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by: Tim Kelley

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Johnson Pass - 100 Years of Crust Cruising

Late April 2010:  100 years ago Johnson Pass used to be one of the most frequently traveled winter trails in South-central Alaska.  This area was on the southern end of the Iditarod Trail system and was heavily used for dog sled freight hauling from Seward to the gold mining communities of Lynx Creek, Sunrise and Hope.

Back in the mid-80's I almost skied to Johnson Pass.  But 3 miles from the pass my friend Greg's ski broke and we turned turned around and limped the ski back to the trailhead.  A recent short window of good crust skiing allowed me to take care of some unfinished business from 25 years ago, and finally ski to Johnson Pass.

This 1909 postcard shows that traveling over Johnson Pass is nothing new.  Photo the property of the Alaska Digital Archives (www.vilda.edu).
The route to Johnson Pass and back is about 22 miles. A nice day for crust skiing in the Kenai Mountains. I made a quick side-trip to Lynx Creek to check out the remains of an old Iditarod-era roadhouse. Since the last time I was here with Cory it seems like the resident porcupines moved out.  But the porky family sure left their mark. This area is open in the winter for snowmobiling.  But snow bridge decay has shut access down to all by the hardcore sledders.  I didn't see any snowmobiles (or skiers) this day.
Looks like a beaver finally got tired of freeze dried food, had dug a route up through the snow and started making trips to the store for fresh spring salad.   Some sections of this valley are avalanche prone.  So you need to be cautious.  One good thing about avalanches is that they can make snow bridges for easy access over creeks. The sides of this gorge were dynamited a long time ago to make a trail.  This is a good mountain biking trail in the summer.
Nearing the pass the valley opens up and the skiing gets really good. At Johnson Pass, looking North towards where I came from. At the pass looking south at Johnson Pass, and Bystander Peak to the right. I skied over the pass and down to this shelter cabin at treeline. Heading back.  People have appreciated crust snow providing easy springtime travel here for 100s of years (before the gold miners - Russians and Native Alaskans traveled this route).
A 360 degree panoramic view from near Johnson Pass.  North is above my skis, south is the notch beyond the spruce tree in the distance.

48 Miles, 0 Vertical, 50 SPF Sunblock
On the Lake Louise road.  Lake Louise ahead, Alaska Range peaks in the distance.

Early April 2010:  Last year I skied Lake Louise and Susitna Lake, but I didn't feel that I did the ski trip justice.  It was a substantially south of zero (F) day and the trip was more diagonal shuffling than fun skiing.  This year I waited until it warmed up a bit and the snow sped up ... and I went back.  I did a 48 mile out and back ski on snowmobile trails from the Wolverine Lodge, across Lake Louise, across Susitna Lake and on to the north outlet of Tyone Lake.  It was a little chilly at the start (10 F), but the cloudless skis warmed things up into the mid 30's.  Zero vertical, V2 skating the whole way ... nice day to check out some new country on skis.

GPS track: 48 miles.
Only wimps would plow parking lots on Lake Louise at 30 below while inside a heated truck.  Real men do the job on a cab-less 60? year old mini-dozer ... like this one! I saw less than a dozen snowmobilers.  All were lake residents or recreational property owners hauling supplies or building materials. You find these on trails quite a bit.  This is a lug that broke off a snowmobile track.  People try to ride deep-lugged mountain sleds on hardpacked trails and wreck their tracks.  And have to pay $1200 for a new one.  Duh. I don't know what the story was here.  On Lake Louise there was a cross country ski "trail marker" and a Tour Of Anchorage sign?!  Maybe a skier has a cabin up here? I don't know.
Lake Susitna.  Long, flat, wide ... and good skating. A Lake Susitna ice fishing shanty with the basics: a grill and a huge-a** satellite dish. Tyone Lake is a lot narrower than Sustina or Louise lakes.  Natives referred to this areas as "small timber country".  (Shem Pete's Alaska, page 221) This location really stuck out in this area.  It was once the site (100 years ago and on back) of Tyone Village, an Ahtna Indian settlement. Across the lake from the Tyone Village site was this old fish drying house.  Screens kept bugs off the fish as it hung from the roof and was smoked.
Perched on a very small bit of glacial moraine that stuck up out of Tyone Lake was this gem of a cabin. This creaky old cabin is apparently: "Ivie's Isle of View". Ivie lays down the law concerning his cabin with this sign! Nice view from the front porch on Ivie's island. An interpretive sign next to Lake Louise mentioned that burbot comes from a French word meaning: "to wallow in the mud".  And that these fish are also called "lawyers".  Funny!

