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by: Tim Kelley

Mid April 2023: Crust Skiing Road Trip

There were a few places I had skied before on the Kenai Penninsula that I figured would be good crust skiing.  But I had never crust skied at these places before.  So that was a good reason for a road trip to Cooper Landing, Ninilchik and Homer.  I found good crust skiing at the Mystery Creek Road, the Caribou Hills and off of Homer's East End Road.  Update: Road trip continued to Willow (see below).


Caribou Hills, Ninilchik: I had skied the Tustumena 200 course before in this area (2004 and 2011).  But I had never crust skied in this part of the Caribou Hills.  I started from the large Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers (snowmobile club) parking lot that is 18 miles or so in on the Oil Well Road from Ninilchik.  I used the Gravel Pit Trail as a reference and crust skied up to the '4 Corners' marker.  There the crust skiing terrain gets great.  Expansive rolling ridges to the north, east and south that are sparely treed due to the 2007 Caribou Hills Fire that consumed 87 square miles, and burned 88 cabins, in this area.  Lots of groomed snowmobile trails here that you can use for references. 

Mt. Redoubt in the distance.  You can see 4 volcanoes from this area: Augustine. Illiamna, Redoubt and Spurr.

  Endless crust skiing terrain.  
  Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers trail map. Tracks from skiers accessing their cabin.  This is a nice place to have a cabin, and there are lots of them here.

Basargin Road, Homer: Homer is known for great crust skiing.  Due to the proximity to the ocean, the snow here usually has a high moisture content.  And that is conducive to great crust skiing conditions when the freeze/thaw cycles arrive in the spring.  The rolling ridges and swamps between the East End Road and Caribou Lake make for an impressive crust skiing venue.  And the jaw-dropping views from here of the mountains and glaciers on the other side of Kachemak Bay make crust skiing here like nowhere else.

  Kachemak Nordic Ski Club crust skiing map
(shows Basargin Road access).
Kiteboarder tracks.

Mystery Creek Road, Cooper Landing: At milepost 63 of the Sterling Highway, this road lies within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  It is open by permit for driving in the late summer/early fall.  Otherwise it is lightly to moderately traveled by snowmobiles, ATVs and by human-power modes (no permit needed to ski).  This was an out and back ski.  You can go as far or not as far as you want.  In the past, during non-crust winter conditions, I have gone to the end of Mystery Creek Road to access Burnt Island, the Big Indian KNWR rental cabin and the Chickaloon Flats.  This time I skied to the intersection with the gas line and back.  Good crust skiing conditions.  And you can now see more of the surrounding country due to the massive Swan Lake Fire of 2019.


And also ... Willow: I have skied in Willow many times.  But I can't ever remember crust skiing in Willow before.  So that was a good reason to continue the road trip and head to Willow to crust ski to the Deshka River and back.  I had been in Willow (at Deshka Landing) a week ago for what was my latest ever trip to or from our cabin (4/14).  At that time 12 to 16 inches of new snow had just fallen.  And it had been colder than normal.  So I knew this year would allow late snow travel on the Susitna River.  Beautiful day crust skiing the Big Susitna River.  Silent.  Didn't see another person.  This was my latest-ever river ski in the Lower Susitna drainage (4/21/23).

Looking upriver towards Deshka Landing. Great crust skiing conditions on the Big Su. Near the Deshka River.
Deshka River GPS track: 22 miles. Flowing water eating the trail at Deshka Landing.  Sketchy.  Time to take crust skiing to higher elevations.

More Willow ... Black Mountain: To the east of Willow there are three broad ridges: Willow Mountain, Black Mountain and Bald Mountain Ridge.  These are expansive, safe and fun crust skiing venues that are rarely visited.  I have skied Willow Mountain in the past.  And I have skied Bald Mountain Ridge a bunch of times.  But I had never skied Black Mountain.  So, that was a good reason to go and ski it.

The trail up to tree line is a steep and narrow snowmobile trail that is better off hiked than skied in some places.  Above treeline it is wide open area of gradual slopes.  There is a lot of climbing to get to the high point.  But the ride down is worth the climb.

