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2021/2022

by: Tim Kelley


Early May 2022: Denali Highway / Maclaren Summit Crust Skiing

We were heading down the road from our house and met our neighbor.  He asked: "Where are you going?"  Our response was: "Hunting for crust snow, for crust skiing.  So in other words ... we really don't know where we are going!"  Such was the case with this ski outing, to a place we didn't plan to go to.  In Paxson we took a look-see at the east end of the Denali Highway and were pleasantly surprised that conditions looked good for crust skiing.  So we stayed a couple of days near Maclaren Summit and added some new crust skiing locations to our list.  The wide Maclaren Summit area was a large and fun "crust plain" to explore.  We also skied to Glacier Gap and to Landmark Gap Lake. 

 

Maclaren Summit "Crust Plains" Loop
Alaska DOT road clearing equipment, one mile east of Maclaren Summit sign.  Still working to get the Denali Highway open. A wet area of lakes, muskeg bogs and brush in the summer.  A large plain of crust snow in the spring (sometimes). On the west edge of Maclaren Summit.
Wolf         Bear        Otter
Glacier Gap
Glacier Gap in the distance.
    Shelter cabin at Glacier Gap Lake.  

 

At Glacier Gap, looking back towards the Denali Highway. Skiing across Glacier Gap Lake. On Glacier Gap Lake, heading for the Denali Highway.

Crossing the "crust plains" back to the Denali Highway, Maclaren Summit on the distant horizon.

Landmark Gap Lake

Location of Maclaren Summit

 

Late April 2022: An Often Overlooked Local Crust Skiing Area

There is an area of high country above Eagle River that seems to be often overlooked when it comes to crust skiing.  It's the wide ridge that extends north from the Mt. Baldy to Black Tail Rocks ridge.  This area sees a bunch of use from snowmobiles during the winter, via the Ptarmigan Valley access.  And it sees backcountry skiers.  But crust skiers ... not so much.  Probably because the access to this area involves hiking (easy) or steep skiing on skate gear (not so easy).

I don't know if this area has a name.  I refer to it as the 'Ptarmigan Plateau', because it borders Ptarmigan Valley.  And because there was once the Ptarmigan Valley Resort ski area nearby.  There is more crust skiing terrain here than you would think.  The wide ridge that extends north drops to a narrower ridge that goes further north.  Gentle terrain, so it is enjoyable crust cruising when conditions are right.

Tip: If you are hiking up to this area and the snow along the trail is not crust snow that will support you, then it will be no better up above.  The best is when it is crust top to bottom, so that when you are through crust skiing on the plateau you can ski all the way back down to the gate at the end of Skyline Drive where you parked.

On the Mt. Baldy-Black Tail Rocks ridge after hiking up from Skyline Drive.  'Ptarmigan Plateau' in the background.  Black Tail Rocks in the far distance.

'Ptarmigan Plateau', looking north.

The lower ridge to the north of the plateau.  Also good skiing.

Map of area.

 

Early & Mid April 2022: Rambling In The Interior

Recently we ventured north to the Interior of Alaska to do some skiing and to check off some places we had not visited before.  While there we skied at a few places we had never skied at: Hutlinana Hot Spring, the Tanana River at Manley Hot Springs, Fielding Lake, 12 Mile Summit and the US Creek Road.

On the 6.5 mile trail from the Elliot Highway to Hutlinana Hot Spring.

Hutlinana Hot Spring

 Nice trail on the Tanana River near Manley Hot Springs.  Tanana River

High point of US Creek Road, off of the Steese Highway.

Camping with a unicorn on the Elliot Highway.

Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway

Fielding Lake

  Castner Glacier ice cave.

   

Looking for caribou.

 

Late March 2022: Upper Cook Inlet West Side Tidal Flats Crust Skiing ... Again

We had a good time ski-exploring the Beluga Slough and Ivan River area a week ago.  So we decided to head back to the west side of Upper Cook Inlet for more crust skiing.  This time we skied past the Ivan, Lewis and Theodore Rivers to the Beluga River.  Excellent and wide open crust skiing here.  Glad to get one more ski outing in this beautiful area in the books.

