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by: Tim Kelley

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24 April 2012: Snowhawk Valley and Tanaina Lake

Benji and I had never crust skied the upper reaches of the Snowhawk Valley in the Front Range of the Western Chugach Mountains.  The reason for this is that we both knew the access to get into this valley was not easy.  A long stretch of narrow and brushy uphill trail skiing must be suffered through to get into this valley.  We gave it a try anyway and persevered through the crappy section until we got to the promised land of primo crust.  We skated to the back of the valley and visited the remote Tanaina Lake.  We then had a good crust-cruising run back to brush line.  Getting out through the brush was not quite as bad as getting in.

This ski route is on Fort Richardson, so you need to get access from the military to ski or hike here.  It's convenient to get access as of April 15th.  You can now register, sign in and sign out using their new web site: www.jber.isportsman.net.

GPS track: 18 miles. LOTS of brush bashing to get in and out this valley.   Out of the brush and into the promised land.
A looong gradual climb to the end of the valley. Benji heads for Tanaina Lake at the base of Tanaina Peak.
At the south end of the lake. Team photo.  Looking north, Tanaina Lake in the background, Starting back. A long fun run back down the upper valley.
Cruising in crust land.  Making a quick stop at the Upper Snowhawk Cabin.   Good crust skiing can be found in this valley ... ... but the access to this valley is not easy.
Late April 2012: Miscellaneous

Here are a few photos from April ski outings that I did not post trip reports about ...

Hatcher Pass Eklutna Lake
  Burnt Butte in Palmer, a ski and snowshoe trip with my wife.  View of the Knik Valley.  
Late April 2012: A Williwaw Lake Skiing And Hiking Loop

Here's a variant on the out and back ski to Williwaw Lakes ... Pack along running shoes and ski to Williwaw Lake, ski and hike up to the "Football Field" below O'Malley Peak, ski down across it, head down the west gulley and then skate back to Glen Alps.

GPS track. View of the "Football Field" from mid-town Anchorage. The skiing and hiking route from Williwaw Lake to the Football Field.
Breaking out the running shoes. Looking down at Williwaw Lake. Nice crust snow at the top of the Football Field. Heading towards the west gulley.  Getting some early morning turns in before heading to work.
20 April 2012: A "Backyard" Crust Skiing Loop

This loop is a popular backcountry ski touring route just to the east of Anchorage.  In many years it is tricky to crust ski this loop.  The reason is that the lower part of this loop often melts out before the upper part crusts over.  The plentitude of snow and early crust season this year made this route very doable for crust skiing on this day.  Conditions were hard crust snow at all elevations.  So if you want to "bag" this crust skiing loop, now (or very soon) is a good time.

I started and ended at Glen Alps and skied this loop counter clock-wise: Glen Alps - Williwaw Lake - Williwaw Lakes Pass - Long Lake - Near Point Pass - Wolverine Bowl Trail - Middle Fork Trail - Glen Alps.  Another way you can do this loop is start and finish at Prospect Heights.  If you go clockwise from Prospect Heights you get a long downhill stretch to complete the loop.

GPS track: 20.2 miles. April 20th, and yes ... we still have lots of snow. Wolverine tracks on the high lake just below Williwaw Lakes Pass. Looking down at Long Lake and the North Fork Campbell Creek valley. Looking up the North Fork Campbell Creek valley from the pass between Near Point and Wolverine Peak.
A view from Williwaw Lakes Pass.  Williwaw Peak is the high point in the distance.  To the right is the headwaters of the Middle Fork Campbell Creek drainage.
13 April 2012: Twentymile Valley Crust Skiing Loop

Instead of doing the normal ski-in / ski-out on the same route in the Twentymile Valley, Benji and I decided to try to crust ski a loop in the valley.  We skied up the west side of the valley, visited Twentymile and Carmen Lakes and then skied out on the east side of the valley.  This "Tour de Twenty" loop is a fun variant for crust skiing this unique valley that is notorious for finicky skiing conditions.

After this ski Benji and I went to work (as I did after the Skilak Lake and Kenai Lake skis below).  Like Benji says, there are not many places in the world where you can go on a wilderness skate skiing adventure to remote, infrequently-visited lakes and glaciers in the morning before you head to the office.

