In the winter of 1993-94, Bill Holt went up to Skyview High School for a ski and saw Alan Boraas getting ready to groom the trails.
Tsalteshi Ski Trails then wasn’t the Tsalteshi Ski Trails of today. In fact, it wasn’t even called Tsalteshi Ski Trails.
Boraas, the late Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor, in 1987 had taken a fabled bike ride to work from his home in Kasilof. On that ride, he envisioned Nordic ski trails winding through the rolling woods around Skyview High School, then still under construction.
That vision was in its infancy stages when Holt stopped to chat. The ski trails had the use of two snowmachines at the time, one of which Holt said was probably borrowed. The grooming equipment pulled behind the snowmachines was all homemade.
There was no garage to store the equipment. The trails were considerably narrower and cruder than the 18-foot wide, immaculately curved and sloped routes of today.
Skiing options were limited to three main loops totaling a little less than 7 kilometers — roughly the Moose, Wolf plus Raven and Bear. It was a far cry from the 25 kilometers available today.
As the novice skier Holt chatted with Boraas, a man Holt had befriended and admired for his skill and grace on skis, an event neared that would drastically alter the course of the trail system.
Boraas asked Holt if he wanted to help groom.
“He takes off and goes up the Angle Hill, toward where the sign is now, and tries to make a right turn, and just augurs in up there. Comes to a screeching halt,” Holt said. “I looked up there and all I could see was blue smoke. I could hear him cussing in a nonprofessorlike way. Blue language and blue smoke.
“I thought at the time, ‘This looks like it’s more interesting than I thought.’ So I hook up whatever I had and probably got stuck too trying to make the same corner. I continued following him around out there.”
Fingerprints all over Tsalteshi
After getting his start in grooming, Holt would take on more and more roles at Tsalteshi over the years. His tireless work on the trails comes to an end today when Holt retires as facilities and equipment manager at Tsalteshi.
Mark Beeson, who has been the president of the Tsalteshi Trails Association for the past three years, said Holt can’t be replaced.
“There’s not a lot of people who want to put in that kind of time who have his combination of skills,” Beeson said. “It was more than just grooming the trails and maintaining the equipment.
“He worked on fundraising grants and got to know people by working with community stakeholders. He also had a vision of what he wanted the trail system to be.”
That trail system has hosted multiple state high school running cross-country championships as well as Junior Olympics qualifiers for skiing. In 2006, Tsalteshi was the site for cross-country skiing and biathlon for the Arctic Winter Games.
Biathlete Jay Hakkinen, a four-time Winter Olympian, got his start there. So did Andy Liebner, who has coached cross-country skiing in the past two Olympics.
Tsalteshi meant enough to Allie Ostrander, the three-time NCAA Division I steeplechase champion, that she chose it as the site of her Salmon Run Series. Soldotna’s Megan Youngren, who earlier this year competed in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, swears by Tsalteshi as an ideal training ground for runners.
Multiple skiers and runners have gone from training at Tsalteshi to competing in college. One of those skiers is 2015 Soldotna graduate Sadie Fox, who went on to ski for the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Sadie’s father, Jeff Fox, has helped Holt groom for years.
“I think it’s one of the gems of the community a lot of people don’t realize is there,” Fox said. “Our daughter used to ski competitively, so we traveled a lot of different places.
“I’m sure there were probably better places, but nothing in a small community like this. Nothing where you don’t have to pay to ski every day and it’s lighted.”
Despite tens of thousands of hours spent working on the trails, Holt hesitates to take too much credit.
“I think the trails speak for themselves, and the place speaks for itself,” he said. “The terrain and the community enthusiasm of looking for better and more ways to enjoy winter.
“Philosophically, I owe a lot to Alan Boraas because Alan really inspired me in a lot of ways to be a part of the environment here. A lot of the work and changes that have been done, I feel like I’ve done a lot but the place and people have inspired what’s gone on here. It’s not so much that I’ve done everything, but I feel really lucky to have had the opportunity to do the work.”
Jenny Neyman, the administrative coordinator at Tsalteshi, has gotten to know Holt while skiing Tsalteshi for 20 years. She knows how much others have contributed to the trail system, but is also succinct about what Holt has meant to Tsalteshi.
“Tsalteshi as it exists and the layout we know would not have happened without Bill Holt,” she said.
Groomed for greatness
In 2006, when the Arctic Winter Games came to the peninsula, Holt said he spent over 1,000 hours at Tsalteshi as a volunteer. Those hours only increased when Holt started receiving a stipend to work at Tsalteshi in the early 2010s.
“If Bill had ever reported Tsalteshi to wage and hour, I’m sure we’d all be going to jail,” Neyman said. “The amount of time he has put in, versus the amount of time he is compensated for, is pretty obscene.”
Holt said he does not look at it that way. He points out that when he started following Boraas around on a snowmachine, he didn’t know how to groom cross-country ski trails.
