As an outlet for spending energy and learning a great sport, the Tsalteshi Trails Youth Ski Program has served the local ski community well for nearly a decade.
Recent winters have left an inexorable void as warm temperatures and meager precipitation have left the snowpack with a lot to be desired.
However, the good ol’ days have returned.
A bountiful snowfall this season has given hope to those that like to get out and enjoy the winter wonderland. The Tsalteshi Trails Youth Ski Program has helped spur that interest in youngsters who stand to benefit from the sport of cross-country skiing.
This year, the program has enjoyed a turnout of about 110 kids, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, that have come out to learn the basics of skiing and the enjoyment that it offers. Even as the past three years haven’t been as kind to snowgoers, the program has still managed to draw large crowds of youth skiers that number in the triple digits.
“We’ve had to come up with refunds for some of them,” said organizer Carly Reimer, referring to recent winters where the trails did not even get enough cover to set a classic track.
Reimer has played an integral role in organizing the program for the past three years, and has had to deal with keeping interest up amidst the poor snow years. The program, affiliated with the nonprofit Tsalteshi Trails Association, was brought to life with the help of Reimer’s husband, Adam, who Carly estimated brought it all together around nine years ago.
Since then, the program, which compensates its coaches, has attracted some of the top skiers in Alaska to coach it. This year’s crop includes such names as Darin Markwardt, a Matanuska-Susitna valleys native and 2010 Region III nordic ski coach of the year at Palmer High, and Kelli Jo Boonstra of Ninilchik, a former U.S. Ski Team member who nearly qualified for the 1998 Winter Olympic games in Nagano, Japan, falling just two positions short of the accomplishment.
“I think this is just worth gold,” Boonstra said of the Tsalteshi program. “To get kids out and active in the winter is wonderful.”
Boonstra lived for nine years in Galena with her husband, Todd, a former Olympic skier, and three children, all daughters. The eldest daughter, Riana, is a junior at Kenai Central High School, where she stars on the cross-country running and skiing teams.
Kelli Jo and Todd Boonstra coached the middle and high school teams in Galena, and both played roles in establishing the town’s youth ski program, which continues to flourish today. The family moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 2011.
Markwardt’s athletic achievements include six top-10 finishes in the men’s Mt. Marathon race, a feat that was built up with years of cross-country skiing experience from his youth. Markwardt points to winters spent in the Palmer Junior Nordic program with coaching from former longtime Colony High School ski coach Ed Strabel that helped invest his future in the sport.
“Keeping kids involved at a young age is important,” Markwardt said. “It’s a lifelong sport that has value, it’s a healthy activity and it helps build relationships.”
The program doesn’t just confine itself to the Tsalteshi Trails as its name suggests, but also ventures out onto the popular Headquarters Lake in Soldotna and the Kenai Golf Course, which is regularly groomed for skiing.
On a recent Saturday at the golf course, young skiers ventured out onto the trails for fun-filled lessons, which included answering Alaska state trivia for those in Markwardt’s group. After the trip out onto the trails, it was time for a lively game in the driving range area. The 90-minute lesson ended with a healthy snack.
Reimer said interest in the program is capped at a certain amount of skiers per coach, typically around 10 to 20 kids in each group.
“I was watching the registration this year, and it was slow at first,” Reimer said. “Then when the snow came down, it was like, ‘Boom!’”
Reimer added that the program hits on all areas of the sport, but stresses classic technique over skate, or freestyle, due to the ease of access to backcountry wilderness that classic offers.