Sunday, June 19, 2022

S24O on the Mastodon Trail to Nugget Creek Cabin

Post by Corrine


Abbreviation: "Sub-24-hour Overnighter"

Definition: Any overnight trip lasting less than 24 hours. A term from the bikepacking community, but it can be applied to any active recreational overnighter, including but not limited to backpacking, road touring, skiing, and snowshoeing. 

When you’ve got 24 hours of light, it seems like you’ve got all the time in the world. But, of course, we try to pack in an awful lot in those hours. Too much, sometimes! Before you know it, weeks have gone by, or months, or the whole summer. And while you meant to get out for a trip in the wilds, you just kept procrastinating and it never happened. What to do?

One solution is to quit thinking too big. That’s where the S24O comes in. Plan small. Get in your trips AND get other stuff done! 

Last year I did a solo backpack trip to Lee’s Cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area around solstice, leaving after work. It’s just 7 miles in on good trails. A few years ago, Eric did a quick backpack just 3 or 4 miles up the Granite Tors trail. If you leave after dinner and decide on a cold breakfast, you can travel that much lighter. 

1:15 AM sunset last summer at Lee's Cabin

This past weekend, I wanted to do something small since I’m tapering for my Cross Washington (XWA) Individual Time Trial which starts next weekend. Eric and I both had things to get done, too, but a short overnight could work.

I thought about the Compeau Cabin – a newer cabin that is just 2 miles in on the Compeau Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area. Two miles isn’t much of a bike, but we could bike on other trails in the area. But then I saw on social media that the Mastodon Trail, also in the rec area, was in good shape for biking. 

Finished in 2019, the 12.5-mile Mastodon Trail, starts at mile 38.5 of Chena Hot Springs Road. This non-motorized trail climbs a little before dropping and crossing Mastodon Creek. Then it switchbacks up through a burn area and crosses from the Mastodon Creek drainage to the Nugget Creek drainage. It follows a burned-out ridgeline above the drainage for several miles before dropping 2.5 miles down to the public-use Nugget Creek Cabin, sitting just above the confluence of Nugget Creek and the South Fork of the Chena River. 

Yes, Eric did wear a helmet, just not on the long uphill grinds. He's topping out on one here.

Eric and I had ridden it in early winter on fatbikes, but we had never done the whole trail in summer, so we were curious. Plus, we had never stayed at the Nugget Creek Cabin. The cabin was available for rent Friday night so our solstice S24O was a go!

But was it really less than 24 hours? Even with all the driving? Here’s how it went. 

2 PM – After getting some things done in the morning, we leave home. We pick up my bike at Bankstown Bike and Ski in Ester where it was getting a final tune up before my Cross-Washington attempt. I would highly recommend Dorian Granger and his new bike shop. He does great work. We also spend time yakking with Dorian and Rolf, pack up my bike, and stop to get snacks for the road. 

Newly opened Bankstown Bike and Ski - owned by Dorian Granger

4 PM – We are first in line in front of two other cars when Wagner’s Pizza Bus in Two Rivers opens. We had wanted to try their pizza after hearing about it from Jay Cable, but their hours are fairly limited. The pizza does not disappoint. Neither does the milkshake Eric and I split. I highly recommend a stop here the next time you are out Chena Hot Springs Road between 4 and 8 PM.

5:30 PM – We leave the Mastodon Creek Trailhead. Almost immediately I regret eating that second piece of pizza as we start up the first hill. One piece and that shared milkshake would have been enough! 

6 PM – We cross Mastodon Creek, riding through some slightly muddy but bikeable areas in the valley bottom. Then we spend time navigating switchbacks while working our way up the ridge on the other side. But the views in the burn area are expansive, and the Labrador tea is in full bloom.

Boggy area around Mastodon Creek

6:55 PM – We finally top out on that part of the ride at 6 miles, the site of the Fairbanks Area Hiking Club bench, and admire the view.

Taking a break on the Fairbanks Area Hiking Club bench

We spend the next hour riding the ridge line above Nugget Creek, stopping to clear trees from the trail. Many toppled trees from the burn had already been cut out of the way, but a few mostly smaller ones block or partially block the trail. I move smaller trees off the trail. Eric uses his small saw to remove larger ones. We get showered on briefly while the sun continues to shine. I look for a rainbow, but no luck. We meet two backpackers, Mark, a retired radiologist with whom I had worked with for years, and his wife Pam.

