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by: Tim Kelley

Mid April 2018: Shorty Not Short On Crust

Recently I was crust skiing on Bald Mountain Ridge.  During this trip I looked north and noticed a cool looking cirque on Black Mountain Ridge.  This cirque had eluded my radar in the past, and I had never skied this place before (and had never heard of anyone else crust skiing it).  But now this cirque was loudly calling out to be crust skied!  So my wife and I were soon heading back to this area.  We skied from the Willow Fishhook Road over to Shorty Creek and on up into the Shorty Creek cirque.  Crust skiing conditions varied from perfect to so-so.  Apparently this area gets a good amount of snowmobile traffic, so there were bumpy old sno-go tracks in some places.  But overall, this is quite the over-looked gem of a crust skiing venue.

  Shorty Creek cirque, as seen from Bald Mountain Ridge.  
  Shorty's crust pipe.  Fun skiing.  
  GPS track  
Mid April 2018: A Secret Crust Skiing Spot No More

I used to have a secret crust skiing spot.  Someplace that you never saw skiers and rarely saw snowmobilers.  A place that I never posted on this web site.  It was at the headwaters area of Purches Creek.  You got to this area by skiing over Dogsled Pass.  But dang, was this area hit hard by snowmobilers this year.  There is a snowmobile highway heading up Craigie Creek and over Dogsled Pass on to the headwaters of Purches, where now every square foot is tracked-up by snogos.  I was on top of Dogsled Pass recently and could see it wasn't worth it going any further to the north.  No smooth crust in sight.  Oh well, snowmobilers have just as much right as me to be there.  But it was a good secret crust skiing spot while it lasted.  The not so secret, though infrequently visited, Craigie Creek and Dogsled Pass area, shown in the pictures here, is one of my favorite mountain crust venue.  More ski-able terrain and way less people than the east side crust skiing venues of Hatcher Pass.

Passing by an old mining cabin. Purches Creek headwaters in the distance. Heading down from the pass.
It was sad to see that the old penstock along Craigie Creek had fallen down.  The picture on the right from 2011 shows the penstock, in the background, still standing.
Map of Craigie Creek route to Dogsled Pass.  Access via Willow Fishook Road from Willow.
Mid April 2018: Bald Mountain Ridge Crust Skiing Loop

If you want to experience "the Arctic in Wasilla", head to Bald Mountain Ridge.  The west end of this ridge is a wide, tree-less and wind-swept expanse.  Lots of square miles of white.  You can see this ridge behind Wasilla from points south.  And when you view it, you think - there must be some good crust skiing up there!

Well, there is good crust skiing up there.  Though I have to say, it is "OK" more times than it is great.  I've skied across the ridge several times.  The winds tend to sastrugi the snowpack.  So it takes some melting to mellow the surface out.  But perfect crust or not ... it is definitely a unique place in Southcentral Alaska to crust ski.

Recently I did a 16 mile crust skiing loop on Bald Mountain Ridge.  I started and ended the ski at the Dave Churchill trailhead on the Willow Fishhook Road.  Once on the ridge, I swung to the western end to look for a snowmobile trail I heard about that comes up from the Houston/ Herning Trail area.  I found the mystery trail, but I'm not sure where it starts.  Earlier this winter I looked for the start, but local trails in that area had changed.  So, I'm still on the hunt to figure this trail out.  Figuring out this snowmobile trail will hopefully result in a cool new ski loop in this area.

The "arctic of Wasilla". Haze over Anchorage from smog and road dust.  Yuk. A marker for finding the Churchill Trail.
The crust was sastrugied on the south side of the ridge. Smoother crust on the north side of the ridge.
GPS track: 16 miles.
Early April 2018: Drop-Off At Kanikula Glacier, Ski To MP 131 Of Parks Highway

A few years ago I tried to ski to the Kanikula Glacier.  I got within 2 miles of this glacier, but lots of open water kept me from making it to the ice.  This year I figured I'd try again.  But instead of skiing for 30 miles and be surprised, I decided to get a snowmobile ride to the glacier (if possible) and then ski back.  The ride on the back of my wife's snowmobile went well.  No open water was encountered.  Beautiful day and gorgeous area.  But if I knew the trail went all the way to the glacier this year, I would have skied to it instead of skiing the direction I did.  The reason - there was a stiff easterly wind of 20-30 mph.  So getting to the road was chilly and slow going at times.  We had this area of Alaska to ourselves this day, didn't see another person on these trails.

