Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Things You Should Know About Expedition Cruising



I’ve spent the last five months working as an expedition guide for a small-ship cruising company in Southeast Alaska.   Here are some tips I’m passing on to prospective passengers on expedition-style cruises.   These are NOT the big Holland America sorts of cruise ships.  

What is an Expedition Cruise?

Expedition cruising is less about port stops, and more about visiting places that aren’t listed in the travel guides.   Remote bays, tiny islands, and un-named salmon streams are all potential destinations.   There are no on board gift shops, no evening entertainments, no water slides or squash courts.   Instead, there is a group of people all united in their quest to seek out the most of wild Alaska that can be possibly crammed into seven days.   Instead there are Zodiacs, kayaks, paddle-boards, and snorkel gear.  If your cruise company’s brochure spends more pages talking about its launch system for their on-board fleet of kayaks than its gambling options or evening entertainment, you might be on an expedition cruise.  
The difference between big-boat cruising and small-ship cruising is the difference between looking at Alaska and actually experiencing it.   Expedition-style cruising is very nature-oriented - small groups, wildlife and scenery-focused itineraries, and options to hike or kayak or explore in zodiacs right from the ship itself.   Companies like Lindblad, The Boat Company, Alaska Dream Cruises, UnCruise, and the now-defunct Cruise West are examples of this sort of cruising.

A Few Things You Should Know About Expedition Boats

So you’re considering a small-ship cruise for your next vacation.   Here are a things to consider as you prepare for your vacation.

1. Cabins are Small

For all but the most expensive cabins, cramped living quarters are a reality of life on boats.   However, there are things you can do to maximize space in your cabin.   First of all, do what your embarkation documents suggest and bring collapsible luggage.   Something like a gym bag or soft-sided roller bag, that can easily be crammed in a corner under your bed once you’ve unpacked, is ideal.   Also, consider what clothes you're most likely to use on board.   Warm layers, sweaters, rain jackets, hiking pants, brimmed hats, gloves, and woolen socks should rate highly on the list of stuff to make room for.   Go ahead and pack a sweatshirt or something comfortable to slip into after a day of adventuring, but definitely plan on most of your clothes being outdoors oriented.   Skirts, jewelry, and fancier outfits may not be worth the space they will take up in your cabin, let alone your suitcase.

Another thing you can do to maximize space in your cabin is to look at the various bed arrangements available in the cabin you’re booking.   On my boat, many cabins can be configured either with two twin beds, or one queen (made by shoving the two twin beds together).   In the queen configuration, one of the people in the bed is right against the wall, and has to climb over their partner to get in or out.   Some couples are OK with this, others aren’t.   Many passengers find that a room set up with two twin beds is a better use of the space, as both people have access to the aisle between the beds, as well as the bedside table.

If you are much over six foot three, it is also worth inquiring about the ceiling height.   Not kidding, unfortunately.   On my boat, there were always one or two guys per week who walked around the dining room with their head cocked at a weird angle because they were too tall to stand up under our boat’s ridiculously low ceilings…

Finally, if you choose to book the least expensive class of cabin on the boat, remember that those cabins are less expensive for a reason.   You might be closer to engine noises, galley noises, generators, or the occasional whiff of exhaust fumes.   Your room might be smaller, or your ceiling lower.   Weird air ducts might be snaking across your ceiling, or gurgling water pipes running down your walls.   Remember, these cabins cost less for a reason.  

Just remember, your cabin is really only the place you go where you sleep.   Regardless of what you pay for the cabin, everybody on the boat is still eating the same food, seeing the same whales, and exploring the same wilderness…  

2. Boats are Noisy


Ships, especially small ones, are inherently noisy places.   There are engines.   There are generators, cranes, anchor winches, bow thrusters, pulleys, water pumps, and fans.   Most cabins (with a possible exception of the most expensive ones) are often in some way exposed to vessel noise.   This isn’t just during the day.   If the boat is cruising overnight, the engines will be running.   On some itineraries, the boat will cruise to reach an overnight anchorage (dropping the anchor around 11pm, say), and hang out there with the engines off for a few hours.    Then, at four or five in the morning, the boat will take off to the day’s operating area, with all the noise (starting the engines, lifting the anchor, firing up the bow thruster) inherent in that process.  

Just remember, you don’t come to Alaska in the summer because you want to get lots of good sleep (the jet lag and the constant daylight make that a difficult goal).   Between hiking, the kayaking, the great food, and the wine list, most people don’t have a problem falling asleep at night.   Just know ahead of time that your cabin won’t be as quiet as your favorite hotel.   (But I’ll bet your favorite hotel doesn’t have whales eyeballing you through the lobby windows, either…)


3. Motion Sickness Probably Won’t Be A Problem

Smaller vessels are more affected by ocean conditions than larger cruise ships.   That being said, sea sickness is generally not a problem for our passengers.   The waters of the Inside Passage are usually very calm, and the ships themselves have an interest in staying in waters that are mild enough to let passengers get out in zodiacs and kayaks and play.  

However, certain cruising routes ( as well as certain times of the year) can be more exposed to open ocean conditions.   If in doubt, talk to the company - or look at the route map.   Is there always land between the route and the open ocean?   Are there places where the route goes into places where there isn’t land between the boat and the open Pacific Ocean (such as the Dixon Entrance)?   Those are places where the boat may be subject to a little more motion.   Rougher sea conditions are also more common very early and very late in the season - a cruise with an exposed route in April or September will probably be much bumpier than a cruise along a protected route in July.  

If seasickness is something you are concerned about, I would recommend picking up a few remedies before getting on the plane.   Ginger candy is a good option (I am a big fan of Ginger Altoids), and some passengers have good success with wrist bands and pressure points.   A number of over-the-counter medications also combat motion sickness, though the medication needs to be taken before you start feeling ill in order to be effective.    If you are worried about possible bad weather while on board, just ask one of the boat crew.   They will likely be able to tell you whether you should consider taking the medication.      Another very simple solution to motion sickness is to just lie down if you start feeling unwell.   Sea sickness is caused by your brain perceiving a conflict between what your eyes are seeing (I’m not moving), and what your inner ear is reporting (I’m totally moving).    By lying down and closing your eyes, you’re giving your brain less conflicting information.  
In summary, the Inside Passage is protected enough that you shouldn’t let fear of motion sickness (or past bad experiences with motion sickness) bar you from getting on a boat.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Angevin Hunting Lodge, or, Mare versus the Wasps

This fall I’ve found myself in the Midwest, taking a break from the cold of Alaska, working as a hospitality person for a place I’m going to refer to as Angevin Hunting Lodge.   I got here around the end of September, where the high temperatures were peaking in the 80s and 90s.   Most days it was even warm first thing in the morning, and it has rained exactly two days in the three weeks I’ve been here.   The climate has definitely been a welcome change from dealing with rain and cold most of the summer in Alaska - I’ve seen warmer temperatures here in the past three weeks than I have in the past five years.  

