The entire Placer Valley is open to snowmobiles, so the area does get a lot of traffic. It’s also part of a local heli ski operation’s terrain, and a frequent haunt of cross country skiers in the spring, when crust conditions are good. I just never go down there, as it’s a long-for-me drive and conditions usually have to be very specific to make the trip in on a bike. Last year my friend Scott got into the Skookum Glacier on his fat bike, and I was really kicking myself for not going along on that trip. The Spencer is one glacier down from that, so when Scott wanted to give it a try I was keen to make it happen.
The problem was the route. Crust conditions are pretty bad this year. All conditions are pretty bad this year, actually. There hasn’t been much of a melt-freeze cycle lately so frozen snowmobile, or snogo, as we call them in the villages, tracks are the only potential riding option. My friend Jill Homer and I did a quick recon the day before, riding in west of the river on the tourist route a local snogo company had established for two hour tours, and the trail was in pretty good shape but we could see that the river crossings were going to be an issue. We departed with the plan to bring waders the next day, and relayed the info to Scott.
Scott pretty much nixed the wader plan. He reminded me of a trip report local long-range skier Tim Kelley had posted, about the route in on the east side of the tracks. “HE didn’t get wet,” Scott pointed out, so I agreed to try his route, which followed the train tracks in. On re-reading Tim’s report, I did note that he, too, had tried the snogo trail but reported that the river crossings were not possible for a skier or biker, so staying east of the tracks was the only option if one desired to reach the glacier.
This will become an important point later in this story.
Single digit temperatures greeted us when Jill and I left my house at 8am to rendezvous with Scott and Sue at our launch point around 9. We were on and riding by 9:30, and quickly found that conditions were the dreaded “varied.” We could ride across some frozen swamps, but the crust was not always supportable, and the low snow cover made for some bushwhacking if you got too far into the weeds. The railroad bed was angled and difficult to navigate, and no one wanted to ride right on the tracks and risk flat tires, trespassing tickets, or death by stealthy train. Scott, a hundred pounds heavier than me, was finding most of the route unrideable. Jill, too, was breaking through on her heavy bike. Sue and I fared better, taking turns following each other through the maze of snogo tracks and finding it mostly rideable with careful attention to route choice. I led us a few hundred yards out onto the wash of the river, hoping to find a better way after seeing Scott post-hole hike-a-biking for ten minutes near the railroad track.
It’s imporant to note at this point that we were wary of depending too much on the tracks. It’s actually not legal to cross railroad tracks in Alaska, which is funny cuz we all do it all the time, and even the Forest Service concedes we have to get across the tracks to take advantage of our recreational opportunities:
Climbing some of the more popular and accessible crags along the Seward Highway requires stepping over the long twin silver line, and to avoid a ticket you have to schlep yourself all the way past downtown Anchorage to visit the Railroad office to get a (free) permit. Which accomplishes nothing other than making it so you won’t get a ticket. Just…sigh. This world we live in.
But we didn’t want to get tickets, and we weren’t clear (see above graphic) on whether we could legally ride “near” the tracks, nor did we know what really constituted “near,” so we tried to look like we weren’t riding near the tracks, even though we really sorta would have had to, and it was also really obvious that TONS of snogos were riding so near the tracks that their operators could have been scraping said tracks with the skis of their snogos. We were feeling so reverential of the letter of the law* that we were loathe to do anything on the railroad bed itself.
Scott was experiencing low morale, as he was feeling guilty for goading us into the eastern route, and Jill, too, was piping up with suggestions to turn around and try the snogo route after all. I really didn’t want to bail and go back. I’m a routefinder by nature. I led us a few hundred feet off the railroad track on a really good track I happened to find. I should have clued in to this being a fateful choice when Scott hollered “is it good?” from his posthole track a hundred yards away. I felt it rideable so I answered in the affirmative, but you know, these things happen.
The track ended in a stream crossing, which was open to the left, open to the right, and obviously very thin in front of me. It wasn’t a high consequence situation so I experimentally rolled my bike across as I clung to the seat in case it went through, then gingerly stepped out onto the creaking ice. On step two the ice audibly complained that I’d had too many donuts, and I took one more hurried stride to safety on the other side. The other women could probably get across given their slight statures, but Scott was going to get wet if he stepped on that ice. I wondered what the team would do, but as I wasn’t in a hurry to try my luck on the ice bridge again, I just waited.
