Sunday, December 26, 2021

Christmas at Colorado Creek Cabin

 Post by Corrine 

This was not a trip for lots of lingering. 

We didn’t linger at the Mile 57 Elliott Highway trailhead when heading into Colorado Creek Cabin. It was more than 25 below (Fahrenheit)! We didn’t linger along the trail when we stopped for snacks or to scrape ice off our skis. Lingering at the cabin had to wait, as there wasn’t much usable firewood to start a fire. Heading out the next morning in darkness, wind, and snow didn’t encourage a lot of lingering either. 

Fortunately, once we collected enough firewood and got a fire started in the cabin -- and got four people’s iced-up clothing hanging to dry and gear stowed in some sort of semi-organized explosion – we were finally able to linger. Ahhh!!!

A Christmas Cabin Tradition

Jill and Beat again traveled to Fairbanks for a Christmas holiday with us. Ultra-endurance athletes who really enjoy winter races, they have completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational to McGrath and/or Nome several times. Jill has biked and walked while Beat prefers walking. They visit us over the holidays for some winter training. They live in Boulder, but Colorado has not seen much snow in December the past few years. Fairbanks is the perfect place to experience consistent snow and subzero temperatures. They have been visiting us for years (except for 2020 due to COVID) so it’s become a Christmas Tradition. We even hang Christmas stockings for them!

As part of the tradition, we try to accompany them on at least one cabin trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. This year I had a 3-day weekend for both Christmas and New Year’s. So, a month earlier, Beat and I planned out trips to Colorado Creek and Wolf Run cabins over Christmas and to Cache Creek Cabin (and maybe Richard’s) for New Year’s.

Pre-game: Weather Forecasts, Doctor’s Appointment, and – Oh Yeah -- Christmas 

The forecast was looking interesting. Cold temps but then warming and a possible snowstorm right around the time of our first cabin trip. As December 24 got closer, the forecast got more epic. Snow, up to a foot-and-a-half followed by freezing rain, starting the evening of the December 25. Yikes! We decided to just do an overnight to Colorado Creek Cabin, so we could get home before the mega-storm started. From trail reports, we predicted a soft trail, so Eric and I opted for skis instead of bikes. Jill and Beat would be walking while dragging sleds. 

Jill was still not sure how her back would do pulling a sled. In mid-October she had been hit by a truck while biking. Somehow, she got away without serious injuries, but she did have a stiff, sore back. She has been doing PT and stretching, which helped, but she was still pretty stiff. I had her see one of our osteopaths, who does manipulative medicine, and that seemed to help more. She ended up doing fine on our trip with just some soreness, but more from not having dragged a sled for a while rather than from her accident. 

We were able to squeeze in a bit of Christmas before we left. On the evening of December 23, we had a Zoom get-together with our kids, where we chatted and opened presents. Jill and Beat joined in, complete with Santa hats! Then it was finish packing and get to bed. 

Bumpy Drive, Chilly Start

We were out the door by 9 AM Christmas Eve morning. The Elliott Highway has a lot of uneven snowpack, so the slow, bumpy drive to the trailhead took about 90 minutes. We knew the start would be chilly, but the car thermometer had risen to a high of -9F on some parts of the drive. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. 

Eric spotted a gray owl on our ski in to the cabin

But the Mile 57 Elliott Highway Trailhead is in a low spot. It was -26F at the trailhead. We got going quickly, sort of. We had little glide at that temperature. (It took us 5 hours to go 14 miles.) Fortunately, temps warmed during the day and as we climbed to the cabin, where it was a balmy -10F. Dressed properly, we were comfortable while skiing, but we didn’t linger. The only time I got cold was when I had to scrape ice off my skis after going through some overflow. 