At the Kanikula Glacier.
My snowmobile Uber ride leaves the Kanikula Glacier. No wind in the upper Tokositna Valley.  But that would change.
Some single track. Found on the trail. Great trail on the Tokositna.
GPS track: 32 miles. Denali in the background, on a windy day.
Late March 2018: Success On 2nd Try To New Crust Skiing Destination - Colony Glacier

Crust skiing to Colony Glacier and back has been on my hit list.  So was glad to finally pull off this 40 mile crust ski.  Last year I got as far as Inner Lake George.  But snow was too punchy for my skate skis, so I called it a day at the edge of the lake and turned around.  This year the crust snow was great from start to finish.  This will rate as one of my favorite crust skis, because the area you ski through is off the charts beautiful and unique , it's challenging ... and because it took multiple attempts to pull it off.

Shhhh!  Glacier shark !! Upriver, south side, of the Knik Glacier Gorge. At Inner Lake George.
At the Colony Glacier. Super Cubs on Inner Lake George, people were hiking near the glacier. Moose tracks crossing the lake.
I didn't skate the whole way.   Back at the glacial pinch point of The Gorge. I left a 20' piece of perlon tied to a stick in the ice at the pinch point in the Gorge.  I could see people were using it and it makes getting up or down here safer.
GPS track: 40 miles RT.      


Late March 2018: A Vain Search For A Giant Hotdog

Back in 2014, Luc Mehl and friends encountered a giant 9 foot-long hotdog while hiking across the Little Susitna tidal flats (see Luc's picture below). Research pieced together some of the story behind this huge frankfurter.  Once some Valley high school kids absconded with a large foam hotdog that was on the top of a restaurant in Houston, AK.  The foam wiener made it into the Matanuska River and then found its way into Knik Arm.  Cook Inlet's high tides then stranded the mega meat tube on the tidal flats near the mouth of the Little Susitna River.  That's where Luc and friends found the king-sized sausage.

The two years after Luc encountered the king of wieners, there was little snow for skiing on the tidal flats.  Then last year I gave a hotdog rescue a try, but the crust snow was feeble and I turned back.  This year the crust conditions were good and I skied the high tide line across the flats hoping to find the Frankenstein frank.  No luck.  I knew it was a long shot.  The buoyant buns probably now have this massive meat stick hundreds of miles down the Alaskan Peninsula by now.   Oh well, this is a good crust skiing loop even without finding the infamous giant hotdog.  I did this loop in 2010, but the conditions were not as good as this year.

Luc Mehl photo of a giant hotdog on the Little Susitna tidal flats.
I found a refrigerator.  Fire Island in the distance. I found foam duck decoys.  But no foam hotdog.
Nice new and blue door on an old shack. Lots of crust skiing terrain.  Anchorage in the distance. The Little Susitna River.
GPS route: 26 miles Skiing back under the power line.
Late March 2018: Visit To A New (For Me) Local Crust Skiing Venue - Eklutna Tidal Flats

A section of Knik Arm tidal flats that I had not skied was the Eklutna tidal flats (between the Eklutna River and Peters Creek).  So, I went and skied this area recently.  Good crust skiing was found.  Access on either end is via Eklutna Native Corporation land (call: 907 696-2828).

Looking north at the Eklutna bluffs. Heading south, just before Peters Creek.  Nice, new houses built right at sea level (high tide line).  Kinda surprised by this (but then again, this is AK so I'm not very surprised).  With sea levels rising, will these houses be livable 50 years from now?
GPS track: 15 miles RT.
Late March 2018: Crust Skiing to the Knik Glacier Gorge

Too often you can't crust ski to the Knik Glacier.  Warm winds from Prince William Sound melt the snowpack and expose the rocky floodplain of the Knik River.  So when the crust is good ... you go.  Trail down Hunter Creek was icy, but good skating on the river and great crust on the glacial lake.

