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by: Tim Kelley

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Late April 2014: Reed Lakes Crust Skiing

Time to switch from snowmobile trail skiing to crust skiing.  Here are some photos from a recent ski in the Reed Lakes valley in the Talkeetna Mountains near Hatcher Pass.  Reed Lakes is probably my favorite  Hatcher Pass area crust skiing venue.  There's lots of varied terrain and you feel like you are getting up into the mountains when you ski to Upper Reed Lake.

On this trip I made a detour to ski some terrain that I had hiked through before, but never skied.  Once you start back down the valley, instead of following the trail back down, you can stay high and ski south to a "terrain park" of sorts.  There are a lot of bumps and small ridges on the bench in this area that are fun to ski.  And from this area there are some good gullies for skiing back to the base of the valley.  Here are more pictures from a 2012 crust skiing trip in the Reed Lakes valley.

Heading past a "No old guys allowed driving 1960's snowmobiles" sign.  The Reed Lakes Trail works its way between the cliff bands in the distance. On the way back from Upper Reed Lake, looking south at the bench in the distance.  You can see the "terrain park" on top of the bench. Reaching the top of the bench, in the middle of the valley. Looking back from the bench.  You can see the trail coming up from Mid Reed Lake, going past the waterfall and then heading to Upper Reed Lake at the base of Lynx Peak.
The "terrain park" on the bench.  I was here a little too early.  Snow on sun-facing aspects was great skiing.  Shadowed slopes were a bit soft.
Cool place.
Fun skiing back to the valley bottom. During this ski I noticed a "crust log" on the snow.  I was surprised, I didn't realize that crust trees grew in this valley.
Map of route.  The "terrain park" bench area is noted on this map.   A good sized avalanche came down in mid-April and crossed the Reed Lakes Trail, about one mile from the trailhead at the Archangel Road.  Just because you are following a trail that thousands hike - it doesn't mean you are safe.
Mid April 2014: A Primer On "Crust Skiing's Cousin" - Snowmobile Trail Lake Skiing

Want some fun spring skiing that ranks up there with crust skiing?  Then maybe you should try groomed snowmobile trail skiing on a big lake.  This is fast skiing that is actually more reliable than crust skiing, because the base you are skiing on is firm and doesn't break down as quickly with warm temperatures like crust snow does.

A good place to do this type of skiing is at Lake Louise and Susitna Lake near Glennallen, Alaska.  The Lake Louise Snowmobile Club grooms over 30 miles of trails around the perimeters of these lakes.  So, there is a big "figure 8" that you can skate ski here.  Besides usually being buffed to perfection, these trails are well marked and there are "you are here" map signs at all intersections.

Lake Louise is about 160 miles north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway.  That's a long distance to drive for a one day ski.  You will probably have more fun if you stay the night up there.  There are quite a few lodges and cabin rentals in the area.  And the winter rates make the prices reasonable.  You can ski these lakes until late April / early May.  Want to know what the weather is like and what the trails look like up there?  Then check out the Lake Louise Lodge web cam.

People with cabins on these lakes use the trails for snowmobile access on the weekends.  So it's best skiing here mid-week if you can.  But if you are here on a weekend, it is still good.  Everyone up there is friendly and you will get waved at a lot.  I always put some money in the "Trails Fund" donation boxes up there, because the "Wolf Pack", the Lake Louise Snowmobile Club, does a world class job of marking and grooming a remarkable winter trail system.

The trails around the lakes are marked in green on this trail map. Heading out.  Lots of good signage on these trails.  It would be very hard to get lost here. Fast girl on a fast trail, effortless skating across Lake Louise. Sun + snow + speed = fun.
The "LS 8" - Lake Louise / Susitna Lake Figure 8.  32.9 miles of groomed lake trails.  If there was a late April/ early May race on this course, people would be setting their 50 km PRs ... easily! Why does spring skiing come so late on Lake Louise?  Because it's a cold place.  Check out the image above from the Lake Louise Lodge web cam.  Minus 13 degrees on April 11th.  I was there this day in the afternoon.  Good skiing on cold powder at 23 degrees.  But a long ways from spring conditions.
12 April 2014: Nelchina Glacier

A popular trip for snowmobilers in the Eureka area is to ride to the Nelchina Glacier.  And if you want - you can go all the way to Valdez.  Actually, a couple/few times a year - hardcore snowmobilers will ride the 125 miles, mostly across large glaciers, from Valdez to Eureka, have lunch at the lodge and then head back to Valdez.  250 miles of hoping you don't drive into a crevasse (I remember once this happening to a snowmobiler, who is now paralyzed for life from his waist down).