I have been to Colorado Creek Cabin three times, but this was my first time skiing the trail. It’s not a bad ski, but long sections aren’t that interesting. And cloudy skies meant we didn’t get the beautiful sunrises and sunsets we normally have this time of year. Eric listened to Jill's latest book, Into the North Wind, her epic tale of winning and breaking the women's record on her bike to Nome.  It made our adventure seem paltry by comparison but it helped the miles fly by.  I started listening on my ski out.  I would highly recommend listening to this audiobook.  It's a great adventure story. 

About three miles before the cabin, the trail has a long climb with some narrow, steep sections made even more challenging by the thick, choking alders along the sides. I finally took off my skis to walk a couple of the hills, trying to not get whipped in the face by all the bushes. Fortunately, those sections weren't too long, so we were soon skiing again. 

On Fire: Woodstove, Lantern, and Answering Riddles!

We got to the cabin before Jill and Beat, arriving just as darkness was descending. We were happy to arrive but not happy to find there was not enough wood to start a fire, just several very large rounds that needed splitting and not enough for the night. Eric donned his snowshoes and quickly brought back a load of dead, spindly trees. While I sawed those up and started the fire, Eric headed out for more wood. He made several trips, gathering more than we actually needed. The next people to the cabin will be very happy!

Finally, the cabin!

Sawing trees into lengths for the woodstove

Beat then Jill arrived about 30 minutes later, while Eric was still gathering wood. Jill helped haul some wood. Beat split some of the big firewood rounds and started the Coleman lantern with his propane canister, but after a few minutes, flames started coming out the side. He grabbed the lantern and threw it outside. Yikes! Luckily that was our only bit of excitement for the trip. 

We got the cabin toasty warm, hung our wet gear, melted snow, and then finally kicked back for the rest of the night. Beat shared his large bottle of Fireball whiskey (dragging a large sled is good for bringing all the comforts of home!) so we enjoyed that with hot chocolate before making our dinner of freeze-dried meals. Eric entertained us with a book of dumb jokes and riddles on his phone. Jill ended up being the queen of riddles. (What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire? Frostbite!) 

I think there's enough Fireball to share. . . maybe

Heading Out, Looking Ahead

The next morning was warmer (around zero F) but also snowing and blowing with over an inch of new snow on the ground. We headed out in dark and blowing snow, wanting to be off the roads before the forecasted storm (with freezing rain) descended. Fortunately, the warmer snow made for better glide for Eric and me, and the downhills were less scary with the new snow. Eric skied all the alder choked steep hills with minimal crashes. I, on the other hand, smartly took off my skis and walked the worst one. 

Snowy and windy in the morning

The ski out was uneventful, and we made it back to the car in an hour less time than skiing in. 

Herringbone up a short steep pitch

The roads were a bit worse with the new snow, but we made it back without any problems. As I’m writing this, we’ve had nine inches of snow and now it’s raining. I’m glad I don’t have to go anywhere today!

We have another trip planned to Cache Creek Cabin over New Year’s Eve. We’ll see what Mother Nature brings us. Hopefully, we will make that trip, too. It’s always fun doing cabin trips with friends. Even if they start lantern fires or tell really dumb jokes! 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Anniversary Adventure

Post by Corrine

This was a White Mountains adventure full of threes! It’s been about 3 months since our last blog post, it was our third attempt at doing a cabin adventure this winter, we celebrated 3 decades together, and we skied in about 3 inches of new snow. (Plus, we saw three skiers on our first day.) 

We haven’t written anything for the past 3 months, because it’s been a long transition from fall to winter with snow, then rain, then subzero cold. So, we haven’t been on any adventures outside of normal life. We had 2 cabin trips planned into the White Mountains around Thanksgiving but bailed on both due to cold weather, wind, and poor trail conditions. I couldn’t see the point in being miserable just to say we got out. We have continued to get out with short biking, skiing, running and snowshoeing jaunts. But no epic or even semi-epic adventures.

