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Alaska Performance Backcountry Skiing Photos
2010/2011

by: Tim Kelley

Oct - Dec Jan - Feb Mar - Apr May - Jun Summer

Checking Some Local Ski Rambles Off My List
December 18, 2010: Back in the late 1980's the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) built an aqueduct from Eklutna Lake to Anchorage.  This project drilled a tunnel from the Ekutna River a mile through rock and tapped into another aqueduct that was made in the 50's that fed an electric power plant near the base of Pioneer Peak.  From the end of the tunnel at the Eklutna River concrete water pipe was laid to the Eklutna Water Treatment Plant, and then on to the Ship Creek Water Treatment Plant next to Centennial Park in Anchorage.

I was pretty in tune with this project back in the 80's because I was involved in developing the computer system that monitored the pipeline.  So as soon as I heard the pipe had been laid along the Eklutna River and the construction crews were pulling out, I gave a mountain biker friend a call and we went up and biked the temporary access road the project had built.  It was a fun mountain bike cruise through a previously trail-less nook of the Western Chugach Mountains.  Over the years I wondered what became of this trail, and of course I figured that I should go and ski it.  So I finally did ski it, almost 25 years later.

I found that the trail still exists.  Just barely.  Some parts of the trail are still good going.  Some sections are really grown in.  And one section is hard to get through because of heavy erosion pushing sediments in from a side gully.  I saw evidence of saplings being cut in some sections, so I assume that hunters, likely with horses, still use this route.  I started from the Eklutna Lake parking lot and skied down to the curve above the Eklutna Water Plant where the pipeline goes under the road.  Then I turned around and skied back up the valley to the parking lot.  It's too bad that this trail was lost back to the alders, because it would have made a good year-round route for biking, hiking and, of course, for cross country skiing in the winter.

My approximate route.  I skied from the lake, down to where the pipeline goes under the road, and then back up to the lake. The Chugach State Park has some nice groomed trails at the Eklutna Lake campground. On top of the Eklutna Lake dam - looking at the west end of the lake.  Bold Peak is in the distance. Looking at the spillway coming out of the dam.  No water flow.  Not much water flows down this valley. Heading down the short access road that goes from the ranger station to the AWWU valve house on the Eklutna River.
The AWWU valve control house at the end of the access road.  Going back I followed the powerline (in back) instead of the road. Aqueduct marker. Some of the old trail was still open and good skiing. Some of the trail was getting grown in.  I remember when big trucks with 4 foot diameter concrete pipe sections were driving this "road". And a few short sections were down to good ole alder bashing.

Digging In the Dark:  Here is a good article about the Irish tunnel making crew that worked on the AWWU Eklutna project in 1987.

 

December 2010:  A fun skiing activity is to pick several places that you've never skied at before and go ski at all of them in one day.  This is a good way to get a number of shorter forays off your list, but still make for a lot of hours of skiing in the day.  Here are three places I'd never skied before and finally got them off my list in this manner.

For decades now I have driven past the "Welcome to Chugiak" sign on the Glen Highway and have seen the trail next to the sign.  Several times I have seen snowmobilers or mushers on this trail.  Each time I would say: "Hmmm!  Where do those trails go!  I need to check them out!"  Well, after saying that for almost 30 years ... I finally checked them out.  Besides being able to ski to the west to the inlet, I found that you can put together a cool triangular loop.  The big Intertie powerline is one leg, a smaller powerline is another and a nice trail through the woods that connects the powerlines is the third leg (see map above).  There is one gully on the smaller powerline that snowmobilers can't make it through.  But it only takes a few minutes to get through it on skis or foot (see 4th picture above).  You can access these trails from the Mirror Lake School.  Start down the two-way part of the trail from the school and take a left before you hit the one-way loop trails.  By heading west for 50 yards you will come to the un-plowed powerline / pipeline access road that becomes a winter multi-use trail.

I had been to but never skied at the Wallace Brothers Homestead at the end of Skyline Drive above Eagle River.  There are not a lot of trails here, but what exists is worth your time to check it out.  The pictures above show: an old homesteader cabin in the alders, recently cleared roads that are good skiing, a structure made out of railroad timbers, me getting ready to do some exploring a la "midget skiing" and the artesian well that flows 24/7 decade after decade.

