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by: Tim Kelley

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Mid April 2017: Crust Skiing Refuges
View, from the top of Flattop, of three refuges near Anchorage that can offer good crust skiing.


Near Anchorage there are a number of refuges with open areas at sea level that can make for good crust skiing.  The Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge is the most-skied of all these refuges.  The Goose Bay State Game Refuge is skied infrequently, and the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge is hardly ever skied.  There are other similar areas near Anchorage, like the Chickaloon Flats of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge.  But these two areas seem to be more brushy and are often snow-sparse when crust skiing conditions arrive.

I had crust skied the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and Susitna Flats State Game Refuge before (and I also skied them this year).  As for Goose Bay... I'd skied across the bay (under the powerline) a couple of times, but I had never crust skied this area.  I finally crust skied Goose Bay, and here are a few pictures from that ski ...

Goose Bay State Game Refuge
Northeast edge of Goose Bay, south of the Goose Bay airport.
GPS track: 16 miles. View from the southernmost edge of Goose Bay, looking back to where I started skiing. A treasure on the tidal flats.
A view of Anchorage that is not seen that often.  Looking south from Goose Bay.
Looks like a small(ish) brown bear was out walking here the previous evening. A neat ridge ran out into the western part of the flats.  Had to ski up it to check it out.
Good going.  But some of Goose Bay was too brushy to ski. Swans.  I avoided and didn't disturb them.  But they are telling me it's time to take the crust skiing game to the mountains and leave the tidal flats to the birds.  Fine with me, migratory birds don't need stress from skiers. As the crust softened I followed old snowmobile trails to get back to where I started.  The compressed snow of snowmobile trails usually lasts another hour, compared to untracked crust, before going soft. If you are out crust skiing, stop by and visit me at my new place at Goose Bay!  ;-)


Susitna Flats State Game Refuge
Mid-town Anchorage office buildings as seen from the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge

I had skied the Sustina Flats tidal areas a few times before in the winter.  So I figured I'd give spring crust skiing in this area a try.  The catch to skiing here is the access.  You need snow to ski the powerlines from the Pt. Mackenzie Road to get to the coast.  No snow would likely mean lots of water and mud.  It worked out for me.  I got to the coast quickly on firm crust snow.  But the conditions on the flats weren't the best.  The crust was fragile and it started to go early.  To get out, I hopped on old snowmobile trails that offered better support.  Beautiful area that you can see from Anchorage, but it is skied very infrequently.

Lots of setnetter cabins and duck shacks on the tidal flats.

GPS track.

There are a bunch of old cabins on the east edge of the flats that my father-in-law calls "The 49ers' cabins".  In 1949 a group of folks homesteaded in the Talkeetna area, and they would come down to Pt. Mackenzie to setnet fish.  This is one of their cabins that was moved a mile from it's original location by storms and high tides.



Hopped on old snowmobile tracks to get out as the crust was going soft.



Mid April 2017: Crust Skiing With Mermaids

I went to the west side of Hatcher Pass to do some crust skiing.  But conditions were bad, the light and dry snow we got this winter had not yet settled and compressed well, so the crust layer is fragile (your poles break through it).  As a backup, I headed to Big Lake.  I found good crust skiing conditions on the lake.  I also found confusion and mystery in the Big Lake Boat Rentals mural.

GPS track: 17 miles. For the most part, great conditions.  But many ice road crossings. Big Lake Boat Rentals shack.  So what the heck is the mermaid riding?  A personal flotation device?  A pink surfboard?  A sea cucumber?  A hot dog?  What the heck is it!?  #confused


Early April 2017: Cantwell / Jack River

My wife and I went to Broad Pass to try and do some crust skiing.  Winter in this wide-open area, which was characterized by light snowfall and lots of wind, didn't leave good conditions for crust skiing.  So we opted for a plan B that the owner of the Backwoods Lodge told us about - skiing the Jack River up through the gorge and into the mountains.  A great plan B indeed ... what a cool ski!  Good crust skiing with a snowmobile trail as backup, super neat (and safe) gorge, beautiful views.  This was a "scratch the surface" sampler of what is available in these mountains southeast of Cantwell.

