Thursday, July 20, 2017

Alaska Running and Adventures: Log 3-Jul to 16-Jul-2017

Note:  While I normally publish one week at a time, since my Alaska vacation spanned two weeks, I'm combining the blog post for both weeks here:  3-Jul to 9-Jul, and 10-Jul to 16-Jul.

Ah, summer vacation!  Whether that means a stay-cation, a visit to beaches or national parks, or visiting with family or friends, it's healthy and important to take some time off from work and refresh.  When the boys were really young, a lot of summer trips were camping in northern New England and nearby Canadian provinces.  Similar to (or perhaps because of) when my my parents took me to those places as a child, those were some of my favorite adventures and now I would like to get back to more camping.  But as our time on this planet is limited, I also yearn to see much more of it.  (Having an international family helps fuel my travel interests, as my Mom is from Germany and Jana from Taiwan.)

Matthew (21 months) and Mark (age 3) happily playing in the dirt at our campsite
we rented for several nights in Prince Edward Island, Canada - August 2001
As the kids got older, we expanded our trips and tried different things.  We went once to Disney and once on a Caribbean cruise, and while nothing is wrong with either, we found neither is "our thing" and we preferred more natural settings, especially the amazing national parks system we have.  Fast forward to 2017 and our summer vacation is a visit to the 49th state!  Alaska has long been on my bucket list, and the $379 round-trip tickets we were able to find (normally $800 to $1,000 or more) sealed the deal.  Matthew has researched running races in Alaska (surprise, surprise) and I'm thrilled that Mark is taking a hiatus from summer school in Florida to join us.  I guess he feels it's worth it to put up with his annoying and clueless parents for 10 days if he gets a paid trip to Alaska out of it.

Monday 3-July:  5 miles
Vacation minus two days.  Tom, Mike, and I have had a recent tradition on the 4th of July of a run at Burlingame, followed by a 1/2 mile swim, followed by breakfast.  With Tom potentially running a road race on the 4th, we moved it up a day.  Matthew joined us for the physical activities, and then left the old folks to go out to eat on their own. 

This was actually my first open water swim of the season, and the arms felt it.  Everything else was good with fun company and conversation to boot.

Tuesday 4-July:  14
Vacation minus one day.  Final packing.
AM:  7 miles at Breakheart Pond (Arcadia Mgmt Area) with Jonathan Short as our willing and knowledgeable guide.  Except for a short 1/2 mile or so of dirt roads, he found us some really fun single-track.  It was well marked enough that I think I could even attempt it on my own.  Will certainly come back.
I bought some Roman Candles
in NH recently, but unfortunately no
fireworks today, as it's early to bed before
tomorrow's very early start to the vacation.

PM:  7 miles at Barn Island mid-day.  This was a warm one at 80 degrees, but that's the reality of summer and I better acclimate a bit before races like the Blessing in just 3 weeks.  At least 5 of 7 miles were on wooded single-track; it was only running the open marsh trails where it was hard to breathe the hot sunny air.

Wednesday 5-July:  11
Vacation day!
AM:  5 miles at 2am.  Yes, 2am sounds crazy and probably is, but since I had to be up at 3am anyway for a drive to Logan for an early flight out to Alaska, I figured why not get up one hour earlier and get the blood moving to be wide awake for the drive?  Beach run in the dark at low tide was fun.  Used a headlamp to at least see washed up beach stuff and not trip over it.  There was one guy, probably drunk, laying on the beach in front of the Andrea listening to loud music.

PM:  6 miles at the Santa Monica Pier and beach, Santa Monica, CA.  We had an 8-hour layover at LAX (Los Angeles airport) before the flight to Alaska, so the four of us took Uber over to Santa Monica, where we ran, swam, and ate.  While a bit honky-tonk and ridiculously expensive, it sure beat sitting around inside the airport.
First time ever to Santa Monica, CA

The Pier was obscenely crowded.  You should have seen
Matthew and I weaving running between people.

Matthew and Mark at lunch on the Pier.
$111 for a mediocre lunch for the four of us.  This is LA.  Ouch!

Carnival atmosphere.

We wove around beach-goers on our beach run.

Thursday 6-July:  6
Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, we arrived in the 49th state!