GPS track: 30.9 miles. Heading out. The first of two rock outcrops you have to sneak around. Across the river and out in the open. Reaching an old terminal moraine in the trees a mile from Twentymile Lake.
Less bergs in the lake than previous times I've been here. Approaching the Twentymile Glacier. Team photo. Reaching Carmen Lake.
On Carmen Lake, heading back. The route on the east side of the valley has a few more challenges than the west side route. Back in the open on the east side of the valley.
  Crust riding back to the Seward Highway.  
12 April 2012: Kenai Lake Crust Cruising

A few years ago I skied Kenai Lake from east to west and back.  The skiing was on "normal" conditions then - a lot of windswept icy spots.  This year, as I was driving to Skilak Lake to ski (see below), my jaw dropped when I saw Kenai Lake.  It was very "abnormal" looking for this time of year.  It was completely white and covered with a thin but consistent crust snow.  No ice was showing, at all.  Seeing that I knew I couldn't let this chance pass me by.  So I made an escape to the lake with my skis as soon as I could.  I'm glad I did.  It was a unique and fun opportunity to skate crust snow from Quartz Creek to the Primrose Campground and back.

GPS track: 42.5 miles. "Hey look!  A big lake covered in crust snow!" Fast crust snow conditions, heading towards Porcupine Island.
Mid-lake area, enjoying the ride. North shore forest fire area. Looking back west from near the Crown Point area.  Not sure what this pole was doing stuck in the ice in the middle of the lake.
360 degree panoramic view from near the Trail River / Crown Point area.
Primrose campground. Coyote on lake. I checked out the Meadow Creek campground that can only be reached by boat in the summer. Looks like Bristol Palin was here!
You don't want to ski close to the shore on some parts of Kenai Lake. Heading back towards Quartz Creek Near the end of the ski there were sections of incredibly smooth crust snow. Would you climb these ladders to change bulbs of the aircraft warning lights on top of this Kenai Lake power pole?  Not me.  No freakin' way.
10 April 2012: Ski-Liking Skilak

After checking out Skilak Lake a couple of weeks ago (see below) I decided to head back when the snow on the lake crusted up.  I was able to get back to this lake on an exceptionally nice day, with great snow conditions.  I was able to ski a 36 mile loop around the lake on crust snow conditions that were about the best you could ask for.  A fun day indeed.

GPS track: 36 miles. This picture says it all. Saw quite a few wolf tracks. I encountered two big stress cracks.  You have to expect a few of these on big lakes like Skilak.  The water in the crack is hundreds of feet deep.  But a good thing about these cracks is that you can use your ski pole to feel how thick the ice is on the sides of the crack.  It was over two feet thick.
I like skiing along the cliffs on the north shore. Mt. Redoubt "floats" in the distance, It's a good thing no others skiers were here.  This lake is so small it would quickly get too crowded.  ;-)
My snowmobiler friends left me a safety flare. Arriving at the Doroshin Bay public use cabin.   Looks like kind of a nice day outside! The south shore of Skilak Lake, Caribou Island in the distance.
30 March 2012: "Soak Zone" Crust Skiing Along The Coast Of Anchorage

Often the first good crust skiing near Anchorage is on the "soak zones" of this city's coast.  I don't know if "soak zone" is a real term, but it is the term I use to describe areas along the coast that get wetted, or soaked, by extra-high tides.  When this wet snow re-freezes it makes a solid base for skate skiing.  Soak zones occur in the area between the sea ice of Cook Inlet and Knik Arm and the drier snow further ashore.  Soak zones can range anywhere from a foot to hundreds of yards wide.

This ski route followed soak zones from the Oceanview Bluff Park area to Westchester Lagoon.  My wife skied with me for a while and then turned back.  This is a good ski to do with someone that wants some good crust skiing but doesn't want to do the whole point to point trip with you.  They can ski back to Oceanview and then drive over and meet you at Westchester Lagoon.

