A springtime reckoning with Alaska.

It’s late April, and spring is steadily turning the snowpack to slush. Precipitation that accumulated as snow a month ago is now turning to rain, and barbecues and skateboarding seem like a more realistic option than snowboarding.

For shreds content to scrape it out for the last few weeks at their local resort terrain park, this is fine. But for those looking to extend their snowboard season, an option exists: Alaska. I’ve watched crazy AK spring-riding footage in videos for years, and this spring I finally got the chance to see if reality matched up with the movies. Seems like everyone else finally decided to check it out, too-I was scheduled to meet up with the Think Thank film crew, which was already in Anchorage. The Holden people were due in shortly. And the Robot Food posse was rumored to have just left.

How far away is all this good shredding? America’s forty-ninth state lies more than 2,200 miles north of Seattle across the border of Canada-north of both B.C. and the Yukon, and farther away from the West Coast than Chicago. Due to its size and remove, Alaska is usually featured in the corner of North American atlases, disconnected from the continental U.S. and disproportionately small. But let’s get things straight-the state is so huge it needs it’s own page. You could fit Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Nevada all within its borders.

AK’s distance from the continental U.S. has often left it overlooked for snowboarding purposes, save for the epic extremities captured on film yearly in the Valdez area. But with the state’s ridiculous land mass (586,412 square miles) and amount of mountains (AK is home to seventeen of the twenty largest mountains in the U.S.), Alaska is a definite wilderness landmark-as well as home to a shit-ton of good riding. Ironically, our nation’s largest state houses the third smallest population: only 700,000 residents. Of this small group, 250,000 people make their home in Anchorage, the state’s largest city and the airport you should fly into, unless you plan on taking an epic cross-Canada road trip.

From the airplane, all I saw was ocean, then insanely rugged peaks and steep valleys, and finally Anchorage, located at the origin of the expansive Cook Inlet. The city’s urban sprawl looked both fantastically out of place and oh-so welcome-the only sign of human life, smack dab in the middle of miles and miles of seemingly endless white-capped mountains rising up from sea level to over 5,000 feet.

The shredding was going down at Turnagain Pass, southeast of Anchorage down Interstate One. The view from the car was crazy-Interstate One follows an arm of the Cook Inlet, with the tides rising and lowering more than ten feet daily, alternately clearing and then depositing icebergs from the Arctic Ocean. Low tide in the Cook Inlet reveals some of the world’s largest tidal flats, extensive plains of quasi-quicksand that claim yearly victims-wandering tourists and even motorists get trapped in this quagmire and slowly sucked down to their demise. Back on the road, things aren’t much safer. AK driving reflects the state’s size-you gotta drive fast to get anywhere.

Besides the stark but deadly beauty of the tidal flats, Interstate One offers a great deal of wildlife viewing. I gawked like a tourist at Beluga Point, site of the yearly migration of its namesake whales. Also entertaining were the sketchy but nimble-footed goats scrambling around on the sheer cliff walls next to the highway. On the other side of the road, bald and red eagles perched on branches, scanning the ice floe for prey. I even saw a lone wolf prowling the broken plains of ice.

Forty miles south of the city down Interstate One, we drove past Girdwood, home of Anchorage’s local resort, Aleyeska. With over 780 inches of annual snowfall, nine lifts, 2,500 feet of vertical, and 1,000 rideable acres, Aleyeska is Alaska’s premier snowboard resort-it’s also home to e annual Boarderline summer camp.

On down Interstate One south of Girdwood sits the Cook Inlet’s terminus at the Portage Glacier. The road then turns east, continuing through Turnagain Pass into the Kenai Mountain Range. With peaks reaching above 6,000 feet, a sheltered position, and a northern latitude, this spot holds powder late into April and early May.

But like the rest of Alaska, size and distance are always a factor-don’t think you can just roll up and launch into the white fluffy stuff. Although the drive is a simple 45 minutes from downtown Anchorage, it takes over an hour to clear the 2,000 feet of vertical from the parking lot to the lower Alpine-and that’s with a good bootpack.

However, my first experience with Turnagain didn’t involve this hour-long hike, because instead of a crisp bootpack leading up this normally well-traveled route, we faced a blank canvas of almost two feet of fresh snow transformed by warm temperatures into slush. We took turns alternately slogging and excavating through this waist-deep helping of mashed potatoes, burrowing our way up 2,000 feet of vertical.

Stopping to gauge our progress, I looked back at the road, the small parking lot, and our slowly increasing distance from it. Interstate One runs along the valley floor of Turnagain Pass, bisecting the north and south slopes into two opposite but facing areas. I could hear the echoes of snowmobiles climbing the slope across the valley. Watching, you could see the sledders ascending and descending the pitch, scribbling all over the Alpine like a big Etch A Sketch. On our side of the pass, snowmobiles are not allowed. While this keeps the snow and terrain fresh for those willing to work for it, we all cringed as we hiked, hearing the whine and roar of engines and imagining just how much easier our trek would be with a couple sleds.

You have to go the distance to make things worth it in Alaska. The Turnagain hike was no exception-it was two hours later before the trees faded into the Alpine and our reward became clear. Turnagain Pass had us all ogling, feasting our eyes on the undulating terrain-an almost endless array of rollers all suitable for throwing up cheese wedges and throwing down some shredding. Besides all the steep pitches, a cornice line extended to the height of the peak, leading to mellower pitches perfect for the proverbial “pow slash.”

Dropping our boards and bodies into a pile, we drank water, snacked, and talked, discussing the kicker possibilities and rigors of the hike. Tired but excited, our journey was only halfway complete. Around us Alaska stood out in its stunning and extreme beauty-the jagged form of the Kenai Mountain Range extending to the east, leading off to farther distances and adventures. To the west, the range twists and folds into itself, providing Turnagain Pass protection from the weather and winds of the Cook Inlet.

Two-thousand feet of vertical means a large change in temperature from top to bottom, and the snow in the Alpine was in much better shape than the porridge we experienced at the bottom. Gathering up our energy and gear, our group split up to tackle two separate jumps. After hiking for two hours, there’s nothing like a good shoveling to get you relaxed, so we set to work chopping and heaving, constructing our stunt ramp. Near the end of our building session I noticed a weird change in the light and began to feel a different type of fatigue. I wondered out loud what time it was and the response took me by surprise-6:30 p.m.

Normally, I don’t shred with a watch or wonder what time it is, because during the winter, you ride until you’re tired, and if you’re filming, you get up really early and leave when it gets dark. But in Alaska, everything is stretched: distance, space, seasons, even time. Because of its northern latitude, the region experiences extreme amounts of light and dark depending on the season. At the beginning of January, AK gets less than six hours of daylight, and by the end of June, it barely gets to be twilight-and that only occurs for about an hour at four in the morning.

Without a watch, I was used to taking cues from the sun about when it was time to get tired and go home. But here it was, almost 7:00 p.m., and we hadn’t even hit the jump yet. The experience seemed wrong and exciting all the same time-my body was totally confused, but snowboarding at such a late hour felt like I was getting away with something, too. It was close to 7:30 p.m. as we started sessioning, launching into this weird pre-twilight, the light stretched thin into pinks and purples.

It was 8:30 p.m. by the time we rode down, slashing the soupy powder as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We didn’t eat dinner until 10:00 p.m., and we ate in relative silence, our bodies and minds tired by the day’s excesses and endurance.

With the knowledge of extraordinarily long days, we enjoyed a late wake-up and breakfast and a leisurely drive to Turnagain. However, the mellowness ended in the parking lot, as I eyed the bootpack like a middle-school bully-I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, and there was nothing I could do about it. For the next two days I met this beating with resistance and aggravation. But on the fourth day, the hike and I made friends. With a final spasm of frustration, I broke through exhaustion and exasperation, said, “F-k it!” and submitted.

See, Alaska is huge, and if you don’t resign yourself to your proper place as a very small part of it, AK’s size and epic scale will beat you down. Being human there ranks you as part of a severely outnumbered minority. There’re no huge cities or population to echo your concerns or identity. You’re simply another tiny living thing in an insanely huge wilderness, and the people of Alaska like it that way. You have to accept things on Alaska’s terms, but there is a definite payoff. Turnagain Pass is a shining example-the hike is brutal, but it leads to some of the sickest kicker terrain around. You have to give up your sense of time and comfort to survive in such a recklessly wild place, but that’s half the fun.

daylight, and by the end of June, it barely gets to be twilight-and that only occurs for about an hour at four in the morning.

Without a watch, I was used to taking cues from the sun about when it was time to get tired and go home. But here it was, almost 7:00 p.m., and we hadn’t even hit the jump yet. The experience seemed wrong and exciting all the same time-my body was totally confused, but snowboarding at such a late hour felt like I was getting away with something, too. It was close to 7:30 p.m. as we started sessioning, launching into this weird pre-twilight, the light stretched thin into pinks and purples.

It was 8:30 p.m. by the time we rode down, slashing the soupy powder as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We didn’t eat dinner until 10:00 p.m., and we ate in relative silence, our bodies and minds tired by the day’s excesses and endurance.

With the knowledge of extraordinarily long days, we enjoyed a late wake-up and breakfast and a leisurely drive to Turnagain. However, the mellowness ended in the parking lot, as I eyed the bootpack like a middle-school bully-I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, and there was nothing I could do about it. For the next two days I met this beating with resistance and aggravation. But on the fourth day, the hike and I made friends. With a final spasm of frustration, I broke through exhaustion and exasperation, said, “F-k it!” and submitted.

See, Alaska is huge, and if you don’t resign yourself to your proper place as a very small part of it, AK’s size and epic scale will beat you down. Being human there ranks you as part of a severely outnumbered minority. There’re no huge cities or population to echo your concerns or identity. You’re simply another tiny living thing in an insanely huge wilderness, and the people of Alaska like it that way. You have to accept things on Alaska’s terms, but there is a definite payoff. Turnagain Pass is a shining example-the hike is brutal, but it leads to some of the sickest kicker terrain around. You have to give up your sense of time and comfort to survive in such a recklessly wild place, but that’s half the fun.