Secret season

Skookum Glacier/Craig Medred photo

SPENCER GLACIER – The April sun was bright in the Placer River valley east of Alaska’s largest city on Tuesday making the air feel warmer and the wilderness friendlier than the 27-degree reading on the thermometer.

And the white silence? Well, the white silence was simply overwhelming.

Sometimes the engine of a snowmachine growled far away in the distance, but mainly there was the sound of fat tires crunching on old, cold snow as the fat bike rolled south toward the frozen heart of the Kenai Peninsula.

Ahead beckoned the Alaska Railroad’s Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop sold tourists as “a remote wilderness area that is only accessible by train.”

In a couple of months, it will bustle with tourists who ride the train 10 miles into the wilds to stare across the waters of Spencer Lake at the face of a finger of broken ice spilling down from the Isthmus Icefield that stretches 30 to 40 miles south from through the Kenai Mountains from near the port of Whittier to near Kenai Lake.

Buried whistlestop shelters next to the railroad/Craig Medred photo

Now, however, the whistlestop is near buried in a glacier of its own, and you can ride a fat bike right up to the edge of the icefield.

The railroad isn’t fudging the truth much when it refers to the summer wilderness here as accessible only by train.

If you are tough enough, you can hike to the glacier in summer, but there is no easy route, and the 10 miles up the Placer might comprise the toughest going.

The terrain is dominated by swamps and bogs, river channels, thickets of alder and willow that try to tear the clothes from a hiker’s body and beaver punji. Bashing around in this terrain, you’re far more likely to run into a moose or a grizzly bear than a fellow human.

Almost no one hikes up the valley in the summer. Hikers ride the train to the whistlestop where the railroad has built trails now hidden in a landscape dominated by snow measured in feet.

The trail to Spencer Glacier/Craig Medred photo

The snow and cold also render unnecessary a $1 million dollar bridge to nowhere hoped to one day connect to a more extensive trail system in the area.

A fabled bridge across the Placer River near Spencer Glacier/Craig Medred photo

What the railroad doesn’t advertise – because there is no money in it – is what can only be described as the “world-class” adventure cycling to be found in this valley sometimes in the winter, and regularly in the spring.

Snowmachine trails that probe the valley make cycling possible as soon as the river, ponds, sloughs, and swamps freeze and the snow gets deep enough to cover some of the willow and alder.

But the best of the riding comes in March and April when everything is buried beneath three to five feet of winter snow and the freeze-thaw cycles work to turn the overnight snow to concrete.

One does have to be careful. It is not unusual for the snow to alternate between early morning pavement and midday mush, and a cyclist, skier or even snowshoer does not want to get caught far from the Seward Highway when everything turns to slop.

Thus it is advisable to keep an eye on the forecast before riding and an eye on the thermometer when on the trail. The ride that awaits if you are careful is, however, truly phenomenal.

There are not many places in the world you can ride a bike – fat or otherwise – up to the face of a glacier. Just be careful not to get too close. Glaciers can calve even in winter, and if you’re under tons of ice when it falls, you have no chance of survival.

How long this opportunity lasts into the spring is always an unknown. Given a forecast for overnight temperatures down into the teens, it will surely last through the weekend. 

Beyond that, conditions get ever iffier with the key advice being to go early and get out early the later in the season. And remember, the colder the overnight temperatures the better.

Air temperatures below freezing are best, but the trails will set up even in temperatures above freezing if dewpoint temperatures dip well below 32 degrees.

Trails that set up in those conditions will, however, also go soft faster as the day warms. So, again, as the season changes – in early, out early.

The Alaska Department of Transportation maintains an automated weather station on the Seward Highway the Portage turn that records both air and dewpoint temperatures.

Lastly, as of this time, there has been no sign of bears on the prowl although you can still find the signs warning they do have the right-of-way.








8 replies »

  1. Looks like a great place to ride…been enjoying my old Cannondale on the trails throughout Willow these last few days…best time of year in AK!

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