Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Curse of Richard's Cabin

post by Corrine

Would we get there? Finally?

This would be the fourth time that we tried to get to Richard’s Cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Each and every time we had been thwarted. Too warm and the trails had fallen apart, too cold and snowy, a family emergency, and last week, too windy.  

When we cancelled our cabin trip and headed south last weekend we checked the forecast, trails report and cabin availability. It looked like it would still be freezing at night and, so far, the creek crossings were solid per BLM. Maybe we could still try to get to Richard’s Cabin? The cabin was available Saturday night, so we booked it. Now fingers crossed that we could get there and break the Curse of Richard’s Cabin.

Richard’s Cabin is the only cabin in the Whites that we hadn’t been too. It is off by itself in the southeastern part of the Recreation Area. It can be accessed by way of McKay Creek Trail or Nome Creek Road. Richard’s Cabin is named after Richard Platz. The cabin was constructed as a shelter to accommodate his mining, trapping, and hunting activities before the White Mountains became a National Recreation Area. He constructed the cabin from local white spruce, and it was later refurbished by BLM. It sits nestled in the forest near Bear Creek. We really wanted to stay there but would April 23, 2022, be that day?

The cabin is spacious and easily sleeps 6

The forecast looked good, freezing at night (barely) with minimal wind. But daytime highs were forecasted to hit 50F! We knew we would have to get an early start as it would take 4-5 hours to get to the cabin and we (or mostly me) really wanted to avoid soft hard-to-ride-in snow. We had decided to bike by way of McKay Creek Trail, which is about an hour's drive from our home. Breaking a curse takes some sacrifice so it was a 4 AM wake up for us. We were on the trail by 6:30 AM.

Starting up the big, long climb

The first 5 miles of McKay Creek Trail are a grunt. You just keep climbing and climbing with almost no breaks. I was worried my legs would be tired after a big ride the day before, but I was able to ride all of it cleanly just stopping a couple of times to take some photos. I got to the high point 7 miles in and took a break to wait for Eric. I waited and waited. I took some photos and waited some more. Did he have a mechanical? Was our cabin trip doomed? Should I bike back down to look for him?

Just as I started heading back, he showed up. He had to stop for a bathroom break, stop and strip off layers, stop to tighten his back axle when it popped out and then stop to put his chain back on twice when it came off. The Curse of Richard’s Cabin was still with us, but Eric overcame all these challenges. He also doesn’t like long uphill grinds, so maybe he just took any excuse to stop and get off his bike.

After that it was a long descent down to Nome Creek with beautiful views of the White Mountains on a new-to-us trail. We easily crossed Nome Creek--it was still solidly frozen and snow covered--and then ascended steeply to Nome Creek Road. From there, we had just 6 more miles to the cabin. Would we make it? We still had to cross Champion Creek and Bear Creek. Would they still be frozen? And it was starting to get warmer. Would the trails hold up?  

Descending into the Nome Creek Valley. (Tabletop Mountain to the right.)

After we took a short break, we had another short grunt of a climb on the Bear Creek Trail (BLM says it gently ascends – they are wrong!) before there was another long, nice descent. This was another new-to-us trail. After crossing Champion Creek, we wound through a pretty valley going through a mature spruce forest before the final challenge, the crossing of Bear Creek.  

Bear Creek was also solid although there were a few small areas of open running water. A little past the creek, a sign pointed the way towards Richard’s Cabin and a few minutes later we were there. The curse was broken! We had made it! Time for a celebration!!

After a very short celebration, we unpacked our bags and explored a little on trails around the cabin.  Unfortunately, the temperature had risen enough that the snow was getting soft, so we didn’t get to explore as much as we wanted. After a short ride and some lunch, we cut wood for the woodstove and then just relaxed in the sunshine for the rest of the day.  

Picking up my bike after stepping off into knee deep snow. Notice the trench from my tire.

Eating lunch in the sun

A couple of groups of snowmachiners drove by, the second group stopping to chat with us. It was nice to see them, but they had paddle tracks and the snow was soft, so they definitely chewed up the trail a bit. We hoped the temperature would drop below freezing again overnight otherwise it would be a slogfest on the way out.

We talked over dinner, and I told Eric I wanted to get up and get going really early. Like be on the trail by 5:30 when it was light enough to see. I think Eric would have preferred to sleep in a little, but he was willing to accommodate my request with only a little eye rolling. We tried to get to bed early, but it was hard as the sun doesn’t set until 10 PM these days.