The staff house is near a small riparian corridor where a seasonally intermittent creek flows for part of the year.   Right now, its home to a series of scummy looking ponds with marshy areas in between, loosely bounded by creek banks.   It seems like the only place on the property that’s wet enough to allow trees to grow, and it seems to be a huge wildlife magnet.  I’ve seen white-tailed deer down there, as well as foxes, rabbits, wild turkeys, pheasants and a grab bag of smaller birds, including red-tailed hawks and harriers.   There's also a beaver dam, which accounts for some of the ponds, and I've seen recent evidence of their handiwork on several freshly gnawed trees, but haven't seen the beavers yet myself.   The rest of the property is a mix of open grassland and planted crops - mostly corn and beans, and also full of birds, and Old-Testament Plague numbers of insects, mostly flies and grasshoppers.   Since Angevin is a hunting lodge, I haven’t been able to explore much of the rest of the property for fear of being mistaken for a game animal, but going by the creek bottom has become part of my daily walk to and from work.  

There is very little artificial light here, and most nights are clear.   The most prominent landmarks after dark are the cell phone towers, which are all topped with a bright red light, and they can be seem from miles and miles away.   I actually got up in the morning to see the lunar eclipse a few days ago, which is the first time I’ve been able to see something like that since college - clear, dark skies not generally being a feature of Alaskan summers.   Often I use my headlamp when I’m walking back to the staff house after evening shifts, and I’ve seen a lot of cool wildlife on those walks.   Mostly I just see a speck of eye-shine that blinks and disappears in pretty short order.   I’ve been inadvertently headlamping a lot of deer this way.   Also, rabbits are never scarier than when six of them are running pell-mell towards you out of nowhere because they’re disoriented by your light.

I’ve also taken to jogging around some of the farm tracks in the immediate area - whenever I can time it so that I am doing so  around guest dinner - a pretty safe bet that no one is still going to be out hunting at that hour.   I discovered that if I get off of the most heavily used farm tracks, parts of the property are covered with sand burrs.   The burrs around here are not screwing around - these are serious darned burrs.   The first time I got covered, I made the mistake of trying to pick them off with my fingers.   They hurt; and I got a few spikes that broke of inside my finger for the trouble.   I pulled the rest of them off with tweezers when I got back to the house.   I’ve taken to carrying the tweezers with me when I run now, so that I can deal with them as needed while I’m out.  

It’s also very windy here - gusty enough that the wind could legitimately knock you over if you weren’t paying attention.   One warning you get is that you can hear the wind in the grass get louder a few seconds before a big gust moves in.   The terrain in some ways reminds me of the ocean - big, gentle rolling hills, like someone had taken a sea full of big, glassy, forty-foot waves and frozen it, and then planted grass.  

I was here for a week at Angevin before the guests arrived, and the first few days at work was a lot of deep cleaning, getting things ready for the guests to arrive.   There is a huge fireplace in the main room that is absolutely covered with taxidermied animals and mounted heads - deer, elk, bears, coyote, pheasants.   Most of them look pretty impressive - except for one animal that I think must be a badger, that’s been set with a snarling, distinctly un-badger-like look on its face.   Like whoever was mounting it really wanted to be working on a bear instead.   There’s also one deer that was mounted with its ears in a weird pose - sticking straight out from each side, with an open-mouthed look that I more associate with long-eared dogs sticking their heads out of moving car windows.   Otherwise, they look pretty classy.   And covered with cobwebs.   So I spent an hour with a dusting cloth on a pole, swatting away at the antlers and ears.   Some of them were pretty high up, and I have absolutely no idea how they’re attached to the wall, except that they seemed to be swinging around a lot while I was working.   I kept picturing in my mind the headline if one of the elk heads fell off the wall and gored me as I was cleaning it - Trophy Animal’s Last Revenge?  

The rest of the time was spent vacuuming, mopping, and rubbing wood polish on every piece of wood-furniture in the place.   And waging an on-again, off-again war of attrition against the local insect population.

The first week I got here, I was sweeping between 80-100 dead flies out of the staff house every single day.   Thankfully the population of insects seems to have diminished with the cooler temperatures, but I estimate that I personally have vacuumed, swept, dusted,  mopped, or squashed into oblivion between 1500-2000 dead flies in the past month.   At least they don’t bite, which is an advantage they have against the mosquitoes.   There seem to be way more dead flies in the house than live ones, and the overall population of live flies never seems to diminish.   In addition to being sort of creepy, this raises all sorts of questions about their replacement rate.   Is 80-100 the number of flies that are entering the house daily?   Are they breeding inside?   Where were today’s crop of dead flies yesterday?   Were they already inside buzzing around?  If so, why didn’t I notice some huge fly horde migrating through the house?   Why do they always want to die on the windowsill in the kitchen?

I’m beginning to understand why people in the Middle Ages thought that flies were born via spontaneously arising from rotting meat.  I really don’t see another explanation.

Going through the guest rooms a few days before the first clients were arriving, I found a small army of wasps in one of the downstairs rooms.   They were all hanging out in between the window and the window blind, so I didn’t actually see them until I’d left the room and saw them all crawling around.   Can 12 wasps count as an army?   Maybe a brigade.   Or a division?   Certainly 12 wasps can comprise a wasp SEAL team.   The were enough in there that I worry their presence is going to be a persistent issue until we identify and block up their exit.   Girl who’s faced down bears afraid of a two inch flying insect?   Oh yes.

