Chena River Recreation Area Cabin Trip

fat bike
travel
cabin
crra
Published

March 25, 2024

Mastodon Cabin

Mastodon Cabin

Last week I went on a cabin trip with my friend Ned and his dog Cora in the Chena River Recreation Area. It was a perfect introduction to bike packing and winter cabin trips, something I’ve never done before.

Day 1

We drove out to the Upper Chena Dome Trailhead at mile 50.5 Chena Hot Springs Road, arriving in the parking lot early afternoon. We unloaded our bikes and as we were getting things ready, Alaska State Park Ranger Sam pulled up in his truck and we chatted for awhile. He gave us some intel on the trails and the status of the ice bridge on the South Fork.

With our bikes loaded and Cora wearing her backpack of food, we set off on the Winter Trail toward the Lower Angel Creek Cabin. At the intersection with the Hillside Trail, it didn’t look like there had been much traffic so we stuck with the Winter Trail. The last time I’d been on this trail was two summers ago running a mostly unsupported version of Drew’s Angel Creek 50K. The race course includes running the Hillside Trail to the Winter Trail and there’s a mile plus out and back on the trail we were biking on. In summer, it’s very wet and boggy with tussocks, small ponds, and mosquitoes everywhere.

Winter Trail

Winter Trail

This time the trail was perfect. Nicely groomed, a hard base, and enough fat bike and ski traffic that the snowmachine rubble wasn’t an issue for us or for Cora running mostly between us.

It’s only 3.2 miles from the trailhead to Lower Angel Creek cabin, so we were there by 2:30. Cup of coffee and a snack out on the picnic table, then we went out to find firewood. The wood bin was mostly empty except for a large aspen round that Ned eventually shoved into the wood stove on top of some coals. It mostly burned up that night, leaving just enough coals in the morning to start the next fire.

Lower Angel Creek Cabin

Lower Angel Creek Cabin

The nearest firewood wasn’t particularly close and the bow saw at the cabin was in bad shape, but we waded through the snow and found a few standing dead spruce trees we could handle and dragged them back. My mittens were soaked by the time we were through, and my first lesson learned from the trip was to always bring more than one pair of gloves or mittens. The temperatures were in the 40s and we had the wood stove to dry our gear so this wasn’t a critical mistake, but if the conditions were different I would have wanted a dry pair of gloves. The cabin had a sawbuck and while Ned started the fire, I worked on cutting our trees into logs.

With the sun shining and sunset not for another three hours, we decided to see if we could ride the Winter Trail to the Upper Angel Creek cabin, then take the Hillside Trail back. It’s another 3.2 miles to Upper Angel Creek and once we got to the junction with the Hillside Trail we made an attempt at it. The trail goes uphill right away and the trail was quite soft. We lowered the pressure in our tires in an attempt to float over the soft snow, but it was tough going and we gave up and turned back around after a quarter mile or so. We later heard from the person staying at the upper cabin that the trail petered out soon after anyway. Re-inflated our tires and rode back to the cabin for the night.

I’ve been trying different dehydrated meals on this trip in order to find good choices for our summer backpacking. I had Peak 2 Three Bean Chili Mac with a couple handfuls of Fritos thrown in. My notes: “good, corn!, not salty at all, also not a ton of flavor, but also not overwhelming.”

With the wood stove going, the cabin warmed up and we set up both of our pots on the stove to melt snow. The logistics of melting snow had never really occurred to me, but Ned brought a garbage bag that he filled with clean snow far from the cabin. Whenever we used some of the water in our pots, we’d just scoop out some fresh snow from the bag and get it melting on the stove. It worked well and preserved the fuel in our canisters for bringing the water to a boil for coffee or dehydrated meals.

Inside of Lower Angel Creek Cabin

Inside of Lower Angel Creek Cabin

After dinner, Ned went outside and found a spot in the snow to set up his bivy sack, pad, and sleeping bag. I’d be in the cabin with Cora on a foam pad and my sleeping bag. Because the cabin is so large, and the temperature outside got down to 4 °F, the cabin was below freezing by morning and Cora joined me in my sleeping bag for most of the night to stay warm. It wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleeping, but I was nice and warm.