I made it a point to ski the coast the whole way and not use the Coastal Trail.  I was able to this because of the this year's deep snow that bridged over blocks of sea ice along the bluffs at Pt. Woronzof.  But if you are doing this ski route and the coastal skiing gets grim, there are a number of places you can jump onto the Coastal Trail and finish up with an easy cruise to Westchester Lagoon.

GPS track: 18.5 miles.  Skiing was on the coast the entire way. Starting out before sun-up when snow is frozen hard. Skiing the "soak zone" between the sea ice and the dry snow. A burl on an old piece of driftwood. Crust skiing is best when shadows are long.
The Anchorage Coastal Refuge has lots of open area for crust skiing.
Near Pt. Campbell, looking back towards Turnagain Arm. Skiing the coast towards Pt. Woronzof and the PPP (Poop Processing Plant). If it was REALLY dangerous there would be a fence. Arriving at Pt. Woronzof.  Skiing to here was on a foot traffic trail. Looks like "Lil Dope Girl" beat me to Pt. Woronzof.
Lots of avalanche debris at the base of the Knik Arm bluffs near Pt. Woronzof. There were some snow rollers here too. A panoramic view of Knik Arm, downtown Anchorage and the trail along the Pt. Woronzof bluffs. Getting near Westchester Lagoon.  Quite a lot of tracks on the coastal flats here.

Early April Update:  The entire Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, between the rifle range and Pt. Woronzof, has been offering some excellent crust skiing.  It's been some of the best crust skiing ever for this area ...

Late March 2012: Skilak Lake Recon

Recently I went to Skilak Lake to see what the conditions were like.  They were okay, but not that great: 39 degrees, wind, rain and snow showers and the snow was too deep to skate off of established snowmobile trails.  But as a heads up to fellow crust skiing enthusiasts: in early April it is possible that there could be some really good crust skiing on this lake.  There is plenty of snow on the lake and it is dense and settled.  So the likelihood of all the snow blowing off the lake is low.  If a clear spell moves in during the first 10 days of April this lake may be ready for prime time crust skiing.  Of course, if Skilak Lake is good at this time then Kenai Lake should be too.  So if either of these lakes are on your crust skiing list then this might be the year to check them off.  The emphasis here is on "might", because we have no clue of what the weather will actually turn out to be.

I first went to the Upper Campground at Skilak Lake.  I wanted to ski to the Caribou Islands, but the single snowmobile track leading that way was was too punchy.  So I started following a well used snowmobile trail east that took me around the rocky, forest fire ravaged point and on to Lucas Island, through Irish Channel and on to the end of the lake.  After skiing back the same route back to the campground, a 17 mile round trip,  I drove to the Lower Campground to see what was going on there.  Once there I realized that this was the takeoff point the Caribou Island cabin owners used.  There was a well used snowmobile trail heading out to the islands.  So, I put my damp ski clothes back on and skied out to Caribou Island and back (10 miles RT).  Caribou Island is a recreational cabin enclave that is quite remote and not known by many.  It was neat to check this place out.

GPS tracks Heading out from the Upper Campground on snowmobile trails. The headland to the north of Skilak Lake is forest fire ravaged and rocky.  It's unique skiing (or kayaking in the summer) next to these cliffs and glacier-smoothed ledges that come down to the water along this shoreline.
"Top o the day to ya me laddie!  Welcome to Irish Channel!"  Looking west, Lucas Island is on the right. Heading back past the rocky headlands on the north of the lake.  Wet powder made skiing slow. I've heard that the trees on the fire-protected rock islands in Skilak Lake are very old "natural bonsai" trees, growth is stunted by near-constant strong winds. A Caribou Island cabin owner hauls concrete blocks across Skilak Lake.  Frying Pan Island is in the distance. This cabin on Caribou Island had some nice carvings of bears integrated into its structure.  Solar panels are seen because this area is waaay off the grid.
Late March 2012: A Ski Loop Aborted By Compassion

In the western Susitna Valley there is a 40 mile loop that I like to ski.  Usually I've done this loop in January or February, but with all the snow we've had I figured it would be fun to try and do a variant of this loop in late March.  I set out skiing up Alexander Creek and followed recent freight hauling tracks that went to a remote cabin.  There was no trail after this point, but I knew there would likely be good skiing on the Old Iditarod Trail a few miles upstream.  So I started following "moose highways" up Alexander Creek through the deep snow towards the Old Iditarod Trail.

