Anchorage

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.  

Iditarod Memories

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

There is nothing more true to the spirit of Alaska than the “last great race on Earth.” That race is none other than the Iditarod.

This world-famous and celebrated dogsled race, from the interior Alaskan community of Willow to the coastal community of Nome, covers more than 900 miles of Alaska’s backcountry in the freezing winter. Mushers, leading teams from 12 to 16 dogs, compete for mostly glory and cash prizes for the lucky top finishers. That glory is often international media coverage. Japanese and German media frequently make the visit, to name a few.

The race is followed live by dog lovers the world over. Those with deep pockets and plenty of free time fly to Alaska in winter to catch a glimpse of the annual ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage the first Saturday of March, followed by the official start on a frozen lake in Willow. A few of the rich visitors will pay a handsome fee to ride in a dogsled on the ceremonial 11-mile run that starts the race in Anchorage.

Race Origins and this Year’s Contest

The race’s origins are tied to the famous public health emergency in 1925. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, required that emergency medical supplies be delivered, and dogsledders made the journey. A statue in downtown Anchorage commemorates that famous event, honoring the lead sled dog, Balto.

Today’s modern Iditarod roughly celebrates that legacy and mostly follows the same difficult route, over mountain ranges, frozen berms, and through Native villages. Joe Redington Sr., an Alaskan musher whose family legacy remains well-known in the Great Land, worked with Dorothy Page to launch the modern race in 1967.

That first race had 57 mushers. This year there will only be 53, down from more than 80 when I saw the race start in person in between 2005 and 2010. The race has come on hard times in recent years due to dog deaths, drug tests, and feuds. Sponsorships likely have dried up to support a profession/passion that is like none other in the world. No musher can afford this sport without sponsors and/or corporate backers. Each musher is an entrepreneur, as well a master of a team of world-class athlete dogs.

The 47th annual running of the race begins at the ceremonial start on March 2, several blocks from where I used to work for six years. I could walk here from my house.

How I Enjoyed the Ceremonial Start Day

While living in Anchorage, I would always catch the race at two places. I would arrive early at downtown, before the dawn broke, to watch the racers and their support crew unload their sleds and dogs early in usually freezing cold conditions in downtown Anchorage. The night before crews of municipal workers would work til the early morning hours hauling in snow from streets normally plowed clear. At this staging area, dogs were kings and queens and mushers were royalty. Everyone, like me, was taking pictures.

I then would head to midtown Anchorage, where a family I knew hosted an annual Knapp’s Crossing Iditarod Party, just outside of the University of Anchorage. The dog teams would run by, the Knapps serenaded them with trumpet songs, and everyone cheered.

The pictures here date from 2007, the year cancer survivor and famous musher Lance Mackey won the race after competing and winning in the earlier Yukon Quest dog race between Fairbanks and Dawson City.

[Ed. note: I updated this post on March 3, 2019, to correct the number of mushers who competed between 1005 and 2010. The correct and revised number, “more than 80,” is listed above.]

Winter’s icy clutch has come

 

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

The arrival of the winter solstice yesterday made me think about winter, in its most raw, powerful form.

I used to live in a wintry place, Anchorage, Alaska. I spent six years there, meaning six winters. One measures a true year in winters in Alaska. I first feared the cold, and then embraced it after I took up skate skiing. Soon, I found myself skiing almost every day of the winter season on Anchorage’s miles of multi-use trails and its world-class ski trails in Kincaid Park and on the Anchorage Hillside.

In 2008, the winter was particularly nasty. We had a stretch of days below -10 F for almost two weeks. I was sidelined with a bad running injury, and I was unable to exercise like I normally did. The hoarfrost was both beautiful and terrifying, because it signified how dangerous the elements were. To this day I don’t know how the ravens, moose, lynx, stellar jays, owls, foxes, wolves, and other local critters survived such conditions, with no respite from mother nature.

I did love my walks, and I used my period of convalescence to document the icy beauty of the Anchorage area, including some festivals where ice sculptures were installed in a downtown park that was turned into an ice skating rink. It was so cold that year, qualifying heats for the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Team were cancelled at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park because of the potential harm the cold could have to the athletes.

So, on our first day of winter, in the northern hemisphere, I say, all hail winter. May your icy clutch be gentle and memorable.

Fourth of July, Anchorage Style (2007)

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

It is the 241st birthday of the United States of America. For the 231st party, in 2007, I was in Anchorage, living the Alaska dream. On a typically cloudy Anchorage July day, I walked from my nearby home to downtown and caught the annual Fourth of July parade.

These parades are magnificent in Alaska. Alaskans know how to make them inclusive and celebratory for everyone who calls the Great Land home. They show participants what community means, because in a harsh place, you have to rely on others. You really cannot do it alone.

The parade in Anchorage also brought back fond memories of seeing July 4 parades in Sitka, where I once lived briefly in 1992, and then visited for a Fourth of July in 2004.

The 2007 parade in Anchorage featured a diverse stream of floats and bands, from the U.S. military, the city’s diverse ethnic communities, musicians of all kinds and the LGBTQ community. If you cannot make it to Alaska for a Fourth of July parade, you can enjoy this one from a decade back. Have a great holiday.

Janelle demonstrates frost face

 

One of the truisms of true runners is, a runner runs. And they run no matter what the hell is happening outside, hot, cold, pollution, whatever. I took this shot of a running buddy, Janelle, on a great Anchorage area backcountry run on snow. Yes, you can run on snow that has melted a bit and then froze crust hard. Our adventure traversed the length of Chugach State Park in March 2007. Many a time I had ice on my eyelashes and whiskers when running during an Alaska winter.

Fall in the Chugach Mountains

Let’s be clear. I will say that fall in Alaska is as good as it gets for autumn colors. I still cannot believe the colors of red blueberry bushes on the hillsides, birch trees firing up the forest canopy, and the orange and red underbrush. I took all of these pictures in Fort Richardson and Chugach State Park, both just outside of Anchorage. (Chugach State Park is more spectacular than most National Parks in this country by a country mile, if you ask me.) I do not miss the winter at this stage of my life, as of today, but I do miss the fall, all days of my life. See more of my photos of Alaska on my Alaska photo gallery. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

It is spring, and I am cathartically happy I did not ‘endure’ winter

 

I found these pictures among the many hundreds I took while living in Anchorage. These were all taken during a bitter cold spell in 2009-10, when temperatures plummeted  to about minus 10 fahrenheit and colder. It was great for taking images. I remember getting some skin damage on my extremities on one outing. Now that it is spring in Seattle, I shutter to think I lived through this year after year, even with the beauty. That is my feeling today. It is one of joyous happiness.