Sunday, April 23, 2023

A Tale of Two Trails: Same Trail, Different Days

Post by Corrine

When I woke in the middle of the night at Moose Creek Cabin, nature was calling. Quietly but insistently.

It was 2 AM and I had a full bladder. Bummer. I was so warm and cozy tucked into my sleeping bag. But I couldn’t just roll over and go back to sleep. Reluctantly, I got up and stumbled out the door. That’s when Nature really let me know she was there.

Outside the cabin I was met by a howling wind and snow blowing sideways. The path to the outhouse, perfectly fine the previous evening, was difficult to follow due to drifting snow. My footprints showed there was over an inch of snow already. I quickly did my business and hurried back to the cozy cabin and my warm sleeping bag. 

The forecast for the White Mountains National Recreation Area had called for wind and some snow, but if it was like this at 2 AM what would it be like in the morning when it was time to bike back to the Wickersham Dome Trailhead? I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the wind get even stronger and worried. Would we have to push our bikes the entire 16 miles? Would we be able find the trail in the open areas? There wasn’t any use in worrying since I couldn’t change the weather, but I still had a hard time getting back to sleep. I finally heard Eric stirring at about 5:30 AM so we both decided to get up and get going for the probable long slog. What a difference a few hours can make. 

Adapting to Conditions

A month ago, I had reserved Moose Creek Cabin hoping that my friend Nikki and I could finally, after three years of trying, complete our quest: bike from our house to the White Mountains. It would be all trails all the way, only a couple of road crossings, more than 30 miles. I love living in Fairbanks!

Unfortunately, trail conditions weren’t good. We had had a couple of snowstorms and it seemed there was minimal snowmachine traffic on those trails. No good for a nice fatbike ride. My trip with Nikki was a no-go. Neither of us wanted long sections of bike-pushing. 

But I still had the Moose Creek Cabin reserved. Nikki wasn’t interested in biking from Wickersham Dome Trailhead, as she has done that many times. I wasn’t all that hot on the idea either. But Eric needed a break. He had overcommitted himself the past few weeks with volunteer obligations. He said he was going, with or without me. I started chewing on the idea.


Moose Creek Cabin

 I checked the BLM site and read that the trail crew had groomed most of the trails the past week. And we had had had a few of warm sunny days and cool nights so the trails should be hard and fast. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was a little iffy. Friday looked good with cloudy skies and highs around 40, but the forecast said a cold front was moving in Friday night with 20 mph winds and a couple of inches of new snow. In fact, there was a weather advisory for blowing snow and low visibility. That didn’t sound good.

Then again, the wind was supposed to come from the northeast, so it would mostly be a tailwind and maybe things wouldn’t get bad until later Saturday? With those optimistic thoughts, I decided to join Eric.

So much snow and drifting in the Whites this year.  I've never seen this sign so buried! Moose Creek connector definitely a no-go

Day 1: As Good as It Gets

We got a bit of a late start due to a dentist appointment that I scheduled long ago (forgetting about the big bike-from-home plan with Nikki). While driving to the trailhead, Eric and I checked the trail Nikki and I would have taken to the Whites. It crosses the Elliott Highway north of Haystack Mountain. The trail was covered with several inches of unbroken snow. Nikki and I had made the right call to bail on our trip. 

Eric and I were at the trailhead and ready to go by 11:30. As we had hoped, the trail was hard-packed. And there was almost no wind. But the temperature was so warm that we spent all day wearing just vests and no coats. We even had to fold back our poagies to cool off our hands, which were sans gloves. Finally, a perfect spring biking day! We made it to the cabin in just two-and-a-half hours of nice riding.

I dropped off my gear then headed back up the trail. I’m training for the Unbound XL, which is only six weeks away, so I wanted to get in more miles. I ended up only going another three miles down the trail before turning back because the trail started getting soft in the late afternoon. I did check out the connector trail to Haystack, which Nikki and I would have used. Like the Chatanika Valley trail, it was not bikeable. 

Nope, not bikeable

Eric, meanwhile, gathered firewood. Or, as he likes to say, he “appeased the cabin gods.” He sacrificed six dead trees, cut them up (using his special “sacrificial saw,” i.e., a folding saw much superior to the cabin bow saws) and fed several rounds into the “sacred oven” (aka woodstove.) I rolled my eyes, but Eric swears it works. As proof, he pointed out that the gods warmed the cabin for us. Hard to argue with that. Really hard.