Skiing The Denali Highway

Denali Highway map

Late March / Early April 2010:  The Denali Highway is a 131 mile road from Paxson to Cantwell that is closed to automotive travel in the winter.  Skiing this route, which is a snowmobile trail in the winter, is something I've wanted to do for a long time.  I tried skiing this route last year but bailed due to blizzard conditions.  Waiting until this year turned out to be a good deal as the weather was great.

I did the ski from Paxson to Cantwell in two days: 68 miles the first day, 63 miles the second day.  My wife came along on snowmobile while I skied across, then she and I took turns skiing the super-nice stretches on the way back.  We stayed at Denali Highway lodges while doing this ski trip, so that was fun.  We saw a lot of animals: caribou, moose, ptarmigan, peregrine falcons and a big wolf.  And in 260 miles we only encountered 6 travelers (two groups of 3) on snowmobiles.  All of the skiing we did was skating, and some of the skiing on the return trip was on freshly groomed corduroy!

Paxson To Cantwell
Heading out, climbing up over the ridge of Paxson Mountain. My wife, on her snowmobile, met me on 13 Mile Ridge. Nearing the top of 13 Mile Ridge, the Alaska Range is in the background.
Running across some bare pavement near Tangle Lakes. Tangle Lakes area. Caribou on Tangle Lake. Still a little ways to go.  ;-) The 2nd highest highway pass in Alaska (Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway is the highest at 4800').
Heading down from Maclaren Summit. Clearwater Mountains This is my favorite part of the Denali Highway ... where it travels on top of long meandering glacial eskers.  Very unique.
  For 3  miles on the south side of the Clearwater Mountains the snow was lean.  You can see where my wife was driving in the ditch. We stayed at Alpine Creek Lodge at the halfway point - Mile 68.  Neat place and we really liked Craig and John who were running the place. It took about 9 hours to get to Alpine Creek Lodge (where it had hit 60 in the afternoon).  I was beat and slept for 10 hours.  
The next morning - I wave as my wife leaves me!  ;-) Clouds over the northern Talkeetna Mountains. The bridge over the Sustina River. 100 miles from Paxson.  Mile signs were replaced last year - so every mile from 22 on was marked. Nice trail.
You better like skiing up hills if you ski the Denali Highway. Gittin' after it on another uphill. Topping out on a big climb to the Denali Borough / Matanuska Susitna Borough border.
Caribou tracks. Big, buckled section of overflow on the road. Going down ... End in sight.  The day 2 ski took about 8 hours to complete. Skied the Denali Highway ... check.  (And it was fun!)
Cantwell To Paxson
On the way back it was my wife's turn to do most of the skiing.  She skied the choice sections of the highway while I drove the snowmobile (and took pictures) during two more beautiful days in Alaska.
It's my wife's turn to ski and the Denali Highway groomer (Alan Echols) lays fresh corduroy for her! Leaving the Clearwater Mountains in the distance. My wife skates down towards Crazy Notch. And then she tuck-skates down to Maclaren Lodge.
We stayed at Alan And Susie Echol's Maclaren River Lodge.  Cool place in a beautiful area. Though I was a bit tired from skiing 131 miles the previous two days - I had to check out the groomed trails that Alan Echols sets to the Maclaren Glacier (these are only some of the 100 miles of trails that Alan grooms primarily for snowmobilers).  Phenomenal skate-skiing conditions and jaw-dropping views of the Alaska Range. A sizeable slab avalanche that had let loose from a wind-loaded river bluff.
The next day we headed from Maclaren River Lodge back to Paxson.  Here is the view of the Alaska Range from Maclaren Summit.
My wife skates first tracks on fresh corduroy.  The last two days we were on the Denali Highway we met no other travelers on the road. When it comes to driving snowmobiles ... my wife thinks snow is overrated. Skiing the last stretch into Paxson.
Final tuck into Paxson. Damn!  That was a fun ski trip!  Great weather, good skiing and it was fun meeting the Denali Highway folks. Arriving back at Audie and Jenny's Denali Highway Cabins. Audie showed us some of the many neat trails in the Paxson area - including this one that climbs up to and goes along the Trans Alaska Pipeline.  Wow!