Heading out.

Passing by a unique duck hunting cabin.

 

Skiing through a sea of corndogs on a stick!

Offshore Cook Inlet gas production platform in the distance. We skied by a natural gas production plant. A fog layer made Dinglishna Hill look like it was wearing a headband.

All the rivers here (Ivan, Lewis, Theodore and Beluga) are tidal influenced.  The further away from the Inlet, the easier they are to cross.

Turnagain Arm and Anchorage in the distance.

 

 We came across two cabins that had recently been burned to the ground.  This was done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  When people can't make their extortion, er lease/ permit, payments ... structures are often set on fire by them.  The end result is a twisted mess of sharp edges from roofing and burnt boards with nails sticking out of them.  It's a hazard for wildlife running through the marsh grasses here.  The burning of remote cabins by government agencies in Alaska has a long and contentious history throughout the state.

Area we skied is between arrows.

 

Late March 2022: A Crust Skiing Visit to the Knik Islands Conservation Area

I was aware that the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik had many channels and islands. But until recently I didn't know this area had a designated name ... the Knik Islands Conservation Area.  I had never crust skied in some of this area.  So that was a good reason to visit the Knik Islands Conservation Area.  It's an interesting and quiet place to explore on skis.

Knik Islands Conservation Area map.

I had been kayaking on this part of the Knik River last fall. Route

Glenn Highway bridge in the distance.

Skiing on gravel bars along the Knik River. Exploring a side channel.

 

Mid March 2022: West Side Upper Cook Inlet Tidal Flats Crust Skiing

We had a good time skiing the east side of the lower reaches of the Big Susitna River, and the tidal flats near the mouth.  So we figured the west side would be good too.  The tidal flats on the west side of Upper Cook Inlet, from the Big Su to the Ivan, Lewis, Theodore and Beluga rivers, cover a lot of country.  We skied the area from near the mouth of the Big Su to the Ivan River.  Still a lot of crust skiing to explore in this area.  We accessed this area via snowmobile from our cabin.  Distance to this area, by trail and boondocking, from the nearest trailhead (Pt. Mackenzie/Ayrshire Road) is about 40 miles.

Skate-able crust snow to the horizon. Heading southwest, Mount Susitna to the north.
The Ivan River fish camp village. Someone's happy place. A crust skier skates through a deserted 'town'.

Outhouse with a view of Anchorage. Bikers once tried riding snow here.  But they went too late in the day.  Sadly, they all perished.  ;-) Map showing area (between arrows) that we were skiing.

 

Anchorage in the distance.

 

Mid March 2022: More Lower Big Susitna River Crust Skiing

Crust skiing on the Lower Big Susitna River has been the best that we can remember.  So we've been taking advantage of it.  Here are pictures from a ski down the Big Su to an old fish camp where Tammy once ran a salmon setnet fishing site (50 years ago).

Usually after it snows in Southcentral Alaska, Mount Susitna is white for only a few days.  Then wind rips off a lot of the snow and exposes bare ridges.  But the mountain has been gleaming white for weeks now.  That's because storms covered the mountain in wind-resistant crust snow ... just like the areas around it, and like the Big Su that we've been skiing on, that were covered in the same wet snow that froze solid.

Skiing over a 'Susitna River Monster'.  In the summer when the Big Susitna is flowing fast and furious, big cottonwood trees, like this one, wash down this river.  The root systems drag on the bottom and the trunks pivot up and down and often rise above the river before settling back underwater.  It's scary when you are boating upstream and a huge tree trunk emerges from the depths right in front of or next to your boat.  Hitting one at full throttle could be deadly.

On the tidal flats east of the mouth of the Big Susitna River.  No lack of crust skiing terrain.

Tammy's family once owned this fish camp.  She ran a setnet fishing operation here ... 50 years ago!

