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by: Tim Kelley

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40 Miles of Winter Crust

Kenai Lake - Late February 2009: I went down to the Kenai Peninsula to ski up the Snow River.  I found conditions to be bad - too much open water and too little snow.  So I scrambled for a Plan B.  I popped into the Primrose Campground and noticed a musher's  tracks heading out onto Kenai Lake.  I've always been leery of skiing Kenai Lake ice, but I trust mushers, when it comes to safety judgment, way more than I trust snowmobile tracks.  So I headed out skating on the winter crust that covered most of the lake.  In a couple of hours I was at the other end of Kenai Lake (Quartz Creek) ... and having a good time!  I skied back to Primrose by a different route to check out other parts of the lake.  This turned out to be a fine impromptu crust ski.

A 360 degree panoramic shot taken to the south of where Trail Creek enters Kenai Lake.
Heading out from Primrose. I am guessing the ice was 12 to 16 inches thick. A few icy stretches, but 85% crust snow. Great crust heading towards Porcupine Island. Out in the middle of the lake I met Dan Seavey Sr., patriarch of the famous Seavey mushing family of Seward.  Dan raced the 1st Iditarod in 1973!  This year his son, grandson and grandson's wife are racing the Iditarod.  Dan is a heck of a nice guy.  Check out the second picture where his guys are howling and telling him it's time to go!  "Ah-oooooooo!"
  Cooper Lake power plant. Porcupine Island, looking east. Avalanches along the lake blast debris WAY out onto the lake ice.   The Intertie power line crossing at Quartz Creek.
Firewood cutters were driving on and off the lake at Quartz Creek. Folks go down the lake to cut timber that was killed by the Crown Point forest fire a few years ago. A friendly firewood cutter lady offered to take my picture.  Her husband Jack is in the background checking the ice. Jack and his wife check ice before driving over it on their way to a firewood cutting site.  Porcupine Island is in the background. Standing dead timber killed by a forest fire. Here is my route.  Distance was approximately 40 miles.
Panoramic view looking east taken on my way back, just east of Porcupine Island.

Susitna in the Sun

Mount Susitna - Late February 2009: One of my goals this winter was to go up the South Summit of Mt. Susitna with my tough and wild wife.  I'd been up this route with our dogs before, but my wife had not yet done this trip.  The days before we initially planned to climb and ski this route, high winds blasted the mountain.  Pretty much all snow that wasn't frozen hard to something got blown off.  On our last day at the mountain the wind died down.  My wife had to get up and go to work at 4:00 AM (ouch) the next day back in Anchorage, so we decided to do a quick one day scramble up to the South Summit.  Due to wind scouring, not much decent snow was left for skiing on our route.  So at  the base of the mountain we broke out snowshoes, hiking boots and crampons and had a great day savoring the best weather February in Alaska has to offer.

If you want to climb Mount Susitna, consider joining the Mountaineering Club of Alaska.  For the past several years the fabled "Susitna Stu" Grenier has led winter and summer MCA trips up this peak.  This same day we summitted the south peak, an MCA trip led by Stu was enjoying this phenomenal weather as they headed up to the main summit of Mount Susitna.  Way to go Stu!

  High winds removing the recent snowfall from Mount Susitna two days before we climbed.  Not a good time to go to the summit.  
Western Chugach Mountains behind Anchorage. Up we go,   Breaking out of treeline. South Summit in the distance.  
Breaking out of the alder zone. A section of hard and slippery windblown snow.  Time for crampons.     Nearing the South Summit.
Mount Susitna South Summit.   Rime ice from high winds, Sitting next to a rime ice encrusted, abandoned communications building at the South Summit.
Mount Susitna South Summit panoramic - looking east.
Mount Susitna South Summit panoramic - looking west.
Heading back down.
  "I can make it down this slope ... NO problem!"   Wind-driven snow plastered on cottonwood trees.  
  Snowshoes make skiers go crazy! Ahh ... back on skis!   Coyote on the Big Su. 160 lb skier: "Hey, get off the trail !!"

1200 lb moose: "Yeah, right !!"

Here is a short video that shows the views from the South Summit of Mount Susitna ...