Soon I got to a narrow section of Alexander Creek where the snow was incredibly deep.  Moose had literally plowed trails in the snow here with their bodies.  And you could see where they had tried to get out of the creek and into the willows to get food, but failed.  The snow was too deep for them to escape this trench they were trapped in.

Eventually I came upon a big group of moose clustered in a "pen" in the creek bed ahead of me.  It was an easy decision when seeing these survival-mode, struggling moose to turn around and not stress them out.  These moose will need every ounce of energy reserves to last until spring.  And some of them likely will not make it.  So they don't need to expend precious calories running from a skier.  A 40 mile loop turned into a 36 mile out and back ski, because I have respect and compassion for my moose neighbors.

Ski tracks on a moose trail. Moose teeth marks on a willow branch. A "moose-groomed" trail. A "moose trench" in deep Su Valley snow. Evidence of where a moose tried to climb through deep snow up the creek bank, but couldn't make it.
A herd of moose struggling to survive in deep snow.  Time to turn around and ski away and not bother them.  And to wish them luck in surviving until spring.
22 March 2012: A 60 Mile Ski AROUND Anchorage

To ski around Anchorage has been on my list for a while.  I had done a 44 mile ski around the northern half of Anchorage in 2008, and a 52 mile ski around the southern half of Anchorage in 2009.  So I wanted to put the outer parts of these two loops together, and then some, to make a complete circle around Anchorage.

The idea of skiing around Anchorage is to ski a circle around as many homes in the Anchorage Bowl as you can.  The loop I skied gets the vast majority of the Anchorage Bowl dwellings, except for a couple of dozen homes in upper Stuckagain Heights and some homes and apartment buildings in the northwest corner of Mountain View.  This loop also excluded Government Hill, which may or may not be a part of the Anchorage Bowl depending on your definition.

Much of this 60 mile loop was on trails of some sort: backcountry skier skinning-tracks, ski-touring tracks, snowshoe and walker trails, snowmobile tracks, roads, sidewalks and groomed bike trails.  No groomed ski-only trails were used.  Enough of this loop required trail breaking, especially the uphills in the mountains, to drop the pace average and make this ski drag on into the dark.  And it was fun to start and end this ski loop at my house.

I was somewhat surprised that I was able to ski 99% of this loop.  I ran/hiked less than a kilometer.  The fact I could ski so much of this loop in late March was due to the extreme amount of snowfall we got this winter coupled with cold temperatures for late March (it was -8 degrees F in Bicentennial Park the morning I started).

The following are pictures I took during this fun ski loop AROUND my hometown ...