The day before the guests arrived, I went through all of the guest rooms with another housekeeper and did some last-minute cleaning - including taking on all the wasps.   It would not have been possible if the weather was any hotter - it was cool the night before and the wasps were not moving too fast.   They were all congregated around the windows and doors.   They kept falling out of the window frames as I moved the curtains around and I just hoovered them up as fast as I could.   At the end of the day, we had two vacuums filled with angry, pissed-off, wide-awake live wasps.   The dust bag on one of the vacuums was see-through, so we got a rather disturbing view of what they were all doing in there, which was mostly crawling all over the place looking angry.   World’s Most Disturbing Terrarium.   It was very red in tooth and claw in there, and we had no idea how to empty out the vacuum bags without precipitating a mass escape.   Eventually, we left the vacuums sitting in the walk-in fridge for a few hours, figuring that if the cold didn’t kill them outright, it would at least slow them down enough that we could deal with them before they attached en masse.  

When we got the vacuums out, the wasps were motionless, which was good because we ended up accidentally dumping out the entire contents of one of the vacuums on the floor of the downstairs hallway while trying to figure out how to empty out the Little Vacuum Bag of Horrors.   (It was a Dyson - they’re great vacuums, but they are super confusing to operate sometimes.)   We ended up using the second vacuum to suck everything back up, and then emptied it out, again.

The wasps are also a feature of life in the staff house.   There are at least fewer of them in there, but the vacuum we have doesn’t have enough suction to suck them out of the air like the Dyson at Angevin Lodge, so I’ve mostly left them alone.   The wasps have for their part returned the favor - except, apparently, when I cook orange food for lunch.  I’ve heard about bees being attracted to the color blue, and I know that the color red can set off seagulls like you were waving a cape at a bull, but I’ve never heard of wasps having anything similar.

I heated up a bowl of tomato soup a few days ago, together with a side of baby carrots and a glass of orange juice.   I put the plate down on the kitchen table.   Immediately, a wasp comes zipping out of the crack at the top of the windowsill, and starts circling my food, apparently enraptured by all these orange things.   I swatted at him a few times, which did nothing to get him to leave.   Eventually, I just grabbed the plate and ran outside, hoping he would content himself with the orange juice and let me eat my food.   At least outside its generally windy enough that the bugs have to lie low.

The staff house is interesting in other ways as well.   For instance, there are two mounted heads in my room - a deer head and a set of caribou antlers.   I almost moved rooms to begin with because I found the deer head was creepy - especially waking up with him looking at me - but I’ve sort of gotten used to it.   I’m still tempted to use the mounts as towel ‘racks’ every time I come back from the shower…

Monday, March 10, 2014

Twenty-three sat phones, sixty-nine SPOT trackers, and thirty-two jars of mayonnaise

Last week I spent a few days in Anchorage - visiting my cousin and cheering her on during the Tour of Anchorage ski race, and volunteering for the Iditarod.   For those of you who did not grow up reading Gary Paulsen books, the Iditarod is a thousand-mile dog sled race stretching from Anchorage to Nome.  The route follows both traditional Native Alaskan trading routes, as well as dog-sled routes used to connect turn-of-the-century gold mining towns to the railway, sending out gold and bringing in mail, food and supplies.   The network of dog trails across Western Alaskan were collectively referred to as the Iditarod trail.  (Except in Iditarod itself, where it was referred to as the Seward trail, my town being for a time the southern terminus.) The historic trail is perhaps best known for being the route of the serum run to Nome in 1925, in which a series of mushers relayed diphtheria vaccine nearly 700 miles from a railway station outside of Fairbanks to the isolated village of Nome in the wake of an outbreak after the village's port had been cut off by ice for the winter.  The mushers relayed the vaccine to the village in only five and a half days.   Some of the old mining towns along these historic routes, such as Iditarod itself and Ophir (named after the biblical city that was the source of King Solomon’s wealth), are basically uninhabited apart from the ten days every year during the race.This year is the forty-second Iditarod and the field started out with sixty-nine teams.

That's sixty-nine humans, actually.  The dog count for the race is somewhere north of a thousand. Sixteen dogs per team, times almost seventy teams is… a lot of dogs.

Lake Hood, Anchorage, as seen from behind the Millennium Hotel

One of the first things I did on arrival at the Iditarod HQ (also known as the Millennium Hotel, who graciously sponsors the race by allowing the race’s admin and logistics people to basically take over the hotel for three weeks in March) was take a dog handler class. This is mostly a quick and dirty introduction to sled dog handling for people who are helping at the race’s two starts. (More on the multiple starts later.) I wasn’t handling at either event, but I did want to get checked off as a handler, because it’s a prerequisite for working on the trail checkpoints, which I would like to do in the future. After a quick talk inside, we headed out to the hotel parking lot, where a kind and patient musher whose name I never did get let us practice leading a team around the parking lot. By lead I do not mean standing on the sled, or anything quite that cool. By leading I mean, hanging onto a leash or gangline for dear life, and try to simultaneously (a) keep the team from bolting hell-for-leather down the road and (b) keep slack out of the dog's lines, so that the dogs wouldn’t tangle themselves into immobility. All while jogging on an iced-over parking lot trying to keep up with the dogs.

After a quick consultation about whether the musher had collision insurance on his sled, the first set of handler-trainees took off around the hotel parking lot.  I ended up going around twice, and once I put it out of my mind that I was jogging on ice, it was actually kind of fun. The dogs were, I think, very accommodating.  If you ever see or watch footage of the real start, the dogs aren’t quite so laid-back. In fact, once a musher arrives in the starting chute, you’ll see about six burly guys rugby tackle the sled to keep the dogs from charging out early.   Our trainee mini-runs were much calmer.   After a few circles around the parking lot, they’d figured out that they weren’t actually going on a real run, and they were a little more willing to trot at a sedate speed.  By the end of practice, we hadn’t hit any cars, though we did drench the musher when the sled swung wide and into a giant mud puddle.

The idea with all of this is to make sure that handlers are able to handle the dogs in a safe manner. So no boot spikes, no dangling necklaces, earrings, or lanyards, nothing that could potentially injure a dog’s paws or otherwise trip them up.   After all, we aren’t the ones who are running to Nome. And if there’s a question between what’s safest for the human and what’s safest for the dog - well, let's just say that the Iditarod is very careful about making sure that all human volunteers are covered by the race’s insurance policy while they are working. The one bit of human safety information that was passed on to us concerned the sled. This was: if you fall, roll clear of the sled as fast as you can, because it might not be able to stop before running you over.

