Sunday, January 29, 2023

Fighting Senior-itis with the Fairbanks Winter Trails Challenge

Post by Corrine

Just five trail signs?! That’s it?!

That’s what it said in the rules of the Fairbanks Winter Trails Challenge. Isn’t that like age discrimination or something? OK, maybe that’s a bit unfair. After all, nobody is stopping us from getting all 20 trail signs. Well, except us. 

As we have done several times in the past few years, we did the Fairbanks Trails Challenge. The summer and winter Trail Challenges are the brainstorm of Fairbanks Borough Parks and Rec Department. Department employees post signs on trails throughout the borough. The challenge is to find as many of the signs as you can before the challenge is over. The general challenge is to find at least 10 signs to win the “coveted Trailblazer Award,” but “Participants under the age of ten can find at least five signs to win the Junior Trailblazer Award, and seniors aged 60+ can find 5 to win the Sourdough Trailblazer Award!” 

Showing off the antler arch at the Chena River Walk

I’m 63 and Eric is 62. Were we ready to settle for the minimum five signs? Or even just 10 signs?

In the past we’ve tried to do ALL the signs…in one day. And we succeeded. But after they increased the number of signs in summer from 12 to 20, we had to adapt. In 2021 we did the summer trails challenge in 36 hours. 

But to do a 20-sign Winter Trails Challenge in one day? In the cold and dark? On trails that can be soft and slow? Maybe we were too old for this. We started asking ourselves “What’s the point?”

Eric skis up the partially groomed 5km Ski Loop at Two Rivers

A Reason to Strive

The trail challenges are a way to get people out exercising and exploring trails. We love those goals! We know all about the benefits. Having access to all these wonderful trails is one of the things we love most about Fairbanks. But we exercise regularly on trails anyway. And we’ve been on most of the trails featured in the challenges at least once. So, is there any real challenge for us?

Yes! For us the challenge is mental and physical. And to show that seniors can still be tough! Or, at least, tough-ish.

Corrine skis across an open area on the Chena Hot Springs Winter Trail

Mental Challenge

The first part of the challenge is mental. I looked at the Trails Challenge Guide and decided we would have to adapt again. This time we tossed out the two trail signs that would require the most time: the Compeau and McKay Creek trails. Both would require 11 to 18 trail miles roundtrip with a lot of uphill effort.  And the McKay Creek Trail sign would require a couple of hours of extra driving. And we plan to do these trails with other adventures later this winter. Were we being wimps? Probably, but at least we would be practical wimps. Maybe we aren’t as tough as we used to be, but we are wiser.

Eric skis along the Chena River on the River Park 4 km Nature Trail at Chena Lake

Next was choosing when. I had to look at all our other plans, which limited the number of available days. And, since we are only tough-ish, we wanted a day that would have good trails and good weather. None of this frigid temps, slow trails stuff for us! Too late in the season and you might run into overflow or icy ski trails. Picky, picky, picky. Not long after beginning to ponder, I saw that Saturday, January 28, would work. That week we decided to go for it.

Corrine starts up the 5km Loop Trail at Two Rivers

Figuring Logistics

Now, what mode or modes of transport would we use? Some of the trails in the challenge are ski-only, others are multi-use. So, ski and bike? But is dealing with the hassle of changing boots and carrying fatbikes worth it? We knew the trails might be soft from recent snowfalls. We decided to go for ski only. (And a little bit of walking.) 

Eric finishes up the Eagle Trail at Tanana Lakes

But the mental challenge continues! Doing all (OK, almost all) the trails in a day requires lots of planning. Hours and hours. (Well, at least an hour!) Using Google Maps, I figured out the most efficient driving route. But then I had to take in other factors: the Big Dipper Arena and the gates at Tanana Lakes and Birch Hill recreation areas are open only during certain hours. Eric reminded me that a big ski-cross race on Saturday at Birch Hill Recreation Area was sure to draw lots of people. We wanted to avoid that. I finally figured out an efficient route that would work with all the limitations. 

