Arctic to Indian traverse a sky-high tradition
Spring in Alaska is dangerous. The sun delivers lethal doses of vitamin D. The mountains are blanketed with neckdeep snow. Testosterone rages, and hyperactivity levels are redlined. It’s the season for Arctic to Indian – Anchorage’s favorite cross-country tour.
Arctic to Indian is a cross-country ski tour that follows the boundary between the Chugach Front Range and the Western Chugach Mountains. The 22-mile route starts at the club-owned Arctic Valley Ski Area, drops into Ship Creek, climbs to Indian Pass and drops another 2,200 feet down Indian Creek to sea level at the town of Indian.
Arctic to Indian is cross-country skiing Alaska style. The tour feels remote—you’re miles from the nearest development. The trail is rough, groomed only by skiers and marauding moose. The start and finish are guarded by steep, luge-style cuts through the trees that test your snowplow skills. Between the hair-raising descents is a gradual climb, where you can go for speed or linger in the spring sunshine with friends. On a sunny Saturday, you may pass 50 Alaskans socializing on the trail. Or you may see nobody, just wolverine tracks and mountain solitude.
HEEDING THE CALL
Last March, I woke late on a Sunday morning, my legs stiff like 2-by-4s as a result of backcountry skiing the day before. The sun was shining, though, and my chronic hyperactivity threatened to drive my wife insane.
I called Andy. “What are you doing?” “Arctic to Indian. We’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes.”
Soon I was mashed in the back seat between three amped dogs, driving to the Arctic trailhead. Our team of nine humans plus dogs launched from the parking lot into the 1,000-foot luge descent into Ship Creek. Dana pointed his Fischer Europa 99 Original Kronenschliff skis straight downhill, slamming spruce trees like alpine racing gates. Raena snowplowed so wide her butt almost dragged on the ground. Others attempted tele turns in the trailside chunder. Some walked, choosing to preserve their knees for future trips. The lactic acid loosened in my fried legs.
Once in Ship Creek, the trail wound through thick spruce forest, around beaver dams and over foot-thick overflow ice bridges. Sometimes we wondered which drainage to follow as the creek braided up the valley. As we gained elevation, the trees opened and we identified the Chugach Front peaks we knew well from the Anchorage side: Temptation, Koktoya, Williwaw, Avalanche, Homocide and Indianhouse.
Raena led our posse toward 2,300-foot Indian Pass using the “I can’t stop because of asthma,” excuse for minimal breaks. Andy and their dogs followed behind. The landscape became full alpine: windswept, stunted trees, deep snow and crippling beauty. At Indian Pass, an ice-choked Turnagain Arm came into view, the sea ice moving, driven the by second largest tides in the world.
At Indian Pass, we rested and psyched up for the 2,300-foot decent to sea level. For the next two hours we bombed down from Indian Pass. At first we made powder turns in open meadows. Then thick spruce forest enclosed the trail as we struggled to keep our speed in check. Dana, again craving speed on his E99s, tucked the trail and launched from trailside stumps. Nearing sea level, the snow became patchy, and sometimes we trudged across bare dirt. Andy, Dana and I raced the final quarter mile to Andy’s shuttled van at the Indian Pass Trailhead.
We nine humans, three dogs and 18 skis crammed into Andy’s van for a one-mile commute to the Brown Bear Saloon in Indian where we had recovery burgers and beers. I was exhausted and safe from the spring sunshine, at least for one more day.
ARCTIC TO INDIAN TRAVERSE
Length: 22 miles; 1,150 vertical feet of ascent.
Time: Three hours if you’ve won the Birkebeiner, eight hours for social skiing, 12 if you’re breaking trail in calf-deep snow.
Season: March. Earlier in the season you’ll be breaking deep trail. Later, the trail becomes a moose freeway and melted-out.
Getting there and away: Arctic to Indian begins nine miles north of Anchorage, a halfmile before Arctic Valley Ski Area. The trail finishes at Indian Creek Trailhead, 20 miles south of Anchorage off the Seward Highway. Shuttling a car does work, but adds two hours to a long day. Try hitching instead. Stash a car at Carr’s supermarket on Huffman Road. After the trip, it’s an easy hitch from the Brown Bear Saloon in Indian back to your car. Check with military officials for recreation permits to enter military land. Call 384-0296, or stop at the Fort Richardson gate to register.
Guidebooks and Maps: “The Alaska Factor” has a route description and maps. The best map is the Chugach State Park map by Imus Geographics. Both are available from Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking in Anchorage.
Gear: Most people use scaled, metal-edge skis with light touring bindings. For lighter and faster, shun metal edges for bonus adrenaline on the descents. Be prepared for the backcountry. Bring extra clothing, emergency tarp, and fire starter. Cell phones don’t work – be self sufficient.