By Will Morrow
It started with a text message from a friend — “Want to go up to the Caribou Hills Sunday morning?” — and my enthusiastic, all-caps response — “YES!”
I had been out in the Caribou Hills a few times on dog sled, and since getting a fat-tire bicycle a couple years ago, I had thought that the hills would be a fun place to ride. The freeze-thaw and icy conditions of the past couple of winters had discouraged me from trying, but with this winter’s return to “normal” weather patterns, I apparently was not the only one itching to check out some different terrain.
The crew for this excursion included some of the usual suspects — avid mountain bikers Mike Crawford and Angie Brennan — as well as a newcomer to the joys of fat biking, Morgan Aldridge.
We had been invited by Sheila Best out to Freddie’s Roadhouse, a popular starting point for folks heading out on the trails that criss-cross the Caribou Hills about 16 miles out Oil Well Road near Ninilchik. At Freddie’s, we were joined by Sean Dunham, who described himself as fairly new to fat biking.
Best is planning a fat-tire event — Fat Freddie’s Bike Race and Ramble, scheduled for Feb. 19 — and we were there to test-ride the potential route.
“It’s just the perfect area,” said Best, who has been thinking about putting on a fat-tire race for quite a while. “It’s got perfect trails, and it’s not too far from Homer or the Kenai-Soldotna area, so people can come check out the trails for the race or just have a fun ride.”
If you’ve done any winter fat-bike riding — or summer mountain biking, for that matter — one of the first things you notice heading out into the Caribou Hills is the terrain. The groomed snowmachine trails are wide and relatively straight compared to the twisting single-track at Tsalteshi Trails or some of the popular trails in Chugach National Forest, such as the Resurrection Pass trail.
“Snowmachine trails can really vary,” said Crawford, noting that some trails used by snowmachiners can develop washboard conditions — not the case on the trails we were riding. “With the PistenBully (grooming machine), it was as if it was a giant highway, really dynamite conditions for a ride.”
Wide, groomed trails shouldn’t be mistaken for easy, however. The Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, which also runs on trails in the Caribou Hills, bills itself as the toughest 200-mile race in Alaska, and the constant ups and downs are a big reason why. We rode somewhere between 12 and 15 miles, but still managed to get in plenty of quad-burning, lung-searing climbs — with some exhilarating descents as the payoff, including a nice long run back to Freddie’s Roadhouse to end our ride.
“The hills were gnarly,” Brennan said.
Brennan said she wasn’t expecting such well-groomed trails, but because of the conditions, she could push herself to go faster. Fresh snow and a softer trail might slow things down, though.
Our ride also included a jaunt on a winding trail through “The Swamp,” and a stop at “The Watering Hole” — which happened to be at the base of a ski slope-esque descent, where Crawford said he hit 35 mph — an insane speed on a fat bike.
“There were some really great bomb downhill descents, tough climbs — the terrain was so varied, it was a blast,” Crawford said.
We took a more gradual trail back up, but that long climb will likely be a make-or-break moment come race day. Based on our feedback — cyclists tend to be gluttons for punishment when it comes to hard climbs — Best said she’ll probably keep it for the race course, though riders signing up for the ramble portion of the event — a fun ride — will have the option of bypassing it.
Kathy Lopeman, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club, which maintains the trails, said she’s excited to see another user group discovering the trails.
“We’re very glad to see another event up here,” she said.
Lopeman said most trail users are very courteous, and snowmachiners share the trails with dog mushers and skiers. Fat bikers, like other trail users, should practice the rules of the road, including headlights, tail lights, and reflective clothing — just like riding on the highway.
Lopeman said snowmachiners approaching an oncoming dog team pull to the side of the trail to let them pass, or if they’re going the same direction, pass with care. Fat bikers should follow the same etiquette.
Trail maps are available at Freddie’s Roadhouse. Lopeman said that trails are color coded, so if you remember what color you’re on, and you can follow that back to where you want to be. If a rider does get turned around, Lopeman said that if they see someone at one of the many cabins in the area, go ask for directions.
Crawford said his first time in the Caribou Hills left him wanting to go back.
“I would love to go explore more, particularly the trails off the main byways,” he said.
Best is hoping that the race she’s planning fills a niche. There are a number of long-distance endurance events around Southcentral Alaska, but the Fat Freddie’s race won’t be quite as extreme as events like the Iditasport or the Susitna 100.
For those interested in Fat Freddie’s Bike Race and Ramble, find details listed under “Events” on the Freddie’s Roadhouse Facebook page.
Fat bike rentals are available at Beemuns Bike and Ski Loft, beemuns.com.
In addition to Freddie’s Roadhouse, there are a number of other access points for Caribou Hills trails. While there are no parking or trail use fees, Lopeman said that donations or a Cabin Hoppers membership to help with trail maintenance are appreciated. Find the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers on Facebook, or visit akchch.org.