How to save the coal industry from itself

This is a paper I wrote in April 2016 as a post-undergrad filling out some gaps in my education prior to starting grad school at Western State Colorado University. The problems identified here and solutions proposed are still pertinent today with no measurable change in the coal industry. As an engineer with 20+ years of experience, I fully believe we can fix all the problems with coal. The barriers to progress reside in ownership and management who continue to operate a 50-year-old business model while competing technologies kick their ass. If money was spent to drive new technology rather than blaming state and federal clean air/water regulations and using the courts to shirk their social responsibility, coal workers could be employed in good-paying jobs without risking their short- and long-term health.

The coal industry has three choices:
1) Change their business model.
2) Bring in talent from other industries and government labs to drive the new business model.
3) Continue the slow, lingering death of their industry.

An Analysis of the Sustainable Future of Coal Energy



Rich Stromberg / ENVS100


Abstract—The mining of coal and its use for power generation faces significant challenges that must be solved if the coal industry honestly expects to flourish over the coming decades. A change in strategy from marketing hype, lobbying elected officials and fighting clean air legislation in the courts is needed if this technology is to experience anything other than a slow painful death due not to climate change concerns, but simply by failing to compete in an open market on price and quality of product.

I.  The Current State of Coal in the US and Colorado

A major benefit of coal as an energy source is that it is a widely-abundant resource in the United States. Known, demonstrated reserves are 478 billion short tons[1] as of January 2015.[2] This represents 261 years of US coal production at 2013 levels.[3]  Coal power plays a significant part of the local energy mix in Gunnison, Colorado making up 52.1 percent of the power purchased[4] and conversely 99 percent of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions or 40,868 tons of CO2 during 2015. (See Table A-1.) Across Colorado, coal accounts for 60 percent of the electricity generated (2014 data).[5]

In the US, slightly more than a third of the coal mines are underground while 64 percent are surface mines. In 2014, 345 underground mines in the US produced 354,704 short tons of coal while 613 surface mines produced 643,721 short tons.[6] The number of operating mines in 2013 (1,032) decreased by 7.1 percent in 2014 (958[7]) and the number of employees decreased 6.8 percent from 80,396 in 2013 to 74,931 in 2014 while the actual production was up 1.5 percent over the same time period.[8] The 60-year production trend shown in Figure 1 demonstrates that renewable energy portfolio standards in 29 states[9] have not reduced coal demand, rather growth in US energy demand has been met by renewable energy sources.[10] Preliminary data for 2015 reflects a drop in coal production, attributed to a drop in natural gas prices – a key competitor in the energy production market. This is an important factor to remember later in this analysis.

Figure 1 – US Coal Production 1950 – 2015 (Source: EIA Coal Data Browser –

In Colorado, eight active coal mines currently produce around 25 million short tons of coal compared with an all-time high of 40 million short tons in 2004. All mines are located in the western part of the state and generated 2,175 jobs in the state during 2013.[11] Median mine worker wages in 2012 ranged from $22 to $29 per hour based on specific job skills and duties.[12] (See Appendix Figure A1 and Table A2)

Despite being an integral part of the state’s and nation’s energy portfolio, the mining and combustion of coal comes with significant negative environmental impacts. Mountaintop removal sends pollutants downstream impacting critical aquatic habitats. Acidic water can drain from abandoned underground mines. Methane (CH4), a major greenhouse gas, must be vented from underground mines to ensure worker safety. In 2013, methane emissions from coal mines accounted for about 9% of total U.S. methane emissions.[13] Pound for pound, the impact of methane on global warming is 25 times greater than CO2 because the molecule is both larger and corresponds more efficiently with the wavelengths of infrared light that feed the greenhouse effect.[14][15] On the combustion side, sulfur dioxide (SO2), contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses, nitrogen oxides (NOx) contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses (as do particulate matter) and CO2 is released – the primary greenhouse gas emitted worldwide (See Appendix Figure A-2). Mercury and other heavy metals linked to neurological and developmental damage in humans and animals is also released. Fly ash and bottom ash are residues created when coal is burned at power plants. By law, most of these emissions are captured and stored near power plants or placed in landfills. Pollution leaching from ash storage and landfills into groundwater and the rupture of several large impoundments of ash are environmental concerns.[16]

Other detractors related to coal power generation include its inability to quickly throttle up and down to match the second-by-second electrical demand on a power grid.[17][18]  Coal plant output varies over the course of an hour or two while natural gas plants (especially the combined-cycle variety) can follow the load second by second. Natural gas turbine facilities can run at low levels relative to their maximum output capacity with minimal problems while low-loading coal plants and power cycling daily versus annually increases preventative maintenance costs and results in greater unplanned outages.[19] Even modern wind turbines have the ability to implement power set point control where the turbines and entire wind farms can be adjusted real-time to match the instantaneous electrical demand on the grid.[20][21] Wind and solar plants have the added advantage of providing low-voltage ride through and frequency ride through services to the power grid that would otherwise trip off conventional generators during a lightning event or sudden loss of a distant generation station.[22]

II.  Capitalism – Cause of an Impending Demise and the Best Hope for a Solution

In 2014, James River Coal Company (more than $800 million in debt) was among at least a dozen U.S. coal-producers to enter bankruptcy since 2003, according to Fitch Ratings and data compiled by Bloomberg Finances LP.[23] “A fracking boom has glutted the market with natural gas, luring some electric utilities away from coal. The electric-power sector will use 3 percent less coal next year and isn’t expected to recover to 2011 levels by 2040, the last year of a U.S. Energy Department forecast period.” [24] Four more US coal companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015. Overall, nearly 40 percent of US coal companies have fallen since 2004, although most of the assets have simply been acquired by other coal companies in a pattern of consolidation across the industry.[25] Although the mines and equipment continue to operate, an impact that fails to show up in US EIA statistics is the impact to health insurance and pensions of retired miners and their widows/widowers such as the Patriot Coal bankruptcy filing in 2015.[26]

“’When it comes to bankruptcy, the ones that lose the most are the workers and the retirees,’ said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. A few years ago, Patriot Coal, a spinoff of Peabody Energy, tried to cut benefits for thousands of unionized workers. After many rounds of negotiations, Patriot’s estimated $1.3 billion dollars in accrued benefits were reduced to a pool of just $400 million dollars to fund ongoing healthcare costs. That future of that account is now in question because Patriot declared bankruptcy again in May [2015].”[27] In another case, Alpha Natural Resources has asked a judge to cut the insurance benefits of 5,000 non-union retirees.

While President Obama’s 2015 executive order creating the Clean Power Plan through the EPA has a definite impact on the future of existing coal power plants if states are required to meet greenhouse gas emissions limits on electrical generation, capitalist principles have been in play for more than a decade to all but guarantee the demise of the coal industry. Harvard professor Clayton Chistensen coined the phrase “disruptive technology” to describe companies that produce “products or services that are too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market…an innovation that is disruptive allows new consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money…Characteristics of disruptive businesses…can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics…creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge.”[28] Examples of such disruptive technologies include personal computers displacing mainframe and mini computers, laptops and surface computers displacing desktop machines, cell phones displacing landlines and smart phones/tablets displacing computers and cable/satellite TV boxes.[29]

Much of the installed coal generation capacity was built in the 1960s-1980s for a grid that operated in a different fashion under a different fuel source environment and different air quality standards (even accounting for acid rain mitigation). See Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Coal plants retired in 2015 versus age of existing fleet.

