In preparation for the arrival of the Arctic Winter Games to the Kenai Peninsula in 2006, Dale Bagley, then the borough mayor, and Tsalteshi Trails gurus Alan Boraas, Bill Holt and Allan Miller walked the land across the Sterling Highway from the Central Peninsula Landfill prospecting for a good place to host biathlon.
Ultimately, the four decided that if the peninsula was looking to show its best face to northern regions from around the world, biathlon should take place a little farther from the dump and the highway.
But the land made an impression.
“We got really excited and started laying out trails that same year,” said Holt, the maintenance and development manager at Tsalteshi Trails. “I’ve thought about this land a lot in the past five years with a lot of different people.”
Two features combine to make the area perfect for trails. Rocks and other deposits left by retreating glaciers have created rolling hills, potholes and eskers, or long, fingerlike ridges. The land also gradually slopes down to Slikok Creek, giving a trail designer even more options.
“It’s nice, rolling terrain,” Holt said. “That’s what makes it terrific. It’s always roller-coasty. Then that long, gradual downhill to Slikok Creek. That makes it even better.”
The land between Skyview Middle School and Kalifornsky Beach Road hosting Tsalteshi Trails isn’t too shabby, either, and for that reason potential trails in the Slikok area went unrealized for more than 10 years after the quartet first walked it.
Meanwhile, Tsalteshi was refined into a ski-trail system that Holt said approaches World Cup quality. Last spring, Boraas checked with his son, who runs a trail-building company in Juneau, and got back an estimate that the design and construction of Tsalteshi would cost about $5 million if done today.
The problem with ski trails is that they don’t play nicely with other winter pursuits. Biking, hiking, dogs and snowshoeing all degrade the meticulous quality that Holt and his fellow groomers spent over three hours per day, on average, producing last winter.
Holt never liked seeing people out for a nice, healthy walk in the winter and having to tell them to get off the trails.
“You get tired of telling people they can’t walk their dog,” he said. “But they can’t have their dog out there. Those are high-end ski trails.”
Enter the land across from the landfill, which for the time being is called the Slikok Trails. Holt credited Marcus Mueller, land management officer at the borough, with being instrumental in getting a trail management permit for the land in the spring of 2017. In June 2017, Holt put in a one-mile loop that would serve as a multiuse trail for the winter of 2017-18. It was a great success, drawing bikers, walkers with dogs and snowshoers.
“Now, when I saw somebody walking the ski trails, I could tell them to come up here,” Holt said.
Then things got a little crazy. Holt figured trails would gradually fill the Slikok land over the course of many years, but in June he was able to bring the mulituse trail to a total of just over three miles and five loops. That included connecting the Slikok system up with Tsalteshi at Isaak Road.
Holt and the Tsalteshi Trails Association then landed a Recreational Trails Program grant, which is federal money administered by the state, that is enough for about 3.6 miles of Slikok singletrack trail. Holt said the borough’s willingness to make the trail management permit for 20 years made landing such a generous grant possible.
By Oct. 15, Jon Underwood of Happy Trails, Inc. was starting on a little less than a month of trail-building that would put about two miles of singletrack on the property. Three loops and an additional trail have been completed. One loop is an easy trail, while the other two loops and the trail are in a style Happy Trails calls dirt roller coaster.
Construction will resume in May 2019, weather permitting. In addition to providing finishing touches to this fall’s work, the site will get two more trails and two more loops, including a downhill trail and some “old-school” trails featuring roots and unbanked corners.
Holt said it was neat to watch the school district, borough and Tsalteshi Trails Association move so quickly on the project.
“I’ve always been one to want to grow slowly,” Holt said. “But there was a lot of opportunity all at once. Everything came together.”
Holt gave a tour of the singletrack trails early this week. They are not super technical, but the various mounds, banked turns and gradual rises and falls come one after another with little break and scream fun. All is tucked into various pockets of land, allowing riders to feel more alone than they probably are.
There even will be a few massive rock jumps for the truly daring, though both still need a little finishing work.
“I think they’re pretty phenomenal,” Holt said of Underwood’s work. “He did some trails for us the year before and did a good job then. But I think he’s learned some cool tricks since then and found out a way to make them more swoopy.
“The terrain was key. It’s just really good.”
While beaming about the Slikok project, Holt said it was even cooler to take a step back and look at all the quality outdoor, human-powered recreation the area south of Soldotna now offers.
Skiers have high-quality trails at Tsalteshi or the more primitive offerings at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Bikers, no matter the time of year, can now leave Soldotna and get all the way to Slikok Creek with only a few road crossings. Skaters have ARC Lake and the refuge’s Headquarters Lake. Snowshoers have opportunity at Tsalteshi and Slikok and nearly endless opportunity at the refuge. Winter dog walkers now have the Slikok system, and runners also have options galore no matter the season.
“I think this really pulls the community together,” Holt said, giving special credit to the youth ski and mountain-bike programs at Tsalteshi for pulling in kids and hooking some parents, as well. “Not everybody is a trails person, but this gives a lot of people more opportunity to do physical exercise.”
Coming from Soldotna, the Slikok Trails can be accessed directly a few hundred feet after the dump on right side of the highway. An area with a series of trailers that was a firefighters’ camp serves as parking for the trail head.
Holt asked that bikers let the new singletrack freeze and firm up before they give it a ride.