GPS track: 18 miles RT. Heading to the Jack River Skiing up the Jack River
Entering the Jack River gorge.  Cool! Upriver from the gorge where the valley widens.
Skied past a dead SkiDoo Summit that another snowmobile apparently couldn't pull up the hill.  Heading back through the gorge.
Crust still good on the way out. Earlier in the day, when we were skiing at Broad Pass, we stumbled upon the highest point of the Alaska Railroad.


Early April 2017: Chulitna Pass Recon

I had long wondered how cabin owners got to the Chuitna Pass area.  So what better way to quench your wonder than go do some research on skis?!

Many cabin owners in this area, and to the south towards Talkeena, use the railroad to get to their cabins.  There is a long history of people using Alaska Railroad whistle stop train service to help them live in this remote area.  The winter trail access from the Parks Highway is easy going to the railroad crossing at Chulitna Pass.  Now how I know hot to get to this area, I plan to go back again to ski more of this beautiful country.

GPS track: 11 miles RT. Heading in.  Good crust skiing conditions. At the railroad crossing.
Skiing the trail that parallels the railroad.     A cabin right next to the tracks.  But a long ways from anywhere.  A unique Alaskan cabin culture.
  A beautiful day.  But if you were anywhere near the summit of Denali, the lenticular clouds would be telling you that there was no good reason to leave your snow cave.  Or you'd be blown off the mountain.  


Late March 2017: Amber Lake To The Yentna River (At Lake Creek)

In the Susitna Valley there are two kinds of trails: mapped trails and tribal knowledge trails.  The mapped trails are pretty easy to find and ski, because, well, they are readily found on maps.  But cooler than mapped trails, in my opinion, are tribal knowledge trails.  These are trails that cabin owners and area travelers know about, but you probably won't find these trails on maps.  When you hear about such trails, the description always seems to be vague.  And it usually comes down to doing field research to find the trail and what route it follows.  Of course, this is all good ... as it means you will spend more time skiing and exploring to figure out a tribal knowledge trail.  And more skiing is always good!

This post is about the Amber Lake Trail, a tribal knowledge trail.  Though I'm not sure this is the real name of this trail because I have heard other names.  This trail starts on the Oilwell Road in the Trapper Creek area, at Amber Lake.  It then works it's way southwest to the Kahiltna River and on to the Yentna River just below the mouth of Lake Creek.  The country this trail traverses is a nice mix of wooded moraine country, sprinkled with glacial erratics and interspersed with muskegs.  It crosses the Kahiltna River and ends at the super-highway winter trail on the Yentna River.  A lot of the trail is on old seismic lines made for gas and oil exploration 50-60 years ago (notice the straight lines on the map).  As was the case when I was last on part of this trail, a large tracked vehicle had been through freighting mining supplies (I assume).

I skied this 35 mile trail from Amber Lake to Lake Creek, and my wife came along on snowmobile.  On the way back, my wife skied a part of the trail that appealed to her.  A beauty day in the Su Valley skiing new country and getting tribal!  ;-)

GPS track: 35 miles one way. Oilwell Road.  Fast skiing. Skiing past usnea in a spruce tree.  Lots of this in the Talkeetna/Trapper Creek area.  Not much around Anchorage. A strategic turn.  22 miles to the Yentna.
After crossing the Kahiltna River I passed by an old VW bus.  How it got here, I haven't a clue.  But I bet it's a good story. Lots of seismic line skiing.  Some of the seismic line skiing near the Yentna was brushy.
On the Yentna River super-highway. Cabins at the mouth of Lake Creek. A good day to be a "trail bagger", someone who has fun continually seeking out and skiing new trails.  I've been trail bagging in AK for decades, and it never gets old.
  Oilwell Road Chicken-Car-Jackers!:  The unplowed, Southern reaches of the Oilwell Road seem to be a favorite spot to take stolen vehicles and get them stuck, and then strip tires and parts off of them.  On this trip I skied-upon two vehicles that I assume met such a fate.  The funny thing about each vehicle is that there were packets of frozen chicken breasts next to each vehicle.  Probably there were groceries in one of these vehicles when they were stolen.  Apparently the thieves weren't chicken eaters.  But as we came back by these vehicle, I could see the local ravens and eagles were glad the thieves left the chicken for them!  
  A scarecrow set up near the Oilwell Road, to scare away Chicken-Car-Jackers.  


