Friday, July 26, 2019

New Denali Highway Trails Create a Loop of Spectacular Scenery (plus more Denali Highway fun)

This story ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Corrine bikes up a hill as we leave the Sevenmile Lake valley.
By Eric Troyer

As we biked to the top of the little rise, the view of the Sevenmile Lake valley spread out before us. Gorgeous!

But it didn’t take our breath away. We had already been biking through miles of stunning scenery. You know it’s a good trip when spectacular scenery just becomes part of, well, the scenery.

Lupine were a treat along the Maclaren Summit Trail.
My wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I were in the middle of biking a great new trail/road loop on the Denali Highway. The loop is about 27 miles long with about 6 miles of that on the Denali Highway. None of it has boring views.

We started at the Glacier Gap Trailhead (Mile 30.5, Denali Highway) and biked the highway to the Maclaren Summit Trailhead (Mile 36.7, Denali Highway). That portion of the highway has expansive views of the Amphitheater Mountains to the north and the many lakes lying between the mountains and the road. The highway is gravel there but has little traffic, so dust wasn’t a problem despite the sunny day. We did have to expend some effort, as the biking was generally uphill, but it was easy to distract yourself by looking north.

Corrine biking the Denali Highway with the Amphitheater Mountains in the background.
At Maclaren Summit we headed north on the Maclaren Summit Trail. Finished in 2015, the trail winds along a wide bench past numerous lakes. It has a lot of ups and downs, but nothing overly long or steep. The trail is rocky in a few places, but a lot of it is fairly smooth. And the scenery, of course, is spectacular. If you travel north on the trail you have constant views of the Alaska Range. Quite a treat.

The Maclaren Summit Trail passes numerous lakes. 
Along the way we saw ptarmigan, a swan, and golden plovers (including some plover chicks) and lots of wildflowers. Anyone not interested in doing the whole loop, should consider doing this trail as an out-and-back. It’s the easiest section of trail and well worth the effort.

When we reached the rise overlooking Sevenmile Lake, we started descending toward the lake. An extension of the trail does go all the way to the lake, but we followed a connector that runs along the southern shore of the lake. This is the newest section of trail in the loop.

Descending toward Sevenmile Lake is a visual treat.
Since 2007 the state Division of Mining, Land and Water has been putting in trails from the Denali Highway to Sevenmile Lake. The trails replace some old trails that were built in boggy lowlands. Glacier Gap Trail, the first built of the new trails, starts from the highway, crosses Rock Creek, goes past Glacier Gap Lake and then through the Amphitheater Mountains to Sevenmile Lake. A side trail reaches down to Glacier Gap Lake. The division then put in Maclaren Summit Trail. Finally, the connector along Sevenmile Lake was finished just last year, making the loop possible. All the trails were built by Fairbanks-based Happy Trails, Inc, and designed to be sustainable, which should minimize their maintenance.

As motorized, multi-use trails, they are open to many uses, including biking, hiking, and ATVs. However, they weren’t busy when we biked the loop on a sunny weekend in late June. We saw just two mountain bikers, and two groups on ATVs, one group of four and one of two.

The connector trail along Sevenmile Lake is more challenging than the Maclaren Summit Trail. Sections of the connector trail are quite rocky and have several short, steep hills. And you can’t avoid getting wet feet while crossing the stream that comes out of Houseblock Valley. Still, most of it was rideable. And beautiful, of course. How could it not be? Sevenmile Lake sits at the base of the Alaska Range. What a treat! (Did I say that already?)

The creek coming out of Houseblock Valley was about knee-deep and cold!
About halfway down the lake the trail meets Glacier Gap Trail, where a very short extension goes down to the lake. This would have been a good place for a lunch, but we stopped a little earlier with a higher view of the lake.

The Glacier Gap Trail goes through a valley that grows steeper the farther south you go. The trail here can be really rocky in places, and we often walked our bikes, but the scenery was—you guessed it—outstanding!  And just as we began to realize that the views weren’t as expansive as they had been, we came around a corner to see Glacier Gap Lake before us. We had more stream crossings through that section, and then the trail climbs the hillside high above the lake. By that time, we were getting pretty tired. Still, as before, the impressive scenery provided a good distraction.

