Return to Resurrection Pass, Alaska

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All week, I told everyone I know that the riding on Resurrection Pass is perfect.  “Right now, you gotta go now!”  Lael listened to it over and over, and as she scanned photos, she asked questions about the cabins and the trail.  By Friday, it seemed that I was destined to return with her.  A few piles of equipment come together on the floor in preparation for our early departure on Sunday morning.

We promptly depart mid-afternoon.

On the trail only a few hours before sunset, we roll upstream without a plan.  Clear skies, exactly like our trip last week, are an assuring sign.

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By now, the sun passes over the valley onto the far hillside.  Temperatures are cool, but nothing a little uphill pedaling can’t erase.  A fresh inch of snow over last week’s ice is both a blessing and a curse.  Fresh snow improves traction in some situations; elsewhere, it conceals hazards.

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Fresh ice pours from the hillside in a few places.  Lael has about 250 Grip Studs in her tires.  A few early-season bruises convinced her that studs are a good thing.

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Only a few tracks are found on the trail, including one tire track and several boot tracks.

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Crossing Resurrection Creek at sunset, seven miles from the trailhead, we start thinking about shelter.  There are three cabins along this section of trail: Caribou Creek, Fox Creek, and East Creek.  Cabins are available for rental throughout the Chugach National Forest.  Without a plan, and with the option to bivy outside, we continue on the trail for another hour.

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At dusk, we poke our heads into the Fox Creek Cabin.  No one is here.  We start a fire and unlace our shoes.

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Nearing the equinox and 12 hours of sunlight, officially, we already count more than 12 hours of usable light.  Twilight lasts forever, and grows longer by the day.  Later this week, our days will be longer than yours (unless you live in Fairbanks!)

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Dinner is mostly taken from the depths of the refrigerator and freezer at home.  A couple of hot dogs roasted on a stick are gourmet fare when away from a kitchen.  Toasted corn tortillas, melted cheese, and avocados round out the meal.  A sip of whiskey and water to wash it down.

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I am excited to sleep outside, but a fire is a nice feature.  The cabin is warm through the night, as outside temperatures remain in the 20s.  Past midnight, a woman’s voice breaks my sleep.  Two dogs come rushing into the cabin, and the energy of a late night hike is quickly part of the cabin.  Two boys enter.  We exchange names as an official gesture, I forget them immediately, and Lael and I rearrange ourselves to make room.  The boys are quick to retreat to the top bunk, and to sleep.  The dogs are restless for a time, and Carolyn is ready to share stories of the trail.  She has been hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing this trail in winter for nearly twenty years.  Partway through the story of another year’s adventure, I fall back asleep.

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By morning, Lael and I fetch water from the stream for coffee and pack our things.  Cabins are nice, for a time.

Overnight, clouds have rolled in.  Snow falls.  Wind overhead teeters treetops.  Today is a whole different world.

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Lael is excited to explore.  This doesn’t look like the honeymoon ride I shared with the guys last week.  She couldn’t be happier.

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I’m always curious to find what she hides in her bags.  She fills her new Wanderlust top tube bag with a shaker of sea salt, formerly a plastic container of decorative cinnamon cake toppings.  A 5-Hour Energy signals a return to her old touring habits of caffeine-loading at gas stations.  The three yogurt-covered peanut clusters I’ve offered her as sustenance in the last hour have disappeared into her bag.  I also spot an espresso flavored energy gel, also caffeinated.  I promise, her framebag is filled with real food.  Apples are on Lael’s menu all day, every day.

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We ride up into clouds, snow, and sun, barely.

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In contrast to our ride last week, this is a whole other world.

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Cresting mounds of glacial gravel, rising above treeline, the wind presents itself in full.

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Nate and Bud and Lou have been fossilized in the mud from last week.  The ground is rock solid and windblown.

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Riding uphill and upwind, we stop at each major gust.  At twenty, thirty miles an hour, it challenges us to remain upright on the bikes.  At forty, fifty miles an hour, we stop and bow our heads.

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A good time to be wearing a snowboarding helmet, I think.  This was my little sister’s helmet 15 years ago.  Somehow it has made its way from NY.

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After pushing and riding for a few miles, we decide to turn around just short of the pass.  We consider running up and over the next small hill to see it, but the triviality becomes apparent as the wind gusts once again.  Lael is still smiling.  Not much will erase that.

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Of course, unrideable uphill trail is blazing fast in reverse, both downhill and downwind.  Gusts propel us through drifts.  We pass two hikers on the way down.  They watched us push into the wind a few minutes ago.  “It is a little easier in this direction”, I offer.

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This section of trail, with a healthy tailwind, ranks high.

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Lower, the trees provide shelter.

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We stop into the East Creek cabin to look around, and to warm our fingers.  As blood returns to our digits, the world begins to defrost as well.

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After lunch and a nap a few miles further down the trail at the Fox Creek Cabin, the two hikers arrive just as we are leaving.  We pass the warm cabin to them.

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A fresh layer of snow makes any landscape more beautiful.

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Back down to the bridge, we look forward to a quick ride out to the trailhead.

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This week, I’ve revised my luggage.  We only have one well-worn seatpack between the two of us, so I attached a drybag to the underside of my saddle.  I’m thinking I’ll stitch some straps to the bag to make a permanent seatpack out of it.  For just more than the price of the bag (13L Big River Dry Bag, about $30), it presents a cheap solution to lightweight packing, especially in conjunction with my preferred Sea-to-Summit compression drybag (size S/10L) up front.

Same as last week, I also packed a Porcelain Rocket framebag, Revelate Gas Tank and Williwaw pogies, and Randi Jo bartender bag.

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Lael uses a Revelate framebag, Viscacha seatpack and Williwaw pogies; Randi Jo bartender bag, and a Sea-to-Summit compression drybag (size XS/6L) up front.  She loves her Salsa Mukluk.

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She is also using her new Beargrass top tube bag from Wanderlust Gear out of Missoula, MT.  The design features a single zipper down the center, and is almost the exact same size as my Revelate Gas Tank.  Always creative with her words, she’s calling it the Beargrasstank.  The Bunyan Velo “Get Rad” patch is sold out for now, but new patches have arrived.

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The snow accumulates, and the riding changes.  Ice is no longer a hazard, and steering is a little less precise in fresh snow.  For now, only a few inches pile up and the riding is great.

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A few hazards are hidden under the snow, but the landing is softened.

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The snow becomes very wet further down, and waterproof layers come out.

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Across Resurrection Creek one last time.

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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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