One of the benefits of being located in the Fairbanks area in the winter is the plethora of packed trails that cover the landscape. The relatively higher number of skiers, snowmachines, dog teams, bikers and walkers create a formal and unformal groomed network throughout the region. This allows for an ease and quickness of travel off the road system that is not as easily found in remote areas. Northeast of Fairbanks is an even larger system of groomed trails. The White Mountains Recreation Area is a 1 million acre tract of public land managed by the BLM. In the winter, over 100 miles of trails are groomed for travelers. Besides its remoteness and the beautiful setting, the area attracts many with the 14 public use cabins held within its confines. Constructed by the BLM, these cabins offer accommodations for the recreational traveler. Spread throughout the area, the cabins are unique in design, offering space for 4 to 6 people via bunk beds and lofts. A woodstove, kitchen area, benches and a table round out the setting making for an attractive destination.
Over the past decade, fat tired bikes have risen in popularity from niche to that of the mainstream. In Alaska’s urban areas (Fairbanks and Anchorage), the sight of someone riding is a daily occurrence. Even outside Alaska, fatbikes are commonly seen, such as in my home state of Illinois. In many instances, fatbikes are not the right tool for the job, but that can’t be said of their use during the winter season in Alaska. These bikes have opened up areas and a new means of travel to those wishing to explore the outdoors throughout the winter season. No longer are winter recreationists stuck with skis. Instead, a faster means of travel is now available.
In November, I made my way down to Fairbanks in search of work. In the process, I ended up totaling my van on slick roads not far from home. I ended up heading down with a friend later on, but remained carless. I’m never been overly fond of owning a car and that still holds true. So instead of purchasing a new-to-me car, I bought a fatbike. I’d never been able to justify the cost before, but I was able to find a great value on an older used model. Once the bike arrived, I was riding everywhere, exploring all the local trails and enjoying my new acquisition. One of my friends, Ross, also had a fatbike and we decided to take a trip with the bikes out into the backcountry.
He had made a reservation at the Windy Gap cabin in the White Mountains. Located 32 miles from the Colorado Creek Trailhead, it is one of the more remote cabins off the road system. However, with a groomed trail, we didn’t imagine the distance to be a problem. Late in the winter, fat bikers, skiers and walkers compete in the White Mountains 100, an endurance race covering a 100 mile loop of the area. Often those who choose to bike will finish in well under 20 hours. With this in mind, we figured that our 32 miles shouldn’t be much of a challenge. The only thing that remained in doubt was the condition of the trails. Hard packed trails would allow us the quick travel we hoped for, while a softer trail would make for increased effort and a more arduous approach. On the area’s website, trail conditions were reported as “decent.” But what was their definition of decent? We aimed to find out.
Neither of us began with what would be considered an ideal means of packing gear. Ross was trying out his rear rack with a sleeping bag strapped atop and panniers hanging off either side. I had nothing mounted on my bike, instead carrying all my gear in a 55 L pack on my back. With this unorthodox setup, we left the trail head pedaling up into the hills.
Much of the early travelling was monotonous. While the area is called the White Mountains, there are very few hills that could actually be argued as being mountainous. Most are gradual and small hills that are commonly found throughout the Interior. The trail took us through black spruce forest, occasionally weaving through dense stretches but more often through old burn and open areas, providing an expansive view not typically found in the region. Ross is the faster rider between the two of us and he maintained the lead out front. Our bikes stayed atop the trail, yet the trail was softer than we had envisioned. We pedaled on, walking up and pushing our bikes up hills where the going got too steep and the trails too soft. Along our route to the Windy Gap cabin, we would be passing two other cabins, Colorado Creek and Burn. Unsure as to how far the first lay, we questioned our progress and wondered if we would be able to make it to our planned destination. We had thought the first cabin at Colorado Creek to be 8-10 miles from the trailhead, but nearly three hours in, we had not yet come across it. A stretch of time in which we had hoped to cover not a mere 10 miles, but 30.
The wind blew from the north as we descended into an open valley. Off to our left, mountains rose up in the distance. Ahead, Ross had stopped at a small wooden sign located along the trail. I pulled up next to him and we both shared a laugh. “Welcome to the White Mountains National Recreation Area,” the sign read. All that work and we only had now made it into the Whites.
It was obvious we weren’t going to make it to the Windy Gap cabin. It was possible, but would leave us exhausted and would force an early departure since I hoped to catch a flight the next day. Instead, we ventured over to the nearby Colorado Creek cabin. No smoke or heat left the chimney and we decided to head inside. We started a fire and debated whether or not to stay over there for the night. Our debate was ended for us as two snowmachines arrived soon after, ferrying a couple and their dogs who had reserved the cabin for the night. Despite their offering to let us stay overnight, we decided to head back to the trailhead.
We began our return not long after 3 pm. Just a few days before the winter solstice, light was near its lowest point and darkness was already almost upon us. We donned our headlamps and pushed our bikes up the hill beyond the cabin through the soft snow. Atop the hill, we began our descent, quickly covering the ground we had slogged through earlier. Our world consisted of the conical beam of light splayed out on the trail in front of us. The trees to the side of the trail and the hills beyond ceased to exist. All that seemed to exist and matter was the trail before us and the snow that lazily fell from above.