Early season ski up on Old Murphy Dome Road

Early season bike to Lee's cabin and back

I had reserved Eleazar’s Cabin in the White Mountains to celebrate our wedding anniversary which was December 15. It’s hard to celebrate during the week so I reserved the cabin for Friday night since I now have Fridays off. What better way to celebrate 30 years together, 29 of them married, than with an overnight trip in the Whites? The forecast looked do-able with temps finally rising from -35F to above zero. We decided on skis instead of bikes after getting about 6 inches of snow the week prior. It’s easier to carry gear for a cabin trip on bikes, but no point in suffering on bikes when skiing would be great. 

We were out the door at 10 AM Friday morning after packing our backpacks. When we got to the trailhead there was about 3 inches of new unpacked snow on the trail. We made the right choice. Biking would have been a slogfest. 

As we started down the trail, we could see that somebody had skate skied ahead of us. Who would even think of skate skiing in several inches of new, cold snow? We could only think of 2 people who might do that: Shalane or Melissa. And since we didn’t see any dog tracks (Shalane almost always takes her dog), we figured it had to be Melissa. About 3.5 miles in we saw a skier skating back towards us. Yep, it was Melissa. She said skating was not a great choice, but she was having a good time anyway. And she is training for a wilderness endurance race or two, so she has to be prepared for possible tough conditions. She was just out for a day ski and was headed back to her vehicle at the trailhead.

Who would even try to skate in these conditions?

Melissa Lewis, of course

It’s only 12 miles to Eleazar’s Cabin so that shouldn’t have taken us too long. Ha. With new snow, slow trails, and backpacks, it took us 4 hours to ski in. But it was a beautiful winter wonderland ski. Quiet, just our skis shushing along on new snow. It’s that time of year when it never really gets light if it’s cloudy and snowing, and it was doing both. It’s almost winter solstice and we are down to just over three-and-a-half hours of sunlight. Winter in Fairbanks at its best. 

There was enough snow that we were actually able to ski (i.e. snowplow) down the Wickersham Wall. Usually this is a screaming fast descent, and we would normally take off our skis and walk but this time we made it down intact with skis on. At the bottom, we ran into 2 other skiers who were headed to Borealis Cabin from Lee’s. Their snowmachine support crew had already gone ahead, which helped to pack down the trail for us.

We ran into only one area of overflow. Eric went around it to the right. He found thin ice and a few inches of water. He got wet toes but otherwise was fine. I went left and was able to cross the slush without getting wet. Eric said his feet weren’t too bad, so no need to change socks. At the next drainage, Eric was ahead and saw a lone caribou, which immediately dashed off the trail before I go there. 

Looking back at the overflow we had just crossed.  I had gone to the right in this photo, Eric to the left.  The skiers behind us followed me but chose to walk instead of ski.

When we turned off the main trail for the mile climb up to Eleazar’s, we had to slog through about 6 inches of fresh powder. It took over a half-hour just to go that last mile. Finally, the cabin was in sight at about 2:30 PM as it was starting to get dark. 

Eric started the fire, then headed out to look for firewood. I stayed back to stoke the fire, melt snow, and get our gear set up. Once Eric got back with a few trees, we cut up the wood. Finally, we were able to kick back and relax the rest of the evening. 

Full moon shining through the clouds

I was more tired than expected for just a 12-mile ski. I guess I’m not used to carrying a pack while skiing through slow, cold snow. I was in my sleeping bag by 7:30 PM reading a good book on my iPhone. Eric managed to complete the Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle – with some help from me – before turning in around 10. It’s nice to be out without the distractions of home and the internet. (Though Eric wanted it to help with the puzzle!)

Eric stoked the fire in the middle of the night, so the cabin was still warm in the morning. Wanting an early start, we ate breakfast, melted snow for water,  packed up, and were out the door before 9:30 AM. We used headlamps for about an hour although we might have been able to get by without them. Snow is an excellent light reflector, even when there’s not much light to reflect. 

