The White Mountains National Recreation Area, just North of Fairbanks, is about a million acres (the size of Delaware) and is managed by the BLM. It roughly encompasses the watershed of Beaver Creek, a wild and scenic river that cuts its way through the small jagged 70 mile long Limestone Mountain Range.
The Whites are part of a larger geologic terrain called the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. It’s essentially an endless amount of low lying mountains, 3-5,000 feet tall wedged between the Yukon River in the North and the Tanana river in the south. This region which was never glaciated covers about 30,000 square miles (that’s larger than Maine!) and Fairbanks is the happening hub.
There’s a couple of roads that dissect the uplands and provide access to the Whites. The Steese Highway is to the south and Elliot Highway is to the west. Once you’re off the highway, there’s a couple hundred miles of maintained trails, and several public use cabins within the national recreation area that take you into diverse alpine areas up to 40 or 50 miles from the road system. Outside of the BLM managed area, thousands of miles of unmarked, multi-use trails maintained primarily by dog mushers and trappers criss-cross all over the region. They connect far off villages, remote mining claims and awesome hidden hot springs.
After hemming and hawing for a couple of day,s and checking the oddly warm weather forecast, I ate dinner with my family, loaded up my Fatback on Friday (Dec 18th) night. I had three friends who were out for a few days so I decided last minute to meet up with them for one night. That evening I hit the road to Wickersham Dome trailhead just 25 miles north of town. I got on the trail around 8:30 pm for the 30 mile ride to Caribou Bluffs cabin. The trail leaves the parking area and heads up hill for a mile or so. Just enough to peak above tree-line, warm you up and get your heart rate going. I love an uphill start in the winter.
I was the only traffic on the trail. The moon was half-full in the southern sky and the aurora were faintly dancing to the north. Pedaling along for 3 or 4 hours in the darkness, I enjoyed the lonely nature of a late night ride. The crunch of the snow under my tires and the shadowy silhouettes of black spruce kept my imagination going as I occasionally turned off my headlamp when the wide open snow-white landscape would permit riding by moonlight.
I arrived at the tiny 12×16 cabin just past midnight. I was far removed from the road, the internet, usb ports or any other idle distractions life has to throw your way. I unstrapped my sleeping bag and walked into an eruption of six barking dogs and their four human companions. The dogs and I bickered over the choicest spot on the floor and I drifted off into a fitful slumber interrupted by stoking the fire and walking barefoot outside to piss in the snow.
Later on into the dark night, Seth woke up asking what time it was. Jay responded that it was 8 am, though you wouldn’t know it from looking outside, The sun was still about 4 hours away from making its daily cameo. Seth dutifully started a morning routine, scooped snow from the snowbag, (which doubled as Jay’s cloths bag), into a pot and boiled enough water to saturate our freeze dried food and coffee. I forgot my coffee, so Seth was kind enough to offer me some hot water and a caffeine pill. An effort to trick my body into the morning trip to the outhouse, I declined and therefore carried an extra load back to the trailhead.
As the sky brightened we loaded up our gear. About 9 hours after I arrived, I rolled out for 30 surreal miles of riding the same trail I rode out. Bob and Seth hit the trail on skis first, (bob’s a monster and skate skied out and back). Jay, David and I closed up the cabin and rode down from the short spur trail that leads to Caribou Bluffs. After a short descent the trail hits Fossil Creek, while Jay and David rode west down the creek through Fossil Gap and out to the Colorado Creek trail head, I crossed it to merge on the trail back to Wickersham Dome.
The sky was brightening and in some ways, just like the northern lights, it was slowly changing a slew of different colors. Bright pink, red, orange and yellow to the south, and a deep dark blueish purple to the north. And although the clouds and light would shift, the colors never faded throughout the day.
The ride back out took about 5 hours. I would see the sun rise and set over valleys and behind different ridge lines. All the while being chased by darkness. I passed Bob and Seth skiing out with their pups, Seth was kind enough to share a smoked salmon strip with me.
The sun rose for the first time over Beaver Creek and Big Bend about 8 miles into the ride. I dropped down to the creek and quickly lost the suns bright rays. Winding through some birch and white spruce trees the trail crosses the creek and ascends up the north facing side of the valley. Just an hour and a half after the sun first broke the horizon and I reached the top of the climb. It started to descend, I watched it’s light fade from the face of the rocky ridge lines to the north, and I chased it riding south. I rode up hills out of the dry zero-degree temps on the flats, to 20 above along the ridge lines and back down again. In a place like the Whites, depending on your elevation, the temperature can vary by 40 or 50 degrees when the cold really hits.
About 17 miles and 3 hours after the sun rose, I watched it set from the top of Wickersham Wall – although I was still under the impression it was morning time. I covered the last 6 miles of ridge riding in the twilight of a fading sunset. It was a quick trip, I was out and back home within 20 hours. It may have been light for just a few of those hours but the surroundings and company made it more than worth it.
The White Mountains National Rec. Area is amazing any time of year. It may lack the grandeur and scale of other parts of AK, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in unique landscapes and accessibility.
There are certainly easier times to explore the White Mountains. The forecast is for -40 in Fairbanks this week, which means it could be closer to -60 along Beaver Creek. Cold stretches like that can turn a fun overnight into a suffer fest pretty quickly. The sun is above the horizon for just 3 hours a day, but over the coming months, we’ll gain 45 minutes of day light every week, stretching daylight late into the evening. By mid-April light still lingers in the sky until midnight, while the trails are still rock hard white pavement. If Spring rolls around and you’re lamenting the melting snow in your town, maybe it’s about time to take a trip to the far north and explore the White Mountains.