A note on Denali Highway trip logistics:  If you live in Anchorage, doing a ski trip across the Denali Highway can be a daunting logistical undertaking.  If you want to drop off a vehicle on the other side of the highway, so that you have a way to get home, there is a lot of driving involved.

Say for example you want to ski from Paxson to Cantwell and have a car waiting for you in Cantwell.  Most likely the logistics needed to set this arrangement up would go like this: 1) drive two vehicles from Anchorage to Cantwell (210 miles x 2 = 420 driving miles), 2) drive from Cantwell to Wasilla to Paxson (390 miles), 3) ski from Paxson to Cantwell, 4) drive from Cantwell to Wasilla to Paxson (390 miles), 5) drive the two vehicles from Paxson to Anchorage (260 miles x 2 = 520 driving miles).  Total driving miles: 1720.

Instead of driving 1720 miles to do this trip one can use a snowmobile to simplify the logistics, like this: 1) drive from Anchorage to Paxson (260 miles), 2) ski from Paxson to Cantwell and have someone come along on a snowmobile (131 miles), 3) at Cantwell double up on the snowmobile and drive back to Paxson (131 miles), 4) drive back to Anchorage (260 miles).  Total driving miles: auto - 520, snowmobile - 262, total - 782.

The snowmobile option is almost 1000 miles less driving than the "drop a vehicle at the other end" technique.  If you figure, using rough estimates, that a vehicle gets 20 mpg and a four-stroke snowmobile also gets 20 mpg, then the drop-off option would consume 86 gallons of gas and the snowmobile option would use 34 gallons of gas.  Using a snowmobile can be a simpler, less time-consuming and a cheaper way to support this trip.

December 2010 update:  I've gotten a few emails asking about skiing from lodge to lodge on the Denali Highway.  Basically, there are lodges that are open in the winter on the east half of the Denali Highway, but none between the Alpine Creek Lodge and Cantwell on the west half.  You may notice from the pictures above that the east side of the Denali Highway is arguably the most scenic.  So if you don't have a snowmobile or car arrangement for getting home from the other side of the Denali Highway, you can always do an out and back ski from Paxson.  You can drive up to Paxson and stay at Audie and Jen's Denali Highway Cabins (or Paxson Lodge if Audie and Jen's place is booked up).  Then you can ski on to the Echol's Maclaren River Lodge (42 miles from Paxson) and the Bundy's Alpine Creek Lodge (68 miles from Paxson, 26 from Maclaren).  And then turn around and ski back to Paxson.  Links to these lodges' web sites can be found above.

The best time to ski the Denali Highway, in my opinion, is late February to early April (before the Arctic Man weekend).  Usually the temperatures are warming, there's lots of light and the snow is faster during this period.  I don't stay at remote Alaskan lodges too often, but when I do I like to follow the rule of "arrive as a guest, leave as a friend".  The folks that run these places are friendly, likeable and unique, and you learn a lot by listening to their stories of life on the Denali Highway.  At remote lodges I also like talking to the other guests, like snowmobilers.  They are often cool folks that have great stories (about anything and everything), and often give you ideas for future ski trips on winter trails.   Make friends with everyone you meet and your trip will be more fun.  Plus - the more skiers, snowmobilers and mushers that know and like each other... the better it makes Alaskan winter trails.

