The first weekend in February, I found myself heading north from Fairbanks into the White Mountains National Recreation Area for a whirlwind overnighter in Eleazar’s Cabin. I skied the 12 miles to Eleazar’s with five friends who mushed, skied, and fat biked at their own pace. As I watched the fat biker smoke all of us on skis, ideas started to form. By the time I lay cozy in my sleeping bag that night, the idea was complete--I was going to come back out on my fat bike ASAP for the 38 mile Moose Creek loop.
I bought a super sale fat bike about one year ago, mostly because it was easier, and (slightly) cheaper, than buying another POS car. It made me feel invincible compared to the mountain bike that I’d been cursing daily on my snowy commute. But blasphemously, I had not yet gone on a pack trip with the fat bike.
So, no time like the present!
I booked cabins for the next available nights in the Whites, and rearranged life accordingly. Thinking mileage, it probably would have made sense to spend one night in Eleazar’s Cabin, and one night in Moose Creek Cabin. But when Moose Creek showed no availability, I booked Lee’s Cabin instead. This would make Day 2 a big day.
- Day 1 – bike about 7 miles east from the Wickersham Dome Trailhead to Lee’s Cabin via Wichersham Creek Trail to Trail Creek Trail.
- Day 2 – continue 9 miles east along Trail Creek Trail to the intersection near Moose Creek Cabin. Then bike 9 miles WNW along Moose Creek Trail to Wickersham Creek Trail Shelter. Turn south for a half mile on Wickersham Creek Trail, before cutting west for the 1 mile climb up to Eleazar’s Cabin.
- Day 3 – descend 1 mile from Eleazar’s Cabin, then head 11 miles southwest along Wickersham Creek Trail back to the trailhead.
I promise I’m not cool enough to be sponsored by any company/product I use. And if you trust me anyway, here’s what works for me; and every now and then, what helps me improvise.
- 1 spare set of batteries for the headlamp
- 1 small gear repair / med kit (P-cord, chap stick, Ibuprofen, spare lighter, instant fire starter, butterfly bandages, gauze, band-aids, athletic tape, aqua seal, tenacious tape)
- 1 canister of propane for Coleman stove (not pictured)
- 1 set of ski goggles (incase conditions get a bit extreme)
- 1 map, book, journal, what-have-you (I’m somehow still naïve enough to bring some schoolwork that I never open. But I suppose it could help start a fire in a pinch.)
- Bike repair kit:
- Bike pump
- Tube patch kit
- Spare fatty tube (not pictured)
- Multi-tool (oh so many uses!)
- 2 panniers (waterproof, and fit for my bike rack)
- 1 down sleeping bag (rated to 0*F)
- 1 set of extra liner gloves
- 1 pair of down booties for cabinlife
- 1 extra base layer top
- 1 spare set of thick wool socks
- 2 extra buffs (slight buff obsession, but what a practical obsession, right?)
- 1 toothbrush and toothpaste
- 1 thermos full of hot cider
- 1 liter Nalgene (full of hot liquid) in an insulated case
- 4 days worth of calorie rich, extra fatty food (notice the extra day of food!! This includes at least a half stick of butter.)
- 1 spoon (or your favorite eating utensil)
- 3 candles (at least 1 per night)
- 1 headlamp
What I Wear:
- Top: thin synthetic long-sleeved shirt; mid-weight synthetic hoodie; hooded down jacket (hoods are key!) with a lighter always in the chest pocket
- Bottoms: thick synthetic leggings (not excessively tight); fleece pants; mid-weight wind-breaking pants
- Extremities: Steger mukluks (boots) with an extra insulating pad; 1 pair of wool socks; thick fleece-lined buff as a neck gaiter (can double as a face mask); medium thickness buff over my ears (works with all those hoods!); thin liner gloves inside “fingerless” wool mittens
- Fat tire bike (I have a hefty Surly Cogburn with 3.8 inch tires)
- 1 powerful, trustworthy bike light (keep it in a pocket close to your body if you plan on using it in the near-ish future. You will be much happier to go the distance together in this potentially dependent relationship.)
A Note on Buying a Fat Bike – at any time of year, even from the northernmost fat bike distributor in the country: Just because you bought a bike specifically designed for dominating winter, and just because you bought it in a city where temperatures above 0*F are nearly reason to bask shirtless outside, don’t assume that your new fat bike is winterized. It’s NOT…. And you’ll find out the hard way when you start spinning pedals and not wheels, halfway through your daily commute at 20* below. Get it greased for REAL winter temperatures!
Leaving Fairbanks on Day 1 - 0*F, with a high of 2*F. Toasty!!