Appeasing the cabin gods with firewood

We spent the rest of the evening reading and doing puzzles and just relaxing. I love that about cabin trips. Time to just do nothing. At 9 PM, as we got ready for bed, it was still calm and warm outside; but by 2 AM, when I had to go to the outhouse, the weather had really changed. What a difference in just a few hours! It was just as predicted, but I had really hoped that the meteorologists were going to be wrong this time!

Day 2: Battling the Drifts

By morning, the temperature had fallen to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind had picked up to about 20 mph with a lot stronger gusts. We decided to get going early as we weren’t sure how much bike-pushing we would have to do.

And, wow, the trail had really changed overnight. The day before, it had been smooth and easy. Not so much this morning. Only an inch or so of snow had fallen, but the drifting was knee-deep in places. 

Eric was able to ride through half of this drift.

Not this drift

Amazingly, we were able to ride way more than we expected. The snow was light, fluffy, and mostly unconsolidated. We plowed through many of the drifts by pedaling hard and keeping our momentum up. The really big drifts, not so much, but we were able to do a lot more riding than pushing. Most of the steeper climbs and descents were in the trees, so we just had to deal with the inch or so of new snow in those areas. The trail under the snow was still hard-packed, so we were able to ride most everything. 

The wind continued to blow hard. At times Eric was just a couple of minutes ahead of me, but his tracks would already be filled in by the time I got to the same spot. Fortunately, the wind was mostly coming from behind us, so it helped push us along. And the sun was shining and felt warm. If we didn’t face into the wind or stop in a windy spot for too long, we were warm. 

The day was beautiful with the new snow and the blue skies. But all the work pedaling or pushing through the drifts wore on our legs. 

But this trip was a good reminder that just a day can make a huge difference in trail conditions.   

Trail on day 1

Same area of trail on day 2

We were happy to descend the final mile downhill to the trailhead, arriving less than 24 hours after we had left the parking lot. It was another great overnight trip in the Whites, probably the last for this year.

Although you never know. There is still a ton of snow in the mountains and the temperatures aren’t warming up very quickly. We might just be back out there again!



Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Quintessential White Mountain Experience


Post by Corrine

Quintessential: adjective, representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class.

As we were planning our recent biking trip into the White Mountains National Recreation Area, we pondered an important question: Could we deliver the quintessential adventure for our friend, Betsy, who was coming up for her first White Mountains cabin trip?

Betsy, who lives in Colorado, had been wanting to do a White Mountains trip ever since 2020. She had won a spot in the White Mountains 100 race that year, but then the race got cancelled due to COVID.

Betsy biking

We tried for a trip the next year, but heavy snowfall nixed that plan. This year, Betsy thought she might be able to join Eric and me for what has become an annual trip. For this trip, I decided that we should bike the WM 100 course backwards the weekend of the race so we could cheer on and photograph the racers, many of whom Eric and I know. We told Race Director Stacy Fisk that we would be unofficial race photographers out on the course. I told Betsy the plan. She has two young children at home, so it took some coordinating to leave home for a week, but she was able to make it happen!

The Art of Trip Planning

Now I just had to reserve the cabins, not an easy thing to do for March, the most popular month for White Mountains trips. Reservations can be made 30 days in advance. For four days straight, I got up early, set up the right computer window, and was poised to hit the reserve button as the clock turned over at 6 AM when the cabins became available to rent. Even being ready and quick with my finger, I didn’t get exactly the cabins I wanted, but I managed to make it work. I got cabins—some of my favorites—that would make a loop and allow us to see area’s most spectacular scenery. Whew! 

Quintessential White Mountains Experience: Step One of preparations done!

In the end I had mapped out a clockwise loop around the Whites: 

Day 1: Bike 29 miles from Wickersham Creek Trailhead to Caribou Bluff Cabin. 

Day 2: An easy, flat 10-mile day to Wolf Run Cabin. 

Day 3 (the longest): Climb up over Fossil Gap, then up and over Cache Mountain Divide, drop down to Beaver Creek, then climb up to Crowberry Cabin. That’s 42 miles with 4500 feet elevation gain. But we would get plenty of breaks while we cheered racers and took photos. 

Day 4: A hilly 26 miles from Crowberry to Wickersham Creek Trailhead. 

Caribou Bluff Cabin

Wolf Run Cabin

The week before our trip, the weather forecast looked quite good. Cloudy but minimal snow and good temperatures, between 0 and 32F. We had talked our friend, Jill, into extending her trip. She had come up earlier for a solo four-day sled-dragging trip in the Whites and then joined us on our Tolovana overnighter. She works remotely—and loves the Whites—so it wasn’t hard to convince her to stay another week and join us, especially since we would be riding some new-to-her trails and we found a bike for her to borrow. (Thank you, Tyson and Davya!)

Jill in the Whites on a borrowed bike.


Betsy got to town Wednesday and by Thursday night we were packed for our trip. We were exhausted and ready for bed, but we decided to first go for a walk outside since the aurora forecast was good. Betsy hadn’t yet seen auroras and she was eager to see some. They were out, not spectacular but good enough, and after about 30 minutes we headed back inside to go to bed. Betsy was happy she had the chance to see them since the forecast was for cloudy skies the rest of the weekend. 

Before heading downstairs, I took one last look outside and—Holy Cow!—the skies were lighting up. We threw on warm layers and headed outside. Betsy was treated to one of the most spectacular aurora shows I have seen! It was amazing! Eric and I can get blasé about the auroras, but these were well worth getting out for. (Eric even got out of bed for them.) Our son Riley, who studies auroras, said it was the biggest solar storm in six years. 

It didn’t happen in the Whites, but what the heck: Quintessential Alaska Experience? Check!

Day One – Good Trails, Flat Light

The first day of our adventure entailed 29 miles of rolling hills. The trails were bomber, and we had a tailwind all day. The sun came out a little, but it was mostly cloudy. The temperature was perfect, in the teens. Once we dropped down off the Wickersham Wall the light was really flat and it was hard to see the trail. It was riding by Braille, trying to feel the trail with our bike tires and staying on it. It’s challenging, but it’s often typical in the Whites, so…

Quintessential White Mountains Experience? Check!

When we got to Wickersham Creek there was significant overflow. Jill and I arrived first, so we stopped to scope it out. We could see flowing water through a couple of holes in the middle of the ice. Hmm. We put on our Wiggy Waders, and I gingerly found a solid path, checking each step with a large stick. There was about a half inch of slushy overflow before getting off the creek, but it was all doable without waders. Overflow is common in the Whites, especially in March and April. QWME? Check!

A couple of hours later, we arrived at Caribou Bluff Cabin and started doing the cabin chores, like melting water and finding and cutting up firewood. Betsy pitched in and got to try almost all the chores. QWME? Check!

Jill carries back firewood

Day Two - A Perfect Day on The Trail

The next morning was sunny, and we had a glorious day. Hard packed trails, sunny and warm afternoon temperatures, tailwinds. Morning temperatures on Fossil Creek hovered around -10F. Not the 20 or 30 below Fahrenheit (or more) that the Whites can see, even in March, but Betsy did get a taste of the chilly. QWME? Almost.

The ride to Wolf Run Cabin—only about 10 miles—didn’t take long. We had time to relax and hike up the hill behind the cabin. The group before us had hauled some extra trees to the cabin, so all we had to do was cut them up. Such a wonderful day. I went for a bonus bike ride in the afternoon looking for Jill who had decided to take a side trip toward Colorado Creek Cabin. She ended up going past that cabin to a high point on the Big Bend Trail. She had a lot of hike-a-bike over drifted trail but had fun. Plus, she got to cover parts of two trails—Colorado Creek and Big Bend—that she hadn’t yet done, despite many trips into the Whites.

Relaxing and eating lunch in the cabin

View from the hike up the hill above Wolf Run Cabin

Day 3 – The Race

Before heading out we had a beautiful sunrise. (QWME? Check!) Betsy hadn’t done much biking or other aerobic exercise for a while, so she was worried about the 42-mile day ahead. She left about 15 minutes before us. She thought we would catch her quickly, but it took me a couple of hours, so she was riding well. The ride up Fossil Gap was wonderful, and the views of the rugged peaks were amazing up on the plateau. QWME? Check!

Sunrise from Wolf Run Cabin
Views from up on Fossil Gap

A light headwind got worse the closer we got to the Ice Lakes. The trail was drifting. All four of us had gotten spread out. Jill was a little ahead and her bike tracks filled in by the time I got to them. The Ice Lakes can be glare—and sometimes wet—ice. Fortunately, they were almost totally covered in snow. Wind-blown snow drifts made biking more challenging, and there was a bit of hike-a-bike. Either is a QWME, but I’ll always vote for snow. 

Betsy makes her way across the Ice Lakes

After the Lakes, it was a slow grind up to Cache Mountain Divide. I had never done it this direction and the trail seemed less steep than I remembered. But my legs were tired and with the wind and drifts, I walked most of it. It was cloudy, but the clouds remained high, so I was able to enjoy the views while pushing my bike.

Just as I was getting near the top, I saw the first racer. As I expected, it was Tyson. He actually took the time to stop and talk to me, even though he was racing. (He did the same with Eric a few minutes later.) Ten minutes later, Clint passed me. After him, there was a continual string of racers for the next 20 miles. I would stop for each one, cheer and take photos. It was so much fun to see everybody. 

Tyson, in the lead

Former Olympian, Holly Brooks

Alisabeth Thurston-Hicks leads a charge

As I got to the mid- and back-of-the-pack racers, ones I knew would stop and chat for a moment. By this time, Eric and I had gotten separated by about two hours. So, we both got photos of the racers at different places on the course. We had a lot of fun taking pictures.

Christina Grande

Tom Moran

Hannah Myers

After Cache Mountain Cabin, checkpoint #2 of the race, the biking got to be more of a grind. There were still a few runners and skiers to distract me, but the trail on this side of the Divide was softer and my legs were tired and the headwind got stronger. (Whining is part of the QWME, so…Check!)

Ready to be at the cabin

The climb directly out of Beaver Creek was steep and brutal. Then there was a lot more climbing to Crowberry Cabin. Jill had gotten there an hour or so before me and had the wood stove going and snow melting for water. I was starving. Unfortunately, Eric hadn’t yet arrived, and he had our dinners. (He didn’t arrive for another two hours!) Oh well, I had some snacks to tide me over. We were all tired after our big day so got to bed early, warily eyeing the snow that had started falling. 

Tired after our long day on the trail

Day Four – Type 2 Fun

We woke to a couple of inches of new snow. And although the wind had died down, it was still blowing. We got going as soon as possible and were pleasantly surprised to find that the first 10 miles were pretty good riding. Once again, the light was flat, and it was Braille trail for whoever was in front. Betsy took the lead and was strong and confident in her line, which made it easier for me to follow. Maybe the bike out wouldn’t be too bad? 

But after Moose Creek Cabin, the snow started coming harder. And the wind got a little stronger. And then snowmachiners (some friends who had stayed at Moose) went by, churning up the trail and making it difficult to ride. And the temperature was right around freezing so everything got wet. Our pace slowed and we had to do a lot of uphill bike-pushing. QWME? Check! (Remember, quintessential doesn’t always mean good!)

Still, I was happy I could still ride the less steep areas and the downhills. I had thought that we might be pushing the entire 26 miles so this was better than expected! But Betsy was not having a great day after Moose Creek Cabin. She started bonking and had a tough time for the last 10 miles. At one point she told me she was glad she was doing this so she could check it off her wish list and Never Come Back. I knew she didn’t really mean it although she probably felt that way in the moment. We’ve all been there. I know I have. The highs and lows are all part of the experience. It wouldn’t be as great if there wasn’t some Type 2 fun involved, right? 

Several mushers pass us on the trail

We finally made it made it to the trailhead, tired and wet. After stopping in at the WM100 race checkpoint and taking a few photos, we headed back to town and to Ivory Jacks for dinner. After eating and drinking, Betsy was back to her cheerful self and feeling much better about everything. QWME? Check!

Warm and dry and bellies full of food.  Life is good!

So, was it the Quintessential White Mountain Experience? Let’s recap:

Auroras – check

Beautiful mountain scenery – check

Beautiful sunrises and sunsets - check

Bomber trails – check

Poor and drifted trails - check

Overflow experience – check

Cabin life experience – check

Sunny skies – check

Flat light – check

Headwinds – check

Tailwinds – check

Type 2 fun – check

Yep, she had just about the most well-rounded typical experience one could have, all in just four days. 

Of course, we didn’t see or hear wolves. And she didn’t get to experience 30 below. Hmm. I guess she will just have to come back for another trip!