Imagine an electronics or computer chip manufacturer attempting to compete in today’s market using plants and equipment built in in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Weak management practices that prefer cost minimization of aging assets not perfectly aligned with changing power characteristics of modern grids, has opened the door for innovators to displace companies who lack visionary forward thinking. Why would a coal industry executive operating single-cycle generating facilities at 34 percent fuel efficiency[30] while emitting both short term and long term pollutants ever expect to compete in a free market against a natural gas executive operating combined-cycle generating facilities at 45-55 percent fuel efficiency[31] and half the harmful emissions?[32]

Next, add an innovative natural gas exploration and production industry that is constantly looking to compete on the world market[33]. Natural gas extraction from shale increased from 0.39 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2000 to 4.87 tcf in 2010. The success of fracturing techniques has led to increasing reserves (see Figure A-3 in appendix) which has put the industry in an oversupply condition significantly reducing fuel costs for natural gas power plants. The gas supplies and low fuel prices are predicted by EIA to extend to 2020 and beyond. This combined with high coal mine production statistics through 2013/4 deflate the argument that clean energy policies are the cause of coal’s demise. Free-market capitalism is all it has taken to put the coal industry in jeopardy.

Further, consider wind energy development over the past 25 years. Continued research and development and the capitalistic rise, fall, acquisition, bankruptcy and innovation of the industry have moved it into the position of the fastest growing form of renewable energy in the US from ~ 0.25 percent of total electricity generation in 2000 to ~ 4.6 percent in 2015. See Figure 3. The wind industry and US Department of Energy have a long history of cooperation which continues in the current Wind Vision[34] plan that extends to 2030.

Figure 3
– Growth in US wind energy generation. Note that intermittent availability of the federal investment tax credit on renewables affects year to year growth rates along with longer term weather patterns to a lesser degree. (Source:

A popular business tool used by renewable energy power producers is the long term power purchase agreement (PPA). Industry improvement in power output per turbine, reduced operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, reduced cost of manufacturing and reduced cost of installation has resulted in drastic reductions per megawatt hour of electricity. Wind energy developers offer 25-year pricing at a known fixed rate since capital expenditures, O&M and fuel costs are known over the entire period. See Figure 4. Not only are conventional PPAs (between an independent power producer and electrical utilities or cooperatives) becoming more commonplace, but corporate PPAs have emerged over the past few years where large companies such as Google contract to purchase their power directly from a renewable energy provider. In some cases, these large corporations actually invest in the renewable assets, providing a new source of capital/risk to invest in the technology expansion.[35] Given the nature of wind energy, fuel costs are zero – another capitalistic, economic advantage over coal.

Figure 4 – US wind PPA trend from LBL 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report showing power sales prices in 2014 and 2015 below coal prices.

The US Energy Information Administration projects electricity generation costs out to 2020. Table 1 shows the current estimates with wind energy levelized cost of energy (LCOE) at $73.6 per megawatt-hour (MWh) and natural gas ranging from $72.6-$75.2/MWh without carbon capture[36]. Conventional coal is $20 higher at $95.1. If advanced coal gasification in its current form and/or carbon capture systems (CCS) for coal and natural gas are pursued, the cost picture for the coal industry gets even worse.

Table 1 – EIA estimates for LCOE of US electrical generation plants entering service in 2020.

III.  Solution for a Sustainable Coal Industry

As laid out above, the scope of problems facing the coal industry are squarely in the realm of basic economics, engineering and physics. When the wind industry began, their technology was not cost competitive, but incremental development and focus of industry and government labs have chiseled away at the technical and economic challenges to produce a quality solution to our country’s energy needs. Fortunately for the coal industry, a roadmap exists for technology to greatly mitigate their environmental cost.[37] While the current clean coal technology does not meet the economic challenges of competing against natural gas and wind, neither did those latter industries begin with an economic advantage. Market advantage was gained with sound, capitalistic business practices of innovation and incremental improvement.

Several key initiatives will fix many of the problems associated with coal power plants, which in turn will allow demand for coal production to increase, helping the mining industry. The first of these initiatives is related to the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment enacted by Congress requiring major industry emitters to reduce pollutants such as mercury, non-mercury metallic toxics, acid gases (NOx and Sox), and organic air toxics including dioxin.[38] In 1990, three industry sectors made up approximately two-thirds of total U.S. mercury emissions: medical waste incinerators, municipal waste combustors, and power plants. By 2005, the first two sectors had reduced their mercury emissions by 96 and 98 percent, respectively, while power plants had only achieved a 10 percent reduction.[39] Twenty years after the 1990 Amendments, 40 percent of electric generation units still have not implemented controls to meet those standards, so a finalized rule was published in 2011. Requiring all plants to implement these controls levels the playing field among all coal power plants and can be achieved with widely-available technology that has been proven for decades: Selective Catalytic Reduction with Flue-gas Desulfurization, Activated Carbon Injection (ACI), ACI with Fabric Filter (FF) or Electrostatic Precipitators.[40][41] In the late ‘90s, this technology was referred to as “Clean Coal” in that it reduces harmful emissions, but it should not be confused with a newer version of the term that implies reduction of greenhouse gases.

The second initiative is a larger, multifaceted effort known as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). It consists of three key stages. Stage one gasifies the coal by heating it in a steam environment to create a synthesis gas (or syngas) made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide (CO).[42] The hydrogen is then burned to make electricity (or can be used as a transportation fuel) while the CO is extracted prior to combustion and converted to CO2, compressed and stored underground. To improve the percent capture of CO and CO2, air, which is 78% nitrogen, is fed into an air separation unit that sends only oxygen to the gasifier.[43] Because the gas has higher concentrations of CO2 and is at higher pressures, pre-combustion CO2 extraction is much more efficient than post-combustion.[44]  The next stage is similar to a combined-cycle natural gas plant in that waste heat from the hydrogen combustion/generation process is used to turn a separate steam generator. The final stage captures CO2 from the combustion process, compresses and stores it.

Figure 5 – Diagram of an IGCC Power Plant (Source: National Energy Technology Laboratory)

The third initiative is carbon sequestration where the captured, compressed gas is either stored underground permanently or used in commercial applications such as enhanced oil recovery where CO2 is pumped into older oil reservoirs to increase the productivity of those wells.[45] Previously, water was injected for this purpose.

While the physics of these solutions is relatively straightforward, the engineering and implementation has proven challenging. Of the three rounds of funding for the Clean Coal Power Initiative, many project applicants have withdrawn or the projects have been suspended. A major project from the second round of funding, Southern Company’s Kemper project in Mississippi, has experienced delays and major budget overruns from an original estimate of $1.8 billion to $6.2 billion.[46] Several factors have led to these delays. Construction was begun with only 20 percent of the design complete[47] which required significant work to be dismantled and rebuilt. Instead of building pilot projects to prove out each individual part of the larger CCPI initiative, a full-meal-deal project for a large (580-megawatt) project was funded. This creates the risk that problems with any single part of the integrated solution could keep/delay the plant from functioning and prevent valuable learning on the individual components. Canada has a post-combustion carbon capture system working as a retrofit solution on an existing 110-megawatt power plant. Breaking the first phases of funding into proving individual components in smaller, pilot applications would allow for faster information cycles and smaller budgets. An additional impactor on project success is arbitrary deadlines tied to federal funding. Southern Company had to repay $130 million in federal funding when it missed a 2014 deadline.[48][49] DOE program managers should have foreseen this delay and Congress should allow for more flexibility in high-risk research and development projects.

IV.  Conclusions

There is a solution path for the coal industry’s suite of problems. This path is not without risks. Technology takes many years and even decades to develop. This is particularly challenging for an industry that has operated under a business model of squeezing the lowest possible costs out of 40- and 50-year-old technology. This means that two full generations of workforce have come and gone since any driving R&D has been conducted. There is no institutional knowledge to drive the needed improvement, so the industry must start from scratch.

The long history of avoiding the environmental costs associated with the coal mining and coal power generation industries has bred a business culture that is void of technological innovation. Problems such as metal and acid pollutants, worker safety and global climate change are seen from a cost-minimization perspective to be addressed in the courts or lobbied to the government in biased/politicized/ideological terms. Successful companies create new products and new business channels/markets. The coal industry has simply focused on economies of scale which Christensen has argued leaves the company vulnerable to disruptive technologies.

