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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’m always startled into nostalgia when I come upon fireweed growing in Missoula. It’s such an Alaskan connection, my favorite wildflower and a vivid reminder of the decades I spent making the Last Frontier my home.

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The alleyway that divides Missoula Textiles from Adventure Cycling is decidedly industrial. Walking back from my usual morning coffee I was delighted and surprised to spot this tenacious pioneer, struggling up through cracks in the hardscape. Like Alaskans, the fireweed is blossoming in a harsh environment, bringing beauty and a resolute spirit into the world and making me smile at the persistence of life.

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Hitching a ride

Hitching a ride

A flotilla of butterflies passes me going uphill;

The four-mile-per-hour breeze behind me chills my back;

That cheeky ground squirrel 20 feet ahead of me ambles across the road.

This first day of summer saw my average speed recorded at 8.6 mph. Now, that average includes my top speed of 33.6, so you know it was a slow ride. For at least an hour of tire-turning time I pedaled at under 4, and that’s when the butterflies—hundreds, maybe thousands of them—passed me. They covered the shoulders of Deer Creek Road, resting on the damp sand and I think soaking up moisture there.

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

Clark Fork panorama along the Kim Williams Nature Trail

That 26.5 miles took me far longer than the 3 hours that my average speed would suggest. I left home at about 10 am and returned at 4. The original plan was a simple jaunt to the Saturday farmers’ market down on the banks of the Clark Fork. Mmmmmm…cheese curds, iced mocha, and barbecued brisket breakfast burrito. All the hallmarks of a great morning.

Crowd? What crowd? We don't need no stinkin' crowd!

Crowd? What crowd? We don’t need no stinkin’ crowd!

Once enfolded in the crowd, I plummeted into a very Alaskan emotional pit—holy shit, there are way too many people here! I grabbed my breakfast and sprinted to the margins, to eat and observe, and acknowledge my small loneliness. Boy how I wished that Tom or Sharry were along to elbow through the crowds with me!

 

I subscribe to the philosophy that I’m only one bike ride away from a good mood. Circumnavigate Mount Sentinel to sweat away the blues? Sure! So off I spun along the Milwaukee Trail, the Kim Williams Nature Trail, the single track behind the Deer Creek Shooting Range and up Deer Creek Road. And up. And UP, puffing and panting to pause at the Milltown State Park Overlook. Then up some more, down a half mile at 33.6 miles per hour, and then…you guessed it. Up. Just me and the damn butterflies.

Hitching a ride...

Companionship

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Sometimes it’s good to go out riding on your own, just you at your own pace, not feeling pushed or held back. My back-to-back solo rides the past two days have both been enjoyable, strenuous, interesting–and a little lonely. Not to mention photographically frustrating. No one to take my picture standing by the awesome talus slope I rode past!

The trail was not quite this rough...

The trail was not quite this rough…

Yesterday’s road ride out to the foot of Blue Mountain took me along the Milwaukee Road trail and then onto some pretty quiet paved roads. There was the long haul up O’Brien Creek Road–clearly a training run for Missoula middle-aged male cyclists. Three passed me going in, and smiled and waved coming back down. Their skinny tires didn’t pass the end of the pavement, but I braved another half mile to make it exactly 10 before I turned back. The only surprise is how little wildlife I see in these quiet places. There were a few whitetail, far off in a field, but no turkeys, moose, bears on the upper slopes.

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Today was another in the series of blue-sky, mid-70s spring days that typify the Missoula area. Salsa Cycles, in conjunction with a  local bike shop, was having a mountain bike demonstration at Ten Spoon Winery, which is a mere mile from the Rattlesnake Trail trailhead. I have been somewhat less than thrilled with the fit of my own, relatively new mountain bike, and so pedaled the several miles up to the demo to see if they could do better. Alas, they only have bikes for folks who are 5’4″ or more–like most manufacturers, Salsa apparently believes that short women who would love to ride dirt don’t make a big enough demographic to build to. Damn.

I rode up the road, then the trail, disgruntled. But a funny thing happened on the way up to 4200 feet. I began to appreciate the bike I own. Yes, it’s too tall to stand over comfortably, and if I have to dismount fast I’m in trouble. But the gearing is a dream, the disc brakes could stop a buffalo in its tracks, and I was having so much fun screaming back downhill for 10 miles that I forgot to stay disgruntled. That’s what a bike ride does.

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Highbush cranberry

Highbush cranberry

I had a dog who smelled like this when he was wet. Not completely unpleasant; the iconic fragrance of Alaska autumn.

Iconic, because the odor is wild; tangily sweet-tart, musky, a little doggish. It smells red. I envision the bears feasting, the ptarmigan and their offspring gorging, the kuspuk-and-raingear clad women braving wind and wet to bring home a harvest of these fat, succulent packets of concentrated vitamin C.

It is the overriding aroma of my cycling forays at this time of year. Especially on sunny days the crisp air is pungent with highbush cranberry and wet, decaying leaves, that winey fall essence of change. In the year’s dying I am energized, deeply alive to the wild beauty that is my privilege to call home.

I ride.

I breathe.

I smile.

Home...

Home…

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Farewell and Godspeed...

At first, I think it is geese.

Crane my neck, peer at the sky, damn near tip the bike over. OK, fine. I stop, dismount, take a proper gander at the wild blue and discover not Canadas, but Sandhills. Admitting the neck craning was appropriate, I laugh out loud.

Silhouettes against the hard blue-copper of mid-September sky; eerie, gargling cries bouncing off the Butte; circling, circling higher and higher until only that call remains, drifting, floating, wisping into nothingness. The cranes are taking wing for latitudes envisioned in their feathered-dinosaur dreams.

