Sunday, April 17, 2016

Biking at Eklutna Lake


Today was the first really warm spring day. We've had plenty of ridiculously nice days, but this is the first one that really felt like summer is around the corner. It hit 60 degrees in Eagle River and it's only the middle of April! There is no staying home on a day like this.

We took our mountain bikes up to Eklutna Lake and rode the full length of the lake. The water seems extraordinarily low and I'm not sure why. The lake is Anchorage's source of drinking water and there is also a hydro power plant, so I'm not sure how much of the lake level fluctuation is due to human control and how much is natural. 

It wasn't quite as warm up at the lake as it was at our house, but it will still lovely. The trees are already leafing out here, even more so up at the lake than in Eagle River. I know I haven't lived here long, but this seems a little early for green-up and given our record high temperatures in 2016 so far, I'm not surprised.  But I'm not complaining on a day like this. 








Saturday, April 16, 2016

C-130 Tour

Hunter and Ryan next to a Coast Guard C-130

Last week Ryan and I had the chance to tour a Coast Guard C-130. Our friend Hunter is a pilot stationed in Kodiak and hew flew to JBER in Anchorage for the day and had free time to meet up with us. I vaguely recall going in some of the Coast Guard hangars on field trips as a kid, but I think we looked at helicopters. I don't remember ever getting to see a C-130 up close, so this was exciting for both of us. 

The C-130s at the base in Kodiak are 1980s models. Going into the cock pit feels like a blast from the past with some new GPS equipment mixed in. They are really amazing planes - they can carry so much cargo and fly with the back door open. The one we toured was configured with passenger seats for the day. I'm glad we got to see this older model. Hunter is soon moving to a different base where he will learn to fly a newer model of C-130. I'm sure eventually these 1980s planes will be phased out.

Hunter and Ryan in the cockpit

Passenger seats

Ryan really enjoyed seeing this exceptional piece of modern technology (a pencil sharpener) in the cock pit


 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Review of and Advice for Hiking the O in Torres del Paine National Park

This post is a review of information I wish I had known before we hiked the O in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For those who aren’t interested in the hike, it’s probably best to skip this lengthy post. For those who are planning to visit Torres del Paine, I hope it helps, especially the part about the toilets. You can read my other brief post about our trek here.

First and foremost, I would recommend that anyone hiking the full O consider hiking it clockwise. I know that every guidebook and website (except this one!) recommends hiking it counter-clockwise, but I beg to differ. The reasoning I have heard for hiking it counter-clockwise is that you will go through the pass having the easy climb up, and the steep climb down. I actually prefer to go up steep things, rather than down. The prevailing winds also blow from the steep side, so if you climb up the steep side, you will most likely have the wind at your back. Having gone through the pass in a 60mph headwind, I would really recommend doing it the other way. The other reason I would hike it counter-clockwise, assuming you’re starting at Laguna Amarga, is that you will get the crowded part of the trail out of the way first. I would venture to guess that most people taking on the entire O like hiking in solitude and prefer quiet campgrounds to rowdy ones – so why not end your trek with the least-traveled parts of the trail? For us, the first three days of hiking were absolutely lovely while getting onto the W was a bit of a culture shock. Getting that out of the way at the beginning and ending with a serene hike through wildflower meadows would have left a nicer impression as we left the park.

Now onto the meat of the hike - we started our trek at Laguna Amarga and hiked directly to Camping Seron, bypassing Las Torres. This was a really lovely hike. On the bypass route we didn’t see a single person and the trail was only lightly worn. When we reached the junction with the trail from Las Torres, we met someone who was also hiking to Camping Seron. He was the only person we saw on the hike.

Camping Seron is a lovely refugio with a grassy meadow. There is no shortage of places to pitch your tent. There is a small covered cooking area with picnic tables off the back of the bathrooms, but campers are also allowed to cook at any of the outdoor picnic tables spread around the camping area. The bathrooms were the nicest/cleanest we encountered on the O. They had flushing toilets (sometimes toilet paper) and showers (I believe they had hot water, but we didn’t shower there). The campground doesn’t really have a store, but it did look like they were selling sunscreen, wine, and soda in the office. They only accepted Chilean pesos at Seron, cash only. This refugio supposedly has meals, although the chalk board listing prices only had prices for breakfast and bread, so I wouldn’t count on anything else. Overall one of my favorite campgrounds on the O.