Corrine pedals through Glacier Gap toward Glacier Gap Lake. 
Then we were finally rewarded with some long downhills. We had fun swooping down the winding trail toward Rock Creek. That stream crossing is the longest—about 150 feet or so—but it’s only thigh deep at most and the current isn’t strong. Then it was just another quarter-mile or so to the trailhead and our car.

The loop, with a lunch break, took us about 5 hours and 40 minutes. I had my full suspension bike and was glad for it in places, but Corrine rode her hardtail and did fine. We were both tuckered out at the end, but content from indulging in so much remarkable scenery.

After crossing Rock Creek, Corrine climbs a hill less than a mile from the Glacier Gap Trailhead. 
A GPS track of our ride. 

Other things we did while on the Denali Highway

Corrine spent Saturday biking a long section of the Denali Highway.
(See the smoke in the background? Lots of that in Fairbanks at the time. We avoided most of that on the Denali.)

She saw wildlife along the way.

And, of course, gorgeous scenery.

While Corrine biked on the highway, Eric biked to Landmark Gap Lake.
And did some hiking on a ridge along Upper Tangle Lake...

...and on a ridge along Lower Tangle Lake.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Doing the Summer Trails Challenge in One Day is Challenging!

Story that ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Bagging our tenth sign.

By Eric Troyer

Sometimes you just gotta pack a season’s worth of fun into one day.

That’s what my wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I decided to do with the Fairbanks Summer Trails Challenge. And—uff da!—what a challenge!

Put on by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department, the challenge tries to get people out on area trails and maybe learn some new ones. Signs are posted on a variety of trails in the borough and a booklet shows about where they are. To participate, people take a selfie with each one they find. Anyone who finds a majority of the signs by the deadline gets a Trailblazer Award.

The challenge has been around only since December 2016 (there’s a winter version, too), but it’s become popular quickly. Last summer about 340 people participated and 115 earned the Trailblazer Award by snagging at least 10 of the 12 signs.

Neither Corrine nor I had ever participated in the challenge, but earlier this summer I was considering it. For some demented reason I started thinking about the idea of doing it as an FKT. An FKT—Fastest Known Time—is a speed record along any particular route, usually very long. Popular among trail runners, an FKT is essentially a do-it-yourself time trial race.

Of course, doing the Trails Challenge as an FKT is ridiculous, so that naturally increased the appeal! I mentioned it in passing to Corrine and she loved the idea. So, our Trails Challenge in a Day project was born.

First, the planning. We downloaded the trails challenge guide from the borough’s website and read up on the 12 trails. We saw that almost all were accessible by bike, which made the project easier. Then we mapped out how we would tackle them, doing the farthest away ones first and then moving into town.

The biggest logistical challenge was “Island Trail” in the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area. Neither of us had been to area in a long time and we didn’t know if anyone was renting boats there. We didn’t want to haul our canoe all day just for that little bit, so we decided to wade or swim, if necessary. We brought waterproof pouches to keep our electronics dry.

We tentatively picked July 4 and decided to go for it when the weather and smoke forecast looked good. Here’s how our day went:

Getting up at 5:30 a.m., we hit the road at 6:30 a.m. and drive out the Steese Highway toward Twelvemile Summit. 

Windy and foggy for our first sign.

One down, 11 to go. 
We snag the Circle-Fairbanks Trail sign at 8:20 a.m. after hiking the one mile to it. The summit is in clouds and the conditions are windy and misty with a temperature of just 49 degrees F. Brrr! We hiked because, well, because that’s what Corrine had in her head that we would do. We definitely could have biked it.  Despite being cold, it was beautiful up there.

In the Chena River State Recreation Area, we bike two miles, mostly uphill, to get the Stiles Creek Trail sign at 11:10 a.m. and then snag the Mike Kelly Trail sign at 1 p.m. after a tough, five-mile bike with lots of steep ups and downs. It’s warmer than Twelvemile Summit, but not too warm. The mosquitoes descend whenever we stop or slow.

The Stiles Creek sign wasn't too hard to get to. 

