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Snowmachiners beware: Deep, fluffy powder can be a nightmare

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 26, 2017

DONNELLY FLATS — Poof! It was gone. Just like that, my Ski-Doo Tundra disappeared in the snow-covered willows.

Heck, I didn't even know they were there. What looked like a dip in a smooth swamp turned into a willow draw infested with twisted, machine-eating brush.

If you ride snowmobiles during the next month or so, you may as well get used to that feeling of instant chagrin. Yes, we finally got snow. But like all true winter enthusiasts, we need something to whine about.

The snow quality stinks. Powder is great for skiers. It is good for snowmobilers too, as long is there is a base underneath. The heavy snowfall we got came with cold temperatures and has yet to settle.

My Tundra sure settled, though. Fortunately, my machine is one of those little 263s that weigh about 300 pounds, so I was able to muscle it out with the help of the reverse button. Still, after grunting and cussing for 15 minutes or so, I was longing for the little Elan snowmachines built by Ski-Doo from 1971-96 and considered the go-to trapping machine for a while.

They were under-powered and mechanically unsound, but with the engine mounted mid-ship and not much heavier than a toy, one never had to swear much. Today's snowmobiles are not like that.

I stuck a super-wide track Skandic in a small creek back in the Clearwater Mountains years ago. If the walk out hadn't been 40 miles, that machine would still be there. Snowmobiling off trail is best done with at least two big friends who look back now and again to see if you're coming along OK.

Near the Denali Highway, there is very good snow everywhere. Delta has some of the best snow in years. The creeks are solid with very little overflow. Wind drifts are minimal south and north of Delta Junction proper. Best of all, the extreme cold of the past few weeks has given way to more moderate temperatures.

Paxson and the Denali Highway did not get terribly cold, and the snow near Paxson and Summit Lake is deep and soft. Finally, some compacting is happening.

Use caution in the hills east of the Richardson Monument. With very little base, machines sink — not just into the willows, but down to bigger rocks that can make for a very solid stop.

And there's no doubt the Gakona and Gulkana glaciers are unsafe. Powder snow has bridged crevasses, causing them to be virtually undetectable. Traveling on glaciers by machine has never been terribly smart anyway.

The Denali Highway has a very good base trail all of the way from Paxson to Cantwell. Alpine Creek Lodge (743-0565) at milepost 68 is open and has fuel. Maclaren Lodge (331-3518) will open Feb. 1 and it has fuel, too. It is a good idea to call first. Also, remember that ptarmigan season closed in Unit 13B on Nov. 30.

In spite of the cold, area lakes don't have excessive ice cover, just a couple of feet. And the beaver ponds are not safe, either; most have open springs or very thin ice with a nice smooth blanket of snow disguising an all-day project of extracting a snowmobile from a mud hole. It's happened to me.

The coming weekend looks like a great mid-winter snowmobiling opportunity. The following weekend is the Super Bowl, and you could lose a few of your riding buddies to the game.

Remember, the Paxson end of the Denali Highway has no services. Meiers Lake Lodge (822-3151), 15 miles south of the highway, is the last spot for fuel or supplies. The Department of Transportation has a good parking area plowed out just across the Gulkana River Bridge on the Denali. It would be a good idea to bring along a weed-burner propane torch to start your truck if you plan on more than a day trip. Temperatures can drop dramatically overnight.

I am not overly confident in weather forecasts, but at this time, all of the various services seem to agree that it is not going to be extremely cold over the next week.  Come self-contained and be prepared all possibilities.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.