Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Biking the Russian Lakes Trail, Point-to-Point

A view of trail and mountains from the upper end of Russian Lakes Trail.  This section was fast and fun.

We ran out of energy and time on our Cooper Landing vacation last year and I have been dreaming of doing the Russian Lakes Trail ever since, so was thrilled that it was actually going to happen!  I feared weather or injuries or bike malfunctions might sideline us from this trip, and it almost did as Douglas' knee was hurting him badly the first few miles of this ride until he adjusted his seat.

There were plenty of bridges along this trail.  Here, a section of the stream was washed out.   

A view of the stream and area from the bridge pictured above.

In the end, it happened though.  We started by parking one vehicle at the Resurrection Pass trailhead in Cooper Landing.  We drove 30 minutes up Snug Harbor Road which turned into the Cooper Lake Road.  It feels like a long, long drive on gravel, and luckily road conditions are good and traffic light.  As we drove it seemed we were going up and up, which was exciting to think we would be biking mostly down!  Yes!

We parked at the Russian Lakes trailhead.  Apparently it is also the trailhead for the Resurrection River trail that goes to Seward (The Forest Service website describes this trail with this warning: "Travel on this section of trail is for those who seek risk and solitude, are self-reliant and want a challenge.).  There were Forest Service trucks parked at the trailhead and signs warning about construction on the trail.  That could be a good thing or a bad thing for bikers, and it turned out to be a very good thing for us.  Four-wheelers on the trail meant that heavy overgrowth was matted down to the width of a 4-wheeler, which made for easier riding the first 5 miles that were being worked on.
This section of trail would have been more difficult to bike if we'd been going uphill rather than downhill on the soft dirt.

In addition to the 4-wheeler tracks, there was a section of trail that looked like a bulldozer had come tearing through.  Stumps were ripped out and piled along the trail, dirt was leveled out and gravel put down.  It was a startling evidence of civilization and progress that we don't often see in the backcountry.  Bridges, however, were plentiful signs of civilization.  On a less-used/developed trail we might have just had to ride through little streambeds, but there were bridges over them on this trail, which made for a faster ride.  Denver had a run-in at one bridge when a flock of about 10 prairie hens (we call them stupid birds) flew up into his face and in trying to avoid biking into them he took a face-plant off his bike onto a bridge.  As the rest of us caught up to him, one of the birds was still on the trail, and as we patched him up with bandaids we could hear a cacophony of cluck-cluck-clucking emanating from the bushes around us.

Can you see the trail....or the biker just ahead?  This should be titled:  Swallowed by Pushki

The moment we got past the 4-wheeler traversed area, the pushki towered above us.  True, in places it was ferns, fireweed, grass, elderberry bushes or alders that towered over us and crowded us on the trail, but it was the pushki that was most common and most detested, knowing that it could cause blistering burns if the day became sunny and the photosensitivity effect took place.  The bugs were horrible.  Each time we stopped, even for a few moments, flies would descend upon us.  Like I mentioned in the Johnson Pass blog, eye protection and keeping your mouth shut are two awesome pieces of advice I can give anyone doing this trail.

A porcupine climbing a tree next to the trail was a highlight.
We saw moose droppings along the path and bear scat became more common the closer we got to the Lower Russian Lake.  We met only 2 people on the first19 miles of trail:  a couple backpackers near the Upper Russian Lake, and we saw a porcupine climbing a tree right around that time too.  In the last 2 miles of the trail we saw dozens of people, most heading to the Russian River Falls.  That was it for the wildlife, though.

This trail is 21.8 miles long with an elevation decline (since we started at the top) of 1100 feet.  It wasn't as if there weren't any uphills, but there weren't any really long uphills.  There were a few short spots that we had to walk our bikes on particularly rough, rocky uphills, but mostly this felt like a relativly easy ride.  A big part of the fatigue of these rides seems to be mental:  moment by moment you have to be paying attention to the trail, looking, watching, evaluating speed, slowing down, speeding up, maneuvering, balancing, judging.  There are very few sections on any mountain bike rides where I can glance at the scenery or off the trail for more than 2 seconds, and when I do I seem to end up riding off the trail.  When I look back over this day, I can think of a number of potentially dangerous situations:  times that if we were not paying attention we could have biked off the edge of a ledge, flipped over the handlebars or something.  Fatigue could turn a relatively easy ride into a bad situation quickly, so I monitored myself and the kids, watching for signs that we needed to take a break.
There weren't many good stopping places with a breeze;
this was as good as we got for a lunch spot.  We didn't get eaten.

By time we reach the turnoff to Barber Cabin at mile 18 or so, we were ready to welcome the nicely graveled, wide trail.  And that last mile or so to the trailhead is just a screamingly fun, fast ride.  The crowds of people with small children, strollers and fishing rods were the only thing we had to really look out for.  We had a mile or so to ride to the Sterling Highway, and a quarter mile on the highway itself to the Resurrection Pass trailhead (we opted to do that to save on the $11 per vehicle/no re-entry at Russian River Falls/Campground trailhead, which would have added up for each time we came in to drop a vehicle and then pick up after).  Denver needed to get 25 miles in to qualify for a ride for his Boy Scout merit badge, so while Douglas and I drove back up to the upper Russian Lakes trailhead to get the car, he rode 1 1/2 miles around the parking lot to get his 25 miles in.

This is a typical view of the trail from about miles 15-19, near the Barber Cabin turnoff of Russian River Falls trail.
I look forward to doing this trail again.  It was not as cardiovascularly taxing as some of our other bike rides, and besides the pushki hanging over the trail, it is really a very fun ride.  Regarding the pushki:  I spent so much time being intimate with pushki this week.  While I will avoid it if I can, I spent hours in it and lived to tell about it--though getting a shower at Wildman's in Cooper Landing after the ride might have helped!  None of us ended up with blisters, though Douglas and Aurora had a few sores that might have been from pushki.  I would not need to get as psyched up for this ride as for some, though the point-to-point is inconvenient.  I could do it from the lower to the upper, but I'd really rather not.  It was just too much fun doing it this way!

A rare moment:  I stopped and got a shot of fireweed with Lower Russian Lake in the background.

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