This has only happened once in the past few years, but apparently it was pretty dramatic. In the words of one race person - “I have never seen a human body swell up that quick. It was like watching someone inflating a raft.”

And because once just isn’t enough, the Iditarod starts all the teams twice over two consecutive days. The first is a non-competitive twelve-mile run through downtown Anchorage, which is mandatory for the teams, but for racing purposes doesn’t count.  The teams are limited to twelve dogs, and are pulling two sleds and three humans: their musher in the main sled, as well as a handler in a second sled (called a tag sled) and one very lucky Iditarod supporter who has bid on the chance to get carried around Anchorage in the sled’s cargo bag. The calculus of more weight plus fewer dogs means that the teams are a little easier to control (Anchorage’s streets and bike paths not being designed around the turning radiuses of dog sleds). The teams depart every two minutes.  After making a twelve-mile circuit through Anchorage, the teams finish up at the Campbell airstrip, where everything gets loaded up into dog trucks and driven two hours north to Willow. Where we do the exact same thing  the next day.

Willow, for most of the year, is a small town of around 1500 people. Except for the day of the Iditarod restart, when it becomes Alaska’s fourth largest city.  The ‘real’ Iditarod start happens on a frozen lake in town, at 2pm the day after the ceremonial start in Anchorage. Thousands of people turn out and tailgate on the lake - we could see the smoke from all their barbecues on the TV footage back at HQ. As before, the teams leave in two-minute intervals, but this time there are no tag sleds, and no additional personnel. It’s just one musher, sixteen dogs, a sled full of gear, and a thousand miles of Alaska wilderness. Usually the last teams are starting out across the lake just as the sun is beginning to set.

 Besides being the race's start, Anchorage serves as home base for some of the Alaska-based and Outside media, at least for the first part of the race. In addition to Lower 48 news crews, this year the race is also hosting Norwegian journalists (mostly following Norwegian racers Robert Sorlie, a two-time Iditarod champion, and Joar Ulsom, who finished 7th last year as a first-time Iditarod racer) and a news crew from Al Jazeera(?).   There is a big difference in how Alaska newspapers cover the Iditarod and how Outside media cover the Iditarod.   Alaska papers cover the race like a sporting event.   Outside papers report that Martin Buser has taken an early lead, and IS IT REALLY GETTING DARK AT 4PM? and he is racing hard to the checkpoint in Rohn and THERE ARE NO ROADS TO ANY OF THESE GODDAMN PLACES and Aily Zirkle's taken the lead, pressing her advantage along the iced-over Yukon River and HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE SOMEWHERE THIS COLD, I CAN'T FEEL MY FACE and Jeff King is overtaking the leaders with his more recently-rested team and THERE ARE NO HOTEL ROOMS LEFT IN NOME!   Chalk it up to Alaska's ability to impress. But I find it a little amusing.

The Iditarod dropped dog lot behind the Millennium Hotel

Anchorage is also one of the main staging areas for dogs who are dropped from the race by their musher. Like any endurance athletic event, there are the occasional strains, sprains and bruises, and the Iditarod dogs are no exception. Any dog with an injury can be dropped at a checkpoint, where the dog is looked after by vets and checkpoint staff, and then flown back to Anchorage.   There, the dogs are cared for at the Millennium hotel until one of the mushers’ handlers or relatives can pick them up.  On March 5th, the back of the hotel was very busy with several dozen dogs who had just been flown in from Rainey Pass and Rohn.   About twenty people were running around the dog lot looking after them.   Volunteers were draping fleece blankets over any dog that stayed still long enough.   Others scoured the lot with buckets and shovels, on pooper scooper patrol.   Others made seemingly endless round trips to and from the water cooler and dog food bin, topping off their charges’ dishes.  Vets were walking about with stethoscopes.   Any dog that yipped or howled was immediately cuddled and made much of - showered with food, water, blankets, fluffed-up straw, cooing noises, high-pitched baby talk, contemplative ear-scratching, deep-tissue shoulder massage, or some combination of the above.

A dropped dog getting some love from a volunteer.  One of the Iditarod Air Force planes is in the background. - note the skis.


The Iditarod has twenty checkpoints, strung out over a thousand miles of wintry Alaska wilderness. None of these checkpoints are connected by road.   All transport to and from the sites happens by snowmachine or small plane - a huge number of flying hours being donated by a roster of about thirty bush pilots known as the Iditarod Air Force. Their job starts several weeks before the race even begins, flying out bags of food (people and dog), straw (the dog bedding of choice), and extra supplies to all of the checkpoints. The checkpoints are staffed starting about 48 hours before the first musher is expected to arrive, and are taken down once the last musher leaves - though occasionally weather and or unusually fast/slow mushers can change things considerably. In 2013, musher Martin Buser arrived in the checkpoint of Rohn after running the dogs for nearly twenty hours straight (whereupon he immediately declared his mandatory 24-hour layover).  He arrived a good ten hours before the checkpoint was expecting dog traffic.  (This move gave him a decisive early lead in the first half of the race, though in the end Buser finished 17th.)  Fortunately, with the advent of mushers carrying GPS trackers on their sleds, HQ is able to better track mushers’ imminent arrivals. Frequently during the course of the Iditarod, there is a race-within-the-race to get the checkpoints staffed and set up before the front-running mushers actually arrive.

While all of this was going on, I was working my first shift in the Comms department back at the Millennium Hotel.  The Comms department is in charge of internal race communications, and is in some ways sort of a throwback to the days when none of the checkpoints had internet access, and were communicating with HQ via sat phone and landlines.  The checkpoints would call in to the Comms office, and we’d write down their message (teams arriving or leaving the checkpoint, weather forecasts, numbers of dropped dogs, etc) and get it to the person in HQ that needed to deal with it. With most (but not all) of the checkpoints having internet access, the checkpoints mostly email things directly, and we don’t have quite as much running around to do. But Comms is in charge of tabulating various reports that the checkpoints send in (weather, numbers of dropped dogs, lists of volunteers/staff in any given checkpoint), and also shipping out and troubleshooting all of the remote communications equipment that is sent out onto the trail. Or assisting relaying information form one checkpoint to another, such as a checkpoint with no working internet attempting to call a checkpoint with no working phone.  Over the days I was there, we were dealing with about one checkpoint a day that was laboring under some form of communications blackout.

