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2023/2024

by: Tim Kelley


 

Mid May 2024: Craigie Creek ... Still Moments of Timelessness

The Hatcher Pass area is no stranger to the cycles of human activity.  Early and mid last century mining was a big influence in this area.  Mines and people were everywhere.  Mining died off and the place got quiet for a while.  But then recreational pressures built and there are now more people than ever swarming the area.

Proposals have been made to restart mining the Lucky Strike prospect at Craigie Creek on the west side of Hatcher Pass.  And a snocat supported skiing operation has been proposed for the west side of Hatcher Pass.  A new ATV tourism business opened on the west side of the pass.  The pendulum of human presence at Hatcher Pass continues to swing upwards.

But thanks to crust skiing, the right weather and the luck of being at the right place at the right time ... the timelessness of places like Craigie Creek can still be experienced.  Such was the case mid-May when my wife and I skied Craigie Creek.  We had the entire valley to ourselves, not counting the dozens of ground squirrels popping out of the snow to see the sun for the first time in seven months.  A step back in time.  A big step.

Moments of timelessness ... enjoy them when you can.

     
 On top of Dogsled Pass, looking down Craigie Creek drainage.   A unique gate on the Willow-Fishhook Road.
   
  Access via Willow-Fishhook Road from Willow.  A 100 mile of drive from Anchorage.  
     
Late April 2024: Broad Pass, via Milepost 195

We had skied Broad Pass a number of times from the standard access points on the Parks Highway, Mileposts 200 and 201.  So we decided to try a different takeoff point - the pullout just after you cross the Chulitna River, near Milepost 195.  The access to the high country west of here is a bit longer and involves some tree skiing.  But if you want to try something different, this is an option.

Trees and gullies at the start. A pair of crusti-bou. Past the trees, into the open.
  Caribou track on crust snow.  
 
Late April 2024: SMH  (Shaking My Head)

During an afternoon between morning crust skiing forays in Broad Pass, we were poking around Cantwell.  We ended up with our van down by a river, the Nenana River.  I was looking around when I noticed a couple of guitars underneath the Parks Highway bridge.  I walked up to them and then noticed an access portal to the bridge girder was open.  And I noticed the portal on the other bridge girder did not have a lock on it.

Connecting the dots ... looks like this is a local party spot.  And partiers might climb into the bridge girders and scramble around.  Maybe they go through to the other side of the bridge.  I didn't check.

I have driven over this bridge many times in the past 40+ years.  Never while crossing the bridge did I have the thought: "I wonder if there are any people inside the bridge girders below me?"  Now I will have that thought.  SMH.

 
Late April 2024: Tangle Lakes

We had passed by Tangle Lakes on the Denali Highway a bunch of times in the spring.  This is a windy location and the skiing conditions here always looked rough due to wind drifts.  Recently we tried skiing here.  And surprise (not) ... the skiing conditions were rough due to the wind.  Oh well, always fun to check out new places to backcountry xc ski.  Sometimes it's great.  Sometimes it's not so great.

 
Late April 2024: Parks Highway Milepost 131 to Ruth Glacier Terminus and Back

This was a snowmobile trail and crust ski from Milepost 131 on the Parks Highway to the terminal moraine of the Ruth Glacier.  I took the Curry Ridge Riders Tokositna Flats Trail, which had not been groomed in quite a while and was quite icy in the morning, to the Tokositna River.  Great crust on the Tokositna brought be to the mouth of the Ruth River, where I headed upriver.  The floodplain of the Ruth River is very wide, so there is no impediment to constant, in your face, views of Denali.  Spectacular.  I turned around where the Ruth River comes out of the terminal moraine and retraced my route back to MP 131.

The view from the Ruth River floodplain.   Heading to the Ruth Glacier moraine.
GPS track: 25 miles round trip. Ruth River as it comes out of the moraine. Revel in our springtime in Alaska.

 

Mid April 2024: Road Trip Crust Skiing

We carried along xc skis on a recent van road trip from Utah to Alaska.  We got to use our skis in Utah, the Northwest Territories and in the Yukon.

Always fun to include the desert in road trips.  Colonnade Arch in Utah. Wasatch Mountains in UT.  Windblown crust snow.
Yellowknife, NWT.  Skiing past houseboats in Yellowknife Bay on the way to the village of Dettah.  Great Slave Lake is over 11,000 square miles in size.  Huuuuge!
Icy crust skiing on Teslin Lake in the Yukon.
          
Kluane Lake in the Yukon.
If you crust ski on rivers in the Northwest Territories ... be prepared for surprises!  Alexandra Falls, NWT.
              
French                       Southern Tutchone                      Wiiliideh
 
Early January & Early March 2024: Mount Susitna Mystery Trail

The USGS map of Mount Susitna shows a trail starting from around mile 5 of Alexander Creek and heading west up the lower east slope of the mountain.

