by: Tim Kelley

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Late February 2016: Slide Mountain - John Lake - Moore Lake Trail Skiing

My wife and I needed to get out of Anchorage and experience ... winter.  2 hours north of Anchorage winter was easy to find in the Copper River Valley.  We stayed at the Slide Mountain Cabins and then did a snowmobile supported ski to the north.  I skied up the Eureka / John Lake Trail and then up the Moore Lake Trail to the junction of the Eureka West Trail.  The West Trail, the intended route out, was rough single track and wasn't fun skiing.  So we turned the show around and I skied half way back and my wife the rest of the way.  Great weather and good trails.

30 miles out.  I skied 15 back for a 45 mile day.  My wife skied the other 15. Nelchina River floodplain. Heading to John Lake. Climbing up the Moore Lake Loop.
Late February 2016: Skiing From Eureka To Mendeltna

A couple of months ago I realized you could ski along the Glenn Highway all the way from Eureka to Mendeltna Lodge.  So being a guy who's skiing goal is to always ski new trails ... this route made my list.  This is a fun ski that parallels the Glenn Highway.  It follows a fiber optic right of way most of the way.  For the most part, it's separated from the highway by enough real estate that you don't much notice traffic (which there was not much of anyway).  This ski was 25 miles.  If you wanted to make it longer, you could add Eureka to Sheep Mountain.

Eureka Lodge to Mendeltna Creek Lodge: 25 miles. Near Eureka Summit A section of the trail.
Mid February 2016: Checking Out The Mid-Valley Trail Club's New Deshka/Su Trail

I got word the Mid-Valley Trail Club was making a new trail.  This trail is a re-route of the Susitna Valley Winter Trail.  It moves the trail off of the Susitna River below Susitna Landing to an overland route to the west.  Making this trail was a good decision.  It will be safer for MVTC folks, and travelers alike.  Less dealings with the whims of ice thickness on the braided channels of the Big Susitna River.

Always up for skiing Su Valley trails I have not skied before, I headed north.  I started skiing from Susitna Landing, skied to the Ravine and then out the Neal Lake Trail.  The turn-off for the new trail was easy to find (see picture above).  I skied down to the Deshka X-over trail and back to Susitna Landing for a total of 38 miles.  I met the MVTC folks on the trail.  Nice folks with cabins at Trapper Lakes and with xc skiing and biking connections to Anchorage.  They said they hope more skiers and bikers will use this new trail.  The first groom of this trail had just happened.. so it looks like I inaugurated this new trail with the first ski tracks.

Yellow shows the out and back route I skied.  For comparison, the magenta track is from a 2013 loop I skied. Phillip does the first full groom of the MVTC Deshka Trail.  The MVTC is set up well with a new Skidoo SWT (Super Wide Track) and Yellowstone drag. A map at Susitna Landing.  Shows some good trail info, but doesn't show the new trail.
The only significant elevation change on the trail.  Looking south. The trail follows along the base of an ancient river bank of the Big Su. Freshly cut willows shows that this is a brand new trail.
"The Ravine".  This is on the route most folks at Trapper Lake use to get to their cabins.  When conditions are good, this hill is usually no problem.  But I imagine there are many wild stories of struggles on this hill when it is icy.  And especially when it is icy and folks are trying to haul big loads behind their snowmobiles. Saw this just north of Susitna Landing.  Main channel of the Big Su eating away at the bank and (recently) undercutting trees.  Yet someone decides to build there.  Risky building site, IMO.
Driving north from Anchorage to go skiing is the cheapest it has been in 10-11 years.
Early February 2016: Skiing Alaska's Railroad To Nowhere

A ski that I had been wanting to do, is to ski Alaska's "Railroad To Nowhere".  184 million dollars has been spent on this 32 mile railroad project, that would connect Houston, AK to a rarely used port at Point Mackenzie.  But the State of Alaska has run into financial trouble, due to the crash of oil prices, so this partially completed rail project may never be completed.  Besides no money to fund this project, there is no longer a viable economic rational to build this railroad.  So here lies ... the Railroad To Nowhere.

