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Arctic-to-Indian trek is spring escape

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published April 6, 2009

SHIP CREEK VALLEY -- There was no missing the moose kill. It was almost in the middle of the trail not many miles below the Arctic Valley Road. The wolves had been thorough in their consumption.

Often this is not the case, but this time there was not much left -- a pile of hair, the chewed end of a scapula, half of a broken femur with the marrow gnawed out. The moose appeared to have been small, probably a calf born last spring. It was likely still tagging along with its mother when the fates of the wild caught up with it.

Beyond the edges of civilization, this is the way the world works. The rules of nature are simple. The weak die mostly, and most of the weak are the young.

That this world continues to exist so close to the modern urban center that is Anchorage is what is sometimes mind boggling.

After all these years, knowing full well that only one Chugach Mountain ridge removed from Alaska's largest city there is a land as wild and as primitive as any national park, this valley still fills me with a simple sense of awe.

On Sunday we completed what has become something of an annual spring pilgrimage from Arctic Valley through the Ship Creek drainage to Indian Pass and out the Indian Creek Trail to the edge of that Turnagain Arm community. We crossed one moose kill; many fresh tracks of moose, wolves, wolverine, coyotes and red foxes; and put up bunches of the clucking, white ptarmigan that winter high in the basin around Ship Lake.

The traffic-clogged Glenn Highway, the people-packed Dimond Mall, and the crowded Century Theatres where others go seeking temporary escape could have been 100 miles away instead of only about a straight-line distance of 10.

To the west, the city of a quarter million on the edge of Cook Inlet was lost behind the mile-high summits of Temptation and Tanaina peaks. Their ridges bit into the pale, blue sky with white, jagged teeth.

To the east, the smoother ridges above South Fork Eagle River dipped and rolled toward the craggy, unnamed peak that rises west of Symphony Lake.

In the valley defined by these mountains, we followed the ski tracks of others on a route that quickly abandoned the established Ship Creek trail in favor of the ice-covered surface off the creek. The official trail, only marginally maintained by Chugach State Park in the best of times, is poorly marked and sometimes thick with blow-down timber in the wake of the storms howling through the country in October, November and December.

Thus the ski trail of winter tends to go wherever the first skier over the route puts it. This trail wandered back and forth across the creek on failed and failing ice bridges, into the timber and brush above cut banks and out onto snow-covered beaver ponds before finally picking up the historic route near the confluence of the creek and its North Fork.

As always, it was a big, wild tour the whole way.

Most places in the world, people would pay good money to expose themselves to an adventure like this. It cost us a few gallons of gas to make the drive from the city up the Arctic Valley Road to the trail head where begins the rapid descent into the wild.

Those first three miles down into the valley are either loved or loathed, depending on one's skiing skill and, sometimes, the choice of ski.

On short, sidecut, waxless skis with metal edges, the icy, three-mile-long, 1,000 foot drop down a narrow trail on a sunny but still chill Sunday morning was challenging, but skiable. The fresh prints of ski boots ahead on the trail did, however, indicate others had concluded otherwise and thought it better to hike down than risk breaking something.

The conditions were such that on skinny skis it would have been a tricky descent for even the best of skiers, which leads into a quick discussion of the compromise always facing skiers on this 22-mile route.

Do you gear up for the trip with a light-duty backcountry ski, a fast track-ski or maybe even a skate ski guaranteed to make for quick going for 13 miles through the spruce and cottonwood forests into the broad and open upper Ship Creek Valley? Or do you pick a slower, heavier and shorter backcountry ski that will aid in that first, three-mile descent and the last, 2,100-foot, six-mile-long drop from Indian Pass to the trail head near Turnagain Arm?

For one who has done this trail on short, wide, waxless skis that offered no glide whatsoever in fresh, soft snow (snowshoes might have almost been better) as well as fast, skinny, waxed skis impossible to manage on the descents, this can be a difficult choice. I wrestled with it Saturday night, then went with some short, fat waxless skis, thinking it would be better to be slow and under control than fast and unable to ski parts of the route.

As it turned out, the short fats worked far better than expected on a mid-route trail glazed in many places with a crust of ice formed as the result of the recent dusting of ash from the explosion of Redoubt volcano. The short fats grabbed that trail with their usual tenacity, but then amazingly shot ahead across the slippery surface as if they were real cross-country skis.

Sometimes, when ghosting along behind friend David Predeger, I felt sorry for him on a pair of old-fashioned, metal-edged, waxless backcountry touring skis. They obviously weren't getting much kick, which is always frustrating, and his glide was no better than mine. By Indian Pass, 16 miles into what would turn out to be a six-hour day, he was showing the physical costs of inefficient equipment, though he soldiered on without complaint as Jim Jager, also on a pair of short fats, dropped out of the Pass onto the luge-run to the finish.

This descent can be as challenging as the one at the beginning of the trail, but it was almost pleasant Sunday -- at least, if you were properly geared up, mentally prepared and able to ignore the ski-boot postholes pock-marking the trail. The snow was soft enough in the April sun that there was really no need for hiking down the trail by late afternoon, but some obviously had.

We skied, enjoying adequate and forgiving snow that was a treat. In many recent years, the lower three miles or so of the trail has been melting and falling to pieces by now.

Not so this year, as the two- or three-dozen people on the route Sunday discovered.

Catch it while you can, though. Given National Weather Service forecasts for temperatures starting to climb into the 40s, the route as punched in this year won't last much longer.

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

CRAIG MEDRED

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