Sunday, May 31, 2009

When is a 5-year adjustable rate mortgage a good idea?

When is a 5-year adjustable rate mortgage a good idea?

When you're me.

The conventional wisdom is that when the market is good, you should just get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage to take advantage of the low interest rates by locking them in. When we bought our house, the market was good. Not great, but good. Nevertheless, since we were buying just as I was going into the first year of 3 years of law school, we opted for the 5-year ARM. Adjustable rate mortgages give you a fixed rate for the first few years, and then they vary each year after that. The rate is lower for the initial period. We figured we'd probably sell our house once I was out of law school for two years, so the 5-year ARM worked for us and got us a lower rate.

Little did we know. I did a dual-degree program and took 4 years to finish school, and then we went to Alaska for 2 years. So our mortgage rate is adjusting this year, and we're nowhere close to selling our house.

I got the Notice of Intent to Change the Interest Rate on Adjustable Rate Mortgage from our bank today. Scary stuff, right? Our rate is gonna go up like everyone fears, right?

I laughed out loud. Our rate is tied to the 1 Year US Treasury Security Weekly Average. Our initial ARM rate was 5.375%. The new rate for this next year is 3.25%.

What can I say? Sometimes you step in shit and come out smelling like roses.

Our new mortgage payment is a fiver short of $300. (That's down from $350.) We'll keep paying the $400 we always pay, of course, but now that'll be more money going towards our principal.

Hooray for the economy being in the crapper!

(As you probably surmised, Samara and I returned safely from Fairbanks. The flights were uneventful, we took most of the day off from work on Friday, Dillingham has turned green, I went hiking with Anthony, and then today we had dinner with Erin, Anthony and Saramay. Shaping up to be a good weekend so far, except for a little rain.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stampede Trail Hike (Into the Sort-Of Wild)

I made good on the promise I made in yesterday's blog post. Today I hiked the Stampede Trail in Alaska's interior.

First, some background. Samara is here in Fairbanks for training, and I just decided to come along with her so that we could spend some time together outside of Dillingham. We arrived in Fairbanks a few days early and did some shopping along with various touristy activities. When I asked people what we should do in Fairbanks, more than a few folks thought it would be a good idea to drive the couple hours down to Denali National Park and do some hiking. Samara and I had actually planned to do that, but she ended up getting sick on Tuesday. It just didn't seem like such a good idea to take a really long drive when she wasn't feeling well.

There isn't a bookstore in Dillingham, so we picked up a lot of new books when we first arrived in Fairbanks. One of the ones I picked out was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. This is a true story about a young man from a good family, Chris McCandless, who took up a vagabond lifestyle, traveling around the United States. His ultimate destination was Alaska, where he ended up in Fairbanks. From there, he traveled down to a road outside Denali National Park called Stampede Trail. This road was built by mining companies in the 1960s. It's a 50 mile road to nowhere, and about halfway down this road is an old city bus that was put out there to provide shelter for the miners using the road. Chris went out to the old bus alone and tried to live off the land. He arrived in the spring, and by the beginning of fall, his body was found by some moose hunters. He had starved to death, despite apparent success in hunting small game and gathering local roots and berries.

The book contained a map of the area.

The road on the right side is the highway to Denali National Park. Stampede Trail (now known as Stampede Road) goes west from the road, just north of Healy. Some important landmarks to note on the map are Eightmile Lake and the line indicating the end of the maintained road. There are a few rivers that cross the trail, and none have bridges. The abandoned bus is about 10 to 15 miles off the end of the maintained road.

I didn't honestly think I would make it all the way to the bus, but I figured that if I drove down there to do a little hiking, that it might be an interesting experience. So when Samara went to training at 8am this morning, I got in the car and drove down to the Stampede Trail. It's a two hour drive, and I had to be back around 5pm, so that only left a couple hours for hiking each direction (in and out) of the trail.

It was a beautiful drive down towards Denali.

As I got closer, I could see the mountains in the distance.

