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by: Tim Kelley

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A Big Loop in the Big City
Anchorage - 30 December 2008: With the opening of the Ship Creek bike trail, from the AK Railroad headquarters to Mountain View, I figured this new trail might help open up a new ski loop around Anchorage.  And as I would find out - it does.  Overall this was a fun and diverse ski loop (though I did flail a bit in finding the route between Lake Otis Parkway and the New Seward Highway).  I wanted to do this ski loop without using any Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage trails.  So I used Municipality of Anchorage trails, a dog mushing trail, a number of very cool local ski-touring and snowshoeing trails, a little bit of snow-covered sidewalk and road skiing and a touch of good old fashion trail busting through untracked snow.  Temperatures ranged from -10 F to -22 F for this 44 mile loop.  The map and pictures below show you how this ski loop plays out.
GPS track: 44 miles. The start at Westchester Lagoon.  -15 degrees.  Where is everyone?! Skiing the bike trail towards the Port of Anchorage. Sidewalk skiing to the Alaska Railroad Station. Ship Creek is the cradle of Anchorage.
And Ship Creek is where the first Anchorage skiers lived and skied. The wonder of the Ship Creek bike trail - the spiral access and bridge across Ship Creek and the railroad. Good skiing on the roads of Mountain View. Mountain View Park.  -18 F and no kids playing on the metal rocket ship. Skiing the "bike trail" along the Glenn Highway.  The only recent biker was a moose.
Skied past the new Target. Miscreant-central pedestrian underpass near Bartlett High School.  Crossing over the Glenn Highway. Centennial Park sledding hill and 2 tough kids playing at 18 F below. Beautiful local trail ... ... that leads to a secret moose gate and onto Fort Richardson.
Skiing the power line east of Muldoon. Maybe not a trail to brag about, but it gets it done. Wax of the day. The beautiful Tank Trail in Far North Bicentennial Park. Dog trail heading towards Tudor.  The first Tour of Anchorage ski race followed this trail. Big iron bridge over Campbell Creek before Lake Otis Park.
Scooting under the New Seward Highway bridges. The MOA-groomed Campbell Creek bike trail was great skiing. Following snowshoe tracks on Campbell Creek to the Dimond bridge. Twisted and mutilated I-beams under the Dimond bridge.  Was this damage done during the '64 quake?  I wonder. VERY fresh privately groomed tracks on Campbell Lake.  Thanks! A momma snowmobile and her two babies nesting on Campbell Lake.
Off into the sunset on the Anchorage Coastal Plain. Shaman's hut on the on the way to Pt. Campbell. I went inside and the shaman appeared in a cloud of smoke and told me to get out.  Sorry dude. When I popped out onto the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail I chuckled.  Tracks set under face-high tree branches ... a time honored NSAA tradition. Almost there. Back at Westchester Lagoon.  -18 F and still only my vehicle in the parking lot.  Geez folks, you're missing out on some good skiing !!  ;-)

Skiing the Straight Line
Susitna Game Flats - 14 December 2008: When flying over the Lower Susitna Valley or Northern Kenai Peninsula you can see lots of straight lines cut through the forests below.  These are seismic lines.  In the late 1950s these swaths were cut when this area of Alaska was being explored for oil and gas deposits.  Ever since the seismic lines were cut, they have made good winter trails.

I wanted to make a ski loop on the Susitna Game Flats using some seismic lines I had never skied.  The catch with new backcountry ski loops is you often never know if the loop will go when you start out.  You often never know what the trail conditions will be for the entire loop.  There have been times in the past when friends and I got three quarters of the way around a loop, the trail ended and the option of wading bottomless snow caused a retreat and death march back to the start.  So, you try to do the unknown part of the loop first.  I knew if I got to Figure Eight Lake there would be a good trail, thanks to ice fishermen, back to the Point MacKenzie trailhead.  I lucked out in that a couple of snowmobiles had broken trail down the long seismic lines west of the Little Su to the transmission line.  So I was able to pull off this 40 mile loop.  Thanks a lot to these unknown snowmobilers for their trail breaking efforts!!!