Economics and free-market capitalism alone will sink the coal industry if it does not innovate. Bankruptcies will continue and workers/retirees will continue to be underrepresented as creditors as will the reclamation responsibilities of these industrial facilities. One radical solution government could take is to step in on bankruptcies and take over the assets/facilities as the new owner/investor. Fire all the management. Keep the workers (operators, technicians, engineers) and install new management from the energy labs who understand technology development. The rationale behind this approach is that the government is going to end up responsible for the medical and welfare benefits for these employees anyway, along with cleanup of superfund sites. We might as well take full responsibility for industry’s failures and risk turning them into successful business ventures that can then be sold at a profit.

If that risk is deemed too great, and industry doesn’t see the proverbial “light”, we should pull the current funding and focus it on training and relocation of the workers who have dedicated their efforts in good faith. Helping them qualify for more stable jobs and providing incentives for new industry to move to the workers or workers to relocate to jobs would be a better use of the public’s money and time.


V.  Appendix


Table A-1: 2015 City of Gunnison Energy Source Mix – Source: City of Gunnison Electrical Department

Figure A-1: Coal Mines in Colorado (Source:

Table A-2: Coal Mines in Colorado (Source:

Figure A-2: Coal impacts in overall CO2 emissions (Source:

Figure A-3: Natural gas proven reserves in US





[1] 2,000 lbs. versus 2,200 lbs. for a standard ton.

[2] “U.S. Coal Reserves” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[3] “Coal Explained: How Much Coal is Left?” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. April 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[4] The contractual power purchase agreement between the City of Gunnison and the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) consists of 30.7% hydroelectric power, 10.5% wind power and 52.1% coal power. Most of the electrons actually come from the nearby hydroelectric projects along the Gunnison River, but the city is still responsible for the 40,868 tons of CO2 emissions in 2015 from the coal power purchased. The city cannot simply decide to increase the amount of hydroelectric power purchased. This low-cost and clean energy is in high demand and is apportioned across all WAPA members.

[5] “Colorado State Profile and Energy Estimates” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. Dec. 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

[6] “Annual Coal Report 2014.” US Energy Administration – Coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis, Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

[7] Number of mines does not include refuse recovery facilities.

[8] “Annual Coal Report 2014.” US Energy Administration – Coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis, Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. <;.

[9] “STATE RENEWABLE PORTFOLIO STANDARDS AND GOALS” Jocelyn Durkay. Mar 23, 2016. National Conference of State Legislatures. May 1, 2016.

[10] This makes sense in that the RPS standards don’t require the shuttering of existing fossil fuel facilities, rather that renewable energy options are preferred when choosing new electrical generation.

[11] “Coal and jobs in the United States” The Center for Media and Democracy – Source Watch. Web. April 30, 2016.

[12]“2011-12 US coal mine wages” May 2012. Web. April 30, 2016.

[13] “Coal Explained: Coal and the Environment” US Energy Information Administration. Dec. 12, 2015. April 30, 2016.

[14] “Overview of Greenhouse Gases” / “Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Natural Sources”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2010 data. April 30, 2016.

[15] CH4 breaks down in the upper atmosphere in ~ 12 years and is a greater impactor of greenhouse warming during that period. CO2 molecules remain in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years, so over the long term CO2 has the largest effect on greenhouse warming.

[16] “Coal Explained: Coal and the Environment” US Energy Information Administration. Dec. 12, 2015. April 30, 2016.

[17] “Flexible Coal: Evolution from Baseload to Peaking Plant” Jaquelin Cochran, Debra Lew, Nikhil Kumar. Dec 2013. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Intertek. May 1, 2016.

[18] FYI, I have dealt with author, Debra Lew on a few energy issues in the past.

[19] “Flexible Coal: Evolution from Baseload to Peaking Plant” Jaquelin Cochran, Debra Lew, Nikhil Kumar. Dec 2013. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Intertek. May 1, 2016.

[20] “Technical considerations of excess energy in village hybrid power systems” Slide 10. Rich Stromberg, Cady Lister. Sep 2014. Alaska Energy Authority. May 1, 2016.

[21] You see what I did there? I cited myself.

[22] “Implementation of Voltage and Frequency Ride-Through Requirements in Distributed Energy Resources Interconnection Standards” Reigh Walling, Abraham Ellis, Sigifredo Gonzalez. April 2014. Sandia National Laboratories. May 1, 2016.

[23]“Coal Company Pain Accelerates as Bankruptcy Cases Rise”, Dawn McCarty, Sonja Elmquist and Phil Milford. July 2014. Bloomberg Finances LP. April 30, 2016.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Coal Companies Are Hurting. But the Coal Industry Is Not Dying.” Daniel Gross. Sep. 2015. Slate magazine. April 30, 2016.

[26] “Bankruptcy Lawyers Strip Cash from Coal Miners’ Health Insurance” Alec MacGillis. Oct. 2015. Pro Publica.  April 30, 2016.

[27] “As Coal Mining Continues, What Does Bankruptcy Mean On The Ground?” Leigh Paterson. March 2016. Inside Energy. April 30, 2016.

[28] “Disruptive Innovation” Clayton Chistensen. 2016. May 1, 2016

[29] The concept of disruptive technologies is well known throughout the high tech industry. During my 17 years at Intel Corporation, even front-line employees were educated in this concept and the need for constant innovation.

[30] 2014 heat rate for coal is 3412 Btus ideal rate divided by 10080 Btus –

[31] Ibid. Natural gas heat rate is 7,658 Btus.3412 div by 7658 = 45%. General Electrical aero-derivative gas turbines have been operating at 50-55% efficiency in US utilities for more than 5 years. The GE turbines at the Chugach Electric South Anchorage facility run so efficiently that they are the preferred generation other than low-cost hydroelectric power.

[32] 117 pounds of CO2 per million Btu of natural gas in a single cycle generator versus 205-228 pounds of CO2 for coal. If the natural gas is combusted in a combined cycle turbine, the CO2 levels for equivalent energy output are cut from 117 pounds down to about 60 percent of that number.

[33] As opposed to US coal plants that have a relatively captive customer base.

[34] Full disclosure: Jose Zayas, Office Director for US DOE Wind and Water Power Technologies knows me through my wind energy work.

[35] “Google, Walmart and corporate energy 2.0” Peter Mostow. October 13, 2015. GreenBiz. May 2, 2016.

[36] For combined cycle plants. Single cycle plant costs are so high in this chart that no rational business model would support construction of new single cycle natural gas facilities.

[37] Note that in this paper, the industry is not allowed to externalize their environmental costs as a solution as this is one of the reasons the coal industry is in its current predicament. If the industry had been required to cover the environmental costs all along, they wouldn’t have been incentivized for such sloppy business strategies. They would have addressed the problems as problems arose. Externalizing costs is one of the faults of unregulated capitalism (British economist Arthur Pigou ~ 1920.)

[38] “Cleaner Power Plants” US Environmental Protection Agency. Feb 2016.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] These technologies are commonplace and are discussed in WSCU’s PHYS 125 curriculum.



[44] Ibid.

[45] “CARBON STORAGE R&D” US DOE. May 2, 2016.

[46] “Billions over budget. Two years after deadline. What’s gone wrong for the ‘clean coal’ project that’s supposed to save an industry?” Darren Samuelsohn. May 26, 2015. Politico.

[47] This is just incompetence – on the part of the construction contractor, the financer, Southern Company and the DOE oversight managers. State of Alaska energy projects are not approved for construction funding until a 95 percent design has been reviewed and accepted by the agency. Some grantees have chosen to risk their own money before waiting for a full design and approval and these projects have left a long trail of mistakes and cost overruns.

[48] “Billions over budget. Two years after deadline. What’s gone wrong for the ‘clean coal’ project that’s supposed to save an industry?” Darren Samuelsohn. May 26, 2015. Politico.

[49] Some of these projects were funded with 2009 ARRA funds which were intended for shovel-ready projects. I personally witnessed a few of these projects where the shovel was ready, but not much else.

