Snowmobiling conditions have been mixed this season in the Delta Junction area. I normally ride a single-cylinder Tundra R. It won't climb like the hot-rod machines, nor is it fast.
However, it's easy to get out when you stick it. It's a great machine for those who habitually ride alone. Don't bother telling me that your machine won't get stuck. If you think that, then you have never left the figurative "backyard."
I was riding an old Arctic Cat Puma last week and ran a ski under an unseen alder that was frozen in the dirt. I was traveling about 25 mph and thus naturally went over the windshield at the abrupt stop.
I would have given a lot to have a machine with reverse while I was prying the ski from under that alder. There have been a couple of unseasonable thaws on what was good snow cover. The thaw, coupled with wind and a bit of rain, made for rough riding conditions.
The mountain country near Delta and the north end of Isabel Pass are extremely rough riding. The conditions begin to improve south of Pump Station 10. The clear Delta River and the pipeline route over the Top of the World both have snow and decent ice, but are windblown and bumpy. Avalanche danger in that area is minimal at present. A heavy snow could change that quickly with the icy base on the slopes.
The area north and west of Field Lake is good riding. The farther west one travels, conditions in the high country improve. There is good base snow that covers most of the willows. The back side of the mountains to the west of the Tangle Lakes system also has excellent snow, and the Tangle Lakes have better-than-normal snow cover, and the riding is fair.
The conditions through the mountains near Landmark Gap and Seven-Mile Lake are great. The snow is "go anywhere" snow. The solid base even makes the old Puma look good. Normally I rarely take that machine off the trail.
The area near the Gulkana Glacier and around the Arctic Man site will make the hill-climbers smile. There have been a fair amount of machines in the area, so there are plenty of trails to follow. Summit Lake has had minimal traffic. The lake itself is good with no overflow except in the back corner toward the Denali Highway.
The Denali itself is in excellent condition all the way through to Cantwell. Recent rain did no damage to the trail. The lodge at Maclaren isn't open at this time, but there are folks available there if there is an emergency. Alpine Creek Lodge is open for business at milepost 68. The snow is dandy at least until Mile 62, which is as far as I've been. Word of mouth and pictures tell me that conditions beyond are very good.
These days, most traffic along the Denali comes from the Cantwell end of the road. Wasilla and Anchorage folks don't have to travel far to tackle the west end, but the east end of the highway is a longer drive. Be aware of a number of dog teams training in the area. Dog teams have marginal lights when compared to a snowmachine. If the light is blinking, the odds are good it's a musher's headlamp.
Twenty-five years ago, you worried little about running into a dog team along the Denali. The snow around Willow and Wasilla was always good for teams to train on. These days, the new normal is wet snow and rain. Dog teams have moved farther north to train.
Snowmachine traffic has also shown a marked increase in the Denali area. The advent of bigger, faster, more dependable machines allows riders to become more adventuresome. No longer is a 200 mile day an uncommon feat.
I remember a trip in the 1970s from Paxson to Cantwell and back. I was on a Skidoo Elan and my buddy was on a John Deere Spitfire. It took us almost 24 hours to make the round trip. Today, the same trip could be done in six hours with time for lunch in Cantwell.
But just because you can go fast doesn't mean it's a requirement. Most people still like to putter, climb hills and look at the scenery. So, load up the machines and come take a look at the snow in the mountains north of Anchorage.
If you can't make it this weekend, don't worry, the snow isn't going anywhere for awhile. Conditions will continually improve, daylight will lengthen and more snow will certainly come. Take advantage of global warming and enjoy the ride.
John Schandelmeier is a life-long Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He's a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.