In winter, local trails offer daily surprises

Posted: Friday, January 08, 2010

Juneau's trails in the winter are like "Forrest Gump" fan tributes on YouTube - you never know what you're going to get.

Take the East Glacier Trail for example. In the summer, you have a switchbacking, root-clogged climb followed by a descent on wooden stairs, usually wet and often clogged with tourists. It's simple, it's straightforward, and if you come back the next day, it's going to look exactly the same.

Not so in the winter. I have seen the switchbacks covered with so much glare ice that you could ice skate down them. And in general, this is the case no matter what you're wearing on your feet. I have seen the stairs so clogged with snow that the steps disappear beneath a slick white slope, more appropriate for riding plastic sleds than walking. I have seen frosted roots, snow-laden branches and frozen waterfalls cascading over the width of the trail and plunging into the precipice of the Nugget Creek gorge. And I have seen conditions every bit as bare as summer, but wetter, if that's possible.

But the great fun of winter is just that, even if you watch the weather zealously, you still never know exactly what condition a trail is going to be in until you get there. Half of the fun is in just guessing whether it holds the conditions you are looking for - is there powder? Slick ice? Bare ground? Guess wrong, and your hike, ski or bicycle ride is likely to turn into a treacherous failure that has you turning around after a half mile. But guess right, and it feels like the whole world is your winter playground.

On Sunday, I guessed wrong with the Lake Creek Trail. I often ride my bicycle on this trail during the winter because it is well-packed by snowmobiles, and while the Juneau Snowmobile Club discourages pedestrian use of the trail, its members are generally friendly to human-powered types.

The snowmobile track hasn't been set yet this year because there isn't enough snow, but I hoped enough walkers and skiers had been up to the meadow to pack a good trail.

I was wrong. The snow had all melted, and during Christmas weekend a gush of rain had coated the trail in water, which had since froze to hard ice when the cold settled back in. Then it snowed on Sunday, about a half inch. This masked the slippery surface with gentle-looking powder. It was anything but gentle. I took a hard fall on my bike, and commenced to skitter along on my feet until I slipped, dropped my bike in the ditch and landed hard on my butt, again. It was time to make a hasty retreat.

The next day, I returned with a studded pair of boots. I wasn't willing to give up so easily because the recent rain and cold down low convinced me that I would find rare winter crust conditions above. I hoped to ride my bicycle across Spaulding Meadows. I couldn't be certain, but I was determined to find out.

I stepped off my bike at the first hint of steep incline and took big, stomping steps to plant my boot bolts in the hard ice. I inched the bike along. The unloaded wheels slipped and dipped across the ice as I slowly gained elevation. Near the meadow, a group of skiers (who carried their skis on their backs and wore creepers on the Lake Creek Trail) caught up to me.

"Did you ride up this trail?" a man asked me.

"No," I said.

"Do you think you'll be able to ride down?" a woman chimed in.

"Not without killing myself," I said.

The man looked justifiably confused. "So, um, what are you doing with the bike?"

"I'm hoping there's crust in the meadows," I said.

The man shook his head. "It's too high," he said. "There's probably still powder up top."

"Possibly," I said. "But I figured it was worth a look."

"Well, good luck," the man said. "If nothing else, it looks like a great workout getting that thing up here."

At the meadow, they stopped to put on their skis while I sheepishly wheeled my bike onto the untrammeled snow and braced for sinking failure. I sat on the seat and started pedaling. The rubber gripped nicely to the hardpack and I started pedaling harder.

Suddenly, I was moving faster. The treacherous icy trail faded into the background and the whole unhindered freedom of Spaulding Meadows opened wide. I carved playful figure 8s, dipped into drainages and mashed the pedals over sun-cupped snow that had frozen hard beneath a dusting of light powder.

It was an instance of guessing perfectly about the winter condition of a trail, and finding it to be more than I even imagined. I spent the entire sun-drenched late morning riding around Spaulding Meadows. But before long I was facing the possibility of being late for work unless I rode my bike down the suicide ice trap that was the Lake Creek Trail. But it was worth it.

Of course, it's doubtful that the Lake Creek Trail will look anything like that a day from now. But you'll never know until you check it out for yourself.

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