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Ever since I first read about them in the Adventure Cycling newsletter “Bike Bits”, I have wanted to go on a bike overnight. “What’s that?” you ask? Well, here’s what BikeOvernights.org has to say: A bike overnight is a short bike tour where you start riding on one day, stop and stay the night somewhere–a campground, a bed and breakfast, your cabin on the lake–and then ride back the following day–or maybe the next.

It can be the beginning of your love affair with short bike trips to interesting places or a gateway drug to long distance touring; any way you look at this, it’s a barrel of fun.

Right now husband Tom is not cycling. However, he loves to camp and to fish and is enthusiastic about sharing a tent with me even after decades of marriage. So when I proposed a bike overnight to Finger Lake three weeks ago he was gung-ho. “I’ll drive the truck so we can have the big tent and the canoe. I can carry the wine too–do you want me to bring the bedrolls or will you be using your panniers?”

I’m used to hauling my stuff, so I opted for panniers; after all, Finger Lake was only 12 miles away and it was a beautiful day. It took me about an hour and a half of smell-the-roses pedaling and a short, steep final uphill to arrive in Paradise–or what passes for it within that distance from home!

I called my friend Rene who lives close, and invited her to share a glass of wine, conversation and a spritz of mosquito repellant. This season the bugs have been horrific but easily deterred. The three of us sat up til nearly midnight in the wonderful Alaska summer twilight, laughing and talking, and in the morning Tom and I feasted on the fruits of his previous afternoon’s fishing foray. Trout for breakfast–YUM!

Finger Lake Fun!

Finger Lake Fun!

And just this Thursday we ventured a bit further from home. While Tom took the truck, duck boat and motor, I mounted my laden Terry bike and spun up the Parks Highway 29 miles to Nancy Lake. By the time I left in the mid-afternoon the completely cloudless skies had grown some thunderheads. I got sprinkled on a few times, but at 80 degrees I welcomed the cooling effect.

Nancy Lake sunset

Nancy Lake sunset

I’ve found that I love the solo riding. Yes, I miss my husband’s company. Yes, I really like the companionship of a couple of friends or a touring group. However, since I have to ride alone so much of the time I have grown to love it. No time pressure; stop for ice cream? Sure! Take pictures of the massed fireweed along the highway? I spent about a half an hour doing so.

But the best thing of all is the evening–the tent, the companion, the canoe, the loon cry. The journey is excitement; the destination, repose.

Fireweed

Fireweed

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July 4 at Summit Lake on Hatcher Pass

Let’s go to the lake on the 4th, OK honey? What?! It’s still frozen?!

I have to laugh when people who live in the 48 contiguous states–variously known to Alaskans as the Lower 48 or Lesser 48–tell me about their Fourth of July celebrations. I’ve been gone for so long that it sounds like tales from a foreign land. Trips to the lake, shorts and flip flops, crepe paper decked floats, picnics full of ants and honey bees, spectacular fireworks viewed from a blanket on the grass–all but dim memories from childhood. The 4th in Alaska is very different.

Take, for example, the photo above.

Friend Sharry, husband Tom and I drove up to Hatcher Pass today to do some hiking. We woke to cloudy skies today and temps in the mid-50s, a huge difference from a week ago when it was relentlessly sunny and in the high 80s. Oh well, we are now back to normal I guess. Anyway, since it has not shed a drop of rain in the last week of cloud cover, I didn’t think much about our plans.

I dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, taking my rain coat, another shirt and a fleece vest in my day pack, “just in case”. Oh yes, a hat (I hate having my head dripped on), sunscreen, bug spray, sandwich and water.

Following Sharry’s truck, I knew I was in trouble when we passed the 1000 foot elevation level and went from sprinkles to needing the fastest intermittent setting on my windshield wipers. As we climbed into the gray mountains I removed my sunglasses; I glanced at Tom, a reluctant companion today anyway. When we arrived at Summit Lake, elevation 3800 feet, I got out and told Sharry that we were not going to hike. Neither of us had really brought enough clothing to be comfortable at 40 degrees in the rain. No rain pants, no gloves, cotton jeans–what had we been thinking?

She, brave (read prepared) soul, slipped on her Helly Hansens, pulled up her hood and bounded off into the fog. We slithered back into the warmth of the car and made our slow, picture-snapping way down the Willow side of the pass. And what a breathtaking ride it is, even in the dim.

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

Crossing Willow Creek

Crossing Willow Creek

That side of the Palmer to Willow road is all gravel. Willow Creek and its small tributaries, which drain the steep-sided valleys, are full of gold mining claims, both hard-rock and placer. At this time of year, regardless of the weather, and because Alaskans really ARE tough, the valley was full of folks camping too. Sopping dogs and kids in shorts and parkas, grownups wearing camo hoodies and rain gear, tents, RVs, fifth wheel trailers, ATVs and any number of non-motorized water craft parked cheek-by-jowl in the few small pullouts along the roadside. There is plenty of private property in the lower reaches of the valley, all marked with No Trespassing signage. The road right of way is often the only place to camp.

Summer camping in Alaska...

Summer camping in Alaska…Note the warm clothing…

Camping. In 40 degree temps. In the rain. I can’t count how many times I have been a part of that scene. The smoke from the campfire hugs the ground, the thin heat from damp wood unable to lift it more than head high. Hot dogs take an eternity to cook on willow sticks held over such fires, and end by tasting like spruce boughs. Don’t even think about S’mores; the marshmallow’s pitchy flavor does not do justice to Hershey bars and graham crackers. Our only consolation is that the dark, cloudy skies will allow us to see those midnight fireworks after all.

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