Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snowmobiling, sans motor

My friend Abby and I were planning to go for a hike/run today. Because of recent snow, wind, avalanche concerns, her lack of snowshoes, etc., we planned to head up the well-traveled Dan Moller Trail. She called this morning with a sore throat and cancelled, but since I already had my head set on that trail, I decided to head up there anyway, with my bike.

Juneau has but two areas where people can ride snowmobiles, and one of them is the Dan Moller Trail. As a purely human-powered winter enthusiast, I am actually pro-snowmobile, within the realm of responsible use. Modern-day machines aren't the gas hogs they used to be. And yes they're loud and yes they smell, but only when they're fairly close to you, which they don't tend to be for very long. And snowmobiles pack down great bike trails. Great, fun, swoopy, powdery bike trails. Trails that don't leave a permanent imprint on the backcountry, unlike summer bike trails (which I also support, of course, within the realm of responsible use.) But, yes, I think snowmobilers get a bad rap from other human-powered types. And it's really the place of only a few of us to criticize. Yes, their sport - and mine - is dependent on motorized use. So is Nordic skiing, which requires machines to set trails. So is lift-served skiing; resorts are an enormous energy drain not to mention a blight on the land. Even backcountry skiers generally drive, sometimes for hours, to their favorite powder stashes. If you walk out your back door, strap on a pair of skis, and skin up the mountain and ski back down, then you may criticize me and my support of snowmobiles.

That said, my own snowmobile is fairly low-impact. It presses gently into the snow and emits only tiny amounts of carbon dioxide and salt through the breath I exhale and the sweat I release. Powered by oranges, Chex cereal and copious amounts of coffee, it carries me slow but true up the long climb to the ridge. Sometimes I have to push it along. Often, I have to push it along. But I know once I reach the top, I will be rewarded with wind-scoured crust riding, steep rolling trails and views that never fail to make my jaw drop.

I rode as far as the bottom of a couple of crazy-steep high-marking lines, dropped the bike and followed the ridgeline on foot up Mount Troy. These are some of the hoodoos of Mount Troy; finding the route around them is a maze of puzzles, trying to climb while not post-holing up to my neck.

The summit of Mount Troy. On my way back down, I ran into a couple of high-markers who had both rolled their machines. A thin trail of oil marked their tumble down the hill, and I picked up a couple small broken bits of plastic as I approached them. They were huddled beside one of the machines with the hood open, and when they saw me they burst into an endorphin-charged story about their narrow escape from death as they summersaulted downhill in front of several hundred pounds of metal and plastic. I could hardly understand their burst of words, but I surmised that the driver of the broken machine panicked and bailed, downhill of his machine, near the top of the curve, and his friend went to his assistance only to panic as the out-of-control first machine tumbled toward him. I tried not to project a disapproving grimmace as I asked them if they wanted me to hike back up to the peak, where I could get a thin cell phone signal. They told me they thought they could fix the machine themselves, and I continued down, hoping I could manage to ride off the ridge before they caught up to me.

As I said, I only advocate responsible snowmobile use. Idiots should stay home. :-)

But my human-powered snowmobile use turns slightly less responsible as I start down the steep stuff myself. The trail loses 2,500 feet of elevation in something less than five miles, down a dramatically rippled, sandy-powder-coated, narrow line in the snow. All I can do is hold on tight, throttle the sometimes useless brakes, occasionally throw my right foot down as a ski, launch off the whoop-dee-dos and hope the rubber side stays down. Whee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee- (bump) eee! It's a wild ride, tear-jerking and breathtaking, and can strip away three and a half hours of climbing/ridge riding in less than 30 minutes.

On a different note, and sorry I never posted this earlier, but I still have yet to receive my order of books. I am very sorry about the inconvenience. Basically, I can't believe Fed Ex screwed me again. My publisher used to ship USPS priority, and I wasn't even aware they had made the change to their basic shipping service until after I received my tracking number, and by then it was too late. Otherwise, I would have never bothered to order the books, or at least looked into the viability of an expedited service. The contractor that deals with Fed Ex Ground in Juneau is super sketchy. The last time I used them, my snow bike disappeared into the Fed Ex void for two weeks ahead of my first Iditarod race. Days before the race, I had no idea where it had gone. Luckily, at the time I had a regular interview spot on an NPR program called the Bryant Park Project, so I had the whole angry power of public radio and a fair number of helpful blog readers behind me, and at the 11th hour my bike was hand-delivered from the back seat of a small car to its destination. This time, I have no such power, and the company has completely written me off. As I said before, if you were depending on these books for Christmas, just e-mail me for refunds. Otherwise, I will send them off as soon as I possibly can.

