AMDS Outdoor Adventures - 3/13/00
by Ken Baehr
For the past seven summers Chuck and I often spent our weekends camped at Susitna Landing, fishing the Susitna River and its many clear water creeks. During the lulls between landing fish and solving the world's problems our conversation occasionally turned to snowmachining. We both agreed that it would be fun to run the river system in winter. Who knows, we might even find an easier route to one of our fishing holes. (How's that for rationalization) It's not that we needed more justification, but our summer time fishing guide, a river rat that goes by the name of Ron Wilson, also runs a freight business during the winter. He hauls everything from building supplies to fuel on the river by snowmachine. We wanted to see how it all worked. This year we put procrastination aside and actually did it.
Summer & Winter at Susitna Landing, Alaska
We got up early, about 6:00 AM, and headed for Fort Richardson to pick up our machines. Our first task was to off load our wife's machines and put our two Summits on one trailer. Having successfully accomplished that part of the mission we headed north to the Susitna River. We made it as far as Wasilla, only to discover that the early get up and all that physical labor has caused us to be on the verge of starvation. Naturally the only solution was a stop at the Windbreak for pancakes, eggs, bacon and multiple cups of coffee. We arrived at the landing with full bellies, ready to ride.
Ron & Marilyn
After stowing our gear in the cabin, we went up to the office to see Ron and his wife Marilyn. Ron had a map out on the table. He had groomed and marked about forty miles of trail, and was understandably proud of his accomplishment. Marilyn brought us more coffee, and we sat down to plan out our adventure. Our first goal was to find Trapper Lake. We knew it was west of the landing, but we didn't know exactly where. I am glad that Ron had the Topo Map. The lake turned out to be more Northwest than west. We now had a solid GPS coordinate to aim at, and Ron had just delivered several hundred pounds of freight to a customer on the lake. His tracks should still be easy to follow on the trail.
The riding was superb. We left the landing at about 10:30 AM. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and the river was as smooth as glass. It almost seemed strange. Chuck and I are used to riding the more mountainous terrain at Hatcher Pass or the hill country around Petersville. We weren't accustomed to the unlimited visibility of river running. It was like driving on an interstate somewhere in Texas, only white. You could run in a straight line for miles if you wanted to. We followed the Kashwitna River for about a half a mile until it joined up with the Susitna River. We made a right turn on the Susitna and headed north for about six miles. As Ron promised, it was not difficult to find the left turn that took us through a spruce forest west to Trapper Lake. I was pleased that the GPS coordinate I had plotted from the Topo Map was only about a hundred yards off from where my feet were standing. I updated my GPS and we set out to explore the lake.
Trapper Lake is literally in the middle of nowhere Alaska. You can only reach it by floatplane in the summer, or by snowmachine in the winter. There are no roads. It's about five miles long and maybe a mile wide, and is chock full of little bays and inlets that provide its residents with spectacular views and maximum privacy. What surprised me was that so many people lived on the lake. We counted thirty or forty houses on just one end of the lake. Some of the homes were 3000 sq ft log home mansions, while others were simple one-room cabins. I bet the trout fishing is great in the summertime. After a great day of riding, Chuck and I headed back to the landing, a good nights sleep, and day two of the adventure.
For the past two seasons, Ron had been bragging about his Skandic Super Wide Track, and the loads that he freighted up and down the river. I knew the Skandic was a great machine, but his claim that he towed three and four thousand pound loads, routinely set off the BS alarm. Remember, we fish with Ron during the summer. When we returned from Trapper Lake, Ron was in the middle of loading two sleds with building supplies. The first sled weighed in at about 2000 pounds and consisted of plywood and lumber. The second was mostly roofing material and came close to hitting the 3000-pound mark. I know, because Ron talked Chuck and I into helping him load the sled. He then informed us that he was leaving the landing at 6:00 AM. Being March, the weather had warmed up a bit and he was a little worried that the trail would soften up and create some open water by afternoon. He wanted to be done hauling by noon or a little later.
Ron on Skandic SWT / Snowmobiles on River
We loaded up and brought our machines into the parking lot to find Ron hooking up to the loaded sleds. What surprised me was that he was setting up at a 90-degree right angle to the direction of pull. I said, "Hey Ron, did you install reverse on the sled?" He made a comment that I won't repeat here, but also showed me that the skis had frozen into the ice. I was about to learn my first lesson in heavy freight hauling. Ron started his engine and drove hard away from the sled. Bang, and the front skis broke loose. He then hooked on to the rear of the sled and repeated the sideways pull. Bang, the rear skis came free as well. We were off and running. Ron took the lead, followed by Dave Hunt with the second sled. Chuck and I brought up the rear for the trip down to the Deshka River. The ride was remarkably uneventful. I was surprised how easily the Skandic pulled that heavy load down river. Ron cruised along at about twenty miles per hour most of the time, but ran up to thirty-five miles per hour on smooth sections of the river. He crossed ditches, climbed hills, maneuvered through forest and ran the flats with ease. I was impressed. We followed him as far as the Deshka River. He went on up the Yentna River with his load, while Chuck and I headed back to get ready for the drive back to Anchorage. All in all it was a good weekend. Our machines worked flawlessly, the weather was great for riding, we explored a new trail system, and we learned a little about freight hauling by snowmachine. It just doesn't get much better than that.
~ Ken Baehr