The Mike Kelly Trail sign had some steep hills!
At the Chena Lake Recreation Area, we get lost for a bit, accidently bike the River Loop Trail – twice! But these trails are flat, so we don’t lose too much time. We finally get straightened out and bag the Chena River Nature Trail sign at 3:20 p.m. and then the Slough Loop sign at 3:40 p.m. Bugs, bugs, bugs!

The Slough Loop trail sign was short enough to walk but buggy!
At Birch Hill Recreation Area we run into friends Dave James and Karen Jensen at the North Forty Trail sign. They are doing the challenge, too, only more reasonably, spreading the signs out over the summer. At 4:30 p.m. we snap a selfie at the sign, say goodbye to Dave and Karen, who are hiking, and bike off to Blackhawk Trail. Along the way we run into friends Mike Mathers, Amanda Byrd, and Jeff and Sarah Conn. After a brief chat, we head off and finally nab the Blackhawk Trail sign at 4:45 p.m.

Running into Karen and Dave James was fun! 
At Skyline Ridge Park we navigate the rooty, bumpy Secret Trail and grab it’s sign at 5:40 p.m. and then the Skyline Ridge Trail at 5:55 p.m., on the way seeing friend Owen Hanley, Sr., who is out of for a run. We are getting tired! Fortunately, the last three trails are flat.

Said a quick hi to Owen as we went our separate ways. We still had work to do!
We get the Fairbanks Dog Park trail sign at 6:30 p.m. These trails are new to us, but we find the sign fairly quickly. We take different routes back. I load my bike on the car rack and then wait and wait and wait. What happened to Corrine?! Finally, she approaches riding on the road. She took a wrong turn, ended up on Davis Road and biked back on the roads.

At Tanana Lakes Recreation Area, we see that Alaska Dream Adventures rents boats. Yay! We don’t have to swim. In the beginning that sounded fun, but now we’re tired and ready to be done! (We later learned it’s possible to walk to the “island” when the water is low.) At 6:30 p.m. we take a selfie at the Eagle Trail sign and then rent a canoe. We paddle over to the island and get the Island Trail sign—our last one!—at 7:25 p.m. We celebrate with a kiss.

We were very happy to be able to rent a canoe. 

Ah! Ain't we so cute!
At 8:30 p.m. we arrive home, 14 hours after we left, tired and ready for showers. (For FKT purposes it took us 11 hours, 5 minutes from the first to last sign!)

We drove just over 300 miles and spent about 30 miles on the trails, most of it biking, but also some hiking and a little canoeing. We saw a lynx, three fox, and an osprey (possibly a young eagle). We spend a lot of time on trails already, but five of the trails we did were new to Corrine and three were new to me. (Add one to both our lists if you include the River Loop Trail.) We had a blast and are already planning how we will do the next trails challenge!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Prindle Personal Trainers Provide Motivation to Hustle while Hiking

This story ran in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

By Eric Troyer

When my wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I decided to hike Mount Prindle recently, we had no idea that we would be accompanied by personal trainers.

Some people hire human personal trainers for external motivation. But we found that “trainers” can come in a variety of forms. Our own Prindle Personal Trainers.

Hiking Mount Prindle in a day is challenging. It’s long – about 17 miles round-trip – with nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The long ridge portion of the hike has several tricky boulder sections with random loose rocks. Some valley parts require dancing around wet spots. It’s a tough hike to keep up your pace.

Knowing it was going to be a long day, we left home really early and were on the trail before 8 a.m. At first we didn’t need much motivation. We were fresh. Conditions were great: the often-boggy trail was mostly dry and the temperature was cool. I had heard reports that the bugs were horrible, but once you got beyond the trailhead they weren’t too bad.  

As long as you kept moving. The first quarter-mile of this trek requires a couple of stream crossings. We crossed them in sandals and then stopped to put on our hiking shoes. The bugs welcomed us gleefully, so we got moving quickly. They were our first Prindle Personal Trainers, but they didn’t work us too hard.

About two miles in we crossed a boggy drainage and the bugs went from bad to headnet worthy.  In your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth bad. Biting any skin unprotected by bug dope bad. Our second set of Prindle Personal Trainers! They were whiny and annoying, and they kept us moving. Any stops were severely punished. Hiking with Bugs is not nearly as relaxing as Yoga with Reindeer.