The crew rolled and/or pushed up to the crossing a few minutes later. Jill Homer stopped immediately and I knew from a few trips’ worth of experience with her that she would go no further on that route. I recognized that “nope” look on her face. Scott ranged up and down the stream a while, looking for a better way, and came back reporting that we’d “been spotted” by a Railroad crew driving by on a highrail. This filled us with irrational dread.
Since I was already across, my inclination was to keep going, but the others decided to head back. I don’t know how to really explain it, but as unwilling as Jill was to go forward, I was just as unwilling to go back. I knew I could find a way, I knew that the other route wouldn’t get us to the glacier, and I knew we’d be fine picking our way through the wash. There were snogo tracks everywhere and most of them would support us; they go SOMEWHERE after all. But I’m not a pusher, and since we had enough people to safely split up, and by a fluke, both Jill and I had our phones and full signals, I opted to keep going on my route while the rest of the crew returned to the road and would try again from the snogo trail. I was to get as far as I could, and if I found the other end of the snogo trail I was to ride in to meet the crew, and we’d reunite along that way. Everyone accepted that plan so we went our separate ways, me reminding myself that I’d jettisoned my tire pump because everyone else had one, so I was potentially getting myself into a long-walk-out situation.
I hopped on my bike and followed my bombproof snowgo trail. I thanked the driver of the sled for staying steady on the throttle and going straight all that time ago, because that’s what makes a frozen, set-up trail suitable for biking.
I came to another river crossing, a little bit better than the first, but with a non-discernable water depth since I couldn’t see the bottom of the open leads. The blue color of the water indicated “deeper than the last one.” Repeating my bike-rolling experiment, I considered the two measly steps that would get me across, and then applied my own personal risk-evaluation procedures. I’m an emergency manager and risk analyst (the hazard kind, not the insurance kind) in my real job, so I’m a little bit nerdy about this kind of thing, but it serves me well in backcountry travel. I had to admit to myself that the first river crossing had given me red light feedback, I was alone, and our group had already split up. That was one strike too many so I didn’t cross the river. Instead, I followed the snogo tracks the other direction, and they took me back to the railroad tracks.
It was there, a mere few hundred feet past where we’d left the tracks when we started struggling, that the route became the superhighway we’d been seeking. I saw Tim’s tracks ahead of me and knew I’d found the route. I texted Jill that they should return back my way, but she replied that they were still going to continue their retreat.
I pedaled for a while alongside the railroad tracks at a comfortable and miles-eating 6ish miles per hour. I would make short work of the trip to Spencer this way. The valley was deathly quiet and not a thing stirred. I crossed wolf tracks which made me wish for my bear spray or some sort of weapon, but I wasn’t too terribly concerned; just considering the irony of getting eaten by one of nature’s shyest predators just moments after willingly separating from my strength-in-numbers pack. Mostly, though, I enjoyed the silence and the unbelievable views rolling endlessly around me.
At one point I heard the highrail approaching, and darted down to the flats, always wary of that ticket. Pretending I’d been riding the flats all along, I waved to the drivers of the highrail and they waved back, obviously not too concerned that I was there. I was heartened by this, and by the fact I’d heard the truck coming from so far away, so I rode the flats until the tracks led back to the rails, and then rode there. I had to use the train route to cross a few more little rivers. Without the train trestles I don’t know that I would have opted to cross some of those rivers, and had I had to look for crossings it might have taken a while. I didn’t, so I just don’t know. As I learned in river rescue class, look for the easiest crossing, and if it’s a bridge, use that.
It was an interesting feeling, biking in by myself. My thoughts were much of the time with my friends, and though I hoped we’d join up later, I didn’t have a lot of hope they’d make it in to the glacier. I felt a little guilty that they were going all the way back while I was having such an easy time. I was also wary, because an “easy time” in the backcountry usually leads to a sudden and abrupt change in fortune; hence my risk analysis procedures. Everything in front of me said “green light!” including the weather, so I saw no reason to bail.
