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.
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!
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.
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!