My wife and I did a quick snowmobile-supported trip to the glacier and back.  I skied to the glacier, my wife and I took turns skiing coming back.  From the Eureka Lodge you ski west along the Glenn Highway to the Nelchina River Trail.  You cross the highway and then head south towards the mountains and then east down into the river drainage.  The trail is good until the part that descends to the river, which is sno-go bump-nasty.  On the floodplain the trail was great for skate skiing all the way to the glacier.

On this trip I forgot my camera.  So these pictures were taken with my cell phone that takes crappy 1.3 MP photos.  Sorry.

After skiing at Lake Louise on the 11th my wife and I stayed at Slide Mountain Cabins.  Never had stayed here before.  Nice cabins.  We liked their pavilion with open fireplace and hanging chairs around it. There's basically one turn on the trail to the Nelchina River.  And it's marked with this sign. Nearing the Nelchina Glacier.  Good skiing on old river channels and the glacial outwash plain.  It's about 18 miles from the Eureka Lodge to the Nelchina Glacier.
While getting pictures off my cell phone from this ski trip, I noticed this shot from a few years ago.  I was once passed by this jacked-up Pontiac Firebird as I was skiing out to Knik Glacier.  I later saw this beast parked by the side of the road, and for sale, in Butte (Palmer).  It's always an adventure when you go for ski trips in the Butte area!
05 April 2014: Moore Lake Trail

A popular Copper Basin snowmobile trail ride is the Moore Lake Loop.  This loop goes way out into the boonies to the west of Lake Louise.  The loop is 59 miles long.  And the entire loop is groomed.  A 59 mile groomed loop!?  Yep.  My wife came along on a snowmobile.  It's always fun to have her come along whether she is on skis or not.  Plus, she gets some good pictures.

Moore Lake Loop: GPS track - 59 miles. Susitna Lake, start of Moore Lake Trail. Heading towards Moore Lake. Cabin at Moore Lake.  Some sled dogs were here, but no musher.
Nearing top of the first, of several, big climbs. On top we met a group of cool snowmobiler ladies.  It was fun talking to them. The middle section of this loop is the hardest, and the most scenic. Suffering yet another big climb in the sun.  You can see the trail coming down the ridge in the background.
Ha!  Here's a picture that shows the side of backcountry trail skiing that isn't pretty.  Like when a big climb, with many miles to go ... totally kicks your ass.  Brutal.  Happens now and then. No need to dwell on unanticipated suffering.  You just have to remind yourself how lucky you are to be skiing new places in Alaska all the time ... and keep on skiing.
04 April 2014: Lake Louise To Crosswind Lake And Back

I have known of Crosswind Lake and have wanted to ski there for a long time.  So I grabbed my skis, headed up to Lake Louise and skied out the Crosswind Trail to the north end of Crosswind Lake.  This is a big, remote lake in some cold and somewhat bleak country.  Access to this lake is by plane in the summer, winter trails during snow season.  I skied across Crosswind Lake, passing a bunch of cabins, to the Big Bay Trail.  Heading back west I took a south turn on the Big Rock Trail and then intersected the Tolsona Trail to get back to Lake Louise.

This skiing was mostly on snowmobile trails that were groomed by the Lake Louise Snowmobile Club.  "The Wolf Pack" does an incredible job grooming a huge trail system in the Eureka-Lake Louise-Tolsona area.  My wife came along on a snowmobile for part of this trip (that's why there are some pictures of me), before she went back to ski the trails on Lake Louise.

GPS track: 50 miles.

The Crosswind Trail from Lake Louise to Crosswind Lake is predominately a long seismic line cut, with a few good-sized hills. These trails are used by the Copper Basin 300 dog sled race.



The trail across Crosswind Lake.  This is cold country.  Best skiing conditions here are in the spring.

Leaving Crosswind Lake and starting to head back to Lake Louise. I was surprised to only see two snowmobiles on this ski trip. Going back, I took the Big Rock Trail over to the Tolsona Trail.  The big rock is in the distance.