A sheep-frog? The gorge. Heading back up the Hunter Creek drainage.
Sometimes photo sequences don't turn out the way you planned!


Late March 2018: Goose Bay Crust Skiing

My wife had never crust skied at Goose Bay.  I went there last year, so I brought her there this year.  Lost of wide-open crust skiing at a venue that is not often visited by crust skiers.  To get there:  Drive to the end of the Knik-Goose Bay Road.  Park next to the runway.  Ski around the west end of the runway (do not cross the runway).  Follow the road and short trail down to the tidal flats.  Map: here.

Starting out.  Access point is in the distance.  
You can see the buildings of downtown Anchorage in the distance.    
Plenty of wide-open crust skiing terrain. Sending it, Nordie-style ... and making Alpine skiers and snowmobilers laugh so hard that Red Bull comes out of their noses.
Late March 2018: Spencer Glacier's "Social Media Ice Cave"

Already this year I have seen a bunch of postings on social media of an ice cave that snowmobilers and fat bikers have been going into at the Spencer Glacier.  I hadn't been to the Spencer Glacier for a few years, so I figured I go check out this web-famous ice cave.  I'm guessing this ice cave will probably have over a thousand visitors this spring between independent snowmobilers, snowmobile tour participants, fat bikers and skiers.  And social media will be plastered with shots from inside of it looking out.  A celebrity ice cave in the making!  But fame with people and fame with ice caves likely share a commonality ... the fame will melt away, and likely be forgotten a year from now.  At the rate the Spencer Glacier is receding, these ice caves will definitely be gone a year from now.


Late March 2018: Knik Tidal Flats

My wife had never skied the Knik Tidal Flats area.  So I took her there and we found some good crust skiing (on rain crust).  If you want to ski here: drive to the Knik Bar and Grill, ask inside if you can park there, walk across the road to the trail that goes down to the flats.  The snowmobile trail along the bluffs may be rough.  But if you go out away from the bluffs a ways, the snow is usually untracked.  Like with all tidal flats crust skiing in Upper Cook Inlet ... be aware of tides.  Extreme high tides will flood the area and usually trash any good crust skiing.

  Historical note: Joe Redington used to pick up salmon from setnet fishermen at the mouth of the Big Susitna River in this boat, and then deliver the fish to a cannery in Anchorage.  One of the setnet fisherman Joe would pick fish up from was this woman's father.  This woman would take over running her father's Susitna River setnet site ... when she was 14.


Mid March 2018: The Birthplace of Runaway Pipelines

Recently while skiing across Bell Island I crossed the Middle Channel.  A long time ago the folks used this route to access Alexander Creek.  But since the turn of the century the preferred trail goes north of here.  Back in 2013 there was some excitement in the Big Susitna River that started here.  The Big Su cut into an old pipeline right of way at the mouth of the Middle Channel, ripped out a 300 foot section of abandoned gas pipeline and sent it tumbling down-river towards Cook Inlet.  Other than birthing of runaway pipelines, this is a remote, quiet and unique place to ski that I try to visit regularly.

You can see the old pipeline right-of-way cut in the distance.  And where the Big Su ate away Bell Island and birthed an abandoned pipeline into the river.  Will there be more surprise births of runaway pipelines here?  Time will tell. Bell Island snowmobile trail through cottonwoods on the bank of the Big Susitna River.

The runaway pipeline in 2013 (photo credit: Mike Mason).  More pictures here.

Middle Channel of Bell Island.

Location of the Middle Channel of Bell Island.


Late February 2018: Eklutna Canyon

I had never been up Eklutna Canyon.  So I figured I'd take a quick ski up into the canyon and check out where they recently (last summer) removed an old dam.  You could see where the dam used to be, but it's definitely gone now.  Surprised to see an excavator just below the dam site that was filled with mud.  I would later find out that the excavator was stuck below the dam and having mechanical problems.  And before they could get it fixed, or lift it back out of the canyon with the giant crane above on the canyon rim, a flash flood hit it with silt and mud that had settled behind the dam over the years.  Cool place to check out on skis.

Site of former dam. Skiing Eklutna Canyon.  Most of it was dryer than this picture shows. Excavator filled with mud.


Mid February 2018: The Chase Trail

Recently I checked out The Chase Trail.  This is a route that cabin owners to the north of Talkeetna use.  It starts in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough parking lot in Talkeetna and heads north along the Alaska Railroad tracks.  About 5 miles out the trail crosses the tracks and climbs up onto a low ridge and takes a left at a "Y" in the trail.  From here the trail goes through nice mixed forest where there are numerous side trails to private cabins.  This was an out and back ski.  It was 20+ miles of classic skiing on cold powder.  Fun, but not the fastest of skiing conditions.

Sign near the start of the trail. A unique part of The Chase Trail is the crossing on a railroad bridge pedestrian walkway.  Snowmobiles and sleds have to be less than 45 inches wide to cross here. Nice trails on the northern reaches of The Chase Trail.  But not much for views in this area.


Mid January 2018: Another Unexpected Groomed Trail

Another ski, another unexpected groomed trail.  They're everywhere!  This one was on the Little Susitna River between Hock Lake and the Gasline Trail.  Someone pulled a drag on this stretch of the Little Su.  Made for good skating.  I had never skied on this stretch of the the Little Su before, only on trails to the east and west.  So it was fun to ski this serpentine stretch of river.  The river banks reminded me of the Deshka River.

Location of the Little Susitna River. Winter recreation in the Susitna Valley benefits from the seismic line trails that were cut here in the 1950s in the search for natural gas. A Nome 1049 sign has been at a location in the swamps to the west of the Little Su since the 80s.  The Iditarod Trail once passed by this point.  But it has not come by here in a long time.  This is probably the grand-sign or great grand-sign of the original sign.


Near where the Little Su crosses the Gasline Trail I found this ice shanty, filled with stuff.  Looks like the folks that were dragging it had some mechanical problems or something and were leaving it here for awhile.  I noticed that old Rossignol Concourse Alpine skis were their choice for shanty-skidding skis.


Mid January 2018: Finding An Unexpected Groomed Trail

Recently I was skiing on the Willow trail system.  It was great skiing because the rain and meltdown of the Anchorage area didn't make it up to Willow.  While skiing in this area, I was surprised to find the trail between the Willow Creek Campground and Deshka Landing had been groomed.  Lots of dog sled tracks on the trail, but no snowmobile, ski or bike tracks.  Usually this stretch of trail is a ratty snowmobile track.  So it was fun finding this groomed trail and skiing it.  It should remain in good shape until the next storm.

Location of the trail. Groomed mushing trail between Willow Creek campground and Deshka Landing.  


Early January 2018: Bell Island Channel Surfing

After the December rain-down and meltdown, a small snowstorm moved through Southcentral Alaska.  But due to the whims of weather, the area of Bell Island and vicinity got very little snow.  But for a skier ... this is not a problem.  Because it means there is good early winter crust skiing in the area.

I use these conditions to check out the channels that cut across Bell Island.  This can be a tricky boating area.  The water is murky with silt and you can't see but a few inches down into it.  The channels are shallow and they constantly change.  So it's easy to hit bottom and ground your boat in this maze of murky glacial waters.  So I like to ski this area, do channel research and GPS the best (deepest) channels.

In the past I have gotten comments in the summer like: "How the hell did you get that boat down the West Channel!?"  I usually respond with some quip like: "Well, I guess you just have to know how to read the water."  I don't say that I learned the channels by skiing them.  Most boaters in Alaska wouldn't comprehend what I'm talking about.  So ha! ... let them think I'm a gifted river runner!  ;-)


Definitely some weirdness on the main trail to Alexander Creek this winter.  Where it crosses the Big Susitna River there is a HUGE open hole in the river.  Early January and the hole is still big enough to land a Super Cub on.  Usually this spot is frozen over and people are buzzing over it on snowmobiles.  In 25 years I have never seen an opening like this in the ice of the Big Su at this crossing.  A week ago the temps got into the 40s and a 40 mph wind blew in from the south.  This open hole had 2 foot waves with whitecaps.  And this is January?  Crazy.


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