Twelve Intrepid Souls

The first sign for you, the reader, that I’ve been busy is that I haven’t made a blog post in 13 months. This, despite that there has been plenty to report on. My first sign that I’ve been way too busy came midway through the spring semester at Western State Colorado University when someone mentioned rafting the Colorado River and I thought to myself “yeah, I’d like to do that someday…” and then a moment later remembered that I had indeed already done that not five months prior. My life had become such a blur that a 24-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon – a trip of a lifetime – had been temporarily banished from my active memory because I was so busy taking 17 credit hours at school, auditing another 3-hour class and training with the college trail running team two-plus hours per day, six days a week.

(Cue Fairport Convention’s cover of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” )

I’d like to think that life has slowed down since then, but the fact that I’m just now getting around to editing the first half of my Grand Canyon photos on the one-year anniversary of our departure from Lee’s Ferry should tell you otherwise. I had a full summer of site prep and construction at the Alaska homestead along with some nice trail races and have been in grad school since June 1. I’m not going to even make an estimate of when I might share some of those experiences in the blog. For now, please enjoy the photos from my trip with 11 friends from Oct 29 – Nov 21, 2015.

Of our intrepid crew, I had known four people for many years (one for 11), several others were friends of friends (par for the course in Alaska that anyone you meet has a common friend) and three people who were from the lower-48. By the end, we would have a bond that would last a lifetime – even the couple that broke up six months after the trip. You can’t brave that many rapids, share kitchen and groover duties, pee off a raft, rescue a few swimmers, bathe in cold and silty waters, get on each other’s nerves, resolve your differences, share tales around the campfire and groove to Hall & Oates without building lasting bonds. Seriously, who wouldn’t enjoy spinning the raft while gliding down the river while Brian cranks up “I Can’t Go for That”? ( )

It’s strange, but I took an emotional hit when one of the couples on the trip broke up six months later. We’ve known each other a long time and yeah, I know these things happen on a regular basis. I myself am divorced. But it really brought home the Heraclitus quote (or misquote because I think this has become an evolving saying): “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We’ve all changed in some way over the past year – I quit my job and went back to college and am apparently crazy enough to be a collegiate athlete more than twice the age of my teammates. One of us has biked more than 8,000 miles – the first 2,000 before any of us realized she had decided to bike across the US. Two of us started biking in Denali National Park and made it down to Peru before months of gastric assaults warranted a respite. One of us has been biking throughout Europe and has become a big hit with a Lay’s distributor in Spain. Another just finished hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

I guess it’s no wonder that we all were suited for our float down the Colorado. Twelve intrepid adventurers who pushed out from Lee’s Ferry a year ago with a modicum of naiveté. Twelve friends who survived Lava Falls and Bedrock Rapid (barely). Twelve friends who weren’t throwing punches when we hauled out at Pearce Ferry. We can never go back to that exact place in space and time, for our solar system continues to move throughout the Milky Way, the waters that we floated have long since passed through the canyon and evaporated on its way to Phoenix or Los Angeles, approximately 15% of our cells have regenerated, we’ve each been molded by additional life experiences and the finiteness of life has ticked away some 28 million seconds. New friends have been found, love has been lost, tears have been shed, along comes the frost. But a piece of each of us remains down in that canyon, a spiritual anchor to that span of 24 days. May I have the good fortune never to forget it a second time.

Peeking at a few pages ahead in the book of life

Mixed rain and snow is falling outside my window here in Anchorage just a day after I returned from a week in Colorado with sunny, blue skies. It’s been raining nonstop at least since I arrived 21 hours ago. The weather isn’t depressing, but it certainly lacks the power to entice me outside for a refreshing trail run or bike ride.

The past week is one of the first in a long while that I’ve been able to just kick back and relax rather than working on some project or training up for a race. Sure, I did some minimal chores around the ranch to minimize fire danger and make some repairs, but this visit I was able to take time to catch up with some neighbors and get in some scenic drives to take in the fall colors. Granted, I did run a 19.6-mile race ( ), but overall I felt able to relax more and cheat life by getting another week of summer temps and prime fall foliage.

Sometimes sustainability needs to be directed toward your own well-being and recharging your psyche. This past week was about exploring new places, making new acquaintance that could turn into friendships and sneaking a peak at a page or two from the next chapter of my life as I prepare to relocate to Gunnison County, Colorado after the first of the year to go back to school.

Here are some highlights of that next chapter, including fall colors near The Castles, Ohio Pass and Crested Butte plus views of the eclipse from the Windy SL Ranch.

Crested Butte aspens NE side

Red aspens

Fall returns to the homestead

Yes, I know. I have been extremely lax in updating this blog for the past 6-9 months. I have another post planned to talk about how the grand experiment went with the garden – in short, better than I expected. Kale continues to grow even after our first snow. Potatoes are a bumper crop. Moose came by, but didn’t dine. More details later.

For now, just enjoy this view from Sep 12 where the fall colors were at their peak. I wish I could have stayed more than just two nights.

Sep 12 view of Anthracite Ridge and the southern Talkeetna Range.
Sep 12 view of Anthracite Ridge and the southern Talkeetna Range.

While I’m at it, here’s another pic. the blueberry bushes have turned red.

Blueberry bushes turn red after the first light frosts of fall beneath golden cottonwoods, aspen and willow on the lower slopes of Anthracite Ridge.
Blueberry bushes turn red after the first light frosts of fall beneath golden cottonwoods, aspen and willow on the lower slopes of Anthracite Ridge.

And here’s a nice panorama from near the high point on the property showing the cabin, King Mtn, Talkeetna Mtns and Anthracite Ridge.

View of King Mtn (and a bit more of the Chugach Range), southern Talkeetna Mtns including Castle Peak and Anthracite Ridge.
View of King Mtn (and a bit more of the Chugach Range), southern Talkeetna Mtns including Castle Peak and Anthracite Ridge.
Southern Talkeetna Mtns.
Southern Talkeetna Mtns.
Fall colors from the cabin front porch.
Fall colors from the cabin front porch.

A few of the aspen actually turn orange.

orange aspen

And one last image to leave you with.

Chugach Range and cabin overlooking Matanuska River drainage.
Chugach Range and cabin overlooking Matanuska River drainage.

Alaska Fire Season

When I’m down in Colorado, I know exactly what to do when I see smoke in my fire district. First, I call/radio in the fire
to county dispatch. Then I don my wildland gear, grab my command pack and head to the station or directly to the fire if
we already have apparatus en route. Once on scene, I have everything I need to lead an initial attack through the first
12-hour operational period. Serving as a firefighter/officer in the western US, this happens frequently enough that some
steps become automatic even though each fire is unique.

Because of my experience with fire and my normal response mode, it felt odd/uncomfortable/out-of-place to be in the
western Interior village of Hughes, Alaska recently with a sizeable smoke column 12 miles southwest of town and not be
actively involved in the fire’s suppression. This particular fire is named the Isahultila Fire and at the time was a little
more than 8,000 acres in size. Another fire, 336 Rock Fire, is burning about 6 miles southeast of town, but posed less of
a risk to the community while I was there due to prevailing winds.

Since I’m not attached to a firefighting unit up here in Alaska, there’s nothing I can do in an official capacity in
response to the fire and that feels abnormal to me as it goes against my instincts. The Isahultila and Rock fires are two
of more than 300 wildfires currently burning across Alaska. There are far more fires than there are crews to fight them,
even with teams from the lower-48 flying up to join in the effort. Crews and equipment are being focused on communities
that are eminently threatened to mainly perform structure protection. The village of Tanana to the southeast is one of
those. The smoke was so dense from multiple fires near the community that our bush plane couldn’t land. This also means
helicopters with buckets, water tankers and slurry tankers can’t actively fight the fire either until visibility improves.
Crews have to make do with equipment that has already arrived in the community plus hand tools and backpack pumps. There are no hydrants in most of these communities that could otherwise be used for structure protection.There is a central
water pumping and treatment facility or the option to draft water out of nearby rivers and lakes.

