Alaska has had another ‘unprecedentedly’ warm winter. The major upside of these warm winters is that they provide for excellent ice skating. Sarah Histand and I were planning a ski tour, but after studying the webcams we made a quick switch to hunt for ice.
We flew with frequent flier miles to Bethel, the large (pop. 6,300) hub at the mouth of the Kuskokwim river. Ben Kuntz picked use up and cooked breakfast while I repaired the straps that ripped off of Sarah’s new pack during the flight. Ben’s house was on the river bluff, so we just took some stairs to get to the ice. Eric Whitney, another Bethel adventurer, joined us for the first day on his fatbike.
We stayed on the Kuskokwim for ~15 miles, then cut across the delta, connecting ponds on the icy snow-machine trail. We realized it was more relaxing to take our breaks standing up and getting pushed by the wind, rather than trying to hunker down and hide from it. We skated 70 miles in 10 hours, with a ~15mph tailwind.
The first village was Eek (pop. 310), 50 miles from Bethel. Eek was pretty small, so it didn’t take long to find the public wash house to refill our water bottles. The few villagers we talked to were very surprised that we had skated from Bethel.
From Eek we continued pond and snow-machine trail skating to Quinhagak (pop. 700), a distance of 40 miles. Outside of Quinhagak some guys on four-wheelers stopped to tell us about ‘Danger Creek,’ the open water that we were approaching. We got a photo with David, the youngest of the group, who looked like he’d almost rather be with us on skates.
Quinhagak gave us a warm welcome and we were soon in the Tribal Council building where Warren Jones talked us through what to expect as we continued south (Warren has an ice fishing video with nearly 8 million views). The trail to Goodnews Bay dates back to the early 1900’s, and doesn’t get much traffic, unlike the section to Bethel. We found very few hints of the trail, so we used satellite imagery to navigate to the largest lakes and ponds.
For sections without many lakes, we walked the beach. The beaches were dry and pretty clean, very nice travel.
While on the beach, we had to cross several open water leads. Sarah spent 20 minutes stuck in deep mud along one river bank. We put our skis on to cross the mud; it might not have been crossable without the skis to distribute our weight. We moved inland hoping to avoid the open water, but found thin ice. After another warm night, we decided to change course, heading into the mountains in hopes of finding snow and frozen ground.
The mountain section was a treat. We only pieced together a mile or two of snow to ski, but even on foot the tundra was frozen and fast. The mountains were surprisingly rugged for their relatively low relief (~2500 ft). We saw a few small herds of caribou. As we continued further south the tundra was no longer frozen, but just when it could have turned into a slog we got on the old mining trails. We finished with a climb and camp up Mumtrak hill, with an incredible view of Goodnews Bay (the bay, and the village, pop. 250). In the morning we rolled into town, were invited into the council building for coffee, and then hopped on a plane back to Bethel.
The trip was 150 miles, ~110 on skates, ~1 on skis. In each village we were told how warm the winters have been, how the winter trails aren’t necessarily options anymore, and that hunting and fishing has changed to accommodate the new weather. We were warmly received, and the only disappointment of the trip was that we didn’t spend more time in each village. Next time!
Online resources we used to anticipate nordic skate conditions, temperatures, and wind:
AOOS Sensors Portal