A Travellerspoint blog

January 2010

Literary Inspiration

A Spontaneous Jaunt to the High Country

semi-overcast 35 °F

I was reading one of my literary heroes this morning, when I came across a quote that inspired me, and sent me on the day’s journey. In Bruce Chatwin’s classic The Songlines he quotes Anatoly France who said, ‘It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.’ Brilliant! I was quite taken with this bit of wisdom. Instead of sitting around collecting dust, I would go for a walk. It was decided and done in seconds.

I put on my adventure pants, wool socks, hiking boots, long sleeved cotton top, favorite wool sweater, zip up hooded sweatshirt, light wool gloves and watch hat. I grabbed my trusty hickory walking stick, and started walking up. Up is one of the two directions I can really go from my cabin. I could go down, but that leads to town, and I’ve already gone that direction. No, today with such a motto to live by, I went in the harder direction and started climbing up the steep side of the gulch my cabin sits upon. I didn’t have any set destination, I just figured that sooner or later, I would get to the top of the hill, and I’d take it from there.

I broke every rule there is to hiking, especially winter hiking over unknown terrain. I brought no map, GPS, water, lighter, cell phone, head lamp, food, extra clothing or shelter. I didn’t let anybody know what I was up to, and left no note or indication of what direction I went, aside from my foot prints. I didn’t bring my camera or binoculars, journal, or anything else other than what I wore, and my trusty stick. Thoreau and Muir would have liked my simplicity.

I knew all of this. It wasn’t an oversight, it was a decision based on my circumstances. I was under literary inspiration and wanted immediate action. Spontaneity can yield amazing results, and I was gone before I thought too hard about it. I figured I didn’t need the essentials for this trip, after all it was just a walk. The one thing I did bring with me was the proper mindset for walking through unknown territory. I was very much aware of my surroundings, and thought my way through the woods. By being aware of where you are, and keeping track of the land features you pass, you can walk a long way and return on the same path by retracing your remembered landmarks. It’s a good exercise for your mind and a good habit to get into, even if you are in familiar territory. In his must read book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why Laurence Gonzales describes this method perfectly.

So up I went. The side of the gulch I live on is a steep, rocky, heavily wooded forest (mostly white pine and spruce). It has sunken pits and talus piles from the old mines that used to operate here, and is crisscrossed with a multitude of switchback logging roads, old mine roads, trails and animal paths as it ascends into the high country.

I was overdressed and immediately began sweating from my effort (another no-no for winter hiking) . I figured if I kept moving, and didn’t have any unforeseen accidents, that it wouldn’t be a problem. It was tough going uphill. The hillside never leveled off, and had slick footing from the frozen ground that collected a thin layer of fresh snow the night before. It was beautiful and very peaceful. The forest was a temple, the air cold and still. Silence. A silence that only winter in a deep wood can produce. A peace that can only be found in a quiet wood. Very light snow was falling softly and it collecting on trees. I pictured a winter forest surrounding a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Japan. I really felt peace here.

I stopped often, catching my breath for a few puffs, then moving on. Eventually, my upward climb reached a small unused logging road. It switch backed up the hill off to my left. I logged the spot as landmark for my return trip and started following the trail up the hill. Trails usually make hiking a lot easier, and this was no exception.

I began to see elk hoof prints following the same path. Elk, I’ve come to realize, are very wise. They know where to walk, and they have good taste in sleeping areas. They usually take the easiest path, and I felt it was a good omen to be walking where an elk has. The trail was overgrown and had numerous small white pine growing in the middle of the road. This was another good sign for me, It’s good to see nature taking back the land. The trail suddenly opened up in a small clearing on near the top of the first incline. The sun was shining and it was good to be in the high country. I sat down on a log and took a well earned break.

I wasn’t tired. I was still energized and felt the upward pull of the mountain, so I followed the elk tracks up the next incline. Fifty feet up the trail, on my left was a flat area, with fantastic views over the countryside. It overlooked a nearby gulch, the clearing I had just rested in, and Silver Valley far below. There were numerous elk prints and flattened icy areas where the elk had bedded down. What a great place to sleep! I moved on, not staying too long. I hoped my scent wouldn’t bother the elk, as it does most of the women I know. There was nothing I could do about it, and began the uphill trek up the next incline. Snow was settled here, about 5 inches deep, giving me good footing to help my climb. I was fairly quiet on my climb, simply walking lightly and breathing easy. This effort to be quiet paid off, as I was rewarded with an unexpected sighting of a bull elk.

This year is the “winter of the elk” for me. I’ve had numerous views of these magnificent creatures on my trip west, and got some great photos of them in Yellowstone National Park. I had stopped at an intersection of trails, my upward trail was bisected by one that followed an even contour on the side of the hill. About one hundred and fifty feet away, I saw the tell tale, dirty cream colored rump of an elk. Then I saw the heavy rack of antlers, and knew it was a bull. He plodded off, seemingly unconcerned. He just wanted his distance from me, and I didn’t blame him. More justification for spontaneous rambles.