For example, this year the telecom company that provides our sat phones sent us the wrong kind of power cable.  Instead of chargers that plugged into a regular 120 volt outlet, we got chargers that plugged into the cigarette adapter of a car. By the time we discovered this, several of the sat phones had already been flown out to the trail. The telecomm company, when contacted, was helpfully suggesting that the checkpoint staff run out to Radio Shack and buy an adapter. Or they could just charge up the sat phone in their car if the battery went low. Not the most practical of suggestions in a place with no roads (and therefore no cars), and where the closest Radio Shack is over forty miles away by snowmachine.   On top of this, one of the checkpoints couldn’t get their computer to work at all.  So for the first night of the race, this checkpoint could only report the in and out times of the teams by calling in on sat phones that they were unable to recharge.   There were similar sorts of issues throughout my shifts in Comms.

Mostly what I do as a Comms volunteer is sit in front of a computer, file checkpoint reports, and relay messages down the hall. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.  The same thing happens at the checkpoints as well, where the wait times can be extremely lengthy if the front mushers are delayed (not a problem this year) or if the weather is too bad to fly the volunteers out after the checkpoint has closed.  The staff at Finger Lake were stuck at their checkpoint for nearly four days after their last musher left, first because of weather, and then because the flight to pick them up was diverted at the last minute to pick up a dog at a different checkpoint with a medical concern.   On the third day, we received a forlorn-sounding email requesting that if we couldn’t fly them out, could we at least arrange to send in ‘a pre-cooked dinner protein, two sachets of oatmeal and a loaf of bread’, which seemed to be their way of delicately informing us that they were running out of food. I wrote back suggesting that they snowshoe to the luxury lodge on the other end of the lake and offer to wash dishes in exchange for their dinner... Someone else wrote back suggesting cannibalism.  (FYI, they got out later that day.)

Besides internal race communications, another thing that Comms is in charge of is mayonnaise.  That's not a typo.   The reason for this is that mayo (unlike, apparently, mustard and ketchup) will freeze at sub-zero temperatures, and the jar will explode.  Anything that can’t freeze, can’t go out with the pre-race food drops. In many of the remote checkpoints, there is literally no warm place to store anything until after the checkpoint volunteers arrive. So the mayo goes out with the Comms volunteers instead.

Comms is also the de facto lost and found department of the entire Iditarod trail. This covers everything from pre-shipped musher bags being sent to the wrong checkpoint, to beaver-skin mitts lost somewhere on the trail before Rohn, to SPOT trackers, iPod chargers and GoPro camera mounts being left in the checkpoint at Nikolai.

The middle of the Alaskan wilderness is not the place where you would expect to find lots of cutting edge technology. However, the Iditarod (as the race is currently run) relies a great deal on remote communication, and not just in the checkpoints. Starting a couple of years ago, mushers began carrying GPS trackers on their sleds. For an operational standpoint, the trackers are a lifesaver, because HQ can (most of the time) actually see where the mushers are on the trail, and plan accordingly. For example, if you’re a checkpoint volunteer, it’s a lot easier to wait for your next incoming musher by hitting refresh on your web browser than by standing outside in minus thirty-degree temperatures squinting into the dark for a headlamp.   Musher still twenty miles out?   Great - set your alarm clock for two hours and get some much-needed sleep.

Technology also makes things safer for the mushers if they run into serious trouble on the trail.   In addition to the GPS trackers, mushers also carry SPOT trackers on their sleds, which come with an SOS button. Activation of the SOS button, even accidentally, means that the musher is automatically withdrawn from the race - but it means that the nearest checkpoint can be alerted very quickly if a musher is injured.  Six mushers this year have used this option to end their race - some of them doing so after fairly major injuries - including one concussion and two broken legs.

Finally, GPS also makes the race a little more accessible to spectators, both inside and outside of Alaska.   For a subscription rate of only $34.99, you, too, can log into your home computer, access the tracker page, and watch the mushers race their way to Nome.  Not all mushers are fans of the development, one Yukon Quest musher saying that the blips-on-the-screen makes the sport of dog mushing look too much like a video game. I have to say, as a spectator, that watching the blips on the screen is much more satisfying than waiting hours for the race stats leader board to be updated whenever the front-runners enter or leave a checkpoint.

Before the advent of GPS, watching the Iditarod was kind of like sitting in a stadium watching a baseball game where the teams are playing their innings out in the parking lot. At intervals, the teams run into the stadium and the referee updates the scoreboard with the various points that were scored while the players were out of sight. The teams rest at the water cooler, and the spectators comment on how many burgers and powerade bottles the players are guzzling, as well as their overall condition.  “Look at that mud stain on Bib 32’s pants! Do you think he slid into home base?’ Or ‘Bib 14 is on the bench? Does the team have another reliable pitcher if he has to sit out the rest of the game?’  And so forth.   Then a few hours later, the teams run back into the parking lot and the whole thing repeats itself.

Besides being able to ‘see’ the teams as they run, another change that the GPS trackers have made possible is that the statistics for the racing teams can be analyzed just as they are in most other sports. The GPS Tracker automatically shows the team’s position, as well as their current and average speeds, and whether the team is racing or resting (both of which happen a lot over the course of a two-week race). It’s also possible to calculate, for any given team, hours resting versus hours running, hours since last rest, and the hours ‘behind’ the leader for any given team.   Some of the best commentary on the race comes from the handlers and relatives of Iditarod mushers, who generally blog, post, or tweet for their respective mushers during the race, and have the time and motivation to go through the GPS tracker information with a fine-toothed comb, comparing the analytics of their musher to those of his or her closest competitors.

