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Alaska has lots to offer in wintertime

Posted: November 28, 2013 - 11:56am
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry hikes up Tolovana Dome last March,  2013, on the way to Tolovana Hot Springs northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska. Mowry is hoping to make it to Hutlinana Hot Springs this winter. (AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Kristan Kelly)  AP
AP
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner outdoors editor Tim Mowry hikes up Tolovana Dome last March, 2013, on the way to Tolovana Hot Springs northwest of Fairbanks, Alaska. Mowry is hoping to make it to Hutlinana Hot Springs this winter. (AP Photo/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Kristan Kelly)

FAIRBANKS — It took a while but now that winter finally looks like it’s here to stay — that might be an understatement after the past week, eh? — it’s time to unveil my annual winter list of outdoor things to do.

You know the routine by now. Every summer and winter, I come up with a bunch of ideas for outdoor things to do and try to do as many of them as I can. Of course, we all know it’s really just an exercise in fantasy because I hardly accomplish any of the things I have on my list. In fact, I’ve even thought of compiling annual summer and winter lists of excuses why I didn’t accomplish any of the things on my list, but it would be too long.

Seriously, though, compiling a winter list of outdoor things to do is a great way to help get you through long, cold, dark days of winter in Fairbanks. It might provide that little motivation you need to pull yourself off the couch on one of those days to get outside and do something, even if it is only to take the dog for a walk.

The key is multi tasking, a skill that unfortunately I have never mastered. When you compile your list, think of multiple things you can do in one outing. For example, if I were to ski into Denali National Park and Preserve under a full moon, towing a pulk sled I built and spend the night in a snow cave I constructed, I could scratch five things off my list in one trip.

Don’t be shy, either. The more things you put on your list, the better chance you’ll have of actually scratching something off it. Remember, it’s better to dream big and fail than it is to dream small and fail. Take it from me, I should know.

With that in mind, here’s my list for the winter of 2013-14.

Whether you’re a skier, snowmachiner, dog musher, skijorer, snowshoer, walker or even if you’re in a wheelchair, this is one of the few things on my list that I actually accomplish every year, which is one of the reasons it’s there every year. Dates for this winter’s full moons are: Dec. 17; Jan. 16; Feb. 15; March 16; and April 15. Mark the dates on your calendar and get out and howl at the moon.

Everyone is doing it, and it’s time for me to give it a try. Fat-tired mountain bikes are all the new rage in Alaska and the Lower 48. From what I see and I’ve been told, my main concern is that I’ll like them so much I’ll want to buy one. At a minimum of $1,500, that’s not an option, which is why I’ll be renting or borrowing one.

This one’s been on my list for a couple years now and I can’t bear to take it off yet. From what I hear, Hutlinana Hot Springs, located about six miles off the Elliott Highway, isn’t quite as cozy as Tolovana Hot Springs, i.e. you have to pitch a tent instead of stay in a heated cabin, and there are no tubs to sit in, but it would be a lot cheaper and more rustic, both of which are right up my alley.

A new addition to the list and one that should probably be here every year to help break up the monotony of skiing around the gerbil wheel that is the 10-kilometer lighted loop at Birch Hill Recreation Area night after night after night after night, etc. There are enough trails around Fairbanks that this one shouldn’t be too hard.

This is something we should all do every winter, regardless of whether you’re a snowmachiner, dog musher, skier, skijorer, biker or snowshoer. It helps remind us that we live in Alaska, where getting off the grid isn’t all that difficult. So, whether it’s in the White Mountains National Recreation Area or the Chena River State Recreation Area, I’m going for maybe even on a glacier somewhere (see #19 below).

6) Attract some new birds to my feeders.

The only kinds of birds I get at my feeders are black-capped and boreal chickadees, red polls and a few pine grosbeaks, in large part because the only food I put out are black-oil sunflower seeds. This year, I’m going to splurge on suet and a suet feeder to attract downy and hoary woodpeckers and maybe even a red-breasted nuthatch or two.

