Craving the crust

by • March 17, 2015 • Single-track mindComments (0)200

Spring cycling offers the best of winter, summer

As spring approaches, my mind is obsessed with crust. The sun rises high on the horizon, melting snow at an accelerated rate. Water-logged snow freezes solidly at night, hard and dense enough to support the weight of a fat-biker.
This thaw-and-freeze process forms a smooth, fast-rolling surface as hard and grippy as concrete. You can ride nearly anywhere on crust. The word is synonymous with traction. Riding it makes me feel like I’m Spiderwoman. If you’ve ever ridden Moab slickrock, you get the gist.

Crust biking Skookum Glacier. VASTYL MANGOLD

Crust biking Skookum Glacier. VASTYL MANGOLD

I scan the weather pages looking for temperature variations at the bend in the Seward Highway at Portage Glacier, a 50-minute drive south of Anchorage. The National Weather Service and Department of Transportation websites hold clues that springtime crust is forming.
In general, April is the best month to find crust biking, but I’ve had some memorable rides in early May.
The trick is, crust biking is fickle. In years with significant snowfall, crust biking can be good for weeks so long as the sun is out during the day and it gets cold at night. In other years when nighttime temperatures stay warm, crust lovers are shut out. Last year, the crust window lasted about one week. If you didn’t play hooky on one of those days, chances are you missed out.
Plan an early launch to your crust-biking adventure unless you want to do the walk of shame. Once the sun starts beating down on the crust, it melts quickly to a point when one minute you can ride and suddenly you can’t. If you are far from your trailhead you are in for a very long afternoon pushing your bike through wet, heavy slush.
My rule of thumb is that I should be OK until 10:30 or 11 a.m. It all depends on the nighttime temperature and how quickly I expect that it will warm up. I recommend setting your watch for a turnaround time.
Don’t get carried away with the fun and lose track of time. At the stroke of midnight your carriage will turn into a pumpkin, and we all know how that turns out.
The best locations for crust biking are right out our back yard. The lakes and swamps in Far North Bicentennial Park can be crusty if you go very early. I had some great morning crust rides last year and I didn’t have to venture very far to find it.
You can also find crust in Chugach State Park’s Powerline Pass. Park at Prospect, Upper Huffman, or Glen Alps trailheads. If you can walk out onto the crust and it supports your weight, the crust biking will be good.

Whittier Pass overlooking Portage Glacier. JANICE TOWER

Whittier Pass overlooking Portage Glacier. JANICE TOWER

An entry-level crust-biking experience can be found at Portage Glacier. Begin at the visitor center and head across the lake to the opposite side. Portage Glacier has receded from view but it is just around the corner, about two miles from the parking lot.
Use caution on the lake and near the glacier. Watch for open water or leads. Although tempting, do not approach the glacier as it is actively calving. House-sized chunks of ice can crush those beneath them or swamp them with an ensuing wave.
Last spring I broke this rule by venturing close to the glacier face but at what I thought was a respectable distance, just inside of an obvious pressure ridge. The following day I had a chance encounter with a biker in Anchorage who said that he and his friend were standing on the same piece of ice on the same day when the sheet turned up on end. His buddy plunged into the lake. Were it not for quick action to rescue him, the day could have ended in disaster.
When conditions allow, I am drawn to the Skookum and Spencer glaciers in the Placer River drainage. Navigating to the glaciers can be tricky as you must weave among open leads and branches of the river. In low-snow years (such as this one) the route may be impassable due to dense thickets of brush, and water crossings may too deep to ride.
You can ride up to both glaciers and play around the toes of them. It’s fun to cruise on the smooth undulations of crust-covered terrain, unlimited by the confines of a snowmachine trail. When the crust is thick and firm, you can ride just about anywhere. Exercise extreme caution if you are drawn up the slopes. Glaciers are inherently unstable – they are slow-moving rivers of ice, after all. There are snow-covered crevasses that can give way beneath you. Crust biking near glaciers has its inherent risks.
I’m not sure where else in the world you can have this much fun on a fatbike. Crust biking is a unique experience and I feel pretty lucky that it’s right out my back door.

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