Flow Tailgate Alaska: A snowmachine paradise
Words: Graham Mueller
Photos: Aaron Gotthardt
The most efficient and cost effective way to travel the Thompson Pass backcountry at Flow Tailgate Alaska is on a snowmobile (aka sled or snowmachine in AK parlance). When you show up to base camp you’ll see more sleds than any other vehicle and for good reason. They will get you to the top of lines you’ve seen in movies in a matter of minutes and for nothing more than the price of fuel. On the flip side, nothing is more dangerous than a sled in the wrong hands.
Examples of this danger are the gullies right across the road from base camp. Snow Safety Director Sean Wisner reminds us, “The one right across the way [Gully 1], that’s a sled highway. A few times a year – usually in the mid-winter – an avalanche will occure and take out the power lines at the bottom.” Then there’s the weight, a 150-pound rider might not trigger an avalanche, but when 500 pounds of metal joins the party, you might rip it to the ground. Speed is also a factor as it allows you to quickly move through different terrain, aspects and snowpacks, some less stable than others.
The antidote for this poison is experience. Snow safety education is always important. In addition learning about your sled’s mechanics will allow you to troubleshoot a backcountry problem that could otherwise turn into a long hike or a cold night. Andy at Alaska Snowmobile Tours and Rentals is Tailgate’s sled rental shop owner, but he is constantly looking at other people’s machines. If your sled is suspect or you just want to try something else out, he offers a range of rentals from $150 to $300 per day.
If you don’t have a sled, a ride is still easy to come by. Big Mountain Taxi is set up across the street offering bumps for $40. If you’re down to negotiate, you can stand on the busier sled roads and hold out a 20-dollar bill. One person we talked to held out his own towrope and scored plenty of free rides. Another offered a certain herbal medicine that is in high demand.
Whatever you do, exercise caution and common sense. The driver of my first sled trip put us straight into a creek. I found out later it’s nicknamed Eight Second Creek. That’s how far it is from base camp and it has given plenty of snowmobiles baths.
Photo above: Tailgate AK founder Mark Sullivan