Corrine gets "encouraged" by some of her "personal trainers." 
After about 5 miles we reached the head of the valley. Here the trail ends and the route turns to ridge walking. The ridge, I knew, would have a stiff breeze. Only it didn’t. The bugs were a bit better on the ridge but still annoying. We kept moving.

We climbed higher on the ridge and finally a strong breeze swept away the bugs. Man, they had been annoying trainers! Occasionally the wind would die and the bugs would be back, but mostly we were bug free. We talked to a couple of guys who had spent the night on the ridge. They said the wind had died often the day before and the bugs had been horrible. We felt lucky. Those were personal trainers we could do without.

The approach to Mount Prindle is a mixed bag – nice alpine ridge hiking mixed with challenging sections of rock. Some sections have smaller rocks – think basketball-sized or smaller. Other sections have rocks more the size of appliances, large and small. Every section has loose rocks patiently waiting for your footfall so they can deviously trip you up. Kind of like personal de-motivators. It’s not a place for speed, but the closer you get to the summit, the easier it is to self-motivate.

Climbing the ridge past the ridge of huge tors.

Some sections of trail are easy. Some not so much.
Our legs tiring, we climbed the last hill and finally made the summit of Mount Prindle after just under 5 hours of hiking. I had been on the summit a few times before, but this was Corrine’s first time and she was happy she had made it. We rested, ate lunch, enjoyed the view, and contemplated the hike back on tired legs. We figured we’d have to rely on a lot of inner motivation.

Enjoying lunch on Mount Prindle.
Then the thunder caught our attention. The weather forecast had called for possible thunderstorms, but so far the weather had been great. Still, we weren’t too concerned. The thunder sounded a long way off. But as we hiked back along the ridge, slowly picking our way over the rocky sections, the thunder got louder. Dark clouds grew over the mountains off to our left. As we hiked the thunder got louder and the clouds got closer. I saw some lightning. If that thunderstorm was going to overtake us, we really, really wanted to be off that ridge. We had another Prindle Personal Trainer! This one had a deep voice and seemed really angry. We tried to hustle as best we could!

Hustling away from a thunderstorm, another of our "personal trainers."
As it happened, the thunderstorm paralleled us but didn’t enter our drainage. Still, it did its job to motivate us. We kept moving despite wanting to take a rest stop or two.

Dreading the trek back down the bug-filled valley, we donned more bug dope just before dropping off the ridge, but we were pleasantly surprised by a nice breeze. The bugs were just down to bad again. We had five miles to go, but no “trainers” to really motivate us. Tired, we hiked along considerably slower than our hike in.

Then another thunderstorm started developing over the ridge to our right. And we got spit on by some overhead clouds that might be part of the thunderstorm we thought was staying safely in the other drainage. Neither of us wanted to put on rain gear or get wet. We sped up a little for these Prindle Personal Trainers, but they didn’t push too hard.

Lots of nice alpine wildflowers on this hike.  
Then just two miles from the finish Corrine took a rest stop while I continued down to a creek crossing to get more water. While I filled my water container, Corrine hiked passed me and said something I couldn’t hear. Her rest stop had seemed awfully short, but she’s not the lingering kind, so I didn’t think too much of it. I finished with my water and then hustled down the trail to catch her. And I really had to hustle. She was moving fast. I tried to figure out the reason. Had that short rest been all she needed? Had she really been holding back, thinking I was tired? Had she found a new Prindle Personal Trainer?

Bingo! This one was purely technological. Shortly after sitting down to rest, Corrine’s Garmin watch had buzzed. It was down to five percent battery power. Worried that she wouldn’t get full Strava credit for the hike, Corrine sprang up and hustled down the trail, determined to finish before her watch died.

The battery survived to the trailhead, where the bugs were again headnet worthy. They motivated us once more, but this time to get in the car as fast as we could! We finished the hike in just under 10.5 hours. And I’m sure we finished much quicker than we would have if we hadn’t had our Prindle Personal Trainers.