Cora on my bag

Cora on my bag

Day 2

I got up with the sun and got the fire going off the chunk of aspen log that was still sitting in the bottom of the stove. By the time Ned came in from outside, the cabin was warm and the water was ready for coffee so we had breakfast. I brought a couple Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy breakfast meals from a “survival” box to try: “meh. salty. nice spice but mushy and crunchy with all the same strong flavor.” I ate the second one on the last day and it was quite a bit better after adding considerably more water.

Since we knew there was someone at the Upper cabin, we took our time eating breakfast and getting packed up to go. We cut up the last tree and left it in the wood box for the next group.

We rode the 3.2 miles to the Upper Cabin and as we got to the intersection with the Hillside Trail and the spur trail off to the upper cabin, Ned heard a skier coming, so we set our bikes down and waited for them to come out. Ned knew him and we had a pleasant conversation about the cabin, trails, and his experiences at the cabin he was leaving. He’d been there for four nights, cut a bunch of wood for us, and when we got to the cabin, we found he’d even cleaned the windows! Thanks Andy!

Upper Angel Creek Cabin

Upper Angel Creek Cabin

After getting a bag of snow, stoking the fire, and getting our gear unpacked, Ned had a cup of coffee and we ate lunch. I had a Heather’s Choice Chicken and Rice meal. The Heather’s Choice dehydrated meals come from Anchorage and are smaller, so they’re about right for a lunch (500-600 calories vs. 700-900 for a dinner). I didn’t find this one particularly good: “spicy and a bit one flavored.”

While relaxing at the table looking out the window, I saw a woman skiing across the bridge toward us. Shortly after, a dog appeared on the porch and when I looked out I said, “that dog looks like Pepé.” Turns out Ned’s wife had skied from the parking lot with their other dog, burritos, non-alcoholic beer, and a cake for Ned’s birthday.

We hiked up the spur trail to the Chena Dome trail. Based on the marks in the snow, it looked like someone had skied up the hill on skins, then clipped their skis together to form a snowboard, and boarded back down. It made for a pretty solid trail until we got high enough that the trees were less dense and the sun had started to melt the snow.

Kristen and Ned, cabin in the distance

Kristen and Ned, cabin in the distance

After dinner and cake, Kristen, Pepé, and Ned headed back down the trail and I went for a walk across the bridge to the Hillside trail and back. The moon was out and the temperatures were still above freezing. A very nice night. Ned came back with an extra foam pad from the lower cabin for Cora, and after getting her all set up, headed outside to sleep across the creek.

It was a much warmer night for me in the smaller and better insulated cabin, and it only got down to 14 °F by morning. Cora spent most of the night on her foam pad and sleeping bag, only checking in with me after the cabin got cooler by morning. I got up and put a little wood in the stove to warm the place back up and went back to bed until sunrise.

Day 3

Coffee, oatmeal and leftover cake for breakfast. It was a gorgeous morning, with bright sun, blue skies, and was above freezing by noon. We rode the Winter Trail back to the parking lot, and along the way saw fresh tracks on the trail from three caribou, followed by at least one wolf. It looked like the caribou had come down to the trail from the hills north of Angel Creek and continued down the trail a bit.

Caribou and wolf tracks

Caribou and wolf tracks

We got to the truck around noon, lifted our bikes into the back, and drove 20 miles to the South Fork parking area at mile 31.5. It was above 40 °F and sunny. The trail immediately drops down onto the South Fork of the Chena River and continues on the River for awhile before crossing an ice bridge to the land on the other side. For a lot of it there was open water on one side of the trail or the other, which was a little freaky. You can see the open water just to the right of the trail in the photo below.

South Fork Ice Bridge

South Fork Ice Bridge

The trail to the Mastodon cabin was interesting, and more varied than the trail up the Angel Creek valley. After crossing the river and moving away from the large white spruce that line the river, we entered a long stretch of flat, open country with sparse black spruce, burned in a fire years earlier. The trail was wind swept and because of the warm temperatures and lack of cover, the sun and heat had started to break down the trail. We weren’t leaving ruts with our tires, but it was a little squirrely.

After crossing the valley, the trail intersects the tip of a narrow bluff and continues along at the base of it for a few miles. There were several places along this stretch where wolves had moved between the river and the bluff, leaving tracks in the unmarked snow next to the trail. We had a snack and removed most of our layers.

The final stretch to the cabin crosses the South Fork a couple times, and heads into the Nugget Creek valley. The Mastodon Cabin is up the hill from the Nugget Creek cabin, which is an old log cabin that feels like it’s sunk far enough into the ground that the floor is below ground level. No one was in the cabin when we rode by, but later that evening another friend of Ned’s biked in and stayed the night. We read his entry in the log book the next morning.

Mastodon Cabin, South Fork Valley

Mastodon Cabin, South Fork Valley

The cabin is a scribed log building that was built by students of the Folk School. The logs were cut, shaped, and assembled in Fairbanks in 2020 but the pandemic interrupted it’s installation until spring 2021. The cabin is nice and tight, and the view from the deck is amazing.

We sat outside on the deck, had coffee and snacks, and eventually Ned and Cora took a nap. I hiked up the Mastodon Trail to see what the hills above the cabin look like. A few summers ago Andrea and I hiked the first few miles of the trail, but I’d never been to the end of it. The area burned recently, so like the trail in, most of the landscape was fairly open with standing and downed burned trees. The fire spared the thicker white spruce forest along the South Fork, providing habitat for wolves and the boreal owls we heard calling to each other once it got dark. I spent the time before dinner cutting and chopping firewood and playing hands of euchre with Ned. I don’t think I’d played the game since high school, where it was a favorite lunch and study hall game until the school banned playing cards as “gambling activity.”

After sunset, we cooked dinner. Peak 2 Beef Stroganoff, which was excellent. It’s the best dehydrated meal I’ve eaten thus far: “excellent. great flavor, rich, not overpowering or too salty. highly recommended.” Also 810 calories, which is quite a bit more than a typical Mountain House meal.

After dinner Ned headed out the Mastodon trail to sleep under the stars and almost full moon. About and hour after the moon rose, the aurora came out. It was fairly bright from the moon, so the display wasn’t as impressive as it might have been on a moonless night, but the combination of a moonlit landscape and curtains of green and red shimmering light was sublime.

Northern Lights from the deck of Mastodon cabin

Northern Lights from the deck of Mastodon cabin

The cabin stayed nice and warm all night and I got a great night’s sleep. Cora came over and woke me up an hour or so before sunrise to go outside, and I rekindled the fire and went back to sleep until the sun was up.

Day 4

Inside Mastodon cabin

Inside Mastodon cabin

After another breakfast of coffee and a rehydrated Biscuits and Gravy (better than the first time due to adding more water), we were back on the trail home. The temperatures were cooler and the trail was firmer from the below freezing temperatures overnight, but it was clear that there aren’t many more days of good travel on the trail, even if the ice bridge holds out. A mile or so from the parking area we crossed paths with Amy (my next door neighbor!) and Kat who were heading toward the cabin. They had planned a day of riding, ending by visiting with friends who had rented another cabin in the recreation area.

I loaded up my bike and Cora, and said goodbye to Ned, who was planning to spend the rest of Saturday and Sunday riding home to Fairbanks. He estimated it’d be a 60-ish mile ride, mostly on the Yukon Quest Trail. As it turned out, he had to abandon it around Nordale Road because there was too much open water on the Chena River to make it to town that way. Better safe than sorry! He got one more night out under the stars, under a tree housing a group of flying squirrels.

It was a fantastic trip with amazing weather, great cabins, easy riding, and the best company I could ask for. It was a perfect introduction to bike packing, and staying in remote winter cabins. The winter fat biking season is mostly over now, but I’m looking forward to next winter, and maybe a hiking trip or two this summer.