Monday, June 27, 2011

Acronyms and Mountains

What have I been up to... Mostly working and walking around in mountains.

As a quick run-down from when I last posted, there have been a few walkabouts, a few work trips, and a visit from the lower 48!

For starters, there's work. I'm not opposed to getting into the office and hammering out designs and plans on the computer-box, but if that work requires some info from the field, all the better. Better still is if that 'field' is in beautiful mountain country.

As a primer for the work-talk, I should provide you on the interwebs some info on whom I work for and what he does. In the gov't there is a collection of agencies called the Federal Lands Management Administration (FLMA) who oversee all the goings-on in federally owned land. In AK this includes the US Forest Service (USFS), Fish and Wildlife Management (FWM), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Parks Service (NPS). Together their holdings constitute the vast majority of the land-area of AK. My boss is the Regional Transportation Program Manager for the AK Regional Office, making him the AKRO NPS FLMA RTPM. Got it?

In non-crypto-speak this means that for all the highway and related infrastructure projects in the AK NPS system my boss holds the purse strings and has oversight. Additionally all the FLM agencies do their best to coordinate efforts so that projects run more smoothly, so that there is a unified goal, and that the projects that cross FLMA boundaries might be more seamless. To this end, Paul typically goes out to meet with various people to identify projects that might be coming down the pike.

Last week, this meant meeting up with some Federal Highway guys (there is an agency in the federal gov't that deals exclusively with the construction and engineering of highways, roads and bridges on federal property) to scope some projects in Denali and Seward. By association, this means that your-truly gets to tag along while pros point at maps, throw around jargon and talk construction.

In Denali, the Federal Highway guys, Paul and I, and some folks from the Denali staff were on the park road (one road that stretches 90 miles into the park form the east, and constitutes ~80% of NPS roadway in AK) looking at an existing automobile bridge and a potential future pedestrian bridge.

For my work, this meant an early start on Monday, driving up to Denali NP and having a look around before quitting for the day. This also meant that I had time to explore the park (gotta love work). So, for 5 hours of my afternoon I followed a ridge line just inside the park boundary that climbed ~2,000' off the valley floor and should have afforded some great views of Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker. While the weather was fantastic, the clouds wouldn't lift over ~7,000', so the big slopes were obscured. However, the hike was great, the weather was sunny and warm under 5,000', and my legs got a good workout.

Tuesday had us driving the park road with the gaggle of engineers of various flavors, park administration and maintenance staff and us two office softies looking at the scope of the two projects that were the day's discussion before headed back to Anchorage.

Wednesday was a day to catch-up with email, upload work photos (sounds great, right? Nope they are just images of road cracks, weeds in the ditch, and guys with vests waving their fingers around) and get ready for the next work trip: the Exit Glacier access road outside Seward in the Kenai Fjords NP. This was looking at why a particular section of road was flooding, but what struck me were the discussion points for the project scoping. Here were these professionals, many of them engineers, who were pretty well-versed in some very progressive environmental considerations. I shouldn't be surprised, but it was reassuring to be in on a conversation with highway engineers that gave equal consideration to traffic safety, visitor experience (on and off the road, with deference given to sound and view impacts), environmental conservation, and road performance. It sounded the way that all massive public projects should in conversation, but I fear that this phenomena might only be witnessed in contexts like this one for the National Parks Service.

For the mountains, the story is much shorter, but much more fun. On my return from Anchorage from Seward, the weather in town was fantastic, and Rob (roommate) and I hatched a plan to get on some climbs down the Seward highway. Turns out respectable climbs can be had right from the edge of the road. One of these climbs is Sunshine Ridge, an fun and scenic 5-pitch 5.6-8 with great views of the Turnagain Arm.

For those that don't speak climber, this was pretty-much a steep slope that required some rope protection in case wither of us fell, and a 'pitch' is a rope-length, or 50-70m. Having not climbed outside in some time, this was a fantastic break-in. I even lead a few of the pitches, which is pretty good considering I haven't lead-climbed in a few years. The climb was not hard enough to wear me out, so I could focus on reviewing all my knots and safety techniques so that more difficult climbing will be more fun and more plausible later in the summer.

Finally, the weekend was another gem in steep topography. Rob, his friend, Jason, and I took a hike out to Lane Hut, near Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Range. The hike was easy enough; a few miles over not-too-hard terrain, and the hut had plenty of character. Hiking in on Saturday, we had some very low clouds, light precipitation, and all-around moisture. Literally: everything was just a bit damp from the sky to the ground to my socks. After an evening of scrambling around on boulders dice games and sleep punctuated by the scurrying of hut-mice, the morning broke (at ~3am) to a beautifully clear day, puffy white clouds and all.

