AT THE HEAD OF TURNAGAIN ARM, ALASKA – Call it the “Invasion of the Fat Bikes,” the new recreational madness that has doubled the trouble for the Alaska Railroad here along the Seward Highway east of Anchorage.
Snowmobiles buzzing up the railroad tracks that run south into the Kenai Mountains past the Skookum and Spencer glaciers have long been a problem for the state-owned railroad.
But now the Anchorage fat-bike boom – fat-tired bikes seem to be everywhere in the state’s largest city these days – has upped concerns to a new level as yet another small army of winter adventurers invades a Chugach National Forest valley about 45 miles from the city.
“We’ve been having quite a few problems,” railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said Tuesday.
The railroad, he said, is seriously worried someone could get killed.
Last weekend, Sullivan said, there were fat-bike riders “in between the (Placer River) tunnels. There was only one way for them to get there.”
That way would be to ride through the first of the tunnels near the railroad’s Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. A popular, near-wilderness destination for summer tourists, the Whistle Stop is now closed for the winter, its hiking trails buried under feet of snow and the river that rafters float in summer still frozen.
But snowmobilers, some of them looking to get on the icefield above the Spencer Glacier and run to the edge of Prince William Sound, and fat bikers looking to ride to one or the other of the area’s easily accessible glaciers have been flooding the area.
Full to overflowing
On weekends, the several parking lots along the highway near Portage are sometimes so full it’s hard to find a place to park.
A variety of snowmachine trails, some easily ridden on a fat-tired bike and others less so, head up the various channels of the Placer toward the glaciers. A marked trail to the east of the tracks leads to the mouth of the Skookum Creek valley and the trail to the glacier at it head.
And then there is the railroad track, which shoots a beeline south up the valley and has been ploughed to a width of 25 feet or more on one side.
Legally, the tracks and the right-of-way are closed to the public, but that hasn’t stopped snowmobilers and fat bikers from riding there. Sometimes they are on the shoulder of the railway roadbed. Sometimes they ride right between the tracks.
Last weekend, Sullivan said, a railroad crew watched an apparent newbie fat biker try to pedal between the tracks across one of several bridges made only of railroad ties. The cyclist fell while bouncing over the big openings between the ties, he said, “and took forever to get off the bridge.”
Had a train been coming, Sullivan said, the cyclist would likely have been able to jump off the bridge to the snow-covered surface of the creek a few feet below. But the bike would have been reduced to little pieces of scrap.
Sullivan said the railroad has been trying to get the word out to cyclists via social media that “it’s unsafe, and it’s illegal. So please don’t do it.”
But some don’t seem to be listening.
If problems continue, he said, railroad police will begin ticketing people for trespassing. The railroad thinks a ticket is better than a possible fatality.
Thirteen people have died on the Alaska Railroad tracks in the past 30 years, Sullivan said. The statistics indicate most of them were either intoxicated at the time of death or in cars hit at railroad crossings, but recreationists who get onto the railroad tracks or into the rail corridor have died, too.
In December 2015, a North Pole man hit a piece of railroad equipment along the tracks about eight miles out of Fairbanks at high speed and died in a nasty crash. Railroad workers found his body in the middle of the tracks, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
Fat bikers don’t go fast enough to worry about high-speed collisions, but the railroad worries they might not be fast enough to get out of the way if a train comes, either.
And if they are in a tunnel, there is no place to go to get out of the way.
Railroad officials are still scratching their heads over why anyone would want to cycle through a tunnel when there are trains regularly running the tracks from Seward to Anchorage and back. It’s a little like playing Russian roulette.
“It just ain’t safe,” Sullivan said.
How long the railroad’s Portage problem will continue sort of depends on the weather. The Skookum Valley is now closed to snowmachines, so there is no mechanized traffic to break open the trail to the glacier if it snows.
And yes, it’s been known to snow in this area in April. Sometimes it has been known to snow a lot. That discourages cyclists if there is no broken trail, unless so-called “crust conditions” develop.
Day time temperatures have been getting warm in the Portage area. It reached 42 degrees there Tuesday afternoon. Snow is getting soft during the day and consolidating. If the weather in the days and weeks ahead drops below freezing at night, this sort of spring-softened snow can form an icy crust that makes it possible to ride almost anywhere from early in the morning right up until the hour the crust goes soft again.
If the “crust biking” is good, the railroad’s problems might just get worst. But if there is no crust, and the mushy snow stays mush, the railroad’s newest problem could be instantly over.