6:30 AM sunrise on the trail

We were up at 4:30 AM, packed and on the trail by 6. Luckily, it did freeze overnight (my Garmin said 17F), and the trail set up nicely. Unluckily, the snowmachine traffic the afternoon before made for very bumpy riding on the way back. But at least it was bikeable, so we were thankful for that.  

It seemed to warm up quicker than the day before and we stripped down to just our long john shirts for most of the climbing. By the time we got to the final descent it was over 40F. And this was at 9:30 in the morning! The trail got a lot softer the final 2 miles, making for some tricky riding, but we made it back to the car without any major crashes. We were both glad (me more than Eric) that we hadn’t slept in any longer. Yes, I would be tired for work tomorrow, but it was more than worth it.

This will definitely be our last cabin trip but will also probably be our last fatbike ride of the season. As I write this, it’s over 50F and the snow is going quickly. I’m ready to be on my summer bike, though it’s always a little sad when the season is over. But at least we broke the Curse of Richard’s Cabin!

The curse is broken!!

Strava from trip into Richard's Cabin

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Spring Fatbiking at Its Best!


Post by Corrine

Eric and I had Denali-sized grins on our faces for pretty much the entire weekend. And why not? Great trails, sunshine, minimal wind, big mountains. What more could a person ask for?

For this mid-April weekend, we had planned a trip to Richard’s Cabin – the only cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area we hadn’t been to, but the weather forecast changed our minds. 

North of Fairbanks, the forecast called for 15-20 mph winds with gusts to 30 mph. On a whim, I checked the weather around Denali and Cantwell. Sunny, only 10 mph winds, and no gusts. I texted Eric from work, and we quickly decided to head south. It is rare that it is less windy down there than in the Interior, so we decided to take advantage of this anomaly. 

We decided to head down Friday morning. (I officially have Fridays off and sometimes it actually works out.) Our plan was to bike the Jack River Trail on Friday and the Stampede Trail on Saturday. Eric made reservations at the Aurora Denali Lodge in Healy, a good basic hotel that is relatively cheap in winter. So, we packed for staying at a hotel instead of a cabin. We are getting soft!

Jack River Trail

Starting a few miles in on the Denali Highway, the Jack River Trail heads south straight into a gorgeous Alaska Range pass. Several of our friends had biked it the last couple of weeks and posted amazing photos. We had heard of it before and had wanted to do it sometime. That time was now.

We got up early Friday morning and drove the three hours to the trailhead. (DOT stops plowing the Denali Highway there in winter, so it’s easy to find.) We were on the trail by 11 AM. The sun was shining, and it was warm but not so warm that the snow was melting. And there was almost no wind! 

The views were amazing from the highway, and they just got better. Mountains in all directions. Blue skies all day. 

The first couple of miles are a bit tricky due to some short, steep hike-a-bike climbs, and one big one over a ridge that detours around a canyon cut by the Jack River. Eric and I had once backpacked to that ridge in summer, a great place for a tent. 

Trying to push my bike up one of the short steep pitches

Still tricky but easier descending

Once over the ridge and onto the floor of the Jack River valley, the going was much easier. For the most part, the trail gradually follows the river up the valley. We wound back and forth across the mostly frozen river, which had some open leads. We were surrounded by mountains and blue skies. There was almost no wind. It was an incredible day! I know I keep saying that, but it’s true. We couldn’t have timed it better!

A little farther on, to avoid a tricky spot on the river, the trail diverts up a short, steep pitch that winds through some vegetation. I was pushing my bike when I looked over to see a moose standing in the brush. I think it was giving me the stink eye. I talked nicely to the moose and moved a little up the trail so that I wasn’t in its direct line of sight. Eric came around the corner and we quickly moved past it without any problem. On our way back, the moose was in the same spot but bedded down, so less intimidating. It just watched us as we bombed on by. 

Earlier we had seen a couple of other moose high up on the hillside. The only other wildlife we saw was a covey of about 50 ptarmigan that we flushed up several times while heading back down the Jack. And we saw NO people at all, even though there had been several cars and trucks at the trailhead (which is also the trailhead for the popular Denali Highway). It was only Friday, but I was surprised nobody else was out there. We had this beautiful valley all to ourselves.

We hadn’t really talked about how far we would go before turning back, but Eric knew the river led to a wide valley that we might be able to reach. The Jack River valley narrowed and by about 13 miles in we were biking through a narrow, winding canyon with rock outcroppings. We both thought the wide valley would be right around the next corner. Eric was just on the verge of giving up when, at 15 miles in, the canyon ended, and the trail climbed a little hill. We were there! We had broken out into Caribou Pass. Snowmachine trails continued on in the valley both north and south. 