Before trail maintenance

After trail maintenance by Eric

Eric breaks the tip of his saw while clearing trees

Mark and Pam backpacking - the only people we saw on the trail

8:30 PM – We reach Nugget Creek cabin after a brief stop at the newer cabin just up the hill. It sits in a sunnier area with a better view, unfortunately, it’s not ready for rent yet. The older, lower cabin is closer to the water, but the area has a ton of mosquitoes! Fortunately, only a few are in the cabin. After unloading our bikes, we walk down to the Nugget Creek-South Fork confluence to get water. The trip is quick. The bugs are even worse on the river! 

New cabin not quite ready for occupancy

Old cabin where we stayed

Confluence of Nugget Creek and South Fork of the Chena River

10 PM – Bedtime. Lights out. Well, actually not. It’s solstice! 

It's bedtime but it's still light - such is summer solstice in Alaska

Midnight – I need to pee. I stumble as fast as I can to the outhouse, immediately swarmed by mosquitoes.

4 AM – I need to pee again! I stumble/run to the outhouse. The mosquitoes are still awake! The sun is just starting to rise, but the skeeters discourage me from getting my camera for a photo. 

7 AM – We get up. Earlier we had debated on a cold breakfast but decided to bring a small pot and stove. We have oatmeal, leftover sandwiches, and hot drinks, then pack up our bikes. 

Eric finishes breakfast while sporting a bad case of bed and helmet hair!

8 AM – We start back up the trail. We holler hello to Mark and Pam who are awake but still in their tent camped up by the new cabin.

8:42 AM – I finally make it up the first 2.5-mile, 1000-foot elevation climb, the biggest of the ride out. The climb is hot and buggy, but I ride all of it. I can’t decide if I’m happy that we cleared the trees yesterday. If we hadn’t, I would have had an excuse to stop! At the top, I look back but don’t see Eric, so I keep going. Eric doesn’t need trees to find excuses to stop on long climbs. 

On the ridge to the right you can barely make out the trail descending to the cabins

9:30 AM – I make it back to the bench. On the way, I almost have a standoff with a porcupine. He didn’t want to give up the trail and just kept moseying toward me, finally turning around when he was less than 10 feet away. I followed him for about 200 yards before he finally scurried off the trail into the brush. About 15 minutes after I get to the bench, Eric shows up. He had stopped along the way to: 1) watch a northern hawk owl, 2) spot the cabins from different points on the ridge, 3) take pictures, and 4) do a bit more trail clearing. 

Porcupine not wanting to get off the trail

Eric stops to take photos of moose tracks that made for a bumpy trail. There were a lot of moose tracks!

11 AM – We arrive back at the trailhead. We had a lot of fun going down the switchbacks that we had climbed the day before. We take photos and videos of each other swooping down, trading off who is in front. We ride back through the boggy area and then grunt up one more climb before the final descent back. At the car we enjoy cold drinks we had stashed in a cooler and some chips. Celebration snacks! 

12:30 PM
– We arrive home in easily less than 24 hours. We unpack, eat leftover pizza, shower, download photos, post to Strava, and still have time to relax a bit AND get a few other things done! Success! 


Abbreviation:  "Sub-24-hour Overnighter"

Definition:  A way to get out there when procrastination threatens to keep you from getting out there!

For more ideas on S24O's in the Fairbanks area check out Interior Alaska Trails

Strava from Nugget Creek back out to the trailhead

Monday, June 6, 2022

A Mini Adventure from Home

 I did not want to get out the door. 

I didn’t have anything epic planned. Just a little bike trip. Not every adventure has to be epic. Sometimes it’s nice just to start from home and get out there. Nonetheless, I was dragging my feet Saturday morning. 

The weather called for sunny skies and warm temperatures. Well, there was that pesky Red Flag alert for high fire danger due to dry conditions and high winds, but maybe I could ignore that? I’m still training for my Cross Washington (XWA) race, and I wanted to do a 2-day bikepack. I didn’t want to drive far; I wanted to spend time on the bike, not in the car. And it would be more environmentally conscious to not drive. 

After thinking about where I might go, I decided on the Ophir Creek Campground at the end of Nome Creek Road. I’d been there before but never camped overnight. The distance was perfect – about 70 miles from home with a couple of big climbs along the way. The only drawback was that most of it would be on paved roads. Oh well, I decided to do it anyway. Not all rides have to be epic.

