Spring breakup

by • April 4, 2013 • FeatureComments (0)162

A bike ride to Knik Glacier celebrates the arrival of warmer weather   

Teri Buck takes advantage of a moulin in the ice for a rest stop. By Mike Buck

Teri Buck takes advantage of a moulin in the ice for a rest stop. By Mike Buck

A SUNNY SPRING DAY IN ALASKA: The best time for a fat-tire bike ride up to Knik Glacier. Firm snow and 13 hours of sun makes for a fantastic day of pedaling and exploration, and April is a great time to do it.

My wife, Teri, and I had been watching the weather and it looked favorable for clear skies and little wind. This, we have found, is the key to a successful trip. If the wind howls down the Knik River Valley, a trip here can be miserable. On a clear, calm day, it is heaven. The ride itself is an adventure, but at Knik Glacier Lake, the vastness of the Chugach Mountains offers a panorama of spectacular peaks, flowing glacier valleys and giant, floating icebergs.

We had a false start from the Old Glenn Highway where we quickly encountered open water and had to opt for a start closer to the glacier.  It is only about 16 miles round trip from a pullout on Knik River Road, four miles south of the Old Glenn, where we parked the car.

After stashing a few snacks, drinks, safety gear and a spot tracker device in case of an emergency, we headed up valley.  Our fat-tired snow bikes easily negotiated the braided river, and we rode smoothly, not always knowing if we were pedaling atop  the river ice or over one of the many gravel bar islands created by the meandering river.

Still, we stayed ever-vigilant to the fact that we were traveling on a river, and at any time there could be thin ice or open water, especially near outlets to streams or lakes. We rode along packed snowmachine tracks, keeping our eyes equally peeled for potential open water but also keen on the stunning blue skies and mountains around us. At the Knik Glacier Lake outlet, we saw open water, and water bubbled to the surface along a pressure ridge along one section of the lake. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.

Mike Buck takes a break during a spring day trip to Knik Glacier. By Teri Buck

Mike Buck takes a break during a spring day trip to Knik Glacier. By Teri Buck

Big, blue icebergs jetted up out of the lake, some the size of a truck and others the size of an apartment complex. Teri and I rode around, over and inside of these giant chunks of ice, amazed by the clear, blue color and humbled with the realization that these big behemoths were nearly 10,000 years old. We marveled at the remnants of a moulin, carved as a perfect circle into the ice, and I boosted Teri up to sit inside for a picture.  It was perfectly formed, about 5 feet in diameter and the size of a large, duplex apartment.

At other points in the ride, we traversed passageways wedged between iceberg boulders, listening to the plinking of water dripping in the springtime thaw. On the south-facing passages, we had to ride carefully on the slicked-over ice, but otherwise, the gentle weather made for an ideal spring biking outing.

As we rode toward the northwest corner of the lake, trails were becoming sparse and the snow off trail was too deep and soft to maneuver. We decided to loop around near the glacier when we saw a pressure ridge. These pressure ridges on glacier lakes often have open cracks down to the water, and this one was no exception. The ice had raised two feet on one side, and the short side had exposed water down about one foot. Several years previous, I had a close friend fall into one of these cracks, and he could not get out by himself because the ice was too slick. Fortunately, we were able to pull him up and out of the crack using a rope, and what could have been a deadly fall now serves as a cautionary tale. Needless to say, I am very cautious around these pressure ridges and diligent about bringing safety gear. As Teri and I maneuvered the ridge in front of us, I was reminded of my friend, and we took great care in stepping across the 12-inch gap using our bikes as extra support.

Ice boulders dot the landscape, dwarfing visitors, at Knik Glacier. By Mike Buck

Ice boulders dot the landscape, dwarfing visitors, at Knik Glacier. By Mike Buck

As is one of the drawbacks to spring snow biking, the gloriously warm sun can also create punchy snow – an annoyance we were willing to accept for this all-day outing. So, with the afternoon sun at its full strength, we left the glacier behind and headed back down the valley a bit slower in the softer snow, toward our car. As I knew it would, this trip did not disappoint. I have been exploring glaciers in Alaska for more than 30 years, yet it still amazes me every time I touch one; the power, the beauty, and the massive size of these valley glaciers is unparalleled. Paired with our bikes and good weather, it is a trip to remember – a fantastic fat-tire day trip you must add to your list.

 

IF YOU GO

Even a simple day trip in Alaska requires planning. Once you’re off the road system, minor – or major – emergencies can strike anytime. So come prepared. Here’s a list of safety gear to bring with you on your snow biking trip:

• Warm, layered clothing

• Helmet

• Face mask

• Glasses or goggles

• High-energy food

• Drinks

• First-aid kit

• Repair kit

• Pump

• Communication device – spot, sat phone, cell phone (service can be iffy out there)

• Extra windproof layer (jacket and pants)

• Safety throw rope 50 feet, 5 to 7mm for ice rescue

• Basic survival kit: fire starter, signal device, matches, duct tape, knife, etc.

 

Directions to Knik Glacier: From Anchorage, head north on the Glenn Highway and take the Old Glenn Highway exit before the Knik River Bridge. Go about 5 miles on the Old Glenn Highway, then stay right at the “Y,” which puts you on Knik River Road. Drive about 5 miles to the Hunter Creek bridge parking on the east side of the bridge. Biking begins as you pedal down the creek from the west side of the bridge and then head up the Knik River to the Glacier.

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