These photos show the before and after.

In the next couple weeks, it looks like I'll be strapped to my office desk, but if the weather holds out, I'm sure there will be some outdoors fun. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Office Space, Girdwood, and a good walk

I guess part of creating a blog is sticking to it, but I have to admit, it's mighty difficult to sit down in a garden-level apartment and punch some keys when the Chugach State Park (mountains) are right down the road.

So, for starters, the working. One of the most pertinent observations I've had about the working world so far is just how much doesn't get done. I can really understand how people develop frustrations with the gov't, but I'm convinced it's not just a government thing. I believe that the slow pace of any large professional entity is mostly due to the litigious nature of our culture, which in the end necessitates many redundant systems in place so that everyone's proverbial ass is covered, which in turn creates a disproportionate amount of busy work, idle hands, and ultimately inane water-cooler chat.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The point here is that the working world, so far as I understand it, is vastly easier than grad school. For starters, I'm only supposed to work 8 hours a day. 8 hours a day! Easily less than 70% effort compared to grad school, right out of the gate. Then, there's lunch. A whole hour right smack in the middle of the day when you are expected to do nothing. Seriously? Add to all this the random drop-in chat by co-workers, running-down forms and paperwork of all sorts for just about everything (at current count, I have 4 sets of usernames and passwords for different email accounts, expenditure approval, server access, training program access, etcetera), and the occasional run to the coffee-maker and there are about 3 to 4 effective hours in an office workday. This feels like cheating! But that said, I have made it habit to do my real work in the mornings or evenings when no one's around, and keep the middle of my day open for logistics, meetings and banter.

The work itself is actually quite nice. I have a stack of task sheets (like a mission file for a secret agent, but it doesn't self-destruct) with tasks ranging from small, low-priority conceptual-designs, to transportation statistics categorization (less interesting, but I get to look at visitation data from every NPS unit in the country), to in-the-field historical photograph identification and comparison shots. The latter, my favorite assignment, is to find where on the Denali park road two ~1930's/40's pictures where taken, go to the same spot and shoot another set. So, pretty good stuff overall.

Besides work, I'm getting to know Alaskan culture and topography, both of which are interesting and raw. For the culture, you can imagine that everything is a bit less formal, and nothing is taken terribly seriously, or without some critical thought. There is a fantastic streak of independence in most the Alaskans I meet, and it's not necessarily the patriotic type (though it often is). It's definitely more along the lines of 'don't tread on me', mixed with a kind of self-reliance that is only natural in a state this removed. Similar to Australians, I guess, but tempered with tons of influence from the Midwest (I've heard to AK referred to as the Land of 10,000 Minnesotans, and it feels very true).

As for the topography, well, it's everywhere. The following shot was taken from Bear Valley Ridge (just SSE of Flattop, if you're familiar), which was a 10 minute drive and a 30 minute walk from my where I'm staying.

That was Thursday night, sometime around 7pm. A nice stroll with a few guys who are themselves transplants, but who are local and conditioned to this terrain. This the first wake-up call for my legs, and keeping up with these kids was like a trail-by-fire. But, I have to say that the biking helped, and I am now on my way towards being a well-oiled mountain machine.

In addition, this weekend a few of the interns and myself took off for Girdwood (the next town going south on the Seward Highway out of Anchorage) to hike Crow Pass and check-out some music at the local ski resort. Girdwood could be considered like a Duluth-to-Minneapolis when compared to Anchorage. The population is smaller, they are even closer to outdoor pursuits, the mood is a bit more mellow and no one is in love with the idea of heading into town.

As the week progresses, I hope to get out in the hills a few more times to keep my legs on-par; then next Monday at this time I will be in Denali, scoping a project with my boss and shooting those historic photos. I'll let you know how it goes.


Friday, June 3, 2011

The Office and Biking in Anchorage

Biking in Anchorage is...different. Coming from Minneapolis, I come from relative comfort and luxury in terms of biking. There are bike lanes, people generally look-out for you, and I am seldom on a road with more than two lanes of traffic in one direction. This is in significant contrast to what I'm seeing here in Anchor-town.

From my first impressions, I've found that Anchorage has three road/path typologies for bike-mode transportation: main arterials (like Northern Lights Blvd and Minnesota Dr shown above), residential streets and paths. Oddly, I've found little middle-ground.