GPS track: 40 miles.  The lines on the map are straight ... because that's the way the trails are! The start saw a grim fog layer.  It was 15 to 20 below F the whole day. But soon the fog burned off. Waxing up for the seismic lines.  This ski was about 50/50 classic skiing and skating. Luckily the seismic line I wanted to ski had seen 2 snowmobilers run through it a day before. A straight shot, the seismic line goes and goes.
River otter tracks I detoured to check out the old Ward Gay homestead on the Little Su (it's off the road system).  A huge runway!  I figured I'd come back when I was invited. A cool old tracked vehicle, with a custom carrying rack on top, was at the end of the runway. The seismic trail keeps going south ... ... until you hit the Beluga to Anchorage (and Wasilla) electric transmission line. I followed a large wolf's tracks while skiing under the power line.
Behind me is one of the many big towers holding the electric lines that power Anchorage. Still following the wolf tracks as the power line heads northwest towards Mt. Susitna. Finally - the Figure Eight Lake trail.  It was classic skiing to here.  Now it will be good skating the 16 miles back. Colorful contrails over Mt. Susitna. And a contrail to the south, looking back down the Figure Eight Lake Trail. Darkness caught up to me on the Gasline Trail superhighway.  The last 10 miles went fast.

Backcountry Skiing Ain't Always Pretty

Mount Susitna Area - 12 December 2008:   You may notice that I post lots of artsy, "Alaska is beautiful" shots on this web site.  Well, not all that you see while skiing the backcountry of Alaska is beautiful.  Some of what you might happen to see is rather grim.

Wolf hunters' Super Cub ski tracks and a sapling cut by a propeller. Snowshoe tracks heading from the ski plane to an aerial wolf kill site. The snowshoe tracks arrive at the site where a wolf was gunned down from the air. Blood that dripped from the wolf carcass as it was dragged back to the plane.

December Light

South Central Alaska - December 2008: Yep ... sunlight in December in Alaska is sure in short supply.  And with the sun so low on the horizon, entire valleys can be cloaked in shadows and never see direct sunlight all day.  But for what light there is ... it's an arctic alpenglow kind of light that you wish you saw more of during the year.  These pictures were taken on December 2008 ski outings and show some of the light that I'm talking about.

Drifting snow crystals on the Big Susitna River

Trail marker, and shadow to skis

Mt. Susitna, reflection of sunset on a snowmobile helmet.

And if that wasn't enough, here is a music (Stonegrind) video slideshow of many of these pictures:

Moon Shots

Western Susitna Valley Drainage - Mid December 2008: This was the 2nd winter month in a row with a full moon coupled with little or no cloud cover.  Cool.  I had to go out for a 2nd ski at night and do some "camera biathlon" at 15 below zero.  Take a shot.  Ski like crazy to warm up.  Take a shot.  Ski like crazy to warm up.   The moonlight shots below were taken with an 8 second exposure and an initial shutter delay.

Turn that headlamp off!  You don't need it! What's the big deal about flying to the moon? ... ... Heck, you can just reach up and grab it!! Hey, how did you do that!? My attempt at photographing my moon shadow. Don't ski near Mt. Susitna!  There are ghosts!  The worst kind!  SKIER GHOSTS!!!
  After moonlight skiing at -15 F it is nice to walk into a warm cabin.   The next morning. It takes a lot of concentration to balance the moon on your finger!  

Willow Wandering

Willow - Early December 2008: I went to Willow to see how the trails were doing.  I found out it's still early.  Because the Big Su has not frozen up enough, a lot of connector trails are still not in.  But I was able to check out a couple of trails I had never been on before: the Corral Hill Trail and the "GCI Trail".  By doing this I was able to get in a good 42 mile ski from the Crystal Lake parking lot to "Scary Tree" on the Yentna River and back.

