Landscapes

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Sites and impressions from the Oregon road

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Oregon, geographically and geologically, is an assemblage of parts that don’t truly make for a whole. Like its northern neighbor, Washington state, it is divided by ecosystems that also provide a rough border of the political divisions that have never seemed deeper, particularly following the dangerous four years of twice impeached former President Donald Trump.

West of the Cascade Mountain ranges are the state’s most densely populated areas, and they are more to the left in the northwest corner of the state. The lands east of the Cascades are sparsely filled. They include the northern farming counties of Gilliam, Morrow, Sherman, Wasco, Union, and Umatilla.

On this trip I passed through Gilliam County, which features stunningly scenic rolling hills and an endless supply of wind that led to the siting of extensive wind farms. Outside of the federally recognized tribal holdings and communities, the areas is overwhelmingly white, but is now seeing an influx of some Latino residents, who do much of the agricultural work in this part of the state. Politically, this is as red as red gets anywhere in the United States.

I drove south from the Columbia River Gorge on Highway 206 through Condon, then took a right going south on Highway 19 through the abandoned intersection community of Mayfield to Fossil. Here is where landscape turned from rolling hills to deep canyons, revealing millions of years of geological history. Farms that draw from the John Day River line the roads that wind through a “scenic byway.” Some of these stunning geological formations are partially protected in a federal land management area called the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The area has some of the richest collections of fossils spanning a 40 million year period, showing the evolution of species, plants, and ecosystems that existed long before homo erectus walked out of the plains of Africa to populate the planet.

After a brief stop at the monument’s fabulous visitor’s center, I took a right and headed west on Highway 26 that took me through more stunning canyons, multimillion dollar ranch holdings of land barons, and to the turnoff for the Painted Hills Overlook, which are some of the most photographed hills in the annals of photography. I first came here in 2003 and had forgotten how stunning the scenery was.

After taking a great walk and taking my obligatory tourist photos, I jumped back on Highway 26 (the Ochoco Highway), which climbed through the scenic Ochoco National Forest, where sites of recent forest fires were visible. Along the way I observed how severe the drought conditions were, with the Ochoco Reservoir down at least 20 feet. I passed through Prineville, which once identified itself as a town tied its ranching and agricultural past, celebrated in its public art. In reality, it has become a bedroom community for nearby and fast-growing Bend, about 25 miles to the southwest. The community is now home to larger data servers that tap into cut-rate cheap federal power provided by the nearby Bonneville Power Administration dams on the Columbia River.

Facebook recently announced it was building two more buildings here on top of nine existing structures, with operations the size of 80 football fields. The new investments will cost $2 billion. Apple also operates large data farms here as well. These investments make the bucking bronco and cowboy sculpture feel as old an a Roman antiquity sculpture.

Rudy at Paulina Lake

Rudy Owens at Paulina Lake, smiling because it snowed the night before in early June 2021.

I ended my drive in Newberry Crater, another national monument about 45 minutes southeast of Bend. This is one of my favorite places in Oregon. It similar geologically to the much more famous Crater Lake National Park, but more developed for campers and fishermen. The day I arrived it was nearly 32 F, and it snowed during the night. I had almost an entire campground to myself. I woke up with white stuff on my tent, and it was still the second week of June. I loved that, actually! From my campground, I did a long overdue nearly 8 mile run around Paulina Lake, which is one of the finest running loops I have done anywhere. That was worth the trip alone.

Snowstorm in black and white

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It has been two weeks since a winter ice and snow storm hit Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, at times up to 350,000 people were without power, due to downed power lines when the freezing ice brought down countless trees and broken limbs. Some people were without power for nearly two weeks. I was lucky. My neighborhood had power out for just two days. I did not lose any food, and my life was not heavily disrupted.

The storm was a great reminder of the power of nature and the fragility of our electricity-dependent world.

I went for runs the first couple of days of the storm and took these shots when we still had a nice base. I love running in the snow. It is quiet and clean. Everything just feels more calm. I began to miss the snow of my old home in Anchorage for six winters. Well, almost!

Welcome, summer!

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This series comes from one of my many summer adventures in Alaska with some very tough and fun women. It also seems like a fitting way to welcome summer.

We did an adventure in the Chugach Mountains, in Chugach State Park outside of Anchorage. Though we knew where we were on the map, we couldn’t our way once the clouds and rain hit us as we climbed over a pass. It was fun, with some moments to pause because of the steep terrain and cliff drops.

Back in the day, 10 or more years ago and before my mom developed Alzheimer’s disease and later passed away, I used to live more adventurously.

These days I no longer head to the high altitudes. One day I simply stopped going.

I still miss being with people who didn’t complain about: being lost, being wet, being cold, and having expeditions go awry.

Half the point of having an adventure (in the wild, in a job, with someone you love, or working to change things) is to get lost and maintain your calm when things don’t go as planned. However, if you are in the wild, be sure you do that with the right people, like my two friends.

Please, go out, do something that makes you very uncomfortable, and don’t worry if things don’t go as planned.

