Avid snowshoers enjoy backcountry

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010

Sunrays glittering through iced branches, the squeaky crunch of dry snow, and the pink alpenglow of the mountains. This is the Alaska snowshoeing allows you to experience. Snowshoeing takes you into the backcountry beauty of winter Alaska without the hordes of tourists, without the fear of being slammed by a bicycle, and mostly without the fear of bears.

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Photo By Polly Crawford
Photo By Polly Crawford
Sisters-in-law Mary Green and Connie Green pause by the Kenai River before heading up the Russian River Falls trail newar Cooper Landing for a snowshoeing excursion.

Mary and Connie Green (sisters-in-law) are avid snowshoers. They take to the trails at least two to three times a week, most often heading toward Cooper Landing.

"We like to take the extra 30 minutes it takes to come to Cooper Landing because you don't have all the rules," Mary said.

Tagging along with her are her two dogs, Callie and Hannah. The rules she's referring to are the ones at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters and the Tsalteshi Trails: no dogs.

They do, however, suggest those trails, particularly Wolverine Trail of the Tsalteshi Trails, for getting in shape. Wolverine, accessible from Kalifornsky Beach Road, is a bit easier than the other trails. Once that is mastered, they suggest moving on to steeper ones. While snowshoeing, though, they warned to stay off the classic ski tracks. Tsalteshi Trails guidelines ask snowshoers to use the side of the trail opposite of the classic tracks.

For those not too fit and still wanting a mountain experience, Russian Lakes Trail is a good choice. The workout begins with a gentle incline on the campground road, which is groomed for skiing, including a classic track. Then the trail takes off to the left, 3.3 miles to Lower Russian Lake, and 2.3 miles to Russian River Falls. The trail has a gentle incline so even beginners can make their way slowly up the slope with frequent stops. Even if they don't make it all the way to the falls, there's a bridge over an open-water creek that makes a good lunch destination, probably about four miles total round trip.

A $5,000 grant has just allowed a groomer to be purchased for Cooper Landing, and the operators are grooming the road to the Russian River campground.

The Russian Lakes Trail itself was hardpacked: fine for snowshoeing or even just hiking, but difficult for skiing. The best part about snowshoeing is that it's easy. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. There's no real technique involved, unlike cross-country or telemark skiing. Plus you can go places where skiing would be nearly impossible.

Another trail Mary and Connie favor is the Resurrection Winter Trail. It's more open and it's on the southern side of the mountain, which means there's more sun, but also more wind. It's a bit steeper than Russian Lakes, and not as popular, which may mean breaking trail occasionally, especially since this year is a non-snowmachine year. That means, except for local subsistence hunters and trappers, no snowmachines are allowed. While it may be nice not to have the threat of being mowed down by a snowmachine, it also means a lot of hard work breaking trail.

All the normal hiking trails can be snowshoed, but they caution that some may be prone to avalanche, and some, like Carter Lake Trail, are very steep. In the Skilak Loop area, some hike the Seven Lakes Trial, snowshoeing across the lakes, and then taking the trail to go overland. Cabin rentals are available both from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest.

According to Stephen Hmurciak, trail maintenance with the Seward District of the Chugach National Forest, Resurrection Trail up to Juneau Falls is packed down, and the first three miles of Devil's Pass is good. After that, it has a high avalanche risk. Other trails he suggested are Iditarod Trail, North Fork of the Snow River, and Crescent Creek Trail.

When Mary and Connie snowshoe, they are prepared for anything unexpected. "Safety is always first," said Connie as she strapped a gun around her chest. "I always have a gun. Moose can get ornery. They don't want to get off the trail." During that day's trip, a big bull moose was spotted on the trail, but it obediently disappeared into the thick brush.

Sweat is the snowshoer's biggest enemy.

"It's all about layering," Mary said. "No cotton!" she added adamantly. "Cotton gets wet and stays cold."

This day's temperature was a balmy 14 degrees, no wind. They suggested starting with polypropylene or Smartwool next to the skin, as the material wicks moisture away from the body core. After that, a layer or two of polar fleece with a windbreaker on top, depending on the temperature.

The hands and feet are very important. It's a good idea to keep dry, smart wool or polypropylene socks and boots off until ready to begin snow shoeing, so feet don't get a head start on sweating. Mary takes several gloves, including lightweight ones for eating lunch, and heavier mittens for snowshoeing.

She has extras in case the first ones get wet. On their heads they both wear handspun and hand-knitted hats by Cooper Landing resident Rachel-Jean Sullivan of Hibernation Textiles.

While snowshoes are the main gear, they both reported it's not necessary to go crazy with expense. Mary got hers at Costco for $70. They both reported seeing snowshoes for sale everywhere from Three Bears and Walmart to Wilderness Way, Beemun's, Fred Meyer, and Trustworthy. Easy bindings are important, and while wider is better for breaking trail, narrower ones are easier to walk in. Any boots will work, preferably ones that are comfortable for hiking.

Connie has a sled attached to her waist that hauls all the safety gear and lunch. In it are emergency fire starters, a first-aid kit, headlamps, and a weatherproof blanket. She says it's easy to pull, and she could even pull an injured person down the trail.

The round trip up to the bridge on Russian Lakes Trail took three hours. Nobody got cold and the scenery was magnificent -- definitely a way to break Alaska's traditional cabin fever.

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