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Early Snow at Hatcher Pass

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AMDS Outdoor Adventures - 10/30/99
by Ken Baehr

New winter snow
New winter snow

The best news is that the snowmachine season has started early this year. I had my first ride with my nephew Andrew on Saturday October 30, 1999. That was indeed officially an October ride. The first ride of the season is always a love/hate sort of thing. On the one hand, I am so excited to start riding again that I can hardly wait to get going. On the other hand, I know that some unused muscles are going to rebel and make me pay for my lack of summer conditioning. Oh well!

Andy and I decided to make the first ride a fairly conservative one. We would drive up to Hatcher Pass unload at the Last chance Coffee Shop and ride the road to Independence Mine. We both agreed that we would not stray off the road, as we both knew well that the snow was deep enough to cover the rocks, but not deep enough to float the machines over the top. The guys in the parts department love the month of October. They sell record numbers of skis, trailing arms and front-end suspension parts to the foolish and the impatient.

We started our preparation with a bit of a scare. My machine wouldn't start. Fortunately, we quickly figured out that the fuel line was dry. I had prepped it about a month ago, but left it sitting nose up on the trailer in the storage lot. This lack of good judgment had allowed the fuel to siphon back into the tank. The solution was a rather distasteful one, literally. My nephew pointed out that since he was a younger man full of vigor and strength, he should pull on the starting rope. Since I was a salesman and naturally full of hot air, I should blow into the fill valve on the fuel tank and force fuel into the carburetor. It worked. I blew, he pulled, and the engine was purring within 15 seconds. We pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the trail head at Hatcher.

We stopped off at the Windbreak restaurant in Wasilla AK for a hearty breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon and coffee. One does not mess with high fiber low fat on riding day. I take my cholesterol straight and often. We wanted to be fully fortified for the drive up to the pass, and we were. Once we unloaded and started riding I became acutely aware of why I came to Alaska and why I love it so much.

As the road climbed toward the entrance to the pass, we carefully negotiated a switchback curve that skirted a large outcropping of solid rock blocking our view of the valley below. As we rounded the corner, it was like opening the curtain on a scenic wonderland. The valley literally popped open and revealed a spectacular view of the snow covered Alaska Range. The winter sun was still low in the sky at 1100 AM. The valley was still in shadow. Its colors ranged from the black of bare rock, to the flat gray of snow in shadow, to the pure white of snow illuminated but not yet in full sunlight. Behind the valley, the Alaska Range rose up from the valley floor bathed in brilliant yellows and pinks. I had seen those pinks in paintings before I came to Alaska and thought them to be part of an over stimulated imagination. I have since come to realize that no canvas or camera has yet to fully capture their true brilliance or beauty. I was awestruck.

Fun in the snow! 1     Fun in the snow! 2
Fun in the snow!

Andy and I continued our ride up to the pass and stumbled upon an unplanned adventure. Two members of the brotherhood of the impatient and foolish has jumped off the trail and had tried to cross a streambed at the bottom of a deep ravine. They were both hopelessly stuck. We reluctantly decided to abandon our vow to stay on the trail, and go down and help. Andy went first. He nosed his machine over the edge and deftly side-hilled to the bottom of the ravine. The walls of the ravine were too steep to climb down on foot without the aid of a rope, but the machine handled it easily. I followed, and we both parked out machines on a ridgeline about 25 feet above our would-be stream jumpers. When we got to them we discovered that that were in good shape but tired from trying to pull their 500-pound monsters out of the water. What was an impossible task for two people turned out to be an easy one for four aided by a length of stout towrope. Now the challenge was to get back up the ravine to the road. Andy and I both ride Ski-Doo Summits. These are mountain machines with deep lugged tracks that are designed to climb and maneuver in deep, mountain snow. Our new found friends were riding short tracked modified trail machines that didn't have the traction to climb the ravine wall.

Stuck in the snow
Andy had a plan. He went first to break a trail up to the road and pack the snow at the same time. This would give the trail machines a path to follow and allow them to get a better grip on the snow. He churned up the hill at full throttle. He easily made it to the top, though he never went faster than 10 MPH. The first of the trail machines went next. He made the top a well. The second trail machine started up the hill. He was doing fine, but then fatigue caused him to zig when he should have zagged. He was stuck again. To make matters worse, he now blocked my line to the top. I now had to take a steeper line to an intermediate ridge, zig and then make a near vertical run of about fifteen feet to the road. Phase one, the hard part, went well. I made it to the ridge line, but could not cut the corner quick enough. Now I was stuck. But, no worries, with the mountain machine I was able to pull the nose around and aim it down hill. It was then a fairly simple maneuver to loop around and make a final dash to the top. While I was getting unstuck, Andy had accomplished the same task with the second trail machine. The four of us were now back on the road safe and sound. Hopefully, the two young riders had leaned a couple of things about the limits of their machines and the need for prudence.

Catching some air!
Catching some air!

Andy and I decided we had had enough of an adventure for our first day of riding. It was time make the 12 mile run back to the trail-head. We had enjoyed a great first ride of the season, were extremely pleased with the way our machines had performed, and had enjoyed the privilege of being "out there" one more time. I am now looking forward to the next time.

~ Ken Baehr

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