Between Seron and Dickson is a ranger station where hikers have to check in. It was a nice place to stop for lunch and had nice composting toilets. The hiking times listed on the park map were off for this section – the section between Seron and the ranger station took longer and the section between the ranger station and Dickson took less time than the map indicated. Elsewhere on the trek the hiking times on the map were fairly accurate for us.

Refugio Dickson was also lovely. The camping sites are along the edge of the trees so you can get a bit of shade and wind protection, but there is absolutely no shortage of flat grassy space. There is a designated outdoor cooking area with picnic tables, and if it is windy there is an indoor cooking space (we didn’t need it). There are flushing bathrooms at Dickson that were well-maintained (cleaned consistently while we were there), and had toilet paper. The showers are heated by a black tank on the roof. I got the first shower of the afternoon and it turned out the roof water was scalding hot (very sunny day), so I basically just took a cold shower. The store at Dickson was one of the most well-stocked of any on the O. Tons of snack food of course, but also a decent selection of things one could eat for dinner. There were no price tags in sight, which is usually bad news for your pocket book. They let us pay for our campsite in USD though which was nice (we didn’t have many Chilean pesos – long story). From the refugio, you can easily climb down to the shore of the lake and walk along the beach – we even saw a few ice bergs. I highly recommend spending the night at Dickson.

We did not spend the night at Los Perros, but we did use the cooking shelter to eat our lunch. The campground is in the woods and all the camping spaces are dirt, which was a bit of a surprise after the grassy space at Seron and Dickson. It looked like there was no shortage of flat space though. This was also our first experience having to use the cooking shelters. At many of these campgrounds they don’t want people cooking outside because of the wind and risk of starting a wildfire. We found that the cooking shelters just get really dirty with crumbs and spilled food. Los Perros also had flushing toilets and showers that looked decent – not quite as clean as Seron and Dickson, but perfectly acceptable. The store also looked decently-stocked, although it was closed while we were there and most of what I could see from the window was Pringles and Red Bull.

We hiked all the way from Dickson to El Paso in one day (hence no overnight at Los Perros). El Paso is a free campground run by the national park. It’s on a steep slope, so there are only a limited number of campsites on a first come, first serve basis. We go there fairly late in the day and there weren’t many sites left, but the park rangers were very helpful showing us where to camp. If I were staying here, I would try not to roll in too late. The people who got there even later than us camped basically right outside the ranger station building, which is totally fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to arrive later than them! There’s a three-sided cooking shelter at El Paso which gets crowded around dinner time. The bathroom situation at El Paso was my second least favorite of the trek. Basically it was just a squatter outhouse, but with a concrete floor with a bowl-shaped basin and pipe in the bottom, and a bucket of water inside so you could “flush.” The basin was pretty wide and just sort of hard to use. I tried to avoid it as much as I could.

We had a short day hiking from El Paso to Grey, and then spent the night there. Grey is a nice place to spend some leisure time because you can walk out to the mirador to view the glacier and see some sweet sedimentary geology. The campground is mostly an open grassy area with a few trees – no shortage of flat camping spots. At Grey you are required to cook in the cooking shelter, which is about ¼ of the size it needs to be. There was a line to wait to get in to cook. I’d eat early if I was staying there again. The store was pretty extensive and had quite a few dinner-ish options. There were also a couple of outlets in the store where people (including us) were charging phones. They accepted credit cards at Grey, and I would assume USD.

I have mixed feelings about Grey because while I enjoyed the open grassy space and the walk out to the mirador, the bathroom situation was a major pain. There were flushing toilets at the service building for the campground, but they were pretty much closed all day (no explanation) and people were told to use the bathrooms at the refugio (hostel/lodge). At the refugio there were only two private bathrooms, so the line was very long at times. I waited 45 minutes just to pee in the morning. With such a large campground, it wasn’t exactly easy to find a private bush, although in hindsight I wish I had just waited until we’d hiked down the trail a ways rather than standing in line for 45 minutes. The toilets for the campground were open just for a few hours in the evening, and we were told there was hot water for the showers between 6 and 8pm. There were two women’s showers, and the line was ridiculously long, but I waited in it and quite possibly got the last hot shower at 7:59. This was also where we first intersected people hiking the W, which is a very different crowd than those doing the O. To hike the O you need to be pretty well-prepared and experienced, but not so for the W. There were people with toiletries bags that wouldn’t have even fit in my backpack, people putting on makeup, brushing their teeth, and washing their faces in the private bathrooms while 10+ people were waiting in line (rather than brushing teeth outside)…I could go on, but my point is that if you’re a grungy backpacker who just wants a quick shower and turn on the toilet, you’re going to be annoyed.