GPS track: Just shy of 60 miles. Starting out and heading up skied-in tracks of the Stewart's Road in upper Potter Valley, Climbing over the ridge that leads up to False McHugh Peak. A long, slow climb up soft snowmobile tracks to the saddle NW of McHugh Peak.
Looking down at Anchorage. A nice morning in the Western Chugach Mountains. Ptarmigan Peak throws a unique looking shadow. Wow!  There is a LOT of snow in Rabbit Valley this year!
Following skin tracks up Flattop. Side-hilling around the west flank of Flattop. Looking past the red house at Glenn Alps back at Flattop. The "red house" at Glenn Alps, the highest house in Anchorage.
Heading down the Powerline Trail. Recent blow-downs at Campbell Creek Canyon - victims of this winter's windstorms. The secret backdoor trail to Stuckagain Heights. At Stuckagain I skied Middle Rock, Burning Bush and Baxter Roads to get to ... ... the Fort Rich fence line that runs down to the Tank Trail.
Skiing the power line to Centennial Park.  Trails were come and go here, I had to do some trail breaking. This was cool to see - old school wood and webbing trail snowshoe tracks.  This is how I used to "groom" ski trails as a kid. Black holes are found in outer space.  White holes are found east of Muldoon. The moose gate exit from Fort Rich (yes - I called in my RAP number). From previous experience: checking the Glenn Highway underpass for drunks before entering.
I figured for sure I'd have to walk the Glenn Highway bike trail.  But ha! ... the snow berms had shaded the trail and kept it from melting. I skied roadsides and sidewalks to get through Mountain View.  I had skied through this neighborhood before when it was dark, 15 below zero and everyone was inside.  No problem.  This time I didn't have a good feeling about being a white guy in tights skiing through here.  I skied really fast to show myself the door out of this 'hood. Good conditions on the Ship Creek bike trail. Crossing the Ship Creek bike trail bridge, and about to descend "The Corkscrew"!  Wheeee!
I had to run past the AK Railroad terminal.  But soon I was back on snow. Ship Creek port area. The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was in good shape. Leaving the Coastal Trail and heading out onto the Anchorage Coastal Refuge. The "finish line", the mountains in the distance, comes into view.
Skiing below the Kincaid Bluffs on the way to Campbell Creek. A mountain biker watches me from above. Following ski touring tracks towards Campbell Creek.
Some folks did a nice job making this igloo near Oceanview. Following ski tracks off of Oceanview. To get from Oceanview to the shooting range I followed snowshoe trails in various states. Good skiing from the shooting range to the Potter Section House on a base of tide-soaked, then re-frozen, snow. Pipeline sign.
From the Potter Marsh area I could look up and see the trail I had climbed up in the morning. Access to the Old Johnson (hiking) Trail. Sunset on the Old Johnson Trail. Climbing from the Old Johnson Trail up the southern ridge of Potter Valley was slow and brutal in punchy snow.   I guess it makes it more memorable to save the hardest section of a long ski trip for last.
17 March 2012: Butte to Knik Glacier And Back

Having good conditions for skate skiing the entire 22 miles from Butte to the Knik Glacier is rare.  This area is notorious for low snow levels due to warm winds that happen when low pressure systems in the Gulf of Alaska suck warm Prince William Sound air through this valley.  Because of frequently thin snow here even snowmobilers have a hard time getting to Knik Glacier in some years.  More often this trip is done by ATVs or 4-wheel drive trucks.

Often there will be passable skiing conditions to Friday Creek.  But past this area and Wolf Point you enter the land of rocks - miles of river stones on a wide glacial outwash plain.  And it is in this area that skiing often gets bad.  I know because I've gotten turned back at this point in two previous attempts to ski to the glacier.

With all the snow we got this winter, and because we have had little wind recently, and no chinook melt-downs, I figured the trail conditions would be the best in years for skiing.  And it was.  I was able to get to the glacier in 2 hrs and 15 minutes.  It was a nice day, so once I got to the glacier I skied around a bit to check out the icebergs in the terminus lake before heading back.

GPS track: 44 miles RT. Starting out.  You can see the glacier over 20 miles away. Ran into a bit of overflow just before Wolf Point. Wolf Point. A directional arrow near Wolf Point that someone left.
Past Wolf Point and on the glacial outwash plain.  It's usually very rocky skiing here.  But not on this day. At the edge of Knik Glacier. Touching the glacier with the finger I broke in a rock-induced skiing crash trying to get to here 5 years ago.
360 degree panoramic from the terminus of Knik Glacier.
Small planes frequently fly out here for sightseeing. Lots of ice. Lunch: a green mint Clif bar - Happy St. Patricks Day!
  Starting back.  
I didn't see many travelers on the trail.  But this kid had come out 20 miles in a truck, and then got it stuck.  Kids doing dumb stuff ... I'm sure glad I never went through that phase.  ;-) Narrow trails at Friday Creek break up the outwash plain skiing. Almost done.  Looking back towards the glacier.
11 March 2012: South Fork Snow River to Nellie Juan Lake

This was my third time trying to ski to Nellie Juan Lake in the past several years.  The first time I ran into water, and the 2nd time I ran into water over my knees.  Because of that I brought along hip boots this time, which turned out to be overkill.  Water levels this year were not as high and I could have done the crossings in NEOS overboots, which are a LOT lighter to carry.  There were three water crossings.  But had it been warmer recently there would have been several more fords.