I crested the incline onto another road, this one with snowmobile tracks running along it. I was way up in the foothills now. I could see Kellogg and the freeway far down below. I gauged how far up I was on the north valley wall of Silver Valley and saw that I was nearing the top (of the north side). I made another mental marker and started following the track on the next incline. It went straight uphill, and it was easier to walk on the side of the track than on the beaten down, frozen prints of the snowmobile. I stopped, leaned on my stick and saw a flock of birds land high up in upper branches of a white pine. I remained still, and tried to identify them, but couldn’t. I counted 10 of them, and they were content to forage as I watched them.

I decided to test them. I made a small whistle through my teeth, “Schreeeet, Schreeeeeet, Schreeeeeet.” One of the birds broke away from the flock and flew to a nearby tree; attentive, curious, and ready to sound the alarm bell. I waited. It waited. I whistled again. This time, all 10 of them flew to the tree and waited. I couldn’t identify them. They were still too far away to tell, just some grey colored birds. They made no song, or call, so it was hopeless. I did enjoy watching them, however.

I moved on. It wasn’t long before I began to see trail signs marking the snowshoe trails of Silver Mountain Ski Resort. I also saw that I was on the ridge road, a road that follows along the south rim of the Silver valley. Off in the distance, I spied the number four chairlift climbing up to Wardner peak; I had hiked all the way to the ski area. Now I knew what was up on the hill from my cabin. I was satisfied and ready to head back down.

The hill I had just climbed was quite steep, and it was hard to keep my momentum in check going back down. The track was too slippery, so again, I walked along the side of it. It was too steep, and soon I was running down the slope. Remember as a kid, eating Captain Crunch? Remember the first 10 bites, when you couldn’t hear anything else because of the sound of your teeth chomping down on the dog food like texture of the cereal? That was all I could hear as I bounded down through the hard packed snow: “CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH!” It sounded like I was eating the cereal in fast forward as I speeded up, happily letting my legs out run my momentum. It was a fast way of getting down, that was for sure.

I negotiated my way back down, following my foot prints through the snow, and my mental markers when the snow ended. To be honest, I got a little sidetracked on the way down. To get to the cabin, I had to aim for a high point on the other side of the gulch. It was a recognizable hillside, that I could see from where I was. The cabin was in line between where I was and the middle of this hill. I didn’t follow my mental path, I opted for an easier route, and it threw me off course a bit. Soon, I didn’t recognize where I was. I knew I was close, but I didn’t know if I should veer left or right. I made it down to the road, and saw that I was within 200 feet of the cabin. Not bad, but I should’ve trusted my instincts instead of chasing the will o’ wisp of the easier way.

One of the comments from my Wardner Beginnings entry was from A. Kuehn He gave me some observations about the Wardner House, and cautioned to “tread softly, and the land can teach you.” I believe I lived up to his billing today. I learned it was possible to hike/ski from Silver Mountain all the way down to my cabin if you followed the correct paths (and if there was enough snow). I learned the wisdom of the elk; they know where to walk in thick woods, and pick good places to make their beds. I relearned to appreciate the deep silence of a wintry wood. I learned that those birds, whatever they were, have a lookout designated to keep an eye out for trouble while the group forages. I learned what was on top of the hillside. Most importantly, I learned that collecting things is good, but it is better to go on walks.

Posted by Rhombus 10:22 Archived in USA Tagged foot Comments (2)

Exploring Silver Valley

Biking the Trail of the Coeur d'Alene and a Good Barber Shop

sunny 48 °F

Down in the valley, it has been balmy and a lot warmer than normal (so they tell me). Meteorologists blame it on El Nino, that periodic weather pattern that gets the blame for everything. I don’t mind, I don’t have any snow to shovel, and I like the warm weather. As a skier, I wish there was more snow up on the mountain. I guess you can’t have everything. I’m not one to sit around and wait for the weather to change though. So the other day, I decided to put the wheels back on my mountain bike, and check out the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene.

Idaho, like other states (most notably Minnesota), has created a good trail system for bikers, walkers/runners, roller bladers and long boarders by building a good asphalt surface on the remains of old railroad beds. The old rail lines are long since forgotten, and are a good foundation for a bike trail. Often they string together small towns along the way, giving easy access to a lot of users.

To me, it makes perfect sense to use these unused rail paths for a bike trail system. It offers a region a lot more green space. These trails often go for many miles through forests, pastures and along rivers. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alene, for example, runs for over 70 miles across the panhandle of Idaho. It’s a very pleasant place to ride. It gives trail users a place to go besides the highway. It’s a lot safer to ride on a nice bike path that forbids motorized vehicles, than on a busy highway. The infrastructure of the trail is already in place. All the bridges and culverts were long ago engineered for trains to run over them, so they don‘t need updating for the weight of a biker. It costs way more to design a trail, than it is to simply lay down some asphalt on a gravel bed. Beyond that, all that needs to be done is to install signs, benches, pit toilets, and parking areas. The towns along the trail benefit, as it gives access to those who want it. It offers through riders a chance to stop for the night and buy a meal or a jug of water etc. I’m all for these trails, and take advantage of them when I have access to them. I hope more states get interested in creating these wonderful scenic trails for everyone to use.