He didn’t know how to design ski trails. Had no idea how to supervise their construction, much less build them himself. He had never written grants to get money for trails. The relationships with countless, helpful community members were not in place.
“I feel a lot of love for the place, and I think the place has shown me a lot of love, too,” Holt said. “It’s just been a real rewarding experience for me.
“I never planned on doing this stuff. I’ve just been fortunate to grow doing things. A lot of things I’ve done here, I had no idea not only if I could do them, but if they were even doable.”
The first thing Holt figured out how to do was groom.
“I really love skiing, and I really did not like skiing on crappy conditions,” Holt said. “So I started thinking as I was skiing, ‘What could we do to make this better?’
“I also started getting into the art of it, the way you would get into anything you consider creative or artistic.”
Dan Harbison started serving as a coach with the Soldotna High School ski team in 1996 and still coaches with the team to this day. Holt also served as an assistant on the 1996 team.
“Typical Bill, he really got into the dynamics of snow and how that works,” Harbison said. “He got into the dynamics of grooming and how to make that better.
“He called people around the state, and outside the state, and the end result was a vast reservoir of knowledge pulled together right here for the people in Soldotna.”
The grooming knowledge made it possible to entice the community to ski, as well as train skiers and run the Tsalteshi Youth Ski Program.
Harbison said Holt mastered a light touch method of grooming. Many Nordic areas rely on the massive and expensive PistenBully for grooming. Tsalteshi relies on Ginzugroomers pulled by snowmachine.
“Bill Holt is able to do more with less than any other ski system in the state,” Neyman said. “He has an ability to scratch out decent skiing conditions after a dismal stretch of weather.”
Laura Pillifant skied for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and moved to the area in 1989. She’s skied Tsalteshi since its first winter in 1990-91. Pillifant helped start the youth ski program in 2012 and also has served as a coach for Soldotna Middle School and Soldotna High School.
“He’d get the trails in shape each day for the high school ski teams to train, then he’d come back and do it for youth ski,” Pillifant said. “Pretty much anything you would ask him to do, he would help you with.
“I used to take him cookies when he was over grooming and working on machinery in the shed. He always seemed to be there — work, work, work.”
While Harbison said Holt’s day-to-day grooming was important, ski competitions were the time Holt went to the next level.
Nobody knows that better than Tom Seggerman. Seggerman started grooming with Holt in the mid-1990s. The two were responsible for grooming the trails for the Arctic Winter Games. Seggerman will take over for Holt as the facilities and equipment manager.
He said watching Holt get a course ready for competition was unforgettable.
“You can ask anybody who groomed out there,” Seggerman said. “We’d have everything all tuned up and perfect, with all the pin flags set up, and 1:30 in the morning we’d all get back to the shed.
“We’d all be putting things away and packing up to go home. It didn’t matter, Bill would go, ‘I’m gonna go one more time just to check things out.’ No matter how good it was, Bill always made one last loop. When it came to trails, Bill was a perfectionist. He put his heart and soul into it. That’s why they turned out so well.”
The hours spent grooming were just the start for Holt. A 1992-93 trail map, showing just the three main loops, placed next to a current Tsalteshi map, showing trails filling nearly every nook and cranny from Kalifornsky Beach Road in the north to Isaak Road in the south, displays the change Holt has overseen.
In 2018, Boraas asked his son, a trails expert, how much the design and construction of the Tsalteshi system would cost if undertaken today. The cost? $5 million.
A more complete picture of Holt’s contribution comes if a map of the Slikok Trails system to the south of Isaak Road is included.
“I’ve been wrapped up in all the things as we’ve gone along that sometimes it seems like it’s always been this way,” Holt said. “It’s been really amazing the projects we’ve done and the whole way the status of the trails association has changed in the community as being a pretty important thing.
“Alan Boraas really had a lot of vision. He had ideas of where things could go and how they could expand. The community probably looked at it at first as kind of a side note. Just something that was here.”
Tsalteshi, the community’s affinity for Tsalteshi, and Holt’s skill set grew hand in hand.
Holt said he learned about trail design from helping Boraas and others design the Coyote Loop, which was constructed by a local contractor.
Also, prior to 2006, came the Wolverine Loop at the northern end of the trails, plus a redesign of the Bear Loop. Holt worked with several others to secure grants for the project.
“That was the first time I realized you could actually get some funding to do this stuff if you worded it correctly and had good intent to provide something cool for the community,” he said.
Eventually, the Wolverine Loop provided a popular way for the community to access the trails when the parking area on Kalifornsky Beach Road was completed. No longer was a drive to Skyview necessary. An outhouse has since been added to the parking lot.
“We got that parking lot there and it really changed the trail system,” Holt said. “We knew it would.”
A few years after the Arctic Winter Games, Holt would design a trail for the first time by himself. That trail is the sudden and steep uphill of the Rabbit Loop, also known as Kill Bill Hill.