After arriving in Hughes and sizing up the fires from town, my work partner Dave and I head out of town up a ridge to
install a wind monitoring tower. Since he’s not experienced in firefighting, I brief him on the basic concerns as we head
out into the field. One acronym is LCES, which stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones. I
verbalize watchout situations ( as we drive up the ridge on the gravel
road, the first is that there’s a period of time where we don’t have a visual on the fire. Fortunately, the winds have
been light and the fire is far enough away, that this isn’t a major risk. I tell Dave about the types of fuels/vegetation
along our escape route to assess the possible rate of spread if a fire were to hit this area.

Once up on the ridge, I choose a location for us to work where we have a good view of the Isahultila smoke column that is
building more as the afternoon heats up. The Rock Fire smoke 3 miles to the south is more diffuse and lacks the signs of a
running crown fire. Our safety zone is a gravel pit large enough to protect one vehicle and up to three people from an
approaching flame front. I know this from experience and because it is listed on page 8 of the Incident Response Pocket
Guide that wildland firefighters carry.

Every 15-20 minutes we stop working and take time to assess the fire behavior from our vantage point. While the smoke
column builds and gets darker as the fire moves through stands of black spruce, the prevailing winds push the fire on a
path that will lead it south of our position and our route 4 miles back to town. As we walk across the tundra, I make
note how dry the vegetation is. Normally, the tundra is spongy, but today it is crunchy. If fire reaches this area, it
will certainly move through this landscape. Our plan is to evacuate to the safety zone if there are any spot fires
whatsoever since we don’t have any gear to fight spot fires with us. On very large fires with high winds, burning embers
can easily be carried a mile ahead of the main flame front. In some cases, burned embers and pine cones have dropped a
dozen miles in front of a fire by the strong convective updrafts in the smoke column. This is not one of those days,

Back in town we learn there has been a community meeting where the village and tribal councils have decided to evacuate
children and elders 40 miles up river to the next town – Allakaket. Dave and I start working to help establish a staging
area by the river for those currently evacuating and those who wish to get their belongings ready in case the fire makes a
quick run and people need top leave quickly. We help load up some gear on boats heading out and erect a large covered
awning with no assembly manual. Two smoke jumpers have arrived and their job is to keep an eye on the fire’s progress down river and attack spot fires if needed and prudent. I share intel on what I’ve seen up on the ridge and they let me know
what the latest fire weather forecast has been over their satellite phone.

Dave and I settle in to spend the night at the village offices and I get some time to gather better fire information on
the Web. I send out an email to the meteorologists forecasting fire behaviour and help them adjust their wind direction
forecast based on actual observations in town since their nearest live weather station is 40 or so miles away in the
village of Huslia.

These days there are superior online tools for fire incident managers to plan their operations. For Alaska, I can quickly
pull up the latest fire weather forecasts for each fire zone in the state and see if there are any red flag warnings
posted. I know what the wind speed and direction are going to be along with the potential for lightning that might spark
new fires. Even better, I can launch a mapping tool and zoom in to the immediate area around town to see the most recent
validated fire perimeter and where overhead satellites have identified new spot fires using infrared imagery. By checking
every 6-12 hours, I start to get a good feel about how fast the fire is moving to better advise the community on their
evacuation plans. Online we get news that the community of Tanana has to shelter in place because the smoke is too thick
to even allow for safe boat travel on the river.

The next morning we continue to help get gear down to the staging area and monitor conditions of the fires. As the winds
are out of the south, smoke envelops the town and we no longer have a visual on the fire, but the online tools tell us
exactly what’s going on. There’s supposed to be a plane arriving around 2:30 to fly us back to Fairbanks, but unless the
winds shift, we will be stuck due to low visibility. If we have to stay, that’s just how it goes when you’re traveling in
remote Alaska. I’m sure Dave and I can make ourselves useful helping out the local residents, especially since the local
people with firefighting experience happen to be deployed on other fires in the state at the present time. During these
periods of low visibility, the URL helps to reassure us what is
happening 10-12 miles away. Another useful tool is the lightning strike map that shows positive (cloud to ground) and
negative (ground to cloud) strikes (URL While positive
strikes make up only about 10 percent of all lightning, they are the predominant source of naturally-caused wildfires.
Sometimes it takes a day or more for a lightning strike to smolder in the vegetation before it gets big enough to send up
a column of smoke or create a heat plume for the infrared sensors on satellites and aircraft.

As luck has it, winds shift just enough out of the southwest about 40 minutes before the plane will try to land and our
runway clears of smoke. As the plane climbs out of town, we briefly get a view of the fire before flying into a layer of
smoke that extends from the ground up to at least 11,000 feet and stays thick all the way to Fairbanks and beyond. We land around 4pm at Fairbanks International and the smoke is so thick that it’s hard to make out the runway lights on our
approach. Keep in mind these are runway lights being illuminated a few days past summer solstice in the land of the
midnight sun.

A few days later I’m at the Anchorage airport picking up a different Dave – my friend from Colorado whose cabin in Willow,
AK burned up in the Sockeye Fire a few weeks earlier. Dave and his wife TC spend winters up in Alaska running their sled
dogs on the hundreds of miles of trails around Willow. At 7,220 acres, the Sockeye Fire isn’t nearly as big as the fires
burning near Hughes, but it started and spread through a more populated area ultimately destroying 55 homes and numerous outbuildings. Despite this being a large mushing community, all the sled dogs were evacuated in the little time people had to leave the area.

Dave and TC’s house is a total loss – burned down to the foundation. Even the foundation is chipping from the heat of the
fire. There are dead spruce and birch snags standing and the occasional hot spots burning just down their road. At least
in this situation I know what to do and have the necessary tools. We brought shovels, a rake, a chainsaw, axes, protective
clothing and a 55-gallon tank of water which comes in handy for the occasional smoldering patch that’s crawling through
some unburned parts of the forest floor.

After first working to clear out the remains of the house and make a large recycling/salvage pile from the old metal roof
and appliance remains, I get to falling trees on the property that are either in immediate danger of falling on someone or
will be in the next few years. There’s no need to have hazard trees around when crews come in to rebuild their house of
when they start running dog sleds through the woods in the winter.

The landscape is significantly changed, but still remotely recognizable from its former incarnation. For Dave and TC, this
is as bad as it gets. Still, we find little treasures in the ruins: a pile of colorful ceramic plates broken when the
kitchen floor collapsed add some color to the other wise charred scene or the Sponge Bob coffee mug with the bottom broken off that will make a fine souvenir on the new mantel.

At the end of the day I felt as if I were able to actually do something constructive about the fire. Rebuilding is a long process, but this was a start. In some ways, life gives people a few do-overs – a chance to make changes or to consciously choose to do it exactly the same way again. For me, the day was an opportunity to refresh some of my old firefighting skills and get a little dirty. In fact, I was so black from soot all over my body that when I was back at our host home to unload some gear, TJ walked up behind me and asked how things went. As I turned around to answer him he did a double take at my new appearance.

Postscript: The Rock Fire eventually burned more than 84,000 acres including where we had set up our met tower. The
Ishultila Fire burned more than 60,000 acres. Fire crews burned out vegetation close to town to protect structures in a
controlled manner. Lightning strikes have started two new fires west of town and another north of town. To date, no people
or structures in Hughes have been harmed. On July 13, two people were charged with an illegal burn pile and leaving the fire unattended which caused the fast-spreading Sockeye Fire.

End of the trail – Stuart

I’ve known Lachlan and Linda for 10 years now. We first met when I was covering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race for The Northern Light newspaper at UAA in 2005. Being from Colorado, I paid special interest in the few mushers from my other adopted home state. (Truth be told, I don’t really have a home state, per se. I’ve moved around a lot. I consider Alaska and Colorado to be my adopted homes states.) The Clarke’s are easy people to like. They are approachable, earnest and dedicated to their dogs. You can also tell that they are very much in love. If ever a couple were meant to be together, it is these two.

True confession: I know more musher’s names than I know NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB player names combined. It wasn’t always that way, but the more time I spend out in the real world where you have to survive in whatever Mother Nature throws at you, the less I have time for sitting in front of a television long enough to watch a game. Heck, I probably know more sled dog names than pro sports players. I guess I have more in common with and can better identify with mushers and their dogs.

