With a scant snow covering over the frozen stream, skiing was not ideal, but tolerable, as we slowly made our way north along Caribou Creek.
That was until we rounded a sharp bend and came upon a sheet of glare ice that made skis totally useless. And with a headwind of about 25 miles per hour, we began flailing around like drunken penguins.
Unfortunately, I’d left my Kahtoola micro-spikes at home. And with the wind chill—which I estimate was about -10 degrees F. —taking skis off and carrying them around difficult stretches like this was quite a challenge.
It was early February of this year. Eagle River’s Scott Sims and I decided we’d try to ski in about five miles north and east on Caribou Creek, accessed at Mile 107 of the Glenn Highway. After reading that at five miles the stream is blocked by a large ice fall, we wanted to go see it for ourselves.
Three days earlier I had hiked in about four miles, wearing Kahtoolas. A year before that I hiked in about two miles, which I wrote about in Echo. On this day, February 9, it was clear and sunny and some of that sunlight was reaching into the canyon.
Historically, Caribou Creek drew considerable interest from gold miners, hunters and trappers. And to this day there are active mining claims in the drainage. Mining property and equipment are to be respected.
In more recent times, the area has become a popular haven for ice climbers who have identified about 20 ice falls that they’ve assigned evocative names such as, “The Abomination of Sublimation,” “Night Moves,” “Polar Shrimp,” “Ragtime,” and “Barrel of Monkeys.”
Most of the sizeable ice falls are beyond three miles upstream.
Turning east: Skiing, of course, was faster than hiking, and we made good progress to about Mile 2, where the stream takes a sharp bend to the east. To the north rose a prominent feature named Fortress Ridge, rising up to about 5,000 feet. Resembling a gigantic wall, it did indeed look like a fortress guarding the lower canyon.
From this point the canyon narrowed and the scenery became more dramatic. But we also faced directly into wind that was coming from the northeast. The constriction of the canyon was accelerating the wind, creating what’s called the Venturi effect. It was blowing away the snow and actually polishing the river ice!
We both apparently shared a streak of stubbornness and forged ahead, eventually finding more sheltered areas that still had snow for skiing.
“Our skis are happy again,” I shouted to Scott over the wind.
With conditions the way they were, we weren’t surprised that no one else was in the canyon. We spotted one moose earlier in the day.
For about two hours we worked our way upstream, searching for a side fork, Fortress Creek, that is near the point where the stream is blocked by the large ice fall. We believed we were getting close. Finally, as we rounded yet another bend at about 4-1/2 miles, we were greeted by a large gap in the ice–with open water that blocked our passage.
Many times I’ve seen the look of people who don’t want to give up. It’s a disbelieving, vacant stare.
I’m sure I’ve worn that look many times. We stood there several minutes staring at the yawning gap, and then finally accepted reality. Kahtoola spikes and a pair of Neos waders would have allowed us to go farther. But we were both cold and we agreed we’d done pretty well for the day.
We retreated and found a sheltered spot for some lunch, then continued downstream. We weren’t looking forward to the corner with wall to wall glare ice. But after more flailing and cussing on my part, we were on our way out of the canyon. A hamburger at Lone Rifle Lodge capped the day off very well.
As I’ve said before in other columns, there is always the inner drive to go farther. We both agreed that with some more snow, warmer weather and longer days, we’d give it another shot.
Frank E. Baker is an Echo team member and freelance writer who is an avid outdoor recreationist. He lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired school teacher.