The Trail of the Coeur d’Alene runs for over 70 miles from Plummer at the west end, to Mullan on the east end. It follows the snaking Coeur d’Alene river for this distance, making it a very scenic trail indeed. The trail itself is about 8 to 10 feet wide, with new asphalt for the surface. It’s relatively flat, with very gradual ups and downs as it follows the old railroad grade. Along the way they have trailside benches and toilets about every 3 miles. These make great rest stops and a place to learn more about the land you are riding through.
On my first ride, I simply got on the trail in Kellogg and rode east for five miles before turning around and retracing my route. The trail follows the freeway through this section, and the roar of the highway was too much for me. I wanted peace and quiet as I rode, a chance to hear the rushing river, and the hypnotic hum of my wheels on the trail. I looked at the trail map, and planned a good 10 mile ride for the next day; away from the highway and through hopefully more scenic territory.
The next day, the sun was shining bright and the temperature had worked it’s way up into the upper 40’s (Fahrenheit). It was a beautiful day for a ride in the unexpected warmth. I was carefree; happy to be pedaling my bike on such a fine day as this. Heading west from the Enaville trailhead I stopped to watch horses in an adjacent pasture. They seemed to like the warmth as much as I did, as they foraged in the grasses for an afternoon snack. I stopped at the Backwater Bay picnic area, and sat down in the sunshine, resting my back against a big old red pine. I watched a common golden eye through my binoculars dive under the water for its lunch. It didn’t trust me though, and paddled away to find some peace. I didn’t care, I was happy where I was at. What a place! I was in the warm sun, sitting on a river bank, caressed by soft breezes with a complacent river rolling by. I felt like Huck Finn.
I began seeing a couple of walkers out enjoying the sunshine, and I wished everyone I saw a “Happy first day of spring.” Everyone would laugh or smile, and agree with me that it was a good day to be outside. Crossing the river on a long bridge, I saw a lone fisherman on the bank playing hooky (get it?) from work. I can’t blame him, I’d do the same thing. There are some days that should be free from work and responsibility, to enjoy as you see fit. That day was yesterday, and I’m sorry if you didn’t get the memo. Don’t worry, there will be other days. You’ll know the day has come when you walk outside your door in the morning feeling the warm sun and the inhaling the smell of spring. You’ll realize that today, is not a day to go to work; It’s a day to play outside.
I passed under the freeway in Cataldo, which in my original plan was going to be my turnaround point. Since it was such a great day, and I was still full of vim and vigor, it was an easy decision to turn my 10 mile ride into a 20 mile ride. Onward I went, past the rushing Ladour Creek. Its gravel bottom is a spawning ground for native cut throat trout. I stopped to listen to the river and watched some chickadees gossip and forage around in the trees. I was going to stop for lunch at the River Bend picnic area, but when I got there, a little river tug was moving a barge up the river and was making a terrific racket. I wanted to eat in peace, much like the golden eye. I biked on.
It was about this time that I noticed two things: First, was that my rear wheel was soft, making me work a lot harder than I needed to. I didn’t think it would go flat, but I couldn’t coast as far as I normally could. Secondly, I saw that the river had formed a perfect mirror. I stopped and quickly became enamored with the scene. On the far bank the trees had grown right next to the river on top of the bank. The trees were separated by grasslands, and were spaced about every 75 to 100 feet along. Behind the trees was pasture that led to a pine covered hillside. All of it was sharply reflected in the river. The sky was blue with little puffy passing clouds. It was a beautiful place to stop and admire the river. I took some pictures and finally had my lunch: a big juicy, perfectly ripe Sunkist orange, and a bunch of peanuts. I slurped ice cold water from my bottle to quench my thirst. This is a good time of year, as the oranges are finally ripe.
After my lunch, I moved on, becoming aware of the fact that I was getting tired. I was torn between wanting to see what was happening along the next mile, and the realization that every pedal west was one that I would have to retrace back east. I finally stopped at the old ghost town of Dudley. There’s not much left to it, but at one time held 300 citizens and was an important river town. The river in this area is deep and slow, so people barged there goods upriver instead of overland. Now the town is just a memory, and you wouldn’t even guess that there once was a town there.

I turned around and began the long slog back, very much aware that my back tire was soft. It seemed like the trail was mostly uphill, and it was cooling off in the shadows. I shivered with the chill, my sweat beginning to cool rapidly. My spring had sprung, and all that was left was the cold work of pedaling 11 miles back to the van. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the ride, but I was tired, cold, hungry and ready to be done. I found more pretty views of the river. I stopped when I happened upon a young red pine a lit up by the strong setting sun. It gave me a chance to rest, and drink some water. Another good reason to take pictures: more breaks.
I made it back to the van some 5 hours after I started. I had biked 22 miles, and was feeling it; my thighs were sore, my butt was sore. I was starving and cold, but I knew that I held the cure in my hand. A steering wheel that brought me home to a hot shower, a big bowl full of hot delicious chili, and the satisfaction of a day well seized.