I remember when Thelma and Louise were on the team in 2005 along with leaders Ace and Lefty. Thelma, later a leader, just recently retired lasting a few more years on the gang line than her sister. One day, she just decided she had done enough running. Dogs can be like that. They know when it’s time to hang it up and surf the couch.

I was looking at Lachlan’s hand-written roster this year and saw some old familiar names: Starbuck, Walter, Johny, Brody, Jetta and Ferris – the latter who made the cut by a simple twist of fate. I’ve followed these dogs for quite a while, as I’ve followed Lachlan’s progress in and out of each checkpoint during the six or seven years he’s run the race since I’ve known him. Of particular note was somewhere around 2009, hearing that he had taken a bad spill coming down the Dalzell Gorge. I can’t imagine what Linda goes through waiting back in town, refreshing the Iditarod Web page and waiting to get any update she can from the checkpoints. Wisely, Lachlan scratched from the race when he got to the next checkpoint and it was clear he couldn’t properly care for his team in his current condition. Doctors would soon confirm a broken ankle.

I like to visit with the dogs before they set out on the trail – not so much on the day of the ceremonial start in Anchorage, but at the restart in Willow. This is where the real adventure begins. The rookies just think they are going out for some long training run. You look into the eyes of the veterans and they know what’s ahead. I long to know what it’s like out on that trail – so much so that this year my plan was to ski, run, snowshoe or bike out to Rainy Pass to get an understanding of what it’s like to get out there in it – into the real wilderness, the solitude – get so far out in it that it’s just me in my own head. The unseasonable warm weather, rain and open water on the southern part of the Iditarod trail I planned to travel put the kibosh on this year’s plans.

I caught up with Lachlan and Linda at the musher’s banquet and again at the start in Anchorage. A bunch of us were going to meet up for a meal after the short, 11-mile run with the dogs to Campbell Airstrip. Linda texted after a while to say that Stuart, a 3-year-old rookie named for Stuart Little, had gotten loose and they were trying to find/catch him. He had last been seen running down the busy Elmore Road. I was getting my trail gear together to go and run the Tozier Track, Moose Track and Tour of Anchorage trails, despite the fact that there are lots of dense woods in between those trails.

After a bit, someone posted to the internet that Stuart was seen running on the mud flats 10 miles away near Ship Creek and Westchester Lagoon, so I loaded up the bike and hit the Coastal Trail to ride through the ice, slush and snow hoping to get a visual on Stuart. I stopped to ask every person I encountered who was out on the mud flats, but no one had seen Stuart. I covered the trail from near Point Woronzof all the way up to the port with no luck. When I happened to text my old roommate Dan who works for animal control, he was getting updates of Stuart sightings. He had been seen at a trailer park in Spenard. Before I could get back to my truck, Linda texted that Stuart was seen at Westchester Lagoon running down the railroad tracks but out of earshot. Within 15 minutes, Dan texts back that a dog is running at 36th and the New Seward Hwy in the median. The next text reads “********. Dog got hit.”

I call Dan and confirm that it really is Stuart. Then I call Linda to break the bad news. I’d rather they hear it from me than animal control. The afternoon has been like a runaway train for the past four hours as we try to search and give people directions who aren’t familiar with this city and coordinate with people monitoring online posts. Then it all comes to a sudden stop with the outcome we were hoping to avoid.

I ask Dan if he’ll wait on scene so we can come get Stuart. I get there 30 seconds before Lachlan and Linda. I walk up, shake Dan’s hand, then go over to the dog, squat down to give him a pet and then shed a tear not so much for Stuart, because I didn’t know him, but for Lachlan and Linda. We put Stuart in a bag and are going to carry him back to the truck together, but his 55 pounds seem light, so I just cradle him in my arms and stand up.

At this point a decision needs to be made. With the Iditarod restart moved to Fairbanks, 350 miles to the north, Lachlan needs to drive north the following day. He can’t just skip the race. He’s got to think of the dogs that have been training for the past several months and all the rookies that need to get an Iditarod under their belt (harness, whatever). Lachlan’s also doing this race as a memorial for 25 fallen Marines of the 3/5. I already know what he’s thinking when I ask what he wants to do with Stuart.

“We’re 4,000 miles from home,” Lachlan says.
“I’ll bury him out at my cabin,” I say, knowing darn well what I’m committing to when it’s late winter and the ground is frozen down 5 or more feet – that is if you don’t happen to be digging on the wrong plot of land in discontinuous permafrost. With the cabin sitting at 2,500 feet elevation, it’s a distinct possibility.

Lachlan really didn’t have any options. I place Stuart in the bed of my truck, shake Lachlan’s hand, turn back to their truck and see Linda sitting in the cab, but elect stay back and let her grieve. I thank Dan for being there and head home. It reminds me of my days with Albuquerque Mountain Rescue when we’d be on a search and our victim was found deceased. The adrenaline rush ends and you crash in minor disbelief. I distract myself by planning logistics for the following day to get Stuart in a suitable grave so Lachlan doesn’t have to worry while he’s on the Iditarod Trail. As I have time to reflect, the irony sinks in that this is the big news story of the day and not only do I know the mushers involved, but I know the animal control officer and the news photographer sent to cover the story – all for at least 7 years. Alaska really is that small.

I text my cabin neighbor John to see if he’s around to bring Stuart up to my cabin in his snowmobile. If not, I’m prepared to drag a sled strapped to my pack up 400 vertical feet in 3/4-mile. It won’t be easy, but I can get it done. I bring a shovel, but know without a doubt that the real work is going to be done with a pick ax. That night, I drive to the airport to pick up my nephew. Walking back out to the truck, I inform him that there’s a deceased sled dog in the bed of the truck. Welcome to Alaska. That night, I take half of my king salmon at dinner and place it next to Stuart. I always used to share my food with my old dog Taiya and figure Stuart could use some fine cuisine on his journey.

We get up early the next day and drive out to the cabin. We load Stuart into John’s snowmobile sled and head up the hill. I don snowshoes and scout out a good spot for Stuart that has nice views and (to the best of my recollection with two-and-a-half feet of snow on the ground) hopefully won’t be on top of a rock outcropping. I clear out a spot with the snow shovel and get to work breaking ground.

The first swing of the pick ax goes in reluctantly, but not as bad as I had feared. The adze end was barely of any use and actually bent a bit when I tried to pry a frozen chunk of soil up. The pick was most effective, even if it was slow going – two to three inches of frozen chunks of soil removed with each matrix of about 50 whacks on the topmost layer. If you got a piece to break loose that was larger than your fist, you were elated. Sometimes it felt just slightly softer than swinging into hard rock and several chunks broke loose with enough force to break the skin on my shins even through my pants.

My friend Tyndall came along after I had gone down a foot and we took shifts to get down as far as we could until the ground was so frozen and the hole so deep you couldn’t really make any more progress. All total, it took more than three hours of digging. It could have been much worse. I said a few words to Stuart, let him know that Lachlan and Linda loved him and placed him in the ground. We covered him up and placed some moose antlers on his mound. I texted Linda to let her know Stuart was laid to rest and sent her some photos the next morning so Lachlan could have some assurance when he and the team set out on the race trail at 10am.

I wonder what Lachlan is thinking out on the trail. I know from others that the loss of a dog is the worst thing you can go through. Life is for the living though and he has a team of 16 dogs to care for as they take him more than 1000 miles to Nome. Truth is, Stuart has a better final resting place than 99 percent of the people in this world. He’ll never get to run the race he trained for. His trail ends here at the homestead. I don’t know if I believe in a soul or not, but if I hear a howl out my cabin door I’ll know that Stuart is out there in it – in the real wilderness, the solitude, in that place where I long to be.

Stuart gravesite closeup

Catching a few more sunrises before heading back north

The southwest is blessed with wide open vistas and high, dry air that allows for frequent bursts of brilliance during sunrise and sunset. I’ve never put blinds or shades on the house here at the Windy SL Ranch. I know I’m loosing some energy efficiency, but I find the views from inside keep me connected to the greatness that is just out my doorway. Frequently, I’ll wake to the start of a brilliant sunrise which forces me out of bed and running out the front door to catch the fleeting reds and oranges before they fade to nothing more than a memory.