In about 2 hours, I reached Stampede Road.

Stampede is paved for the first few miles. I noted my odometer and figured I'd make it about 10 miles in before I had to park and walk the rest of the trail. The paving actually gave out after 4 miles or so, right after a little hippie commune/bed & breakfast called Earthsong. After that, it was all river-rock gravel.

It's beautiful country. Of course, I only made it to about the eight mile mark before the maintained road ended. (You could probably guess that based on the name Eightmile Lake on the map.) It went quickly from a two-car-wide gravel road to a single-car gravel road with large potholes filled with water. I stopped at a little pull-off right before the road went to a single-car width and parked.

It was definitely a good choice to stop there. As you can see, our white rental car is not a four-wheel drive monster. I'm pretty sure I wasn't even supposed to take it off the paved road, but considering how many gravel parking lots there are in downtown Fairbanks, I don't feel too bad about going down Stampede Road as far as I did.

You can see my equipment leaning against the car, there. Here's a closer picture.

The backpack was on sale at Sierra Trading and it's a great bag. Samara bought me the carabiner and carabiner-handled coffee cup that you see clipped on. I have a filtration water bottle and regular water bottle packed inside, along with lunch, a change of clothes and a jacket. The shotgun is a single-shot H&R 12 gauge. I packed buckshot and slugs for bear protection. That might seem a little silly to those of you sitting in your living rooms in the lower 48, but I was hiking alone in an area where brown bears (grizzlies) and black bears are both abundant. (In fact, that's what a lot of people go to Denali to see.) When Samara told someone at her conference today that I was hiking Stampede Trail, they expressed concern about bears. That made me feel even better that I made the investment in a shotgun. (Which, by the way, was an amazingly good deal. Just over $100 for a gun that provides bear protection, and I can also take it duck or grouse hunting in Dillingham.)

At this point, it was a little after 11am, and I started down the trail.

As you can see, it was very muddy. I had to dodge around some pretty big puddles, some of which took up the entire trail. It was fairly easy hiking, though. I had almost expected the road to simply end and have to pick my way through the overgrowth. I was worried about actually being able to follow the old trail. I needn't have worried. If I'd had four-wheel drive or an ATV, I could have driven the entire route I took.

The scenery was, obviously, very pretty.

There were rolling hills and mountains to see at first, but before long, there was a lot of brush on either side of the trail. That's when I started seeing small game.

See it? How about a little closer...

I'm no expert, but I believe this is a spruce grouse. It was skittish enough to run away if I approached too quickly or too closely. Nevertheless, I got within five feet of one of these guys. I should think it would be easy to take these guys with a shotgun using birdshot, or even a .22 rifle. They're the size of a small chicken, so they should have a decent amount of meat.

One thing I noticed as I was walking along was that some of the trees seemed to have a fair amount of missing bark. My educated guess is that the moose were eating the bark before the plantlife around here starting greening up.

As I came down the backside of a hill, I started to get a nice view of the hills off to my left.

There was a creek running beside the trail as well.

I didn't see any actual beavers, but I did notice some beaver activity. This tree appeared to have been downed by a beaver.

There was plenty of evidence of human activity on this trail, but this tree clearly wasn't chopped with a hatchet or axe.

Speaking of evidence of humans, I wasn't the only one on the trail. After I'd gone a little ways, a guy came down the trail behind me on a mountain bike. He surprised me, to be honest. He stopped and chatted for a minute. He had just moved up to Healy and was going to see how far down the trail he could bike. We discussed the relative merits of a shotgun versus pepper spray for bears. While I'll spoil the end now and tell you that I didn't see any bears (or any large game at all), I'd still rather have a shotgun in hand than pepper spray in my backpack if I were to come across a large brown bear.

The other evidence of human activity on the trail was the ATV tracks that followed the entire course and the fire pits that I stumbled across somewhat regularly. There was also evidence that folks liked to camp down this trail. Someone had taken a home-made pickup camper and dropped it off into the woods.