GPS track.  Out and back - 42 miles. A neat driveway arch. All hail the Willow Trail Committee!  I love Willow. The Corrall Hill Trail is beautiful ... ... and it has a great overlook of the Big Su below Deshka Landing. The Lower Susitna Drainage Association grooms trails on the Big Su and Yentna Rivers.

The LDSA had re-routed the trail around a lead that had opened up.  (This spot is always bad for leads opening up)  But they left the old trail markers in.  This is not good!  At night or after it snows folks can follow the old markers straight into the open water!!!!  So I picked up the old trail makers and made and "X" to keep people on the new, safe trail.  The last picture above I took on the way in.  You can see two snowmobilers taking the left at the "X", instead of going straight into the water.  Dang, a cross country skier looking out for snowmobilers ... maybe cross country skiers aren't that bad after all.  ;-)

Nice skiing on Kroto Slough.
But the GCI Trail had some wet spots. Yep, some really wet spots. The GCI Trail did had some good open swamp skiing. No spinners!

On the way back this strange light kept showing up in front of me.  Weird.  I'm pretty sure it was an invisible alien space craft hovering above me and checking me out.  This seems to happen a lot when I'm skiing at night with a headlamp.  I think the headlamp must attract them.  ;-)

The highlight of the trip was seeing Iditarod musher Ramey Smyth's beautiful, strong and fun-filled dog team.  I talked to Ramey for a bit.  I had never met him before.  But now I'm a Ramey fan.  Go Ramey ... I hope you and your dogs have a great winter!  Here is a link to Ramey Smyth and Becca Moore's Homestretch Kennel web page.

You Know You Are Speed Skating in Anchorage ...
... when you have to halt your early morning workout at the Cuddy Park speed skating oval to let a moose cross!

"Snow Fences" in Far North Bicentennial Park

Anchorage - Early December 2008: I happened to have my camera with me while doing a workout at Far North Bicentennial Park.  I stopped a couple of times when my "art alert" went off ...

Snow clinging to a wire fence next to the Botanical Gardens. Lights of the BLM complex through a wire fence.

Skiing the River of Sand

Bell Island, Alexander, Chedatna Lakes - Early December 2008: The Susitna River gets its name from the Dena'ina Athabascan name Susitnu, which translates to Sand River ('susi' = sand, 'tnu' = river).  One can often appreciate this name when skiing on the river while the wind is blowing and scouring the snow away down to the sand bars beneath you.    Update prompted by a recent email - Note to Su 100 competitors:  Most of the wind-swept-down-to-sand-bar areas are downstream of where the Su 100 course crosses the Big Su.  And the dangerous ice that is pictured below is also downstream several miles from where you cross the Big Su.  So ... you are not going to be near the sand or  bad ice pictured below.  Follow the Su 100 stakes when you are on the Big Su and Yentna Rivers and everything will be fine.

  A common Lower Susitna snow pattern ...  
Day 1: Clear and lots of snow. Day 2: Wind (from an Interior high pressure system rushing south to a Pacific low) begins to erode snow down to sand bars. Day 2: More wind, more snow loss.  Snow remains where it was compressed by snowmobile skis. Day 2: Snow drifts into wooded back sloughs which are good skiing (if you know where to find these sloughs). Day 3: More snow.  This picture was taken from the same spot as the Day 1 picture.  See Mt. Susitna in the distance !?!?
A prehistoric birch leave frozen in glacial ice that drifted down from the Yentna Glacier!?  Nope.  It's ice that fell from the tunnel of a local freight hauler's Ski-Doo Scandic.  Yep, that's those sensitive snowmobilers for you ... leaving "art" wherever they travel !  ;-) Sometimes when skiing in bush Alaska you find trails with corduroyed surfaces that look like the ones "them city-folk skiers" make.  This "bush corduroy" is courtesy of culvert sleds, like the one above.  The base of the sled is made from corrugated road culvert metal that is bent up on each end. Not all dark spots on the Su are sand bars.  This is an open hole in the ice that has been slow to freeze over this year.  If you stumbled into this hole, you would be seriously screwed.