Kincaid Park, Anchorage.  With little sleep, Matthew and I ran early morning in this deserted 1,500 acre park.  Worried about bears, but never saw any animals or humans.  Lots of cool single-track trails.  Also some steep hills near the water.
As with pretty much everywhere we would go on this trip,
only scratched the surface on exploring trails and parks.
Lots o' single-track.
Mix of forested trails and ...

open trails nearer to the water.
After a run and breakfast, it was time for the drive to Denali National Park.  5 hours in the car.  You drive for miles and miles of wilderness.  We saw a moose crossing the road along the way, but were not quick enough with the camera.  At one point, there was a sign that after the next village, there were no services or gas stations for the next 90 miles.  90 miles!
Trapper Creek, AK
With no other gas or meal choices, we stopped for lunch at the only game in town.
I mean no offense, but it was like something straight out of Duck Dynasty.
Yeah, no wifi in the boondocks at Trapper Creek.
The boys were not amused.

Trapper Creek bathroom.  What is it closed for?
Highlight of our drive was seeing Mt Denali come into view.
(Highest peak in North America at 20,310', this is still a good 100+ miles away!)

We were so happy to finally arrive.
Went on a very short hike to stretch out the legs.

The visitor center at Denali National Park is real cool
and informative, with many life-size displays like this.

Jana and her moose outside our lodge late at night.
(Sunset was about 11:30pm)

Friday 7-July:  6
Early morning run from our hotel to and into Denali National Park.  A mix of bike-paths to get us there and single-track trails once inside the park.
Along our run this morning.
 After breakfast, next up was a family hike from the Denali visitors center to Mt Healy.  This was about a 5.2 mile round-trip hike with 1,800' vertical gain.
A sign at one of the visitor center exhibits.
Yes, I understand that every creature fits into the ecosystem in some way,
but I still have a hatred and desire for extermination
of all mosquitoes, deerflies, ticks, parasites, and other vermin.

Early in the hike

Pretty cool view from the top.

What are Matthew and Mark looking at in the bushes?

Oh, it's Mark making new friends.
Here's Mark's friend again, posing for us.
Or is he laughing at us?

Saturday 8-July:  8
Alaska Mens Run.  5 mile race.  Race report and pics to follow shortly.
This was the only rainy day of the trip, so Jana and I spent the afternoon at the
Anchorage Museum, while the boys went to see Spiderman at an Anchorage movie theatre.
I found the museum to be a little underwhelming, but to be fair, its main exhibit
was closed for revamping.  Was both interesting and depressing to learn how the
US government treated the aborigines in the aftermath of purchasing Alaska
from Russia in 1867.

Sunday 9-July:  9
Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile.  Epic and brutal!  Race report and pics to follow shortly.
Post-race we visited this running shop in Anchorage,
where they have their own mini track for trying out running shoes.
Had never seen this at a running store before.  Pretty cool!

The mountain race took up most of the day, but after dinner,
we went for a family hike at Thunderbird Falls (me in left).

The bottom of the falls.

Weekly mileage totals 3-Jul to 9-Jul:  62 miles running, 8 hiking.  Really happy to be back in this range.

Monday 10-July:  5 run, 2 hike
A new week, but the adventures in the 49th state continue, at least for a few more days:

AM Run:  Far North Bicentennial Park, Anchorage.  Legs were absolutely trashed.  Looking up trail maps for this park, I found there are over 100 miles of trails here!  This park is 4,000 acres, but if that's not enough for you, it backs up to the Chugach National Forest, which is the 2nd largest national forest in the entire country at 7 million acres.  Yes, million with an "M".

Fortunately, trails were very well marked, including distance to the next trail intersection, so we were able to run with confidence and make a nice loop through the woods.  A mix of double-track and single-track, this was easy terrain, which I needed as my legs were screaming (and me sometimes too!) on the downhills.

The aptly named "Bog Trail".  Yeah, that's quite the mud!
After breakfast, we headed 120+ miles south to Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula.  Halfway down, we stopped in Portage, Alaska to take a short 1-hour narrated boat tour out to the Portage Glacier.  Unfortunately, the boat trips were cancelled for the day, so we changed our plans to catch it on our way back north in two days, and instead went on a short hike on the Byron Glacier Trail.

The trail didn't go up to the glacier itself, but it did bring us to a snowfield that we could walk on and see the glacier.
Byron Glacier spilling down the mountain

Mark, Matthew, and a LOT of snow!
Yes, the wall of snow really IS that high!
At the snowfield, an Alaskan native excitably came up to me to
ask if we had the same level of crimes in RI,
and shook my hand thanking me for my public service.
Part way into his long conversation and questions, it dawned on me that
based upon the shirt I was wearing, he thought I was
a RI State Trooper, but by then it was too late to correct him and easier
just to answer his questions.