But then I stayed up way too late Friday night finishing a good novel that I was reading. (Does anybody else do that? Stay up too late just to see what happens in a book and then regret it the next day?) Then I had to get up early for a phone call with a friend before getting on the road. It’s not good to start a big weekend of exercise without enough sleep, but, hey, I could consider that part of my training. I will be sleep deprived during the race, too. At least that was my thinking as I kept arguing with myself about whether to put the book down and go to sleep. 

After I got off the phone with my friend, Eric offered to make a pancake breakfast, so I stuck around for that, too. Procrastinating, I know. Outside I could see the trees swaying in the wind. I checked the forecast, 15-20 mph winds from the northeast – the direction I was headed.  

I told Eric that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Maybe I should have an easier weekend. He encouraged me to at least start – I was packed up and ready to go. The mind battles continued: It’s never as bad as you think it might be. Plus, I might have a lot of wind on the XWA ride too. Plus, it would make the ride more epic. But wait, didn’t I just say I didn’t need every ride to be epic? I finally got out on the road. The wind wasn’t as bad as I expected, although it was annoying. 

Poker Flat Rocket Range

Once I got over Cleary Summit, the winds, including the gusts, picked up even more. But at that point I was committed to the ride. When the wind started getting on my nerves, I got out my iPhone. I listened to some Hidden Brain podcasts (always thought provoking) and then put my music on shuffle. I love not knowing which song may come up next. Fast-paced songs usually help me to pedal faster. Sometimes, it’s one that I have to sing out loud to, even if I’m going uphill. Sometimes I even need to stop and dance a little, certain songs just make me want to move. And sometimes a song comes on that I have no idea why it’s on my playlist. Either way, the distraction helps me keep pedaling with less complaining.

Music helps the big climbs go easier

At 53 miles into my ride, I finally turned off the pavement onto the gravel US Creek Road. It starts with a 3-mile, 9% grade up to the high point. Ooh, my legs were tired. But I just put my bike in its lowest gear and slowly ground up the hill. At least the views were spectacular. Everything had turned green. 

Yes, it really was 3 miles of at least 9% grade. 

I wanted to take a break on top, but the wind was gusting to 30 mph pushing my bike around, so I quickly headed down toward Nome Creek. At 60 miles, I turned west onto Nome Creek Road and finally had a tailwind! It pushed me all the way to the campground! I didn’t even mind that the road had a lot of chunky gravel from some recent maintenance work. I barely needed to pedal and before I knew it, there was Ophir Creek Campground.

 My bike kept getting blown over as I tried to take a quick photo on top

Yay! I made it to the campground

I had to ride around the campground multiple times to find the perfect campsite. Does anybody else do that? The campground was very quiet with only 2 other spots (out of 20 campsites) taken. This campground is usually very buggy, but with the wind the mosquitos were almost non-existent. I looked forward to a quiet, restful evening. 

After setting up my tent and eating dinner, I walked down to Ophir Creek and to the put-in for Beaver Creek. Someday, I’d like to come back and float Beaver Creek, then hike out the Summit Trail by way of Wickersham Dome, but that’s an epic adventure for another day. I headed back to my campsite and was in bed by 8:30.

Ophir Creek

I got up at 5 AM (uggh, another night with not enough sleep) and was on the bike by 6:15 AM. I wanted to get home early so I could relax and get ready for work on Monday. Although I had to start with a headwind, the rest of the trip back home was mostly with tailwinds. Amazingly, thankfully, the winds hadn’t changed overnight. Yay! How often does it happen that tailwinds turn to headwinds when you turn around? But not this time! 

Even though my legs were tired, I made good time thanks to the wind. Before I knew it, I was back atop Cleary Summit and, not too much later, I was making the final 2-mile climb up our road. My total stats: 72 miles with about 5300 feet elevation each way. It wasn’t epic, but it was good training and a nice getaway to a remote campsite. 

Sometimes you just need to get out the door and have a little adventure. 

72 miles with 5500 feet elevation gain on the way in. About the same on the way out

Sunday, May 29, 2022

A Spectacular Day on the Bike - The Denali Bottom Gravel Race

post by Corrine

Race day started early, too early. 

I woke at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of something knocking against my cabin window. Was it sleeting? Or snowing? But the weather called for clear skies. I finally got up and saw a robin fighting its image in the window. I went back to sleep but that darn robin came back every 20 minutes to fight itself again, waking me up. Oh well, lack of sleep wasn’t enough to ruin one of the most spectacular days on a bike that I was about to have.

I had been in a funk the past week. I was having some FOMO from missing the Grand Depart of the Cross-Washington (XWA) Bikepacking Race, even though it was the right choice for me. From Facebook posts about the race it seemed like everybody was having great Type 2 fun. I’m planning to time trial the race in June, but it won’t be the same as being on the course with other racers. 