We did not camp at Paine Grande, but we did stop and use the cooking shelter for lunch. The cooking shelter was pretty dirty, and the sink was clogged. The bathrooms were nice though and they had showers, I assume with hot water. The Store was also fairly extensive, and even had some wilting produce, eggs, and meat products. Prices looked pretty high though. Paine Grande is open and grassy, so there is no shortage of flat placed to put a tent, but it is notoriously windy. While we were there it was pretty bad, and I’m glad we didn’t stay. We heard a story from the day before of a tent being ripped out of the ground and blown up on a hillside.

At Paine Grande we made reservations to stay at Italiano, another free park-run campground. Italiano is in the trees and is all dirt, but there didn’t seem to be a shortage of flat places to put your tent. There is three-sided cooking shelter, but it seemed to be okay to cook just outside of it as well. There were easily 100 people camped there when we were. The bathroom situation at Italiano was absolutely the worst of Torres del Paine National Park. We were told to use the bathrooms down the trail, which were flushing toilets…but they looked like they had literally never been cleaned. Total non-starter. The tricky thing about the location of Italiano (and the number of people camped there) is that on one side of the campground/trail is a raging river, and the other is the steep slope of a mountain. It’s a little hard to find a place to avoid using the bathrooms. I’m not sure if I would have stayed here or not had I know how bad the toilets were – on one hand it was free and we were able to scramble up to some private-ish places, but on the other hand, it was really annoying. When we were leaving Italiano I saw there were composting toilets. I have no idea why they weren’t open, and since we were on our way out I didn’t ask. We bypassed Frances completely, but it is an alternative to Italiano that presumably has a better bathroom situation. Frances is on a steep slope though, so I wouldn’t roll in too late for fear of not having a flat place to sleep.

Los Cuernos is also a mixed bag. It’s a biiig campground, but doesn’t have a lot of flat space. We got there around 4 in the afternoon, and still had a hard time finding a place to put our tent. Our best options were a flat spot right next to the trail and the horse stable or a sloping spot next to the bathrooms. We picked the spot that didn’t smell like horse poop. People who got in later than us had to sleep on some really uneven ground. This is the one refugio where I would definitely recommend making a camping reservation if you plan to stay there. The bathrooms at Los Cuernos were nice, but as far as I could tell only get cleaned once/day. With so many people, they basically got trashed by late in the evening and weren’t cleaned until morning. The showers were fine and had hot water. Cooking was only allowed in the cooking shelter which was tiny – once again I would recommend eating early or just being really, really patient. The store at Los Cuernos was surprisingly sparse. They basically had cookies, candy bars, soda, beer, eggs, tuna, and bread. The eggs were pretty cheap, but I paid about $15 for a beer, soda, and two snickers (after six days on the trail I was happy to pay that). We were running low on lunch food by this point, so the snickers and eggs (we hard boiled them) were our solution. They took credit cards here. Los Cuernos is also a major party scene. It has a bar, and they moved it out onto the deck in the evening, with music. There was basically a dance party going on until late late late. If you’re into partying, stay at Los Cuernos. If you’re into sleeping on a flat piece of ground, don’t.

We bypassed Chileno, but we did hike through it on our way to Torres. Chileno has a ton of campsites, but they are very spread out and some are pretty far away from the refugio. The store looked similar to Los Cuernos, although they did sell both veggie and meat pre-made sandwiches for $8. The restaurant looked decent – it was more of a regular restaurant than the other refugios. They took credit cards at Chileno. The bathrooms were fine, but seemed like the same problem as Los Cuernos – not cleaned often-enough. There was also a long line since everybody hiking through wanted to stop and use the bathrooms.

I was a little scared of what Torres would be like on both the toilet and flat space fronts, but I was pleasantly surprised on both accounts. Torres is hilly, but there are plenty of flat places to put your tent. It wasn’t very full at all. There were two clean flushing toilets with toilet paper. The cooking shelter was also too small, but good enough. There is no store at Torres, as it is another free park-run campground.

We ended our hike at Las Torres Hotel. There’s a little kiosk store at the bus stop that sells hot dogs with the most amazing freshly-baked rolls a hiker to ask for. The store had a few things, but honestly it wasn’t as extensive as some of the other ones. We ordered sandwiches to go from the restaurant at Las Torres Hotel and ate them on the bus on our way back to El Calafate. They were a little pricey but honestly not all that bad for what we got.