Basically, the blips on the screen makes the race accessible in a way that it wasn’t before GPS. And any piece of technology that can keep fans awake into the wee hours of the morning, refreshing their browsers to ‘watch’ Aily Zirkle and Jeff King running neck and neck during the forty mile run from Koyuk to Elim - well, in my mind, that’s a successful sporting event. Whether the fans can ‘see’ the competitors or not. It's also worth keeping in mind that many of the Iditarod's fans will not EVER have a chance to see any part of the race in person - yet some are still devoted to the race.  Some come up from the Lower 48 every year to volunteer.  Some send money to sponsor dogs at Alaskan kennels; some devote hours of their time sewing booties and dog coats for canine athletes they will never meet.  In 2013, one race fan from Florida called up a pizza place in the village of Unalakleet and arranged to have a pizza delivered to the race checkpoint for 'her' musher, Matt Failor.  The woman has since passed away; several of her friends chipped in this year to send him another pizza in her memory. (Unfortunately, he'd already left the checkpoint by the time it was delivered - it is a race, after all.  And I have it on good authority that the pizza was heartily enjoyed by the mushers who were still there.)  Point is, like every world-class sporting event, this race touches people.  The GPS just helps it along.

As I write this, the leading teams are on track to set a new record for the fastest time completing the race, the previous record being eight days and eighteen hours. It looks like the first FOUR teams into Nome will beat this time; this is an indication of not only how competitive the field is, but also how icy (and therefore fast) parts of the trail have been. Earlier in the race, musher Robert Sorlie, fresh from taking his mandatory 24-hour layover, set a new record for the fastest time from Takotna to Ophir.  Conditions-wise, this year has been famous for the lack of snow - so little in the Alaska range that officials were at one point considering moving the race’s start to Fairbanks (which was done once before in 2003, also due to snow conditions).  Well, this year, the start stayed in Anchorage, and the teams have been running on - well, not on snow.   Due to the bad trail conditions, some have been referring to this years’ race as the iDIRTarod.  Check out this video taken via GoPro by musher Jeff King to see what the mushers are dealing with. Keep in mind, this is a champion sled dog driver, and he’s still getting walloped by the trail.

The faster trail has set a lot of people’s schedules on end. Not only are the checkpoints seeing their first mushers about ten hours earlier than expected, the front-running mushers are likely going to beat some of their families to Nome - families who had planned on being at the finish line to greet them, and are now scrambling to rebook tickets, or get on standby flights. The fast trail times have also undoubtedly affected some of the mushers’ strategies.  Dallas Seavey, for example, tends to plan out a very strict run/rest schedule in advance of the race. In previous years, if Dallas found himself ahead of schedule, say, by arriving in a checkpoint half an hour earlier than he planned, he would pay the time forward to his dogs, by allowing them a bonus half hour of rest.  This year, that didn’t work so well.  As he put it, he was at one point seven hours ahead of his own schedule, and still nine hours behind the fastest teams.  Dallas is well known for running his team very conservatively until the last third of the race, where his dogs, often better rested than the leaders in front of him, are finally ‘let off the leash’ to overtake the teams in front.

At the moment, Jeff King is looking to be this years’ winner, after having overtaken the lead from Aily Zirkle near Koyuk.  King has won the Iditarod four times previously; Zirkle has been the second-place finisher two years in a row.  All mushers in the race take a mandatory layover of at least 24 hours at one of the checkpoints.  This is also when the start time differentials between mushers are evened out - so the musher who started first in Willow will have a slightly longer layover than the musher who started in Willow last.  At what point in the race to take the layover is a key piece of most mushers’ strategies. Last year, Martin Buser set racing precedent completely on its head by running a team for nearly 24 straight hours with no major rest periods, all the way to Rohn, where he immediately declared his layover.  Traditionally, mushers want to rest their dogs for as many hours as they run them - which means in theory, the best way to get the most advantage from a 24-hour layover is to precede it with a 24-hour run.  Prior to 2013, no musher had ever tried this before.   Buser’s move  initially gave him a ten-hour lead over his nearest competitor, but he didn’t hang onto the lead.  This year, Buser and Kelly Maxiner both repeated the early-layover strategy, and Buser, at least, is looking to finish 6th or 7th.

Many mushers, including Zirkle and the Seaveys (both of whom are previous champions) take their 24 in Takotna, which is slightly before the midpoint of the race. One reason why Takotna is a popular layover spot is because the village’s hospitality is famous - providing a continuous stream of home-made pies and steaks to tired mushers.  This year, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner elected to breeze through Takotna, running all the way to the checkpoint of Ruby before taking their layover. The advantage here is that the dogs were more rested later in the race when compared to teams like Busers’, who had taken their layover earlier.   When Jeff King left Ruby, he was eight hours behind the leaders; slowly catching up with them over the course of two days.

Another new race strategy this year is mushers, again including Jeff King and Sonny Lindner, leaving Willow with some of the largest sleds I’ve seen on an Iditarod team. Why so large? To give the sleds lots of cargo room for hauling dogs. King was apparently using this to rest his team’s speediest leaders at intervals while the team was running, by hauling as many as four dogs at a time, one in the sled bag, and three more in a specially-built kennel drug behind the musher like a tag sled.   This, apparently, meant that the leaders, fresh from a nice nap while their teammates were running, were more likely to set a faster pace when they were returned to the front of the team.   I don’t know that any mushers have done so this year, but driving a sled that can carry four dogs and be pulled by twelve means that a canny musher could, mathematically, give each dog two hours of rest in an eight hour run without ever stopping the team for longer than it takes to switch the dogs around.   I’m not sure how workable this would be in practice, but I feel its likely that at at least a few teams in next years’ race will be playing around with this idea.



Interested?   Consider keeping tabs on the race next year, or check out the official site to check out the highlights from the last race, or to gear up for the next one.  Sebastian Schnuelle, a former Iditarod musher, updates a blog during the race that makes for very interesting reading.   Who knows, maybe next year you, too will be watching the GPS markers tear down the trail.  Or be thinking about calling up a certain pizza place in Unalakleet, Alaska...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Adventures in Alaskan Car Ownership


I am back in Alaska, after having been gone for most of the winter.   Alaska, the hussy that she is, welcomed me back with a nasty head cold, negative windchill, and a broken-down car.   Missed you, too.   Maybe I should have stayed away longer.
 
