Winter Bikepacking Resurrection Pass Trail, Alaska

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The long nights of winter are waning, finally.  Riding our bikes has been paramount to avoiding seasonal blues– we ride to and from work, we meet for night rides on local singletrack, and we choose to ride all day in the sun when away from work.    

An even greater therapy is to get out for an overnight ride.  In a year where snow has been less common than ice and warm afternoons, many routes are supremely rideable.  Jeff Oatley’s 1000-mile, 10-day trek to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational is a great example.  His record improves upon notable rides by Mike Curiak and Jay Petervary by almost a week.  These are all very strong riders, and each of their record-setting rides has included favorable conditions.  This year was simply faster.  Every human-powered Iditarod record has fallen.

Resurrection Pass is a popular trail for hikers and bikers in the summer.  In winter, skiers enjoy the trail and snow machines are allowed every other calendar year.  In a snowmachine year, skiing and fatbiking conditions are improved by trail traffic, as each machine grooms a four-foot wide path.  This year, machines have groomed the trail, but for lack of snow, they have abandoned the trail for the last few weeks, avoiding exposed dry dirt and winding, icy trails.  Skiiers have also stayed away.  Following footprints along the trail, a few hikers have ventured the first few miles, but no further.  It seems, the only equipment that excels in these conditions is a fatbike, with studs.

Shooting out of town after work on Saturday night, Nate, Lucas, and I aim for a coastline plot near the settlement of Hope, about an hour away by car.  Experiences such as this are hard to miss while living in Alaska.  I’ve been hearing about Resurrection Pass for years.

Leaving the city at night makes the whole operation feel like a tactical mission.  Loading and unloading gear adds to the fiction.  Our fatbikes also play the part of special ops vehicles.

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By morning, a heavy layer of frost covers our equipment along Turnagain Arm.  South Anchorage is barely ten miles away, although the road reaches around to the end of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet at Portage, then over a low pass down to Hope which is situated at the end of the road.  The trailhead is several miles up a smaller road from Hope.

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I stay warm with a lightweight 30deg bag, and as many bag liners as I can find at home.  The air is a little moist, but I rest well under the stars.  It is nice to be sleeping outside again.

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Low fog is replaced by clear skies as the sun begins its work for the day.  Nearing the equinox, daylight almost measures 12 hours per day.  On a clear day, there is already more than 12 hours of useful light.  Twilight seems to last forever.

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The trail begins with massive overflow ice.  Two of use are well equipped with Grip Studs.  By the time we return on Monday, the third in our party is in the market for some studs.  

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In many places, most of the snow has melted away, save for the crusty swathe of snow remaining from snowmachine traffic.  In the absence of ice, snow conditions are fast and traction is even better than on dry dirt, especially with our aggressive tires.  Nate and Bud and Lou ride high, knobs biting into the crust. 

Ice and crust.

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Ice and dry dirt.

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Off-camber ice.

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Ice and bridge crossings.

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Ice and icy rivers.

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Crossing the bridge over Resurrection Creek, we begin our ascent onto the glacial moraine, and up above the trees.  Signs of recent glaciation abound.  This is old gold mining country. 

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Above the creek, we enjoy easy pedaling and views down the valley.

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Intermittent side drainages.   We descend, and ascend serpentine trail.  Moments of mountain biking are mixed with a pleasant pedal.

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Gaining…

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gaining…

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…gaining…

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…out of the trees, and into the alpine tundra.  This is the last tree for a while.

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Passing close to the hillside, the sun disappears.  It is a bit colder in the shade.

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If we keep moving we’ll see more sun.

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Finally, an anticlimactic rise leads us to Resurrection Pass, at 2600ft.  

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We begin to descend the drainage on the other side.  Our goal for the night is a Forest Service cabin a few miles away.  

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Our goal is also to catch a little more sun for the day.

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It is easy to stand around and talk in the sun.  We enjoy lots of standing around and talking and laughing, and just enough riding for one day.

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Normally, the pass is blanketed in snow this time of year.

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Cresting a rise, Devil’s Pass Cabin comes into view.  Like skiers at the end of a day, we carve turns down the hill to our resting place.  Bike in-bike out access is nice.  The crowds aren’t bad, and the views are alright.

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Late afternoon sun has warmed the cabin to 40 or or 45 degrees.  We unpack our things, remove our shoes, and soak in the sunlight. 

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We enjoy the sun until the very end of the day.

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By night, we busy ourselves with dinner and bed.

