Last weekend I got out for one of Anchorage, Alaska’s classic ski tours – the Arctic to Indian traverse. This 20 mile, relatively flat excursion through the heart of the Chugach Front Range is a must-do event for many each spring. Most people wait for longer days and a beat-in track before taking it on. It can be done in as little as 4 hours but it takes many the full day to complete.
February is early for this trip and we weren’t sure we’d have a track to follow as a result. We didn’t, for the most part. It was nice to have Mat and Dave along for trail breaking and guidance since both have completed it before. After a thorough ass-kicking at work Friday night I was running low on psyche for this sort of thing. They convinced me it was a worthy tour and I relented, happy to get off my short list.
Because of the tame nature of the terrain, most skiers opt for touring skis either kick waxed or waxless. Some use skate gear when the crust is good. I used a pair of Madshus scaled skis with an old pair of Plum Race 145 bindings paired with my Dynafit EVO skimo race boots. It’s a nice hybrid set up that was adequate for the task. Although I enjoyed more support than my leather-boot clad partners, it didn’t stop me from fully face planted twice on sketchy downhills near the start.
The adventure starts near the Arctic Valley ski area and finishes on the Turnagain Arm, basically at the Brown Bear bar in Indian right off the Seward Highway. The route is a long valley ski involving some bush bashing along a slow moving water course for the first half and then up into the alpine to Indian Pass. The final descent into Indian is down a narrower drainage via a well-traveled trail to the end.
I’ve been hearing people talk about it since I’ve been here and assumed it was a pretty straight forward route. On paper it is. But on the ground, with no real trail broken, it’s much more involved. The first few miles are downhill to the valley floor on a trail that gets skied a lot. No problem there. But then you have a choice whether to try and follow the summer trail through the woods or the river bed whenever possible. We opted for the latter.
We were surprise by the amount of snow on the river making travel easy most of the time. The stream snakes along and choosing which side to be on at any given turn is the crux of the route finding. I chose wrong once and ended up in some of the most heinous hollow snow wallowing I’ve ever done. I was glad to find Mat and Dave’s trail 20 minutes later and catch up to them.
At one point one of my cheap tour pole baskets broke after several hours of punching through. Luckily I carried a full repair kit with a spare basket and was able to McGuiver a tidy solution and kept things moving in the right direction.
The sunny weather at the start slowly deteriorated during the day to a full snow dump by the end. Our late start had us descending into Indian in the dark with snow falling in large flakes. For the last hour, we kept talking about beers at the Brown Bear and I was psyched to finally arrive.
We were wet and tired and looked a little out of place as we stumbled into the small saloon. The Brown Bear feels mostly like a tiny biker bar so guys in ski clothes seem odd saddling up to the counter. However, being a popular outing with this mandatory beer stop at the end, the keep was more than welcoming to us as we took a load off.
Matt, the bartender, has a ritual of sorts where he presents an embroidered wrist band to the first motor cyclist of the year who comes in. He also extends the same honor to the first skiers who make the crossing from Arctic Valley in the spring. It was fun to be the first.
He was short handed this night and couldn’t offer any grill food but was willing to fire up the deep fryer for some tasty brown food to go with our beers. French fries, onion rings and a corn dog all disappeared as we warmed up and dried off. It was a nice change from the sweet Gu fare that fueled my day.
Our original intention was to hitch hike back to Anchorage but in the dark on a highway, it was unlikely anyone would stop. We tried for a while but finally gave up and called Mat’s girl friend who had my car to come rescue us. We listened to live blue grass while we waited. Pretty civilized.
So, my take on the Arctic to Indian traverse is that it’s probably more fun to do when the trail is in and the snow is firm. Go on a sunny day so you can check out the endless steep terrain on the numerous peaks that flank the route. And don’t forget some cash for finish line beers at the Brown Bear.