A glimpse of Black Mountain from the Willow Fishhook Road. The snowmobile trail heading up goes through lots of dead spruce.  This valley is 'scary' ... a severe fire hazard (in the summer). Looking north towards Willow Mountain, and the Alaska Range. Looking south at Bald Mountain Ridge.
Looking down at Box Lake. Looking west down Black Mountain Ridge, Mount Susitna and the Tordrillo Mountains in the distance. Dust on crust.  Nice for turns on skate skis. A view of the ski terrain.  Fun and safe.
GPS track: 11 miles.  2300' of climbing. Area map.
Spring 2023: Mouth To Mouth Crust Skiing

This was a new crust skiing loop for us on the Upper Cook Inlet tidal flats, between the mouths of the Little Susitna and Big Susitna Rivers.  You can see Anchorage, the Anchorage airport, Kincaid Park and Fire Island from this area.  They are all a relatively short distance away ... across Upper Cook Inlet.   There are no roads to this remote location, so it is a quiet place to explore.  The crust skiing conditions here were not as good as they were last year.  But these large tidal flats are always a fun and unique place to ramble about on skis.

GPS track: 18 miles.  Area map - here. Heading out.  Kincaid Park in upper right distance. Decent crust.  But cold.
The best crust skiing conditions were along the low bluffs at the north edge of the coastal flats. The Little Susitna River showed that it had been worked over by recent 30 foot tides.  You can see a power line support in the distance. Some areas were rough skating due to wind ravaged snow.
We happened upon this old plane wreckage.  Looks like the plane was on course towards the airport.  Ran out of fuel? Skied by this runaway large mooring buoy.
2011 We skied past an old scow that was once owned by Joe Redington Sr. (according to my father-in-law who setnet fished in this area long ago).  We were last at this boat in 2011 (above and left picture).  Time is taking its toll. 2023
  Later: At the confluence of the Yentna and Big Susitna Rivers we stopped at 'Scary Tree'.  As usual, there were ghosts flying in the wind.  Looks like ghost eggs have already hatched this year, because there were ghostlings in the tree!  
Late March 2023: Kashwitna River

For many years (40+) I have driven over the Kashwitna River bridge on the Parks Highway.  Looking down at the river, I'd often see snowmobile tracks.  I long wondered how this river trail would be for skiing.  So I finally headed to Susitna Landing to find out.

Leaving from Susitna Landing, I skated on a decent trail up the river, passing underneath the Parks Highway bridge, the Alaska Railroad bridge and the Intertie power line.  Once past the Intertie it seemed like I was getting out in the boonies.  But then I rounded a bend and there were nice houses all along the bank.  What?!  Come to find out, this is a remote, gated community called Eagle's Nest.  The trail I was following kept going past Eagle's Nest, but I turned around there.  Overall, a fun skiing route on a stretch of trail that most skiers pass over (pun intended).

GPS track: 24 miles out and back. The snowmobile trail on the Kashwitna was well established and safe.  The river cuts through nice mixed forest. Houses at Eagle's Nest.
The next day: Crust skiing can wait, when Susitna Valley groomed snowmobile trails are at their finest for skate skiing.
Picture of a groomed snowmobile trail heading from Red Shirt Lake to Cow Lake.
Mid-March 2023: West Su Wanderings

A new route up Mount Susitna: Once upon a time there was a reliable, relatively easy and well-traveled snowmobile trail up the north ridge of Mount Susitna.  Lodges at Alexander Creek helped keep the Mount Susitna trail open for their winter clients.  But then king salmon fishing was shut down on Alexander Creek (a long time ago).  This caused all of the lodges at Alexander Creek to go out of business.  And that spelled the end of the north ridge trail.

No fish.  No clients.  No lodges.  No Mount Susitna north ridge trail.

The old trail is now long gone.  But I figured, there must be hard core sledders that still go up Mount Susitna.  I asked around, but no one knew for sure if there was any trail.  So ... it was time to do some investigating and find out for myself.

