Posts Tagged ‘yukon river’

Eagle to Central on the Yukon Quest trail

Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

In 2018 a friend and I biked from the Fairbanks area (Chena Hotsprings) to Eagle.  It was a great trip, with mostly really nice trails but cold weather. I had plans in 2019 to bike most of the full route, but alas family stuff intervened – my wife Nancy snapped her achilles while at a trampoline park.  Ouch! Note to everyone – trampoline parks are not for the 40+ crowd! This year I had hopes of biking some part of the route, but I was having trouble finding anyone interested. Fortunately José Bermudez got in touch and was ok with me joining him for the first part of his Eagle to Kivalina (a small village north of Kotzebue) Trans-Alaska trip.  

Our trip got a bit of a rough start.  We were scheduled for a 9:00 am flight, and after some weather delays we arrived at 4pm in Eagle to 4”- ish of fresh snow with more still coming down.. And it was -20F.   To folks not from interior Alaska, it is hard for the air to contain enough moisture to make snow at sub zero temps, so it is somewhat rare to see that much snow at these temps.  So rare that another passagager assured us the forecast was wrong, as it couldn’t snow at -20F. Sigh.

The next day we set out.  We were staying at the Eagle store and hotel, and I had bought several pounds of additional food after an old timer who runs the Clinton Creek checkpoint on the quest told us we were too early and were not going to make it.   Making my 80lb bike a 82lb bike. So heavy! 

Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central /center>

 The riding was slow for the first few hours until we were passed by two National Park Service rangers heading to Slaven’s roadhouse, a historic roadhouse 100 miles from Eagle. 

Eagle to Central

Eagle to Central

Eagle to Central

The ranger’s packed trail was much faster, but alas our plans of making it 50 miles in to stay with some friends were not going to happen without a long day, so we ended up at another family’s place just off the river.  They are famous with the Yukon Quest mushers as the “Brownie Stop” as they leave homemade brownies out for the mushers. 

Eagle to Central

They put us up for the night, providing us with a fantastic dinner, and I drifted off to sleep the sound of their sled dogs howling.   In the morning we headed out, finding the trail much faster, and made it to our original destination in the early afternoon.

Eagle to Central Eagle to Central


We spent the afternoon chatting with Tim and Tova, and ended up spending the night, having talked most of the afternoon and early evening away in spite of our plans to just “stop in to say hi”.  In the morning we pressed on to Kandik cabin.

Eagle to Central Eagle to Central


So far the temperatures hadn’t been truly “cold” but had been between -20F and the mid -30Fs – cold but not epic cold.  José hadn’t had a lot of experience riding at these temps and was getting a crash course. Fortunately he adapted, dealing with the layering, hydration hose, and tire pressures issues fairly well.  Kandik cabin is a very cool spot and a neat cabin, but alas, not very windproof, so at these temperatures with a breeze it was hard to keep it warm. In the morning we hit the trail to the coldest weather of the trip, near -40F, enjoying fairly firm trail to Slaven’s.  

Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central

Slaven’s was filled with NPS volunteers setting up for the dog race so we quickly moved to the much quieter public use cabin nearby.  We had arrived pretty early, so we planned to leave in the early am hours as the trail breakers were supposed to be in that evening late.  Fortunately they showed up in the early evening. Unfortunately we got to talking and our early am departure turned into a late morning one.  Socialization – it will be the end of us all! 

The trail breakers told us that from the Smith’s (aka the 40 mile cabin since it is 40 miles from Circle) to Slaven’s there was a ground blizzard with near zero visibility.   Leaving Slaven’s the trail was ridable but soft… but soon we were in the ground blizzard and big sastrugi (wind-driven snow ridges) meant we were walking our bikes.

Eagle to Central Eagle to Central Eagle to Central

Fortunately it wasn’t that bad, but we did end up walking most of the way to Smith’s cabin.  After warming up the cabin we watched from comfort as the leaders passed by, then hit the sack with plans to leave around 3am. For once we were not distracted, and made it on the trail at 3am. The trail was firm and fast from all those little dog feet pounding it down and we zoomed towards Circle.  It was clear the trail had been quite windblown, and in one section there was a bit of a yard sale and I picked up a gopro camera as well as several mittens. On the way to Circle we passed five teams. 

