Cool it — Snowmachiners all revved up with nowhere to go waiting for freeze-up

By Joseph Robertia

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Andrew Roche, of Anchorage, warms up his sled at the Gravel Pad before a day of riding in the Caribou Hills on Saturday. The heavy snowfall earlier this month has enticed many riders, but several of the lakes and swamps have not completely frozen yet.

Redoubt Reporter

The old saying, “Be careful what you wish for,” certainly rings true for snowmachiners right now.

Several feet of snow have fallen in the Caribou Hills. Normally, this would make for a snowmachiner’s paradise. However, with the first major snowfall event occurring before temperatures dipped below freezing, nearly all creeks, rivers and lakes are open and most muskegs still too wet and squishy to support sleds.

“We were fortunate to get such a heavy snowfall this early, but we’ll need another snowfall or two like it before we can start grooming trails,” said Steve Attleson, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club, which grooms roughly 90 miles of trail on the north end of the Caribou Hills.

On the south end, the Snowmads snowmachine club grooms another 50 miles of trail at their end of the hills, but Snowmads’ president Dave Mastolier said they too wouldn’t be firing up the grooming machine anytime soon.

“We got about 3 feet of snow, which has now settled to about 16 inches, but we need to wait and let it set up more and cool off before we can groom it. Compared to the northern end, we have a lot more muskegs and waterholes and nothing is really frozen yet, so we’re warning all our members to be very careful if they go riding,” he said.

On Saturday, riders in the Caribou Hills were heeding that warning. Andrew Roche, of Anchorage, said he was unfamiliar with the area and intended to stick to the main trails.

“I’ve got a map, and if I see anything flat and smooth I’m going to assume it’s a pond or marsh and stay away,” he said. “I’m just hoping to be careful and have fun burning a tank of gas.”

A few riders have already learned the hard way that not all areas are completely frozen yet. Kevin Fulton, of Kasilof, took his snowmachine out to do some trail reconnaissance after last week’s snowfall, and less than a mile up the Clam Gulch Trail he found two abandoned snowmachines that had been stuck in one of the first swamp crossings. The owners had apparently walked out once their sleds became mired.

“There were two of them about 20 feet apart and they were stuck bad. Just buried in mud and water,” he said.

Many of the lower trails to the Caribou Hills, such as Centennial Trail, Falls Creek Trail and the Clam Gulch Trail, have a few water crossings or swampy areas that could prove a problem, as the riders who walked out of the latter trail discovered.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. One of the new signs the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers have put up at the intersections of all major trails.

“There’s just a few wet spots, but they’re ugly,” Fulton said. “If that’s how it was that far into Clam Gulch I can’t imagine how the Deep Creek crossing would be.”

With the mercury hovering at just above freezing until the last day or two, not only could snowmachines get stuck, there is also concern large grooming equipment could get caught in soggy spots, according to Attleson. And even if the ground beneath the snow were frozen, mild temperatures aren’t conducive to grooming anyway.

“Our big-track rig can get through a lot, but it wouldn’t do any good to take it on the trail in these temperatures,” Attleson said. “When the snow is this wet and sticky, it doesn’t form well. It sticks and clumps to everything.”

Despite the heavy accumulations so early in the season, Attleson said it behooves groomers to wait until there is even more snow.

“We typically wait for adequate snow to fall and a good base to set up, then our method of attack is to groom it, but for the first run of the year we’re mostly looking to knock down the high spots and fill in the holes and low spots,” he said.

Then, when more accumulation comes, it will make grooming the trails even better.

“If we let this pack down and wait for more snow to groom, we’ll end up with a really dense base that will be great later in the year when lighter snow falls,” he said.

With Caribou Hills riding being limited, snowmachiners are cramped for places to go in the snow. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t open to snowmachiners until next month.

“December 1st is the deadline. It’ll open regardless of how much snow we just got,” said Debbie Perez, an administrative clerk at the refuge.

Perez explained that refuge administrators don’t want to open the refuge early to snowmachines, only to close it again should the mercury rise, causing snowmelt. Waiting until Dec. 1 typically ensures multiple snowfalls, which provide a better base to protect vegetation.

Now that temperatures are cooling, once more snow falls and the refuge opens, Attleson said riders can look

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Two snowmachines return to their vehicles to grab more supplies to bring out to their cabin in the Caribou Hills on Saturday.

forward to increased riding distances this year.

“We got some grant funding and state approval so we should be able to increase the mileage of groomed trail,” he said. “We’ve been working with the Snowmads and we’re hoping to connect into their trail system via the Center Plateau Trail,” he said.

Mastolier said this will open up a lot more area to riders from both ends of the peninsula, rather than the northern-end riders just sticking to the northern end, and the Homer-based riders sticking to the southern end.

“Guys can ride to both sides, and there are lodges on both sides, so it will allow people to go for a really long ride, but still be able to pull over and get a burger and a soda before turning around to head home,” he said.

Attleson said there has also been work done to make the network of trails in the Caribou Hills more user-friendly to newcomers.

“We’ve put in quite a few signs — in excess of 70 — at all the major intersections of major trails. We also marked several hazard areas with signs. Also, we’ve been putting up reflectors to color-code trails,” he said.

While waiting for better conditions, Attleson said regulars to the Caribou Hills can use the early snowfall to get to their winter outposts.

“You could go out and warm in new machines or ride to get your snow legs back under you, but it’s a little too early for aggressive riding,” he said. “But now would be a great time to bring firewood and supplies out to cabins, to get them in order for the winter season.”

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