Looking north across the frozen Kenai Lake


I caught a ride down to my cousins on the local bus from Anchorage.   These rides tend to be very interesting from a people-watching perspective, and this trip was no exception.   I ended up sitting a row in front of a guy who was going to Seward to (a) work at the local fish processing plant, and (b) recruit fellow workers at the plant to leave their jobs there in April and go work for his fishing crew once the salmon season starts.   Apparently, the seafood processing plant is OK with him doing this.    But, the guy was also calling the plant every time the bus went through patches of cell phone signal, as though the arrangement perhaps wasn't entirely settled.  He also kept inviting everyone else on the bus (actually, it was mostly the women) to come sit next to him, and was telling me a bunch of stories about his years working on the Time Bandit, one of the boats featured on the TV show Deadliest Catch.   I’d never seen any of the episodes he was referring to, but that only made him more eager to fill me in on what I’d missed.   He never really got the picture that I wasn't looking for a glamorous job in the fishing industry.    

            Even though I’d heard about the weird winter, I was still surprised at how little snow was on the ground.   There was a tiny dusting, but I could still see through the snow to the layer of leaves below it.   Everything was very solidly frozen and a little crunchy to walk on.   Even the unplowed parts of my cousins' Myriad Network of Victor Creek Driveways were passable - even when driving my station wagon, the Penguin, which has less ground clearance than many species of reptile.   In a lot of ways Alaska looked like it was still November, and I had never left.

      The next day, I was able to jump-start the Penguin, after being initially defeated by a frozen hood latch on the car I was jumping from.   

The following day, I took the car into town to see my doctor, after getting sick with a really bad cold that I suspected was the flu (it wasn't, thankfully, but the high fever and body aches were sort of pointing that direction).  I went to the doctor's office and then to the grocery store to get some throat drops.   By this point the snow had shown up in a big way, and on the way back up the road to my cousins’, the visibility started to get really bad. I pulled over by the Bear Creek Fire Station to try and clear off my windshield and wait it out.   The Penguin idled for about a minute, then a bunch of warning lights lit up dashboard, and the car died.   When I tried to restart it, the battery just made those no-hope clicking sounds.   

 Fortunately, I’d gotten a AAA policy for the Penguin before I came back north, so I called their 800 number.   The rep I spoke with said that she’d arrange a tow with the closest available operator, but she couldn’t tell me where the tow truck would be coming from.   Knowing the distances between towns in Alaska, this sort of raised a red flag, since if the tow truck were coming from anywhere other than Seward, it would be at least three hours away.    The rep assured me, in answer to my questions, that the tow truck would definitely be there within two hours, and the driver would call me when he was getting close.  That sounded OK.   So I cowered in the doorway of the fire station, and called a local taxi.   When the driver came by, he already had a customer in his car (as well as a girlfriend and a small dog), and had swung by to get me out of the kindness of his heart when he heard that my car was dead.   Unfortunately, he was heading out to the end of Nash Road, (which is about as far away as it is possible to drive in Seward) and told me it would be at least 45 minutes to an hour before he could drop me off at the school, where I was hoping to meet Kate and get a ride back to her house.  At this point I was still under the impression that the two truck would be arriving within the next 90 minutes.   If the tow truck did arrive on time, and I wasn’t able to get back to my car to meet the driver, I was kind of screwed.   So I asked the taxi to just drop me off before he turned down Nash Road, and I’d walk from there.   

Not the best call I’ve ever made.   Remember how I said I’d come to town originally because I thought I had the flu?   Walking a half mile in blowing snow and negative windchill was probably not what my doctor had in mind when he told me to rest and drink fluids.    I made it about twenty yards before my already-stressed throat just started closing up.   

“You want to breathe this air?” said my throat.   “If I have to breathe this air, then maybe I’m just not going to breathe at all…”   

So I huddled with my back to the wind to try and keep from further pissing off my throat, and I called Kate. She bravely came out in a whiteout and rescued me from the side of the road.   She is my hero. 

When people think of the stereotypical Alaskan person, a lot of people tend to think of someone who’s a little bit like MacGuyver in Carhardts.   The state likes to think that we’re all a big bunch of rugged, highly capable individualists bravely soldiering our way singlehandedly through the last great wilderness, effortlessly hiking through mountain ranges, returning in the evening to hand-built cabins and feasting on meat from the moose we killed with our bare hands back in October.   And yes, there are some people who are actually like this.   However, the Alaska I more typically see is more a  population of somewhat rugged, and mostly capable people who are ferociously interdependent on each other for a lot of what we need to live here.  I’ve asked neighbors for (and been asked for in return) everything from child care, to borrowing food, fishing equipment, snowshoes and tire chains.   Alaskans are each others' backup plans, and generally the whole system works pretty well.   Though Alaska has never had a problem with taking folks down a notch if she suspects you might be getting ideas about your general competence.   Like causing your car to die in a whiteout on a day you're runing a 101 degree fever.   (At least the Penguin waited until after I’d seen the doctor before it went belly-up.)

Kate had some work to finish up at the school, so I hung out in her classroom and waited for the Triple A driver to call me.   He didn’t.  At 5:15 I called Triple A back, and was again told that the driver would be at the car by 5:30 at the latest.    I was further informed that if I wasn’t at the car by the time the driver arrived, the tow could be cancelled.   The rep said she’d contact dispatch about where the driver actually was, and would call back.   Five minutes later, Triple A calls back... except it’s someone wanting me to rate the quality of my service call.   I ask him was he aware that I was still waiting for the driver.   He said no, and said he’d contact dispatch about where the driver was, and would call me back.    Slightly alarmed that I was going to miss the driver and have the tow cancelled, Kate and I left the school as soon as we could, and went back to the car.   No one there.   No one called me back.  My cell phone was getting low on juice, and my golden-hearted cousin Kate wanted to get home before it got dark, (it was still snowing) and the visibility went from bad to worse.   At 6pm, we put a note on the car and left.   I called Triple A again when we got back to Kate’s house.   This time, I was told that the new arrival time for the driver was 8:05pm; she apologized that no one had called me to tell me this.   She again said the driver would call when he was 20 minutes away.   8pm came and went.   I called Triple A a fourth time, and was told that the driver would arrive within the hour.   (At least this time they weren’t trying to make up an exact arrival.)   Finally at 8:20 we got a call from the driver, and drove back down to Seward to meet him at the car.   The Penguin was sent on its way to the auto shop, and we went back to the school so that Kate could pick up a few more things to work on over the weekend.   