Despite some of the more regrettable toilet situations, we had an absolutely amazing time on this hike. I hope this blog posts helps other people planning the trek. Feel free to comment if you have questions that I didn’t answer.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hiking in Spring Conditions

Max, Emily, and me at the Rainbow Overlook


A friend in Seattle once asked me if spring break was a good time to visit Alaska. I said "Sure, as long as you know it's still winter." After being back in Alaska for three years, I have changed my mind. We've barely even had winter the last two years. There are pussy willows out already, many trails are completely snow-free, and today it was 50 degrees at my house. By all accounts, that is spring in Alaska and it is not even March.

I hiked on the Turnagain Arm trail this weekend with my friend Emily and her dog Max. It was the first day I've been out and about that really felt like spring. We brought our grippers and expected to find ice but there was only mud. Emily wore long underwear and I wore lined soft shell pants. Both were a mistake. The forecast for the next week is for sun - one more week with no chance of snow. Soon enough it will be real spring and one more year will have passed with only a tiny fraction of our normal snow fall. I hope, like a lot of people, that this is not the new normal.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Fat Tire Biking to the Cross Cabin Again

Molly and I had such a nice time biking to the Cross Cabin last weekend we decided to go again.  This time my Mom and Dad joined us.  Dad took the supplies with the snowmachine so our bikes were even lighter than last weekend.  Just an inch or so of new snow had fallen making the trail softer but still relatively easy biking.

Dad and I got a few jobs done around the cabin and I still had time for a snowmachine ride out to Clear Creek.  I enjoyed plotting the trails using the Gaia app on my phone.  Sitting around the wood stove with family and chocolate was a was a great way to spend Valentines weekend.

Dad and I talking about the trails
Molly and I headed out to Talkeetna

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

Nesting Magellanic Penguins
 One of the highlights of our time in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego (on the Argentine side) was visiting a penguin colony. The colony  near Ushuaia is where both Magellanic and Gentoo penguins nest. We were especially lucky because we also got to see six King penguins who just happened to show up earlier in the week. King penquins have colonies elsewhere in Tierra del Fuego, but they don't nest near Ushuaia.

We took a zodiac out to the colony, on an island. It's kind of crazy that people are allowed to walk around (within a roped area) where the penquins are nesting. We were told studies have been done to determine how many human visitors the penquins can tolerate per day and the tours are restricted to that number. The rule is that you're supposed to stay at least two meters away from penguins at all times, but our guide told us the penguins "don't respect this rule." Below is a penguin not respecting our need to walk up the staircase to view more penguins.



The Magellanic penguins are the small ones with a black stripe around their white front side. They nest in burrows, which they reuse year after year. If they have to dig a new one, it takes them three months! The Gentoo penguins are a little bigger and don't have the black stripe. You can see one King penguin in the photo below, it has yellow around its head. The Kings were pretty comical. The six of them were spread out among the Magellanic and Gentoo penguins sitting perfectly still looking very stoic while the smaller penguins ran around in every direction. Makes me wonder why they chose to go ashore and chill with penguins of another species, rather than any other piece of shore in the Beagle Channel.

Stoic King penguin
The Magellanic penguins chicks were 1-2 months old when were there - a funny stage because they are essentially adult-sized but (mostly) still had their down. Some were molting, but they were still pretty adorable.



Monday, February 8, 2016

Fat Tire Biking to the Cross Cabin

Last year we tried fat tire biking by renting and borrowing bikes to go to the cabin for my birthday. This year we decided it was time to buy our own fat bikes.  I bought a KHS 3000 for myself off of craigslist last summer and Molly got her 15" Motobecane Sturgis from Bikes Direct.  We then set up both bikes up with 4.7" tires with carbide studs.

We had plans to ride our new bikes to the cabin before the holidays but after twisting my knee while skiing and then a bit of late season field work it never happened.  So finally last weekend we made it happen. The trail conditions were perfect, hard packed but not icy, with temperatures just below freezing.  The bikes performed great and we made good time getting to the cabin.

Our friends Wynne and Nicholai also purchased new fat tire bikes this winter and joined us for the weekend.  They came in later on Saturday but I was able to send them a GPS track and detailed directions. Molly even sent them photos of some of the intersections.  Modern technology can make navigation easy!

The conditions were so good that I went for an extra ride with Wynne and Nicholai out to Chase and back to the cabin Sunday morning.  It felt like a March day but we were reminded it was still February by the early darkness.  Even though it was a clear day, the sun was noticeably low on the horizon.