Bald Mountain Loop

Houston - Mid February 2009: I'd been scheming to do this ski loop for a couple of months.  But I had to wait for the right conditions.  Recon I did last fall indicated that lack of connector trails to the north of Wasilla would require 4 miles of road skiing to tie this loop together.  So I had to choose a time when these roads would be ski-able.  This loop started in Houston and went out the Herning Trail to the Bench Lake cut-off, across the Bench Lake Trail (and a new logging area that made trail finding difficult) to roads that lead to the Bald Mountain Trail, up over Bald Mountain, down to the north end of the Herning Trail and then 16 miles back into Houston.  The trail and road skiing was good, mostly skating.  But it was slow going getting up and going over the wind scoured, wide crown of Bald Mountain.  With lots of  climbing and battling winds on top of the ridge, this loop was tough.  But the big bonus of this 40 mile route was fine skiing conditions on the Herning Trail ... one of my favorite trails in the Valley.

GPS track: 40 miles. Houston Chamber of Commerce cabin ... a good place to park.  The lady that is the head of the chamber of commerce is really nice. Moody day.  Partial overcast, windy up high and temps in the 20s. Part of this loop utilized the historic Herning Trail. The Herning Trail is a VERY beautiful trail.
At the east end of the Bench Lake trail there is a new cabin.  Looks like happy people live here.  (Click on this picture to see what I mean). While skiing along Sunrise Drive I stopped to check out this quaint worship park. Skiing Sunrise Drive ... good, fast double poling and skating.  I was skiing on maybe 1/4 of an inch of packed snow on top of pavement.  It's not often you can ski these roads.
Starting the climb up Bald Mountain. Breaking out above tree-line. Sastrugi Really windy on top.  Yenlo Hills in the distance (looking NW). An abandoned and wind damaged antenna.
When I got down off of Bald Mountain, ribbons and stakes indicated that something was happening on the Herning Trail. The Willow Junior 100 (mile) sled dog race was in progress.  It was really cool seeing kids out mushing their dog teams.  Every time I cheered: "Your dogs look great!", I got back a big: "Thanks!".  Nice kids. Check out this tough musher kid.  He was wearing a big smile and ... a short sleeve T-shirt !!
  This drooping black spruce tree looked like a giant claw blocking the trail.   Here is a good history of the Herning Trail (Willow Creek Sled Trail).  Click on the above image to expand it to readable size.  This sign is at the midpoint of the trail.  

Chugiak Coastal Cruising

Chugiak - Mid February 2009: I was in Anchorage and had an afternoon free.  And, as usual, I wanted to ski someplace I had never skied before. I had kayaked to Kethtaydut Point a few years ago (while kayaking from the Glenn Highway Knik River Bridge down Knik Arm to the Port of Anchorage).  So I figured I'd start from Beach Lake in Chugiak and try to ski there.  I made sure the tide was on its way out ... and gave it a go.  It was a pretty fun ski and conditions were decent.  I used my Fischer Superlight Crowns and did a combination of powder striding, crust skating and double poling on ice.

Route: Round trip - about 16 miles. Choose your zone: Left - striding powder.  Middle - skating crust.  Right - ice for double polling. Skiing on shore ice here is safe at low tide.  2-3 feet of ice resting on semi-frozen mud. The small bay a mile from Kethtaydut Point, where these pictures were taken, once had a fish camp in the 20's to 40's that was run by the Eklutna Vocational School (Shem Pete's Alaska, page 325). The bluffs of Kethtaydut Point.
  180 degree panoramic from Kethtaydut Point, looking west across Knik Arm.  I'm always amazed at how noisy it is in this area when the tide is going out.  All of the water rushing off the mud bars out in the middle of Knik Arm sets off a roaring waterfall sound that echos off these bluffs.  
Rocks coated with frozen silt. Knik Arm iceberg shots.  Some strange looking bergcicles on them.  Note: these shots are taken at LOW TIDE.  Don't go here if the tide is coming IN !! Skiing alongside a trail a bunch of coyotes made.

