An AK Wild Ride
By Sue Todd
It was Sun., Jan. 13, and the day started with a bang – a 5.0 aftershock at 7:45 a.m. I was already awake and preparing for something I found even scarier than an earthquake – snow machining in the backcountry.
When I was invited to take a glacier tour with AK Wild Guides, I was honored and terrified. It took a minute, but I made a decision that I was going to go outside my comfort zone and really enjoy the adventure.
Booking the trip was as easy as talking with Co-owner Amanda Clayton. I admitted to her that I had trepidation. At the time I confirmed my booking, it was only 5 degrees F. outside. Trying to imagine how I could possibly wear enough layers to stay warm, Amanda assured me I did not need to worry.
I would not be cold, as the machines had hand warmers, and my feet would stay warm from the heat of the engine. Plus, temperatures were expected to rise by Sunday. It would be a perfectly safe adventure. I chose to trust her.
My husband, David, and I were instructed to arrive at AK Wild Guides’ trailer on Bedrock Circle in Girdwood at 8:50 a.m. Lunch and hot drinks would be provided on the tour, and food allergies and sensitivities would be accommodated as much as possible. As far as clothing, all we needed were warm underlayers. Top-of-the-line bibs, jackets, goggles, helmets, boots and gloves would all be provided as part of the tour.
We arrived at the trailer and were outfitted alongside the other four guests scheduled that day. Once the six of us were fitted with gear, we piled into Amanda’s van and took off for Portage to meet up with our guides.
The snow machines were ready for us when we arrived. (True confession – I had never driven a snow machine before, and I had only ridden on one once, which is a large part of my fear.) The guides, Nick Potter and Sam Cox, educated us on the safe handling of the snow machines – how to get on, how to make them go, how to make them stop and what hand signals they would be using on the tour.
To my relief, the machines were actually quite simple to operate. Nick said, “Just pull out the red button, turn the key, and squeeze the throttle to move forward. Take it easy, and do not go full throttle or you may crash into someone else.” Simple instructions. The question in my head was whether I would be able to execute them.
Without further delay, we all boarded our machines and took off in single file. I chose to stay in the back of the pack with only Nick behind me. The last thing I wanted to do was hold up the rest of the riders. My worries were needless. It turns out that a lawn mower is more difficult to operate than a snow machine. My confidence improved over the course of the day.
The scenery put my mind at ease. It was an amazing ride out to Spencer Glacier. We rode for miles on beautiful white snow, crossing frozen Placer River many times. My machine slid easily over mounds and dips, across watery parts of the river, up small hills and down.
When we got into the trees, I was able to weave around them even though the trails appeared to be no wider than my machine. Occasionally, we would stop so that everyone could take photos or make snow angels, look for wildlife or just enjoy being outdoors.
Derek Ruckel, Co-owner of AK Wild Guides, had ventured out well before us, and he joined us at Spencer Lake. We puttered among enormous cathedrals of blue ice. These beautiful crystalline formations had calved off the glacier, at some point, and were frozen in place for the winter. I wondered how much of these massive structures might be hidden below the surface.
When we finally reached the base of beautiful Spencer Glacier, we got off our machines to have a look around while we lunched on sandwiches and hot drinks. Derek warned us not to get too close to the ice caves. With so much seismic activity, there was a danger that the massive icicles suspended over the cave openings could break off. Or the caves themselves might collapse. With above-freezing temperatures, the conditions were even more volatile. He said that a house-sized chunk had calved that very morning after our 5.0 wakeup call.
After lunch, we headed back the way we came. At one of our stops, we met Galileo, a lone raven who frequently appears during tours. Looking for scraps of food, he swooped and squawked over and around us many times. His black silhouette against the frozen terrain would have made a perfect Alaskan postcard. No moose or lynx were spotted on this tour, but Galileo did his best to entertain.
The trails seemed easier to maneuver on the way back, although my fatigue was starting to set in. Through the same trees, across the river several times again, over wide-open snow, we at last arrived at our starting point.
Amanda was already there with the van. She greeted us with a big smile and was excited to hear about the day. We all agreed that it had been an amazing trip. The couple from Kentucky reported that everything else they had planned for the week would pale in comparison, a testament to the planning and execution of the tour by AK Wild Guides. As for my anxiety about the tour, let’s just say it was unfounded. Every concern was addressed, and I would not hesitate to take another tour.
Book your own exhilarating trip with AK Wild Guides Adventure Tours. There are options for both winter and summer. Inquire about the special pricing for locals and see Alaska from the eyes of a tourist. Breathtaking adventures await you.