 Alas, the lead dog of the the first musher we encountered, “Ranger”, freaked out and caused a big tangle.  I had been really worried about this. Everyone with the Quest kept assuring me that it would be fine to have us out there, but I was really worried about annoying the mushers and causing an issue.  I had insisted we be off the trail when the leaders passed by so we didn’t damage anyone’s chances on the pointy end of the race. The rest of the mushers went by without issues, though later I was to learn that most of them didn’t really know what we were.  Apparently at the next checkpoint they had a laugh as they discussed who they thought we were. One thought we were another team they passed, another a moose.. Because of course moose have headlamps. 

We chatted a bit with the last musher, Dave Dalton. He was a bit sleep-deprived, and was just standing on his runners  as his dogs rested.

Our conversation went somewhat like this: 

Dave: “I think they are breaking trail.

Me, after looking down at the rock hard trail, “I am not sure, it looks great to me.” 

Dave: “They are breaking trail.  It sure doesn’t look like 12 teams are ahead of me.  I think I am going to let them keep breaking trail and give them a bit more time. ”

Me:  “ Looks good to me – you should get going.”  While thinking of course it doesn’t look like 12 teams are ahead of you, the next one is a half hour ahead of you, and half of them are almost 12 hours ahead of you! 


The remainder of the ride into Circle was a bit boring, but fast.   The trail was routed more on the river this year, so I got to see a few big cliffs and bluffs rather than swamp, which was nice.   We arrived in Circle just as they were closing up the Circle checkpoint in the firehall. Circle is a very small community, and their firehall is appropriately small –  it fits one very tiny fire truck with enough room for another pickup. José I think was hoping we would hang out here longer but I was in a hurry to get to Central, take a shower, and have a burger.   The 34 miles from Circle to Central were on a dirt road, and were uneventful but hilly. At Central my burger need was fulfilled, but my dreams of a shower were dashed. Also, our path forward looked unclear, as the highway was closed due to high winds and drifting snow.  In the morning I after asking around about trail conditions and being told it was unlikely the trail was still in I called it quits. I hitched a ride back to town with the Quest cleanup crew heading back with a load of port-a-potties. “Classy.” as one musher put it. José rode on to Fairbanks on the highway and eventually the local trails and arrived three days later.  After a bit of recovery and recouping he headed out again. Unfortunately his trip ended two days after leaving Fairbanks. Hopefully he will be back next year to complete his route.

This trip was very fun, but a bit slower than I expected.  The trail was mostly ok; it looks like we averaged about 5mph for most of the trip, which isn’t bad, all things considered.  It wasn’t as cold as last time, but it was definitely not warm. We saw lows near between -30F and -40F, with highs of -20F most days.  Watching José adjust to riding in the cold was a reminder about how steep the learning curve is, and how much I take for granted the skills I have picked up over the years that let me be comfortable at those temperatures.  Not that I am perfectly comfortable at those temps – I have yet to figure out how to not get the neck of my jacket wet and frozen after 8 hours sub -20F temperatures for example. However, I am mostly pretty comfortable. José seemed to pick up the skills and adjusted pretty quickly, and after the first two days seemed to be doing fine.  

This is a hard trip – it is remote, it is cold, the logistics are somewhat challenging, and there isn’t a good way to bail out between Eagle and Circle. 

A big thanks to José for the company!  

Chena Hot Springs to Eagle on the Yukon Quest trail

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Preface – I have a bit of a trip write-up backlog now, and am finally getting this trip written up, over a year later. Sigh..

The Iditarod (and the “race” on the same trail, the Iditarod Trail Invitational) gets lots of press and interest, but there is another long sled dog race in Alaska, the Yukon Quest, that receives a bit less attention, but has a reputation for being remote, cold, and hard. 

In 2017 Jeff Oatley and Heather Best biked it near the tail end of the mushers, and I watched them with envy – it looked like a great snow bike tour!