I called up a prospective barber the other morning and asked him if he was open today. “Nah, I just came in to answer the phone.” I knew I had found my guy. Chuckling, I motored west to Pinehurst and the Pines Barber Shop. Upon entering, I was greeted by a life size cardboard John Wayne. I was impressed, as I had made a gift of the same cutout to my buddy Curly some years ago. The shop was a small one room barber shop (as most are), other pictures of cowboy John Wayne were festooned everywhere on the walls. Country music was playing softly in the background. I sat down on the couch in between two old men. In fact everyone in the room was over 50, except me (a good sign). The guy in the corner was a curmudgeon. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, it adds to a good barber shop atmosphere. He sat with his arms crossed, and after a bit started complaining about wolves, democrats, global warming, stop signs, and modern country music. After every complaint the old guy on my left would say his piece: “Heh, heh, heh.” I tell you it was a good ambiance. Smiling to myself, I read the paper while waiting for my turn.

I waited for the three guys ahead of me to finish, then it was my turn. The barber asked me what I wanted, and I said I’d like a “regular haircut.” Everybody has a different version of what a “regular haircut” is, and the results can be very different. It’s part of the fun, to see what you end up with.

During my travels, I enjoy getting haircuts from old barbers from different parts of the country. Barber shops are a great stop for the traveller, it’s a way of getting a temporary souvenir and a good source of finding out what is going on in the local area. You might hear what’s new, a good joke, what the weather is going to do, and get a haircut besides. You might meet a character or two bantering back and forth at one another. I recommend the practice.

As a man, there is something proper about visiting a good barber shop. It’s a masculine place, women are rarely seen. It’s really a refuge from women, and a magnet for old men to congregate. I like it. It’s a good place to go, to sit quietly and enjoy the company of old men.

The following is an unofficial guide to a good barber shop. The décor should be decidedly manly. Pictures of cowboys, old classic cars, and guns are the norm. The barber should have a proper barber’s chair. Old, worn and comfortable leather makes a good seat. A good barber shop should be playing old music, doesn’t matter what kind, so long as it’s older than 1980. The reading material is also a good indication. Sports, Car, and Hunting/Fishing magazines and the local newspaper should be on the table. No reputable barber will be open on a Monday. I don’t know why this is, but if you see a barber open on a Monday, don’t waste your time. A good barber will hit you with a dose of talcum powder when he’s finished to abate the itchiness. If he’s really good, he’ll lather you up, and use a straight razor to get at the ear hair, the neckline, and to straighten your side burns.
My haircut was quite enjoyable. I usually let my hair get long and shaggy before I decide it’s time to visit the barber. I lost about 3 pounds in hair, and my head felt lighter. I always feel good when I get my hair cut, It’s a small self improvement technique, that goes a long way. It’s like giving your car a vacuuming and a car wash, you feel good about yourself. When he was done, I paid and thanked him. I left him a decent tip. I can highly recommend the Pines Barbershop in Pinehurst, Idaho.

Posted by Rhombus 12:15 Archived in USA Tagged bicycle Comments (2)

Skiing Silver Mountain

A look into the life of a ski bum

40 °F

I’ve been enjoying my chief pastime of late, that being skiing on Silver Mountain. It’s a nice setup for me. I wake up at 7 am and call the resort for the snow report. This information lets me decide how I’m going to spend my day from the comfort of my bed. If I’m going to ski, then I get up, get myself together, and settle in for a relaxed morning of breakfast, basic yoga full body stretching, and reading with National Public Radio letting me know what’s going on in the world. It’s a nice way to start the day.

I’ll drive down to the resort, its all downhill, and it takes me all of 10 minutes to get there. I gear up, and walk to the world’s longest gondola and head up to the mountain haus chalet. The world‘s longest gondola gives about a 20 minute ride. At 9 am the ropes drop, and the hill is open for business. I’m usually there for the rope drop, ready to go. I’ll ski a quick run down to the number 2 lift, this is a good warm up for the main event. The lift will bring me to the top of Kellogg Peak (elevation: 6300 ft). Depending on the conditions, I’ll decide how long I will ski. If there isn’t any fresh snow, often I’ll ski hard on the groomers until noon, and call it a day. If it’s a good powder day, I’ll stay longer, usually to about 2 pm.

The other day I woke up to rain, but the far too cheerful for 7 o’clock in the morning recorded message let me know that there was 3” of fresh powder and more falling. It was a ski day. The ride up to the peak was through thick fog, and snow. The other chairs on the lift slowly disappeared into the fog. You could only see about 4 of them in front of you before they faded into the mist. It was like riding through a dreamscape. The trees were like statues, and quite still in the heavy gray overhanging air. All sound was muffled in the cloud. The loudspeaker stereo system set up by the terrain park was blaring “Ice, Ice, Baby” but was muted. The eerie voice of Vanilla Ice chanting at me seemed a nightmare. I half expected to see my old 3rd grade teacher at the top of the lift making me a peanut butter and watermelon sandwich; such is the way with dreams.

