White Mountains 100 Loop

White Mountains 100 Loop

This past weekend, my friend Chris and I took a trip to the White Mountains.  The plan was to bike the 29 miles out to the Caribou Bluff cabin and spend the night. From there, our plans would likely diverge. He was going to head back to Wickersham Dome the long way, 71 miles up and over the divide. But  I was just planning to return to the trailhead via the same route. I had never pedaled more than 55 miles in one stretch and hadn’t done much long distance biking in the past month.  I had biked the whole loop once before, in the spring of 2018 with my friend Madi, but that was over the course of 3 days. This plan was much more aggressive.

We set off mid Friday afternoon under bright blue skies with warmish temperatures above zero. The trails were less packed than earlier in the winter but were sufficiently hard enough to allow for good progress. The last time I did the big loop was in the reverse direction, so the change in scenery was a welcome sight. The trails were good enough to make me reconsider my decision to go back the next day. I decided to continue on with Chris if my girlfriend’s dog, Taiga, was healthy in the morning. She was the smallest of the group and had experienced some intestinal issues the days prior, making her the wildcard.

Views of Beaver Creek and Big Bend

A few hours before sunset, we crested the last hill before Beaver Creek and saw the limestone mountains of Big Bend and others in the vicinity bathed in a golden light. We arrived at the cabin just before sunset, enjoying views of golden light and alpenglow for the final 10 miles. A fire was quickly made, dogs and humans were fed and we enjoyed some much-needed rest. The night remained clear and a large aurora display danced overhead throughout the night, along with a blanket of stars.

Taiga showed no worse for the wear in the morning and I decided to continue on with Chris. We had brought our bikes inside overnight, so that bearings, grease and other cold intolerant things would be ok for the next day. The little bit of snow that had accumulated on the bike melted off and I went to sleep with the sound of water dripping onto the bunk above me. The next morning, I fell on a slippery patch of overflow not long after we had started and soon found that my chain was getting bunched up whenever I stopped pedaling. It appeared that my cassette had frozen to the wheel (potentially from some of the melt water?), so that if I stopped pedaling the cassette would continue moving causing the chain to become very loose. I decided to keep going, resolving to continuously pedal unless it somehow fixed itself. Alas, it wasn’t more then a few miles before that very thing happened and I pedaled and coasted without trouble for the rest of the ride.

Walking across the ice ponds

Around mid-day we arrived at the ice ponds, finding frozen surfaces and no active overflow, allowing us to walk across without issue. Up until this point, conditions had been calm or there was a light breeze at most.  However, as we edged closer to tree line, we found strong winds and plenty of blowing snow.  This made for poor trail conditions as any tracks made were quickly replaced with new snow.  We did a good bit of pushing through these soft drifts before cresting the divide and quickly rolling back into the forest.

The extended downhill from the divide was more than welcome for our tired legs and we took advantage, making quick time on our way to Cache Mt cabin. The next section brought about almost a complete inverse of the previous conditions. We encountered lots of snow drifts and no place to escape the wind as we traveled through frozen bogs and burnt forests on our way past Crowberry Cabin. Pushing the bikes up the hill after Beaver Creek was likely the hardest point of the trip.

Cache Mountain

Soon after cresting this hill we soon left the large sections of snow drifts behind. In exchange, we found ourselves going up and down a seemingly endless number of hills. I think I understand why the White Mountains 100 race goes in a counter clockwise direction (rather than clockwise as we took) as the hills are very demoralizing this close to the end of the trip. That being said, I do think the clockwise version (as we took) is more aesthetically pleasing, with a much better transition into the limestone mountains from the burnt spruce forests.

We continued up and down for a few hours, taking breaks and eating what little snacks we had left. Taiga had taken to sleeping on the side of the trail anytime we stopped and required some gentle encouragement to get going again. We found ourselves pushing up more hills, our weary legs lacking the strength to stay in the saddle and pedal. We made it near Lee’s Cabin right around sunset, taking in the accompanying pastel painted skies, along with big views of the Alaska Range and Denali to our left and the mountains that we had passed through earlier in the day to our right. The remaining 6 miles went by quickly and we found ourselves back at the parking lot just before twilight’s end.

