Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spring Cross Country Skiing

Eighty minutes. That’s all the time it took Scott and me to go from our ordinary, everyday routine of work and home projects to a cross country skiing paradise.  One hour and twenty minutes of easy hiking on packed snow through the woods up the Spaulding Trail gave us full access to rolling, open meadows just begging to be skied and enjoyed. Sometimes the trip is faster, but we had all day so we were in no rush.

Easy hiking up the trail with light skis
When I first moved to Juneau in the early seventies, there was no Eaglecrest, and no trail grooming at the Mendenhall Campground or Eagle Beach. Cross country skiers had to find their own way, and that often meant hiking to reach good skiing. I learned to delay skiing gratification, patiently trudging uphill to the Dan Moller bowl or Spaulding Meadows and then packing in my own trail once I reached the snow. I didn’t mind it, because that was what I did for fun. I didn’t have much money to spend on entertainment, but I did scrape together enough to buy cross country ski equipment. It turned out to be a good investment. It gave me more than a full day’s worth of fun every weekend from November to at least the end of May. Best of all, it gave me a lifetime of enjoyment, as I’m still hard at it forty years later.
Cross country skiing in Spaulding Meadows - what's not to like?
Just a few days ago, Scott and I made the hike that I’ve done ever since the first winter I lived in Juneau. The trail is better traveled these days, and improvements have made it wider and smoother in spots, but it is essentially the same as I remember it from the first time I traveled on it. Years of experience have taught me it’s often easier to hike up the trail rather than try to ski it, unless the snow is very deep. But the skis go on my feet as quickly as possible once I reach the top of the trail as it breaks out of the woods and into the main meadows. Then I’m free to travel in any direction I choose, keeping an eye on the clouds, the weather, and my map and compass, combined these days with my GPS. The open meadows are not a good place to lose your way in a white out or storm, and I’ve done both. It makes for a good story to tell, but can be a bit stressful when you’re actually stumbling about in a blizzard with no visibility and no sign of a trail.

The weather was not a serious factor today. Sunlight filtered through light clouds and a cool breeze gave just enough chill to the air to make us keep an extra layer of clothing on, even after our vigorous hike uphill. We skied quickly up into Spaulding Meadows on our lightweight, waxless touring skis, following old ski and snowshoe tracks in the deep snow and occasionally making our own way when we wanted to strike out on our own.
Ski in the trail or out of the trail - either way it's fun
After taking in the views across the meadows and checking our watches, we decided we had plenty of time to travel over to Auke Mountain.  A clearly marked route left by other winter travelers made the traverse to the Muir Cabin easy, and we enjoyed kicking and gliding on the trail, gazing at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and Lynn Canal in the distance. The downhill runs in the untracked snow put big grins on our faces, and the uphill climbs on the packed trail seemed effortless.
Visibility and navigation was not a problem this day
The Muir Cabin was warm and welcoming as we took a short lunch break inside, and then continued to ski to Auke Mountain to explore the hillside and get in some turns in the soft snow. We watched the weather go from partly cloudy and breezy to clear and warm, then back to cloudy and cool. The sun kept teasing us to stay out longer than we’d originally planned, and then it would hide behind the clouds while the sky threatened, convincing us to head down before we were caught in a storm.
But wait, there's more! Heading over to Auke Mountain to do a little exploring
As our legs started to tire out from miles of skiing, we turned towards home, traveling back past the Muir Cabin and down the Muir Trail, joining the Spaulding Trail and out to the car. We took our skis off just below tree line, finding it easier and faster to hike down with our skis on our backs rather than trying to pick our way down the steep trail on our skinny skis.
Hiking down the Muir Trail keeps equipment and knees from breaking
We were home by mid-afternoon. A quick trip up, a few hours of easy skiing, a little bit of exploring, and a pleasant walk down made for a relaxing day off. I learned to cross country ski up in Spaulding Meadows forty years ago, and it always gives me a great deal of pleasure to go up there every chance I get. If you’ve never been up there, or if it’s been a while since you have, now is the time to do it. The days are longer and the snow should last at least until the end of April, if not longer. Maybe I’ll see you up there when you go!

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