The Alaska Railroad was reporting a temperature of 8 degrees below zero at the head of Turnagain Arm east of Anchorage at 9 a.m. on Saturday. Doug O’Harra pointed this out in the parking lot of the Carrs-Safeway supermarket on the south end of Alaska’s largest city.
Even by regional Alaska standards, eight-below in late March is chilly. It made the 11 degrees at home on the city’s Hillside seem almost balmy even if the National Weather Service was saying that was about 10 degrees below normal.
After a series of unusually mild winters that made many in the north wonder if maybe global warming had arrived early with a vengeance and a plan to stay, the old Alaska was back. We loaded the fat-tire bikes in O’Harra’s van and headed east on the Seward Highway into the cold heart of a land mocked as Secretary of State William H. Seward’s “icebox” when he signed a treaty that basically stole it from the Russians for $7 million in 1867.
Back then, there were already hints that Alaska might contain millions of dollars in gold, but no one had a clue as to the billions of dollars in crude oil lurking beneath the state’s North Slope, a land as inhospitable as that flashing past outside the window of the van.
With the famous Turnagain tides out to sea, dirty pack-ice had settled on the mud flats 5- or 10-feet deep. Broken, jagged and stretching as far as the eye could see, it looked a lot like the top of a new, heavily crevassed glacier rolling down the gap that splits the Kenai and Chugach Mountains.
It suggested the yin to the yang of a sun-washed day that looked almost summer like except for the lack of traffic on a highway regularly clogged during the tourist season. This was not the tourist season, but the parking lots in the Placer River drainage near the old, earthquake-flattened community of Portage were all near full.
Alaskans do love their winter.
Bikers and skiers and brappppp
The Placer River valley echoed with the brappp, brappp, brappp of two-cycle engines as nervous thumbs tapped the throttles on the dozens of snowmachines being unloaded there or already on the trail heading into the backcountry.
The sweet, oil-tinged scent of two-cycle exhaust filled the air. The new snow from a week earlier was already chopped into dozen of trails. The trick for a fat biker (someone who rides a fat bike as opposed to an overweight cyclist) was finding the right trail.
Snowmachines are the greatest blessing to befall cyclists in Alaska. Snowmachines are the greatest curse to befall cyclists in Alaska.
Snowmachines can make the best of trails. Snowmachines can destroy the best of trails.
A dozen variables – some in the rider’s control, some not – dictate which is most likely to happen.
Some fatbike cyclists and possibly even more snowmobilers detest the way inexperienced or uncaring drivers spin the tracks of their machines on trails. The spinning digs holes. The holes grow. Pretty soon the trail is a badly moguled mess no fun to ride.
This phenomenon was, on the other hand, something of a godsend for cyclists trying to find the best trail among the dozens of trails heading up the Placer toward the Skookum. “Best,” in fat-bike terms, would be defined as firmest.
And in this case, the firmest was easily identified by the moguls. Heavily moguled trail had been beaten into the snow over the course of weeks before the last snow storm. It made for the best riding.
So we chased the moguls south across marshes buried in snow on the route toward Skookum Creek.
The March sun was warm and bright, but not as warm and bright as it seemed. The air temperature never climbed out of the 20s. The snow that stuck to bike rims never melted. But you could feel the solar heat on your face, and we weren’t but a few miles up the valley before we were stopping to strip off clothes.
After decades in the northern cold, the heat of exertion on a calm day still always comes as something of a surprise. It is so easy to work up a sweat even in the cold, and it is so difficult to dry sweat-soaked clothing in that environment. Better to take off a layer and avoid the problem.
There’s sort of a rule here for fat biking or skiing or snowshoeing or even snowmachining: If you’re not just a little bit chilly, you’re probably too hot.
Before Skookum Creek was reached, we swung east with the trail into the cottonwood forest that is one of the most obvious landmarks along the standard route to the glacier.
Many trails converged into a few as the cottonwoods limited the terrain in which to manuever. That was a good thing. Forcing a lot of snowmachines down the same trail only made things better for biking. That didn’t last, of course.
Beyond the cottonwoods, the trail broke back into the willow thickets hard to traverse in summer but buried in snow in winter. Snowmachine tracks spread out across the valley bottom as riders abandoned the old, moguled trail and went in search of new, smooth snow.
As a result, the trail softened. The riding got a little harder. We followed the moguls, or tried, on the route to the obvious moraine that rises in the form of a low hill above the east fork of the creek.
The moraine brought a wilderness, fat-bike inevitability – the push. No one can conquer all the problems of soft snow and steep terrain. No one can ride everything. Not Peter Sagan; not Danny MacAskill.
Over the top of the moraine, the valley fell away to the face of the glacier and a small mob of people – skiers, cyclists, snowmobilers, even a couple of “split boarders.”
From the size of the crowd, one might have thought this was Alaska’s most accessible glacier, but then Alaska has a fair number of accessible glaciers. They only get more accessible with the appropriate tools.
A significant number of snowmobilers were climbing up along the south side of the Skookum to get onto the icefield above that is the source for about a dozen different glaciers – some dropping back toward the Kenai Peninsula, others falling away toward Prince William Sound.
Glacier travel is inherently risky. People have been injured and died, but the riding remains a strong attraction. We considered pushing on to take a look at the rest of the route, then stopped, chatted and headed back.
The terrain drops only about 450 feet from the glacier in the Kenai Mountains back to tidewater at Portage, but the slightest of downhill grades always seems to make the pedaling easier.
We flew down off the moraine.
And quickly dropped down out of the Skookum valley.
All was going well until a Jager-esque adventure out into the new snow and bad trail of the Placer River valley. But what Alaska adventure is a real adventure without something going slightly off the rails.
A few unkind words might have been muttered while postholing shin deep down soft snowmobile trails with little base beneath, but all was forgotten by the late-afternoon stop at the Chair 5 restaurant in Girdwood for a traditional, post-ride burger.