Let There Be Crust!
Late March 2010:  I once read something about this on the Internet.  I think it's called crust skiing or something like that.  It's kinda neat - you can skate on top of the snow, go anywhere you want and you don't even need groomed tracks.  It's pretty cool !!   ;-)
Ahhhh .... Heading to Portage Pass. Three wolves were at the pass before I was. Tracks show fun. Black dot at the end of the arrow is another crust skier.  Skier small.  Glacier big.
This panoramic view is from up on the ridge above the east side of Portage Glacier.  It shows the glacier terminus, Portage Lake and Portage Pass in the center.  Mountains seen in this photo are: Begich Peak (in the distance), Maynard Mountain (center) and Bard Peak (right).
Passage Canal, gateway to Prince William Sound. Heading back down.  Whoops!  I forgot my camera! The bark is absent on the windward side of these dead trees.  This is a windy place (usually). This was worth a chuckle.  I was skiing the lower Portage Valley and passed by a flatcar used to haul rafts to Spencer Lake.  A container on the rail car said: "Wheel Chaulks".  Uhmm ... don't you mean "Wheel Chocks"??!!  Chaulk (Eng.), or chalk (U.S.), is very soft material and probably wouldn't make good stoppers for the wheels used by the Alaska Realrode (did I spell this last word right? ... awh heck, it sounds right so it's close enough!)  ;-)

A Circle 'Round Susitna
Late March 2010:  Last year I hiked and skied up Mount Susitna a few times, so this year I wanted to ski a circle around the mountain.  I tried to do this backcountry and trails loop the previous week but high winds shut me down.  This delay actually worked out well because I got great weather on my 2nd try and my wild wife could go with me for the first (and by far the toughest) half of this 59 mile loop.  To do this loop we snowmobiled to our friends' cabin on the north end of this route and then skied the Wolverine Creek and Lewis River drainages to the south ridge of Mount Susitna.  We then switched to snowshoes and endured a long and brutal bushwhack through alders, devils club and black spruce to get to the Ivan River and the Enstar gas line.  We then skied the gas line and reached the snow-less West Channel of the Big Susitna River in the dark.  We hiked sand bars north into the wind until we reached Alexander Creek, then skied to our cabin where we spent the night.  The next day I skied the 30 miles up Alexander Creek, to Derf Lake and along the Thomas Trail to get to where we left our snowmobile.  Fun loop, even though there was a bit of bushwhacking brutality.
Area map GPS track: 59 miles. Heading out from Allen and Cindi's cabin.  I pulled a sled with emergency gear ... and snowshoes (which we used for bushwhacking through heavy brush). My wife quickly tires of my route choices and takes over.  ;-) We hugged the east side of Little Mount Susitna (Theodore Mountain) to avoid big gullies heading into the Wolverine Creek canyon.
Pulling out of another gulley. Beautiful, sparsely treed and infrequently traveled country. Mts. Foraker and McKinley to the north.. Heading into the Lewis River headwater flats area.
Skiing the backside of Mount Susitna.  In this picture (and the picture below) you can see the North, Main and South summits
 Skiing the huge open area of the Lewis River headwater flats.  The west side of Mount Susitna is in the background.  It's hard for snowmobiles to get here (due to gullies, canyons, mountain ridges, heavy brush and distance) ... so we saw no snowmobile tracks here at all.  People skiing here is very rare.  The easiest way to get here would be by ski plane or helicopter.
My wife shows good form as she rips across the Lewis River headwater flats.  Heading up to the south ridge of Mount Susitna. No pictures during the brutal alder, devils club and black spruce snowshoe bushwhack ... until here at the Ivan River, just before we switched back to skis. The next day: Iced-up, screamer-fast, sno-go trail on Alexander Creek ... let's make it happen! Start of the Derf Lake Trail.
  There are several cabins at Derf Lake, and they have great "front seat" views of Mount Susitna.  
Big swamps north of Derf Lake on the Thomas Trail.   Old trapper cabin from the 50's still hanging in there. Many snowmobilers can't follow well marked trails ... and need "reminder signs" that let them know they are going the wrong way. Near the end of the loop, looking south at Mount Susitna.  Thanks to Allen and Cindi !  And of course - thanks to my favorite hell-bushwhacking partner - my wife!