Until then, bah humbug to Fed Ex!


  1. Jill, I never get tired of your photos and stories! I hope those snowmobilers got down the mountain OK.

    Sorry to hear about the hastle with FedEx. What a pain. But I still want my book...whenever it happens to come!

  2. Excellent point about snowmobiles, ski resorts and machine snow packing.

    Beautiful pictures, as always.

  3. When did you become a health nut?! Oranges for breakfast? What next - will you abandon the peanut butter cup?!

  4. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Great comments about responsible back country use. We all share the very same planet. Great photos, as always. Keep writing girl.
    Ginger Wolf

  5. pic 4 is fantastic jill....
    wish walkers liked motorcycle trailriders here in scotland ,as you say a few seconds in a day out is nothing..
    halfway through your book..brilliant...

  6. There are no bad snowmachines, but there are bad snowmachine riders (i.e., the boneheads you ran into on the trail who almost killed themselves). Most nordic skiers, like you, approve of responsible use of machines as tools. Riding machines with no real purpose other than trying to make as much noise as possible and "high-marking" on ridiculously dangerous slopes is not what I would consider responsible use. And no matter how "quiet" the machines of today are, the reality is that we could hear those idiots on Mt. Troy all the way over on the slopes of Eaglecrest as they revved their machines up and down the mountain. I doubt you would have such warm fuzzy feelings about machines in the wilderness if you ran into a pack of dirt bikers ripping up and down Blackerby Ridge.

  7. Wow. I mean... WOW. Amazing pictures, my friend. I'd love to be up there right now.

  8. Nice skier,

    All good points. I think high-marking is a bad idea all around - an avalanche hazard, dangerous to both riders and others in the area, not to mention obnoxious. I think most of the snowmobile users in Juneau area fairly responsible, though. Most of them are nice to me when I use the Lake Creek Trail, which is technically a no-pedestrian trail. And I agree that they should stay away from Eaglecrest and its nearby backcountry areas, for the safety and peace of skiers. That said, I wish their were more snowmachine trails in Juneau. Out the road I can think of a few places, although that's all Tongass National Forest. I guess if I want bike trails I'll have to whip out the snowshoes and pack my own singletrack.

    One thing I'm excited for is the possibility of a Lemon Creek Trail, which would benefit bikers, walkers, skiers, everyone. The snowmobilers by and large are going to be the people advocating and finding funding for that trail, if it ever happens.

    I actually wrote a letter to the Juneau Snowmobile Club once and told them I was interested in joining the group in support of trail advocacy and grooming, but I never heard back from them. I don't think they thought I was serious.

  9. The snowmobile club folks are incredibly nice people, very responsible riders and they have been helping out the nordic ski club with grooming whenever they can. Unfortunately, it only takes one or two bad ones (most likely not members of the club) to ruin it for everyone else. They have tracked up Spaulding Meadows on the "no snowmachine" side something terrible the past couple of years, making it a disaster for ski tourers. What's the answer? I'm not sure but I am probably always going to err on the side of NOT allowing snowmachines in the backcountry as much as possible until we can find a way to enforce boundaries. The bad few always manage to go where they are not allowed and ruin it for everyone else. I have always been pretty happy to pack my own trail wherever I go in exchange for the quiet and serenity I find in the mountains.

  10. Inspiring and humorous read!Gorgeous pics! Sounds like you had a fantastic day of it :)

  11. Cool pics and story.

    I'm with you on the snowmobiles. If you drove to the trailhead, used a chair lift, or skied machined trails - you don't have much of an argument. And no, I don't own a snowmobile.

    I have however ridden my bike on snow packed down by snowmobiles - great fun.


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