Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Fourth of Alaska

The Fourth of Alaska

In the lower 48 this week, the nation celebrated the “Fourth of July.” While the day has the same official name here, the celebration is different to be sure. I’m no expert on this matter, but I keep my ear to the ground and I pick up on what’s going on pretty fast. Besides, some things are pretty obvious. Factoid number one is this: if you live in Alaska and you intend to wait until it gets dark to shoot off your fireworks, you will be waiting, give or take a month, until, well, let‘s see….……December!

Back home in Pennsylvania the family journeyed to the fireworks field in Wyomissing for fireworks that started near dark at about 8PM. In Alaska though, in July, 8 PM is no darker than 11 PM or 3 AM, so what’s the point of waiting til later? Most Alaskans describe their fireworks display as a bit trivialized by the round the clock daylight, so they invent more challenging and imaginative ways to have a little fun on this day of festivities.

They have a road race! It’s a 3Mile race for runners. If you’ve heard the rumors about Alaskan roads being a real challenge and a very rough terrain to navigate, you probably thought that referred to the highways. Not so- the highways are actually very good and better that the lower 48’s for the most part. This nasty reputation actually stems from the course on which Alaskans run- not drive. Not content to run like other runners elsewhere, like those, say, in the Boston Marathon, Alaskans choose to run vertically instead of horizontally. The run up, then they run down - mountains! They run where I cannot walk. They run where others climb, with ropes and pitons and other such paraphernalia that MIGHT keep them safe. The only safety equipment an Alaskan mountain runner uses is a pair of shorts and a wrap of duct tape around his or her ankles so they don’t run right out of their running shoes! I’ll describe what these runners look like in a bit….

But before they can hold a race, first a few things need to happen. For starters, everyone in the state needs to drive to the race site- for this day it was in Seward, about 129 miles (each way) from our camp base in Anchorage. Then a festival must be held with lots of sights to see and plenty to eat, with the focus clearly on popcorn (the biggest bags of it I have ever seen in my entire life) and fried halibut. Who knew they went well together? Not me. You can try to leave town without eating one or the other, but the odds that you can get away with that are slim. There must be some face painting, some charitable fund raising, and some healthy lifestyle demonstrations- all good things in my book. You absolutely, positively MUST have a parade- and to control the population of the entire state in attendance, you call on the MPs from the nearby military bases, who are only too happy to help out. People get along well with each other in Alaska, even in the biggest of crowds. This in and of itself is nice to be around! And in order that the parade shall be memorable, as in any town, there are fire trucks with sirens, Shriners (even if there is only one go-cart in town), cheer leaders and acrobats, beauty queens and celebrities, ATV’s with mud on them, children on pick up truck floats throwing candy to the onlookers, and believe it or not, an Orca (Killer Whale) Macy’s type balloon, scaled back just a bit in size to keep it manageable for the kids holding onto the strings. Wow! What a glorious parade.

After the parade, it’s officially time to race. The following is my best description of what I witnessed taking place:

The starter’s gun goes off and several hundred people (literally) run out of town and towards the base of the mountain (Marathon Mountain) on the “upskirts” if not the outskirts of Seward. While the mountain is named Marathon, the race is more like a sprint. The mountain rises 3022 feet above sea level…and since sea level is right there- this is a mighty impressive sight. As an onlooker positioned for the race at the bottom of the mountain, I declared the mission: impossible. Never-the-less all the runners dashed by us and immediately started running up that mountain. Like I said- not walking, not climbing, RUNNING. In a matter of minutes they disappeared in to the trees and did not emerge again until they came out above the tree line to run the second half of the climb to the summit. By the time, they have run that high on the mountain, even decent binoculars leave them looking like ants silhouetted against the sky. Any one who needed to know what’s actually going on in the race brought their telescope on a tri-pod…and they gave a few reports now and again, “So and so just passed three runners and is now in 284th place.” But annual fans of the race have just looked at their watches and taken a seat in the collapsible chair they brought with them. They know from experience that the leader pack of the race will be back running down the hill at a certain time…and that more or less 43 minutes after they disappeared into the trees, they will again emerge to run straight down the face of the now dry “waterfalls” at the bottom of the course, before heading back to the finish line in town.