Skiing past an old setnet. In the distance, majestic Dinglishna Hill towers 423 feet into the sky while framed by Mount Foraker and Denali.

Finishing up.

Route

View from the Big Sustina tidal flats, looking towards Anchorage.  You can't see it, but there is a lot of water between here and points in the distance ... Upper Cook Inlet.

 

Early March 2022: Lower Big Susitna River Crust Skiing

A couple of late February storms, that dropped heavy wet snow near Mt. Susitna, brought crust skiing to life on the Lower Big Susitna River.  We skied the east side of the river from the Enstar gas pipeline right of way down to the Beluga power line and beyond.  This is a huge river, with many large channels, that we have spent a lot of time on over the years, boating and skiing.  So to see it all covered, bank to bank, with a consistent crust snow surface was amazing.  Usually the river surface here is scoured by wind, and rough and ratty.  A lucky score.

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Heading down a side channel of the Big Su. Abandoned power line tower anchors. Power line from Beluga that crosses the Big Susitna River can be seen in the distance.
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Huge amount of crust skiing terrain here.  We play it safe and stay near the banks, mostly.  But 1000 lb moose walk back and forth all over this river when its frozen.
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The area we skied is between the arrows. 
East side of the Lower Big Susitna River.
"I always feel like ... somebody's watching me!" Banks on the Big Su were good for "pedal skating".  Accelerate with the downhill ski.  Step up and maintain elevation with the upper ski.  Fun and fast.
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Late February 2022: The Wasilla Winter Trail That Could Have Been

When you look at a map of Wasilla, Alaska, a string of lakes stands out.  Wasilla, Mud, Cottonwood and Finger lakes.  So if you are a skier that likes to poke around any place there might be trails … you look at these lakes and wonder: “Is there a trail that connects these lakes”?

The answer is: ‘yes’, and 'no'.  There is a canoe trail that connects these lakes, with use of portages and a couple of sketchy culvert runs.  But in the winter there is not a trail.  Yes, it can be skied physically.  But not legally.  Not without trespassing, due to private property that abuts the open water of creeks that connect these frozen lakes.

The other issue in the winter is water fowl.  The creek sections that connect the lake don’t often freeze.  So the ducks that don’t head south use these open water sections to survive the Alaskan winter.  Disturbing them and causing them to fly away from their oasis is not a good thing.

It’s too bad that in decades past, when land in Wasilla was cheap and largely undeveloped, that winter trail easements connecting these lakes weren’t established.  The City of Wasilla could have bought a few easements for a now insignificant amount.  20 foot wide strips of land that connected these lakes without disturbing water fowl.  That would have made a go-to core Wasilla winter trail for skiers, bikers, hikers, runners, skaters and motorized users.  But some home owners on the lakes would not be happy with the increased snowmobile traffic.  So ... it is what it is.

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Late February 2022: Early Season Crust Skiing, With Respect For Moose

Lots of storms were dropping cold and dry powdery snow in Southcentral Alaska this winter.  Then boom!  A couple of storms rolled in from the Gulf of Alaska and pummeled the Western Susitna Valley with nearly 3 feet of dense, soaking wet powder.  Settling and some cooler temps transformed this wet mess into great early season crust skiing snow.

But ... what is great for crust skiing is not always good for moose.  The moose can't stay on top of this deep snow.  And it is energy-sapping and calorie burning for them to wallow through the dense snow below the crusty top layer.  Moose have to struggle to survive for another 2 months still.  So sadly this snowfall will likely cause a die-off of lots of moose.

In conditions like this skiers should be respectful of moose and their struggles.  Moose have good hearing and they can detect you approaching on skate skis gliding over crust snow.  That will make them run ahead if they are on a trail.  And if you were to follow them, they would trot ahead of you for many miles just to keep from having to get off the trail and get trapped in deep snow.  So the best thing to do if you see a moose ahead of you is to turn around and not disturb them.  And wish them good luck in surviving until spring.

