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Backcountry Riding on a “Snow Pony”

by Jan 13, 2020Magazine, Tourism

Snowmachines offer visitors a close-up view of the best of Alaska

Northern Exposure Adventure Tours opens up Alaska’s backcountry with tours created for beginning and experienced snowmachiners.

Wayne Miller | Rogue Photography

Snowmachining is a truly exciting way to experience Alaska’s backcountry with its towering mountain peaks silhouetted against an immense expanse of sky; unmatchable shades of blue captured in glacial ice; and networks of trails winding through thick forests and over frozen lakes. There is a rewarding exhaustion that comes from many miles covered in a day filled with sights that can only be seen by snowmachine—one that Derek Ruckel and Amanda Clayton of Alaska Wild Guides of Girdwood know well.

After years of guiding in Alaska, Ruckel recognized there was a need for multi-day backcountry snowmachine trips and founded Alaska Wild Guides tours in 2011. Clayton came on board in 2016 and developed the company’s online reservation system. Today 95 percent of the company’s business is booked online, with guests reserving spots for tours to Lake Louise, the Maclaren, Eureka, and Spencer Glaciers, portions of the Iditarod trail, and areas of Turnagain Pass.

Lori Hibbs, concierge at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, says in her fifteen years in the position she has seen continued interest in experiencing the state’s natural beauty while feeling the brisk air whipping by and seeing snow just inches away—especially for visitors who live in hot climates and for whom just seeing snow is captivating.

“Snowmachine tours are very popular,” says Hibbs, who knows firsthand what a unique experience the tours offer. “I’ve been on them and they’re so scenic. There are all kinds of beautiful things to take pictures of.”

Glacier City Snowmobile Tours is based at the Great Alaska Tourist Trap gift shop on the corner of the Seward and Alyeska Highways. This will be the twentieth season owners Chris Roberts and Connie Cooley have offered backcountry excursions on “snow ponies,” their nickname for snowmachines.

“We strive to take everybody, young or old. We can accommodate just about anyone,” says guide Justin Siemens; although guests must be over the age of sixteen to operate a snowmachine, younger travelers can ride with someone older.

Glacier City Snowmobile Tours also provides a range of experiences, including the Real Deal tour, which takes clients to a “blue ice paradise” of glaciers, icebergs, and ice caves, and the Scenic Mountain tour, which transports guests deep into the Chugach Mountains.

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Jack Bonney is Visit Anchorage’s director of content and engagement, and he regularly directs interested parties to Glacier City Snowmobile Tours, Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours, and Snowhook Adventure Guides.

“It’s definitely an option we recommend when people are here,” says Bonney. “The primary driver still tends to be the Northern Lights and things more general to Alaska like wildlife, parklands, and glaciers. Those stay true regardless of the season. But in winter, we layer on what else visitors can do.”

About 10 percent of Alaska visitation occurs in the winter, “but more tours are being offered in winter compared to ten years ago. It’s still an area of growth,” says Bonney.

Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours launched in 2000. Owners Dan and Matti Wilcock bought the business in 2015 and offer ATV tours in the summer and snowmachine tours that keep them busy four to five days a week throughout the winter. Most of their clients are out-of-state visitors, but they do “get the occasional Alaskans trying to decide if they want to ride snowmachines or have only gone out a few times and want to know the area better,” says Matti Wilcock.

Cottages at their Palmer location are perfect for close-to-home, multi-day excursions. The most popular tour they offer is a 60-mile all-day ride to Nelchina Glacier, complete with hot cocoa and snacks along the way and a hot meal at a lodge when the ride’s done.

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The Chugach Mountains give Black Ops Valdez clients miles of scenery and plenty of snow.

Joshua Swierk

Snowhook Adventure Guides’ owner Justin Savidis of Willow is relatively new to the snowmachine tour business, but not to Alaska’s backcountry.

“We started last year as a little experiment to see what kind of interest there was and it turned out to be pretty popular,” says Savidis. “We had clients from thirty-three countries. I think the furthest away was Mongolia.”

Armed with a parks, recreation, and tourism degree from the University of Utah and the dream of running a dog team, Savidis, along with his wife Rebecca, came to Alaska in 2004. He’s competed in multiple races, including six times in the Iditarod, and has earned multiple awards for his time and the care he gives his dogs.

“We have two types of snowmachine tours. One is a three-hour tour combining trail, a little powder, some trees and hills, a little bit of everything to capture all the riding abilities. And we’re starting to do overnights into the Yentna River area,” he says. “One more tour that’s gaining a lot of popularity is dog sledding in the morning and in the afternoon going on a snowmachine trip.”

The experience of riding the historic Iditarod trail is made even more rich as Savidis shares stories from his experience. “I never have a lack of things to say about wherever we are,” he says.

Northern Exposure Adventure Tours, established in 2018, is a new tour operation looking forward to its second winter season. Owner Robert Rodamer has been riding snowmachines in the Wasilla and Trapper Creek areas since he was a youngster. As a student in University of Alaska Anchorage’s outdoor program, Rodamer completed an internship at Gate Creek Cabins in Trapper Creek. His graduation coincided with the lodge owner’s decision not to continue offering snowmachine tours, “So that’s where I started my business,” says Rodamer.

In addition to client-designed tours, Rodamer offers a four-hour Cheechako tour geared toward beginners that takes advantage of the area’s maintained trails. The Boondocker tour allows experienced riders to travel off-trail onto untouched snow.

Rodamer’s clients are typically Alaskans who want visiting friends and family to experience the state’s backcountry. He can comfortably guide groups of up to six and adds additional guides for larger parties. For riders who don’t want to operate their own machines, Rodamer has “two-ups” available, machines designed for an operator and a passenger.

No matter the level of experience, before each tour Rodamer thoroughly goes over “every single control and function” of snowmachine operation. When it comes to braving outdoor temperatures, he leaves that decision to his clients.

“I just make sure everyone in the group understands that as soon as it’s not fun anymore or they can’t get warm, we’ve got to come back,” Rodamer says.

Casey Ressler at the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau enthusiastically promotes exploring Southcentral Alaska’s backcountry by snowmachine.

“From the visitor perspective, you don’t have to be an experienced snowmachiner if you go with a guide. It’s a chance for people who’ve never done it to enjoy it. From a resident perspective, if you think you want to get into snowmachining, spend time with a guide,” Ressler says.

Chena Hot Springs Resort, sixty miles east of Fairbanks, includes single day snowmachine tours as part of a large list of available wintertime activities.

“It is a 45-minute tour on flat country and mainly groomed trails, great for first-timers,” says Javier Villasenor-Gaona, the resort’s director of advertising, marketing, and sales. Clients must be a minimum of sixteen years old, but no experience is required.

Meanwhile, at the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bernadette Irish points inquiries about snowmachine tours to Black Ops Valdez, owned and operated by Joshua and Tabatha Swierk.

Originally from Maine, Joshua Swierk has a degree in recreation and tourism. The couple were looking for “the snowiest place on earth” when they came to Alaska sixteen years ago. They began Black Ops Valdez in 2005. Their tours and packages include ATV tours in the summer, overnights at Robe Lake Lodge, and snowboarding, heliskiing, and snowmachine tours in the winter. Their offerings attract twenty to thirty groups every winter.

“I’ve done a lot of guiding for military guys that grew up out of state but are stationed in Alaska and don’t know anything about the area,” says Swierk. Some come with their own machines and just want to become familiar with new country, and Swierk is happy to provide a one- or two-day introduction to the area. The Swierks also host commercial filming companies wanting to capitalize on the surrounding scenery.

Black Ops Valdez’s most popular tour is “anything that includes Thompson Pass. It’s a pretty vast, amazing place,” says Swierk. “Valdez is by far the best riding in the state. With the amount of snow we get, I’d dare say the world.”

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