The night skies aren’t bad either.

Wish you were here to enjoy this with me. Peace to all.

Ranch sunrise panaorama Greenhornn Mtn and eastern plains Jan 18 2015 small

Rich’s rules for heating your home with firewood

Today is one of those winter days where you feed the wood stove all day long. This happens maybe 20 percent of the time. The rest of the days have enough sun to warm the house through passive absorption of the sun’s infrared rays, coupled with the fact that it isn’t as cold outside.

When I arrived at the ranch yesterday after an eight-day journey of three days at sea plus 2400 miles of driving, I had a one-day supply of dry firewood waiting for me in the garage. Here in Colorado where wildfires are the norm for most summers, I make a point not to store a bunch of wood around the house in case a fire comes ripping through and no one is around to perform mitigation or active structure protection. A common practice is for people to store firewood under a home’s deck to keep it dry. This strategy works very well in that respect, but is detrimental to fire safety.

Rule #1 – Don’t leave firewood stored around your house.

Yesterday’s high temperatures in the upper 40s and mostly sunny skies gave way to snow that started around sunrise. This was the same storm I had been working to outrun ever since disembarking from the ferry on Friday. I had managed to get a full 12 hours ahead of it before it hit with high winds and then small, but consistent snow flakes that ended up with 9 or more inches of accumulation, despite the 1-2″ forecast.

I set out with the F150 at about 10am to collect some firewood. The covered pile I already have from last summer’s fire mitigation work is still too green to burn. When collecting firewood, I have two rules: if the ground is dry, collect down and dead wood; if the ground is wet, collect standing dead wood. I know where my various stashes of dead trees are around the ranch to keep me in firewood for the next 5-6 years, so I drove to a spot that I can get to with today’s snowfall, but might not be able to reach if this becomes a heavy snow year. I’ll leave the easy-to-reach wood for when it’s the only stuff I can get to because I’m hunkered down.

Rule #2 – If the ground is dry, collect down and dead wood.

Rule #3 – If the ground is wet, collect standing dead wood.

Rule #4 – Harvest the hard-to-reach wood supplies when the weather is good, leaving the easy stuff for when the weather is nasty.

Before heading out, I got all my gear ready by filling up the saws with bar oil lubricant and fuel mix, then giving each chain a quick sharpening with a circular file. I say “saws” because I always make a habit of taking two saws in case the first one has problems in the field such as vapor locking or dulling out from hitting a rock or some other equipment malfunction. I also made sure I got in the truck with ear plugs, eye protection and two sets of gloves in case my hands get cold and I need to switch out a pair to keep working.

Rule #5 – Take a backup chainsaw.

Rule #6 – Take a second pair of gloves in the winter and keep the extra pair warming up against the defrost vents.

One full size piñon tree is about all that fits in the bed of the pickup and provides a wide variety of wood diameter ranging from kindling to large logs. Some people like to just use ponderosa or birch/aspen from the main trunk, but this involves a lot of time splitting wood. By taking out dead piñon, I reduce the fire danger and minimize the amount of time I need to swing a mauling axe.

Rule #7 – Burn the whole tree to reduce fire danger and reduce work.

While out collecting wood, I run the chainsaw just enough to cut the tree into manageable pieces that I can then throw in the back of the truck. I try to minimize my burning of fossil fuel because I have a surplus of solar energy back at the house. Once I get there, I use an electric chop saw and an electric chainsaw to cut the wood into pieced small enough to fit in the wood stove.

Rule #8 – Minimize use of fossil fuel by employing electric saws where possible.

I backed the pickup next to the garage and tossed the wood inside after first knocking the snow off. Several inches had fallen while I was out collecting this tree and I had to work quickly to make sure my standing dead wood stayed dry. Once the pile was in the garage, I could close the door and go to work reducing everything down with the chop saw and electric chainsaw. The only time I need to use the 8-lb mauling axe is on the pieces that came from the main stump. When I cut these in the field, I try and cut them in such a way as to make them rest flat on the chopping block and avoid abt branching of the stump.

Rule #9 – Cut your larger pieces in the field so that they are easier to split when you get back to the house.

One time I went into a Home Depot and told them that my log splitter had the problem of really slowing down after about 20 minutes of use. When they asked me which model I had, I told them it was an 8-lb mauling axe. The secret to splitting a lot of firewood is to learn to swing a mauling axe with either hand. You tire less frequently and keep your musculature more symmetric. It takes a bit of practice at first, but you’ll be pretty accurate within a day or two. The final trick to heating your home with a wood stove is to keep a big pot of water on the stove to act as a humidifier so the house doesn’t dry out too much.

Rule #10 – Learn to swing a mauling axe with either hand.

Rule #11 – Put an uncovered pot of water on top of the stove to humidify the house.

Those are the methods to my warmth. Heating your home with firewood takes some work, but it’s still a feasbile option and a good way to save money, stay healthy and keep the fire danger down. Plus, if the power grid goes down, you can still be warm and keep your pipes from freezing up.

firewood tools
Chainsaw, backup chainsaw, bar oil, file ear plugs, chop saw and electric chainsaw. Not shown: eye protection, gloves and mauling axe.

Short days in Haines

The sun sets early here in Haines, Alaska – partly because it sits so far east in the time zone and partly because there is a mountain range to the southwest. As I run along the paved trail that runs from mile 19 on the highway north to mile 21 to see the more prevalent congregations of eagles, I suddenly notice the temperature drop. The sun has just fallen behind the mountains and it’s only two o’clock. Official sunset isn’t for another hour and a half and by 3:30pm the twilight is seriously waning, especially when it’s overcast.

Today is a different matter. It started out with rain to the south with patches of blue sky up north along the Chilkat River. The blue sky extended all the way into town as the day wore on. This made for better photograpahs of the eagles than the day before when grey skies and flat light were washing out the colors.

One of these days, I’d like to have a free day to hike Mt. Ripinsky and photograph bears and eagles, but each of the past three years has conspired to make me work more than a full day while I’m in town. I was able to coordinate a window of time to make a fast run up the highway and observe some eagles and visit with my friend Rachel and her State Fair winning dog, Rigby. He has a blue ribbon on the wall to back that claim up.

An hour up the highway was rushed, but the eagles are so plentiful during the late salmon run that you are certain to see at least a few dozen. Back in town, I set up shop at the public library with still looks brand new despite it being awarded Best Small Town Library of 2005. The WiFi signal is helpful, but if there wasn’t one I’d probably get a lot more pleasure time while I’m in town.

After checking on my meteorological stations in town, I made a bee line to Dejon Delights which makes just about the best smoked salmon you’ll find anywhere. Within 24 hours, I have already consumed nearly two of the four packages that I purchased: a smoked coho fillet and nearly a while package of smoked sockeye bellies. At this rate, the rest will be gone somewhere between Ketchikan and Bellingham. The jar of jalapeño-flavored coho might make it all the way to the ranch, though.

The 750-mile drive from Anchorage is the driest I’ve ever seen the highway during the eight winter drives I’ve done. The temperatures only got down to about -15 F, which is technically winter but a far cry from the -40 temps I’ve encountered in the past. Haines is ice-free so far this year while all the cold air is down in the central continental US. A friend from Kotzebue told me last week that it was 36 F and the river had opened up again. There is no ice to speak of and his theory is that the lack of an ice pack forces the high pressure systems to form further east over land in the far north and this pushes warm air up into Alaska, while forcing cold air down into the rest of the country.

Now that I’m on the ferry, my mind is definitely focused on my friends, family and home down in Colorado even as thoughts of those important to me up in Alaska linger. Taking a slow boat is makes the transition easier than jet travel. Today’s rain in Sitka is fitting given that I made a quick visit out to the Blue Lake hydroelectric project. The increase in height of the dam allows for more storage and more power (due to higher head) for the community. The ribbon cutting was just last week and workers are finishing up punchlist items, while the hydroturbines are fully operational.

Despite getting violently ill on the first day in the car, Minx has settled in well on the ferry this time. Based on his appetite for salmon skin today, you’d never know he was doing his best Linda Blair impression two days ago.

Sitka has a beautiful little park on the southeast side of town made specifically for viewing huimpack whales that pass through this area in the spring and late fall. None where around, but the hemlock forest and calm ocean were so soothing that I found myself not caring. Like Haines, I need to come to Sitka sometime just to relax without any work agenda.

Just as the MV Malaspina is leaving port, the captain announces some humpbacks off the port side. Several of us rush out on the deck to get a closer look, but it turns out just to be a fluke.

Always have a Plan B…and you might want to consider a Plan C while you’re at it

I step carefully as I walk on overflow in the low meadows beneath Anthracite Ridge. Snows are late coming to southcentral Alaska and the natural streams are seeping out of the earth, only to freeze into solid ice shortly after hitting the sub-freezing fall air. The temps have dipped down into the low teens at night, and the process repeats itself each day. This large meadow is a mixture of grasses and short willows, the later of which is the cause for caution, lest I slip and impale myself on one of the branches sticking up through the ice.

As I move slowly across this terrain, I’m reminded of a kayaking trip down in Kachemak Bay about six weeks earlier. To say that I was lucky to come away from that trip with nothing more than some scratches and devil’s club spines on my hands is to underestimate the hazards of remote travel. Luck has very little do with it. Experience, knowledge, contingencies and a willingness to retreat are what keep me from ending up in the new headlines on some of these outings. On that particular day, I drew on my experience in sea kayaking, mountain rescue and wildland firefighting to deal with numerous hazards that cropped up. I also had to suck up some basic willpower just to haul my boat back to where I started out earlier in the day.

I drove down to Homer one weekend to do some exploring around the upper reaches of Kachemak Bay. My online reconnaissance using Google Earth and other available maps identified only one possible launch side at the upper end of the bay. The beach required a steep descent several hundred feet down a trail that was more suitable for four-wheelers than a pickup. My Toyota pickup has good, solid four-wheel drive and the snows hadn’t made it that far south, so I figured it was doable even if it looked dicey.

What concerned me more was the mud flats at the upper end of the bay that extend out from this beach when the tide goes out. My big question, and I couldn’t find any online or local resource was how low the tide gets before the mud flats are exposed. I called a local water taxi out of Homer (18 miles to the southwest of this beach) for some information about the tides and to see if I should instead let him talk me out of launching from that beach and instead paying for a water taxi to the south side of the bay up at the east end. The fellow told me that they don’t really go that far up the bay but that I should have no problem. I took his advice, but with a dose of skepticism. My schedule that day had me launching at near high tide and I knew that at the lowest tide there would be at least a mile of mud flats to deal with. The question still remained: how close to high tide does it need to be for the water to be deep enough to kayak over the mud flat region?

I set out with a few options. My first was to make sure that I was returning an hour or more after low tide when the water was coming back in. My second was to attempt to walk across the mud flats, if encountered. My third was to get back in the kayak and paddle out to deeper water if the mud flats were such that one could literally get stuck and risk having the tide rise up above your head. Having the kayak would allow some wider surface area to extract myself from the mud should that occur. If I had to retreat back into the water to wait several hours for higher tide levels, there was no other beach or even cliff face to divert to on the north without encountering mud flats. Thus, I had to assess how extreme the seas were before leaving the relative safety of the south shore. I can handle 3-foot seas in a kayak. Five-foot seas would mean waiting it out on the south side of the bay. Lastly, I brought some small rope with which to drag the kayak should the weight of carrying the boat cause me to sink into the mud. My experience from remote living in Alaska and Colorado winters had taught me to always have a least one back up and each year I end up having to rely on that back up at least once.

The waters were relatively calm as I headed across the bay with winds out of the west/southwest. I would keep an eye on the winds as there was 20 miles or more of fetch to create big waves at the head of the bay. Paddling across to my destination island and then the mainland went without a hitch. There were sea otters and water fowl out on the water and as I got over to the island, I surprised a harbor seal sunning on some rocks. The occasional lion’s mane jellyfish and striped jellyfish drifted by and when I pulled out in the shallows, some clear jellyfish were visible as well.

Walking along the shore, it wasn’t clear what my best path inland was as there didn’t appear to be any trails and the alders were quite thick, filling in much of the space between the spruce and birch trees. The terrain was steep and I found myself drawing on my years with Albuquerque Mountain Rescue as I traversed the cliffs. Always keep three points of contact, meaning that you establish good hand and foot holds and only only move one hand or foot at a time to then establish a decent hold with that appendage. More than once, I accidentally grabbed some devil’s club thinking it was alder. In some places, I was able to step on it with my boot, but in other places it was too thick to avoid a confrontation.

As I got up above the devil’s club and into the spruce forest, I immediately noticed a maze of down and standing dead snags. In the fire service, we refer to these as hazard trees. You can encounter everything from large branches broken off in the upper portions that are hanging precariously waiting for the slightest vibration to drop them on anything that happens to be below. The nickname for this type of hazard is called a “widow maker” and they have done just that to wildland firefighters. Standing dead trees have also been known to topple over with just a gentle touch as their root systems are rotted away. A Colorado wildland firefighter was killed this way back around 2007. As I approached each tree, I would assess its safe side and test the tree for stability before moving on. At times, the fallen spruce were thick enough that one had to crawl over and under to get through. At each obstacle, I took the time to test the tree’s integrity and possible direction of shift or role.

I was actually relieved when I came across a bear trail as this provided some easier progress even if I did have to keep yelling “hey bear” every minute or so. My intuition allowed me to find an easier route down to another beach with a walk along the shore at low tide back to my kayak, which had been hauled well above the tide line, lest a big wave come along and pull it out to sea leaving me stranded.

Further paddling along the south shore revealed more sea otters, a natural arch and pleasant views as I paddled up the cove. By time I had waited long enough to miss the low tide period, I noticed some cabin cruisers out trawling that were starting to bob around like corks as I approached the island that was along my route back to the north shore. Apparently, the incoming tide was creating some strong currents that could flip a boat my size if one wasn’t paying attention. I paddled strongly through the eddies and was thankful that I hadn’t brought a novice paddler along on this particular day.

When I made it back to the north shore, my question about how high the tide needed to be in order to paddle above the mud flats was answered. It would need to be within just a few feet of high tide…or significantly higher than it was right now. The remainder of my outing for the day can best be described as a real drag – literally. I was able to walk on the mud flats without sinking in too badly, but carrying the 60-lb kayak weighed me down enough that my feet were getting stuck. For the next mile, I lashed a tow line across my chest, leaned forward and dragged the kayak across the mud – with the surface tension of the mud fighting the resistance of the kayak hull. By the time I had gotten to ground solid enough that I could pick up the kayak and carry it, I was thankful.

The drive back up the steep trail was uneventful, although a good low gear is needed. At the top of the hill, 600 feet above the beach, I stopped to look back at where I’d been, unsure when I’d have the desire to relive that adventure again any time soon. A week later I was back in Prince William Sound paddling on familiar waters that were closer to home and far from mud flats. The seas can get rough out here, but at least I have the benefit of familiarity.

Since then, I’ve kept my feet on dry land as winter approaches. Summer kayaking gives way to winter fires in the stove out at the cabin. I’ve made a few excursions to Nome and Unalakleet along Norton Sound and the weather has been mostly cooperative even if temperatures were in the single digits. Aurora displays have been weak, but the stars are still worth your gaze until the nighttime temperatures drop down below zero. The occasional moose can be seen grazing on the hillside, the snows having held off for as late in the season as I can remember.

Best of all lately have been the canine guests out at the cabin who keep me company on moonlit walks and snore themselves to sleep after a full day on the trail. I guess you don’t need a back up plan when you have a soft dog bed by the fire and a buddy who shares his salmon with you.