I bought a sled to do just this thing two years ago, but it wasn’t beefy enough, and I never got around to buying a sturdier one. There are all sorts of instructions on the Internet on how to build a pulk sled; it’s just a matter of deciding what you want and how much you want to spend.

I’m not talking about skiing into a cabin in the White Mountains National Recreation Area on a groomed trail. I’m talking about putting the gators on, breaking out (or borrowing, since I don’t own any) a pair of metal-edged skis and breaking trail through a foot or two of snow. A friend of mine wants to ski 150 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Wiseman in the Brooks Range, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that.

Here’s the plan. You round up a few friends with snowmachines, split into two groups and head down to each end of the 135-mile, unmaintained highway between Cantwell and Paxson. One group heads in from the Paxson end on the Richardson Highway and one group heads in from the Cantwell end off the Parks Highway. You meet in the middle, camp out for a night or two, swap vehicle keys and arrive at the other end with a vehicle waiting for you.

I put this one on my list for the first time last year and didn’t do it so I’m hoping we get at least one decent cold snap this winter. You know the photo I’m talking about: Standing in front of a digital thermometer in a Speedo when it reads 40-something below. I’ve lived in Fairbanks for 24 winters and I’ve never done it. It may sound corny, but it’s one of those things you have to do at least once if you live in Fairbanks.

Believe it or not, I’ve lived in Alaska for 27 years and never traveled into Alaska’s most-famous national park during the winter. Whether it’s a day trip or a multi-day trip, I want to see what the park looks like in the winter. The best part is that during the winter you don’t have to worry about tourists getting in the way or bears eating you.

The aurora borealis is one of the greatest light shows on Earth and we’ve got a free, front-row seat to watch them every winter. This winter, I’m going to make sure I take advantage of it.

Another item that’s been on my list in past years that I’ve never done, in large part because I don’t own a gas-powered ice auger. I do have a hand auger that I picked up at a garage sale several years ago that I’ve never used before, though. It’s time I put it to use and brought home some poor man’s lobster.

Whether it’s on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ ice climbing tower or in the Alaska Range, I want to give this a try, even if I’m not a big fan of heights. My wife and son tried out the UAF ice tower last winter and had a ball. This winter, it’s my turn.

Even if it’s in my own front yard, I think this would be a cool thing to do — literally. The only problem is I tend to be a little on the claustrophobic side and snow caves tend to remind me of caskets. Maybe I can build one big enough to stand in, and I’ll be OK.

As I’ve said before, I’m not talking about sitting in a warm, cozy cabin, playing cribbage and sipping wine. I’m talking about packing down a camping spot in the snow with a pair of snowshoes, pitching a tent or building a snow shelter, using spruce boughs for a bed and waking up to 20-degree below temperatures. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Who wants to join me because I don’t think my wife will want to go?

OK, maybe this is a stretch now that I’m 50 and the thought of leaving the ground for anything scares the hell out of me, but I do plan to go downhill skiing a few times this winter. My son, Logan, and I managed to make the last weekend at Skiland on May 5 last spring and it was awesome but I’m not sure if I want winter to stick around as long this year as it did last year.

It’s been something that’s been on my list many times and I have yet to do it. If you’re a trapper and you wouldn’t mind having me tag along for the day as you inspect your ‘line, give me a call.

I added this one last year, and it’s still here. The Alaska Alpine Club maintains three glacier huts in the Delta Range — the Thayer Hut on the Castner Glacier and the Lower Canwell and MacKeith huts on the Canwell Glacier. It’s first-come, first-served, so you’d have to plan it right, and it would require at least a seven-mile ski up either glacier, but it would be more of a wilderness experience than skiing into a cabin in the White Mountains. The U.S. Geological Survey hut at the top of the Gulkana Glacier is also a possibility, and we could snowmachine to that one.

Whether it’s knitting a pair of socks, carving a canoe paddle or building a birch bark basket, I think it would be neat to take a class at the Folk School. They offer some really cool classes and have some awesome instructors.

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