Not surprisingly, these snowmobile trails were as good or better groomed, and better marked, than any xc ski trails I've been on in Alaska.   
29-30 March 2014: Springtime Trail Cruising With My Wife

Once or twice a year, my wife and I like to go on snowmobile-supported ski trips.  By using a snowmobile, we can both ski as much as we want even when the distance each of us skis is different.  The typical length of such a ski trip is around 60 to 70 miles.  I'll usually ski about 40 to 50 miles, my wife around 20 miles.  By doing this we can cover a lot of ground and share seeing new places.  Plus we both get good workouts.

Recently we did a couple of trips in the Trapper Creek / Peters Hills area.  For the first trip we started at the Parks Highway milepost 131 and followed snowmobile trails to near the end of the Tokositna River valley and back.  The next day we started at MP 121 and went over the Peters Hills to the Dutch Hills and back.  Perfect weather and great skiing conditions.  Much of this skiing was on snowmobile trails groomed by the Curry Ridge Riders.  I join this snowmobile club each year to help support their great trails.  Petersville area trail maps can be found on the CRR website.

Skiing up the Tokositna River. Upper reaches of the Tokositna Valley.
Heading towards the Dutch Hills. Deep Creek Trail Skiing the East-West Express Trail back to MP 121.
23 March 2014: Syncline Mountain Loop

I've now done variations of the Eureka area Syncline Mountain loop four times.  Though I try to mostly just post new ski trips on this web site, I'm posting this one because: 1) I've never posted a Syncline Mountain trip on this web site before, 2) I've never done this exact variation of this loop and 3) I haven't done a Syncline Mountain loop in 18 years.  And of course, another reason for posting this trip report is because this is a unique network of winter trails through some beautiful country that always delivers a memorable ski trip.

To do this loop I started at Glenn Highway just past the old Tahneta Lodge site.  Here there is a road that goes NW to an area with a lot of cabins.  I skied this packed-snow road and then down the Squaw Creek Trail.  This is fun and fast skiing as you gradually descend down to Caribou Creek.

Once on Caribou Creek, I skied NW and through a gorge until I got to Alfred Creek.  Following Alfred Creek NE, I went through another gorge and then skied up through a number of small gold mining operations on the north side of Syncline Mountain.  Once above treeline, I found the Pass Creek Trail and started the long climb up to Belanger Pass.  From Belanger Pass it was a steep and fast descent back to the road and out to the Glenn Highway.

This loop, or variations of it, are fun.  But skiing here can be challenging.  You don't always know if a trail will be in on the north side of Syncline Mountain.  The trail I followed this day was down to one snowmobile track for a while.  Sometimes the Caribou and Alfred Creek gorges can have open water in them and you can't get through them (though you can take a trail that bypasses them).  Other challenges are overflow, usually quite a lot, and navigation.  And up high it can be tricky finding the connecting trails.

If you are new to skiing in this area of endless snowmobile trails, it's best to start with shorter trips and learn the trails.  And then start putting bigger loops together.

GPS track: 32 miles Where the loop starts and ends. Heading down the Squaw Creek Trail, Gunsight Mountain in the distance. Squaw Creek Trail, Fortress Ridge ahead. Cabin at Squaw Creek and Caribou Creek.
A guy apparently lives here.  His math confused me a bit. Heading up Caribou Creek. Approaching the gorge of Caribou Creek. Exiting the Caribou Creek gorge. Approaching the Alfred Creek gorge.
In the Alfred Creek gorge, looking back towards Caribou Creek. Looking back at the Alfred Creek gorge. "Peew!  What's that smell!"  No, this is not that bus.  Miners probably dragged it in by cat for use as storage/ shelter. A lot of gold mining equipment in this remote valley.  All of it was dragged in here by bulldozers. Alfred Creek up higher as the valley widens.  Lots of caribou up here.
Overflow. On the climb up to the pass. Igloo remains. Nearing the pass, looking back. The final stretch to the pass.
  View from Belanger Pass looking towards the Glenn Highway.   Sign on the road.  Kids play here too ... I ski here!  
19 March 2014: A New 70 Mile Loop In the Susitna Valley

Last year Cruz Construction blazed and cut an ice road route from the Willow Creek state campground across the Big Su and on to the Deshka and Yentna Rivers.  The ice road was to be used this year to transport a drilling rig out to an exploratory gas drilling site.  But with this year's warm and fickle weather, the ice road was not established.

Even though the ice road didn't come to fruition this year, the work from 2013 created a new snowmobile route to get to the Yentna River from the Willow / Deshka Landing area.