Other folks have biked it, though not (to my knowledge anyway ) recently. I think Pat Irwin and Mike Curiak did in the early 2000s on semi-fat bikes, as did Andy Sterns, so this isn’t new. 

In 2018 things aligned such that I was able to do a portion of the route with a friend David, from Chena Hot Springs to Eagle, which is about 250 miles if we skipped the section of the trail on Birch Creek (slow, winding, and really cold).

The ride was awesome fun, though cold, windy, and remote. 
We started off with Rosebud and Eagle summits… 

Meredith Mapes on Rosebud
David, climbing the last bit of Rosebud summit
Looking down from Rosebud..
Heading down..
Winter single track, heading to Birch Creek
Heading up Eagle Summit just after dark

Then spent the night in Central, enjoying the last burgers and showers we were to see for 5 days. The next day we took the road over to Circle..

The road between Central and Circle

It was much hiller than I expected, and the downhills were petty cold at the -20f to -30f weather. When we arrived at Circle a photographer told us it had been -58f on Birch Creek, which caused a bit of a freakout, as our next leg had us riding up the Yukon River, a pretty cold place. After a bit of inreach texting back and forth with some weather folks, we headed out, pretty sure those seeing -58f were either confused or found a black hole sun cooled spot. 

This area in Alaska gets strong inversions, so low spots can be particularly cold. Alas, the Yukon river is pretty low..

The first night on the river we spent in “Brian’s Cabin”, a neat but run down shack, and in the morning we were welcomed by sub -40f weather. For the rest of the trip we tried to hit the trail at 6am, well before sunrise at 9:30, because I have always felt it is way easier to head out in the dark and cold looking forward to a warm(er) sunrise, than it is to set out in the sun, looking forward to a cold(er) sunset. Until the last day near Eagle, we saw mornings in the sub -40f, and mid day highs of -20f to -30f, sometime accompanied by stiff headwinds – it was cold!

Just as the sun rose we ran into the red lantern, camped out on the river. She had broken her headlamp, and camped when daylight ran out in a cold little hollow in the river. Quest mushers are amazingly tough..

Jennifer Campeau, getting ready to leave as daylight finally arrives.

The next three days we rode up the river, to Eagle, spending the night at Slaven’s a historic roadhouse staffed by a horde of National Park Service folks, and with a family in a giant octagon log cabin. I had been told the river was scenic, but I had dismissed this as unlikely, as I have spent a bit of time on the lower Yukon, which is wide, flat, and boring. I was wrong – it was fantastically beautiful! Alas, it was too cold to get very many photos (or any good ones at all ).. 

This section of the trail is very remote. On the 160 miles of river we traveled, we saw the Yukon Quest trail breakers once, the red lantern once, and no one else on the trail until just outside Eagle. There are a few families that live on the last 40 miles, and they were very welcoming. 

Wood island brownie stop..

At our last stop on the trail, at Trout Creek, we stopped and talked to Mike who runs a “hospitality stop” there in a little cabin he owns. Mike said over the years he has had three groups on bikes stop by stop by in the last 20 years. 

The final 30 miles into Eagle were a slog into a really stiff headwind, on bare glare ice in -10f weather. We arrived to a nearly deserted town, and it took an hour or so to find the place we stayed at. For most of the trip I was regretting my tire choice of a D5 on the back, and a Wrathchild on the front, as we had nice firm trail conditions and the Wrathchild rolls really, really slow on cold hard snow, but the last few hours I was amazingly thankful for the more aggressive studs and grip. 

This was a really fun, but very hard adventure! I have biked the Iditarod trail to Nome three times, and to McGrath three times, and this was a fair bit harder. Perhaps I was just lucky and had good trail conditions (I have been told this countless times), but the combination of shorter days and low sun angles means it is pretty cold and never really warms up, and the it is very remote.

Thanks for the company David!