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The cabin cools to freezing, but remains warmer than the outside air.  The thermometer outside reads 9 degrees in the morning.

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Slowly packing our things is a luxury of not keeping a tight schedule.  

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The view from the outhouse isn’t bad.  The latch that operates from the inside is broken.  Breezy, but beautiful.  

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Packing up.  Can’t we just move here?

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From the cabin, the trail continues another 17 miles to the south towards Cooper Landing, and a series of lakes and cabins.  We return towards Hope, to the north.  We will also pass a series of cabins on our return trip.  The cabins are available for rent through the Chugach National Forest.  Additionally, they provide respite on a cold day, or in case of emergency.  Lucas made use of several of these cabins a few years ago when an attempt riding the trail in winter.  His trek stretched from two days, to five.  Eventually, they left their bikes at Fox Creek cabin and walked out.  

Our experience is much different.

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Crossing ice, crust, frozen tundra, and dry dirt, the trail is almost 100% ridable with fat tires and studs.  While I’ve tempered my fatbike evangelism, a winter in Alaska easily inspires year-round fatbike riding.  One bike for all seasons is a common topic of conversation.  “Fatbikes are awesome!” is a frequent observation.

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Nate and Lucas choose the snowmachine path along the hillside, while I pedal the frozen edges of beaver ponds.

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Grips Studs are great.  I wouldn’t trade this tire and stud combination for a pair of Dillingers, at least for this kind of exploratory riding.

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A bit of dry dirt jogs the memory, even though it has only been a few months.

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I find a shovel on the trail.  Nate is a part-time Big Dummy rider, and straps it to his handlebars.  “No junk left behind” seems to be a mantra among Big Dummy riders.

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He still manages to shred the descent with his new handlebar system.

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Down into the trees, we carve corners and unweight our tires over undulations left by machines.

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Our return trip is bound to take only half the time.  Hold on for the icy stuff!  We confess to each other that we ride from patch of dry dirt to dry dirt, where we can expect reliable braking traction.  Leave the brakes alone on the icy stuff.

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Several small drainages add topography to the descent.

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The lower cabins feature wood stoves.  Devil’s Pass cabin has an oil stove, although we didn’t use it.  The system seemed complicated, and appeared to be out of fuel.

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Lower, signs of spring are showing, although it may be premature.  Heavy snowfall is forecast this week.

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Fatbikes are awesome. 

My Salsa Mukluk is packed with Porcelain Rocket framebag; Revelate Williwaw pogies, Gas Tank and Viscacha seatpack; Randi Jo Bartender bag, and Sea-to-Summit compression dry bag on the handlebars.  I am riding tubeless 27tpi Nates with Grip Studs on drilled Rolling Darryl rims.  

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Lucas rides a Ti Salsa Mukluk with Carver carbon fork and Answer carbon 20/20 handlebar; Revelate framebag and seatpack; homemade pogies; and large Sea-to-Summit compression drybag.  We recently mounted his Bud and Lou tires to Marge Lite rims, tubeless. The split-tube method was chose for ultimate reliability.  He normally rides 100mm Clownshoe rims, although he wanted to try out his new lightweight wheelset.  For these conditions, the 100mm Clownshoe rims were not necessary.

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Looks like a Christmas present.

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Although some complain of sagging pogies, a nice feature of a flexible design is that they can be easily rolled out of the way when temperatures warm.  I prefer the easy access of my Revelate pogies, which are the most structured design around.

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Nate rides an older pink Fatback; packed with Revelate framebag, seatpack, and Gas Tank; Dogwood Design pogies, and a large dry bag to the handlebars.  The shovel is not normally part of his bikepacking load.  

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With a few extra hours, we explore the frozen river.  In winter, frozen bodies of water become Alaska’s superhighways.  This is not the best example, but such routes are integral to the Iditarod Tail, and other rural routes. 

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Bushwacking back to the trail, we follow the icy track back to the trailhead.

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Fatbike luge.

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Beware the off-camber sections.  More than once, I slide through corners with a foot down.

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As the sun falls, we crack a beer and load the bikes.  Who would have thought the riding would be so good?  The city of Anchorage is a mess of ice and puddles.  Skiing and snowmachining is nearly impossible on this trail right now.  While fatbikes aren’t always the best tool– such as when skies would be better, in deep snow– it is amazing the places they take us.  There are fewer and fewer places where a bicycle cannot be ridden.  Fatbikes are pretty cool.

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