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. 

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