I headed via snowmobile from our cabin up to Derf Lake.  There I found a well established trail from the previous day, heading towards the mountain.  I followed it, hoping it was a route up the mountain.  Past a large swamp, the trail started climbing ... a good sign that this was the elusive trail I was searching for.  I could tell from the trail that the folks that made it were savvy riders that knew how to get up through this country.  I saw signs of their chainsaw and shovel work to break the trail.  I had to bring my snowmobiling A game because I was riding a utility sled that probably weighs 300 lbs more than the trail breakers' mountain sleds.  Sliding my beast off this trail into deep powder up here, by myself, would be a nightmare.

After many challenging turns, dips, tricky angled climbs and much alder mowing, I powered up a long slope of face-slapping alders and popped out into open country.  I was above treeline on the north ridge!  I couldn't stop smiling, because I just love this place.  I've been here a bunch of times before.  Always love coming back.  Can't believe it had been so long since I was here last.

I switched to skis and skied snowmobile tracks to the snowmobile turn-around highpoint just below the north summit.  At this higher elevation the wind was a lot stronger and the snow surface had turned to hard and icy wind crust.  Not conducive conditions for going to the north summit with Salomon ski boots and racing skis, like I had done in the past.  But whatever, always fun to be up on Mount Susitna.

Later I would find out that I know the person that made this trail.  He has made trails up Mount Susitna the last two years.  But they are one shot deals.  The next storm will likely erase the trail.  It was by sheer dumb luck that I decided to look for a trail up Mount Susitna the day after this guy and his friends had made this trail. 

Here are some old pictures of skiing the north ridge of Mount Susitna.

Route from Derf Lake up onto the North Ridge of Mount Susitna. Treeline on the North Ridge. At treeline looking back towards Derft Lake.
Trail on the North Ridge of Mount Susitna.  Beluga Mountain and the Yenlo Hills in the distance. Mount Susitna main (L) and north summits.  Tower on the summit plateau can be seen in the distance. At the snowmobile turn-around spot.  Looking towards Anchorage.

A Visit To The Old Iditarod Trail:  This was a ski up Alexander Creek to the Old Iditarod Trail, and then back via the Big Susitna River and Alexander Creek.  The Old Iditarod Trail was used by the early Iditarod dog sled races, and it was used for dog sled freighting long before the Iditarod race.  In the 1980s the Iditarod sled dog race was rerouted to use the Yentna River to get to Swentna.  The "Father of the Iditarod", Joe Redington, was against this reroute.  He thought mushing the original route of the  Iditarod Trail where possible should be the goal of the race.  But the flat, easy and spectator-friendly Yentna route won out.   Well, Joe should be smiling down from above these days ... as his grandson just won the Iditarod.

When I skied the Iditaski races in the 1980s and the early Susitna 100's, both of these races used this trail.  The Iditaski is no longer.  And the Susitna 100 followed the Iditarod in abandoning this historic trail.

GPS track: 27 miles.  And yes, I took a wrong turn.  Was following snowmobile tracks and not paying attention.  Whoops. The Iditarod Trail became a national historic trail in 1978.  So this trail marker is upwards of 45 years old.  I've been skiing past this sign for perhaps 36 years.
A view from the Old Iditarod Trail of Susitna Station, on the other side of the Big Susitna River.  Once 600 people lived there.  This spot was long a Dena'ina Athabascan village site. Now the State of Alaska/ AIDEA wants to build a bridge from Susitna Station across the Big Su to support a 100 mile road to a gold mining prospect an Australian mining  company wants to develop near Rainy Pass.  Such a road will be the ruin of the Western Susitna Valley.