I decided to ski this route from north to south.  I started skiing from the Miller's Reach Road, Milepost 32, and finished at the Pt. Mac Trailhead parking lot, near Milepost 1.5.  The northern part of the route turned out to be good skate skiing on crust snow and snowmobile tracks.  The 7 mile undeveloped "Segment 2" section offered a few navigation challenges.  But fast crust snow conditions and my Gaia GPS phone app allowed me to make good time here.  The last 4.5 miles were good crust skating on the rail bed until the train ran out of track, er snow, at the Pt. Mac trailhead.

In the descriptions below the following pictures, I added the estimated milepost (MP, see map) that the picture was taken.

MP 32: Leaving Millers Reach, heading south.  Thin snow, with rocks. MP 29.5: Railroad half-pipe. MP 28.5: Bridge over snowmobile trail. MP 28: Thin snow cover, but good crust skating.
MP 26.5: Passing Muleshoe Lake. MP 25: A Big Lake groomed trail heads west.
MP 23: Best skiing of trip.  Looked like trail had been dragged for mushing. MP 20: West Sustina Parkway.  A road to nowhere.
MP 18: Railroad bridge over mushing trail, that leads to Knik. MP 12.5: South end of Segment 3.  Railbed ends in the trees.
MP 11.5:  Ski tracks!  Mine from a week ago. MP 11: Seismic cut through forest.
MP 7.5: Nice crust skiing on hay field. MP 7:  A bit of bushwhacking. MP 5.5: North end of Segment 1.  Rail bed stops in trees. MP 3: Great crust skiing on rail bed.
  MP 1.5: Snow ends abruptly just before ATV underpass. Pt. Mac trailhead.  Thanks to my wife for dropping me off and picking me up.  
Late January 2016: Earthquake "Spew Crack" Crust Skiing

Earthquake spew crack.  Is that an official geological term?  Yeah, sure it is.  I made it up.  And now you've read it on the web.  Of course, everything on the web is true.  So "earthquake spew crack" is now a valid and official term.  Trust me!  ;-)

Our recent earthquake left its mark on rivers and swamps in the Susitna Valley.  The quake shook, agitated, mixed and sloshed water, sand and mud beneath layers of ice.  Where the pressure became too great for the ice, cracks formed and out spewed a dirty mix.  These pictures are mostly from the West Channel / Bell Island area of the Big Susitna River (where, by the way, the crust skiing has been good).

A few more recent pics ...

Boondocking with my wife.

Rough going (not much snow, and lots of sand) on the main channel of the Big Susitna River.

Cottonwood trees.

Mid January 2016: Recon of the Willow Mountain Trail

I had heard of, and seen on maps, the Willow Mountain Trail.  It is a trail that starts from the Shirley Towne Road area and climbs up to Willow Mountain on the west side of the Talkeetnas.  So I headed up to Willow, and then up the Hatcher Pass Road a ways, to check it out.  The Shirley Towne Road bridge was damaged in 2012, so you have to access this trail from the Deneki turnoff and the Deneki Meadows Bridge.  The trail ended up being easy to find and follow.  I skied up to tree-line, but turned around as visibility was bad (snowing pretty hard).  Some dicey sections coming back down, thin snow on top of ice.  I hope to go back when there is more light and more snow.

Route: ~24 miles out and back. The Shirley Towne Bridge has seen better days. The start of the trail is now a logging/ firewood cutting road.  A few trucks.  Good skating. Crossing a beaver swamp, nearing the start of the climb.
  The trail passes by a cool erratic as it nears tree-line.  
  Markings on a frame of an old Alaska Railroad flatbed car on the side of the logging road.  
Mid January 2016: Gaia GPS Swamp Skiing With My Wife

Our winter in Southcentral Alaska has had two El Nino meltdowns so far.  Though wet and rainy weather is not good for skiing in general, in some areas these warms spells have created abnormally good backcountry touring conditions for this time of year.  In areas where there was significant snow depth prior to the tropical hits, the snowpack is now very firm.  Currently, while skiing through the backcountry in these areas, you only sink in an inch or so while using cross country racing skis.