We made it the mile down to the main trail in less than 10 minutes! I barely had to snowplow with all the snow. At least one other snowmachine had been by the day before, so the main trail while still a bit soft was faster. There was more overflow (at two crossings this time), but we made it across with dry feet, just accumulating a bit of ice on our skis that we scraped off. We were also able to herring bone up the Wickersham Wall without having to take off our skis. Another first for me! 

I gingerly test the overflow, slushy on top but solid ice underneath.

Scraping the ice off my skis after crossing the overflow

Herringbone tracks up Wickersham Wall

It snowed most of our way out and we had a slight headwind, but the temperature was perfect for skiing – maybe 10-15F. I felt like I was in a snow globe. Three miles from the end we ran into a group of snowmachiners. They were nice and polite, but they were on paddletracks, which really stirred up the snow, making for soft and slow going. Oh well, I was just glad I didn’t have my bike with me. I would have really been cursing them!

We ran into Erica and Devin right before getting back to our car. They were getting a late start skiing into Moose Creek Cabin. We’ve been running into those two on the trails a lot this year! Not surprisingly, we saw no bikers on the trails this weekend. 

Erica - Devin is somewhere behind her

We have a couple of more cabin trips planned over Christmas and New Year’s with our friends, Jill and Beat. Now we just have to see if the weather will cooperate. There is a big winter storm on the way and then it’s supposed to get cold again. Will we head out or just stay home?

I was glad the weather cooperated for an overnight with my adventure partner, Eric. It’s been a great  three decades of adventures and I’m sure there will be many more to come.

Friday, September 24, 2021

When Life Gives You Lemons. . .


Post by Corrine

I’m supposed to be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, floating through the warm and wondrous Grand Canyon. Instead, I’m crouched over my bike in the cold Talkeetna wind trying to get a stupid tubeless tire to seal so I can finish my ride and get back to our warm cabin. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you want it. 

Replacing the Grand Canyon with…What?

This past week wasn’t quite what Eric and I had originally planned. We were supposed to be on a three-week float of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, but due to exploding COVID cases in Alaska and elsewhere we decided to push that trip back a year. Still, I kept one week of vacation time to do something. But what? Go backpacking near Denali? Bike all the roads out of Nome? Explore Homer?

Crossing the railroad tracks 5 miles in on the Chase Trail in Talkeetna

As my vacation time grew near, the weather forecast all over the state looked grim. Nome -windy and rainy. Alaska range – snow. Kenai Peninsula – cold and rainy. Colder than normal temperatures were settling in all over the state. Not a great week to be outdoors. We weren’t really looking for Type 2 fun, and we didn’t want to camp in the cold and rain. (I know, I know, we’re getting soft.) But was our only option to stay in Fairbanks and work on home projects? That seemed like a waste of vacation time.

So, as usual, I obsessively checked the weather forecasts all over the state. The best weather seemed to be midweek, south of the Alaska Range along the Parks Highway. Not great weather, but better than anywhere else. Eric got out our Alaska Gazetteer and we started plotting possibilities. Getting up in the mountains wasn't an option with all of the snow that had already fallen up high. We decided to drive to Talkeetna, go exploring, then play it by ear. I rented a cabin at Denali Fireside Cabins for two nights. Even if we got cold and wet during the day, we would have a warm and dry place to stay at night. We could check out some trails that we had never been on before, and the fall colors would probably be prime south of the Alaska Range. 

Leaving our cabin in Talkeetna. 

On our way through Denali and Broad Pass, it was windy and snowing and the roads were slushy. Hmm, not great. As we got further south the precipitation stopped and the temperature warmed. But the wind picked up. After dinner, I took a walk while Eric nursed a sore knee he had tweaked a couple of days before. The wind got stronger. By the time I got back to the cabin, our power was out. It remained out until about 4 AM. Luckily, our cabin stayed plenty warm.

Exploring Talkeetna Trails

The next morning was cold and windy but dry, so we decided to check out the trails at Talkeetna Lakes Park, a Mat-Su Borough park. This system comprises about 10 miles of trails around several lakes that are great for hiking and biking in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. They are just a couple of miles out of town, so we biked to them. The trails were in great shape and super fun for biking except for all the beetle-kill spruce trees that had come down in the windstorm. We had to stop and go over or under trees about every half mile. It was slower going than we expected but we adjusted. We were able to shove some trees off the trail, and Eric was able to cut through others with his handy folding saw. 

But with a little persistence we were able to do all the trails. One trail is singletrack, while the others are wide enough for skate skiing. The singletrack trail is winding and fun, with a few swoopy downhills. The others were fun just to cruise along. We got lots of lake views, though with the wind it was chilly on the lakeshores. 

X Lake

When we finished the trails, I wanted to take an alternate route back to town, but Eric decided just to head back to the cabin to rest his knee, which was still bothering him. I had great fun on some lesser used roads, but when I got back to our place 45 minutes later, Eric was nowhere to be found. He had gotten distracted by some other trails and took longer than me to get back! I was a little miffed, as I was hungry and couldn’t get into our cabin or car for food, but he was back a few minutes later, and I quickly forgave him over lunch. 

Biking backroads back to Talkeetna

We checked the weather again and the next day looked to be cold but sunny and no winds between the Alaska Range and Anchorage, so we decided to head down and bike the Eklutna Lakeside Trail.

But first I wanted to explore the Chase Trail north of Talkeetna. Eric escorted me to the railroad bridge over the Talkeetna River on the edge of town. I kept going while Eric headed back to rest his knee. (Though he got distracted again and did more biking than he planned!)

ATVs barely fit on the railroad bridge side access for the Chase Trail. Bikes fit fine!

The Chase Trail is a mostly flat ATV trail that follows the railroad track for about 5 miles before climbing up and meandering through the woods for another 9 miles or so. The trail started to get muddy and wet, so I turned around after about 7 miles. 

I was about 2 miles from Talkeetna when I got my flat. I pulled out a fairly good-sized nail, but my tubeless tire didn’t want to seal. I tried to put in a plug (which worked for me on the Trans South Dakota), but I couldn’t insert it. I called Eric to come help. He agreed but said I should start walking back if I was that close to town. I agreed, though I did grumble a bit. 

As I walked my bike I occasionally stopped and tried to pump up the tire. I finally got the hole to seal, but the tire kept losing air. Eric finally showed up and noticed the tire was leaking around the base of the valve stem. We were able to pump the tire up enough for me to gingerly bike back to Talkeetna, where Eric had parked our car at the Chase Trailhead.

Downtown Talkeetna

Back at our cabin, Eric took the tire apart and found the valve stem was shot. Fortunately, he keeps a spare in his repair kit. My tire was good to go in no time. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been able to fix the problem myself but happy that Eric had the parts and know-how, especially since the only bike shop in Talkeetna wasn’t open until the weekend. 

Looking north before leaving Talkeetna - cold but clear views of Denali and the Alaska Range

Eklutna Lakeside Trail

The next day we headed to Eklutna. Neither of us had ever biked the Eklutna Lakeside Trail, a State Parks trail. In fact, Eric had grown up in Anchorage and had never even been to Eklutna Lake! It was time to change that.

The Eklutna Lakeside Trail follows an old roadbed.  It follows the lakeshore for about 8 miles before going farther up a mountain valley another 5 miles or so. At about 13 miles in, there’s a side trail to Serenity Falls. The trail is accessible by ATV, hiking or biking in the summer and snowmachine or skiing in the winter. There are two public use cabins and three campgrounds along the trail. We had thought about renting the Serenity Falls Cabin for a night, but the forecast was calling for snow starting on Thursday and getting worse on Friday. We decided to do the whole trail in a day and then head home on Thursday before the roads got bad. 