   

I had heard ski-jorers and mushers talk about the Chugiak Beach Lake trails that go down to Cook Inlet.  I had never been on these Inlet trails before.  Now I have.  They are nice trails and skiing along the inlet was neat, especially watching the mid-boggling speed at which the ice flows move when a big tide is ebbing.  If you go on these trails remember that they are dog sled trails.  Sled dogs have the right of way here so listen and watch carefully for them.  And get out of their way fast when you see them coming.

 


Early Season Escapes to the Fringe

Mid December 2010: Every winter my wife and I look forward to heading out to our remote property and live for a while in "real" Alaska, off the road system.  In recent years communities on the fringe of civilization in Southcentral Alaska have been hit by higher costs of living (fuel in particular), economic downturns (like fishery closures and tourism declines), migration to towns for work and death of old-timers.  So every year the small populations of these remote communities dwindle, and these areas become less traveled, quieter and wilder.  But in the Lower Susitna Valley one thing hasn't changed much in the last decades ... there are still a couple of skiers that like to go out there every year and ski all over the place.

         
Something remote property owners in Alaska deal with regularly - bears chewing up anything they can chew up. Moose tracks.  Made in wet snow before a wind storm hit. The infamous "Big Rock".  A glacial erratic, the only rock in the first 10 miles of Alexander Creek.  Has caused many a "Oh <cuss word>" with boaters. Snowmobile tracks.  Made in wet snow before a wind storm hit. Cold weather makes it easier to split big log sections for firewood.
A sand avalanche.  A "sandalanche"?  Not sure what causes this.  Kinda strange.   Crossing the Big Susitna River.  Ski bag strapped to snowmobile, heading home.   A UFO prepares to land on top of Mount Susitna. Ho-hum.  Happens all the time.
The darkness of Alaskan winter is a good time to play around with night photography.  Here is a long exposure shot that shows the path of my headlamp.  A flash was strobed mid-way through the shot that made me show up for a small fraction of a second.

The Willow Trail Committee Says: "Let There Be Trails!"

November 21, 2010: This weekend the Willow Trail Committee officially "opened for business" for the 2010-2011 winter season.  The Trail Boss and his loyal crew began grooming the famed WTC multi-use trail system.  He had a nice loop put in around the Willow Swamp with trails leading back to Willow.  The skate skiing on the lakes was nice too.  However, the rivers in the area are not ready for travel yet.  For current Willow trail conditions check out the Alaska Outdoors Forums (scroll down and click on the "Alaska Snowmachining" link and look for the WTC Trail Boss's frequent posts on Willow trail conditions).

Update: For a new map of the Willow Trail Committee's West Gateway Winter Trail System, click here.

It's that artsy light time of year. Nice skating on trails and lakes. Freshly placed WTC signage. Day or night, the Willow area is always a good place to be ... and ski.

One Last Road Trip Before Ski Season
November 13, 2010: Snuck in one last road trip before ski season.  My wife and I flew down to Santiago, rented a truck camper and road tripped Chilean and Argentine Patagonia for over 8000 kilometers.  Unique flora, fauna and geography.  Good times.  Here are a few pictures ...
Hiking in the mountains above Bariloche El Chalten, Laguna Torre Cerro Torre El Chalten, Hiking to the base of Fitz Roy
Guanaco Hiking in Torres Del Paine National Park Rhea
El Chalten Patagonian steppes / pampas San Martin De Los Andes
Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego - this city has similarities to Seward, AK.  Ushuaia's motto is Fin Del Mundo (End of the World).  It's the world's furthest south city that you can drive to. Hiking above Ushuaia, AR - Beagle Channel and Chile in the distance.  Rocks in these mountains are just like ones found in the Chugach and Kenai Mountains of Alaska. Sheep and flamingos on Tierra del Fuego. Crawling underneath big semi trailers on the Straits of Magellan ferry, at night and in heavy seas, to get back to our camper.  Exciting, but I don't think this arrangement would fly in the US!  Big excitement.  A large double decker tour bus got its back end hung up while driving off the Straits of Magellan ferry.  A truck driver had to come to the rescue and pull the bus free.
Magellanic Woodpecker Volcan Villarrica, an active volcano next to Pucon, Chile. Summit of Volcan Villarrica (climbed up alone), and looking down into the crater on top that you probably wouldn't want to fall into. Black-necked Swan
Road-side shrines for auto accident victims.  We passed hundreds of these. Argentine Sea beach stones. The Chilean Lake District is like the Champlain Valley of Vermont ... with lots of volcanoes. The most prevalent billboard on Route 5 in Chile, south of Santiago.
Every city and town we went to had many loose / homeless dogs.  We didn't expect to see this.  All of them were friendly guys, but apparently they have to fend for themselves. Only had problems once with pickpockets.  ;-) Alaskan road trip girl. Araucania tree and the rental camper we put over 8000 kms on.
 

