FAIRBANKS, Alaska — More than four decades ago, Tim Buckley laced up a pair of old bunny boots, strapped them to a rudimentary pair of Army White Rocket skis and shuffled his way down a trail.
It was his first experience with cross-country skiing. He had few skills and a clumsy setup, but it didn’t matter. Buckley said the experience was like “dying and going to heaven.”
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said, “but I fell in love.”
Buckley has spent the years since then working to pass along his enthusiasm for the trails. By his own estimate, he’s given ski lessons to about 500 people during the past 15 years, working with both kids and adults.
Buckley, who recently turned 70, doesn’t have any plans to stop. He had an artificial knee installed five years ago and admits he doesn’t move quite as fast as he once did, but Buckley remains trim and active.
He’s still out at Birch Hill several times per week throughout the winter, teaching both skate and classic styles to small groups of students.
“I still enjoy it,” he said, sitting in the Birch Hill warmup hut after leading a lesson. “It gets me out the door and gets me on skis and keeps me working fairly hard.”
Buckley recalls living on skis since he was a young boy, but he didn’t spend much time using them to traverse flat surfaces. Growing up near Lake Placid, New York, he spent his spare moments cruising down the nearby downhill slopes.
He also played football and basketball, even competing on the freshman hoops team at St. Bonaventure University, which fielded a powerhouse team in the early 1960s.
Buckley didn’t experience cross-country skiing until after hitchhiking to Alaska in 1968. He met his wife, Maida, in Anchorage, and they traveled the state for teaching jobs in Anderson, King Cove and Wrangell before moving to Fairbanks in 1977.
It was then that his skiing hobby became a daily obsession. For years, after teaching English at Lathrop High School, he and a friend would head to Birch Hill each day and ski the entire 16-kilometer course. On weekends, he’d find a remote spot in the foothills of the Alaska Range and break a fresh trail while exploring the terrain.
“I find if I’m not skiing, I’m not a very pleasant person to be around,” he said.
Andy Blossy, a skiing buddy who used to groom University of Alaska Fairbanks ski trails with Buckley, disagrees with his friend’s self-description. He said Buckley is best characterized by his constant good mood and boundless energy.
Buckley retired from Lathrop in 1999, but he remains a natural teacher. Blossy recently returned to skate-skiing after a seven-year hiatus, and said Buckley was immediately able to diagnose the areas that needed to be worked on.
“He skis a lot like he teaches — he does it full bore and he does it with a lot of attention,” Blossy said.
Buckley’s technique is self-taught, which is largely out of necessity. When he began skiing regularly in Fairbanks, that was pretty much the only option.
He said that providing guidance to new skiers became a way to pass on knowledge and help hone his own technique.
There are many more options for cross-country lessons today, but Buckley remains an influential but low-key figure in the local ski community. Some of the fastest skiers in Fairbanks got their start at one of his lessons, and the trails are covered with his former students.
Shalane Frost had never tried skate-skiing before taking her first lesson from Buckley three years ago. Today, she’s routinely among the top finishers in local races.
She attributes her technical foundation to those early lessons. There are many moving parts to good skiing form, and Frost said Buckley was excellent at giving students a few elements to think about before pushing forward to something new.
“The way we did it, we could learn a few things we could go work on, and the order he got them in seemed to be perfect,” Frost said. “He seemed to find just that right balance — and that must be hard to find, especially with such a range of students.”
Buckley said his goals as a teacher and athlete remain simple as he enters his 70s.