longer! Woohoo!

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A busy little guardian angel!

I ranted last week about Alaskan drivers and may have given the impression that I’m perfect. (HA)  To set the record straight, I’ll share some highlights of my driving career…my “auto” biography if you’ll pardon the pun.  (sorry about that…)

I took a notion one year to drive my teeny little Chevy Luv to Valdez to get some winter pictures.  In January.  In a blizzard.  With 4 hours of daylight and snow blowing sideways for two of the three days I was on the road, there wasn’t actually a lot of photography.  The drive to Valdez at night in a blizzard isn’t all that scenic as it turns out. 

It was about 10pm when I came down out of Thompson Pass and headed into Keystone Canyon.  Exiting the canyon, I went from relatively calm snow and some visibility to a crazy white swirling world and no road in front of me.  I slowed my truck, and then slowed it some more until I was barely crawling along.  Just as I was thanking my lucky stars that I had the road to myself I saw headlights coming.  I couldn’t see the road, never mind lane lines so I cautiously sidled over to give the oncoming 18-wheeler plenty of room to pass me.  And then I sidled my way right into the ditch.  I only knew that because my forward motion stopped and I was listing to port all of a sudden. 

Huh.  Now what? 

By the time I had collected my wits and stepped out of my truck to assess the situation, the trucker had gotten himself stopped and was walking a tow strap back to me.  I was out of that ditch before I could think about it.  How many folks can say they’ve been pulled out of a ditch by an 18-wheeler?

Turnagain Pass in winter

Turnagain Pass in winter

Years later a friend and I were coming back to Anchorage from Kenai after Thanksgiving with my parents.  I had a little Mazda 323 at the time and had had just enough money to purchase two new studded winter tires.  Not knowing any better, I instructed the tire guys to install them on the front since it was a front-wheel drive car.  If you’re not from winter country you might not realize what a big NO-NO that is.  Here’s why…

The snow started coming down as we left Kenai and by the time we got to the Sterling flats it was really thick, the kind of snow that Hollywood thinks of when they try to create snow for film.  Big, wet flakes were swirling around and were rapidly accumulating on the road surface.  I slowed a little, but I wasn’t too worried until I realized that the back end of the car was going faster than the front end around a long slow curve in the road.  With more weight on the gripping winter tires in front, the summer tires in the back had nothing to hold them to the road, so slowing down on a slick curve was actually the worst thing I could have done.  Only the front tires could respond. 

We did a nice, slow-motion 360 and came to rest nose down in a shallow ditch.  My guardian angel was on duty once again.  A tow truck came along just as we were climbing up out of the ditch and wondering who to call.  He hooked up, yanked us out and wished us a safe journey before we could even get all our winter gear on.

Kenai River in midwinter.  Some of our swans stay year round.

Kenai River in midwinter. Some of our swans stay year round.

Incidents like these have made me a cautious driver.  Road trip gear, especially in the winter, includes blankets or a down sleeping bag, flares, a small air compressor, heavy cold weather gear in case I have to walk for help, a jug of water, food and first aid supplies.  The gas tank is always topped off before setting out.  Even if the accident that stops highway traffic isn’t yours, you could find yourself on the road hours longer than you had planned.  My dad got caught between avalanches one year and couldn’t go back home or come the rest of the way into Anchorage.  He was lucky and only spent a few hours at the gas station in Girdwood before road crews cleared the avalanches. 

Our family has the best guardian angels anywhere!

Categories: Living in Alaska | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Driving in that first big snow

