On a recent weekend Scott and I, along with local Nordic ski enthusiasts Tim and Maureen Hall, had the unique opportunity to experience one of the best cross-country ski adventures available in Southeast Alaska. On Friday afternoon, we flew with Ward Air in a de Havilland Beaver equipped with skis to Taku Lodge, about 15 miles up the Taku River.
After a spectacular flight and landing on the frozen river directly in front of the lodge, we were warmly greeted by Taku Lodge owner Ken Ward and lodge manager Pat Volmer. We quickly unloaded our gear and settled into our cozy bunkhouse rooms with oil heaters and flush toilets (minus running water, but several 5-gallon buckets of melted snow provided all that was needed for the job). We enjoyed a warm evening in the rustic main lodge, sitting around the dining table, trying to put a dent in the huge meal put before us and telling lies - oops! - I mean stories into the night. Every once in a while we would wander outside to gaze across the river in the starlight at the Hole-In-The-Wall Glacier. It was so perfect it was hard to believe we were really there.
Next morning Pat cooked up delicious sourdough pancakes (Ken's world-famous sourdough recipe) served lots of bacon, juice and hot coffee.
Keep in mind that a little over a week ago there was no snow in Juneau at sea level and Eaglecrest was looking pretty grim. This was not the case up Taku River, where it is always colder and more snowy than in town. We were able to put on our waxless touring skis right out the back door after breakfast and spend a couple of hours skiing an out-and-back loop Ken had set before breakfast with snowmachine and tracksetter.
Back at the warm lodge kitchen for soup and sandwiches, we watched a drizzly rain develop. We decided the afternoon would best be spent exploring the terrain on the other side of the river by snowmachine so that we could formulate a plan for skiing that area the next day. Ken gave us a tour of the seemingly unlimited snow-covered meadows and open forests just a few kilometers across the frozen river from the lodge. We saw many signs of wildlife, including moose, wolf, wolverine and beaver.
Another lazy evening was spent eating moose burgers and watching football on the widescreen TV (with satellite dish). But our attention was soon diverted by the drama unfolding outside the lodge as the rain turned to a beautiful snowstorm that lasted most of the night.
Next morning, well before we could rouse ourselves from our warm beds, we could hear Ken taking off on the snowmachine to groom more trails for us to ski across the river.
Whereas the day before we were glad to have our waxless touring skis to negotiate the sometimes rain-glazed tracks, today we would have been happy to ski with our waxable race skis if we had them with us. The snow was cold and the tracks were consistent, with just a few tricky spots across a couple of small creeks. We skied hard and fast on our trusty waxless skis, quickly working up a sweat in the cold air. The views out there are unimaginably beautiful high peaks and magnificent glaciers.
And except for the quiet zip of our skis over the snow and the sigh of the wind as it rolled down the frozen river there were no other sounds. We skied for hours, until it was finally time to admit we had to think about returning to the lodge and start packing for the trip out.
The ride back in the plane gave us a chance to look down on some of the areas where we had skied and we quickly realized that we had only explored a tiny portion of what was available. Ken promises us that he knows of many other places to explore, and with the lure of good food, a warm place to sleep and freshly set tracks we know we will be back. I have a personal quest to ski on Twin Glacier Lake, the starting point of my first summer icefield trip in Alaska almost 30 years ago, and Ken says he can get me over there, no problem.
They are just getting started in having cross-country skiers come out to the lodge in winter, but they want to get the word out to the local ski and outdoor community. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who wants a backcountry ski experience with groomed trails in open country.
The feeling out there is completely wild while at the same time you can ski on nicely set tracks. Did I already mention the scenery? The accommodations are rustic, warm and comfortable. Ken and Pat are good hosts, friendly and low-key. The cross-country skier who is best entertained by skiing most of the day and spending quiet evenings with a small group of friends should definitely consider at least one weekend at Taku Lodge. Remember that when there is no snow in Juneau in the winter and early spring, there will almost definitely be snow out there.
If you are interested in learning more about cross-country skiing at Taku Lodge, contact Ken or Michelle Ward at 789-5932 or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org or KenWard@starband.net You also can e-mail Pat Volmer at the lodge at email@example.com.
Rates are $100 per day for Juneau skiers. This includes lodging, meals, skiing and snowmachines (for getting to some ski spots). Ken says to let you know it also includes beer.
Transportation is a separate cost with Ward Air, split four ways at an approximate cost of $315 one way (about $156 per person roundtrip). You need to take into consideration that weather may be a factor in getting in and out, and Coastal Helicopters is available for tight weather situations. You should talk with them for exact quotes and a back-up plan.
Betsy Fischer and her husband, Scott, run the Foggy Mountain Shop, 586-6780. To get your Outdoors Experience story in the Empire, call Ed Schoenfeld at 586-3740 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.