Enjoying sunset 4 mi from the trailhead

The dogs were the superstars of the trip, going the whole distance unassisted. Simo and Remi continued to pull the entire time without any noticeable decrease in effort and little Taiga, though very tired, proved her mettle and did very well. Our total time in the saddle was just over 17 hours, which is nearly half that of the first time I made the loop. This trip reiterated the importance of hydration. I was reminded of the fact that being well hydrated allows for quicker recovery, better performance and better body temperature regulation. Though over such a distance, carrying sufficient amounts of water is difficult. Something to think on and experiment with for next time. Perhaps, next time will be the loop within 1 day?

Alaska Magazine: From City Dweller to Woodsman

This is my most recent article for Alaska Magazine, printed in their September 2020 issue.

Here is an excerpt from the essay:

Growing up in suburbanChicagoI had few opportunities for hunting. The metropolitan area is filled with human activity and development. Even though there are small parcels of forest, those are off limits to hunting. Besides, for most of my life, hunting was the farthest thing from my mind. Our food came from a farm or a factory, and often a combination of both.

The source was no different for everyone else I knew. Our family lived at the edge of a small forest. Frequently, we could watch deer feed among shrubs in the yard. There was no thought of these wild animals as food. 

In college, my diet transitioned to whole foods and plant based. There was no consumption of processed foods, meat, or dairy. Outside of a raw food diet, it is considered by some to be the most extreme approach to a vegan diet. The choice was mainly related to health, and the idea of hunting moved even farther off of my radar. Within that period, I went to Alaska for the first time, spending the whole summer exploring Prince William Sound and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Emerging with a new passion for Alaska, I devoured all the written material about the state that I could get my hands on. I read everything from memoirs to historical to anthropological works—all was fair game. These readings broadened, not just tomes about Alaska, but about all cultures. The approach that hunter-gatherers took to life and the skill they possessed fascinated me.

After a brief return to Alaska in the spring of 2014, I permanently moved to the state the next year. I acknowledged that I’d have to be less strict regarding my diet, for the nearest grocery store to my new home was 275 miles away. I also didn’t have access to a kitchen to make my own food. I was forced to do something the human species does best: adapt.”

Coal Mine No 5

Coal Mine No 5

Alana had some extended time off from work and we decided to take a trip south to the Coal Mine No.5 cabin near the Alaska Range. I was borrowing skis from a friend as I had recently broken my bindings on another trip. Alas, at the trailhead I discovered that their bindings were incompatible with my skis (maybe something to check beforehand) and both of us ended up walking.  The trails were in good shape and we were able to walk the 2 miles to the cabin without much issue. Remi and Taiga distracted themselves with the many smells outside the cabin, ultimately finding a frozen shrimp buffet on the ice from some past visitors.  This made the dogs very happy, but the owners less so.

On the trail

This cabin has the unique problem of having too small a woodstove.  In most cabins of similar style, one does just about anything to avoid starting a big fire as they can get remarkably hot.  However, the stove in this cabin is much smaller and we had it running wide open most of the time to keep it at reasonable temperatures (0 to +15 outside temps). Otherwise, we spent the bulk of our days sledding down the hill to the lake, reading and watching the mountains.

I paid extra to get a VIP sled tour of the lake

We took a few hours to head further south to see the ice cave at the toe of Castner Glacier. The trail in was harder than anything I’ve seen in the Interior and judging by the number of cars at the trailhead it wasn’t difficult to imagine why.  We first intended to go prior to the cabin on a Sunday, but encountered some 25 plus cars at the trailhead.  Quite the surprise and enough reason to turn around and try again a day later, where we ended up being 1 of 3 cars. 

Castner Glacier

We were blessed with great views of the mountains and the sound of wolves howling in the middle of the second night.  Remi was the hero on the way back, dragging everything back to the trailhead in the sled.  Quite the life, right? Oh, the contrary.   The energy of a 1-year-old husky knows no limits.  We ended up running after him so that we could keep up behind the sled, and of course helping pull the sled on the uphills. All was well though and it was a good test perhaps for further travel styles in winter trips ahead.