A truly serious snowfall yesterday, the first of the season. We’ve had several light dustings and one or two that looked like they were going to become serious, but this one pulled out all the stops and dumped close to a foot in places.
There’s a learning curve that Alaskan drivers seem to have to go through every year after the first real snowfall. We forget the basics.
Like…having a big badass four-wheel drive truck doesn’t mean you are going to be able to stop any more reliably than I can in my little front-wheel drive SUV. In fact, since you were probably going a little fast for the conditions, you’re WAY more likely than me to slide through that red light…so what the heck…just go on through. I’m expecting it.
Like…fewer cars are going to be able to make it through each cycle at the intersections and you might have to sit through a couple of cycles before you can (legally) go. Your office/home/grocery store will still be there when you finally get through the light.
Like…MANY folks will get frustrated that it took so long to get to the head of the line at an intersection so they are just going to go through it, even though the light is now green for you!
Like…lane lines (and curbs) have disappeared for the next four to six months, so there are a few nervous (or oblivious) drivers who take what seems to them to be the safest route…driving right down the middle. Slowly. Expect it. Deal with it. Dodge ‘em if they’re in oncoming traffic, otherwise pass ‘em when it’s safe, and get on with your day.
Like…the many listening devices we employ in our vehicles: iPods, CD’s, Pandora, Sirius radio, etc., are going to take second chair to local radio stations who offer regular traffic reports.
Like…you can’t count on the other guy to see you…he didn’t bother to brush the snow off of his windshield or windows. He’s peering out of small areas partially cleared by his wipers and defroster. Also don’t count on anyone behind him to see you…they are busy dodging the snowstorm that is blowing off of his vehicle as he travels down the road. (With wet snow, this can become a storm of flying snowballs…alarming to say the least.)
Like…sometimes, no matter how careful you are, suddenly the snow grabs the wheel and takes you on a little side trip…hopefully up onto a median or into a shallow ditch and NOT into another vehicle.
Like…you can absolutely count on Alaskans – even the crazy, red-light runners – to stop and help you out when we see you slide off course.
It’s just what we do.

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Winter is around here…somewhere

I had so hoped to get up to the Cabin last weekend, but birthdays and dog sitting duties got in the way.  Just as well.  The temperatures have taken a serious plunge into the single digits here in Anchorage and are almost certainly colder up in the mountains. 

Telephoto shot of one of the peaks across the valley from the Cabin – a month ago!

I don’t want to have to depend too much on an untested propane heater in those conditions.  Hopefully it will warm up a little in the next couple of weeks before we get too buried in snow for me to safely make the hike in.  I’ve been looking at snowshoes so that I can walk across the lake once it’s well frozen and has a little snow pack on it.

The extreme cold is somewhat unusual for this early in the season and may become a real problem here in the city.  The little snowfall we have gotten has mostly melted or evaporated (winter air is already deadly dry) so there isn’t any insulation to protect pipes from freezing.  Although I’m not crazy about driving on snowy roads after that first major snowfall, we really need it.

Besides, we manage the cold and endure the twenty hours of darkness by enjoying the beauty and fun of the snow.


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Iditarod Dreams

I recently came across a brand new blog by a teacher named Kurt who has dreams of coming to Alaska to take part in the Iditarod.  He doesn’t have his “donate” button up and running yet, but visit his blog at  and be infected by his enthusiasm for learning about the Iditarod and using it in his classroom! 

In honor of Kurt’s dreams I thought I would tell about our trip to Nome several years ago and the great treat of seeing the last of the racers come in across the Bering Sea.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I have a friend, C., who is a musher.  Back then, she was a dreamer with a single husky and a lot of ideas, one of which was to volunteer during Iditarod to get a foot into the mushing world.  2005 was her second or third Iditarod volunteer experience and her first time working at the finish in Nome.  That same year, another friend’s husband was working in Nome for a big construction company and offered us a place to stay if we wanted to come to see the end of the race.  It was serendipitous.  We went.

Nome during Iditarod is an amazing and bustling little metropolis.  An official watcher is posted somewhere south of town and calls to signal the air raid siren to blow each time a musher is spotted on the final approach across the ice.  This gives spectators and officials time to gear up and get down to the finish line to welcome the teams in. 

Standing on the brakes as they approach the Burled Arch on Front Street

The apartment we were borrowing was one block from the sea, so each time the siren went off we jumped into our boots and trotted over to cheer and take pictures. 

When the siren sounded, we had about five minutes to get to this spot to see the mushers crossing the last bit of ice before heading up onto Front Street.

