Alaska, the 'Great Land'

Ask people about their dream vacation destinations and there’s a good chance they’ll say Alaska is at the top of their list. I found out first-hand last winter that the Great Land is, in fact, a must-experience frontier. It’s a dream destination, especially for snowmobilers.

A group of 13 people from across the United States met in Alaska last March to take part in the 7th annual Snow Goer Great Escape, a ride managed by Decker Sno-Venture Tours. Lodging was arranged, routes were planned and sleds were prepped. All the riders had to do was show up with their gear and ride.

Our group of men and women included 30-somethings and retired folks. There was a doctor, several small-business owners and a former factory worker. Some of our adventurers were quiet and reserved, while others were boisterous and outgoing. Everyone had a story to tell, a lesson to learn or a unique skill to use that made the trip even more memorable for someone else.

What we discovered was a seemingly endless land of wide rivers, mysterious glaciers and vast frozen swamps that were our powder-filled playgrounds. The warm people who served as our hosts contrasted this rugged backcountry.

Snowmobiling Group
This eclectic group was all smiles after enjoying days of moderate weather in the Alaskan backcountry.

Riding point to point, with our luggage hauled in a sleigh behind a utility sled, we stayed in a different remote lodge each night. Our adventure covered five days, four nights and 400 miles in a loop that started and ended about two hours north of Anchorage. In hindsight, though, we realized we barely scratched the surface exploring the nation’s largest and most sparsely populated state.

Rivers Run Through It

Riding a sled on rivers in Alaska was a big change from the river riding I’m used to back home in the Midwest. In the continental United States, snow cover gets beaten down and the best lines pack into chutes that weave between the riverbanks. Up in Alaska, it was totally different. With fewer people riding the marked routes and a lot more snow here, paths don’t get beaten down.

There was so much snow and the rivers we rode seemed so grand that it put me into a different state of mind. Rather than squeeze the throttle against the handlebar, I’d let off the lever and look around to take in my surroundings.

Alaskan River Shot
Sections of the Iron Dog snowmobile race and Historic Iditarod Trail follow frozen rivers.

It was often a desolate landscape covered by feet of snow. Some sections of the Kahiltna River had steep, rocky banks that were dotted with tall pine trees. Some of us in the group carved through the powder while riding from riverbank to riverbank, pulling our sleds onto one ski and, where possible, riding up the gradual inclines on the shore and then hopping back down onto the river. Others followed along in the back at a more relaxed pace.

Sunken Sled on Kahiltna River
An eddy on the Kahiltna River almost took this sled from our group.

The Kahiltna was wide and sweeping with constant undulations, snowdrifts and drop-offs. Massive rocks were scattered throughout the river and, with snow piled on top, some were fun to leap off and land softly in the powder on the other side. But running sleds down it wasn’t a care-free affair.

Some of those rocks and ice shelves cause eddies where water never freezes. Two riders dipped their sleds into the swirling pools and caused a few tense minutes as one slipped deeper while we worked to pull it out. Fortunately there was enough muscle in our group of riders, plus a powerful Ski-Doo utility sled, to rescue the machines.

We stopped at a special place known as the “big rock” on the Kahiltna River and it made a fine backdrop for eating our bag lunches. The enormous rock was a few stories high and split wide enough to fit a pickup truck inside. Legend has it that this rock was used as shelter for natives, generations ago.

Out There

Hayes Glacier
A rough ride turned into a dream during our quest out to the Hayes Glacier.

We rode primitive trails to four remote lodges that are run like small villages, and it was strange not seeing a road or a car for days. Firewood was harvested and stacked near the lodges, and fresh breakfast eggs came from chickens that clucked in coops outside. Every other supply like fresh fruit, salted-in-the-shell peanuts or soda pop arrived either by airplane or snowmachine, which is what snowmobiles are called up here.

Talvista Lodge is on the Talachulitna River, known as “The Tal.” Of all our accommodations, this one felt the most “out there” during four nights and five days snowmobiling across the Alaskan interior.

Not unlike the other resorts, it’s accessible only by floatplane in the summer or snowmobile and dog sled in the winter. But Talvista was an especially charming, peaceful place for our group to rest.

When caretaker Chris Poynter, a friendly, hearty guy, arrived at the lodge last winter to prep it for visitors, the building was buried in snow. Chris made an educated guess of the chimneystack’s location, and then started digging. Lucky for Chris, his intuition was correct, and after some time he cleared the outlet so he could light a fire inside the fireplace.

Ocean of Snow in Alaska
Where else in the United States can you find a powder playground like this?

By the time our group arrived there, 36 feet of snow had fallen, Chris said. After dropping bags at the lodge and meeting Chris’ wife, son and yellow lab who help manage the place, some members of the tour group headed out to visit the Hayes Glacier. Seeing this huge block of permanent snow and ice didn’t come easily, though.

We started out riding on the Skwentna River, driving straight into 40 mph wind gusts and enduring sharp, hard-edged snowdrifts that deflected our long-track sleds and made for a rough ride. After a few miles, one sled broke down, so several people took this as an excuse to turn back and miss out on the beating.

Shell Lake Lodge
Shell Lake Lodge hosted lunch during our second day on the trail.

The rest of us pressed on, enduring at least 15 more miles of bone-jarring drifts and stiff wind, but it was worth it. After a couple days riding the Alaskan outback, I was getting used to being amazed at what the land has to offer, but the area where the terrain became friendly again for snowmobiling left me astonished.

We found an ocean of incredible, untouched powder snow. I’ve ridden in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming and Montana, but this was like unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Stretching out for as far as we could see, there was only untracked powder that glistened under the clear, blue sky. Mountains on each side flanked the wide-open meadows, and the glacier-fed Hayes River meandered through the gigantic playground.

We bounced off of drifts and carved through the powder for another five or 10 miles until we reached the glacier. We rode up to within a few feet of it and could see gray, brown and blue layers of ice and dirt. I could see a baseball-sized rock poking out and wondered how long it had been trapped there.

Not Your Typical Trails

Decker Tours Dog Sledding
Some Decker Tours guests tried a different kind of sled during their stay.

The remoteness of the trails we rode in Alaska makes them impossible to groom. Many of the routes were narrow, single-track paths through brush, scrubby trees and uneven terrain that would be tough for a trail groomer to navigate. Logistical challenges would make it difficult and costly to provide fuel for the groomer. And then there’s the challenge of finding someone to operate the groomer.

Despite the lack of groomers, it was surprising how smooth our trails were. We didn’t ride over repetitive stutter bumps and big holes that are a regular part of riding in the Lower 48. Instead, the trails meandered through the trees with an occasional ripple here or rounded mogul there.

Snowmobile routes in the woods and swamps of Alaska are
typically marked with brightly colored tape that’s tied to a tree branch. This way resort owners can haul in supplies on their “Super Wide” utility snowmobiles, as they’re called, and recreational sledders like us can follow the trails for fun. Many of the rivers had painted woods laths sticking out of the snow pack, also with bright ribbons attached.

The swamps seem to go on forever, and the riverbeds are so wide — and desolate. I’m used to seeing homes and cabins on the shores back home, but in Alaska, there are few dwellings.

It’s weird how huge the swamps are that we rode across, but there was nothing indicating that they were swamps — no vegetation sticking through because so much snow covered them. Swamps are endless here, and everywhere seems to be accessible by snowmobiles.

Bill Riding
Chances to play in powder snow seemed endless during our trip.


Click here for another bunch of breathtaking Alaska images.

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