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by: Tim Kelley

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Mid February 2015: Following The Trail Of Tom Besh, By Memory

I headed up to the Eureka area to try and ski a new loop.  Nice snow for classic skiing.  But there was so little snow that trails that would normally be in ... were not.  So my intended loop didn't pan out due to the lack of trails.  Oh well, I had a good time getting in a long ski on what trails there were.

One thing I did in this area was to revisit the ski route of what is likely the first spring backcountry cross country ski race in Southcentral Alaska.  In mid-April of 1982, the late Tom Besh, the UAA ski coach at the time, put on an out and back 30 kilometer ski race in this area.  The race was on snowmobile trails, with no grooming for ski tracks.

Tom Besh's spring ski race preceded the first Oosik Classic ski race by about 18 years.  You can actually see parts of the initial Oosik Classic race course from the highpoint of this route.  The first Oosik, in 2000, started and finished at Sheep Mountain Lodge and was billed as a 50 km race, but it turned out to be around 63 kms.  We sure got a bonus deal on kilometers per entry fee dollar on that race!

I skied Tom's spring skiing race back in '82.  I ended up winning the race, John Swenson, UAA's top skier, was 2nd and I believe Jim Renkert was third.  I can't remember who won the women's race.  The results are likely somewhere in newspaper archives if someone wanted to dig for them.

The defining feature of Tom's race was the long climb up to Crooked Creek Pass, which on the return became a wild, fast and super-fun descent (see picture above).  I remember that Guy Thibodeaux, UAA's assistant coach, was at the turnaround ... a small mining shack with wind-whipped snow swirling around it.  I recognized the drainage and the spot where the turnaround was at, but the shack was gone.

It was fun pulling back memories of one day ... 33 years ago.  And I even threw in some marathon skating, the ski technique in use back then, as a salute to Tom Besh.

  Route of 1982 spring ski race put on by UAA ski coach Tom Besh  
The trail goes through the "private sub".  There is a legal right of way here (don't worry about getting shot). Lots of cabins have been built here since 1982.  All of these cabins are off the grid. Heading up to Crooked Creek Pass. Nearing the pass, looking back towards Gunsight Mountain.
 North of the pass, following coyote tracks on an old snowmobile trail. One the north side of the pass the country gets bleak. Thin layer of powder on top of brush.  Off-trail is not fun in these conditions, for skis or snowmobiles. This is gold mining country.  So you often pass by unique contraptions rusting in the woods.
Late January 2015: Late Snow Means Cabin Project Catch-up Time

No new ski routes to post.  Have been playing catch-up on cabin projects due to the very late-arrival of snow in Southcentral Alaska.  Usually I like to haul all supplies in the "dark winter" and save all the "light winter" for skiing.  Not the case so far.  Most of my out-of-town skiing has been trail skiing in the lower Susitna Valley on river trails.  Good skiing on a thin snowpack.

Good skiing on thin snow on the rivers and swamps, whether there is a trail or not.  Woodland trails are still very rough. Hauling, hauling, hauling ...  keep those sleds a hauling! I grew up xc ski racing on wood skis.  So sometimes I like to switch from plastic sled runners to wood runners for old-time sakes.  ;-)
Mid January 2015: Escaping The Endless October Of January

I heard a good description of our current winter: "This is the longest October ever!"  So true.  Here it is, mid-January, and winter still has not gained traction in much of Southcentral Alaska.  Warm, hardly any snow ... definitely not a good winter for the mental health of backcountry trail skiers.

But the good news is that there is a bit of winter 2 hours north of Anchorage.  The Curry Ridge Riders trail system in the Petersville area has enough snow for them to groom.  And it's worth the trip.  My wife and I went up for a couple of days.  We like to stay the night in the area at a nearby lodge, rental cabin or B&B.  Doing this increases your skiing to driving time, which is a good thing.

What we like to do now and then is what I call "snowmobile relay skiing".  The way it works might go like this: I ski for 2 hours, my wife skis for 1 hour, I ski for 2 hours, my wife skis for 1 hour, etc.  The times can vary, there are no rules.  And when you are not skiing, you are doing snowmobile support for the one skiing.  This arrangement allows you to travel over more country and it allows a ski trip to be shared between skiers of different speeds.  On the days we were in Petersville, because my wife was recovering from a recent bout of the flu, I got to ski the majority of the time.

Due to the low amount of snow in this area, I was able to do something I had never done before.  And that is to ski through the Peters Creek Canyon on the Petersville Road.  The road here is pretty much just a bulldozer gash on the side of the mountain.  So with normal winters, and lots of snow and drifting, this road disappears into the mountainside and this route is too dangerous to traverse.  Instead, to get over the Peters Hills, you normally go over them to the north via Lunchbox Hill.  So it was fun to ski through the gap and chalk up a new trail in this area.

