Our odds for matching last winter’s record snowfall aren’t look so great, but here’s a peek at what we’re up against as far as land-use openings. Last season, Turnagain Pass opened on the day before Thanksgiving and stayed open until mid-May. In Chugach State Park, Bird Valley and Eklutna opened for motorized use in November and stayed open through late April. Placer and Twentymile opened a little later — in early January — but stayed open all the way through the end of April.
As always, this year’s openings will depend on the snowpack. The key is having enough snow protect underlying vegetation and to keep your machine from punching through. Officials with Chugach National Forest say they prefer about three feet of coverage before opening areas for motorized use.
Tom Harrison, superintendent of Chugach State Park, said there are exceptions to that rule. Old roadbeds like the Eklutna Lake trail and Bird Valley’s old logging roads don’t require as much protection, he said, nor does riding atop a frozen Eagle River.
Rangers also have to take wind-stripping into account. For example, Ptarmigan Valley might have several inches of fresh snow in the parking lot, the trail could be swept bare by wind just a mile away. “We recognize that if you’re not on snow, you’re doing damage to your snowmachine,” Harrison explained. So the rules are meant to protect riders and the park’s ground level vegetation.
Sometimes You’re On Your Own
The ramifications of riding on thin snow are well worth a thought if you’re headed to BLM-managed areas like the White Mountains National Recreation Area or the Iditarod Trail. Although you’ll find some information about these areas at the Bureau of Land Management website (blm.gov/ak/), they’re not strictly open or closed for motorized use so deciding whether or not to go is up to you.
Jake Schlapfer, current safety manager and former district recreation planner for BLM Southern Alaska, recommends checking in with the BLM field office closest to your destination for news about snow conditions, as well as the best places to park or ride.
Denali Highway – Glenallen Field Office, 822-3217
Steese-White Mountains – Eastern Interior Field Office, 474-2200 or 1-800-437-7021. (Remember, if you’re staying in the White Mountain cabins you’ll need a permit.)
Historic Iditarod Trail – Anchorage Field Office, (907) 267-1246 or 1-800-478-1263. (The trail poses significant hazards to include avalanches, deep-water crossings, and extreme cold — we advise against putting on your own personal Iron Dog.)
Brush Up on the Regs
Although the land you ride on may be run by one of several government agencies, it’s the Alaska Department of Transportation that administers the regulations. Make sure you brush up on the snowmobile regs before you ride. For more information go to, dot.alaska.gov/stwdplng/hwysafety/snowmach_atv.shtml
Make sure you have a current registration; your sled is properly outfitted including lights, reflectors and muffler; and you’re riding at a reasonable speed. Don’t drink and ride – combining high speeds and alcohol is not just illegal, it will kill you.
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