When it comes to backcountry rambling, I always try to visit places I've never skied before.  A while ago I found a helper in skiing new routes - the Gaia GPS phone app.  Coupled with Google Earth, this phone app allows you to navigate by a GPS position that is overlaid on a satellite image.

Often when you are breaking trail through dense woods in unfamiliar terrain, you may not realize that a clearing, and easy skiing, is only a hundred yards off, for example, to the north.  But you may be heading to the northwest.  If only you knew!  Well, now you can know.  Just pull out your smartphone and get a view from high in the sky of where you are and where you probably should be going.

While looking at Google Earth I noticed some neat-looking, long and narrow, beaver-damned swamps at the base of Mount Susitna.  I figured they'd be fun to link up to make a backcountry ski touring loop.  So, I drew an estimated route that linked these swamps together on Google Earth.  Then I uploaded the kml file to www.gaiagps.com and synched the route to my Gaia GPS phone app.  Final step, recruiting my veteran bushwhacking companion, my wife, and heading out on a fun ski outing.

Gaia GPS phone app screen shot.  On left of route is a link-up of backcountry beaver-damned swamps.  Gaia GPS makes sure you don't get off course while bushwhacking. A zoomed in view of the swamp link-ups.
Early start.  Adventures can become real adventures and take a lot longer than you anticipated. Thank you  beavers!  Frozen beaver country often makes for good skiing. Checking out wolf tracks circling a beaver house. Nice conditions.  A few inches of powder on top of firm snow.
Early January 2016: Finding Winter In The Copper Valley

I found that it's pretty easy to escape the Anchorage area snow drought and find winter.  Just drive a couple hours out the Glenn Highway.  I made a trip to Mendeltna Lodge.  Lots of groomed trails radiating out from this location.  And it's a good place to stay (I like the owners Mabel and Russ Wimmer).  A unique ski from Mendeltna, is the trail to Tazlina Lake (above picture).  Though there is not a lot of snow for this area in January, the Lake Louise Snowmobile Club has been grooming trails.  And there is a trail groomed now between Eureka and Mendeltna, that parallels the Glenn Highway.  I had never known of this trail to be groomed before, so I skied part of it to check it out.

On the way to Tazlina Lake. The groomed John Lake trail.
Marker on the trail along the Glenn Highway, before and after being whacked by a ski pole.  This trail follows the route of a buried fiber optic line.
John Lake Trail, nice groom. On my way back through Palmer I noticed folks skating on Kepler Lake.  So I pulled over and got some Nordic blading in.  Good conditions.
Early January 2016: Waiting For Winter ... Yet Again

A series of Pacific storms, bringing warm temps and rain, obliterated Anchorage's marginal skiing and trashed most all winter trails in the Lower Susitna Valley.  The only good lowland skiing remaining seems to be on the Nancy Lake Parkway.  Here the icy snow has been churned up by a tiller and snowmobilers going to and from their cabins to make for decent skate skiing.  Everywhere trails cross lakes or swamps, the thin snowpack we had got saturated with water and turned to ice.

I don't feel very sorry for myself regarding the lack of skiing on my favorite Alaskan trails.  My problems are nothing compared to problems of others in the Su Valley.  I say this after seeing many common murres that were recently blown by storm winds all over the Lower Susitna Valley ... to, likely, their impending deaths by starvation.  Very strange and unpleasant to witness.  Here is a story about the murres More ... .

Good skate skiing on the Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area Parkway.  Perhaps the only good skiing in the Lower Su Valley.
A murre near the Big Susitna River.

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Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing