Sunday, April 25, 2021

Denali Park Road on a Gorgeous Day

post by Corrine

It’s been a rite of springtime for me and many other Fairbanksans to head down to Denali in May and bike the park road before the buses start running.  I usually do it around Mother’s Day but the forecast for this weekend was so amazing that I decided to go early.  Highs in the mid 50’s, winds only up to 10 mph, sunny with no chance of rain.  The forecast down in Denali doesn’t get any better than this.  Plus, I needed to get in some gravel miles to train for my Unbound Gravel race that is less than 6 weeks away.

I didn’t have to get up too early as I wanted it to warm up before I started riding.  Plus, we have over 16 hours of daylight now, so I didn’t have to worry about it getting dark. I drove to Denali National Park, parked at the Murie Science Center and was ready to start riding by 10:30 AM.  I could have driven 15 more miles to the Savage River but wanted more biking miles. I was hoping to get in a big ride, and I didn’t know how far the road was open, so I started nearer the park entrance. Of course, that meant 10 miles of uphill grind on pavement to begin with.   

First view of Denali near Savage campground

I felt good and felt like I was making good time up that first long hill.   But when I stopped at the first overlook where you can see Denali, I realized I had a nice tailwind pushing me up the hill.  Hmm, tailwind on the way out, that means a head wind on the way back.  I won’t think about that right now.  I bombed downhill, ducked under the gate, crossed the Savage River and kept on biking.  The sun was shining, it was warm, it was definitely a great day.  No clouds in the sky and Denali was out.  In fact, that’s how it was for the entire day. And after the Savage River checkpoint, there was no traffic.  It was just me and the mountain.

(Family joke.  Our daughter, Montana, made this video when she was about 9.  We say it with the same inflections whenever we are in Denali and the mountain is out!)

And here is me trying to recreate Montana's video in 2018 on a different trip!

I was riding along daydreaming when I looked up and realized there was a biker in front of me!  I quickly caught up, and as I rode alongside, I realized it was my friend Matt, who lives in New Mexico. He is a senior officer at the Arctic Energy Office (part of the federal Office of Energy) and they are opening up a new office in Fairbanks at the university, so he is in town for the week.  He had just bought 3 e-bikes for their office to use to commute (to help offset greenhouse gases), so he came down to Denali to check one out.  It was fun to see him.  I was a little faster and wanted to make miles so I rode ahead but told him I would stop and see him after my ride as he was camping at Riley Creek. After my ride, I wished I had decided to camp.

Matt rocking it on his e-bike

Crossing the Teklanika River

I had hoped to ride at least as far as the slide area around Pretty Rocks near Polychrome.  Every year the road keeps slumping/sliding downhill, and every year they have to shore the road back up.  The park service is trying to come up with an alternative route for that part of the road, but a solution hasn't been found yet.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go past this area.  I knew they were working on it as a dump truck driver passed me several times bringing loads of gravel.  As I was working my way up towards Polychrome Pass, he stopped to talk to me.  He told me that just around the corner he had scared a bear off the road that had just come out of its den.  He thought I should turn around.  I went up to the next corner but knew he was right. I didn’t want to come face to face with a hungry, grumpy bear who had just gotten up from his winter sleep.  Plus, the road was narrow with a steep drop off on one side and a cliff on the other side so no place to get out of the way.  

I went up to the far corner of the road that you can see at the top before turning around

I checked my mileage and was only at 43 miles which would make my round trip 86 miles.  Respectable but 90 sounded better.  I turned around and headed back.  Did I want more mileage? I am training for a 350-mile race. 

Heading back towards Sable Pass

On the flatter portion past Teklanika Campground, I turned back and did a 2.5 mile back and forth to add 5 miles to get me over the 90 mile mark.  

Rare flat spot on the park road on my little out and back

But as I continued to grind out miles on my way back, I thought, why not go for a 100? That’s such a nice round number.  But it would mean I would have to pass my parked car and head out to the Parks Highway to get those extra miles.  Was I tough enough to do that? I was going to have to be tough to bike 350 miles in under 36 hours. I better start practicing my mental game now.  I decided I would do it.  It was a beautiful day.  The sun was shining.  The headwind wasn’t awful. I was tired but not so exhausted I couldn’t go on.  I had plenty of food and water.  So, I kept going past my car, turned south on the Parks Highway uphill into a headwind and and cranked out the extra couple of miles, then turned around and zipped back to my car for a total of 101 miles with 7500 feet elevation gain.  Not a bad day.

Turn around point on the highway.  8 PM, still pretty light out and you can see the moon, too

The only downside was that I saw almost no wildlife. Just one ground squirrel.  Although, on my drive home I did see a moose and an owl.  Usually, I see all kinds of wildlife biking the park road. 

I decided that I’ll come back to Denali in 3 weeks for my last big training ride before my race.  But this time I’ll bike the entire road out and back for 160 miles of outdoor adventure.  And I’ll camp at Riley Creek so I don’t have to drive 2 hours home afterwards. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

An ‘Otherworldly’ Ski Backpack Trip into the Whites

 Post by Eric 

I was skiing Outside in the Interior. 

Well, almost. I was skiing in Interior Alaska, but the conditions were more like in the Lower 48. You know those photos and videos you see of people skiing while wearing bathing suits? How often do you see that up here? Almost never! But sometimes we get a narrow window, and I was in it! 

This past weekend I took one last cabin trip into the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Originally, this hadn’t been my idea. Corrine reserved the Moose Creek Cabin for Friday and Saturday nights long ago. We figured if conditions were good we would ride our fatbikes into the cabin, spend two nights, and bike back. April might seem a bit late, but last year we were able to bike to the cabin in early May. You can do that when conditions are right, and you are willing to ride early in the day when the snow is still frozen. 

But as the reservation time got closer, Corrine and I hesitated. The heavy snowfall at the beginning of April followed by the cold snap had us worried that the trail would be too punchy for bikes. Too much new snow, not enough traffic to pack it down. As the time drew nearer, trail reports from friends seemed to bolster that concern. 

Corrine finally said no. She needed to get in some solid biking to train for a big bike race in a few weeks. And she was hosting book group on Sunday. (Everyone was vaccinated, so they could have their first in-person meeting since the pandemic began!) But I didn’t have train for a race or get ready for a party, so I started pondering a ski into the cabin. I was wobbling on the fence when Jay Cable posted on Strava that he had skied in toward Richard’s Cabin. Not the same trail but the same general area, and he reported that the skiing was great. 

I decided to go for it. I had had too much on my plate lately. I needed the break. 

I took our fish-scale skis. Corrine got them a few years back. She used them a couple of times but hates them. I have found they are great for late-season skiing. No fussing with klister. Changing conditions? No worries! The fish scales can handle them. They are slow, but so what? They are faster than hiking. Corrine told me to give her a trail report. If it was good for biking, she figured she might come out on Saturday. 

I headed out Friday mid-morning. The trail from Wickersham Dome was a little icy, but not horrible. Just as I was starting, I ran into some friends who were finishing a bike ride. The trail was solid, they reported, if a bit bumpy from being churned up the previous day when the trail had softened. After a bit more chatting, we parted ways. 

Bluebird skies and a solid trail! 

Things were cool but warming quickly in the sun. When I got past Lee’s Cabin, the trail surface got smoother and nicer, but the trail also gets steeper as it descends into the valley. I had been able to haltingly snowplow down the previous hills, but eventually on this one I took my skis off and walked. The trail was just too narrow and icy, especially with a heavy backpack. 

This mushing team looked like they were having a blast! 

On the next climb, I finally peeled my jacket. That sun was doing its stuff. I had put sunscreen on at the parking lot, and I sure needed it! A little later I unzipped my pant legs and tucked them up and into my waistband. I hadn’t thought to bring shorts (or a bathing suit). I had dressed like I normally do for skiing. That was fine when I started but eventually was too much! 

The sun was also changing the snow. Sections shaded by trees were still icy (fast), while sections exposed to the sun were soft (slow). I started lurching on the downhills. Fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, slow! I recalled having this experience while skiing in Utah. Strange that the heat of the sun can have that much of an impact on skiing. That’s not usually the case in Fairbanks!

I had to walk portions of another couple of downhills, but mostly the skiing was pretty reasonable. I got to the cabin in mid-afternoon after 16 miles of skiing and was ready for a rest. There’s minimal cell service at the cabin, so I sent Corrine a text letting her know the trail conditions were great for biking in the morning. 

The last hill before Moose Creek Cabin (barely seen to the right).

Finally there! 

There was plenty of firewood, so I just unpacked and hung out on the deck, reading and doing puzzles. At one point the thermometer showed a deck-enhanced temperature of 80 degrees! Eventually the temperature dropped, and I moved inside, but that wasn’t until well after dinner. The cabin was chilly, but it wasn’t that cold. By the time I came inside, I knew I’d be crawling into my sleeping bag soon, so I didn’t light a fire. And it was even fairly light in the cabin. I didn’t need a lantern. So strange!

Photo not manipulated! 

I’ve been to Moose Creek Cabin many times, but except for that trip last May, I’ve always been there in the depths of winter. You don’t hang out on the deck. It’s too cold. And there’s firewood to collect. Best to do it before the short daylight is gone. Then you’re packed into the cozy cabin, happy to be protected from the elements. This was a very different experience. 

The next day got stranger. Usually, I’m at cabins just for an overnight, so the next morning it’s time to pack up and head out after breakfast. But now I had a whole day in one place. I knew I would go out for a ski in the afternoon, and I had to cut up firewood, but there was no urgency. 

Right after breakfast, Corrine and Peter Delamere showed up. Corrine had decided to come out in the morning just for a day ride. She ran into Peter, who was also out for a day ride. We chatted a bit, but they were soon off, wanting to finish their rides before the trail softened too much. 

Corrine was having a great fatbike ride! 

Peter had never been to the Moose Creek Cabin before despite many trips into the Whites. 

Then I spent the morning kind of putzing. The deck was already getting warm. I did a bit of wood cutting, taking breaks to read or do puzzles with a variety puzzle book I brought. Corrine and I do puzzles a bit at home, but never for hours at a time. 

Eventually, I roused myself for a short ski in the afternoon when the trails were softer. I skied on the trail toward Haystack Mountain that takes off just above the cabin. I skied for about 90 minutes wearing just my long johns. Even those were a bit too much. Should have brought a bathing suit! 

The turn-off to the trail to Haystack. 

Almost too hot for skiing. Almost. 

I headed back to the cabin, cut a bit more wood, and then again sat on the deck. Those puzzles weren’t going to get solved by themselves! I kept thinking I would get tired of the puzzles, but I never really did. Plus, someone had left a couple of comfy camp chairs. That made sitting for hours much easier. Sometimes I watched the birds: gray jays, chickadees, redpolls, grosbeaks, and crossbills. It was all very meditative and relaxing.

I chatted with gray jays while doing puzzles. 

The temps eventually cooled as the sun made its way toward the horizon.

Still glorious colors at sunset! 

Outhouse runs sometimes come with a nighttime show! 

The moon and the aurora together. 

Eventually, I did start getting a little tired of doing puzzles, but that was the next morning at breakfast. By then it was time to lazily pack up. The trail was a bit icy when I started but not much. I don’t think it got below freezing that night. 

Within 30 minutes I started peeling. Eventually, I was skiing in only my long johns, the legs and arms both pulled up to let my pasty white winter skin see some sun. The ski out was easier than the ski in. I think the downhills going back toward the trailhead are more gradual. I still had to walk a couple, but mostly I was able to ski down them. I didn’t see anyone else until I just a couple of miles from the trailhead. By then I was roasting in the heat. I really could have been wearing a bathing suit by then. 

The trail surface started getting soft in the afternoon, but the trail was still solid. 

I’ve long thought that April was too late for a cabin trip, but I’m beginning to realize that might be the best time to head out. You have to pay attention to trail conditions and be wary of creek crossings. Overflow gets nasty this time of year. But the snow retains a lot of cold and well-packed trails can hold up for quite a while. Biking is better in the morning, skiing better in the afternoon. Eventually, of course, the trails get too soft, but if you catch that sweet spot you can pretend like you’re in Utah or Colorado or somewhere else where people ski in bathing suits. Only, it’s better because you’re in Alaska! 

I should have brought a bathing suit! 

Since I borrowed the book's title for this blog post, a tip of the hat to Kyle Joly’s Outside in the Interior, one of the best resources for learning how and where to do outdoor adventuring in interior Alaska. 

ANNOUNCEMENT:  The Follow by Email from Feedburner will be going away in July.  If you want to keep getting announcements when we have a new blog post, please send your email address to We will figure out what we need to do.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Saying Adieu to Winter

ANNOUNCEMENT:  The Follow by Email from Feedburner will be going away in July.  If you want to keep getting announcements when we have a new blog post, please send your email address to We will figure out what we need to do.

Post by Corrine
It’s funny, no matter how long or how bad winter is, I always get a little sad and melancholy when the snow starts to melt, and I’ve gone for my last ski or fat bike.  I love summer, too, but the switch from one season to another is always a little hard for me.

This winter/spring was one for the books for Fairbanks. After our birthday adventure a month ago, it has either been snowing, really windy, really cold or sometimes all three at once.  We had to bail out of 2 planned cabin trips due to the weather not being conducive to biking or skiing to a cabin.  We broke all kinds of weather records for Fairbanks.  We broke the record for longest string of days on record that the temperature did not get above 40F (4C).  The old record was 176 days set in the winter of 1965/1966.  This year we went 180 days without reaching 40F.  

We went 3 more days before the temperature hit 40F - photo from NOAA facebook page

We totally blew the record out of the books for the amount of snow in April.  Normally we get less than 2 inches and we have had almost 17 inches (and higher amounts up in the hills where we live).  We also had the second highest snowpack on record with 40 inches on the ground.  

photo from NOAA facebook page

Photo from NOAA facebook page

Then we broke the record low temperature on April 9 with a low of -27F (-33C) (smashing the previous record of -16F) and that day the high was only 3F (-16C) – also a new record for the lowest high temperature in April.  But then in 2 days, April 10-12, we went from -29F (-34C) to +50F (10C) also breaking a record in April for biggest temperature swing in 2 days.  That’s a 79-degree temperature swing! Right from winter into breakup season.

Photo from NOAA facebook page

So, you would think that this year, I would be ready for winter to be over.  I did my first ski October 27th, almost 6 months ago.  6 months of winter is pretty average for us.  All this crazy weather at the end of winter is not. I put storage wax on my skis yesterday (although some people are still skiing) and have already been out on my road bike a couple of times.  Lots of snow on the ground still, but the main roads are mostly clear.  But I still wasn’t sure if I was ready for winter to be over.

First road bike ride of the year earlier this week. There's still lots of snow.

We had one more cabin trip planned for this weekend.  My original plan was to bike from home out to Moose Creek Cabin.  It’s possible to do and I’ve wanted to try it the past couple of years but conditions have not been right when I've been free to do it.  Late snowstorms this year once again made it infeasible.  Eric and I discussed going out for one or both nights that I had reserved.  Our friend, Jay, who had been to another cabin this week, said skiing was good but thought biking might be soft.  And I need to be biking, not skiing, since I’m supposedly in training for the Unbound Gravel 350 race which is happening in less than 7 weeks.  So, I made the decision to stay home and road bike, while Eric decided to go ahead and ski out to the cabin for a little get away.  He may write a blog post about it.  

There is actually cell service at Moose Creek Cabin, if you stand in just the right spot and don’t move.  So, Eric was able to let me know that the trails were actually quite good for biking and actually better for biking than skiing, as long as you were off the trails by 1 PM.  Maybe I could get one more fatbike ride in. I made the decision to get up super early Saturday morning and be on the trail by 6 AM so I could bike out to the cabin and back and be done by noon or so.

The sun was already up when I started biking 

Well, I didn’t quite make that lofty goal, but I did start riding at 6:30 AM – so not too bad.  The first 6 miles of trail were really bumpy and slow due to snowmachiners who had been on the trails the evening before.  But the trail was still firm and bikeable, so I was happy.  

I passed one biker at about mile 3 who had the same idea to start early but was moving even slower than me.  Just as I turned towards Lee’s Cabin somebody else biked up behind me.  I turned around and who was it?  Peter, of course.  I have been running into him on almost every big ride I have done this winter. We seem to be on the same wavelength. We laughed about that.  Great minds think alike!  And are willing to get up really early.

Peter, up early and out biking like me!

Peter was planning on biking down the Wickersham Wall and then taking the Moose Creek Connector Trail if it was in.  I had thought about going back that way if it was open, so we thought we might see each other again.  I kept riding and the trail remained pretty bumpy.  It was Velcro snow where the snowmachiners had been, so slow going, but sometimes you could get off to the side and have a little less rolling resistance.  Usually this time of year, the trails are much faster, and I had hoped to get to Moose Creek Cabin (16 miles from the trailhead) in 2 hours or so.  Instead, it took me 3 hours.  Oh well, at least it was a nice day.  

Just as I got to the intersection of the Moose Creek Connector Trail, who was there but Peter. We had taken the exact same amount of time to do our trails.  

We were less than a mile (although all uphill) from the cabin, so I invited Peter along to say hi to Eric.  He had never stopped at that cabin before, so was happy to join me.  After a slow steady climb, we arrived at the cabin to see Eric out on the deck. He had pretty much decided that I wasn’t coming since it was after 9:30 AM.  No, I was just slow! We hung out on the deck and had a snack before heading back.  Peter decided to climb up to the high point a little further up the trail, but it was already 10 AM so I needed to get going to beat the heat and soft snow conditions. Eric was spending a second night at the cabin so he went back to relaxing.

I did end up taking the Moose Creek Connector.  Peter said it was nice and smooth with just a few areas, mostly in wind-blown areas, where he was sinking in.  He was right!  It was a very nice change from the bumpy ride I had all the way out.  It also helped that I could see where Peter had sunk into the snow so could choose another line.  It was the best part of the ride.  I was actually able to bike about 8 mph for a change.  Once I hit the main trail, it was still much smoother biking than the way out.  

But the Wickersham Wall (gaining 600 feet over one mile) still loomed ahead.  My legs were tired from an interval work out the day before on my road bike.  Should I even try to ride up it? I had only biked up it once a few years ago.  Did I still have it in me?  Should I just take a break and walk up it?  But there was a slight tail wind. And the trail was firm, and I didn’t have a lot of weight on my bike.  What to do?  I went back and forth for the 3 miles that I could see it ahead of me trying to decide how motivated I was. 

You can barely see the trail up the Wall on the hill in the distance. Plenty of time to decide what to do.

As I started the climb, I decided I would just keep going until I couldn’t.  Take it slow and steady.  And guess what?  I made it all the way up to the top without stopping.  Woohoo!  I guess I still have what it takes!   Well, I also have a really, really granny gear that I added to my bike this year, too.  That might have helped a little!  When I got to the top, I took a photo and then laid in the snow to recover for a few minutes.  Nobody was there to see my triumph.  Oh well, c’est la vie!

Stoked that I biked all the way up the Wall!

After that, it was only 6 miles back to the trailhead.  Unfortunately, the temperatures had warmed up enough that the parts of the trail in the direct sunlight had gotten soft and squirrelly.  I wasn’t able to get up the next uphill after the Wall due to soft snow.  Pretty ironic, I made it up the Wall, but couldn’t make it up something I usually have no problems with.  Life is funny that way!  I made it back to the car without falling even though my back wheel was pretty squirrelly on the last downhill mile.  It was over 50 degrees Fahrenheit when I got back to my car! By comparison, it was 30F (-1C) at the car when I started and about 15F (-9C) in the low spots early on.

Softer trails

I was really glad to have done one more big fatbike ride before the trails are unrideable.  It was a beautiful sunny day, and I had a smile on my face the entire time.  Maybe, now I’m finally ready for the change of seasons.  

36.5 miles, 3600 feet elevation gain