Dinglishna Hill Hokdocking:  I like my 'Hoks'.  Short and fat backcountry skis made by Altai Skis.  I like using them for boondocking.  Hokdocking.  Recently I took my Hoks to the top of Dinglishna Hill, the mystical 479 foot tall, cliff-fortified granite guardian of the Hill People of Alexander Creek.  Luckily none of the Hill People saw me, or I probably wouldn't be updating this web page now.  Cool hill ... surrounded by some scary-ass people.  ;-)


Spousal Abandonment Skiing: It's not uncommon for the Lower Big Susitna River area to get slammed with strong winds.  And it's sure not much fun skiing out in the open in these conditions.  Unless of course, the wind is to your back.  So my wife and I make that happen.  One spouse takes the other, via snowmobile, as far upwind as they want to go.  Then the spouse doing the skiing gets abandoned, dumped, ditched, thrown to the curb.  And skis back to the cabin.


Beluga (and Tyonek) Winter Trail: I hadn't skied the Beluga  winter trail for a long time.  It follows the gas line from the west channel of the Big Susitna River to the Beluga gas field road system.  Lots of straight and flat.  Unique country that is open and windblown like western Alaska.

GPS track from Alexander Creek.  28 miles RT. Following the gas line out to the Chedatna Lakes area.  Bald Mountain Ridge in the distance. Mt. Susitna from the gas line in the Chedatna Lakes area.

Crust Skiing Leads To New Community Trails: The last few years a section of trail that the community of Alexander Creek uses has been having a lot of snow drift issues.  At about mile 20 of the trail, the Big Susitna River has cut close to the trail and the willow stands that fended off the wind are now mostly gone.  Folks, especially older ones, were getting tired of shoveling a route through the drifts or getting snowmobiles stuck or having freight sleds with 1000 pound loads tip over while crossing the 4-5 foot high drifts.  As I had crust skied a lot in this Bell Island area of the Big Susitna River, I knew of open cottonwood country to the south where an alternate trail could quickly be established.  Fun to help out the community.  And it's fun scoping out and making winter trails.

Bell Island cottonwoods ... the 'sequoias of the Susitna'.  Yeah, a lot smaller than real sequoias. But tall for this part of the world.   Lots of signs like this on Susitna Valley trails.
Good to see.
Early March 2023: Skiing With The Ghost Of The Galloping Russian

On page 14 of Roberta Sheldon's book, "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders", she talks about Nick Balabanoff.  'The Galloping Russian'.  Here is what she says (based in 1933):

"A big man, Balabanoff was Russian and had worked his claims on Nugget Creek in Cache Creek country for several years now. ... An inveterate walker, Balabanoff thought nothing of walking the 45 miles to Talkeetna when he ran out of snuff.  Once he hade his purchase, Balabanoff pocketed the little cans, turned around and walked back to his camp."

Knowing this history, I figured I'd try to recreate, on skis, a trek similar to what Nick used to make 90 years ago.  I don't know where his gold claims were.  But from Roberta Sheldon's book I knew Nick frequented the Forks Roadhouse in Petersville.  So I figured I'd try a Talkeetna to Forks Roadhouse ski.

Right off the bat I couldn't keep up with Nick.  There was no established route across the Big Susitna River west of Talkeetna.  And there was a lot of open water with fast running current.  No thanks.  So my wife dropped me off a couple miles to the west at the end of the Susitna River Road in Trapper Creek.

I then skied the Susitna River Road to the Curry Ridge Riders' Chulitna Bluff Trail, which I took to Mile 121 on the Parks Highway.  Then I skied the East - West Express trail to the Petersville Road and headed south to the Forks Roadhouse.  The original roadhouse was taken by fire in 2012.  Now a nice Forks Roadhouse 2.0 takes it's place.  The new roadhouse was closed, so I couldn't go to the bar and see if the ghost of Nick was there.

I then skied the rolling 5 miles to the Kroto Creek trailhead.  Total mileage for the day was 36 miles ... mostly on superbly groomed snowmobile trails, all to myself, with killer Alaska Range views thanks to late winter sunny and cloudless skies.  I've been skiing Curry Ridge Rider trails for nearly 20 years ... and they never cease to amaze me.