But the trail on the USGS map does not exist.  And no one seems to know the history of this mystery trail.

For 30 years I have occasionally asked people about this trail.  In the past I have talked to folks that lived on Alexander Creek in the 1930s.  They had no knowledge of this trail.  Folks that live out there today say they know nothing about this trail, though they are aware of it showing up on maps.

So perhaps this trail is very old.  And it was overgrown by the 1930s, and that is why early residents of this area didn't know about it.  Or of course, there is the possibility the trail never existed. And it is a cartographic mistake.

But for what it is worth, this is my theory of what the history of this trail could be:  In the early 1900's, perhaps some inquisitive gold prospectors were at Susitna Station, a settlement that once existed on the banks of the Big Susitna River and was a stop for steamboats heading to Talkeetna.  They looked to the west at Mount Susitna and said: "That mountain looks a lot like the Peters Hills where we are finding gold.  So why don't we have a look for gold over there."

A group of prospectors then boated to, and up, Alexander Creek.  At the confluence of Granite Creek they panned for gold 'colors', small gold flakes, and they found a few.  They then followed streams in the Granite Creek drainage that had the most color.  This brought them to a spot 900 feet up Mount Susitna, where they figured the gold source was nearby.  From this point they chose a route that was shorter and drier to get back to Alexander Creek.  And that route became the current day mystery trail.  Maybe this route was used for further travel to this prospecting site.  Or maybe it was used only once.  Either way, this route ended up on the USGS map some how.

GPS start of the mystery trail, on riverbank seen between skis.  Mount Susitna in background.

 

Recently I gave skiing this ghost trail a try.  Actually, two tries.  On my first try in January I turned back at Granite Creek because it was still wide open.  In early March the creek was frozen-up and I could get over it.  The trip had its share of bushwhacking.  But once you got higher up there was some really nice open forest to ski through.  The area near the end of the mystery trail was a wide-ish gully filled with sediments that had been washed into a maze of smaller gullies.  And all the rises between the gullies were covered with alders.  Not a skier-friendly area.  So I turned around just before the GPS end-point of the mystery trail.

So was this area of Mount Susitna once visited by gold prospectors?  And was a trail established to this area?  Who knows.  Seems the history of this trail was lost over time.  If this trail ever existed, it was a foot trail.  Vintage machinery couldn't have navigated the steep ridge and ravine in the mid section of this trail, per the mapped route.  Neither could horses or dog teams.

This is a remote and sparsely populated area.  But there is one guy however that lives near here and travels all over this area.  When I run into him he tells me where he found my ski tracks. While doing this ski the first time, I happened upon a snowmobile trail of his.  And shortly after that, I ran into him.  No surprise!  I laughed when I met him and said: "Damn!  I can NEVER sneak through your country without you knowing it!"  He said: "That's right!  A chipmunk moves in these woods and I know about it!"  Ha!  The second time I tried to sneak through this area he caught me again.  Damn!

Red: Approximate route of trail per USGS map.  Yellow: My route.

Some nice open forest skiing up higher.

View to the southeast of Dinglishna Hill, and Kenai Mountains.

Some gully groping.

Near tree line on Mount Susitna and the end of the mystery trail.  Pointing to where the gold is.   ;-)
         

What would a cross country skier know about finding gold!?  Me ... nothing.  But then there is the late Jan Kralik, a guy that did the first west to east traverse of the Iditarod Trail on skis.  Jan found a 41 oz gold nugget near his hometown of Nome in 2002.  Glad I met Jan a few times.  Interesting and likeable guy.  And one heck of a gold prospector.  I like that when this picture was taken of Jan and his gold nugget, that he was wearing a "Koch XC" Sporthill skiing jacket.

 

Early February 2024: Another Gift From The Big Susitna River

It's been 11 years, and here we go again. Recently while out skiing I noticed on the east bank of Bell Island that the Big Susitna River has now exposed another abandoned gas pipeline segment.  I remember when this section of pipe was abandoned and a new mile-long stretch of pipe was put under the Big Su to replace it.  That was 20? years ago(?)  The reason for the pipeline replacement was because the Big Su was eating away Bell Island real estate to where the old pipeline started its trip under the river.  Well, the Big Su has now reached the point that folks in the past were worried about.

11 years ago another Bell Island section of abandoned gas pipeline, downstream from here, was unearthed by the powerful Big Su's meandering channel.  As a result, a 200 to 300 foot section of that pipeline ended up tumbling down the river channel towards the inlet.  A boating hazard from hell.  The runaway pipe was eventually located, cut into segments and hauled out by a firm that the Enstar Natural Gas company contracted.