I had been chomping at the bit to ski this trail as part of a big loop.  But due to poor snow conditions and my schedule ... it took until mid-March to finally pull it off.  Well, it was probably worth the wait as I was able to do this new loop during perfect weather.

I started at Deshka Landing and skied the Deshka Cross-over Trail to the Deshka River.  Skiing up the Deshka River I reached where the ice road route crosses and headed west.  The trail got bumpy and at this point.  And snowmobile tracks I was following ended when the snowmobilers lost their way and turned back 5 miles from the Yentna River.  I knew the correct trail, so I kept going on an old trailbed that was starting to drift over.  Once I reached the Yentna, it was high-speed autobahn travel down to Scary Tree and then up the Big Susitna back to Deshka Landing.

This was a day ski, but I pulled a small sled with overnight gear (sleeping bag, bivy tent).  Why bring overnight gear?  This new trail sees minimal traffic compared to the river trails.  It's remote.  I'm alone.  And sh*t can happen (break ski, break binding, break ski boot, moose stomping, ice gives way, etc.).  Small sleds create very little resistance when skate skiing on fast river trails.  So it's best to prepared and bring extra stuff in case you need it.

One fun way for people to do this ski, if they didn't want to grind it out in a day, would be to overnight at the Grabryszak's Yentna Station Roadhouse.  This lodge is very near the half-way point of this loop and would make a great place to break up the trip.  But make sure you have a GPS track of the ice road route before you go.

GPS track: ~70 miles Heading north on the Deshka Cross-over Trail.  What a day! Recently hauled-in fish weir segments on the Deshka River (for a salmon counting station). Fast skiing up the Deshka River.
At the ice road route crossing of the Deshka River.  Easy to miss. ~1.5 miles from the Deshka there is a junction.  Go west, north goes to a drilling pad. The ice road route goes through nice woodlands and some swamps. A trapline was established along this route.  Don't stick your hand in the box! Snowbikers beware ... the swamps were soft going.
Past where the recent snowmobilers had turned around, the trail was starting to drift in. Heading south on the Yentna River, Mount Susitna in the distance. Yentna Station Roadhouse at Mile 14. The former Luce's Lodge, now out of business (though I did see Dave Luce on a snowmobile pulling a trail drag)
Yentna River mile marker. A freight hauler heading up the Yentna River. Scary Tree! Me patting a ghost on Scary Tree.  It's good to befriend ghosts you meet on the trail!
Heading up the Big Su.  I've boated by this point many times. Kroto Slough - I would guess this guy is hauling over $2000 worth of diesel or gas. Long shadows, just before Deshka Landing. The Deshka Landing boat launch.  End of a super-fun ski loop! GPS Track, satellite view
  A common evening sight in the Su Valley - a low flying Air National Guard C-130 out training.  


Early March 2014: My Favorite Su Valley Classic SkiingTrail

I had not skied my favorite Su Valley classic skiing trail in quite a few years.  So I headed to Houston to ski the Herning Trail (a.k.a the Willow Creek Sled Trail).  This trail was laid out almost a century ago so dog teams could haul freight to mines on the west side of Hatcher Pass.  Because of the big loads that had to be transported up a lot of elevation, the trail ascends gradually.  This trail has a nice uphill flow for 15 miles, then you turn around and make the trip back to Houston a lot faster.  It's a narrow, (mostly) easy to ski and fun trail.  Cold powder conditions are best for this trail, as it makes for great old-school classic skiing.  The day I did the trail I didn't say anyone, so it can be a very quiet  trail too.

I started and ended this ski at my usual spot - the Houston Fire Department.  But I noticed there was more development near the start of the trail here and less traffic indicated on the trail than I remembered.  Later I would find out that a new trailhead for the Herning Trail was built by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough off the Zero Lake Road.  This road is the first right as you pass Houston going north on the Parks Highway.  So if you want to ski the Herning Trail, you might want to start from the new parking lot and work you way east until you hit the Herning Trail.

About 30 miles out and back. This is musher country. Sign at mid-point of the trail. Upper end of the trail has a Steese-White Mountains feel to it.


Early March 2014: Skiing Susitna Valley Groomed Freight Hauling Trails
A recent groomed freight hauling trail on Alexander Creek (near the base of Mount Susitna).

Freight hauling by snowmobile is done a lot in the late winter in Alaska.  Hauling materials and supplies to remote properties by snowmobile is often cheaper than using a plane or boat.  Plus, snowmobiles can get materials exactly to where you need them, whereas planes and boats can usually just get supplies to a lake shore or river bank.

