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Sled heads

For snowmachiners, winter isn't time to hibernate

Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2005

 

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  Shawn Anderson and Kris Maxie watch as Al Wingster performs maintenance on his snowmachine in the Turnagain Pass parking lot before the three headed back into the mountains to ride. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Dylon Wolcott goes airborne while snowmachining in Turnagain Pass last weekend. The area is one of several popular spots to ride on the Kenai Peninsula.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For many Alaskans, winter means a seemingly endless stretch of long, dark months spent hunkered down indoors, waiting tirelessly for the first harbingers of spring.

Not snowmachiners.

Each fall, a large number of Kenai Peninsula residents wait anxiously for the first couple of feet to blanket the ground enough to enable them to take to the mountains, hills and forests atop 500-pound machines capable of reaching speeds in excess of 100 mph.

And when the first snow flies, it's usually a good bet many of the peninsula's snowmachine enthusiasts will head for out-of-the-way places like Mystery Creek, Lost Lake, Turnagain Pass or the Caribou Hills.

For the average recreational rider based on the central peninsula, the Caribou Hills are probably the most popular destination during winter.

Located in the heart of the peninsula just to the east of Ninilchik, the hills feature hundreds of miles of trail riding and plenty of backcountry real estate. They also boast a couple hundred recreational cabins that dot the landscape and serve as a kind of wintertime community for the hundreds of riders who head for the hills each weekend.

Rocky and Gigi Zoubek own the Straight Inn (better known to locals as "Rocky's), which is in the heart of the hills. Part lodge, part community center, the inn is a central gathering place for "sled heads" throughout the winter.

"Mostly our business is on the weekend," Rocky said during a slow weekday afternoon recently.

Since most of the people who ride in the hills have regular jobs (a typical new snowmachine can typically cost somewhere in the $7,000 range), Zoubek said the hills get pretty quiet during the week. He said most riders begin to move into the hills Thursday evening and stick around through the weekend.

"Sunday is the big go-home day," he said.

While in the hills, many riders usually stay at one of the many cabins, of which Zoubek estimates could number as many as 500 or 600 structures.

 

Two snowmachine riders head up a well-tracked slope in Turnagain Pass last weekend.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Those who visit his lodge usually just stop in to shoot the bull or grab a bite to eat. But Zoubek said he also likes to host events at his lodge, including snowmachine drag races, a kids' day, a global positioning system event and a "Women of the Wilderness" event that raises money for breast cancer research.

It's all designed to create a family friendly atmosphere where men, women, young kids and hardened trail riders can get out of the elements and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of the lodge.

But just because the Straight Inn is in the heart of the peninsula's riding mecca, Zoubek said he — like anyone connected to the world of snowmachining — is always worried about what the weather might decide to do.

Some years, he said, the hills come alive each weekend from November through March with the buzz of machines. Other years — this one included — warm, wet weather, or worse, no snow at all, can put a big damper on the riding.

"It's been a little slow because of the weather," he said. "Every time it snowed it rained it off. Our thing is always weather related."

Because of the seasonal nature of his business, Zoubek said it's not easy running a business. Although the majority of his customers come during the winter, he noted he's now trying to expand the lodge's business into the summer months by hosting a music festival and barbecue cook-off. However, with most people only getting up to the hills when the snow is flying, he said that's not easy.

"I've just got to find a way to keep paying the taxes," he said.

 

Kris Maxie plots a route into the Kenai Mountains with friends during a soda break in Turnagain Pass. Some riders like to high-mark on slopes in the pass while others enjoy touring the backcountry.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When the weather is nice, however, there are few places riders want to be other than cruising through the hills.

Soldotna's Dan Connelly said he tries to get on his sled as much as possible during the winter during his monthly two weeks off from working on the North Slope. He spent a recent afternoon touring the hills on his 3-year-old Polaris RMK 600 under sunny skies and temperatures in the upper-30s — nearly ideal conditions for spring riding.

"You couldn't beat the weather," Connelly said while taking off his helmet and loading his machine onto a trailer for the drive back to Soldotna.

Connelly said his afternoon ride took him from a parking lot just north of Clam Gulch on the western edge of the peninsula into the hills near Rocky's and even up past the tree line in the hills.

 

Shawn Anderson and Kris Maxie watch as Al Wingster performs maintenance on his snowmachine in the Turnagain Pass parking lot before the three headed back into the mountains to ride.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It was pretty quiet," he said.

Connelly said when he's alone, he prefers to cruise established trails and maybe do some light off-trail riding. Riding a fast, heavy sled through the wilderness can be difficult and even dangerous, and Connelly said an experience earlier this winter taught him to take things easy when he's on his own.

"In January I got tossed off my sled in the dark," he said. "I don't go too crazy when I'm by myself."

While some riders take to the hills alone, many ride in pairs or small groups. And just because the Caribou Hills are an ideal place for trail riding, that doesn't mean all of the peninsula's riders are content to cruise around and enjoy the outdoors.

Many instead prefer to head north to Turnagain Pass or into the Kenai Mountains, where mountain riding provides these adrenaline-starved riders with plenty of sustenance. These riders take bigger risks, like catching huge air off drop-offs or powering straight uphill only to come screaming back down the slope at breakneck speed.

These are the types of riders you see on television at the X-Games or in underground snowmachine videos. These riders tend to be younger and more willing to take risks. In fact, an entire subculture has sprung up around this type of aggressive, hard-nosed riding.

Kenai's Matt Brown knows all about these riders. As the owner of the AK-49 clothing company, Brown has made it his business to sell his edgy clothing designs to snowmachine and motorcycle enthusiasts both in Alaska and Outside.

Brown said his clothing line is especially popular with riders looking for something a little more hard-core than Carhartts and snow pants. He's even begun to sell to professional riders hoping to add some Alaska credibility to their wardrobe.

"Something that's black and has skulls on it, those guys love it," Brown said during a recent drag race event held in the Caribou Hills.

Brown's small Alaska company began selling out of the Mountain Madness snowmachine shop on Kalifornsky Beach Road. Now, he said they've got a Web site and he travels Outside to market his products to the nation.

Although there's a number of areas and styles to choose from, riding snowmachines on the Kenai Peninsula definitely seems to be a growth industry. A quick drive down Oil Well Road in Ninilchik will reveal a number of new cabins built specifically for winter fun. And a good snow weekend usually fills gas station parking lots with trailers and eager riders stocking up on supplies for a run into the backcountry.

Some do it for the solace of a nice ride through the trees. Others are attracted to the thrill of speed and adrenaline. Still others just like getting out of the house and spending time with like-minded folks up in the hills.

 

Dylon Wolcott jumps his Ski-Doo MXZX-440 racing sled off the top of a hill in Turnagain Pass. The area offers something for every type of rider.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For whatever reason they do it, snowmachiners certainly have one thing in common: They've found a way to get more than their share of enjoyment from the snow that covers their home for the winter.

Don Connelly said riding is the best way he knows to make the long peninsula winter speed past.

"Everybody says it's too boring in the winter," Connelly said before hopping into his truck and heading home after a successful ride through the Caribou Hills.

"Not quite."



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