Late March 2017: Tokositna River - Mile 131 Parks Highway to Chulitna River

We drove up from Anchorage to Milepost 131 of the Parks Highway.  I was planning on doing a long ski the next day, so we decided to do a shorter ski this day.  My wife came along on snowmobile as I skied the Curry Ridge Rider's North Loop Trail to the Tokositna River.  I then skied the Tokositna to the Chulitna River.  Good skiing on a snowmobile trail on the Tokositna.  But the Chulitna was wind-ravaged from the recent high winds.  Passed Tokosha Camp, which looked like a neat place.  My wife skied the river section on the return trip.  Nice day on the edge of the Alaska Range.

  GPS track: 19 miles one way.  


Late March 2017: Local Trapper Creek Trails

There are a number of cool local Trapper Creek trails that are not shown on the Curry Ridge Riders maps.  These marked, un-groomed, low usage multi-use trails link B&B's and rental lodging to the main Curry Ridge Riders groomed trails.  My wife and I recently skied parts of the Blue Trail and the Red Trail.  Neat trails.  Seems like the best way to find out about these trails is to go stay at a place in Trapper Creek and ask the proprietor for a map.  If you stay at the Northland Inn, owner and xc skier Debbie Filter will give you one of these secret maps.


Late March 2017: Lower Susitna Valley Trail Loop

Late March and cool temps are still hanging on.  So that means good trail skiing in the Lower Susitna Valley.  Here is a loop that I have done a number of times, but have never previously posted on this web site.  My wife and I did this in a way that I could ski the whole loop, and she could ski part of it.  It works like this: I start skiing from point A.  My wife comes along later on a snowmobile and catches up to me at point B.  My wife skis (while I drive the snowmobile) to point C.  We then both ride the snowmobile back to point B (and then she leaves me).  I then ski to point C and on to point A to close the loop.  A fun way to share a ski loop between two people that want to ski different distances.

GPS track: 30 miles. Skiing on the Big Susitna River. Skiing on the Big Su.
  Some of the wood I recently cut for next winter.  I cut the wood.  But my wife does the stacking.  Oh no! ... I can't help stack the wood!  Gosh no!  I have to same my strength for skiing!  ;-)  


Mid March 2017: Hunter Creek to Inner Lake George And Back

I figured skiing there from the Hunter Creek trailhead to Inner Lake George and back would be a good outing.  The trail to the glacier was great.  Beyond the glacial bottleneck in the Knik River Gorge there was okay skating on wind crust.  As I got near the lake the snow became softer.  Skiing on the lake using 44 millimeter wide skis was not much fun.  So I didn't go the the Colony Glacier this time.  Not as sunny as my last trip here (see previous trip post).  But it was some fun late winter cruising in a neat location.

GPS track: 36 miles out and back. Starting out at the Hunter Creek bridge. Following some fat bike singletrack. Cool cliffside trail.
Great trail to the lake.  V2 madness. Iceberg at lake. A piece of shale lodged in an iceberg.  Wolf tracks in relief after windy days.
  Looking back at the Knik Glacier, on the way to Inner Lake George.  
Followed the river to the lake.  Some decent crust skiing along the edge of the river. At Inner Lake George. Lots of moose tracks on Inner Lake George.
  Back at the Knik Glacier.  
Back at the Knik Glacier. Once back at the gorge ice bottleneck ... lots of people.  And Dwight Iverson was on top of this rock AGAIN!  Same place where I met him 2 days ago!
This picture is proof.  I saw skiers!  I know it's hard to believe, but in the endless swarm of fat bikers there were these three guys on touring skis.  They were good skiers and looked to be having a good time.  I wonder if xc ski touring will ever be cool again (like it was in the 70s and 80s).  Maybe these guys are on the leading edge of the next cool fad?  ;-) I was the first at this parking lot.  But when I got back the parking lot was maxed out, and people were parked along the road. It's crazy how fat biking has taken off.  Almost too crazy, because the flat trails to glaciers around Anchorage are now crammed with humanity.  It's good that people are exercising.  But the old days were nice when you had backcountry trails mostly to yourself.