To see pictures of truly hard core road tripping, check out this web site: http://www.bearoundtheworld.be/    This is a web site of a very likeable Belgian couple that is driving around the world in a Mazda pickup with camper.  We met these two in Argentina and look forward to seeing Jean-Francois and Juliet again when they make it to Alaska in August or September 2011.


A Summer Visit to a Prime Fall Skating Destination
Knik Arm Duck Flats - June, 2010: I had skated and skied on the Knik Arm Duck Flats before.  But I had never paddled to the Duck Flats.  So I took my kayak up to Rabbit Slough and did the paddle this summer.

If the weather stays cold, by early to mid November the ice in this area hopefully will  be good for Nordic skating.  When the ice conditions are good here, this is a great place to do some "wilderness skating".

For a map of how to get to this place, see Cory Smith's pictures and a GPS track on his endurefun web site.  For my pictures of skating here last fall, click here.

Summer 2010:
  Rabbit Slough The duck hunting shack at the portage.  A modified wheelbarrow out at the portage makes a good boat hauler in the summer. The wide open marshes here can be prime Nordic skating terrain.
Fall 2009:

Make Your Own Nordic Skate Sharpening Jig
Late October 2009: The Nordic skating season is coming soon (we all hope).  So are your Nordic skates sharp?  Probably not, so you should consider sharpening them.  To sharpen Nordic skates you can't take them to a hockey skate sharpening place.  Hockey skates are sharpened to have a concave surface on the blade base.  Nordic skates are like speed skates, they need the blade base to be flat.  So you will need a sharpening jig and a sharpening stone.  You can get the stone at a hardware store like AIH (in Anchorage) or maybe Lowe's or Home Depot.  To get a jig you can order one off the web.  But if you are like me, you will say: "Why buy one when I can whip one together with stuff I have lying around my home!?".  So ... here is the jig I made (see below).  It's no work of art ... but it gits 'er done!

For a sharpening stone I use an 8 inch Norton 85565 India Combination Bench Stone IB8.

1/2 inch plywood makes up the bottom.  Window casement scraps make the ends. To hold the blades firmly I use a metal plate with a wing nut to tighten it down on the skates.  I covered the edge of the plate with duct tape. A long carriage bolt goes through a hole in the plywood.  A nut holds the bolt firmly in place.  And an washer and wing nut are used to tighten the plate down on the sides of the blades. I also installed no-skid rubber tabs on the bottom.  These help when you are sharpening to make sure the jig does not move.
 
Before you go "wilderness" Nordic skating this year, make sure you have ice rescue picks.  These are good ones.  And last year they were for sale at Sportsman's Warehouse for 6 dollars.  Seems like a good deal to me.

Blast From The Past ...
Photo by Tom Evans  (1990)


In Alaska it is easy to find inspiration from other athletes, as we live amongst many of the best winter athletes in the world ... sled dogs!  These canine athletes seem to have no limit.  They can run 30 mph or hammer out back to back thousand mile treks, and make it all look so easy. 

As the saying goes, a dog year is equivalent to 7 human years.  It seems like sled dogs are born with this knowledge.  They know their time on earth is very limited, so they try to get 7 times as much out of every year and every winter.  They run 7 times longer and harder than humans, they enjoy and are exhilarated by Alaska 7 times more than humans are and, needless to say, they are 7 times cooler than most humans.  So - if you want some tips on how to get the most out of Alaska in winter, and life in general ... go spend some time with an Alaskan sled dog!
 
Tail ups, big smiles, never want to stop ... sled dogs demand their fun factor to be 7 times the human level. This is something you rarely see, a ski-jorer (my wife) behind 600+ lbs of Malemutes.  A "big" ski-joring dog these days is 60 lbs and rarely does anyone run more than two at once.  Here my wife has the fun (or is that fear) factor up by 10 !! I consider myself very lucky to have once been an understudy to Alaskan sled dogs.  You can learn a lot from these great winter athletes.

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Alaska Performance Backcountry Skiing