One of the local residents stepped out on their deck for each musher and rang a big cowbell to urge them on.  Understand that mushers don’t sit around waiting for daylight!  That siren and cowbell were apt to go at any hour of the day OR night!  It was a bit of a thrill to lie in bed and hear that another one was coming in, but I didn’t always opt to go out and try to see them in the dark.

Between mushers we wandered the town on foot.  The weather that year was fantastic, with sunshine and temps in the low 30’s(F) almost every day. 

Each dog got lots of love and personal attention from the musher, who had to be exhausted himself.

A well deserved rest!

D. checked in at race headquarters and decided to actually volunteer.  If you should be in Nome during Iditarod I recommend looking into the many volunteer opportunities.  They asked her to come in at 6am to help with some of the record keeping on the big boards that track the mushers.  By then most of them were either in Nome or had scratched, so there wasn’t much for her to do, but she really enjoyed being a part of the activity. 

The Bering Sea sometimes becomes an airstrip for the many small planes that are called into service during Iditarod

After her volunteer shift we took advantage of a special pancake breakfast ($10) where spectators like us got to sit alongside mushers and their handlers and families.  We got a chance to meet young Rachel Scdoris, the legally blind musher, who unfortunately had had to scratch due to sick dogs that year.  (She has completed the race twice since then!) 

The famous Burled Arch is actually stored in an alley the rest of the year

Each dog is carefully checked by officials while the musher waits under the Arch before they can go off to the dog yards for a rest.

As if we needed any icing on the cake, we then went to the mushers’ banquet that night. (I think the tickets were about $20.)  Predictably there were more than enough speeches and awards, but being a crowd of mushers and handlers and race volunteers, there wasn’t a great deal of formality!  We met DeeDee Jonrowe, a perennial favorite among the women mushers, and saw many more notables. 

The next summer, as an official Iditarod volunteer, D. was invited to the big picnic in Wasilla.

Our friend C. is going to Nome again next year…behind a team of dogs this time.  She officially qualified this spring (YAY!) and is taking time off work to train like crazy over the next four months.  I would love to go see her cross the finish line, but there is a serious lack of accommodations to be had in Nome so we’ll probably have to cheer her on from Anchorage.

C.’s team, with Spazzy who was apparently full of jumping beans!

I hope to be posting pictures or at least news of her crossing under the Burled Arch next spring!


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First, errrr, second snowfall

Saturday was our first real snow day.  A group of us went to lunch and one by one we each stared out the window and said some variation of “sure looks like it’s gonna snow…”  As if one of us saying it wasn’t enough to confirm what our eyes were seeing. 

The first of the flakes began drifting down as we headed home, but didn’t seem too serious. 

Time to say goodbye to the green backyard for awhile.

It’s a little more serious this time…

Another hour and it was clear that this was the real thing.  The puppy hadn’t seen snow before, but took it in his usual stride…what’s the big deal, it’s just white rain and hey, it’s tasty! 

Eating white rain…he hasn’t learned the fun of chasing snowballs yet

Surprisingly Mr. Chitters doesn’t mind the snow too much either.  He bounds across the yard, scaling  the fence to access the woods where the snow is less deep, and conducts his kitty business in the shadows just like any other day.  Then he comes inside and looks for a warm lap to dry his feet.

 As before, most of the snow is already gone (as of Tuesday), but it took longer this time and more is already coming down.

We will spend the next two weeks watching and worrying about snowfall for the trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  On one hand, a fresh blanket of snow greatly increases visibility for drivers dodging pint-sized pedestrians, but on the other hand it makes walking slick and makes costumes awkward at best.  Other winter areas may understand the dilemma…do we outfit our kids in costumes that fit and then hide them under the snowsuits?  Or do we put them into costumes two sizes too big in order to fit over their winter gear?  Or do we just get them a mask and a wand and call it good? 

Princess in a parka…, Scary Monster in a scarf… you get the idea. 

If I can get my act together and get those snow tires out of storage and on my car, I will be going up to the Cabin this coming weekend.  It’s been many years since I was there in winter and I’m really looking forward to it.

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