On February 21st of this year, Brent Voorhees and I were pleased to find a recently made snowmachine trail as we skied north on Caribou Creek, accessed from Mile 107 on the Glenn Highway, just past Lion’s Head.
On this, my third time north into the drainage, I was hoping to finally reach the icefall that blocks the canyon – previously described in this space.
The first two miles of the ski was idyllic, with snow soft enough for our skis to grab, the temperature about 15 degrees and very little wind. The bright sun was striking some places along the trail, offering rejuvenating warmth. Contrasted against a stark blue sky to the north, rose a prominent feature named Fortress Ridge, part of the Talkeetna Mountains. Resembling a gigantic wall, it did indeed look like a fortress guarding the lower canyon.
But rounding the corner where the stream turns east, I was surprised, even amazed, to find nearly identical conditions to the year before. At the sharp bends of the creek, ice jams had created huge sheets of ice. Because of high winds, which I now realize are frequent in this area, the ice was clear of snow and polished to a point beyond slippery. Winds were funneling through the canyon from the northeast, exactly opposite of what was forecast.
We carefully picked our way around the icy sections, searching for the tiniest patches of snow for our skis to grip. At one point we had to take our skis off and gingerly hike around the ice. It struck me that perhaps the best way to get into this drainage in winter would be hiking with Kahtoola micro-spikes, as I did part way in 2017; or using summer, hip boots.
Popular recreation site: Historically, Caribou Creek drew considerable interest from gold miners, hunters, and trappers.
And to this day there are active mining claims in the drainage. Private 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 and I noticed that many of them weren’t as large, or colorful, as the year before.
After about three miles, the canyon narrows considerably, and the landscape becomes more dramatic. We were surprised to see those snow machine tracks continuing through some fairly difficult areas.
The constriction of the canyon was accelerating the wind, creating what’s called the Venturi effect.
A single set of ski tracks indicated that some intrepid soul shared our stubbornness and kept forging ahead.
After about 2-1/2 hours of skiing, photographing ice falls that clung to the canyon walls, and inching our way around tempestuous ice, I came around a sharp bend and finally saw it: a 15-foot-high ice fall blocking the canyon.
“We made it!” I yelled excitedly to Brent, who was about 50 yards behind me. “I’m not as goal-oriented as I was in my younger days,” I told him as he caught up, “but I’ve wanted to find this spot for quite some time.”
The wind had diminished, so we took a break for lunch– looking longingly to the cliffs above–bathed in sunlight. A couple of ravens flew high overhead, seemingly disinterested in our presence.
“Ice climbers could make short work of this icefall and continue farther up the canyon,” I told Brent. “It ties into Squaw Creek trail and back out to the Glenn Highway.”
Skiing back out of the canyon seemed much easier since we had previously identified the tricky spots to avoid ice.
Even with the temperature in the 15 to 20-degree range, the wind chill factor put it closer to zero. It was a relief to find a few sunny spots as we skied downstream.
Not far from our turnaround point I saw some fox tracks in the snow, and about three miles from the highway I heard the faint calls of a coyote. It sounded as if it were high in the hills beneath Fortress Ridge. Brent called my attention to a lone bull moose farther downstream, and the animal remained a few hundred yards ahead of us all the way to the highway bridge.
The 14.4-mile round trip took about five hours and would have been somewhat faster without all of the ice. It’s a nice trip, but the only way I’d ever venture back in there would be immediately after a sizeable snowfall. Cross country skis and ice do not mix!
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.