Curing the Clear Weather Headache
Mid March 2010:  It seems like the older I get, the more I am susceptible to "clear weather headaches".  The onset of these headaches seems to frequently occur when I am at work and look out the window at cloudless skis over snow-covered mountains.  Maybe these headaches are from low humidity in the offices?  Maybe they are from the intense ultra-violet rays coming through the windows?  Heck, I just don't know what causes these clear weather headaches.  The only thing I know is how to cure them.  And that usually means to go skiing for 5-6 hours to clear my system so I can be super-productive at work the next couple of days.  I sure hate taking time off from work to cure these headaches.  But I do it in the best interest of boosting my productivity and maximizing the value that I provide.  Really!  ;-)

These pictures are from skiing to, and up, Boulder Creek in the Talkeetna Mountains from  the Glenn Highway.

Route - 35 miles (in and back out). A couple of miles in from the Glenn Highway on the Chikaloon-Nelchina Trail.  The main Chugach Mountains are in the background.
The old Chikaloon-Nelchina Trail, heading towards Boulder Creek. Skiing past the west end of Anthracite Ridge. Heading towards the ridge that splits the main and East Fork of Boulder Creek. These distinctive spires are at the headwaters of the East Fork.  Altitude with attitude! This is Monument Mountain.  Bill Spencer and I once climbed this peak (up the right skyline ridge).
Boulder Creek several miles past the East Fork. Wind on your face, sun on your butt. Turn-around, time to head back. Waxing up and getting ready to stride the C-N Trail for a couple of hours to get back to the truck. Finally!  My "clear weather headache" is gone!  I'm cured!  ;-)

No More Headlamps
Mid March 2010:  The switch to Daylight Savings Time means that skiers that work for a living in Alaska can now finish an after-work ski ... while it is still light out.  No more headlamp skiing.
  A couple of years ago two Great Horned Owls, Nim and Rod, were born in our neighborhood.  They went through their dorky teenager stage, but now they are studly terror-birds.  When you are out skiing they often fly from tree to tree ahead of you, or just above you.  Recently I figured out why they do this. Once the sound of my skis in a turn spooked a rabbit next to the trail.  The rabbit ran out into an opening and Nim swooped down and she nailed it.  It seems Nim and Rod have developed a symbiotic relationship with neighborhood skiers.  Skiers flush out their prey, Nim and Rod swoop down, kill it and gorge away.  Maybe xc skiing isn't that earth-friendly of a sport ... if you cause a rabbit to meet a gruesome demise every time you go skiing.  

Blown Away
Mid March 2010:  High winds curtailed a Susitna Valley ski loop I was trying to do.
High winds kicking in at sunset.   A wind ravaged trail on the Big Susitna River. Strange wind-designed sand drifts on the Big Su.   A Susitna River Sand-Jester.

Adventure Balancing

Early March 2010:  Balance.  It's a good thing when it comes to your spouse.  Pretty much for every ski adventure I do by myself, and post on this web site, I do another adventure of my wife's choice.  And because I have a tough and fearless wife from an old-time Alaskan homesteader and Alaskan Native background, her adventures often make mine seem very tame.

Recently my wife's adventure call was to snowmachine 100 miles out off the road system to pick up some moose antlers at a remote fly-in hunting cabin.  I had been to this place before, in the foothills of the Tordrillo Range - when there was a trail.  This time - no trail.  Not even a hint of a trail.  After 6 hours of GPS assisted traveling we couldn't find a way over the last steep glacial moraine ridge just before the cabin.  After many attempts to get over the ridge we found ourselves wallowing in chest deep snow trying to get our snowmachine unstuck, for the 17th time.  Soaked in sweat I said: "Ya know, it's getting late, we're 98 miles out in the middle of nowhere ... this doesn't look that good, we should think about heading back."  Her response (that did not surprise me in the least): "Come on.  We're almost there.  We can make it."

As you can see from the picture, we made it.  And because this picture is posted on the web, we made it back.

Man, I need a break.  I gotta do something easy like a long ski trip, before my wife comes up with her next adventure idea.  ;-)

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