A hike I did on the Carter Lake trail in mid-January is a perfect example of how we rely on others when we recreate outdoors in the winter.
The journey started icy, but snow piled up quickly as a companion and I switchbacked our way up to one show-stopping view after another of freshly blanketed peaks. Fortunately, people had already been on the trail, making each step a little less punchy and a little more sure.
Two backcountry skiers eventually broke off to the right, making our going harder. Then at a knoll above Carter Lake, two hikers had called it quits, leaving untouched powder as far as the eye could see.
We broke trail for 10 minutes or so and, wallowingly, called it quits, well short of the desired destination of Crescent Lake.
So without further ado, I’d like to thank all of the trail groomers who made a winter of met destinations, and this-is-why-we-live-here voyages, possible.
My winter touchstone is Black Stone Axe Ridge, a roller-coaster masterpiece just outside of Soldotna dreamt up by Alan Boraas, a professor at Kenai Peninsula College, and better known as Tsalteshi Trails.
Boraas recently checked with his son, who runs a trail-building company in Juneau, and got an estimate that the design and construction of Tsalteshi would be about $5 million. That’s a measure of the dedication by the skiing community since the trail system originated in 1990.
Bill Holt, the maintenance and development manager, and his crew of John Pothast, Jeff Fox and Dan Skipwith put in an estimated 25 groomer hours per week on the trails all winter.
Holt was quick to add grooming is also about keeping the snowmachines running, which adds considerably more time.
One example came when Holt was grooming a hill on the sprint course and noticed his machine was running rough.
“I drove back down to the shed, walked away, came back and saw it glowing beneath the cowling,” Holt said. “It burst into flames. It’s in the shop right now and I’m not sure it’s even salvageable, but I did get the fire extinguisher before it blew up.”
Another unseen aspect at Tsalteshi is diligent work in the summer, like clearing brush and improving drainage, that makes the trails skiable with little snow. That’s why I made my first tour of the entire system Nov. 12 and will be able to make my last in April. Five months of skiing. Ridiculous.
The trails got the crowning event they’ve always deserved with the Tour of Tsalteshi on Feb. 18, and Steve Cothran deserves credit for finally making that happen.
Tsalteshi continues to expand on the original dream of Boraas to provide year-round, nonmotorized activity, part of creating a culture of the North.
The Slikok Trails, which allow dogs, bikes and walkers (but no horses or, Holt jokes, llamas) opened this winter and Holt said they are very popular. Eventually, he said there will be 3.5 miles of multiuse trail and four miles of singletrack for bikers at the Slikok Trails.
“It’s nice for me as a groomer,” Holt said. “I don’t have to get pissed off when I go down there and see footprints.”
Another steady winter option is the Kenai Nordic Trails, which the sun is steadily transforming back into the Kenai Golf Course. Many golf courses make for boring skiing, but Kenai is perfect for classic skiing and a great place to freestyle ski and get some sun.
That is if you’re skiing. The deep winter sunsets there, particularly when trees are covered with hoar frost, lead me to stop, stare and marvel more than ski.
Bob Frates, director at Kenai Parks and Recreation, and his crew of Randy Dodge and Ed Brusven get the credit for laying the path to those stop-and-stares.
The trails around the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center add to the central peninsula’s spoils. The Centennial Trail is a great winter run when trails are not skiable, and Headquarters Lake allows for skiing and ice skating when snow is low.
But one of the best-kept secrets is the Nordic Lake ski and snowshoe loops. These narrow, hilly classic trails take me back (OK, way back) to learning to ski in the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin.
Groomers Mark Laker, Clif Peterson, Scott Slavik and Richard Riley make my trip down white-carpeted memory lane possible.
The refuge has even more than those trails to offer. In mid-March, I was able to blast off from ARC Lake and head six miles toward Funny River thanks to Fox, who took a break from his Tsalteshi grooming to smooth out an old mushing trail.
Speaking of ARC Lake, I nursed my sanity back into shape by ice skating 12 miles of Active Recreational Circles there Dec. 15, when rain had seemingly ruined all other recreation in the area.
For that, plus a neat Jan. 26 skate in Soldotna Creek Park and a couple talk-about walkabouts in Centennial Park, Jack Thomas, Robert Partin, Mike Reece, Trevor Baldwin, Al Belknap and Cole Bartelds at Soldotna Parks and Recreation get the credit.
Outdoor winter enthusiasts have more than enough to satiate on the central peninsula. Drives of two hours or less quickly tilt the options toward gluttonous, but what’s wrong with treating yourself now and then?
Homer has a big group of groomers and an awesome winter culture to match. Bill Hague keeps the fleet of four ATVs on tracks and seven snowmachines running.
My first foray to Homer came New Year’s Eve and the following day. The skiing at Lookout Mountain was a port from storms across the peninsula thanks to John Miles and his crew of Bill Worsfold, Mike Byerly, Brian Chastain and Stan Purington.
I returned to Homer on Feb. 11 for the Wine and Cheese Wooden Ski Tour, which is as fun as it sounds.
This year’s tour started at McNeil Canyon Elementary, and main groomer Derek Stonorov and crew of Nicky Sczarzi, Mike O’Laire, Andrew Peter, Bill Gee and Kevin Walker made the trails so good that even tipsy skiers weren’t tipsy.
But the highlight of the event came when, high in the hills, groomer Robert Archibald announced the door prize winners to a lustrous crowd fueled by wine and cheese.
Combining his Scottish accent with a booming voice born from years spent in an engine room — “This next prize is a bottle of wine. It’s going to go down reeeeaaalll smooth!” — each winner drew a roar from the crowd as if they were being led into battle by Bravehart.
Next up for Homer was the 42-kilometer Kachemak Marathon on March 10.
Lack of snow led to a Halley’s Comet-rare 42K course that took racers up Bald Mountain this year. Due to all the special permissions granted by land owners to make the Bald Mountain loop happen, the course was likely once-in-a-lifetime. Those same McNeil groomers, and event organizer Derek Anderson, made this the most memorable terrain I’ve ever cross-country skied.
Finally, Homer hosted the Sea to Ski Triathlon on Sunday, the unique chance to start with a run by the sea, bike up to ski trails and then ski those trails.
Groomers Dave Brann, Archibald and Bruce Hess somehow put together a 5K ski course despite fleeting snow conditions. Brann was even out on the course guiding skiers around dangerous icy corners on the downhills.
The Caribou Hills is often thought of as a place for only snowmachiners, but the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers, with main groomers Gary Eoff and Ken Coleman, maintain trails for all users.
They proved it by accommodating bikers Feb. 10, when I had the “tough” assignment of covering Fat Freddie’s Bike Race and Ramble.
The nine miles I skied to cover the race (yea, twist my arm) were heart-pounding and skin-raising fun, and bikers also reported conditions that were a lot better than the heavy recent snowfall warranted.
There’s also Seward — Summer City with winter options. Jan. 9, I traveled to Bear Lake. Tom Gillespie and Dan Walker groom mountain-rimmed lake all winter, though on this particular day I chose ice skates to feel small and humbled gliding among the towering peaks.
My only foray off the peninsula came March 4 for the Tour of Anchorage 50K. It’s not nothing, starting on one side of a major city and, skiing over bridges and through tunnels, ending up on the other side. Organizer Matias Saari and main groomers Craig Norman and Matt Pauli somehow made it happen.
At the risk of making this an even worse Academy Awards speech, several more deserve thanks.
I actually left stones unturned this winter, not taking advantage of the work Dodge and Brusven do to make ice skating at Kenai’s Daubenspeck Pond possible, never skiing on the Trail River Campground grooming of Jason Aigeldinger or Homer’s famed Sunset Loop groomed by Pete Alexson, Dave Stutzer and Purington. I also have yet to ski Russian River Campground, and hear Tom Seggerman grooms great trails in the woods in Sterling.
Finally, thanks to people for being so generous with adventure ideas, whether in conversation or on social media. Sharing sparked an ice skate on Eklutna Lake, where beauty was as pure, hollowing and indefatigable as the cold, and an otherworldly ski on the Kenai River from Morgan’s Landing to the end of Keystone Drive last weekend.
Through collaboration and generosity of so many, including those I have inadvertently left out, I’m thankful, “What am I supposed to do in the winter?” has such a nonstop and awesome answer in Southcentral Alaska.