It was just twenty yards off the trail, across a small creek.

As I went on down the trail, I saw plenty more small game, such as this hare.

I saw a few of these. Just as in Dillingham, they're turning from winter white to summer brown. They were skittish, but only if I approached quickly. The other small game I saw were a couple of squirrels. I'm used to eastern gray squirrels. These guys were brown, and they were pissed off that I was in their territory. Both squirrels I saw chittered at me loudly and stood their ground until I was very close.

I ran across another makeshift campsite.

I don't know what this area was like when Chris McCandless walked in here in the early 1990s, but it's hardly the most remote area of the Alaska bush any more. I guess it probably wasn't that remote when he was here either. That's one reason it's so sad that he starved just 30 miles or less from a main highway.

After a bit, I started to run into places where the streams and creeks crossed the trail.

I don't know if any of these bits of water were the ones marked on the map. In all honesty, since I didn't reach the bus or any other definite landmark before turning back, I have no way of knowing how far I hiked. I did hike for 2 hours in, so assuming an average speed of 1.5 to 2 miles per hour, we can assume I made it 3 or 4 miles past the end of the maintained road. That should have gotten me past the first stream marked on the map and possibly to the Savage River. I know the rivers flow quite differently depending on the season, but I just don't know if I really reached any of the ones that are actually on the map.

It doesn't help that the map is probably outdated. For at least one section of the trail, a creek had decided that it would take the path of least resistance and route itself over the actual trail.

I had to take a detour through the pines off the side of the trail.

There I encountered another angry squirrel. He surprised me, but not enough to need to use any buckshot on him. He sure was loud and angry, though. If he'd had a shotgun, he probably would have used it on me.

I had planned to hike until 1pm and then turn around. I passed the mountain biker coming back my direction, and he asked how far out I thought the abandoned bus was. Apparently he knew about Chris McCandless, and had wanted to see the bus. He didn't get that far, though, and he was moving much faster than I was. Shortly after we parted ways again, I reached another stream crossing the trail.

Given the time, and since I knew I wasn't anywhere close to the bus, I decided to have a little break and then turn back.

I stopped for lunch next to an old firepit that was on a bank just above this stream.

It was a nice view from where I sat and ate my sandwich and chips.

I had read online that this wasn't a very beautiful hike and that Denali was a better choice. I disagree. Sure, there weren't lots of mountains, but it was still a very pretty area. I think the locals would rather discourage people that are only interested in the area because of the bestselling book, but I think it's worth the hike to see such a notable area.

Here's me at the turnaround point.

As I was hiking back, I saw a couple of ducks sitting in a stream, but they took off before I could get their picture. Still, the stream itself was pretty.

I took some pictures of a couple of piles of scat that I crossed on the trail, but Samara says scat isn't very photogenic and that I shouldn't post it. So I won't. But my guess is that it was moose scat, and that it was old.

On the way back up, I was glad I had turned around when I did. My right ankle started to get really sore and I was slowed down considerably. I did see another spruce grouse on the way out.

I also saw some tracks. The first ones I think were moose, and Samara agreed at once when she saw the picture.

The second set were bear, I think. They're very faint, so it's hard to tell. I'll post them anyway, and you can decide for yourself.

There are two tracks in that picture, running diagonally from bottom left to top right. You can see separate toe prints on each one. (Ignore the obvious ATV tracks at the bottom right of the photo and concentrate on the fainter tracks in the middle.) I compared those to some images online, and they certainly could be bear. I didn't see any actual bears, though. Of course, between the mountain biker running the trail ahead of me and me yelling out "hey-yup" every few minutes, I hopefully scared off any large predators. I didn't have any desire to see a bear up close and personal.

When I arrived back at the car, there was a great view of the mountains to the south in Denali.

The mountains were really big compared to the ones we get in Dillingham, and unlike the ones around Dillingham, I was able to get a better picture of these.