I’d promised Jill I wouldn’t venture past cell phone reception so I kept an eye on my signal. I made a habit out of stopping to listen for trains, checking the signal, and carrying on. Pulling out my phone that often also meant that I got some pictures for once! I’m just not a photo taker, usually. It’s not in my nature to stop and record stuff that I’m seeing with my own eyes. It will be there in my brain for access, later. But since I had the camera, and could take my time, why not?
I spied a snowmachine abandoned out on the flats near the mountain on the east side. It was a little weird out there, silent, still, no one around. Either a breakdown or a snogo-skier. I didn’t deviate to investigate but I made a mental note to pay attention to it later. I did, but only to note that it was still there as I made my way back. Oh, was that a spoiler? Yes, things turned out all right, I made it to the glacier, and came back the same way. That’s the short version.
The slightly longer version has me trucking along easily next to the tracks, and coming out into the Spencer valley about an hour after I separated from my group. I’d gotten a text from Jill that they were just starting out on the snogo trail, so I didn’t feel any urgency, knowing they were going to be behind me anyway. I loafed around at the whistle stop, using the open(! not normal for the Forest Service. Usually the coming of winter also means the installation of deadbolts on the bathrooms at rest stops statewide) restroom, checking out the area, and generally exploring, hoping that the team would appear at some point. I found that I could cross the Placer on an ice bridge, and did so quickly, seeing as how I was alone. I regretted not carrying the ice claws all winter water-crossers should have in Alaska.** I tried to find the snogo trail but there were so many tracks that it wasn’t really clear where I should go to find the trail, so I chose to ride in towards the glacier on an access road. Not a minute later I encountered a group of snogos, the same guides Jill and I had chatted with the day before. As per their apparent M.O., they pulled to a stop and chatted with me.
I told them what was up, and the lead guide’s face fell. “They’re going to have a tough time,” he said about my friends. “The cold temperatures made the water crossings a hassle.” He indicated his line of snogo-straddling charges. “WE had a tough time. We’re going out the railroad route.” He told me the water crossings were boot-high on the sno-gos, and I knew my friends were not making it in on their route. I decided to zip in and tag the glacier before heading back.
But my routefinding skills were a little shaky at that moment, for I followed the snogo tracks and they seemed to dead end in a bunch of alders. I could see the lake a hundred yards away through the bushwhack, and opted just to charge through rather than pick my way around the headlands and alder-bashing. Once on the lake, I made short work of the two miles to the glacier face.
It was dead silent. A skim of clouds covered the sun, and I thanked it for keeping the crust firm and the overflow at bay. A number of footprints frozen into the lake surface indicated that overflow conditions had been unfortunate in days prior; the boot owners sinking in about six to eight inches. Given that knowledge, and seeing as how I was alone, I stayed well away from the azure giants towering out of the lake ice. They seemed stable, but in human time all glaciers SEEM stable. Though I spotted another tour group heading out from the glacier, I was alone out there for a while. Another figure far off on the lake ice made me think that my friends had made it after all, but the tiny form of a frolicking dog at the figure’s side proved otherwise. The figure was moving slowly, so I had some time to enjoy the glacier face in solitude.
A raven circled me at two arms’ length. It landed on the ice and regarded my presence. Guess I was intruding? Breaking out the camera, I tried to make sense of the “selfie” trend. This, from a woman who is contemplating publishing a post entitled “Die, Selfie, Die” (I generally consider “selfies” the height of self-infatuation and attention-seeking, but I guess I have to try it before I knock it).
It is rather engrossing, I found. Trying to get just the right angle and facial expression can easily consume half an hour. Luckily for me, nature gave me nearly immediate feedback on this self-centered behavior with a few hearty cracks of the lake ice. True, this is pretty normal glacier/lake interactions, but it’s a spooky feeling to hear cracking noises all around you as you stand over several hundred feet of certain death separated from you by an undetermined thickness of lake ice bordered by an unstoppable, crawling, and very heavy force of frozen millenia. I hurriedly stowed my phone and retrieved my bike to beat a retreat.
The phone rang. I pawed for it, but missed the call. Jill Homer had left me a voice mail but I wasn’t able to retrieve it. Luckily she answered my call back, and we were able to haltingly relay, amongst the network difficulties, that they were stymied by a river crossing. I entreated them to try to keep the river to their left and bushwhack to the railroad tracks if necessary, but the resigned tone in her voice made me assume they would be turning back. Nevertheless, I sprint-rode the three miles back to the whistle stop, crossed the fancy-pants pedestrian bridge over the Placer that our government built to reinvest in the economy while conveniently ignoring hunger, poverty, access to health care, and social injustice, and bear-crawled up the railroad bed to try to spot my friends.