It was no dream. The skiing was excellent, and I had a lot of fun. Visibility was very poor at times, and it was all you could do to get down some of the runs. Put a white plastic bag over your head, strap on some skis and head down a mountain. Skiing by feel, rather than sight is interesting, what I’d akin to surfing at night. Eventually, the clouds let up for awhile, and my vision returned. I spent the day carving arcs with my skis, making divots with my body in the snow, enjoying my living dream.

On good powder days, there is a feeling of euphoria that grips the mountain. On most of the first rides up on the chairlift, everyone yells and whoops, excited about making first runs in the fresh powder. We cheer on those lucky enough to be on their way down already, anticipating and visualizing our own runs down the white slopes.

There’s one guy I see a lot. I call him Legolas (from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy) because of the way he skis. He’s an amazing skier. It seems like he skips merrily atop the snow ala Legolas, while the rest of us slog through with far more effort. He gets it. He’s always jamming and bobbing about, enthusiasm, and playfulness bubbling from him as he effortlessly carves a snake pattern down a black diamond. The whole mountain is his playground, and this guy PLAYS. The white canvas of the mountain is painted with skis from this master. He improvises, and changes tempo, creates runs from nothing, I can’t help but think of Coltrane. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him yet, as our ski lift rides haven’t intersected, but maybe someday I will. If nothing else, I’ll hope to someday be as good as this guy. He inspires me, a guy that plays this hard deserves emulation.

I haven’t felt brave enough to bring my camera up to the top of the mountain yet. I’m afraid of bashing it on one of my falls. I’m a decent skier, but I ski hard and falls are part of the game. There are a few pictures that I want to take, showing off the beauty of the mountains. The weather hasn’t really cooperated either, usually it’s overcast with bland lighting. There was one day that was crystal clear with bright azure skies. The crisp white snow was piled beautifully on the pines. Silver valley and the surrounding mountains were purple in the low angled early morning sun. Silver fog nestled here and there in the lowlands, Heavy dark gray cumulous clouds hung far away above the distant peaks. That was the day I wish I had my camera, but as it was a big powder day, I knew I’d be skiing hard and didn’t want to risk it. So instead of a pixilated energy packet, I took several rest stops at the top of “Tall Paul”(my favorite name for a run) and took the picture in my head, storing it in my own memory bank. It’s still there.

Coming home off of the mountain is another one of my favorite parts of the day. A good workout completed, it’s time to relax. I take a hot shower, and light the wood stove (I had the foresight to ready for a match ahead of time). I’ll hang up my wet ski gear above the stove to dry. I’ll get a small lunch together, and take a siesta on the day bed alternating between reading, thinking, and maybe snoozing. After awhile, I’ll get the chili on the burner to warm up for dinner. Then it’s time for another full body stretching session and relaxing until bedtime. It’s a good life, I must say, and I’m fortunate enough to know how lucky I am. I take everyday as it comes, and try to make the best of it. So far, so good.


Posted by Rhombus 12:45 Archived in USA Tagged tourist_sites Comments (3)

Remembering Sitka

Memories of an Alaskan Jewel

Sitka, Alaska is a town I remember fondly. I spent the spring and summer of 2009 working for a charter fishing lodge. I didn’t have a lot of time off, but when I did, I seized every minute to explore this Alaskan gem of a town, and it’s surrounding country side.

Sitka is located on Baranof Island. It used to be the Russian capital of Alaska, but since Seward’s folly in 1867, it has no longer carried the title. Before the Russians, the native population of Tlingit (pronounced Klink-et) and other tribes thrived throughout the many islands of the region.
Today, Sitka is largely a fishing community and a host to the hordes of tourists that visit in the spring and summer months. The population is roughly 8500 people, making it Alaska’s 4th largest city (taken from 2005 census). This number swells in the summer from the tourists and those helping the locals cater to the tourists. The downtown is an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants full of souvenirs for the discerning tourist. My two favorite stores were Harbor Light Bookstore and Kenny’s Chinese Restaurant. Both are excellent sources of fiber. Sitka is also home to the Theobroma chocolate factory. This small chocolatier makes excellent chocolate bars, my favorites being the Dark Midnight Espresso and the Dark Dementhe.

The whole Island has 14 miles of paved road. I only filled my van up with gas once the whole summer I was there. The gas stations didn’t post a price, and I didn’t ask because I really didn’t want to know. One thing about Sitka, is that anything you see on the island was shipped here. All the sand, timber, concrete, windows, lights, food etc. all came from somewhere else. That’s why it’s an expensive place to live.

Sitka has the feel of a small town. It doesn’t have many chain franchises to speak of, so if you need hardware, you go to the hardware store. If you need drugs, you go to the local pharmacy or the skate park, depending on your needs. If you need food, you go to the grocery store. It’s kind of refreshing in that way. When I visit a town, and stay there for a given period, I usually try to split where I shop at. For instance, Sitka has 3 grocery stores. I’d take turns on which I was going to shop at. That way, most people in the local economy will get some of my business. This makes me feel better for some reason.