Late February to early April sees a spike in snowmobile freight hauling in the Susitna Valley.  From trailheads, endless trips are made to remote properties off the grid.  People haul building supplies, fuel, construction equipment, diesel generators, septic tanks, boats, giant 8-foot diameter tires, sofas, pigs, lamas ... just about anything and everything.  Sometimes you will see huge cabin or retirement home building packages delivered to a snowmobile trailhead.  And then people race against time and snow conditions to get these materials to where it has to go.

Like crust skiing, snowmobile freight hauling of big loads is not something you can do any time you want.  You have to wait until the conditions are right.  If you try to haul big loads when the snow is too soft, you will get stuck.  If the snow is too wet, the suction will work against you.  If the snow surface is too icy, it's rough on your snowmobile's cooling system and track.  If the trail is too bumpy, you can break your sled or spill your cargo.  If ice is too thin, you can loose everything.

When it comes to snowmobile freight hauling - it's a numbers game.  The equipment used to haul is expensive and easy to damage.  And fuel is expensive.  So you have to figure the best time to haul and the best size loads to carry for the conditions.

You can haul yourself, which I do because I like the challenge, or you can call the pros.  Pros like Mike Mason sometimes go out and groom freight hauling trails before he hauls.  That way there is less excitement and less wear and tear on his equipment.  And they can haul more in less time.

Not only does grooming help snowmobile freight hauling, it also helps skiers that happen upon their trails.  You can get some long skis in on freshly groomed trails in places were trails have never been groomed before.  It's a nice treat.  How do you find these trails?  Go to snowmobile parking lots, look for big piles of building materials and ask the guys loading the freight sleds: "So where are you taking this stuff?!"

On a side note: I get good-natured ribbing from a freight hauler about "ruining" groomed hauling trails.  Apparently to him, the skate ski marks I make are dangerous ruts that deface his finely buffed-out hauling trails.  That's so funny!  Usually, everywhere else in the world, snowmobilers are the bad guys for wrecking ski trails.  But in a certain corner of Alaska, skiers are the bad guys for messing up snowmobile trails!  Ha!

Here are a few recent shots of pros hauling a tractor and accessories 30 miles off the road system.  If you need a pro to haul freight in the Sustina Valley, contact the guy doing this haul job - Mike Mason (you can find him on Facebook).  Photo credits: Mike Mason.
Here is a video I made 5 years ago about snowmobile freight hauling.  This was a 1200 pound load.  That's pretty big for me.  Not big for the pros.


02 March 2014: Placer River Valley Winter Crust

The second melt-down of our wimpy winter left us with a bit of crust skiing.  It's not the greatest crust skiing.  It's pretty ratty due to frozen snowmobile tracks and, by no surprise, very low snow depth.  Looking up the Placer Valley now you see a lot of brown, when you usually just see white.  This is because many willows and alders are still showing, when usually they are mashed down by heavy snow.  And where you used to ski over this vegetation, now you need to find a way through or around it.

There is a trail up the west side of the Placer River that the Glacier City Snowmobile Tours is using.  This trail is decent for skiing, but there are two shallow, open-water crossings of the river on this trail.  I got this information from talking to one of the snowmobile tour guides, who was really nice.  So, to make it to the Spencer Glacier you have to stay to the east of the train tracks.  Lots of snowmobiles have been riding right next to the tracks. This makes for a good trail, though the Alaska Railroad doesn't want people traveling next to the tracks.  So be careful. 

A bunch of other crust skiers were out this day.  I got word that the trail to the Skookum Glacier is in rough shape.  I saw a motorcyclist and two road bikers on the Seward Highway while driving back.  And I also saw a guy in a wheelchair and a girl running in shorts on the snow-less Bird to Gird bike trail.  I had never seen those sights before at the beginning of March in Alaska.  What a weird winter.

Lots of "brown" in the valley this year. Following the snowmobile tour tracks to the Spencer Glacier.  Crust skiing off the trail was good here too. Nice, illegal snowmobile trail next to the train tracks.
Near the middle of the glacier terminus, there is a long "ice cliff" this year.  A channel runs the length of the ice cliff where wave action during higher summer water levels eroded into the ice.  Every year there are new and unique ice formations to be seen here.
  The new pedestrian bridge over the Placer River is now finished.   What?!  Beavers have started making igloos?!?!  


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