Winding through the narrower canyon

Caribou Pass

I wanted to take the trail to the north. It would take us out to Broad Pass. Could we do a loop? We talked about it briefly, but we didn’t have any knowledge about that trail, and it would have meant a longer day than we had planned. A lot longer if we had had to bike all the way out to the Parks Highway and then back on that and the Denali Highway. Instead, we did the smart thing and turned around after a quick snack. 

The first part of the ride down the Jack River was much quicker. On the way up we had been climbing (though the grade was very gentle) with a mild headwind. On the way back we were going downhill with a tailwind. Whee!

Eventually, we reached the ridge at the mouth of the valley and had to hump our bikes over it. Then it was just a short ride back to the car. At the trailhead, we saw two BLM rangers, the only people we saw on our ride.

We had dinner at the Totem Inn and headed to our hotel, ready for a good rest. We wanted to start early on Saturday so we could be off the trail before it might soften up in the late afternoon. 

Stampede Trail

Made famous by the book and movie “Into the Wild,” the Stampede Trail used to be the home of the “Magic Bus,” where Christopher McCandless died. But the trail has been a playground and natural resource for locals for much longer. 

Eric had been on the trail twice years before, once on bike in summer and once on skis. Neither of us had biked it in on snow. We had the vague idea of trying to get to the bus site, though the bus had been moved by the state in 2020 because it attracted unprepared people from around the world. Several had to be rescued and a few died while trying to cross the Teklanika River. (The bus is now being restored at the UA Museum, where it will go on display sometime in the future. Learn more about that project here

During our bike ride I thought a bit about McCandless. I think he had mental health issues, but I also think he was woefully unprepared for his undertaking. With just a bit of research and knowledge, he might have easily had his adventure without dying. (He was trapped on the far side of the Teklanika by high water, apparently unaware of how to wait for lower water or how to find easier places to cross. He either starved or accidently poisoned himself.) 

McCandless would most likely have died in relative obscurity except for Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book, which became a Sean Penn-directed movie. From those, he became an idealistic hero. I’m not quite sure why he has become such an icon for so many people. But we weren’t on some romantic pilgrimage, we just thought the site would be a good destination, even if the bus was no longer there.

Once again, we had blue skies, minimal winds, great trails, and gorgeous views. And once again the only wildlife we saw were a couple of moose and some ptarmigan. However, the trails were a bit more “crowded” this time. We saw a few snowmachiners and one other group—three skijorers and a biker—but most of the day we were alone on the trail. 

While there is one Stampede Trail, in winter there are several routes you can take that diverge from it. Some are short cuts while others take more scenic routes. We generally followed the snowmachine trails to the south on our way out. We went from wide open windblown areas to fun narrow, winding descents in the woods. There were several lesser-used side trails, but at some intersections we weren’t quite sure which was the “main” trail. In the end, it didn’t really matter. Most ended up coming back together.

2 diverging trails come back together again

Here I tried to walk from one trail to another that was better.  I ended up sinking in to my crotch and had to crawl to extricate myself.  Eric was laughing so hard, I'm surprised he got a photo!

One nice surprise was that we could see Denali from parts of the trail. I had no idea it was visible from the trail, and Eric had forgotten about that. 

We crossed the still-frozen Savage River where we chatted with a local gathering firewood on his snowmachine. After the river we took the southern trail at the next fork, and we’re glad we did! That trail winds along a high bank of the Teklanika with lots of nice views of the river. Much of it was open and at one lookout we saw a cow and calf wading in the water. We also saw an eagle soaring high up. 

Cow and calf moose climb out of the river on the far bank

Lookout spot above the Teklanika River

Eventually the trail merged back with others and dropped down to the Tek. But that’s where the trail ended for us. We could see the trail continuing beyond the other side of the river, but there was open water in front of us. As far as we could see either way, the river was open. Ah well. We were still a few miles short of the bus site. We both had our Wiggy waders and could have crossed the shallow Tek, but we didn’t care that much. The drop from the top of the ice to the river was several feet and would have required some wrestling to lower our bikes down and back up again. We just decided it would be a good reason to come back again, maybe in mid-March next year. We headed back. 

End of the road for us

This time we took the more northerly trails. Overall, that was the shorter route, but we had a slight headwind, and it was mostly uphill. Still, we had big smiles on our faces. Our Denali biking trip had been amazing. Spring fat biking at its best. Firm trails, sunny skies, and warm temperatures. And we got to explore some new-to-us places, too. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend in April.