You can get to Sitka by air or by sea. I drove up and took the ferry from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Alaska’s Marine Highway is a very reliable way of getting around Alaska, and a good way to get a feel for the land. It takes longer, but the scenic beauty of the Inside Passage made it my favorite choice of transportation getting to the island.
The Alaskan people are as interesting as the landscape. There seems to be varying degrees of how “Alaskan” Alaskans present themselves on a given day. After observing the locals for 5 months, three types of people jumped out at me. There are regular folks, the Die Hard Alaskans and a mix of regular and Die Hard. The following is a list of common traits of the Alaskans I observed while living there. Naturally, this does not apply to everyone living in Alaska, so please don’t be offended if you do or do not fit into my stereotypes.

Winking: Alaskans when jesting with you will often wink at you, sometimes they will do this several times in a single sentence. A famous example would be ex-governor Sarah Palin on the campaign trail. At times it’s hard to tell if they are winking or have a nervous tic. I’ve learned it’s best to leave winking to the locals, and to try to ignore it. Winking back could lead to trouble, especially if the recipient of the wink is not a member of the opposite sex, sometimes it’s hard to tell what sex you are dealing with, especially among the Die Hards in Alaska.
Owning fire arms: It’s not uncommon to see people carrying high powered rifles around town, which is understandable with all the bears and tourists running around. Upon mentioning I was going for a hike, I was immediately surrounded by locals offering me firearms for my protection. I respectfully turned them all down, much to their disapproval and disappointment. Alaskans love their guns. This is another reason not to wink back at them, you never know how much fire power a typical Alaskan is carrying.
Dogs: A typical Alaskan has at least 3 dogs which they take with them everywhere. Dogs are treated as members of the family, and the dogs take advantage of that. A lot of dogs and their owners kind of look alike in after awhile, I don’t say this as an insult, merely an observation. During the summer, I was fortunate enough to be adopted by Scout, a co-worker’s dog. He was a great dog, and I’ll talk more about him in another entry.
Footwear: An Alaskan has one favorite piece of footwear. Xtratuffs are a great boot made of olive green rubber that reach to just below your knee. They are waterproof, warm and comfortable (providing you buy the felt insoles). When working on or around boats they are indispensable. They are also fashionable. I own a pair of them myself, and I can vouch for their high value.
Vehicles: Regulars mostly drive pick up trucks, van’s or other 4 wheel drive vehicles. Die Hards drive the biggest pile of rusted metal heaps you’ve ever seen. These “vehicles” look like they are homemade, and often are. Mufflers are considered an unnecessary extravagance, and are looked down upon. It often takes a half hour of cursing and cajoling for a Die Hard to start their vehicle. Once the vehicle is running, it takes a few laps around the block to properly warm it up. Once warm, it’ll backfire like a pistol shot every 300 feet (or was it a pistol shot?), and lurch it’s way to the driver’s destination. When a vehicle is on it’s last legs, they are taken down to the local marina and abandoned. The marina parking lot has several of these heaps left there, piled high with ignored parking tickets.