Bike rafting Manley to Rampart and back

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

A year or so ago my friend Tom suggested doing some sort of loop using packrafts and bikes involving the new “pioneer” road to Tanana. Eventually a route was worked out, starting in Manley, taking the Eliot highway over to Eureka, then taking an old road to Rampart, floating down the Yukon to the new Tanana road, and taking that back to Manley. The basic idea was pretty awesome – a loop, involving bikes, pack-rafts, two new (to me) roads, and a new (to me) section of the Yukon river. Hurrah!

Details on the road to Eureka to Rampart were a bit spotty, but I was told by a musher based in Eureka it should be fine except for a few “wet” spots.

The trip started after work, when Tom, Heath, and I loaded up into Heath’s truck and headed to Manley. Manley is small town with a nearby privately owned hotsprings and a small roadhouse. Alas, the roadhouse was closed, but we wandered the town a bit, seeing the sights.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

(Tom and Heath, peering into the abandoned Alaska Commercial Company’s old building)

In the morning we headed out on the Eliot Highway to Eureka. Eureka was once a gold rush town, but now appears to be mostly inhabited by a few mushers and some smaller gold mining operations.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

After Eureka we slowly climbed up and over a pass, heading down to Minook Creek, which we were to follow all the way to Rampart. The “road” was in great shape and we had high hopes of zooming off to Rampart.

DSC00124

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Alas, the road turned into a muddy trail ended near Granite Creek, and things slowed down.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Five hours, four deepish stream crossings, and around 10 miles later we neared Rampart, and were finally back on fast, firm roads again.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We did a short tour of Rampart, which was a very quiet town, talked to a few locals who were a bit surprised to see someone arriving on bikes, then camped on a out of the way gravel bar.

The next morning we loaded up onto our boats, and headed down the Yukon.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

I was a bit worried about the “bike rafting” part of this trip, as I had only done one short test float with a bike on my boat, but it turned out to be much easier than I expected. We spent the rest of the day floating down the Yukon, until mid afternoon, when the wind picked up, and camped just before the “Rampart Rapids”, a short section of faster water about halfway to our takeout point. I had been told it was only a rapid in name, and was just some slightly faster water. Our campsite was on a little fresh water creek named Bear Creek, and was a great spot except for a swarm of stink bugs that found our tents and Heath’s gloves fascinating.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

The next day we continued down the Yukon, bobbing down the Yukon until we arrived at the Tanana road.

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

The Yukon was much more scenic than I expected, with beautiful bluffs and big hills in the distance.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We arrived at the Tanana road early afternoon, and switched back into biking mode.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Alas, the Tanana road ends at the Yukon, about 8 miles or so upstream of Tanana on the other side of the Yukon, so we didn’t visit the village, instead biked 13 or so miles and camped in a wonderful mossy spot on a hill. While we were sitting in camp that evening Heath and I had a bit of a panic after we convinced ourselves the maps we had contour intervals in meters, and noticed we had a handful of bigger than 500 meter climbs on the way to Manley. Fortunately we figured out our mistake, mainly that they were actually in feet, and went to bed happy we didn’t have thousands of feet of climbing ahead of us.

The Tanana road was in great shape for biking, but maybe a bit rough for vehicle traffic.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

Most of it was in great shape, but it was very soft in a few spots, and the surface had lots of the sort of gravel and rock pieces that are hard on car tires.

The next morning we rode the remaining 30 ish miles into Manley, enjoying a few hot climbs (that were not thousands of feet tall) and dusty downhills.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

We arrived in Manley dusty and dirty, to learn one of us (probably me – duh!) had left an interior light on, and had drained the battery. Fortunately someone gave us a jump, and we on our way back home.


Manley Loop, via Rampart and the Yukon

This trip was pretty fun, but folks interested in replicating it should be aware that there is a lot of muddy soft trail after Granite Creek (mile 12 or so of the road/trail from Eureka to Rampart).

Gear wise, I did this trip with my Surly Ice Cream truck with some “normal” wheels with three inch tires. It worked great, but I was a bit surprised how little extra grip on got on the mud, and by how much the air pressure varied as we passed though cold creeks and hot sun. Tom’s boat has the “cargo fly”, zippers that let him store stuff inside the boat, which worked fantastic. I was jealous, and I think I have one of those in my future.