Skiing past a glacial erratic on the East-West Trail. Heading up the Petersville Road. Nice snowmobile trail skiing on granulated powder.
Petersville Road. Heading toward the Peters Creek Canyon. Skiing above the Peters Creek Canyon, Dutch Hills in the distance.
During normal winters, no alders would be showing on this mountainside above the Peters Creek Canyou.  This section of the Petersville Road would be filled with drifted snow and disappear into the mountainside for the winter.  But so far, not this year.
The Curry Ridge Riders snowmobile club's Pisten Bully trail groomer.  The PB pulls a massive trail drag that grades out all the bumps in the trail that snowmobiles might make.  The wheels on the back of the drag are put down when the drag has to cross a road (so the road doesn't get damaged).  I join the Curry Ridge Riders snowmobile club every year to help support their wonderful trail system.
I always chuckle when I read flowery, lauding and salacious posts from skiers about trail grooming in Anchorage.  "Unbelievable!"  "Awesome!  Only in Anchorage!"  "Nothing like it!" "Best grooming in the Universe!"  Yes, it's good to be happy with and proud of your local trail systems.  But it's not so good to post your ignorance of Alaska for all to see.  Immaculately-buffed, Piston Bully-groomed trails do not just occur in Anchorage.  They are all over the place these days.  Big Lake, Willow Trail Committee, Mid-Valley, Curry Ridge Riders, Lake Louise Wolfpack, Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers ... all of these snowmobile clubs have Pisten Bully groomers, or equivalents, and have been grooming great multi-use trail systems, not far from Anchorage, for many years.  Plus, the trails these clubs groom actually go someplace, these trails don't have the constant background noise of jets and traffic like in Anchorage and you see a lot less people on these trails.  But whatever.  The people that post "Anchorage trails are the greatest!" trail comments will likely never read this web site.  So I hope they keep on posting, so skiers like me can can be entertained, keep on rolling our eyes and continue chuckling.
Early January 2015: Zeroing In On The Zero Lake Trail

7 or 8 years ago I did a clock-wise loop around the Haessler-Norris trail system in Willow.  But this ski loop didn't go quite as I planned.  Everything went smoothly until I tried to hook onto the Zero Lake Trail, which I would use to head to the Intertie (power line) and on back to Willow.  Then things went awry when I couldn't find the Zero Lake Trail.  I was sure I was where the map said the trail was.  I poked around a bunch and eventually dead-ended at Ramey Smyth's dog yard.  Giving up, I skied the Zero Lake Road to the Parks Highway and then skied a death march through soft snow back to Willow.  That was a long day.

After that ski I emailed Steve Charles, a key Willow Trail Committee player, and mentioned that I couldn't find the Zero Lake Trail.  Steve said that me not finding the trail made sense, because the trail didn't exist.  At the time, the Haessler-Norris trail map showed red line on the map where the Zero Lake Trail was proposed to be made.  Guess I should have talked to Steve before I did that ski trip!

Since then the Zero Lake Trail has been cut.  And the Mat-Su Borough has made a large, new parking lot on the Zero Lake Road.

Recently I went to Houston to check out the new Zero Lake Trail.  I found and skied the trail this time, though finding the southern end of the trail was a little tricky.  Hint: Heading up the Zero Lake Trail go past the main parking lot, past a smaller parking lot, up a hill, past the left that has the "Private", "Dog Yard" signs (that's Ramey's place) and it's the next trail crossing (at the corner).

I skied the Zero Lake Trail to Bruno's Boulevard, the Intertie and then up to the outskirts of Willow and back.  The trail was rough in the woods.  It needs another foot or two of snow to be good.  Due to logging in this area, there are zillions of side trails.  And many of these side trails are used by mushers.  So it's easy to get sidetracked here.

The Haessler-Norris trail system is a great, and infrequently skied, trail system.  But this is dog team country.  I consider mushers and their dog teams the lords of these trails.  So I am very attentive when skiing here and am always watching out for dog teams.

The new MSB parking lot on the Zero Lake Road. The Zero Lake Trail traverses logging roads, low black spruce-covered ridges and swamps. Lots of dog musher properties hook onto the HN trail system.
A map of the main trails of the Haesller-Norris trail system on the Willow Trail Committee web site.  This is good map, but here are many other trails in this area that are not on this map. Sign on the Zero Lake Road: "Children At Play" and "Logging Trucks" ... always a good combination!

On another ski trip in the Willow area, I tried to figure out how to link up trails along the Willow-Fishhook Road.  In the past, when I have skied from Hatcher Pass to Willow, I skied the Herning / Willow Creek Sled Trail to Houston and then go northwest to Willow.  Based on the Haessler-Norris trail map, it looks like you can link together trails along the Willow-Fishhook Road instead.  I gave this a try but was unsuccessful.  Will have to try it again after it snows more and more of the trails are in. 

An extensive multi-use trail system in Willow and Houston. Not much snow in Willow.  But many mushing trails are dragged making for fast skiing. Two girls out mushing their dog teams. Quite the maze of trails in this areas.  Easy to get mixed up.
A trail I was following led to these signs.  At this point I said to myself: "Ya know what?  I think now would be a really good time to turn around."

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Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing