Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Tsalteshi Trails is not a city-maintained system, it is maintained by the nonprofit Tsalteshi Trails Association.
Many peninsula residents breathed a sigh of relief in mid-January when several inches of snow finally fell, but one of the biggest sighs may have come from trail managers.
Up until then, the trails around Nikiski Middle/High School were so slick “you could have hockey-skated all the way around,” said Dale Bakk, who maintains the trails.
“Here at the school, this is the first time I’ve been able to get all the way around (the trails),” said Bakk, who has been maintaining the trails for about 17 years. “One more good snow and we should have the trail back to skiing shape out here by the high school.”
With two slushy winters in a row and this winter shaping up to be similar, poor snowfall and freezing rain threaten to be the new norm. Adjusting to that is a challenge for skiers in particular, but also for those who maintain the trails regularly used for winter sports.
Bill Holt, the maintenance manager for the Tsalteshi Trails Association, said the trails have recently been swapping back and forth between winter and summer trail use rules, depending on the level of snow accumulation. The association used to just stick to winter rules once the summer was over.
“It’s kind of disheartening,” Holt said. “It’s kind of like the new thing anymore. It’s crazy.”
On the bright side, the lack of snow may open up new potential uses for the trails. A nice layer of ice with no snow on one of the lakes in the trail system sparked the idea for a maintained ice-skating rink back in the Tsalteshi Trail system, Holt said.
In the meantime, with a Bobcat, he tries to make lemonade out of lemons — or take the time he would use to groom ski trails to grind up the ice and frost heave. The grinder, which the association purchased two years ago, allows Holt to crunch up the ice and frost heave, he said.
“That’s one of the reasons we don’t like to have runners out there, because you could really get hurt on it,” Holt said. “This year the frost heave was really bad.”
Crunching up the ice is a passable way to maintain the trails, but it takes a lot more time, said Kathy Lopeman, the president of Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers. The association maintains its own trails, which is a lot of work even in snowy winters, she said. In these middling winters, the groomers have to go through and lay a base and then groom on top of it, she said.
“They’re doing now like 30 hours a week,” Lopeman said. “They try to do it every weekend or every time there’s a new snowfall. They’ve got two of the machines running all the time.”
Last winter was worse — the groomers hardly had to go out at all, Lopeman said. This year has been better, especially after the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge managers opened up more of the Caribou Hills area for snowmachining in early January. The snow gets deeper farther away from the road, so snowmachiners have been able to find good places to go this winter, she said.
Not so lucky for winter sports on the central peninsula. Until the recent snowfall, the thick ice on Tsalteshi Trails led to the birth of a new sport. Holt calls it cleating.
“There’s some really good ice-grippers around now,” Holt said. “A lot of people will get out there now and use the ice, start doing that. Even before we opened it back up for that one on the trails, we have the snowshoe trail … and it turns into a glaring-ice thing because so many people walk on it.”
Plenty of people take advantage of the ice with studded bike tires too, Holt said. Both fat bikes and mountain bikes have studded tires available, and because the studs are placed closer together, they give a good grip on the ice, he said.
The snowfall around Jan. 12 allowed Holt to get out and groom not only the Tsalteshi Trails but also Headquarters Lake behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Soldotna — something he said he now does regularly. The Tsalteshi Trails Association even leaves some machines at the refuge specifically for grooming.
The refuge maintains the other trails for skiing, but because the snow has been lackluster, there hasn’t been much to groom, said Matt Conner, the Visitor Services Manager for the refuge. The managers do have winter rules in place for the skiing trails, but with low snowfalls, snowshoers and hikers with cleats have been more common.
“When you have ideal conditions for cross-country skiing, we don’t tell folks they can’t do things, but folks usually self-regulate themselves,” Conner said.
The main concern in these freeze-thaw winters is the welfare of the trails, Conner said. The trails tend to take a hit when there is a breakup, and with more and more mini-breakups throughout the winter, the trails get damaged, he said.
Altogether, the trails on the refuge differ in priority from a system in the city like Tsalteshi. The refuge’s main priorities for maintaining trails are for hunting, fishing, environmental education, environmental interpretation, wildlife observation and nature photography. Any other uses, such as hiking and skiing for recreation, are extra, he said.
“We want folks to know that wildlife refuges are a little different because wildlife is our priority,” Conner said. “When we open it for public use, we always ask, ‘Will it have a negative impact on wildlife?’ We look at trails as a vehicle for wildlife observation.”