Die Hard Alaskans generally are coarse in appearance. They have full beards, long hair, old clothes, accompanied by several mangy, unruly dogs. Rough looking vehicles and decrepit boats are the norm. Regulars look normal and own decent vehicles and boats and are harder to spot, but look for someone who winks and wears Xtratuffs. Alaskans, when in comparison to the Khaki clad, aimlessly wandering riff raff that stumbles ashore off of the cruise ship, will stick out like a sore thumb. All of the Alaskans that I have met, have been very nice people, and interesting to talk to. It takes a lot of gumption to live in Alaska, and I respect them for it.
What I really like about Sitka is the scenic beauty in every direction. There’s not a bad view in town. Looking west, you see Mt. Edgecombe the dormant volcano rising 3201 feet above the ocean making it one of the obvious local landmarks. To the east the rugged mountains and glaciers of Baranof Island’s interior tower above the town. To the north and south, the islands and seascapes of southeast Alaska stretch to the horizon. The views are full of spruce covered mountains and islands. Glaciers poke out sporadically. The ocean is a constant presence, dominating the senses with its command of your hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The local vegetation grows full, lush and green in the short summer. The trees and forests include a healthy mix of Sitka spruce, cedar, alder brush, and poplar trees. Local plants include blueberries (which aren‘t as sweet as the berries found in the lower 48), salmon berries, devil club, and a variety of other plants and wildflowers. It’s amazing how quickly spring turns to summer. It seems like overnight, the plants produce the full foliage of summer.
There are creeks and rivers that run through town from the mountains and glaciers. Indian River, Sawmill, Granite, Cascade, No Name and Starrigavan Creeks meander there way down from the mountains to the ocean. The water is crystal clear and ice cold. Sitka gets it’s water from Sawmill Creek; the source being blue glacier. It’s GREAT water, so very refreshing and pure. The clear mountain water is very beautiful. The rapids and waterfalls are bright white, the result of highly oxygenated pure water. In the late summer, pink salmon begin there spawning run up these creeks and rivers for their last hurrah. The biomass of fish can easily be seen from bridges, it’s really something to see. All of this easily catchable fish brings in bears who find this an easy source of food. Eagles also take advantage of the fresh fish, shifting their feeding habits from diving and catching herring from the ocean to plucking uncaring salmon from the rivers. When the spawning is done, the fish die and float back down to the sea. The stink of rotting flesh pervades the senses, making the creeks a good place to avoid this time of year.
Sitka has a wide variety of wildlife living among it. Grizzly bears have been known to stroll down town, probably looking for a souvenir to take back to the cubs. In fact, the week after I left one was seen lumbering around downtown. During my summer, I never saw a single one, though all my co-workers saw quite a few of them. Kind of ironic, as I was probably the one person who really wanted to see one, and all I found of them were a few foot prints and a lot of scat. Other common sightings around Sitka include: Sitka black tailed deer, sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales, dahl porpoises, eagles, ravens, a wide variety of sea birds, robins, Swainson’s thrushes, squirrels, and dogs. Cats can be found down by the marina. I would love to be a cat at a busy marina. There’s so much going on, and fish smells, and boats to explore that my curiosity would constantly be piqued.
My two favorite parks in town are John Brown’s beach, and Totem Park. JBB (as I call it) is located on the north end of Japonski Island, access via the coast guard station. It’s just a small rocky beach with old volcanic rock outcrops, but it’s a great place to listen to the ocean swells tumble over the rocks and watch the warm sunset. A very pleasant seascape with Mt. Edgecombe and myriad small islands surrounded by the shifting ocean. Gulls, eagles, and ravens soar effortlessly through the air, and the occasional fishing vessel will chug by, ready to unload the day’s catch. The tide pools are very healthy, full of orange and purple common sea stars. The air blowing in from the west is clean and healthy. This is a great place to relax.
Totem park is part of Sitka Nat’l Historical Park. The park has two parts, the cultural visitor’s center, and the path that meanders through a spruce forest, dotted with examples of the large totem poles. My most memorable walk occurred on an overcast, gray, misty day. I was walking silently through the park, my steps muffled by the damp earth. In the tree tops, a raven convention was being held. Their squawks, clicks, grunts and whistles was an overture, and a pleasant ambiance for my walk. The raven is represented on many of the totems. In Tlingit culture, the raven is a very important symbol, known as a trickster, benefactor or a rascal. Knowing this, made my walk all the more special. I was an unannounced guest to the raven rendezvous.

Sitka has plenty of hiking trails, most of them climbing up high into the nearby mountains. In the spring as I looked at the prospective hiking trails, I made a goal of visiting them all. Sadly, I didn’t reach that goal, only missing one trail, that being hiking to the summit of the local volcano (Mt. Edgecombe).
The hiking in Sitka is excellent. There are at least a dozen hikes I can think of, varying in length from an easy quarter mile to arduous and steep alpine climbs covering well over 8 miles. I tended to go up into the alpine, loving the tremendous views that rewarded the ambitious. My favorite hikes are the Harbor Mt. to Gavan hill trail, the Mt. Verstovia/Mt. Arrowhead trail, and the Indian River Falls trail. I would have loved to hike the Mt. Edgecombe trail, but I was working the day a group of friends took a boat to the island and hiked it. Hopefully, I’ll do it this year.
Hiking in the mountains surrounding Sitka is hard work. It was hiking straight up a rock wall in areas, and the switch backs are never ending and brutal. I happily put myself through the difficult hiking though. It was great exercise, and the views on top were phenomenal. I finally got to see a meadow of wildflowers on the steep inclines. I loved the sheer vertical world of the mountains. I was quite happy just plunking myself in a meadow of wildflowers and watching the “Sitka Channel.”

Sea Kayaking is plentiful around Sitka. The relatively calm, protected inside passage provides endless opportunities to those inclined to paddle. I went out on a warm, calm summer evening and found it very peaceful. I like kayaking, it gives you a different view that you can’t achieve on land. Sea life will ignore you as just another boat, where, if they spied you on land, they’d quickly fly or swim away, thinking you a predator.

While I foolishly didn’t bring my mountain bike last year, this year I am certainly bringing it, as Sitka is made for bike travel. As I’ve said, there are only 14 miles of paved roads in town, and biking is a great way to get around. There are also many gravel roads and trails to follow like the Green Lake Rd. Starrigavan Valley Trail and the Harbor Mt. Road. I can’t wait to get my bike out next year and see even more of the island than I saw in 2009.
As you can see, Sitka is a great place to make a base camp for outdoor adventure. I’m glad I was able to spend a summer there exploring its secrets and digging it’s natural beauty. Alaska is America’s last great wilderness, and Sitka can provide a great jumping off point for your adventures. I hope to go back again this summer, and live in this beautiful town once again.

Posted by Rhombus 14:37 Archived in USA Tagged photography Comments (3)

Wardner Beginnings

From Missoula, MT to Wardner, ID. First Impressions of My Latest "Home"

36 °F

I got up early. The night before I had plans of leaving early to be on time for a full day of skiing at Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho. Upon hearing my alarm, I immediately slammed it off, and resumed my slumber. So much for that. When I did wake up, I checked the forecast, and learned Lookout Pass would be snow covered and slippery. The pass marks the border of Montana and Idaho. I put my game face on, and loaded up with a double shot mocha and coffee cake for breakfast. I drove north by northwest towards the pass through snow and low lying mists.