Majestic animals!
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Fortunately the only bears we saw the entire trip were inside
the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
There is a fence between us, but even so it gave me the willies.  This bear to me
is what snakes are to Mikey B.

Finally we arrived at the cabin we rented just four miles
outside of Seward on a dirt road.  This was the most "Alaskan"
accommodations of our trip.  
Small, but very functional, including
a loft upstairs with beds for the boys.

Tuesday 11-July:  11 run, 3 hike
AM Run:  Lost Lake Trail, Seward.  The trailhead is conveniently located just 1/4 mile up a dirt road from the cabin we rented.  Jana, Matthew, and I ran to the trailhead.  We paused at the trailhead, where an older gentleman about to start a hike must have warned us three times that we should be carrying water.  I know he meant well, but it came off as a mild scolding implying we were weren't prepared and didn't bring the proper equipment, and made me question myself for a moment.  After I explained that I DO like to bring water when I'm running 20 miles or more and that we both (Matthew & I) ran Pioneer Ridge Vertical Mile just two days ago, he seemed to back off.

Then the three of us all started running uphill on the trail, and from there Jana separated off as she was going for less mileage.  While I would really have liked to run all the way to Lost Lake, it's 7.3 miles (nearly all uphill) one way, and with sore legs still from Sunday's mountain race, 15 miles of mountain running was way more than we were looking for, so we thought we might turn around about 4 miles in, but play it by ear.
Switch-backs and mildly technical in places

Right from the start, it was a pretty cool single-track trail through a spruce forest, with several switchbacks and stream crossings.  After about just two miles, we emerged from the woods and had partially obstructed views of mountain ranges on our left.  The further and higher we went, the views got better and better as we eventually had snow covered mountains on both our left and right, and views back to Seward and Resurrection Bay.  Majestic!
We ran through alpine meadows,

single-track high above the treeline,

and saw mountains covered with so much snow the snow would
likely last through the summer.
(This spot is where we turned around, after running 5.5 miles in)

We rounded out the morning with the four of us
visiting the Alaska Sealife Center,
which featured native Alaskan birds, seals, fish, etc.
In the afternoon, we visited one of the few accessible areas of the 670,000 acre Kenai Fjords National Park.  Would have loved to have taken the 8 mile "strenuous" hike up to the 700-square mile Harding Ice Field, a remnant of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, but time was a prohibitive factor.  Also, the bear warnings that black bears are seen almost every day on the Harding Ice Field Trail kind of freaks me out.  Instead, we took a 3 mile hike out to Exit Glacier, one of 35 glaciers that are fed by the Harding Ice Field.
Before the start of our hike, there are more bear warning and bear attack signs to freak me out.
Regarding the second bullet above, how exactly am I supposed to fight the
grizzly bear while it's eating me?
(This is a National Park Service official sign and guidelines.)

Exit Glacier, with Harding Ice Field on top

Note the blue sections of the glacier in middle parts.
This is because the densest, most compact ice absorbs every other color
of the spectrum except blue, so blue is what we see.

Mark, with the prehistoric glacier up close and personal.
The rate and amount of glacial retreat is astounding.
At left above, you can see the marker indicating the forward edge of where the glacier stood
in the year 1917.  In 100 years, the glacier has retreated over a mile
inland and tall trees have emerged in its place.
Closed out the day going to a Salmon Bake for dinner.

Love the rustic feel inside.
This was our most "Alaskan" of dinners, and perhaps
best meal of the trip.

Wednesday 12-July:  6 run, 7 bike, 2 kayak
Final day in Alaska :(
AM Run:  After reading through various trail run suggestions, we went out to Caines Head State Park, which required driving a bumpy, dirt road south of Seward.  Jana started her run with us but then did her own thing, and Matthew and I headed out to Tonsina Beach.  The double-track soon turned into interesting single-track through a dense forest, climbing to cliffs above the beach, before sharp descents with switchbacks bringing us back to sea level 2 miles later.  The original plan was to run about 10 miles total, but the rocks on the beach were just too slippery to run on, so we cut the run to 6 miles.
Cool footbridge that we ran out to and across.

Resurrection Bay.

