Extending their range

February 27, 2013
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Scant snowfall gives cyclists a late-season Russian Lakes biking opportunity

I took advantage of a winter reluctant to settle in by snow biking one of many popular trails on the Kenai Peninsula. Because of the scant snowfall through November, my riding companions and I stood a pretty good chance of extending our mountain biking season by squeezing in one more singletrack ride. Just before Thanksgiving we decided to check out the Russian Lakes Trail as an out-and-back excursion from the Russian River Campground to the Upper Russian Lake cabin, about 12 miles in.

Matt Tanaka and Steve Tower ascend the Russian Lakes Trail. By Durmot McHugh

Matt Tanaka and Steve Tower ascend the Russian Lakes Trail. By Durmott McHugh

Russian Lakes Trail ascends gradually from the trailhead on a wide trail that is handicap accessible in the summer. The trail narrows to singletrack a few miles up, just beyond the bridge crossing the Russian River.

On this particular day, rays of sunshine pierced the spruce boughs and shone on frost crystals like halogen lights on diamonds. The tread was lined with a thin ribbon of untracked snow.

The trail tells a story to the person making first tracks. Critters small and large use the trail as we do, only they search for food while we look for fun.

A set of saucer-sized lynx tracks trotted before us on the trail of a tiny vole. Ermine tracks playfully bounded across our way, perhaps in pursuit of the same vole. A pair of wing prints told us there might have been some avian competition and the vole, by that point, was more than likely toast.

The trail traverses an exposed, steep slope high above the lower lake. I’m pretty cautious about traveling in the backcountry, especially in winters that are playing out like this one – you have to have your head in the snow to ignore the warnings of extreme avalanche danger.  The avalanche hazard at this particular time was minimal through the chute—there was no hoar frost or sugar beneath a few inches of freshly fallen snow.

The singletrack of the Russian Lakes Trail is narrow and flowy to ride, undulating across the side hill through a band of spruce and aspen. Rocky pitches make the fittest mountain biker balance leg strength, lung power, skill, and finesse. I came off my bike on the second of two steep climbs—again—oh well, there’s always next time.

We were surprised to see snowshoe tracks moving with our direction into the valley. As we approached them, though, we saw the curved arch of the separated claws and realized they were not snowshoe tracks at all, rather fresh black bear tracks.

We followed the rather large bear tracks for a few miles until they turned abruptly sideways and headed into the brush. We surmised that we had been following the bear somewhat closely and that it yielded the trail when we approached too near. Feeling naked without bear spray we began to make a lot of noise.

Russian Lakes Trail is a bear corridor. The Russian River is a world-class salmon stream that attracts dense populations of brown and black bears. We thought that our chances of encountering a bear in November would be slim, but as it turned out, the bears were pumping up their fat layers on rotting fish carcasses lining the river bank and the outlets of the lakes.

The trail passes through a ghostly stand of old cottonwoods approaching the Upper Russian Lake cabin, our turnaround point. The cabin itself is an historic U.S. Forest Service log structure built in the 1950s and lovingly restored. The handmade wooden door-pulls and strips of carved trim wedged decoratively between the logs are indicators that some caring individuals wanted visitors to appreciate how special this cabin is to this scenic location on the north shore of Upper Russian Lake.

As we ate lunch on the cabin porch I couldn’t help but feel that we were being watched. High above on bare branches perched what must’ve been two dozen mature and juvenile bald eagles. They screeched and chattered to stake out trees that would give them the best vantage points to spot decayed or dying fish. Someone remarked how the birds looked like a flock of very large pigeons hanging out in the sun. They looked full and somewhat sleepy.

Don’t’ let the lack of snowfall leave you inside, staring at your unused backcountry skis. If Nature gives you a day to slip in one more two-wheeled Alaskan adventure, take it. The snow biking on that late fall-pre-winter day was superb. The abundant evidence of diverse wildlife species made it even more exquisite.

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