Saying goodbye to winter in the Alaska Range
I greet spring earlier than just about anyone I know — sometimes in late February — when the sun slowly begins to rise higher above the horizon, emitting a slight trace of warmth. Conversely, I hold onto winter longer than most. I’m not as winter-obsessed, however, as a guy who frequents the Lane Glacier in Hatcher Pass. In a log book at the Lane Hut, located just below the glacier, he reported skiing every month of the year for several years. That’s true dedication.
To lengthen or sustain winter, one only needs to gain elevation, or venture north by a few degrees of latitude.
So it was in late April last year, when I drove up to Broad Pass at about Mile 200 on the Parks Highway for some cross-country skiing. After nearly three hours behind the wheel, I pulled off to the side of the road south of Cantwell, put on my pack and snapped into my skis. Not five feet off the road I sank three feet! I should have known — the snow was unbelievably rotten, or soft, from the spring thaw. I wasn’t going anywhere, not even with those big 56-inch-long wooden snowshoes that I bragged about in a previous column. Not even with 70-inch-long snowshoes! The only way I could ski on this day, I quickly concluded, was on a well-established snow machine trail. The problem: Most of the snow machine crowd had already given up for the season.
Finding a beaten-down snow machine trail — one that had been set earlier and had received considerable traffic — took some time. I backtracked about 20 miles along the highway toward Chulitna Pass. The trail I found stayed close to the Alaska Railroad tracks and I followed it for about two miles until it petered out. I then ditched my skis and began walking along the railroad tracks for another two miles. I finally found a place in the sun to enjoy an afternoon lunch.
Directly to the south was the snow-filled pass above Little Coal Creek that’s part of Kesugi Ridge, (a variation to this spelling is Keshgi Ridge) a premier summer hike of 36 miles that takes most people about three days. There are four access points — The southernmost access is the Troublesome Creek trail, at Mile 137; then Byers Lake at Mile 147; Ermine Hill at Mile 156.5; and at the northernmost end, Little Coal Creek, at Mile 163.9. Having travelled the trail’s entire length, I recommend going from Little Coal Creek and leaving the trail at Byers Lake. Troublesome Creek is just that — troublesome. You’re in the woods most of the time, with little visibility, and there are numerous stream crossings. Little Coal Creek to Byers Lake, however, is all high, open country and absolutely beautiful.
At my lunch break, I was surprised how much snow remained on the ground — about four feet. I felt sorry for four-legged critters, moose and wolves included, that had to travel at this time of the year.
On reflection, I could have found an extended winter season much closer to Eagle River. Turnagain Pass on the Kenai Peninsula is a sure bet, as is Hatcher Pass. But in April and May, I prefer to take a jaunt up to that big country toward Broad Pass and ogle at the majestic Alaska Range, and hopefully, catch of glimpse of Denali. On this day I saw Denali’s summit for a brief moment as it peeked through the clouds. The sunny breaks were now more frequent and there was very little wind. “I bet some climbers are summiting today,” I thought, glancing up toward North America’s highest peak.
Neither red nor purple ski wax seemed sticky enough for kick in the 45-degree temperatures, but in the relatively flat terrain it wasn’t difficult to shuffle back along the trail to my truck. A thermos of hot coffee and a snack awaited me as I prepared for the long drive home.
I was only out for three hours, but for me it had been worth it. I didn’t really say “goodbye” to winter, because I knew I’d find it on some mountain close to Eagle River in May and even into early June. But I bid farewell to winter in this particular place, which I probably wouldn’t return to until this summer, perhaps to climb up the Little Coal Creek trail or perhaps go fishing at Byers Lake.
No matter how long we live in Alaska, it’s difficult to wrap our minds around how big this place is. I think that’s partly why I make these long drives once awhile – just to remind myself how lucky we are to have so much country to roam.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.