We got to Birch Hill as they were setting up for the ski-cross races that would happen a little later

But our senior brains were not done yet. Now we had to data mine. We had seen a few trail signs on other outings, but we hadn’t seen them all. Eric started to get more involved. We both scoured the Internet, especially Facebook and Strava posts, for clues on sign placements. We also read the Trails Challenge Guide descriptions for clues. We looked for shortcuts and the quickest trail routes to signs based on these clues. (For one of the signs in the Chena Lake Recreation Area, Eric figured out a possible shortcut based on the guide, a Facebook pic, and a summer bike ride we had taken in the area.) We wanted to save as much time on the trails as we could. Sure, we wanted to enjoy them, too, but we were on a mission! We were defending the honor of all tough-ish seniors! By the time we hit the road, we were pretty sure where most of the signs were. 

Corrine hams it up on the Skate Loop at Tanana Lakes -I wished we had nordic skates

Physical Challenge

Now for the big day. We decided to get on the road by 6 AM. We were pleasantly surprised to see the temperature around 12-15 degrees above zero. I packed a lot of warm clothes, but I’m happy to say, I didn’t need any of them. Throughout the day, it just kept getting warmer and warmer. Eric had to rewax with warmer kick wax as his skis were a little too slippy. Halfway through the day we had some very fine mist that froze to our clothes and car. Luckily, the roads and trails didn’t get too slippery, and we were able to finish without any major mishaps.

Skiing by headlamp on the Upper Eldorado Creek Trail

We started with headlamps on the Eldorado Creek Trail, one of our neighborhood trails. Then it was off to the Skarland Trail sign (which was quick due to a shortcut we had figured out), then off to Pearl Creek trails and then Secret Trail (which we were able to do mostly on skis due to intel we had gathered). Next was Birch Hill, where they were still setting up for the race, and then Creamer’s Field (where we spent a bit too much time because we tried to outthink the challenge organizers), then Smith Lake and Tanana Lakes. Our two walking signs, Big Dipper and Chena River Walk took only a short time, then we had the long drive out to Chena River State Recreation Area (with a stop for snacks along the way). Then Two Rivers Ski Trails on the way back and out to Chena Lake Recreation Area. 

Corrine skis by the barn at Creamer's Field on the East Farm Field Loop

Here, Eric was quite pleased that his shortcut-on-paper worked out. First we nabbed the 4 km River Park sign.  Then we continued on and using a dam right off the 5.5-Km Ski Trail in the River Park, we crossed over to the Mike Agbaba 12-Mile Loop, having to do only a little post-holing. (We saw no “No Trespassing” signs on the dam, so we figured it was OK.) The sign was where Eric had guessed it would be,  based on a Facebook photo! That saved us a couple of hours of skiing. Yay! Of course, on the way back Eric figured it would be just as fast to finish the 5.5-km trail rather than head back on the 4-km trail. It wasn’t, but it was a pretty quick ski and fun to complete a loop. 

We climbed up on the dam

Post holed across it

Then had to squeeze through the gates on the other side while balancing on a thin barrier

On the way back, we crossed the lower part of the dam, ducking under these girders - much less scary

Senior Moments

By this time, we were getting tired and it showed. We drove right by Salcha Elementary School in the dark and didn’t realize it until we had gone 15 miles too far! At the school, we didn’t carefully look over the guide description before taking off. We got out on the trail and couldn’t remember if the sign was on the 5km or 7.5km trail. Not a big deal if you’re fresh, but we were really tired by then. Fortunately, I remembered it was the Grizzly Loop, and a sign pointed us in the right direction. My senior brain still had some life left! When we got back to the parking lot, Eric realized he had forgotten to start his Garmin watch when we started skiing. Argh! Eric’s senior brain was mush! 