I realized that Friday (Day 3) may not be quite so pleasant, with a low of 43*F below zero predicted. I was sure to pack my down pants, an extra set of thick mid-layer jacket and pants, and several extra toe warmers. Just in case.
Solo for three days on the trail (without seeing a single soul until I passed a lone musher, 3 miles from the trailhead on the last day), I took pictures of my only companion: Larry the Octopus.
And yes – in three days without seeing another member of the Class Mammalia, I took a couple selfies. And here I am, not apologizing.
I hit the trail late in the day and was amazed at the hour and 20 minutes it took to cruise 7 miles to Lee’s Cabin. Trail Creek Trail was packed and prime!
Upon reaching the cabin, I proceeded with the usual.
- Open a pack of rock solid, fruit snacks.
- Get a fire roaring in the wood stove and start melting snow on the stovetop (for hydration) while attempting to chew frozen fruit snacks.
- Prepare dinner on the Coleman 2-burner stove while the cabin heats up, and while still attempting to chew fruit snacks.
- Finally, fill your belly and kick up your feet. Life is grand.
The snow looked amazingly pure and fresh, so I was tempted not to boil my water…. However, the snowshoe hare turds that kept materializing as the snow melted convinced me otherwise.
Day 2 began at the crack of 10 a.m. with a 9 mile cruise on the solidly packed Trail Creek Trail from Lee’s Cabin to the intersection of Moose Creek Trail.
After about 2.5 hours, Larry and I celebrated reaching Moose Creek Trail.
Talking miles, the day was nearly half over already! Talking hours and effort, the day was just a toddler.
Moose Creek Trail was a real taste of all the possibilities of fat biking: Loosely packed. Full of divots and edges. Powdery. Rough.
The 9-ish miles along Moose Creek Trail consisted of a lot of hoofing.
When the trail has been rough for miles, and Eleazar’s ridge appears in the distance, about 4-5 trail miles away, it’s time to shovel some almond butter, chug some more luke warm water, and take a selfie with Larry, who despite it all, still refuses to complain.
This was also around the time when I began to wonder why anyone would ever bring a metal spoon on a winter camping trip with lows forecast below minus 40?!?
About 1-2 miles from the end of Moose Creek Trail, there was another obstacle to consider: Overflow.
Overflow is one of the amazing, and potentially treacherous, challenges unique to northern extremes. It is water – LIQUID water – existing at sustained temperatures of 0 degrees, 20, or even 40 below!
Still fresh and liquidy, this particular overflow took me over an hour of post-holing through knee- to waist-deep snow to find a fool-proof way around. (I don’t take risks on overflow, especially alone. Crossing overflow is like any wild river – you never HAVE to cross it!)
After finding a safe crossing comes the joy of navigating through 3 feet of virgin powder back to the packed trail.
Take your jackets off for this one, because nothing warms your bones quite like post-holing through 3 glorious feet of fluffy powder, first carrying bags, and second with a bike on your back.
It was around this time that I started wondering if selling my “new” car would allow me to afford a carbon fiber fat bike….
By the time the prolonged dusk of a northern winter started to fall, I reached Wickersham Creek Trail. While my aching butt certainly wasn’t suddenly speeding along (padded shorts next time, please), my exertion in the saddle was finally rewarded by the magnificent feeling of forward momentum!
The final push of the day was the 1.1mile climb up the infamous winding hill to Eleazar’s Cabin.
Time for another cozy night in a saunafied cabin with some serious food and a good book. Oh, and time to go ahead and scarf the rest of that butter….
A frosty morning on Day 3. But nothing makes you excited for 20 below like false predictions for 43 below!!
With just an inch of untouched powder on the packed snowmachine trail, Wickersham Creek Trail felt totally cruiser compared to yesterday’s struggles along Moose Creek.
Three sets of fresh wolf tracks shared the trail with me for several miles through the valley.
We celebrated once again at the intersection of Wickersham and Trail Creek Trail after climbing the never-ending hill.
The final 6 miles of Wickersham Creek Trail were a beautiful breeze, under a bit of sunshine so bright, it almost FELT like sunshine! Almost…
At 12 below, the good ol’ Golddigger cold-started like a champ. (I’m sorry I questioned selling you for a carbon-fiber bike….)
No trip to the White Mountains ends at the trailhead. There is always one more stop: Hilltop Truck Stop, mile 5.5 on the Elliott Highway – the last stop for Ice Road Truckers on the Haul Road until Coldfoot, 250 miles north. I BRAKE FOR PIE.
Driving back to Fairbanks, I let it set in – the kind of pleasant exhaustion that can only come from letting a frigid, windy, desolate trail beat the crap out of you for three days. And a belly full of pie.