Mid March 2017: Jim Creek To Knik River Gorge And Back

Earlier this winter there was Internet discussion about the Knik Glacier surging and creating a dam of ice at the Knik River Gorge.  The Knik Glacier used to do this, prior to1964.  A glacier-formed ice damn would back-up water flow and eventually an outburst flood would occur when water pressure above the damn won out over the ice.  Such floods, also called jokuhlaups, were massive and destructive in the old days of the Knik River valley.

I was curious about this situation in the Knik River Gorge, so I figured I'd ski there and check it out.  I headed out as I usually do when I ski to the Knik Glacier, from the Jim Creek trailhead in the Butte area.  Only saw one person in a Jeep as I was skiing up the valley.  But when I got to the glacier lake there were fat bike tracks and bikers everywhere.  Come to find out, these folks had come in from Hunter Creek.  There is now a legal access from there, it used to be that there wasn't.  So I ended up doing an extra 25 miles (round trip) by my choice of trailhead.  Doh!  Oh well, extra miles means you get in better shape.

I skied through the gorge, with the exception of one short stretch where you had to do some easy hiking between ice and rocks.  Definitely a neat place.  I'm no glaciologist, but it seems this tongue of the Knik Glacier has too small of a mass to make a much of a dam.  We'll see.  And ... the next time I go to this area ... I will definitely go from the Hunter Creek trailhead!

GPS track: 54 miles out and back. Jim Creek "highway" was icy and fast. One stream crossing.  Shallow, so ... ... you could dance across it.
An unraveled section of culvert up near the glacier.  Wonder what the story is behind this? Bill Spencer and I once climbed this peak.  I had tried by myself previously and turned back.  When Bill and I got to the point that I had previously turned around at, Bill said: "Hmmm.  I see why you turned back!"  But we eventually found a way past the crux and never took the rope out.
Approaching the Knik River Gorge glacier bottleneck, from the north. South of the bottleneck, looking north.
  Dwight Iverson took this photo of me talking to Jon Kunesh.  I like Dwight and Jon ... cool running into them.  
Requisite glacial ice pictures.

A stick imbedded in glacier ice.  I wonder how old the wood is?
My guess: This wood had been in the glacier for less than 100 years.  I say this based on a military plane crash on nearby Colony Glacier.  The plane crashed high up on the glacier, yet in 60 years parts from the plane were showing up at the glacier terminus.  This stick was likely ripped off of a mountain and washed out onto the glacier by an avalanche.  And just like the plane remains, the flow of the glacier eventually delivered the stick to the glacier terminus.



Mid March 2017: Old Trails, That Feel Like New Trails

I hadn't skied much on my regular haunt Lower Susitna River trails, south and west of Susitna Station, for the last 3 years due to warm and snow-sparse winters.  But finally we've had a decent winter, so there's been good river skiing recently.  Mostly the good skiing is on snowmobile trails ... with some crust skiing (on wind and sublimation crust).  So it's been fun reconnecting with our cabin backyard trails.  Brings back memories of good adventures of the past.  Some of these memories are from boating, as we boat some of these trails in the summer to get to our cabin.

It's probably a rather unique situation: you are skiing with your wife on the Big Susitna River and sharing memories of a different season, and of a different world.  Like pulling someone's jet boat off the sand bar you are skiing over.  Or hitting that same sand bar full throttle yourself.  Or stopping to rescue boaters with a blown engine.  Or walking a boat down a shallow channel you mistakenly entered with 600 lbs of Malamutes on board (and even though you are standing in only 6 inches of water, the dogs refuse to get out because they can't see the bottom in the murky water and assume that you are trying pull a trick on them and get them to swim).  Or the times we dodged massive cottonwoods that were bouncing down the river.  Or the time we dodged a 300 foot length of old gas pipeline that was rolling down the river.  Or the times I buzzed the Susitna Station whirlpool (and got yelled at by my wife for doing it).  Or watching brown bear, black bear, moose and seals swim past the spot we are now skiing.  Or the time hooligan were running so thick you could catch them by hand.  Or the time we laughed non-stop because we couldn't believe how hard it was down-pouring on us (in an open boat).  Or the times we pulled into the Big Su after getting the shit scared out of us while crossing Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

Yep, lots of memories on these Lower Susitna trails.  And hopefully many more to come.