With this newly exposed pipeline, I don't fault the Enstar Natural Gas company.  I commiserate with them.  I appreciate having natural gas as a source for heat and electricity and I am thankful that Enstar is willing to battle the Big Susitna River to deliver the energy that 40% of Alaskans rely on.  But I hope this abandoned pipeline is corralled so it doesn't get loose like the last one did, and create another boating hazard from hell.

Update: I communicated with Enstar regarding this pipeline in the river.  They said that 8 or so years ago they trimmed the pipe back so it didn't stick out into the river.  But now they see, and are amazed like I am, how much Bell Island real estate has been chewed away by the Big Su.  They are going to monitor and assess what to do about this exposed pipeline segment.
 

Exposed pipeline segment. Location of pipeline.
 
Early November 2023: Fun on Faux-Snow

Recently I was driving by the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  I had never been there before.  When I got there I noticed a bunch of people walking and driving on the salt flats.  So I figured it would be fun to bike on the salt flats.  And it was.

To this Alaskan, being on the salt flats was similar to traveling on crust snow on a lake.  Fast and smooth travel.  A unique experience.

I've never biked on crust snow.  But now I have biked on crust snow's cousin ... crust salt.  Fun!
I came across these drags which are apparently used for smoothing tracks for speed trials on the Bonneville Speedway. The Bonneville Speedway area is separated from the southern access to the salt flats by a man-made berm.  This keeps people out when events are in progress.  Nothing was going on when I was there. A salt drag.
Satellite view of the Bonneville Salt Flats.  I80 at bottom.  Rest area parking is a good access point.  At the berm, assess if a speed event is going on before continuing north.
 
Ski Season 2023-24: Changes

There is now a search bar under the header of the web pages on this site.  This should make it easier to search the 20 years of ski trip information on this website ... for ideas on new places where you might want to try skiing.

This winter and spring I will be spending less time in Alaska.  And more time living in a van down by the river.  Well, more likely ... in a van down by a dry wash.  In a desert.  With with my wife, mountain bikes and running shoes.  So ... there will likely be some extended periods of inactivity on this website this ski season as we bounce between AK and the L48.

In early spring we plan on drifting back to Alaska.  We will try to sample new backcountry xc skiing spots along the way.  I may post skiing-related pictures and commentary from that road trip.

a
Living in a van down by a river ... of ice.
(On our way south.  Salmon Glacier, BC, accessed via Hyder, AK.)
Slickrock ... summer bike crust. You can bike Alaska, and bike from Homer to Nome ... in Utah! Biking Alaska (the trail, in UT)
Not in Alaska anymore ... desert towers. Not in Alaska anymore ... snakes and scorpions. Not in Alaska anymore ... cactus.
Not in Alaska anymore ... high desert riding. Not in Alaska anymore ... mesa rim riding. Not in Alaska anymore ... riding rock.
A van from Alaska comes in for a landing.  Then heads down to the nearest river. Based on the size of this dinosaur track in UT ... pretty sure I'd rather get chased by an Alaskan brown bear than an Allosaurus. A van.  Check.  Down by the river.  Check.
Livin' the Matt Foley dream.
     
Opinion: Trails In Decay Reflect A City In Decay

A trashed trailside mural that once showed people cross country skiing.  You can't have anything nice in Anchorage.  Especially when it is near a homeless camp.

Due to Cook Inlet bank erosion, a corner of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail at Pt Woronzof has been getting very close to the edge of an 80-100 foot drop-off.  But instead of re-routing the trail 20 feet to the south, barriers were put up.  This has been a known public safety problem for more than 15 years.  And it's getting worse each year.  Now the barriers sit on pavement that has been undercut.  It's a platform supported by ... air.  It's just waiting for some family of tourists to pose by the barriers for a photo of Mt. Susitna behind them.  Then the pavement will crumble and the family will fall to serious injuries or death.  This same brutal end result is waiting here for an unsupervised child, a loose dog or a careless cyclist.

Though there has been no money for the last 15 years  to fix this critical public safety problem, recently a new monument was erected 200 yards away.  A large concrete platform was built, with benches and an interpretive monument that discusses the Dena'ina Abathscan name for Pt. Woronzof.  The new monument no doubt cost much more than it would have cost to move the trail a few yards at the nearby Corner of Death.

I have been married to a woman of Dena'ina Abathascan descent for a number of decades.  So I appreciate and respect Alaskan Native heritage and culture.  But these two stops on the Coastal Trail, 200 yards from each other, illustrate how the powers of local government have gone off track.  Now woke virtue signaling is prioritized over fixing glaring public safety issues in Anchorage.  Feelings are now more important than reality.  Welcome to another west coast city in decay.


Alaska Backcountry XC Skiing