The scenery from Missoula to Idaho is very pretty with the highway following and crossing the majestic Clark Fork River half a dozen times or so, I forgot to count. The trees were mostly pines and dusted with an inch of west snow causing the branches to bend under all the weight. It was very pretty in the fog. The damnable misery of freeways is you can’t stop where a decent photo happens. The best you can hope for is an ideally situated rest area. No such luck.

The last time I ventured up this pass, I was delayed for 6 hours by blocked up traffic. The snow had caused some semi’s to get stuck when trying to get up over the pass. Apparently they didn’t want to be troubled by putting on their chains. Fools. They closed down the freeway, stopping traffic for 6 miles. Authorities had to tow them up with big Ford Trucks. So that’s why I took this last leg of my journey a little more seriously, expecting the worst.

It was really much ado about nothing. Roads were slick, but I managed a healthy 45 miles and hour though the worst of it. Way up on the pass, the sleet turned to straight rain, and I drove the rest of the way to Kellogg at the legal limit.

I procured the keys to my new home, and drove off up through the rain and fog to Wardner. Wardner is an old mining village that adjoins Kellogg. My cabin is located on the side of the upper valley wall at the top of a gulch. I drove up the narrow single lane road wondering just what I had gotten myself into; the sides of the road dropped off steeply on one side of the road, and just as steep up the hill. Not a place to drive off the road. I pulled into the drive, and stepped out into the rain. The cabin was there, and I grabbed the keys and went in.
I loved it immediately. Updated and clean, it still has rough hewn original timber through the rafters. It is comfortable, and has character. It has a woodstove which is important for the integrity and the athmosphere of a good cabin. There's something about about a cheery fire warming your cabin that I love. It doesn't have a TV or the internet either. I'll miss the internet, it's just too useful, but I don't miss TV at all. All I have is an old clock radio that I have tuned to the NPR station out of Spokane. It's great. The views are spectacular. As I said I’m the highest place around, looking down over the Silver valley. It’s a perfect location to make a comfortable base camp for the next 2 months.

I unpacked my stuff and got the cabin set up. I have a room with picture windows overlooking the valley. In it, is a day bed. A day bed is or less a bed, only not in a bedroom. It’s an ingenious invention as far as I’m concerned. I can lounge comfortably in good light reading my book, or staring vacantly at the distant mountains. Of course I have a blanket or two handy, in case my eyelids get too heavy, which they sometimes do after a morning of skiing.

I can’t make up my mind on what to call my cabin. “Wardner.” has a nice ring to it. I like to think of it as a similar set up to H.D. Thoreau’s “Walden”, but maybe I’m being a little too poetic for my own good. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” also came to mind, but I voted against that one until I build a cabin of my own. I’ll give it a little more time before I decide, it’s probably best not to rush into an important decision like this.

The next day, I purchased my ski pass and went the next day. With all the rain that was falling down in the valley, it was snowing just as heavily up on the mountain. Silver mountain boasts the world’s longest gondola, leaving from Kellogg and climbing it’s way up to the ski area. It was raining when I stepped aboard, and snowing when I stepped off. What a day! Seven inches of powder fell overnight, and I’m guessing four inches fell during the day. I spent the morning carving first runs on virgin powder. It’s one of life’s little pleasures. I love powder skiing; playfully carving squiggles down a steep snowy slope, dodging trees while going through the glades of pine trees. It was fantastic. It was like skiing in a cloud, there was hardly any visibility at all. The trees were covered in a heavy snow, causing there limbs to bow downward. I was skiing through a sculpture garden.
I’ve been exploring my new town some. I’ve found a nice little coffee shop with good cinnamon rolls, fresh coffee, and free wifi. It’s my new home away from home. I found Jerry Cobb’s dirt pile. I can imagine old man Cobb sitting around on his front porch yelling in his gravelly, grouchy voice at those passing, “And don’t you forget it!!” I’ve figured out which grocery store is better (Yoke's Foods). I’ve found a thrift store that is intriguing, it won’t be long before I’ll have to go in and buy something random. I’ve also had to bring the van into the local GMC dealer for some repairs. I’d been hearing noises coming out of the front end all through the journey over here. I have very few brain cells committed to knowledge of automobile parts and how they work, so my best bet is too ignore noises until they get louder. That’s what happened in this case, and I had to bring it in. They had to order a part, and so I’m trying not to drive much for the next week. Walking is good for a guy.
So I’m here in Idaho commencing my ski bumming career. We’ll see how it goes, I’ve never done this before. Usually this time of year, I’m nomadic. I like spending my time driving around the best of the west. Even today, I wanted to head out and drive to the west coast. I’m serious. It was such a beautifully sunny morning that I couldn’t help it. I have these urges to keep moving. Anyway, I talked myself out of that for now, and am digging my mountain views from my temporary home.

Posted by Rhombus 13:38 Archived in USA Tagged lodging Comments (2)

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