I started out skiing from the Seward Highway and followed snowmobile trails up the South Fork of the Snow River.  It looked like a large group of snowmobilers likely traveled this route the previous day.  I skied past a northern arm of the Godwin Glacier and climbed over a wooded shoulder to the high country beyond it.  As I approached the pass the wind picked up and was blowing hard (about 45 mph I'd guess) all the way past a second arm of the Godwin Glacier and on to the lake.  I tagged the lake and immediately started back, wanting to get over the pass before the wind got any higher.  Wind on the river heading back was moderate, making for a good ski back to the road.  This was a quiet ski trip as I didn't see a single person all day.

Area map, this ski route is NE of Seward. GPS track: 29 miles RT. There were three water crossings on this trip.
Wind-whipped snow swirls on the way up the South Fork of the Snow River. Passing a northern arm of the Godwin Glacier.  You can see that the glacier recently shrank away from its lateral moraines. Heading towards the old terminal moraine of the Godwin Glacier.  The trail goes over the wooded ridge in the distance. A short stretch of trail through old growth hemlocks gets you to the high country.
On the way to the pass, looking back at the first arm of the Godwin Glacier that you pass. Wind obscured snowmobile trail heading to the pass. A view of Nellie Juan Lake.  A beautiful place.  But it can get windy here.  It was blowing 45 mph, and  I was skiing in a down jacket.
Heading back west towards the pass. This is the second arm of Godwin Glacier that you ski by. Nearing the pass.  My ski tracks from just over an hour before are now wind-sculpted in relief. Wind knocked these "snow bombs" from tree branches.  One of them weighed at least 60 lbs.  It would hurt if one of these chunks hit you on the head.
Looking west to Mount Ascension (left) and the Lost Lake area.
04 March 2012: Snowmobile Route (Mostly) to Carmen Lake

I had been to one or both lakes at the end of the Twentymile River Valley four times before, three times by crust skiing and once by kayaking up to Carmen Lake and back.  Our crust skiing route goes up the west side of the valley.  But I had never been up the east side of the valley all the way to Carmen Lake.  This is the route that snowmobilers take and I wanted to check this route out.  We were having a short good weather window between storms so I grabbed my skis and gave it ago.

A major factor in this route are the Glacier River water crossings.  There are 8 major crossings.  Four going in, same four coming out.  So you need to bring some footwear for wading these shallow crossings.  Depending on conditions, more than 8 water crossings could be encountered.

I started out following three snowmobilers who were making the first trail up the valley since a recent snowstorm.  Where the Carmen River met the Glacier River I left their sno-go tracks and slogged a trail through 12 to 16 inches of powder and made it to the lake.  The snowmobilers apparently got off track while boondocking woods towards the lake, and didn't make it.  I appreciated their trail, without it I would have never made it through the new snow to the back of the valley and back.  Hopefully these guys have better luck and make it to Carmen Lake on their next try.

Crust skiing is definitely the more fun way to get to Carmen Lake.  But conditions that allow crust skiing to the back of this valley, without getting your feet wet, are rare.  The last good year was 2007.  If you want to crust ski to Carmen or Twentymile Lakes, and you are prepared to wade water crossings, this route will probably work when lack of Twentymile River ice shuts down the route on the west side of the valley.

GPS track: 25 miles RT approx. The last storm plastered the trees in the area. Nice day in the Twentymile Valley.  Meager trail but better than nothing.
  The snowmobile route to the end of the valley has 4 water crossings each way.  I brought Neos overboots and they worked fine.  I had to put them on/ take them off six times.   Two of the crossings were close so I kept my boots on between them (100 yds).
On the bank of the Carmen River, nearing Carmen Lake. At Carmen Lake.  Sweaty from deep snow slogging.  Lots of effort to go really, really slow. Three snowmobilers that I met caught up to me on the way out ... and demonstrated the quick and easy way to make the water crossings. Lots of snow in the Twentymile Valley this year.
  This was sad to see.  This moose had not moved in the last two weeks since Benji and I saw it.  It was in the same spot next to the river and not able to travel in the 5-6 foot deep snow to get food.  It's ribs are starting to show.  Deep snow is brutal and deadly for moose.  
    Five snowmobiles were in the Valley this day, so the trail out was better than the trail going in.
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