Return to the Flats

Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge - Early February 2009: After having a good time skiing the Glenn Highway side of the Palmer Hay Flats I decided to check out the Knik side.  From the Cottonwood Creek access to the refuge I skated some nice snowmobile trails to Knik, and on past until the trail ran out at an old gravel pit / barge loading facility a mile past Knik.  I turned around, skied back to the access then switched to classic skiing and headed to Weinie Lake and back.  I think the name "Weinie Lake" is "reverse psychology named".  As you can tell from the pictures below - the trail is challenging and it would be easy to "weinie out" and turn back.  But I didn't weinie out ... and now I can proudly say that I have skied to Weinie Lake !!

GGPS track: Out and back both sides from the Cottonwood Creek access - 26 miles.P Cottonwood Creek trail access. This section of the trail to Knik was cool - squeezed between the bluff and Palmer Slough. Great trail for skating (temps were around 0 F). An old landing craft in the trees.  WWII vintage?  There are probably some great stories about this old boat.
The "USS Redington" at Knik. 30 foot deep tidal ice canyons a mile past Knik.  Time to turn around. Fresh Knik Arm tidal mushroom!   Mmm-mmmm!  Tastes great! "Trail" to Weinie Lake. I made it to Weinie Lake on the trails in the pictures to the left and right.  Proof that I am no weinie !  ;-) Beautiful "trail" on the return from Weinie Lake.

Western Susitna Valley Ski-Rambling

Western Susitna River Valley - Early February 2009: Recent pictures of skiing and winter ... from west of the Big Susitna River.

Heading out. Over the bridge and into the hills she strides. Skiing on the north side of Mt. Susitna. An 8 foot deep snow sinkhole made by a spring that doesn't freeze.  There are a bunch of these on the north side of Mt. Susitna. Looking from the north side of Mt. Susitna towards the Alaska Range.
Panoramic shot from a secret Susitna Valley trail.
Little Mt. Susitna in the distance. Super Cubs flying in formation. Lots of snow. Pictures of a really beautiful snowmobiler woman I saw while I was out skiing.  Actually, she was such a beautiful and exotic Eskimo Princess that I was inspired to make a music video about her!

Hey, Hey, Hay ... This Place is Flat !

Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge - Early February 2009: I've driven by the Palmer Hay Flats hundreds of times, but I had never skied there.  The main reason for me never skiing there is because the snow on these wind-swept plains is fleeting.  Strong winds from the Knik and Matanuska Valleys often scour the snow from this area.  So if a bit of snow falls here, you better get skiing on it.  If you blink the snow could be gone.  The day I went skiing here there was not much snow, but enough snow to put in 25 miles of wandering in perfectly clear, and sub-zero, weather.  This is a unique and often passed by gem of a location.  Here is the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge web site.

General route, started at Rabbit Slough access. Skiing Rabbit Slough, Pioneer Peak. For the first and last 4 miles I skated on 4-wheeler tracks. Palmer Slough A fortified duck hunting cabin complete with antenna.
Panoramic photo from the Duck Flats area.  Good skate skiing here.
Hey!  It's Hay! This trip was 80 % skating, 20 % classic. Ski plane take-off tracks. Using my solar powered hand warmer at -15 F.

Alexander Lake Skiing / Alexander Creek Blading

Yentna / Lower Susitna Drainage - Late January 2009: I had never been to Alexander Lake.  I'd gone by it quite a few times on trails to the east and west of it, but I had never actually set foot on (or in) this lake.  So, from Luce's Lodge on the Yentna River I skied into Alexander and Rabbit Lakes and back out to check out this area.  Good trails.  A bit cold (-10 F) and windy.

Always a lot happening on the Yentna River. Tripod trail marker. Alexander Lake, looking north. Kind of a bleak Siberian-like day in the Su Valley.
Alexander Creek Nordic Blading: For a short window in late January the first 3-4 miles of Alexander Creek had good conditions for Nordic blading (skating).