And work had been very stressful. Between complex patient issues, lack of enough clinical support, an inefficient EMR, and all the other frustrations with modern medicine and insurance, I had been feeling burned out.

A nice trip would have helped, and I had a four-day weekend over Memorial Day weekend, but Eric and I couldn’t come up with any fun plans. Trails we wanted to do were still too wet or snow-covered and there was too much snow in the mountains even in Southcentral for any extended road trip.

Photo by Carlene Van Tol

Then I remembered the Denali Bottom Gravel Race, which has happened Memorial Day weekend on the Denali Highway for the past several years. The Denali Highway is a 135-mile mostly gravel road that runs between Paxson and Cantwell through the Alaska Range. It’s considered one of the most scenic roads in the world. 

This year’s race had an out-and-back format with either 60- or 120-mile distances, both starting from Maclaren River Lodge. For the 120-mile race, you headed west for 20 miles up and over Maclaren Summit and down to Tangle Lakes, turn around and head back up and over Maclaren Summit again and back to the lodge. You then head east for 40 more miles to the Clearwater Mountain Lodge before turning around and heading back to Maclaren to finish for a total of over 7500 feet of climbing. 

The weather forecast looked perfect. Sunny and not too windy with highs near 60F.The last two years the race was held in cold and snowy and rainy conditions. This year looked to be perfect. I needed to do a long bike ride anyway this weekend in preparation for my XWA attempt, so why not participate in a race? I signed up online and then tried to get a room at one of the lodges. No luck, so I would just have to camp. But then the next morning Maclaren River Lodge emailed to say they had a cancellation, so I even had a warm bed to sleep in the night before. Everything was shaping up perfectly!

Maclaren River Lodge 

I had a beautiful drive down on Friday, passing several moose along the Richardson Highway and having to stop twice to let caribou cross the road. The sky was crystal clear, and the Alaska Range was out in all its glory. The Denali Highway was in great shape. Most of it was still encased in winter with lots of snow on the landscape and the temperature rising only to 40F at the high point in the middle of the afternoon. But it was sunny and there was barely any wind. I couldn’t wait to ride my bike.

About 45 riders came out for the race this year. Normally there have been more, but the race director, Carlos, thought the bad weather the past two years scared a lot of people away. There was an option for “recreational” riders to start an hour early. Both Alisabeth, a friend from Fairbanks who won the women’s race the year prior, and I decided to start early just so we could be done earlier to get back home. (It’s a 4.5-hour drive from Fairbanks, and I planned to drive home after the race). 

7:45 AM pre-race meeting

Seven of us took off at 8 AM charging the five miles up to Maclaren Summit. We soon spread out and I was riding alone for most of the race, which was fine by me. And since it was an out-an-back in both directions, I got to see lots of the riders several times. So, I never really felt alone.

Mike, from Anchorage, passes me by early on

I’ve been across the Denali Highway many times on bike and by car. But I think this race day was the best day ever. It was spectacular! Clear with no haze and barely a cloud in the sky. The mountains were incredible the entire day. I had never seen it like this. It was hard not to stop and take photos, but, hey, this was a race. So, I settled for just taking photos while biking and hoping that my hand was steady enough. 

This was one of two times that I actually stopped to get a photo

Physically, I had a good day on the bike, too. I felt strong and was mostly able to power up all the hills. I only took a few quick stops to pee and change layers. I mostly just kept riding and enjoying the scenery with a big smile on my face. It was truly an amazing day on a bike!

The night before, one of the racers from Fairbanks asked me what my goals were. I hadn’t really thought much about it except that I wanted to finish and ride strong. I told her that I thought I could ride the course in 10 hours, so I made that a goal. Looking at the math, I also thought that I could get back to the lodge at 40 miles before getting passed by the lead racers who started an hour after me. 

Getting passed by the lead group of racers - but not until mile 47 of the race!

I ended up with a finish time around 9 hours and 50 minutes, and I made it back to the lodge and even 7 miles further before the lead pack of riders passed me. So, I surpassed both of my goals! I also think I finished second out of the four women who did the 120-mile distance. Not bad for an old lady! 

I had the race I wanted, and I felt good and enjoyed myself all day. And I got to enjoy amazing Alaska scenery. This day was just what I needed to get out of my funk. Not even a pesky robin could ruin it. 

122 miles with 7600 feet elevation gain. Not a bad day on the bike!