We had so much fun that we are planning on going back again this weekend with my parents.  This time it should be even easier as my parents will be able to haul our food and gear on the snow machine.

Molly pedaling across the lake with the cabin in the distance. 
Wynne, Nicholai and I getting ready to leave the cabin

Nice winter sunshine

Enjoying the great riding conditions

Friday, January 29, 2016

More Photos from Fitz Roy

Laguna las Tres and Fitz Roy
We've been home for a couple of days and are slowly sorting through the five weeks of photos on our phones. I think I'll do some catch-up posts as I go through them, in chronological order.

When we woke up on first morning camping near Fitz Roy and saw that it was so sunny and clear that the granite tors were almost so bright you couldn't look at them, we thought the rest of our trip would be downhill from there. How could it get better than that?



One of the things we loved about the hiking near Fitz Roy was the forests. With so many trees and other plants new to us, it was fun to explore as we hiked. Much of the time, I felt like I was hiking in an enchanted forest. The forested areas had very little brushy undergrowth like they do in Alaska, instead they were blanketed in grasses and flowers.



Here was our lovely view of Cerro Torre as the sun set (can you believe people actually climb that?). The next morning it was shrouded in clouds.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cochamo, Chile

When we travel we like to keep our schedule  flexible so we can adapt to places we like and venture to destinations as we learn about them. This method of travel has been particularly difficult in Patagonia due to the need to book flights in advance and the business of the peak summer season down here. 

While hiking at Torres Del Paine we learned about a place called Cochamo from a few other Trekkers. It was described to us as the "Yosemity Valley of South America", and a place not yet well known and not overrun by tourists. 

When we retuned from hiking Torres Del Paine we did some research and decided we had to go Cochamo. Lucky we had not made any fixed plans after flying to Puerto Montt. We decided to push other tentative plans aside to see Cochamo for ourselves. 

We made camping reservations and headed in to the valley with plans to spend three nights. It was a four hour hike into the valley along a deeply worn trail. After a few hours we started to catch glimpses of towering granite mountains through the thick forest canopy. When we arrived at the meadows and camping area we were mesmerized by the barren white granite mountains and walls that surrounded us.  We pitched our tent and made dinner as the sun drop behind the mountains to the west and the moon rose above a towering wall to the north. 

The next two days were spent day hiking on two very memorable trails. The first day we climbed a mountain called Arco Iris. The trail up Arco Iris was labeled difficult, which is fair but what we didn't know was just how steep portions of it would be. The only thing similar I have seen in the states is the trail up Angel's Landing in Zion.  A firm grip on the fixed ropes and any available roots was necessary in places to make it up. After a few thousand feet of climbing we found ourselves high above the valley, with stunning views of the other towering mountains and also of more distant volcanoes.

The following days hike took us to a place called the Amphitheater, a glacial cirque surrounded on three sides by rock walls thousands of feet tall.   We got an "early" start and we on the trail by 9am, allowing us to have the trail to ourselves the entire way up. We enjoyed a swim in a small pool at the base of walls and chatted with some rock climbers who were camped in the amphitheater. 

I could have spend a few more days in Cochamo but really I was just happy to have heard about this place and been able to fit it into our travels.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hiking the O in Torres del Paine

The big destination of our trip was an eight day trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Like our time near Fitz Roy, the weather did not disappoint. We hike the O, which includes the much more popular W trek.

There is a lot to say about this trek and the eight days we spent on it, but for now I will just share some highlights. 

We hiked counter clockwise, starting at Laguna Amarga. The first two days were absolutely lovely - blankets of wildflowers and a well-maintained trail. As a bonus, we hardly saw anyone. Even though there were lots of people hiking the same itinerary, we all spread out during the day. 


The trek includes a pass infamous for high winds and being socked in. It did not disappoint. It was probably gusting up to 60mph when we passed through. And it was raining. But once you're in it there's really nothing to do but keep going to stay warm. Luckily once you cross the pass it's not far until you drop down into the trees and protection. 


Our view of glacier Grey descending the pass was perhaps not what it could have been, but the view from the lake the next day more than made up for it. The fascinating sedimentary geology was an extra bonus. 


The French Valley is a side trip off the O, but absolutely worth it. The view point at the top is breathtaking. The scale of the granite walls all around the valley is overwhelming. 


And of course, the Torres del Paine themselves. Well-worth the last 45 minutes of rock scrambling and hiking to get to them. The dramatic evening light silhouetting the Torres added a special touch. A perfect way to end the O.