The Mat-Su Valley: Beauty with a Rough Edge

Northern Edge of Wasilla - Mid November 2008: Here are a few "beauty" and "rough edge" pictures from a recent ski trip exploring new trails in the Valley.

Beauty. Beauty. Rough Edge. Beauty. Beauty. Rough Edge.

Early Season Trip To The West of the Big Su

Western Susitna Valley Drainage - Mid November 2008: This was about the earliest winter trip I'd ever taken to the west of the Big Susitna River.  No complaints, except I wish the Big Su ice was a little safer for crossing.  The crossing was a bit sketchy.  Not that much snow out there but skate skiing on the rivers was fine.  But then again, everything is fine when I'm at my favorite place in Alaska.  Sure was a quiet time in the Bush ... never saw another person.  As people move out, due to increasing living costs, Bush Alaska gets quieter every year.

Shots from night skiing under a moody moon.  The shot to the left is the beam of my headlamp as I'm skiing towards the camera.
It's "Tracks in the Snow" Time Again ...
Hop and belly-slide river otter tracks. Beaver tracks ... you can see how their tails drag and cover their foot prints. Beaten trail to the beavers' front door. A well worn path leads a short way to the beavers' restaurant. Wolf tracks. Wolf pack tracks.  8-10 animals heading up-wind and taking the inside line of the river to surprise any prey around the corner.
  Porcupine tracks. A downed birch tree a porcupine has been munching on. Porcupine teeth marks. Nearby - a porcupine has been working on a birch tree - 25 feet up.  
Wolf track on snowmobile track. Coyote tracks. Fox tracks. Lynx tracks. Ski tracks, moose tracks. Human tracks.  You can see from the tracks how the human dashed in panic to this outhouse, and then casually strolled back a short time later.

Old School Cool ... Right In The Big City

Anchorage - November 12th, 2008: With the first significant (well, sort of) snowfall to hit lower Anchorage elevations this year, I wanted to be the first to make ski tracks on the newest and coolest trail system in Anchorage - the Hillside Singletrack Project.  This trail system is extremely fun to run or bike.  It's equally fun to ski, but the tight corners can be challenging on skis if the snow is fast.  Skiing on this trail system is likely the best when there is a layer of powder to keep your speed tempered.  Thanks to the Single Track Advocates for bringing these great natural, old-school bike, foot and ski trails to Anchorage.  It's more fun and challenging  to ski trails like these than trails that are as wide as soccer fields.

Note: The access to these trails is at the southeast corner of the large gated parking lot to the south of the ski jumps at the Hilltop Ski Area.  A climb with two switchbacks will take you up to the lower west end of this singletrack trail system.

I like the north and south loops.  But for skiing I think I like the flow of the north loop best. Lots of banked 180's.  Hold on and "take it to the bank"!! The rootstock of an uprooted spruce from this year's very brutal late October windstorm. Hundreds of newly uprooted trees like this are now lying all over the Hillside. Best light of the year.   A few passes of winter bikes with Large Marge rims and Endomorph tires make for some good classic skiing trails.  XC skiers and winter bikers can co-exist well together.
Here is a GPS track from the 2nd time I skied this loop.  Distance is approximately 12 km if you take my route.  The Hilltop Ski Area, ski area parking lots and the gasline were not on the Garmin MapSource maps ... so I guessed at where these features were and drew them in.

Big Lake Blading
GPS track of 27 mile loop along lake perimeters. Low snow in the Su Valley is okay - if you have ice like this. There already were some REALLY BIG trucks on the lake !! First plow of the season on "Ice 5". A party barge ready to head out ice fishing.

Big Lake - November 10th, 2008: After skiing with Cory and Ian at Nancy Lakes, I figured Big Lake would be good skating.  It was.  Ice thickness was 6 to 12 inches.  Vehicles were already driving on the ice of Flat Lake and on the western parts of Big Lake.  I was able to take Nordic blades for a cruise around the perimeter of Big Lake and Flat Lake - a 27 mile loop.   The ice was the best on the windswept eastern part of the lake.  There was a dusting of snow on western sections of these lakes, but it did not hinder fast Nordic blading with poles.