For the most direct route, there is a macro-grid of these 3- 4- and 5-lane behemoths that are clearly designed for motor-vehicles only. I can bike them, but they are fast, inhospitable, barren, riddled with pot-holes, and the monster-truck drivers are no-doubt taking aim at the back of my head while I frantically peddle to keep up with traffic and maintain a 360-degree awareness.

Just off of each of these are the residential streets. These are typically 30-40' curb-to-curb, with no striping and lines with housing. They are quiet, pleasant and slow, but disorienting, as they twist about through 50's, 60's and 70's-type development. The oddity here is the afore-mentioned lack of a middle-weight roadway between these veritable highways and the quiet residential streets. To me this is a clear example of how development whose bulk was done with the automobile in-mind manifests. While this city is fairly spread-out, it is pretty efficient to get from A to B in a car quickly, and I've so-far heard no talk of rush-hour hang-ups.

Beyond that, Anchorage does have an extensive system of trails that weave through the city. Once I get to know these, it will no-doubt be much easier to navigate by bike. Most of them are shared-use paths, but everyone on them are generally friendly. Additionally, with a slower speed, and a more relaxed psyche, there is more time to soak up the non-stop daylight and views of the Front Range.

Moving on, I had a chance to meet my boss for the first time today, and I am excited to get to work for the National Parks Service. The building is all shiny glass and concrete on the outside, with locked bike parking 'round the back. The inside has an impressive lobby with an elevator that then gives way to 5 floors of typical office space.

My station is a triple-wide cube, shared with two other interns (architectural engineering and civil engineering). We have a instant coffee station, a break-room fridge that hasn't seen a cleaning in a while and Hawaiian T-shirt Casual Fridays. The staff are all very nice, but the fluorescent lighting and the views of the parking structure across the street are exactly the kind of hell I imagined as a rebellious teenager. This might be the kind of stuff that inspires the writers of Office Space.

However, all things considered there is no way I have a right to complain. The guy I work for has been a landscape architect for over 20 years with the NPS, and it sounds like I'll have a fair mix of administrative work, designing, and exposure to the transportation planning that happens in the NPS AK headquarters. In addition, I'm headed to Denali NP in a couple weeks to tag-along with a meeting with some highway engineering/construction types that are scoping the DENA park highway/road (DENA being some odd acronym for the Denali National Park; apparently there are tons of FLA's in the NPS (Four-Letter Acronyms)).

So that was today. Biking as my life depended on it, dropping in on casual friday to finally meet my boss, run some errands (trying to find a pool for lap-swim) and, of course, keeping all of you up-to-date.


Thursday, June 2, 2011


Well as we've all expected, d-day finally arrived, the Day of Departure. As I write this, it's 10:30pm local time, and it's 59 degrees and sunny here in Anchorage, Alaska. My flight was a 7:30am departure from MPLS International, with a direct flight to Anchor-town.

My first lesson learned: always aim to be one of the last people to board your flight. Reason being, is that you can pretty-much pick whatever seats are still open to be yours for the flight. I've heard-tell that this can even work in First Class. Think about it: how often has your steward(ess) ever asked you for your boarding pass to confirm your seat? Never, and that's why I go to sit directly behind First Class, with a row to myself and ample leg-room.

Beyond that, I got some great views of Glacier Bay National Park and Mount Fairweather from my spacious window seat.

From there, my new roommate/host Natalie picked me up from the airport, and it was time to explode the bid damn box, assemble the bike, sort out my room and see the town.

There was a little biking around town to run some errands (in my genius, I packed both mine and Kendra's U-locks; off to the Post Office) and orient.

After a tasty curry dinner, Rob showed me some of the better hills in-town for long-boarding, where we made some great, long turns in the crisp spring air and sharp, ever-present light of not-dusk, then it was back to the apartment, where I find myself now. Tomorrow, it's off to meet my new boss and figure out the weekend. Rumor has it there might be some trad climbing just out of town, and some biking to be sure.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Well, I've spent most of this day organizing my resources and writing my professors, letting them know what I'll be reading over the summer. Now, at 1:30pm, I've got 2 or 3 hours of free time to pick the effects that I'm shipping up to AK with me.

Over the course of the next day or so, I'll be organizing my thoughts on the last couple meetings I've had with people in transportation at the U, and an independent planner in Minneapolis, who helped establish Nice Ride. For now, however, it's time to pack.