It threatened to rain on me all day, but it never quite opened up. I was thankful for that. The clouds looked ugly a couple of times, though. I wore a jacket for the first hundred yards of the trail, but I stripped down to my t-shirt after that. My pack actually made my back sweat a lot, and the pace kept me warm enough, even though it was a cooler day.

I took a picture of the note I left on the dashboard of the car. Even though Samara had told me that she was going to call the Alaska State Troopers if she didn't hear from me or see me by 6pm, I wanted to be on the safe side.

I wrote that note on the back of the author's bio page from Into The Wild (which I carried with me for the map it contained). If Chris McCandless had left a note like this for someone, perhaps he wouldn't have died a mere 30 miles from help. Better safe than sorry.

On the way out, I got another good picture of Eightmile Lake. There's a small cabin at the edge of the lake on the right.

I also got at least one good parting shot at the mountains as I was winding my way back down Stampede Road to the highway.

I wasn't even off the Stampede Trail when Samara called me on our pre-paid cellphone. (There was no cellphone service after the maintained road ended, so I left the phone in the car, but as soon as I hit the maintained road, I got service again.) I left her know that I hadn't died and was on my way back to Fairbanks. It was a smooth trip back, and I arrived by 5pm. I took a nice hot bath to soak my ankle and wash off all the 40% DEET bug spray I was wearing. (Mosquitos are killer here!) After that, we ate a nice dinner at Chili's. (I actually miss chain restaurants--I'm definitely not ready to go "into the wild" for good.)

Tomorrow we catch a 6:15am flight back to Dillingham via Anchorage. We've enjoyed our mini-vacation in Fairbanks, and I hope you've enjoyed reading about it. Cross your fingers--we're hoping that when we get back to Dillingham, it'll be as green there as it was here in the interior. Then maybe you'll get some hiking-related posts from Dillingham.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fairbanks Vacation - Wednesday

Not much to report for Wednesday. Samara did her first day of Cultural Recognition blah-di-blah... whatever it was called. (You know, her seminar on how not to be the white oppressor.) She was gone from 8am until dinner. I ran around town and did a little shopping, but nothing too exciting to speak of.

I did finish reading Into The Wild, about the guy that lived in a bus up here in the Alaska bush and died of starvation. Turns out that the bus he lived on isn't far off the beaten path, and is between here and Denali. So while Samara is at her training tomorrow, I'm going to drive down there and do a little hiking to see if I can find where the guy was living. It should make for an interesting blog post with some pictures. It will also let me try out some of my new hiking equipment.

I'd post more, but the wireless internet at the Pike's Landing cabins doesn't reach to the actual cabins. I'm sitting outside right now to get internet access, and it's gotten kind of chilly.

More tomorrow, I promise!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fairbanks Vacation Days Two and Three

Monday was Day Two in Fairbanks. We didn't end up seeing a movie on Sunday. We just did a little shopping instead. After we got back to the hotel, we realized that sleeping was going to be harder than Dillingham. The sun sets after 11:30pm here, and rises again around 4am. We never see the night.

The bed at the Extended Stay was less than great. We both woke up Monday with hurting backs. We slept in for a while, then went out and had some breakfast. At Taco Bell. Well, we did get up late, and Taco Bell is something Samara really misses in Dillingham. After that, we drove around a bit and found a tattoo shop and salon right next to each other. Samara wanted me to get a haircut, so we stopped in there first. Since it was going to be a fifteen minute wait, we went next door and spoke to the guys at the tattoo shop. One of the guys there really admired my sleeve--Scott should be proud. He said it was the best work he'd seen from outside his shop.

Pretty soon we went back over to the salon and I got my hair buzzed down for summer. Samara likes it short, and I like Samara, so it's a pretty good haircut, I guess.

Next activity for the day was a little canoeing down the Chena River. Chena River runs through downtown Fairbanks. We rented a canoe near Pioneer Park and paddled downstream to the Pump House restaurant, where the canoe rental folks picked us up. They said it would take at least two hours, but we were done in about an hour and a half. I guess we're fast paddlers.