Turns out the dispatcher gave the tow to a company coming from… Anchorage.   Which is totally three hours away, even in good weather.   Kate told me that her family has had similar issues in the past with Lower 48 dispatchers having no idea about the distances between Alaska towns.   I found out during one of the last phone calls with Triple A that I could have had the local Seward tow truck  get the car, and that I would have had to pay the driver, and then the company would reimburse me.   Which I would have been totally OK with, had I known I had that option.   They said the original dispatcher should have made it clear I had that choice, and actually suggested I follow up with a complaint.   But at least the car made it down to the shop OK.   Happily, the electrical problem was traced to a loose belt, which the mechanic fixed for free.   The shop did find a rusting tie end that needs to be replaced, (the part is on order from Anchorage) but it was all in all a much cheaper repair bill that I had feared.
Snow-covered train tracks


            In other car-related news, my cousins’ new mailbox was taken out by the snowplow a few days ago.   This is slightly ironic since they moved the box to its new location specifically to try and keep it from being hit by cars. The next morning, we effected repairs to her box (and her neighbors’ which had also gotten demolished) by tying them to the sides of the railing they had been mounted to.   Unfortunately, the post office specifies how close the boxes need to be to the road, so moving the post back isn’t really an option.   We’ll just hope that in the future the snowplow driver isn’t quite so diligent about trying to clear the entire shoulder.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Wine Trenches


            For most of November and December of this winter, I’ve been in West Virginia, and back working at the Wine Shop as a way to make some extra money while still staying close enough to help out my mother recover from her hip replacement last month.   So I’ve been spending a lot of time in the wine trenches, which are actually pretty good trenches to be in.   For one thing, the customers are generally pretty happy when they're shopping in our store.  

            The wine store I work at is part of a small boutique market of about half a dozen vendors.   The various stores makes the market a great place to people-watch, since we have not only our own shop’s regular customers, but also the regular customers of all of our neighboring vendors.   Many of our regulars are food-obsessed. They look rapturous when talking about goat cheese, and can remember what specific vintages of wine were served at their wedding twenty-seven years ago.   These folks are probably as close as West Virginia gets to having real foodies, and most of them love our shop. By association, the foodies love everyone who works here, too.   (And it’s mutual. Mostly.)    However, this means that taking lunch breaks in the market’s public areas has its downsides.   Earlier in December, I went on break, and sat down at a small table in the market’s public area to eat my lunch.   Even though I work at a gourmet food shop, I am not a gourmet food person.   My lunch was a two-day-old piece of stale pizza.   Two mouthfuls in, a guy who I vaguely recognize as a Wine Shop regular comes over to my table,  leans over the plate and takes a big sniff of my cold, stale slice of pizza.

            “Is that any good?” he asks.

            I said yes (though I’m not sure it was very intelligible since my mouth was still full of pizza), and went back to eating.   He wandered away with a puzzled look.   I looked back at my stale pizza and wondered if I'd just outed myself as a food cretin.

            I know that as a wine salesperson, I talk to customers about food.   This usually does not extend to the food that I bring in for my lunch break.   Because even if I were a real for-sure gourmet cook, no one who works in retail has the time to make meals like that during December.  So please, Mr. Wine Spectator, do not be judgey about my lunch.   Especially when you lean into my personal space bubble to sniff my food, and especially when I do not know who you are.   That’s creepy.   

            One seasonal project involved mailing out eighty individual bottles of a particular cabernet to an architectural firm’s clients.   The specific wine they chose comes in a non-standard-sized wine bottle.   There are only a handful of non-standard-sized wines in the store, but they had to go and pick one.   And since the bottle is a weird shape, it doesn’t fit in the wine shipping containers very well.  So I spent the better part of three days finagling the bottles into the shipping containers.   It took a ton of tissue paper to wedge the bottles so they didn’t rattle around.   The eighty bottles were all going to separate addresses all over town, and the total cost of shipping the wine came to over twelve hundred dollars.   The company would have done a lot better to pay an intern to rent a van and hand-deliver the wine in person.  I mean, I would have happily delivered all that wine to their clients for a quarter of what FedEx is charging them.

            One fun thing that happens during the holiday season is that we host a lot of wine tastings in the store.   We hold the tastings in an adjacent building, and generally we try six or seven wines, plus a little appetizer spread of fancy cheese, crackers, chocolates, or whatever else we think would pair well.   One themed tasting we do every year is a blind tasting of red wines.   Prior to the tasting, we wrap all the bottles in brown bags so that the neither the servers nor the tasters have any idea what wine they’re tasting until the very end.   It is, according to many wine experts, a better way to judge a wine, because the taster isn’t being influenced by the wine’s price.   (People generally perceive more expensive wines as tasting better.)   The day before the blind tasting, our manager had a strange phone conversation with one of our regular customers, in which he had to explain that we do not actually blindfold people for the blind tasting.   (She was unsure about attending because she ‘didn’t think her husband would be into that sort of thing.’)

            The only problem with the wine tastings is that we almost always run out of tickets  - they nearly always sell out.   Which means that the customers who know this will call the shop as soon as we open on Sunday to reserve tickets.   The phone starts ringing at noon and literally does not stop for fifteen minutes.   After that, we get walk-in sales, and more phone calls, and eventually the tasting sells out.  We hit this limit around 1:30pm and from then until the tasting begins at 2pm, it's the Half Hour of Rage.   This is the one time where we have to do what no sales person ever wants to do to a client.   We have to tell them ‘No’.   This pisses some people off to no end.   And I have to deal with a steady stream of pissed or and/or disappointed customers, occasionally interspersed with the arrival of someone who was bright enough to reserve a spot in advance.   Not all of the disappointed customers are mad.   It’s usually a trajectory – from confidence that their request will be offered, to a sudden dip into confusion and disappointment.   Some customers continue from there to either outrage (or plain old rage) or kicked-puppy-like disappointment. 

            In some ways, the timing works out perfectly.   By the time we deal with the last of the disgruntled customers, the tastings has already started, and will be a growing pile of not-quite-empty bottles that need emptying…