Corrine zooms down the Grizzly Loop at Salcha

We finished the day at the Beaver Springs Slough Nature Trail in North Pole. Had we been less tired (or less senior) we might have first checked the short loop the trail takes through 5th Avenue Park rather than skiing the whole rest of the trail and back before finding the sign about 50 yards from where we started! Ah, well. Even in our tired state, we enjoyed skiing the trail. 

Senior Celebration

We finished the day in fine senior fashion by stopping for a quick meal at McDonalds in North Pole. (After a day of convenience store snacks, we were ready for “real-ish food”!) What a great day on the trails! Over the 16 hours we put in about 30 miles on the trails, almost all of it skiing, and about 250 miles of driving. We were tired but happy. We were glad we had left the bikes at home. The trails were soft from recent snows, but they had all been groomed or snowmachined fairly recently, making for many great ski outings!

Selfies at each sign are no longer required for the trails challenge, but we took them anyway, including one at each sign with silly faces because it’s all about fun, right? At the last one though, we took a selfie while we shared a kiss. Because what could be more romantic than a tough-ish senior couple doing something ridiculous but fun?

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Getting Newcomers Hooked on the Whites – A Fun Wolf Run Trip

Post by Corrine

Eric and I love doing cabin trips in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. But after several years, the trips no longer include the same excitement of discovery. On a recent trip to Wolf Run Cabin, we got to experience that vicariously, and it reminded us how lucky we are to have the wonderful BLM recreation area practically at our back door.

We usually do cabin trips by ourselves, but this time we decided to invite company. At first, we invited two friends, Nikki and Eyal, who are also fatbikers (or skiers if conditions are soft). Like us, they love doing cabin trips in the Whites and were excited. But then they both bailed. Nikki because she had to take her husband to the airport Sunday morning (the cabin reservation was for Saturday night) and Eyal because he had a better offer of two nights at Cache Mountain Cabin. 

Oh well. On a whim, I decided to see if my work partner, Nate, and his wife Christi wanted to join us. I’d been pestering Nate to come on an adventure with us for a couple of years, but he usually had some lame excuse. This time, though, he said yes! Neither Nate nor Christi have fatbikes but they snowmachine, and Nate had just gotten a chariot to tow Dizzy, their (obviously spoiled!) one-year-old Bernedoodle (a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and Poodle). Nate and Christi had snowmachined in the Whites, but they had never spent a night at one of the BLM cabins. It would be fun to introduce them to cabin life in the Whites!

It was good we invited them, otherwise Eric and I might not have gone to the cabin. Some may think that Eric and I are tough, but we really aren’t. If temperatures are forecast to be -20F or lower, we will cancel our plans. Super windy, forget it. You will find us staying at home by our woodstove. We had already cancelled our December trips due to inclement weather. (The Wolf Run reservation was a rebooking from one of those trips.) Before we asked anyone along, I checked the forecast, and the prediction was for temperatures of -10F to +5F with winds less than 10 mph. It was a little on the cold side but not below our cut off. But we knew the conditions might be worse out in the Whites.

It was a little chilly on our bike ride in to the cabin

Eric and I left early Saturday morning. The temperature at our house was a balmy +10F, but on the way to the trailhead we watched the car thermometer fall in the valleys and rise on the summits. At the trailhead, which is in a low spot, it was a chilly -18F. Fortunately, it wasn’t windy. And the trail slowly climbs, so we knew we would warm up once we started biking. 

The trail was in good shape, and we made good time until we got to the open area before the climb to the ridge. The trail was windblown with drifted snow from some earlier winds, a portent of things to come. We rode over some drifts, but others were too soft. We were constantly on and off our bikes and our pace slowed.

In this area, Nate and Christi caught up. (They had left town a couple of hours after us.) It was great to see them, but their snowmachines made the trail softer and slower to ride. (Overall, snowmachine traffic packs the trail nicely for fatbiking, but it takes time for churned up snow to set up again.) 