Just then the tracks resounded with the click-clack of the approaching highrail. Feeling it was stupid to run away, I just stepped to the side, took a picture of the approaching truck and waved when they went by. They waved back. Guess all our hide-from-the-railroad-people machinations weren’t necessary. I called Jill’s phone quickly, thinking to ask her if the truck had passed by their field of vision yet, to get an idea of where they were. No answer. I yelled. I yodeled. I sang a little. No answering hollers.
From my upper vantage point, I realized that the ice bridge I’d crossed earlier was, in fact, part of the snogo trail, the one I was to backtrack on to find my friends. To access it, I utilized the railroad trestle to cross the Placer back towards the north. As I explained to Jill later, that made a total of three options for crossing the Placer River: ice bridge, railroad bridge, pedestrian bridge. Despite my insistence, I’m pretty sure she still didn’t believe me, but by gosh, I did cross the Placer three times on my bike by three different means. It’s possible, lady!
Backtracking the sno-go trail was a no-go. I was quickly stopped by a river crossing. I could see why the crew couldn’t get across; they had four or five of these crossings to navigate if they were to stay on the snogo trail. Resigned, I headed back via the railroad route.
The trip out was just as nice as the trip in; even more so as not fraught with guilt. The clouds stayed corralled in the Spencer drainage and I rode back under sunny skies. The abandoned snowmachine was still there but it didn’t trouble me in the slightest. I eyed the track in to Skookum Glacier, newly marked by other fat tire riders since the morning, and considered trying to tag it but opted against it. Good thing, too, as Jill texted me soon after, reporting that they were at the cars waiting for me.
Promising to hurry to not keep them waiting, I double-timed it down the railroad bed, keeping an eye out for my own tracks. I didn’t see them, and I never did quite figure out where I’d gone away from the track and then rejoined it, but I only encountered a very short unrideable section (probably the one I’d skipped with my detour into the wash, the one that had so disheartened my friends. Oops). Spotting the road crossing that marked our departure point, I felt a little confused – was I lost? I didn’t remember it being decent riding this close to the cars…but it was! And yep, there were our tracks. Jill and Scott met me on the swamp, clothes already changed and bikes stowed. They’d made amazing time back on the snogo route, and Jill reported that the trail was really “fast” – guess so!
We celebrated with a few drinks and tacos at the Brown Bear, a local favorite watering hole along the Seward Highway. It’s so awesome it doesn’t even have a web site. Though we had three “DNFs” (Jill’s a racer type and brings the lingo to the group), spirits were still high and everyone was mostly satisfied with the day. Though it stuck in Scott’s craw, he acknowledged that since the ride had DNFs, it also had a clear winner, and that winner was me. I enjoyed the joke, but really, we all won because though only one of us (ahem, me) got to the destination, we all ended up with lots of beta about the route. Now we know, though in higher snow years I bet the snogo route is more doable.
What struck me about my day out was the feeling of being out there, the feeling of being in a remote area. According to my own definitions, it was not even slightly remote, with frequent sightings of highrail crews and even more frequent sightings of snowmobile tour groups making it seem like a little walk in a sort of urban park, though Jill’s GPS showed approximately thirty miles of riding, corroborating Scott’s estimate of a 26 mile round trip. i won’t pretend it was at all remote. It wasn’t a long trip, but it made quick work of getting away from it all, which maybe is the key for that “sense of remoteness” that we seek on these trips. There is a distressingly small amount of wilderness in the Lower 48 that is without shouting distance from a road, and an equally distressingly tiny part of Alaska free from snowmachine, small plane, helicopter, and ATV accessibility. One only has to cross Alaska in a small aircraft and see the tracks criss-crossing the landscape to realize that. Lower 48 dwellers fail to realize a four-wheeler is as good as a car to many Alaskans, who cut interstates of double-tire tracks all over the landscape. Only topography defines what is remote – if a place is accessible by some means, it will be regularly accessed. Remote, these days, is an illusion. We do well when we can keep it intact for a short time.
**Irony of link needing to be from Minnesota DNR noted.