You can really rip on blades! Snowmobile tracks heading to Flat Lake. Tracks from dog teams pulling 4 wheelers. The north shore shows signs of the 1996 Big Lake Fire. For safety I carried ice rescue picks and wore an inflatable PFD.  If you are a nice person this type of PFD won't work for you, because you have to be a "jerk to inflate" it!!

A Cool Ski-Blade Loop

Nancy Lakes - November 8th, 2008: Cory, Ian and I headed to Nancy Lakes hoping to push a bigger Nordic blade loop than we had done before.  By using skis for the traverses and blades for about 22 lake and pond crossings we linked up a neat 26+ mile loop.  As Nancy Lake State Park is still closed to snowmobiles due to low snow depths, we were "first snow travelers (of the human kind) of the season" on much of this loop.  This was a fun early season ski and blade trek.  Of course, you can also see a great photo-doc of this outing on Cory's web site.

Nordic blades Not quite den time yet ! Cory on Frazer Lake Lynx Lake Our route
Seismic line to Cow Lake Redshirt Lake Ian on Redshirt Lake Map check time Snow was a bit slim on the Redshirt Lake Winter Trail

November 4th ...

Busting a Trail to the Mint Hut

Gold Mint Trail, Talkeetna Mountains - Late October & Early November 2008: My goal was to ski to the Mint Hut by way of the Gold Mint Trail that heads up the Little Susitna Drainage starting just north of the Mother Lode Lodge near Hatcher Pass.  It took multiple attempts to get to the hut because of the trail breaking I had to do up the 2nd half of the valley, and then up the big climb at the end of the valley to the hut.  On my final attempt I "cheated" a bit.  I brought snowshoes and used them to finish the route up to the hut.  This is about a 19 mile ski trek.  It's a cool ski trip, but it takes a long time to complete if you have to break trail.

Breaking trail, 1st try 2nd try, following my previous tracks Alaska's state bird, the Albino Moose Vulture The climb to the hut was a grunt Thar she be (in the shadows)
Mountaineering Club of Alaska's Mint Hut Panoramic shot from above and to the SW of the Mint Hut 1960's Head Standard skis are mounted on the front of the cabin.

Early Season Trail Exploring
Bald Mountain Ridge, Talkeetna Mountains - 18 October 2008: To pull off new trail skiing loops it often takes prior field research.  That's what today was, checking out a trail that goes up Bald Mountain Ridge from the south that I had never been on.  I had to run / hike 3 to 4 miles to get to ski-able snow.  Skiing on the higher parts of Bald Mountain Ridge was good ... and private!  This is a super-popular snowmobiling area.  But due to too little snow for snowmobiles on the access trails to this area - I was the only one up there. 
On top of the ridge, Mt. McKinley in the distance  The red circle shows where good xc ski-cruising is often found on Bald Mountain Ridge
Panoramic shot from Bald Mountain Ridge, Western Chugach Mountains and Knik Arm in the distance

Lots of large-flaked hoar frost was on the top of the ridge.  This is also called surface hoar.  It is caused when clear and cold weather moves in quickly and there is radiation loss.  That is - the snow becomes warmer than the air for a short while and these large ice crystals form from the water vapor that is quickly freezing just above the surface of the snow.

  The locals haven't gone to sleep for the winter yet!   The sun!  A bright orb in the sky that was rarely seen in South Central AK this summer.  

Runaway Crust Pucks ??

Anchorage - Late September 2008: I was hiking above Anchorage in late September and noticed this interesting snow phenomenon.  I don't know its official name, so I made up a name for it: Runaway Crust Pucks.  Pieces of crust snow about the size of hockey pucks were being kicked up by my footsteps, and then they would take off and smoothly slide down the mountainside.  I made a short, artsy-ish video of this ...

Blast From The Past ...
On the Iditarod Trail in Unalakleet, Alaska - 1990 (Photo by Bad Bob Baker)

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