Tsalteshi got a few more acres of land from the borough to do that trail. Soon, the borough allowed Tsalteshi to use all the land to Isaak Road, and by the early 2010s Holt had designed and constructed the Squirrel and Owl loops by himself.
“We kind of got this philosophy that if we can convince the borough to let us use more land, we should use it right away before it goes away,” Holt said.
In 2014, Holt said a great group of volunteers got the singletrack biking movement going at Tsalteshi by making a previous snowshoe trail suitable for biking.
In the spring of 2017, Tsalteshi received a recreational trail permit to develop land south of Isaak Road and by June 2018 Holt had constructed 3 miles of multiuse trail there. Grants also made possible just under 4 miles of singletrack.
Holt said the Slikok Trails mean a lot to him because it was always hard telling walkers, bikers and dog owners to stay off the ski trails during winters at Tsalteshi.
“I felt like we really needed a multiuse trail,” he said. “I felt like it would really benefit the borough.”
Just like the singletrack trails, the multiuse trails have opened Tsalteshi to more user groups.
“I love going out there and seeing a broad range of people using those trails,” Holt said. “I’ve surprised myself. I like walking around down there as much as I like skiing the trails here.”
Of course, there’s also many things Holt did to help Tsalteshi that do not appear on a map.
Harbison points to the quality of the trails themselves, now all widened to 18 feet and equipped with manageable corners and, in many cases, LED lights above.
“We used to have a saying for the Bear downhill that if you could ski that, you could ski anything,” Harbison said. “He’s been instrumental in making the trails safe and user friendly for a wide variety of skill levels.”
Harbison said Holt has grown with the sport, putting tons of time into getting the sprint courses just right, while at the same time successfully keeping back the aggressive growth of brush over so many kilometers of trails.
Neyman said Holt spends hours on projects like alleviating frostheaves and facilitating drainage that allow the trails to make a quick transition between seasons.
Seggerman said Holt has made countless modifications to the trails that skiers would never notice, but that groomers love because of the clumsy handling capabilities of a snowmachine pulling equipment.
Holt’s personality also doesn’t show up on a map. A commercial fisherman by trade, Fox, a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries management biologist for Cook Inlet, said Holt brought a strategy to equipment upkeep that fits with getting as many fish in the nets as possible today and worrying about everything else later.
“Bill’s a firm believer in don’t fix it until it’s really broken,” Fox said. “He’d call me in and say, ‘There’s some issues with this machine.’ I’d tell him, ‘If you’d told me about this a couple days ago, it would have been easier.’”
One of the snowmachines in the shed has duct tape on the handle that says, “No reverse,” and a fire extinguisher just behind the seat.
“That’s the only one that’s caught on fire,” Holt said of the machine. “The rest of them could, I guess.”
Beeson and Neyman also said Holt’s quippy trail reports featuring commentaries on current events and poems from the likes of T.S. Alteshi, Dr. Schuss and William Skatesphere are legendary.
“You’re by yourself grooming, driving in circles, and you keep coming back to the same place,” Holt said. “In order to keep awake in my mind, I started crafting goofy things.
“Then I started feeling out-of-control inspired to keep thinking about it.”
Here’s a bit of Skatesphere:
To ski, or not to ski, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The stings and numbness of outrageous weather,
Or to take hands against a sea of cold
And by wearing opposing gloves, warm them
Following the master
Seggerman is the first to admit there is no way he is replacing Holt.
“I’m coming in behind the master,” Seggerman said. “You can’t replace Bill. You just can’t match the dedication and love he had for those trails. It can be matched by none. I can’t imagine anyone being as dedicated as he was.”
Seggerman said he plans on keeping his Tsalteshi position for just two or three years. His goal during that time is to pass on knowledge to a new generation of groomers. He said there are already six to eight groomers lined up.
While there is still room for trails in the Slikok area, Fox said that Holt’s retirement comes at a time when most of the construction is done. Now the trails must be maintained, a less complicated task than everything that went in to building them.
Nobody thinks Holt will disappear from Tsalteshi, but all are hoping to see him on skis and not a snowmachine.
“If anybody has earned the right to enjoy those trails, it’s Bill Holt,” Neyman said.
Holt said he was always able to look at the trails and see projects that had to be done, projects that nobody else noticed. Freedom from those projects will mean more time with family, more time for traveling and more time for exploring places like the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
“I’m actually looking forward to not waking up every day and thinking about what I need to do on the trails,” he said. “That I can have an appreciation for the place as it is, and not just see the things that need to be done. Maybe I can pat myself on the back for something I did, or kick myself in the butt for something I did wrong.”
Holt has always had an affinity for “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States. Suzuki taught, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
“I feel like the trails have allowed me to be a beginner a lot,” Holt said. “I think now that I’m retiring I’m realizing I’ve now become a bit of an expert.