This trail was fun to bike with lots of spectacular lake-and-mountain views, especially since a bit of snow had fallen. The white snow really set off the fall colors. An old roadbed runs along the entire lake and is open for ATV use, but there are lots of singletrack trail options for non-motorized use that split off from and then re-enter the ATV trail. Those side trails hug closer to the lakeshore with views that keep begging you to stop. Sometimes the trail is too close to the lakeshore! Some trail sections are starting to erode onto the beach, but they are short, and we could walk our bikes around even the worst spots. 

Motorized to the left, non-motorized to the right. 

At the far end of the lake, there is just the old roadbed that is open to all uses. It follows the Eklutna River up the valley toward the Eklutna Glacier. The roadbed/trail is in really good shape except for lots and lots and lots of puddles. I was nervous about biking through them and walked around the first few. But there were so many. I started following Eric, who wasn’t having any problems. The puddles weren’t very deep, but you couldn’t see the bottoms and some were a bit rocky. (By the end I was biking through them all. Well, except one where I stopped and put a foot down. But I was wearing my waterproof socks, so my foot stayed warm and dry.)

There was ice on the edges of the puddles and we ran into more snow the further up the valley we went. The autumn colors were at their spectacular peak. Between the greens and yellows of the trees, the snow-capped mountains and the reflections in the lake, it was a visual feast for the eyes. It took us forever to go the 13 miles because we had to keep stopping to take photos. We stopped to check out the Serenity Falls Cabin as nobody was there. The cabin sleeps 12 and has a wall of windows that gives you a glorious view of the valley. The wood stove was still warm, so we ate lunch before heading to the falls. This would be a great place to rent! 

We were underwhelmed by the falls (which you can see from the cabin), but the side trail is short, so we didn’t invest a lot of energy getting to them. And they made for a good turnaround point. The roadbed goes on for another quarter mile or so, then you can follow a footpath toward the Eklutna Glacier. But we were ready to turn around. With that and the East Fork trail, we could easily spend more time back here. We did see a few other bikers and several 4-wheelers, but the area never felt crowded. It was an incredible time to do this bike ride, so that worked out well!

Serenity Falls

East Fork Eklutna River

Curry Ridge Trail

We spent the night at the Lake Lucille Lodge in Wasilla and headed north the next day. The forecast called for several inches of snow near Denali that evening. We didn’t want to get caught in that. But we knew we had time for a hike to break up the drive. 

As we drove by the K’esugi Ken Campground, we decided to hike the new-ish Curry Ridge Trail (both are part of the Alaska State Parks system). A cold wind cut across the parking lot as we switched into hiking clothes, but it wasn’t snowing yet. The trail took us up to a ridge with phenomenal views of the Alaska Range and Denali. It was fairly cloudy but we had views the whole time and the bigger mountains did come out for a few minutes during our hike. The trail is wide with a very modest grade, so easy hiking. We met a State Parks trail crew that was out clearing brush and moving downed trees. We thanked them for making the trail even nicer. 

The Alaska Range peeks out below the clouds.

On top of the ridge the trail makes a loop, taking in a high point and following a lake for a ways. We didn’t linger on top, as the cold wind was even stronger up there, but we had a great time soaking in the views. 

We headed back down, running into the trail crew again and seeing a few other hikers. We ended up hiking 7 miles, a nice break from the road.  We then finished our drive home, arriving several hours before it started snowing.

Trail crew clearing brush.

Making Lemonade 

Even though our vacation didn’t work out as planned, we had a phenomenal few days away from home. We couldn't change the weather but we could change our mindset to fit what Mother Nature threw at us.  We didn’t do anything epic, but we got to explore new trails and see some incredible Alaska scenic landscapes. We are really thankful for all the local and state parks in our state. Sure, we are missing the Grand Canyon, but it will still be waiting for us next fall! 

Biking around Talkeetna

Eklutna Lakeside Trail

Curry  Ridge Trail