Trail groomed by freight haulers on a Bell Island channel of the Big Susitna River. General area of trails. Main channel of the Big Susitna River.
West Channel of the Big Su. My wife returning from a ski to the
Beluga road system.
Showing off to your spouse doesn't always work out the way you planned.
Lots of wind in the last two weeks. Something I learned from Bill Spencer: the best Alaskan xc ski warm-ups are Carhartt overalls. Can you ski faster than this snowmobile?  I would hope so.  This was a load of windows.  Slow!
Good trails this time of year in the Susitna Valley are often due to freight haulers.  Here my wife's cousin and partners transport roof trusses out 25 miles from the nearest road.  Often they groom the trail first, so it is smooth going for heavy loads.  And that is a good deal for skate skiing.


Early March 2017: Ski-Exploring The Chickaloon Tidal Flats

When I got back to the Mystery Creek trailhead after this trip, I ran into some seasoned Kenai-area snowmobilers.  When they asked me where I had been, I said "Pincher Creek Cabin".  Immediately they were impressed.  "Wow, we tried to get there a couple of times on snowmobiles, but never made it across the Chickaloon River!"  I then told them I did not cross the Chickaloon on a snowmobile, but on skis instead as I skied from the eastern edge of the Chickaloon Tidal flats to the cabin and back.  Soon I could tell that they were definitely not impressed with me any more.  Oh well.

I have been looking at the Chickaloon Flats from our kitchen window for the last 20 years.  I couldn't believe I had been looking this long without skiing this area.  My wife and I had tried earlier this year to check this area out.  But dense fog kept us from seeing much.  I went back alone this time.  I drove my snowmobile out 30 miles out the Mystery Creek Road and Enstar gas pipeline right of way and left it, skied across the tidal flats to the Pincher Creek cabin and back and then spent the night where I parked my snowmobile.

This area of tidal flats is many times larger than the tidal flats to the south of Anchorage.  It seems like it is rarely visited, except by small planes now and then.  And maybe a few snowmobilers.   Huge crust skiing potential here, but it is not an easy place to get to, unless you have a small plane.

I got across the Chickaloon River on skis pretty easily.  But if temperatures were warm, I could see how this wouldn't work.  The Chickaloon River is tidal influenced for its whole length across the flats.  You never know if the next tidal surge with be easy or devastating on the river's ice cover.

I got the feeling that I could not have skied much further than the Pincher Creek cabin.  Recent high winds had been scouring the sandy bluffs that lead to Pt. Possession and the snow was getting progressively sandier the further west I went.  Snowmobilers also told me that because the water comes up close to the bluffs that lead to Pt. Possesion, that you never know if there will be too many ice blocks to (easily) get through the area.  I'd like to connect to the Point Possesion, but I will have to have more time and be prepared to hike.

Anyway, a cool, quiet and unique location.  Glad I went.  And glad I no longer will be looking out our kitchen window and feel the need to say: "Damn!  When am I going to ski the Chickaloon Flats?!"

GPS track: Approx 26 miles out and back. Gas line trail with Chickaloon Flats in the distance. Leaving the mother ship at the edge of the flats, and heading out on skis. The Chickaloon Flats are the Anchorage Coastal Refuge tidal flats on steroids.
Huge amount of crust skiing potential here.  But unless you have a small plane, access is not easy. Point Possession and Mount Susitna in the distance. Remnants of a duck hunting blind?  An old wall tent platform?
Pincher Creek cabin. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Pincher Creek Cabin.  Anchorage in the distance.  I signed the log book and headed back. While skiing back, I noticed my outgoing track had made this odd design on breakable wind crust.  A crust star?!
The glint of the setting sun off windows in Anchorage, "Earthquake tree sunset"  These black spruce trees fell victim to the 1964 earthquake.  The ground sank, their roots contacted salt water and the trees became "preserved".  Have been standing dead for 53 years.
I got too dehydrated during this ski.  So setting up this camp in sub-zero temps was not fun.  Cold hands and feet until I got hydrated again. No celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Cooper Landing this year.  They are celebrating "St Patick Day" instead.


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