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Alexander Creek   Lower Big Susitna River, in rare 'crustopia mode'.
A cow and a calf moose on the trail, frightened and trotting away and not wanting to get off the trail and wallow in deep snow.  Time to turn around and let them be.
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Ski Season 2021-22: This Winter's Ski Trip Reports ... Pending

I try for "no repeats" on this web site, and only post trip reports for new routes or places that I ski.  So until I ski something new ... nothing new to share.

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Truck overturned by high winds in Palmer, Alaska.  Early January 2022. Early winter this year has been like early winter last year.  Long stretches of cold, with light powder snow that doesn't mash down the vegetation. Between storms ... nice moonlight skiing on the Big Susitna River.
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Early October 2021: Will This Be A "9 Month Ski Season" In Anchorage?  ...   Yes.

Hillside 'Double Bubble' trail, September 25, 2021


"In Anchorage, Alaska ... we have a 9 month ski season."

The above statement is fun to say.  And every once in a long while, the above statement is true.  Well ... kinda, sorta true.  Let me explain ...

Every once in a while Anchorage has a ski season, within the Anchorage Bowl and excluding Glen Alps, that starts in September and ends in May.  Such a ski season can see ski-able snowfall in 9 months of the year.   Not continuous skiing for 9 months, but skiing in each of 9 months of the year.

Usually an Anchorage 9 month ski season starts out with late September skiing on a light snowfall on the golf course fairways at Russian Jack Springs Park.  Then that snow melts and October skiing comes for a few days when Hillside ski trails get a bit of snow.  The core ski season usually runs from November to April.  And then in rare cases, you can ski Hillside trails in early May.  Month number 9.

Of course, there are no official parameters on what the boundaries for defining a 9 month Anchorage ski season are.  I exclude Glen Alps, because that would make a 9 month ski season "too easy".  I have skied an early snowfall at Glen Alps in late August.  And I've crust skied out of Glen Alps in early June.  So that's 11 months.  And when you consider the Municipality of Anchorage boundaries extend far into the glaciated areas of Chugach State Park, 12 month ski seasons are possible every year.  So I choose the 'Anchorage Bowl' as the arena to make the 9 month ski season a sporting goal.

It's been ten years since we've had a 9 month ski season.  I believe the last one was in 2011.  But this year is starting out strong as a 9 month ski season candidate.  East Anchorage got hammered with snow, 6" to 20", on September 24th.  Skiing on Hillside Trails came to life for a few days.  Then a light snowfall brought a bit of skiing back in early October, like at the Storck Homestead Park in Bear Valley.  Who knows what the end of the ski season will bring.  But if early May has snow lingering on Hillside trails ... then it will be a rare Anchorage "9 month ski season" score.

Hemlock Burn Trail, 9/26/21 Storck Park in Bear Valley, 10/3/21 Powerline Pass Trail, 9/27/21
 

May 1, 2022 Update: The Anchorage 2021-22 ski season did end up being a "9 month ski season".  The first since 2011.  For my May 1st Anchorage ski to conclude this 9-monther I had options.  There was the NSAA snow making loop at Kincaid Park ... that was barely hanging on, but somewhat ski-able.  Also, there was still a lot of snow on the Hilltop Ski Area slopes where you could have skied.  And arguably this skiing would have been on a nordic skiing venue, as recently there was a Nordic X event there.

But it seemed to me that skiing on man-made snow would be cheating somewhat.  In its purest sense, a "9 month ski season" should start and end on natural snow.  So I needed to find some snow.

Luckily I had recently spotted a surprising amount of snow while biking the Coastal Trail near Pt. Woronzof.  There was a long stretch of coastline that had collected wind-driven snow.  And the aspect of this area, along with the coastal bluffs and tree cover, had kept it from melting.  So I had a good stretch of natural snow at sea level waiting for the "9 month ski season" ending.

Five.  One.  5/1/2022.  Skiing at sea level.  The end of a "9 month ski season" in Anchorage, Alaska.
 

Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing