Sunday, December 31, 2023

A Different-Kind-of-Adventure Weekend


Post by Corrine

This trip was not turning out well.

As I pushed my loaded bike through snowdrift after snowdrift, I turned around and finally saw Eric pushing his bike toward me.  I trudged back towards him.

“What do you think about turning around instead of going to the cabin?” I asked when we finally met. 

We were 11.5 miles into a 19-mile bike to Cache Mountain Cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. Eric was still having a good time on (and off) his bike, but he thought for a few seconds said, “Sure, let’s go back.” 

We headed back the way we had come, pushing our bikes through the drifts.

When Things Go South

Sometimes adventures don’t end up as planned. Being flexible is key especially when traveling with others.

We had done a three-day bikepacking trip in the Whites the weekend before to meet our friends, Beat (pronounced bay-ott) and Jill from Colorado. They are training for a couple of Alaska winter endurance races by hiking and pulling fully loaded sleds. We had met them at the end of their six-day trip. We all had another three-day trip to Cache Mountain Cabin planned for New Year’s weekend with them. We all looked forward to staying in one cabin for two nights instead of having to pack up each day.

Last weekend at Moose Creek Cabin

But Thursday I came home from work feeling a little off. I was really tired, had a little headache, and a slightly scratchy throat. I couldn’t decide if I was getting sick or just tired from all the busyness of the past month. I went to bed early and in the morning felt the same. And I was still fatigued after nine hours of sleep. I decided to stay home a day and see what happened. It was easier to make this decision as the temperature in town was -30F. Supposedly it was warmer in Whites but who knew for sure. Jill and Beat headed out, hoping to see us the next day. Eric stayed home to get some work done and see how I felt the next day.

I spent most of the day on the couch, watching YouTube and reading books and resting. I did finish rereading Jill’s first book Ghost Trails, about her first time racing the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) race to McGrath. Eric had bought it for me for Christmas when it first came out in 2009. After reading it, I started following her blog and then reached out to Jill the next time she came to Fairbanks to train. Since then, we have become friends. It was fun to reread her first book about all her rookie mistakes. She has obviously learned a lot since that first ITI. I highly recommend this book along with all of her books. She is an amazing writer and person.

You can order the book from Amazon here

In the evening, Beat messaged us with his Garmin inReach, saying that it was -20F at the cabin and colder on Beaver Creek but that the trails were in great shape. I was kind of glad I felt off that morning as -20F is generally my cut off for cabin trips. It would have been a cold bike out if we had gone. 

By bedtime, I was feeling more like my normal self, so we decided to head out first thing Saturday morning for just an overnight. 

A Good Start

The next morning, Beat again messaged us saying the temperature had risen to +10F but that the wind was picking up. The forecast called for warmer temperatures though not too warm, but also one to two inches of snow and winds, especially in the summits north of Fairbanks, until 6 p.m. that evening. We decided to go for it, hoping for the best.

We headed out right after breakfast to the McKay Creek Trailhead where the temperature was around -5F with no wind. The first five miles of this trail are brutal because it’s almost all climbing. The first mile is the steepest. You start out climbing and then climb some more, and some more, and some more. There are almost no breaks. On the bright side, all the climbing warms you up quickly.

Finally, a flat section of the trail.  And the only time we saw the sun all day.

Eric and I got separated right away. He is slower on the climbs and takes more breaks. I never saw him again until I turned around 11.5 miles in. Usually, we wait for each other, but it was a little cold and breezy at the top of the climbs, so I kept going, stopping occasionally to take photos or adjust layers. 

The first eight miles of the trail were well packed by other users, especially the mushers at Dew Claw Kennel, located right at the start of the trail. So biking was no problem technically, just a long uphill grunt. 

View looking north to the White Mountains from the high spot on the trail

But then about halfway down the first major descent – into Ophir Creek valley – the trail had a lot of snowdrifts. The trail heads north, so we were getting into the wind area that was in the National Weather Service forecast. The wind had started the day before and was supposed to last until 6 p.m. Dealing with the snowdrifts was particularly difficult because the light was so flat due to cloudy skies. Using downhill momentum, I could ride most of the way down the descent, but the drifts got worse and were often not rideable. 

The valley bottom was fine, and the climb out had only a few snowdrifts, but it is steep, often too steep to ride. I was spending more time pushing than riding. Shortly after the top of the climb the trail breaks out of the trees and the drifting got serious. By mile 10, I was mostly pushing my bike at moving 1-2 mph. I knew the trail was mostly in the open the rest of the way, meaning more drifting. In another 4 miles, the trail met the Trail Creek Trail, which gets more traffic and might be better, but that was not guaranteed. After more than a mile of mostly pushing, I turned around to discuss the situation with Eric. 

About Face

We were over halfway to the cabin, but the decision was relatively easy. We knew the route ahead and that the weather forecast had called for some wind and more snow. Had we continued, our future held more pushing. A lot. Especially because we’d be coming back the same way the next day. There isn’t a lot of traffic on the Mckay Creek Trail so it was doubtful the trail would be better by morning. So, more pushing. 

No thank you. I’m not training for anything, so my tolerance for suffering is lower. Yes, it would be nice to spend another night in a cabin with friends but not enough for the slog. Eric agreed and we turned around. 

It was slow going, with a lot of pushing, for the first 4 miles on the way back due to the drifting and the long climb out of Ophir Creek valley. But toward the top of that climb, the gradient eased and there was no drifting so we could ride again. 

Back to good trails again

As we crested the climb, darkness started falling and snow started falling, but we knew it was mostly downhill from there. Eric again got a bit behind on the climb and then stopped a few times to eat and adjust layers. He particularly enjoyed the descent because it gave him a chance to try out his new system – a new helmet that can easily hold goggles, so he can easily take them on and off. He said it worked great. He flew down the hill amid the falling snow, his eyes protected by the goggles, and almost caught up to me on the long descent. 

Still a Good Day Out

I didn’t eat much on the ride and so was super hungry by the time we reached the car. Since it was dinner time, we treated ourselves to burgers at the Chatanika Lodge on our way home. As soon as we had cell service, we messaged back to Jill and Beat to let them know we wouldn’t be coming so they wouldn’t worry.

We didn’t get the adventure we had planned, but we did have a good ride of 23 miles with 3500 feet of elevation gain on a fairly nice day for late December. Not all adventures go as planned, but if you are flexible – and have a flexible adventure partner – you can turn lemons into lemonade. In this case, iced lemonade! 

23 miles with over 3500 feet elevation gain

Monday, December 25, 2023

Solstice Light


Post by Corrine

Holy Sh--! 

I couldn’t open the door to the outhouse. And I was inside!

How was I going to get out?! I could yell, but no one would hear me. The outhouse is a ways from Crowberry Cabin, our home for the night. Everyone else was snuggled inside the cabin, enjoying the toasty warmth of the woodstove. I only had the cold and the wind. That darned wind!

The wind had done this to me. I had gone out to relieve myself, but the wind had been blowing right inside the outhouse. Brrr! I tried to close the door, but the latch hook inside wouldn’t fit into the eye bolt. So, I pulled the door closed harder and it stayed shut without the inside latch. The wind stayed outside, and I could take care of business. Yay! 

When I finished, I pushed on the door to open it. It didn’t budge. I pushed again. No luck. What the heck? Peeking through the crack between the door and the door frame, I could see the latch was closed. From the outside! When I had pulled the door shut, the hook on the outside fell right into the eye bolt! What are the odds? 

After a moment of panic, I realized I could I probably slip my finger through the gap between the door and door frame. I tried and was barely able to unhook the latch. Disaster averted! Who knows how long Eric, Jill, or Beat would have noticed I was missing or needed to use the outhouse themselves.

I scurried back to the cabin where we all had a good laugh about my self-made trap. The incident was so strange, I was tempted to see if I could do it again. I didn’t, but I encourage anyone to try. If you do, let me know how easy it is. Just make sure that somebody is waiting outside!

Note to self - Leave the outhouse door open!

A Tradition of White Mountains Trips

A trip into the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks has become a solstice tradition for Eric and me. Usually, our friends from Colorado, Jill and Beat (pronounced bay-ott), come to visit and take trips into the Whites, training for their winter ultra races. 

This winter, Beat is planning to walk to Nome for the eighth time as part of the Iditarod Trail Invitational Race. Jill is planning to run the White Mountains 100 race for the fourth time. She has also biked it four times. We definitely have some crazy friends who make Eric and me seem like slugs. 

This year, Jill and Beat arrived on a Monday, and Tuesday morning they headed out for a 6-day, 5-night trip, walking and dragging sleds. Eric and I joined them by bike for the last two nights, Friday and Saturday, staying at Crowberry and then Moose Creek Cabin. 

Enjoying the Solstice Light

The light at this time of year can be magical. At winter solstice, the sun is up for just a little over three-and-a-half hours.  It never gets very far above the horizon, and we get long morning and evening twilight hours. It all makes for spectacular sunrises and sunsets that seem to last forever. The low-angle sunlight makes the snow seem to glow no matter where it lies – on hillsides, on mountain tops, on trails, in tree branches. Traveling on the trails, you get a constant display of light.

This show happens only if it’s not too cloudy. And on this trip, only the last morning had those kinds of clouds. Mostly, we had lots of time to savor the changing light and colors. We’ve done multiple winter solstice trips into the Whites, and it never gets old.

Cranking to Crowberry

I always forget how many hills there are to Crowberry Cabin but the trail was good, so we made pretty good time in spite of my legs feeling tired. Shouldn't my strength training improve my power? It didn't feel like it, but it still was a joy to be out biking. While we started biking from the Wickersham Dome Trailhead on the Elliott Highway, Jill and Beat had started dragging sleds that day at Lee’s Cabin, each preferring to travel their own pace. We passed Jill just before Moose Creek Cabin, but we didn’t pass Beat until about 5 miles from Crowberry Cabin. By then, the alpine glow on the mountains was spectacular and the almost-full moon was rising. 

Eric and I got to Crowberry Cabin first, where we lit the woodstove and started melting water. Beat arrived just as Eric headed out to collect firewood and darkness started descending. Eventually, Jill arrived, and we had dinner. That night we didn’t see the aurora borealis (another visual treat of a winter Whites trip), but we did get to see a moon halo, a ring of light surrounding the moon caused by ice crystals suspended in the air. And Venus was inside the halo. A perfect ending to the wonderful day. (Well, except for my little debacle in the outhouse!)

This photo was from the second night Venus is just at the edge of the halo

A More Relaxed Day 

The next morning, we took it a bit easy. We had only 9 miles to go back to Moose Creek Cabin. We didn’t want to leave too early. Checkout time at the cabins is noon, and we didn’t want to arrive at Moose Creek before the previous renters left. We had a leisurely breakfast and extra hot drinks before heading out. We caught another spectacular sunrise while on the trail and enjoyed the show as the sun slid low across the horizon, lighting up the snow in different ways.

Since we were on bikes, Eric and I took only an hour-and-a-half to go the nine miles. The group at Moose Creek Cabin was out of the cabin and getting ready to leave when we arrived a little after noon. We loved arriving to a warm cabin and some already-melted water. And, wonderfully, the woodshed was half-full of wood. I have never seen so much wood at one of the White Mountains cabins. Eric still felt a need to cut firewood to replace what we used. (To “appease the cabin gods,” as he puts it.) He rested a bit first, and still was able to head out in broad daylight to cut down some standing dead trees, a task he often does in the dark around solstice.

Eric collects firewood
Now that's a stack of firewood

Beat showed up a little later, right at sunset, and Jill wasn’t too far behind. It was fun to just relax, watch the sunset and moonrise, nap, eat, and have lively conversations until it was time for bed. 

Beat arrives at Moose Creek Cabin at sunset

Moose Creek Cabin gets some cell service, so I checked the weather. Uh-oh! For the next day, the National Weather Service was predicting warmer temperatures with a chance of “wintry mix.” That may sound like a nice cocktail drink, but it really means a possibility of rain mixed in with snow. Yuck! Not something we wanted. The NWS also had a wind advisory starting overnight and getting worse the next day. It would start as a tailwind but then switch directions to be more of a headwind. Or so they predicted. 

We had 16 miles to go back to the trailhead. Jill and Beat decided to leave early the next day to get home at a decent time and to hopefully avoid the worst of the bad weather. Eric and I decided to get up with them. So, early bedtime for everybody. 

Cruising Back to the Trailhead

The next morning, Christmas Eve morning, we were all up by 6:30 AM. We could hear the wind outside. It had been growing stronger through the early morning hours. Fortunately, it was a tailwind as predicted, and while the temperature had risen to 30F degrees, it wasn’t accompanied by any snow or wintry mix. 

Jill was out the door by 8 AM. Beat followed, and we were a little after him. Moose Creek Cabin is in the middle of a long hill. On our bikes, Eric and I zoomed down, zipping along until we hit the flats. Thud. A soft, but momentum-stopping thud. After only three hours, the strong winds had blown loose snow into large drifts where the trail crosses an open area below the cabin. But we’ve dealt with that before. Eric had a hoot trying to ride through the drifts, while I just pushed my bike. Fortunately, the open area is relatively short before the trail once again enters protected forest. 

Drifted snow on the flats. There was some bike pushing.

The trail in the forest had no drifting, and the wind really pushed us along. I was going 7 mph uphill on slightly soft snow. (For those of you who don’t snow bike, that’s pretty fast for an average rider like me going uphill on a loaded bike.) 

Eric and I passed Beat on the first uphill and Jill a little later. We figured there would be more wind and drifts when we topped the ridges on the way back, especially the high open ridge just to the north of Lee’s Cabin, but when we got there, the wind was gone. And there was no drifted snow. What the heck? Was the wind all further east or had it just died down? We didn’t care, happy to have good trails the rest of the way out. The possibility of wintry mix also didn’t materialize. We had a pretty darned good last day. 

This day was cloudier, so we didn’t get the spectacular light of the previous two days, but we still had a nice brief sunrise as we approached Lee’s Cabin. The trail is usually better between Lee’s and the trailhead, packed down by more cabin and day-use trail users. That’s how it was on that day, and we were soon back at our car, passing several people heading out on the trails via several modes of travel. 

A Solstice Celebration

Solstice light really is magical. Spending these short but beautiful days in the White Mountains is a great way to appreciate the winter light. It’s a special kind of light that will soon start to disappear, slowly at first, then faster. We gained a whole minute of daylight today and each day brings increasingly more light as the changing tilt of the earth moves us back toward summer. If you wait too long, its gone. At least until next winter. 

That’s at least part of the reason we have cabins in the Whites already booked for next weekend. Jill and Beat will again be dragging their sleds. Eric and I will either be biking or skiing. We will all be soaking up the unique light that turns the blank canvas of snow-covered landscape into a show of color that is somehow muted and dazzling at the same time.