While driving back out the Petersville Road I had to stop because a pig was in the road.  Yes, a pig.  I got out and herded the porker back through the rickety fence he had pushed through.  I sent him back to his many goat friends that were lying in snow on tops of dilapidated cars. 

I took a couple of minutes to try and fix the fence so he wouldn't take off back into the road again.  As I was working on the fence the pig turned, and smiled at me.  I smiled back and said: "Nick Balabanoff, nice to meet you!"  I know a ghost's smile when I see one!  ;-)

Excerpt from Roberta Sheldon's "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders" Roberta Sheldon's "The Mystery of the Cache Creek Murders".  Amazon link. Skiing the snow berm of the Susitna River Road.  Worked out well.
Chulitna Bluff Trail, heading to Parks Highway Milepost 121. View from East-West Express Trail. Heading towards the Peters Hills on the East-West Trail.
Nearing the Petersville Road. The reflector tree at the Safari Lake Trail intersection is dead.  But the phone booth lives on! The re-built Forks Roadhouse.
Groomed snowmobile trail heading to the Kroto Creek trailhead. Distance: 36 miles
Early February 2023: Quiz:  What Kind Of Tracks Are These?

Often I have posted animal track pictures on this web site.  But here are some tracks I have never posted a picture of.  Can you guess what kind of tracks they are?  A moose lying down to rest?  A coyote rolling in the snow?  A lost sled dog bedding down?


These are scum bag tracks.

These are tracks from some scum bag that laid on the snow as he/she used a battery powered reciprocating saw to quickly cut off and steal the catalytic converter from my truck.  Scum bags steal catalytic converters because they contain precious metals like platinum and palladium that can be sold to unscrupulous metal recyclers.  Catalytic converter theft is a prevalent scourge these days.

I realized that I was often putting myself at risk to be a victim of this crime, by parking in remote locations.  Eventually my number came up.

So ... beware.  This happened at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough public parking lot on Ayrshire Road at Point Mackenzie.  But it can happen most anywhere.

If your catalytic converter is cut off and stolen from your vehicle, you will still likely be able to drive your vehicle (unless other stuff was cut into).  But it's gonna be loud driving.  Because you will be driving with an engine that has been disconnected from the muffler.

If this theft happens to you, hopefully you have decent comprehensive auto insurance.  The thief might get $50 for the stolen item.  But the cost to you will likely be over $2000, minus whatever your insurance company pays above your deductible amount.

I recently talked to a guy that commutes to Anchorage from the Valley.  He said a couple of weeks ago, during the height of evening rush traffic, he went by an overturned truck, something that is seen often on the Glenn Highway in the winter.  And he noticed that someone was at the truck cutting off the catalytic converter.  A thief boldly stealing as hundreds of people pass by a few feet away.  Welcome to the new Alaska.

Cut.  Cut.  Catalytic converter gone in 2 minutes.  And so is the thief. $2229.70 later ... a new catalytic converter.  I hear for some vehicles that replacement catalytic converters can run to over $4500.  Park defensively if you can.
Mid January 2023: Blair Lake State Recreation Site

I had noticed the road to the Blair Lake State Recreation Site on Google Maps.  But I had never been there before.  So it seemed like a good place to check out on skis.  The 4 mile, un-plowed route to the lake starts just outside the entrance to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.  There is a sign there saying the road is private property and to call the Boy Scouts of Alaska for permission to use the road.  I called, texted and emailed BSA ... but no response.  Oh well.  There was a considerable amount of snowmobile tracks on the road, so I set off following the tracks.  In the big picture ... this seems kinda strange, having to get permission from the Boy Scouts to access a State of Alaska recreation site.  Why does the State of Alaska have a "recreation site" here that has no clear public access?  Apparently there is history here that I am unaware of.

Though the distance to and from the lake is not very far (8 miles), there is a considerable amount of elevation change, going out and back.  I'm glad I did this on a good trail with a few inches of fresh powder on top.  I would not want to do this trail if it was icy or rutted up.  Blair Lake was picturesque.  The moraine abundant terrain in this area is interesting.  And of course, the views of the Alaska Range are impressive here.  In all, a good little ski jaunt to check off the list.