Here's some pictures from our canoeing trip.

(Samara would probably want me to note that her swimsuit in this picture is covering her lower back--that's not her butt. She seemed to be displeased with this picture when I took it.)

Since Samara was in the front of the canoe, she got stuck in most of the pictures. But I was there too!

We saw a sternwheel boat on the river.

And a float plane took over from the river and flew right over us.

After we did the canoeing thing, we decided to take a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This is about 60 miles up the road, through the Chena State Recreation Area. There's a little resort there that has a hot springs. It costs $10 to swim all day. The drive was probably the nicest part.

In fact, as we were driving through the Recreation Area, I saw my first up-close moose! It was on the left side of the road, just grazing, and I saw some brown movement and slowed the car down. It took Samara a minute to get her camera out of her purse, so the best picture I got was of its rear end headed into the woods.

The Chena Hot Springs Resort is at the end of the road. The very end. It seems to cater to the tourist crowd. From the signs, I'd guess mostly Japanese tourists.

We saw some horses tied up when we arrived. I guess you could take a trailriding trip.

As we walked down towards the hot springs, we saw the ice skating pond, too. Guess it's more impressive in the winter.

The hot springs itself was nice. They had an indoor pool, two indoor hot tubs, one outdoor hot tub and a hot spring-fed rock pool. The hot spring pool itself was about 106 degrees. We couldn't stay in it for very long.

We hung out there in the Chena Hot Springs for maybe a hour, and then headed back towards Fairbanks for some dinner. On the way back, we saw some funny road signs.

We called our friend Ricky, who went to college in Fairbanks, and asked him where we should eat for dinner. He recommended Brewster's, but they turned out to be closed for Memorial Day. We went back to the hotel and got out the phone book. We decided we had to try the local barbeque place.

It is advertised as the world's northernmost southern barbeque. I suppose it is. It was pretty good food, as well. For the price, in fact, it couldn't be beat. We had a lot of leftovers to take home with us.

After dinner, we passed on the movie for a second time and did a little more shopping at Fred Meyer. We picked up a DVD to watch in our room. We made it about halfway through the movie before we both decided it was time to just zonk out.

Either the light or the bed was worse the second night. Samara and I both had trouble sleeping, and she was pretty sick during the night. In fact, she didn't feel well at all this morning. We had planned on taking Tuesday to drive down to Denali National Park, but the prospect of two or three hours in the car each way was just too much with Samara feeling bad.

Instead, we started off with a trip to the northernmost Denny's for breakfast. Every Denny's is the same, let me tell you. This one wasn't too great. After that, we checked out our new hotel, the Pike's Landing Lodge. They told us we could check in after three o'clock. So we decided to do a bit more shopping. We got some blackout curtains and dog treats for our friend Saramay. Then we decided that we'd go ahead and watch a movie today. We saw the new Star Trek movie, which was pretty good. Not the best movie ever, mind you, but fairly entertaining.

At that point, it was nearly three, so we went back to our new hotel. They really pissed Samara off, because she was sick, the room still wasn't ready, and they walked off when she tried to ask about switching to a different room. So we took off for another hour and drove around Fairbanks.

At 4, we got back to our new hotel, and Samara talked to the manager. She was really apologetic, which helped Samara's mood a bit. We got our room, which is actually a single-room cabin by the Chena River. It's nice, and the curtains do a much better job of keeping the light out than they did at the Extended Stay motel. I left Samara taking a nap and went out for a stroll.

There's a little pen with baby ducks in it, called the Duck Hotel. They have a pen with a little pond, a little house, and a coin-operated feeder. I had some quarters to feed the ducks, but the machine was empty. I guess someone will feed them.

I took a picture of the river near our hotel.

Tonight we'll probably try eating at Brewster's for dinner, since they should be open. Tomorrow and Thursday, Samara has training all day. I'll probably do some shopping around town and whatever else suits my fancy.

As far as vacations go, this one is so far, so good.