 

 

Final fall fling and fading colors

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Fall in Portland this year was drier than normal. The colors, which are primarily red and yellow, stuck around until the end of November. I took these shots on a route I normally run, through Riverview Cemetery, through the River View Natural Area, and along the Willamette River. A running injury forced me to walk it two weekends back. When you go slower, you see the same scenery differently. The leaves are now mostly fallen and the stark openness of winter is upon us.

Beautiful morning light in Lafayette Square

 

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During my last visit to St. Louis, I indulged myself. I decided to stay in a historic mansion that is now a a bed and breakfast called the Lehmann House, just off of Lafayette Park, in the historic Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis. This beautiful section of urban space is unrivaled in any U.S. city. It was one of the earliest planned communities in the once mighty industrial city, and it catered to the very wealthy when it was developed in the 1800s. It was built around the oldest municipal park west of the Mississippi River, Lafayette Park.

I have shared photo essays on my blog before about the area’s exquisitely built brick homes and architectural styles. I did not have much time to enjoy the area as I had hoped, but I squeezed in two morning walks that were about as perfect as I can remember, ever. The light had that brilliant Midwest-morning Kodacolor glow, and the air smelled fresh from a recent rain. I wandered around the “hood” and snapped these shots, allowing my senses to guide me. If you visit St. Louis, you have to put this place on your list. You will then wonder what we have done so wrong in urban design since we built communities with craftsmanship and care not that long ago.

Industrial yard and porta potty

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I took this shot with my Samsung smartphone, which has a mediocre lens, even for cellphones. Even then, it can occasionally capture something special.

This location is at the corner of SE 26th Avenue and SE Steel Street, in sourtheast Portland, Oregon. I used to bike by here decades earlier, when I attended college a few blocks away. Despite Portland’s massive gentrification, some neighborhoods outside of the Port of Portland still have the blue-collar industries that used to dominate the economy not long ago.

My first memory of Portalnd was of that time, and I loved its grittiness when I first came here. That seems long gone now.

Seward, tourist hub of southcentral Alaska

Seward, Alaska, the small port city on the Kenai Peninsula, remains one of the most visited Alaska tourist communities. Nestled along the scenic Resurrection Bay and sitting next to scenic mountains and nearby fjords, it offers fabulous views and access to Alaska’s abundant wildlife, as well as fishing. The foreign-run cruise-ship industry also docks in Seward and unloads literally hundreds of thousands of visitors every tourist season—an estimated 1.3 million people will visit Alaska by these floating behemoths of the sea in 2019.

I frequently drove to Seward when I worked and lived in Anchorage from 2004 to 2010. The drive offered spectacular views, and each trip was rewarded by equally great vistas and experiences in Seward. I loved late spring and early summer the most. Here are a few of the scenes from trips I made in 2009 and 2010. I miss it and remember the landscape fondly.

Icons of eastern Oregon

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During the past two months, I have traveled widely in Oregon. I always enjoy an Oregon road trip. The high and wide-open plateaus of north central and eastern Oregon, just before the Blue Mountains, rekindled my love of the open road and empty places.

I made two separate trips: one to Condon, in Gilliam County, and another to Pendleton, in Umatilla County. Gilliam County is bisected by the John Day River, a popular fishing and rafting destination. The landscape is dominated by a high plateau and constant wind, making it an ideal location for massive wind farms that sprout majestically above wheat fields. The county seat, Condon (pop. 682), is a charming community that felt alive and loved by its residents.

Pendleton (pop. 16,682) sits on the Interstate 84 corridor, further to the east, straddling a valley near the start of the Blue Mountains. The community is a true Western town. It is famous for its rodeo, woolen goods, and also whiskey. Nearby Umatilla is also famous for the now decommissioned 20,000-acre Umatilla Chemical Depot, run by the U.S. Army that was home to a massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

Agriculture, along with wind energy, are two major economic drivers in this sparsely populated area of Oregon. Native Americans have lived here for millennia. Pendleton lies within the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, whose designs adorn Pendleton’s famous woolen blankets and more. The tribe also runs the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, a major economic resource for the area.

Visually, I was mostly struck by the iconic imagery presented by the grain elevators in both areas, along with the towering wind turbines. The site of large, manmade structures in mostly open spaces has always appealed to my visual sensibilities, wherever I may be.

Snow and winter in St. Louis

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If you have not heard, snow and cold have returned to the Midwest causing all manner of havoc. I grew up in St. Louis. I remember it as a city that regularly experienced winter. Cold temperatures and snow were the norm. That is not true anymore.

I mostly left the city in the 1980s, and I have returned repeatedly since to visit family and see the good people I know there. Since that time, with global warming, winters have become milder in the mid-Mississippi Valley. Snow and winter became less predictable.

However, the austere beauty of St. Louis in the winter still excites me visually. I love the contrast of the white snow and the dark, red bricks that were used to build many of the homes, factories, and warehouses.

Here is a sampling of some winter shots from my archive. All of these were taken in south St. Louis, where the city takes on a different winter feel with cold and snow.

Fun fact: The National Candy Company factory building, shown here, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was once the largest candy factory in the United States.