Run for the hills!

Posted: Thursday, December 31, 2009

Despite it being what is traditionally the coldest time of the year, the wet weather which began prior to the Christmas holiday has continued to soak the peninsula.

Photo By Joseph Robertia
Photo By Joseph Robertia
Michael Moerlein of Kasilof launches off a snowbank in the Caribou Hills last weekend. With many winter recreationists skating on thin ice at lower elevations, the Caribou Hills have become the salvation of many.

Like a sopping sleeping bag after a rainy night in a leaky tent, many lowland areas are starting to show exposed earth between the patches of ice now polished slick and smooth from the freeze-thaw cycle of cool nights and unseasonably warm days.

This has put a damper on many winter activities, but there are a few winter oases for those willing to travel.

"It's the only game in town," said Chet Meyers of Soldotna in regard to the snow conditions in the Caribou Hills, located 50 miles south of Soldotna and 15 miles east of Ninilchik.

So far this season two feet of snow has accumulated in what locals refer to as simply "the hills," with some drifted areas having even greater depths.

Meyers said he and his family spent the Christmas holiday at their cabin in the hills after snowmachining in to it. They weren't alone, as the hills are a popular holiday destination for many snowmachiners traveling to their weekend homes-away-from-home, or just spending the day traveling to remote areas.

"Sure there's snow in Turnagain and Lost Lake, but this is just so much closer, and right now it seems its primarily riders from the peninsula, while folks from Anchorage and Seward are hitting those other spots."

Michael Moerlein of Kasilof also ventured to the hills with his sister and a friend last weekend. He said the trio also came due to the close proximity.

"It's the closest place with snow," he said. "My friend got a snowmachine at the beginning of the season and he's been wanting to ride, so we came up to tool around."

Due to the lack of snow in many locations at lower elevations, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge portion of the hills is not yet open for motorized use, so riders can't hit many popular locations like Ptarmigan Head, which at 2,860 feet is the highest point in the rideable area of the hills.

"We usually like riding up to Ptarmigan and dropping off the backside, but even with the refuge closed we can still get in 40 to 50 miles of riding easily," Moerlein said.

Like Moerlein's friend, Steve Williams of Anchor Point said if it wasn't for the hills, his new snowmachine would just be collecting cobwebs in the garage.

"I bought it with my (Alaska Permanent Fund) dividend check, but the way this winter's been, I'm wondering if I should have put the money toward something else," he said. "If it weren't for the occasional Saturday ride in the hills I'd totally regret the purchase."

Williams said he also spent enough on the new machine that he couldn't justify spending more this year to haul it too far north to chase snow in some of the other areas of the peninsula.

"With gas being what it is, it's expensive enough just to ride the darn thing," he said. "I can't be pulling it on a trailer practically all the way to Anchorage."

For some other snowmachiners the choice to ride in the hills is more about aesthetic than driving distances or finances. John Kerwood of Kasilof said he rides in the hills because of the beauty of the area itself.

"You're not just looking down at a highway like in Turnagain," he said. "I can drop down to Deep Creek, or go out and ride around Caribou Lake, or get up high and get sweeping views of Tustumena Lake. There's tree riding, above treeline riding, open swamps, just everything. It's very diverse."

And most importantly, Kerwood said the hills offer and alternative not afforded around the icy areas near his home.

"Down there, my yard's still a hockey rink," he said. "Nothing you can do with that on a snowmachine."

Joseph Robertia can be reached at

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