Given the choice to walk or ride to a particular destination, AK Kid will almost always choose the ride, especially if it involves his beloved blue bicycle. A Christmas gift last year, AK Kid’s mountain bike from REI has proven its worth over and over during the non-snowy months. This December, with snow depths still well below normal, the Novarra Tractor never made it to the shed, prompting an AK Fam winter biking adventure around a popular group of Anchorage trails.
Winter biking is an activity enjoyed mostly by AK Dad, even after a near-fatal crash in 2010. The only family member with studs on his tires and equipment for the severe cold such pedaling can produce, the rest of us casually bowed out due to age or perceived ability to manage both bike and windchill simultaneously. Until this year.
For all the complaining about a lack of snowfall leading to dusty, unused skis and boots piling up in the entryway, I discovered during a run last week that this same lack of snow that left trails hard and crunchy also resulted in near-perfect conditions for a ‘tween to saddle up and take an exciting winter biking trek through some of Anchorage’s more placid single track trails. When temperatures finally dipped below 20F, when the snow crackled and crunched underneath our boots, and the Solstice sunshine peeked briefly through the spindly birch trees, we stacked the bikes on the rack and drove to the Campbell Airstrip Trailhead in East Anchorage.
The Campbell Tract is a 730-acre spruce and birch forest that naturally leads recreationalists into adjoining Far North Bicentennial Park. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management and featuring a well-maintained series of trails, the tract is one of the city’s most treasured gems for semi-urban wilderness adventures, including mountain biking, skiing, mushing, hiking, and birding. If asked to offer one place for visitors to achieve wildness without having to leave the city limits of Anchorage, the Campbell Tract is my answer.
Winter biking with a ‘tween of AK Kid’s age requires some forethought, for surfaces are unique and opportunities for mishap high, although rarely of the serious kind. Rather, it’s the environment that one must pay attention to in tandem with a child’s biking ability, and the two, without a doubt, must meet in the middle. I learned a lot in the hour we pedaled around the loop connecting Viewpoint, Moose Meadow, and Mellen’s Way (Rover’s Run) trails from the Airstrip Trailhead, most of it centered around my son’s enjoyment of a sport that seems to grow in popularity among grownups every year.
GEAR: AK Kid’s fairly-new mountain bike has very knobby tires, which worked well in all but the softest of snow. While the ‘fat-tire’ bikes are all the rage among adults, their price tag is NOT popular with parents like me who find $2,000 per bicycle a bit steep for a growing ‘tweenager. For where we were and what we were doing, a standard, 16-speed mountain bike with quality tires was fine. Ditto for my Novarra Ponderosa.
AK Dad’s bike is outfitted with studded tires, much like the concept of studds on an automobile. Great on the ice and hard-pack, but as tough as the standard tires are in deeper snow, they cost an extra $100, but for a bike commuter, are well-worth the money.
CLOTHING: Winter biking is cold in an odd sort of way. Toes, fingers, and faces bear the brunt of inactivity and windchill, respectively, so kids should consider appendages when dressing for a bike ride in the snow. AK Kid wore a face mask, ski helmet, goggles, mittens, fleece and shell layers, and a down coat for our ride. Note: AK Dad and I wore boots, but the child insisted he could not ride in snow boots and wore low-top hikers. Lesson learned? Of course. Parents might add hand or foot warmers to a small pack or pannier for added insurance if kids get really cold. Note: Please do not forget a helmet, for every member of your party. Ski helmets work well, are warm, and protect the entire noggin against the elements. Goggles kept wind from creating those icy tears Alaskans know about all too well.
FUEL: As is true with any wintertime outdoor activity, staying fed and hydrated are important keys to winter biking success. Popcorn, chocolate, granola bars, little oranges, and water kept us consistently on the move, and it was fun to have a snowy picnic by a tiny little fork of Campbell Creek. Take breaks, walk a bit to restore warmth to toes and fingers, and take a few photos.
EXTRAS: A small backpack is helpful for extra gloves, socks, snacks, a cell phone, basic first aid kit, etc. As parents, AK Dad and I know it’s the time we don’t carry something that we need it most.
Practice along shorter routes or parking lots before venturing into the snowy woods. Kids (and adults) new to winter biking will need to understand the feel of starting and stopping strategies, and what to do in a skid. Much like driving a car, winter biking requires careful attention!
NOTE: Do heed all posted signs and trail markers. Some Campbell Tract trails are specifically for dog teams, and no one, I repeat, NO ONE, should venture out on these trails and risk tangling with a pack of sled dogs. Bad.
Moose frequent trails when the snow is deeper; watch for these gangly ungulates as you round corners, and do not attempt to bike around them. Wait it out, or backtrack.
Pay attention to the time; Alaska’s winter days are short, and winter biking means often pedaling out farther than you intended, only to find the sun going down and an entire second half of biking to go.
For more information about the Campbell Tract, visit their website HERE.