The rocks are nice to view and explore.
Not so great to run on.

Tonsina Beach.  Deserted.  Black sand.

PM Bike & Kayak:  Went back for our glacier boat tour on our way back north to Anchorage, but again the boat wasn't running due to mechanical problems.  Now we have the afternoon free.  Haven't been on a mountain bike since ... I can't remember when.  Probably was also a rental somewhere.  Our plan was to come and kayak for two hours, but since kayaks wouldn't be back and available for an hour, we split the difference and rode for one hour and kayaked for one hour.  Probably for the best anyway.  The mountain biking was an interesting diversion, and much like running, I preferred the single-track over the double-track.  As for the kayaking, not having much upper body strength, my arms get tired quickly.  The kayaks we rented had rudders, so that was an added dimension for me, but they really work!
(Mark)  First time any of us on a mountain bike in some time.

Mark kayaking across Eklutna Lake

Thursday 13-July:  4
Papago Park, Phoenix, AZ.
Yeah, probably not a great transition from Alaska, but the conditions of the $379 tickets were that it included a 7-hour layover in Phoenix.  After seeing Mark off for his connecting flight to Tampa, we left the Phoenix airport and took Uber to nearby Papago Park.  The 96-degree heat was overpowering, and my initial reaction was to abandon the run.  Matthew was less ready to give up, so we compromised and ran a shorter distance.
We're not in Alaska anymore.

Gives you a feel of the hot, arid, lifeless desert setting we ran through.
Striking scenery, but July is NOT the time to run here.

For those in the "but it's a dry heat" camp, it's still 96 degrees, dusty, and direct sun.  I somehow got 4 miles in, but that was including a number of stops where I found and shade and water.  To be balanced, the desert landscape is quite striking, but I'd just rather see it when it's a good 30 degrees cooler.
As we flew out of Phoenix Thursday afternoon,
this was the actual temperature.
Yeah, not for me.

Friday 14-July:  8
Arrived home at 3am.  Slept all morning until Noon.  Angry with myself for wasting the morning, but I needed my sleep, and reminded myself that Noon here is just 8am Alaska time, which I hadn't yet acclimated from.
Went over to Bluff Point for the Groton Fun Runs and get some exercise for the day.

Saturday 15-July:  12
First full day home.  Ran the Run for the Beavers race in Burrillville.  Race report to follow.

Sunday 16-July:  8
16th and final day of vacation.  Ran the Tillinghast trail system in West Greenwich with Matthew, and fed myself to the deer flies.  The reality of vacation being over and returning to work is setting in.  Sigh.

Weekly mileage totals 10-Jul to 16-Jul:  58 miles running, 5 hiking, 7 biking, 2 kayaking.  Great week of activity.

Quick recap:  
1) Anchorage area
2) Denali National Park
3) Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward

The map above should give you some picture of the enormity of our 49th state.  It's bigger than the massive states of California, Texas, and Montana COMBINED!  RI would fit into Alaska 425 times.  Alaska has the northernmost AND westernmost points in the 50 states.  (That's right, the western most point is actually WEST of Hawaii!)  Alaska has more than 50% of the entire US coastline.

The green tracts in map above are the US National Parks.  We only hit two, and as with everything else in Alaska, we just scratched the surface of the state on this trip.

A number of comparisons have been made between Iceland and Alaska,
as they have a number of features in common.
Having been to both, here are my very subjective and anecdotal observations (above).
Iceland basically has no trees, which makes trails barren, but compensates for this
with amazing waterfalls, cool features like geysers, hot springs, lava fields, and stunning fjords.
Alaska has amazing mountains and trails, but they're concentrated in remote areas and some sections
in between are rather sketchy.
Alaska has scary (to me) bears and plenty of mosquitoes;
Iceland is one of only four places in the entire world with zero mosquitoes and has zero bears.
(The few polar bears that come to Iceland on ice floes from Greenland are
promptly shot per Iceland's national policy to keep local people and livestock safe.)
Would I go back to Alaska?  Absolutely!  Definitely one of the coolest places I've ever been.  But if given my choice to go back to Iceland or Alaska, I would pick Iceland first.

Parting shot from our Alaska trip:  enormous, majestic, exhilarating.


  1. Great write up! Sounds like it was an amazing trip.

    I bet you could've taken a bear if you really had to.

  2. Looks like Alaska was a great adventure and family trip. Nice work, Trooper!