Here’s my version (ain’t nothing scientific about it) of what let’s these runners stay on the face of the mountain on the way down, as opposed to launching like a hang glider without a kite. The mountain is too steep to run upright on the way down- not possible. Lean back at all and you will surely soil the back of those little running shorts! So a racer is actually nearly horizontal, leaning out and down (picture a ski jumper in mid air after he leaves the giant ski jump in the winter Olympics and you'll have the angle just about right). At this point, there are some very serious calculations that need to be made. Just how far should you lean out? Can your legs and feet carry the lower half of your body down the face of the mountain fast enough so that your upper body does not lurch forward into a fall- which would be truly disastrous. Will your footing be certain enough; one wrong step or a trip at any point would not be a good thing at all! On the way down, could you even stop or slow down if you wanted to….loose rocks, while there are plenty of them, and some mighty big ones at that did come rolling down the mountain, seemed to be the least of the racer’s potential problems.

But before the race results are handed down, a word about our friends, Gary and Judy Skaggs. Not too much for now, just enough to put things in perspective. We first met them in Montana on the “North to Alaska” phase of our journey. Nice folks. They were traveling HOME to Alaska at the time- we hit it off right away. They run an excavation company in Anchorage and they have worked a gold claim outside of Anchorage professionally (if that’s the right terminology) for 13 years. They not only offered to show us the ropes of gold prospecting, but have been acting as our behind the scenes tour guides since we arrived in town a couple days ago. We have seen Anchorage from the perspective of someone who lives, works, sleeps, eats and breathes Alaska on a daily basis. Their enthusiasm for this place is infectious and their insights have taught us things in short order that under ordinary circumstances we never would have learned at all. There is no tour on earth you can buy that is better than a friend sharing a part of their time and life with you. So when they suggested we come with them to Seward for the day, we were excited to see what it was all about. The salmon can wait- I hope.

The results? Skaggs’ son, Clint, races in this event every year. This year he finished in 6th place. What an achievement! His friend and arch rival took first and I think it is the 5th or 6th win in a row for him. Word is you might beat him to the top, but nobody can beat him coming back down. When the top racers, a pack of 15 or 20 or so came running back down into view, it was a hold-your-breath moment. That last hundred foot drop was literally a raging waterfall a few short weeks ago when the snow was melting on top of the mountain.

Here are the facts you need to think about to put this whole thing in perspective. It’s a 3MILE race. It goes from sea level to 3022 feet elevation and back down. The fastest runners make it to the top of this awesome course (from where the actual mountain climb begins) in 34 minutes…BUT THEY COME BACK DOWN IN 6 MINUTES!!!! If you get the idea they are actually FALLING back down the mountain, well, now you are starting to get the idea!

Clint was gracious and humble about our congratulating his race skills. In true Alaskan fashion, he simply said, “We’re Alaskan, we have to do something a little different on the Fourth of July.”
After a long, action packed and exciting day, we returned home to find our true Alaskan fireworks display…our wildflower bouquet which Marilyn had picked a few days ago had “exploded” and blown “fuzzies” all over the coach; looked like it was snowing in there. Like the man said, even the Fourth of July is a little different here.

Back at the start/finish line, the anticipation was growing for the craziest race you'll ever see anywhere.

Above: The race course. There are runners on the course, but even clicking on the photo to enlarge won't help you see them too well. That's one big mountain!
Below: The guys start up the lower part of the "waterfall" at the bottom of the course.

Judy and Gary with their amazingly athletic son Clint after the race. By any and all standards, he done good!
"Bombs bursting in air........"

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