  Nordic blading with the wolves !!  ;-)

Checking out the Curry Ridge Riders' New Trails

Trapper Creek - Late January 2009: The Curry Ridge Riders, the snowmobile club that I'm a member of, has some phenomenal trails in the Trapper Creek and Petersville areas.  This year they are opening up two new trails that you can access from the Trapper Creek Inn.  The first is the Chulitna Bluff Trail connector from the Inn to Mile 121 of the Parks Highway.  I've got to give the CRR an "A" for trail layout on this new trail.  This section of the Bluff Trail is right on the edge of the bluff (see pictures below).  So - it's cool to be skiing along and looking down at the scenery off to your side.  Very nice.  The connector to the Rabideaux Creek Trail is still a work in progress.  Currently it's marked from the Inn to Mile 110 on the Parks Highway, and then a bit further.   When this trail is done (next month?) it will be the needed link for a Susitna Valley "backbone trail" from Denali State Park to Big Lake, Knik and Point MacKenzie.

CRR Very friendly folks, good place to park. The new extension of the Chulitna Bluff Trail goes right along the bluff of the Chulitna River flood plain.  Very nice. Powder snow clinging to sphagnum moss. The last stop for hippie buses.
Rabideaux Connector Trail south of the Trapper Creek Inn. Not much of a trail in the Rabideaux Creek swamp area (yet) ... but there was some decent powder on crust skiing. A crazy snowmobiler woman rips across the Parks Highway ... and crashes in the woods.  No problem.  Beautiful snowmobiler women have no worries ... as they can always rely on cross country skier guys to quickly come to their rescue!

Searching for Winter

Glenn Highway - Mid January 2009: After the mega-meltdown in the Anchorage and Lower Mat-Su Valley regions I headed north see if I could find winter in  Alaska.

Near Eureka - Iditarod musher Zach Steer riding a snowmobile attached to a dog team in training. I found good skiing on Russ and Mable Wimmer's Mendeltna Creek Lodge ski trails. And there was good snow for snowmobile trail skiing on Lake Louise and Susitna Lake.  But the skiing was slow here due to temperatures of -17 F for a high, and down to - 25 F. Alpenglow on Mt. Sanford.
Lake Louise panoramic.
On Susitna Lake, More Fata Morgana Mirages (at 25 below zero F.) ...

Click on the picture above to take a closer look at the center of the picture.  What is that out off the shore of the island?  Open water?  A line of trees?  A fence?  It's actually a mirage where trees in the background are "duplicated" by light being refracted through cold temperature cells.  The cold air cell is acting like a prism.  This is called a Fata Morgana mirage.  It's pretty easy to tell it's a mirage when you are there.  If you squat down or stand up higher you change your optical angle through the cold air cells in the distance and the mirage either expands, or contracts and goes away.

Here is another picture of a cold air mirage.  You see the dark object in the distance on the trail?  Initially I figured it was a tarp or load of firewood off in the distance that fell off a snowmobile sled.  I'd see that the dark area was about 10 trail stakes off in the distance.  But after passing 10 trail stakes, it would still be 10 trail stakes off in the distance.   Bottom line: trying to ski after and catch a Fata Morgana shape-shifting fairy is a good workout ... but most likely you will always come home empty handed.

Temperature Boomerang ... or is that Bummer-rang

Susitna Valley - Mid January 2009: My wife and I left the Pt. Mac Store to head to the Western Susitna Valley.  It was 20 below F. when we left, which was warmer than the 36 below the day before.  When we got back a few days later it was 40 above zero F., and on its way to 50. 

Before the meltdown we were coming down the flanks of Mt. Susitna and found an area with lots of monster burls. Speaking of monsters - I got some rare photos of the dreaded SnoGoZombie !! Lots of standing water on the way back.  If we had waited another day we would have been stuck out there.

Fata Morgana

Anchorage - 08 January 2009: This was a good day to see Fata Morgana mirages.  Below are pictures showing Fata Morgana distortion while viewing Mount Susitna (top picture) and the Alaska Range (bottom picture, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley) from Anchorage.

The Cool is Cool
Anchorage - 07 January 2009: It's been cool recently.  Both temperature-wise, it's been below 0 F for quite a few days, and light-wise.  With the clear skies we've been having recently you can ski the long sub-arctic dusk right into moonlight.  Here are shots from a 2 hour training ski that shows dusk-to-moonlight skiing.
Time 00:00 - Sun setting through ice fog, skiing in the alpenglow of dusk. Time 1:00 - The sun sets, and a long twilight lingers. Time 2:00 - Twilight darkens and the segue to moonlight skiing occurs.
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