Notice the chariot behind Nate where Dizzy the dog gets to ride in comfort!

Shortly after they passed us, we hit the big stairstep climb to the ridge. Several of the hills require you to get off and push. We warmed up a lot with the pushing and the temps rising as we climbed. But we also noticed the slight breeze, which had started earlier, becoming stronger. 

By the time we had crested the high point, it was blowing a good crosswind. We descended the other side and turned straight into that 10-15mph headwind where the trail turns to the northeast. (The Colorado Creek Cabin, less than a mile away down the Big Bend Trail, seemed really inviting right then!) 

Brrr! That much wind was definitely not in the forecast! My face felt flash frozen. I quickly pulled up my neck warmer and pulled down my hat to cover most of my exposed skin. Unfortunately, Eric, who had unzipped his outer layers on the climb, forgot to zip back up quickly. His jacket zipper froze open! Fortunately, his outer vest zipper still worked, so he could cover up enough. (Later, in the shelter of some trees, he was able to fix his jacket zipper.)

Rerouting around the collapsed bridge

Along this stretch of trail to Wolf Run, the views open up, but we didn’t stop to take many photos. We wanted to get to the cabin as quickly as we could. Give me cold over wind any day. The trail was solid, and we should have been fast since we were trending downhill, but that headwind slowed us down. Luckily the wind lessened as we dropped down to Beaver Creek, and by the time we got to the creek, just before the cabin, the wind was much better. But the temp was about -12F and we were chilled.

This is when we really realized the advantage of inviting cabin partners who get there ahead of you. It was heavenly to open the door to an already warm cabin! Nate and Christi had hot water and warm stroopwafels ready for a snack! A little while later Nate and Eric headed out on a snowmachine and gathered more firewood using a chainsaw. This was the first time we had traveled with snowmachiners, and we could see the benefits.

Ahh!  Warm cabin.

The mid-January darkness came early, but with the dark came auroras. And, boy, did they come out! Even as early as 6 PM there were wisps of green in the sky. Christi was so excited. They have too much light pollution at their house to have good aurora views. She kept telling us to come outside and look at them. Eric and I have gotten a bit blasĂ© about auroras unless they are really dancing, but at around 10 PM she convinced us to come look. They were spectacular! Swirling and dancing in the sky. We hadn’t seen them that good in quite a while. Even though it was cold we stayed outside enjoying the light show. 

Aurora viewing out the window -Photo courtesy of Christi Buffington

Since it was their first time in a cabin (and they had their friendly-but-spoiled dog), we gave Nate and Christi the bottom bunks while Eric and I decided to sleep in the loft. The upper bunks in the BLM cabins can be narrow and usually have no railing. I feel like I’m going to fall out of bed if I turn over. I probably wouldn’t, but it feels that way. Unfortunately, the loft had its own problems. 

I told Nate and Christi that it was the job of those on the bottom bunks to keep the fire stoked. Guess we shouldn’t have left that to first-timers. They were a little overzealous and the cabin was pretty warm by the time we went to bed. In the loft, it was downright hot! The loft had a window, but it was frozen shut. Eric and I felt like we were in a sauna. We slept outside of our sleeping bags in just our underwear for most of the night.

In the middle of the night, I heard Nate open the woodstove.

“Nooo!” I hissed down at him.

“Huh?”, he answered.

“Don’t stoke the fire. Let it go out. We’ve been dying up here. It’s finally starting to cool off.”

No!!!!  Don't stoke the fire!!

He seemed a little reluctant but went back to bed without stoking the fire. I didn’t get into my sleeping bag until about 3 AM and didn’t zip up until it just before it was time to get up in the morning. When Nate got up, he stoked the woodstove and we could feel the loft heating up, so we got up quickly. 

Outside, the skies had clouded up and the temperature had risen to about zero, but the wind had also picked up – probably 15-20 mph with gusts. Fortunately, it would be a tailwind. 

After breakfast, Eric and I packed up and hit the trail while Nate and Christi went for a snowshoe. With that strong tailwind, Eric and I felt like we had e-bikes. Wheeeee!!! I’m pretty sure we rode faster going uphill on that trail than we did riding it downhill the day before. 

Christi, Nate and Dizzy snowshoe to the top of the hill behind the cabin- Photo courtesy of Christi

When the trail turned northwest, our tailwind became a crosswind and drifts covered the trail. We were on and off our bikes for a bit, but after we got through the exposed areas, it was pretty much downhill on good trails all the way back to our car. And we lost the wind when we descended to the valley. 

Even with the cold and the wind, it was another great weekend in the Whites. The auroras were a big plus. And it was fun to introduce our friends to the joy of BLM cabins. Nate and Christi are hooked. Maybe next time we can invite them and get them to carry all our camping gear, too! 

Bike in to Wolf Run Cabin

Monday, January 2, 2023

Staying Busy and Having Fun in 2022

Sometimes life seems busy, but when you have some quiet time to reflect…you realize it has been even busier than you thought! We didn’t realize how much we had done in 2022 until we started to add everything up. 

Outdoor Adventures and More

As is often the case, we had a lot of big and small outdoor adventures. We had three week-long or longer vacations and about 15 smaller all-day or overnight adventures and we camped out a total of 26 nights. And between the two of us, we competed in about 20 local races(skiing, snowshoeing, running and biking). We definitely kept with our MO of being physically active outdoors. 

But there is more to our lives than just being outdoors. Corrine continues to work 40-50 hours/week as a family physician. She plans to retire in just a little over two years. Her patients are already beginning to worry who will take care of them when she leaves. She reminds them that she has great partners, so they will all be in good hands. She also continues to make quilts although she sewed a few less this year than usual. 

Quilts that Corrine made in 2022 - not to scale

Eric, meanwhile, has ratcheted up his volunteering. He stays busy advocating for trails and getting people outdoors. He continues to do social media and other work for both the ski and cycle clubs. He has taken over as treasurer for the cycle club. He fits in other volunteering as well, including helping with a big drainage planning project for the neighborhood and doing a bit of work for climate change. He continues to edit a book for his friend, Ned, while still finding time to work on his own writing. (He also got a second woodshed built for us.)

Here's our past year in more detail (with links to our blog posts about these adventures). 


Once again, we headed to Hawaii at the end of the month, this time to the Big Island, for a medical conference for Corrine. When not at the conference we hiked and biked and explored the island and, of course, watched many sunsets. Corrine did another sea-to-summit challenge by biking from the ocean up to the top of Mauna Loa. Having a mid-winter break with sunshine really helps us make it through the long winters.


Riley and Sam got engaged in Hawaii in June - they plan to get married July 2023

We had planned to ski the American Birkebeiner (the largest ski marathon in the USA) with Riley but he had to come to Alaska, to the village of Venetie, to work on an aurora research project. While he was there, his fiancĂ© Sam (yes, they got engaged this past summer) had a seizure back in Iowa and was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor. Fortunately, Corrine already had time off for the Birkebeiner, so she flew down to help while Riley worked on getting home. Sam has since had surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, received six weeks of radiation, and is now getting monthly chemotherapy, all while helping organize a large physics student national conference, continuing to work on her master’s in science teaching and planning a wedding. This woman is amazing! 

Riley, meanwhile, is finishing up his PhD in space physics and will graduate this next May. He just accepted a job at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they will move after the wedding.


We love March in Alaska. We did a multi-day bike trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area (just north of Fairbanks) once again for our birthdays, we both did the 26-mile Chena River to Ridge race on skis, and Eric skied the Sonot Kkaazoot ski marathon (taking his own path) while Corrine did an overnight bike to Borealis Cabin in the Whites. It was a great month for getting outside and enjoying spring conditions in the snow.


This was another great month for spring snow conditions. We had an amazing weekend biking on a trail off the Denali Highway and on the Stampede Trail. And we finally made it to Richard’s Cabin, the last cabin in the Whites that we hadn’t been to. Eric also flew down to Arizona to see his mom who turned 90 this year. 


May is a transition month from winter to summer. Corrine’s biking friend, Linda Gryczan, came up for a visit while her spouse did an Alaska cruise. Corrine was able to show Linda some of our favorite biking spots including the Ferry Road and Denali National Park. Corrine then did the Denali Bottom bike race (a 120-mile bike race on the Denali Highway) on a glorious day over Memorial Day weekend.


Corrine did another overnight bikepack to Ophir Creek in the White Mountains as part of her training for her July attempt of an Individual Time Trial on the Cross Washington (XWA) route. (A grand depart for the route – bikepacking speak for “race” – happened in May. Corrine had hoped to join that, but heavy late spring snows and then rain convinced her to try later in the summer.) We also did a quick overnight bike to Mastodon Cabin in the Chena River State Rec Area.


Corrine spent a week doing the XWA, racing 700 miles across Washington while Eric visited with his friends, Eric and Lorraine in Port Angeles, and then explored spots across Washington, while occasionally meeting up with Corrine. As usual, the bikepacking “race” was harder than Corrine expected. She persevered, after having to make a big 27-hour push at the end, so that we could make it back to Seattle in time to catch our flight home. Later in the month we did an all-day hike on Sugarloaf Mountain near Denali National Park. Corrine also did another overnight, biking to the Upper Angel Creek Cabin. Eric meanwhile did a couple of trail running races.


In August, Montana came up for a quick visit. It was great to see her. Montana continues to live and work in Missoula. She has been busy with her music and has finished several new songs this year. Check out her YouTube channel. She has been working on a new music video (we got a sneak preview over the holidays) and we can’t wait to see the final product. She and Eric meet by phone weekly to work on Spanish lessons and help her figure out how to promote her music.


We had a great Labor Day weekend on the Taylor Highway. Eric drove support and did some hiking while Corrine biked with our friend Nikki. The weather wasn’t great, but the fall foliage was outstanding. And neither of us had ever been to Eagle before, so it was fun to explore a new place.


We had the trip of a lifetime floating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with a fun group of 24 people and seven amazing guides. We got to run rapids, hike up narrow canyons, swim through waterfalls, camp under the stars almost every night, and even see a flash flood. We really enjoyed our 16 wonderful days of being off the grid.


Corrine did an early season solo bike trip to Moose Creek Cabin while Eric stayed home, nursing an injury. Thanksgiving weekend we headed down to Hatcher Pass to explore. We got to ski on new trails and explore more of the Mat-Su Valley.


Winter weather foiled most of our plans for December. Due to frigid temps, we cancelled the cabin trip we had booked for our 30th wedding anniversary and instead celebrated by skiing 30 miles in a week and re-creating a photo from the year we got married. And then, due to the big winter storm in the Lower 48, our friends, Jill and Beat, had their flights cancelled and couldn’t make it to Fairbanks for our annual holiday cabin trips. The horrendous weather got even worse with strong winds on top of the cold temps, so we bailed on a couple of planned cabin trips and instead had a quiet Christmas by ourselves.

Bad December weather didn't ruin one outing. We participated in a public reading for the book Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska, in which we both have an essay. About 80 people showed up for the reading! 

Reflections and Looking Ahead

The quiet Christmas did give us time to look back on the last year and look toward the upcoming year. We have several big adventures planned, including doing a ski marathon (Birkebeiner) with Riley and 10,000 other skiers in February, biking across Iowa (RAGBRAI) with Riley and Sam on their honeymoon in July along with 20,000 other people, and doing a hut-to-hut bike trip from Durango to Moab in the San Juan mountains in September. What adventures do you have planned for 2023?

We are excited about 2023 and what it will bring!