Turnoff to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is at Milepost 133 of the Parks Highway. Significant vertical is dropped to get to the Gorsuch Creek bridge.  And plenty of climbing to regain altitude on the other side. Bridge at Gorsuch Creek.
Route Near the start of the ski, service buildings and housing for lodge workers. Good classic skiing conditions.  Denali in the distance.
  One of those days ... when you are reminded that the gear you are using is for groomed trails.  And not for the type of skiing you do.  Happens now and then.  
Early January 2023: Three Months Of Rain ... The Gift That Keeps On Giving

The latter part of our summer in Southcentral Alaska last year was basically three months of rain.  Aquifers got maxed out.  And there was not enough time for evaporation or drainage to bring the water cycle back to equilibrium.  So the bottom line is ... it's wet out there.  Lots of places in the Susitna Valley are reporting open water, collapsing ice (from high water level freezing followed by water levels dropping) and overflow.  Is it all bad?  No.  Still lots of good trail conditions to be found.  But you have to be on the lookout for "surprises"!

A surprise this year on a normally dry trail. The Big Susitna River. 7" of ice that settled as water levels dropped, and is now resting on a mud bar.  Cracks are filled with wind-driven snow.
Rough skiing where the wind blows. Nice conditions in the woodlands. Here you can see where the river froze over, then the water level dropped and the ice collapsed.  Lots of this in the Susitna Valley this year.
Late December 2022: A New Crust Skiing Access Point - Settlers Bay Coastal Park

The last few years saw the creation of the Settlers Bay Coastal Park in Knik-Fairview, Alaska.  This new Matanuska-Susitna Borough park offers access to upper Knik Arm tidal flats, which can be good crust skiing in the spring.  From the parking lot you have a choice of trails that will take you to the bluff that overlooks the tidal flats.  Crane Lane is the trail that takes you down to the flats.  Crust skiing on the Knik Arm coastal flats can also be accessed from the Knik Bar, to the south, or the Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge trailhead to the north.  So now there is a third access point.

This is a surprisingly nice park.  Multi-use trails here are groomed periodically by an MSB snowmobile pulling a drag.  Latest grooming info is posted here (at least it was late December 2022).   I liked the Merlin's Meander trail that works its way along old moraines. This 300 acre park does not have a huge trail system.  But if you enjoy checking out new trails that you have never skied before ... this place is worth a visit.

Settlers Bay Coastal Park overlook, looking towards Anchorage. Map (click on map to expand) Skiing on the coastal flats.  Following ski tracks.  Crust skiing is a few months away.
Ski Season 2022-23: Ski Someplace New.  Share.  Repeat (for 20 years).

This will be the 20th year that I've posted ski trip reports on this web site.  For two decades now my modus operandi has been to find new places to ski on xc racing skis and then share information about the trail or crust skiing venue I visited.

The goal of all of this, besides me having fun, is a knowledge base that Southcentral Alaska cross country skiers can use for ideas of new places to ski at.  This website is that knowledge base.

Providing a bigger picture of where skinny skis can take you helps the sport.  Too much time spent only skiing your local trails can lead to boredom and skiing-malaise.  Skiing at new places fosters enthusiasm and keeps your engagement with xc skiing vibrant and healthy. 

I hope this spring skiing season is half as good as last year was.  Spring crust skiing in 2022 was epic!

No ski-able snow in Anchorage in September this year.  So, no "9 month ski season" in Anchorage like last year.

Fall 2022: Random Early Season Pictures ...

Just like xc skiers, horses look forward to snow in Alaska.  And just like xc skiers, horses take note of bear tracks in the snow!

Sniffing brown bear tracks.
Having your own ski trails means doing your own trail maintenance. Hey!  Where did this "trail arch" come from!?

Black bear

Ermine Porcupine Marten Brown bears




Coyote Brown bear Moose  
Game cameras show you who has been partying at your cabin while you weren't there.

Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing