Soldotna’s Sheryl Nelson and her son, Robert, ski at Tsalteshi Trails on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, just outside of Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Sheryl Nelson and her son, Robert, ski at Tsalteshi Trails on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, just outside of Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Breath of fresh air

Challenges, pleasures of staying active during coronavirus threat

The human body evolved to move and to respond to threat with motion.

During the threat of the new coronavirus, staying active has been a challenge for some and an absolute pleasure for others.

“I think whatever we can do to stay healthy is paramount right now,” said Pete Sprague, mayor of Soldonta.

An avid skier, at 70 years old Sprague is part of a demographic at a higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. Sprague said his concern right now is not for himself, but for others.

“Trying to get some outdoor activity, or when sheltering in place trying to do something to keep moving, is all part of wellness,” he said. “We’ve really got to strive for that right now.”

Striving for that leaves some in luck and some out of luck with the various restrictions in place due to the new coronavirus.

In luck are those who crave their activity outdoors — say skiers at Tsalteshi Trails, walkers on the Kenai beach, runners at Ski Hill Road in Soldotna, snowmachiners in the Caribou Hills or bikers on the ribbons of pavement or singletrack trails in the area.

Out of luck are those who love their activity indoors in group settings — such as participating in combat sports, working out in gyms and dancing. Also out of luck are all local student-athletes on spring sports teams.

Pulling up the mats

Isaac Kolesar owns Redemption MMA in Soldotna. Started in 2010, the gym now sports 130 members. Redemption closed down voluntarily on March 15, then a mandate from Gov. Mike Dunleavy made the closure official at 5 p.m. on March 18. Thursday, that mandate was extended indefinitely.

“We’re itching to get back to the mats and getting back to seeing each other frequently,” Kolesar said. “For a lot of people, Redemption is not just where they work out, it’s their social outlet.

“We do stuff on and off the mats together, so that makes this pretty painful. That’s what separates us from most other activities.”

Kolesar calls the members of the gym his “tribe.” He said families will spend three or four hours at the gym, with family members getting lessons and then staying to eat afterward.

This social outlet has been pulled away at a time when the threat of the new coronavirus is putting mental and financial stress on society. Kolesar added that this is also a time of the year people are more susceptible to depression, so he’s concerned about his members.

“We keep pretty good tabs on each other,” he said. “We know where each person may struggle a little bit — with depression or substance abuse — so there’s a lot of texting and making fun of each other. That’s our love language.”

Kolesar said some members are dealing with the closure by working out at home. Anchorage Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a video log of 1,500 moves that members view. Kolesar also said many of his members are very interested in self-defense, so they have been spending time practicing shooting.

“There’s economical damage being done as well,” Kolesar said. “I’m not trying to downplay the coronavirus. It’s going to take some time to recover. It’s gonna be a tough one for everybody.”

Kolesar said when the restrictions are lifted, his gym will be open to all members whether they can pay or not.

“I want to make sure to get my tribe back together,” he said.

Weight of closure

Like Kolesar, Brandon Miller, owner of Iron Asylum on Kalifornsky Beach Road, is a veteran. Iron Asylum had 400 members when it was closed on March 18, but Miller said he has lost close to 70 members since then and had to lay off the manager of the gym.

Just this summer, Miller was given the Kenai Young Professional Entrepreneur of the Year by the Kenai Chamber of Commerce for providing a gym for police, veterans and “people that have been through some rough stuff and don’t really fit in other places,” in Miller’s words.

Born and raised in Kenai, Miller served five years in the Army and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before opening the gym in 2017.

“It’s hitting us hard. It’s a bad thing,” Miller said of the closure. “Personally, with me, it’s messing me up pretty good. I need the place and a lot of other people are in the same boat. I’m reaching out daily to those who are working out at home, but we don’t have the camaraderie.”

Miller said he feels terrible about closing the gym when so much else in member’s lives is going wrong. He’s heard from members who have lost their jobs, are starting to have to make decisions between buying necessary drugs like insulin or buying groceries, and are having trouble getting in to see their doctors to have prescriptions for mental health drugs filled.

In addition, Miller said a post-traumatic stress disorder group and a one-on-one session he attends at the Vet Center on Kalifornsky Beach Road have been shut down, making times even tougher for veterans.

Miller said that veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan saw such tough conditions, and so many bombs blowing up, that they made peace they might get blown up themselves.

“Our whole goal was to make sure our friends don’t die,” Miller said. “I’m not worried about me.”

Miller said he hasn’t slept well since closing the gym because he’s worried one of his members will make a bad choice and Miller will have to live with it.

“I know I’m following the mandate, but it’s my choice to listen to the mandate,” he said. “That’s on me at that point.”

Miller said he will press on for others.

“I’m taking it day to day,” he said. “That’s all I can do. I have a wife, a kid and a bunch of people, once this all clears out, that will need me. I’m not gonna lie. It’s been really tough.”

Escaping to the hills

Gary (Tinker) Anderson, president of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers, said parking lots in the hills have been pretty full for the last two or three weeks.

“A lot of people are deciding to quarantine at their cabins,” Anderson said. “They’re self-quarantining and going for the fresh air on their snowmachines.”

Anderson has a year-round home in the hills where he is staying. As fresh snow was falling Thursday, he said it’s a great place to ride out the coronavirus threat with a few exceptions.

The first can be stocking up the cabin every few weeks.

“It’s a sore subject on my part,” Anderson said. “You go to town and the townies have bought everything.”

Anderson also said he realizes he has to travel through communities like Ninilchik and Kasilof to get his supplies. March 27, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a mandate, which went into effect Saturday at 8 a.m., limiting travel between communities to critical infrastructure or critical personal needs.

Under the mandate, getting food is considered a critical personal need.

“If I happen to run into somebody at a parking lot, we kept our distance,” Anderson said. “I think everybody is observing that and following what the governor would like to see.”

How far is too far?

While Anderson and those staying in the Caribou Hills have a right to get food, the governor’s mandate limiting travel between communities leaves some gray area for winter recreationists looking to get out of town.

For instance, Sprague loves to telemark ski in the mountains near Summit Lake on the way to Anchorage. He’d just have to pass through Sterling and Cooper Landing to get there. Is this against the governor’s mandate?

“I’m for the most part staying local,” Sprague said. “I would love to go up and ski Manitoba. This time of year, the spring skiing up there is just going to get better and better.”

Sprague added: “I just think I need to set an example and stay local.”

Sprague also said this is not the time to be doing anything risky, with the possibility of having an accident that results in a search and rescue party and the use of important medical resources.

“We all need to stay well within our abilities and not stress the health care system in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Dan Nelson, emergency manager with the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said Sprague has the right idea. Nelson said the mandate, and the frequently asked questions with the mandate, provide some room for interpretation.

The most liberal interpretation of the mandate comes from the following in the FAQs: “Alaskans are encouraged to recreate as close to home as possible, but if you must travel out of your community for recreation you are expected to take precautions, including: bring your own cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer; maintain social distancing of six feet or more from any non-household member; take the most direct routes and go straight to trailheads, parking lots, cabin or camping site; and avoiding contact with non-household members.”

Nelson said it is important to remember why the governor wrote the mandate: to limit travel in order to limit the spread of a virus that has the potential to cause severe illness, death and overwhelm medical resources. Nelson said the spirit of the mandate is clearly to do things as close as possible to your own community — skiing at Tsalteshi trails is a go, skiing on Skilak Lake is a maybe, traveling from Kenai to Seward to hike Lost Lake Trail is not in the spirit of the mandate.

“I can’t tell people how to interpret the governor’s order, I can only explain why we’re doing this,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to flatten the curve and flatten the spread of the coronavirus. This is one of the ways we’re mandated to do that and it’s important we all take that seriously.”

Focus shifts to Tsalteshi, Slikok

One of the things that fits the governor’s mandate is skiing, snowshoeing, biking or hiking on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Tsalteshi Trails, 16 miles of trails dedicated just for skiing, has been seeing more users than usual, according to Bill Holt, maintenance and development manager at Tsalteshi.

“For me, it seems like the perfect fit,” Holt said. “We’ve had a really good winter and we’ve got good snow. It’s a good way of social distancing.

“I feel like what we’re providing is an essential service. I’ve talked to a couple health care professionals and they’ve said this is a great thing to have the community get out and do.”

Sheryl Nelson of Soldotna certainly agreed as she prepared to take her son, Robert, for a ski Tuesday at Tsalteshi. Robert is a special education student at Soldotna High School.

“This is our PE,” she said.

Sheryl said she and Robert had been using the pool because of Sheryl’s wrist injury, but they turned to Tsalteshi when the pools closed.

“I would like to see even more people out here,” she said. “It’s the perfect way to stay healthy, and good health is the perfect way to fight off the virus.”

Sheryl and her husband, Wilbur, also serve as caregivers to Wilbur’s parents. Having a place to exercise with Robert that doesn’t risk bringing home the coronavirus is vital.

“It’s really awesome the groomers keep doing this,” she said. “If not for them, we wouldn’t be skiing. It’d be very icy.”

Holt said the Slikok Trails, located across from the Central Peninsula Landfill, also have been getting a lot of use. Unlike Tsalteshi, Slikok is OK for walking, running, biking, skiing and dogs.

Holt said the best place to keep up on what trails have been recently groomed is on the Tsalteshi Facebook page.

‘Go ski anywhere’

Brad Nyquist, the cross-country ski coach at Kenai Central High School, said skiing is possible in normally hard to reach areas right now.

“Now that we’ve had the thaw and freeze, you can go ski anywhere,” Nyquist said.

Nyquist also is a teacher at Kenai Central and the assistant girls soccer coach. He said adjusting to not having students in the building has been tough. It’s also been tough thinking about students who won’t get to play out a soccer season. One way he has dealt with those things is through outdoor activity.

“I just go out and try to find something,” he said.

Nyquist has skied the wetlands near the Kenai Golf Course. He’s skied the area near Headquarters Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He’s skied the trail behind Arc Lake just outside of Soldotna. He’s skied the Kenai River flats off Bridge Access Road.

“It’s just about getting out and processing some oxygen,” Nyquist said.

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