FAIRBANKS – Most golf courses in Alaska — and pretty much anywhere else with anything resembling winter — are closed down during the winter months.
That’s not the case at the northernmost USGA golf course in North America.
The North Star Golf Club on the Old Steese Highway just north of Fairbanks is home to some of the best and fastest skijoring trails in town.
The Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association grooms and maintains 4 miles of trails on the 18-hole course with the blessing of North Star owner Roger Evans, a skijorer himself who these days prefers to spend most of his time in the winter on downhill boards seeing as how he also owns and operates Moose Mountain Ski Resort in the Goldstream Valley.
The trails follow the gravel cart path that winds around the 6,337-yard, par-72 course in the summer. There are 2 miles of trail on the front nine and 2 miles on the back nine. The trails are groomed 8 feet wide, which allows skijorers to skate ski, a luxury they are not afforded on many mushing trails around town.
The rolling course offers perfect terrain for skijoring, Evans said.
“It’s not too steep,” he said. “There are long, gentle, rolling trails. You can really get going. Skijorers enjoy that.”
Andy Warwick is one of them. Warwick was at North Star on Wednesday afternoon for a lunch-hour training run. He alternates between Creamer’s Field and North Star to give both he and his dogs a change of scenery, he said.
The North Star trails feature more twists and turns than those at Creamer’s Field, which appeals to skijorers like Warwick looking for an adrenaline rush.
“This one is a little more technical with the hills and switchbacks,” Warwick said after finishing a 2-mile run with his two dogs, Yogi and Freddie. “It’s a great venue. It’s so pretty with the open fields and sun.”
Before North Star, skijorers who wanted to skate ski
were pretty much relegated
to the trails at Creamer’s Field, which also are groomed by the skijoring club, and those groomed by the Alaska Dog Mushers Association
off Farmers Loop, which connect into those at Creamer’s Field.
It was during a late and low snow year about five years ago that Evans approached Pat DeRuyter, a golfer who also happens to head ASPA’s trail grooming crew, about the possibility of grooming the trails on the cart path at the golf course.
“She brought a snowmachine up and groomed the trail, and they started skiing up there because there were too many dirt clods at Creamer’s Field,” Evans said. “I loaned them one of my older groomers they fixed up and it’s worked good for them.
Indeed, the arrangement has been a good one for everyone involved, especially skijorers, DeRuyter said.
Because the trail follows the gravel cart path, it only takes a few inches of snow to make it usable compared to a foot or more for the trails at Creamer’s Field and the Alaska Dog Mushers Association, the other two most popular skijoring spots around town. This year, for example, skijorers were skiing at North Star a month before they were able to get on the trails at Creamer’s Field.
“The last couple of years we’ve been able to ski at North Star at least a month before we could go to Creamer’s Field or the ADMA trails,” said Sara Elzey, another North Star fan. “There’s nothing under the snow. It’s just like flat dirt. You don’t need a lot of snow to make the trails good.
“At Creamer’s Field and the ADMA trails, you have to have snow to cover tussocks and plow furrows,” she said.
The fact that there is a fence around the course helps keep snowmachines from tearing up the trails, too, DeRuyter said.
“For sprinters and skaters it’s really the best place around,” DeRuyter said. “It’s wide enough to skate; most mushing trails aren’t wide enough to skate.”
There are cutoffs that allow skijorers to do different distances, from one to eight miles, she said.
Another thing that North Star has that the trails at Creamer’s Field and the ADMA don’t is hills. Both those trail systems are as flat as a sheet of plywood.
“The biggest thing that North Star offers is hills,” said Carol Kleckner, another North Star regular. “Going up the big long hill on the back (nine) and flying down the back side is kind of fun.”
She’s referring to the hill leading up to the 13th hole and down to the 14th hole, although skijorers do it in reverse order in the winter.
Like other skijorers, Kleckner is thankful the Evanses have made them available to the skijoring public.
“They’re some of the most beautiful trails in town,” she said.
The trails have become more popular in the past few years based on the number of people she encounters while grooming, DeRuyter said.
“There’s a surprising number of other skijorers and skiers who use it,” she said.
Another reason skijorers like the trails at North Star is that it’s usually warmer there than it is at Creamer’s Field because the golf course is located a higher elevation. It might be 20 below at Creamer’s Field but only zero at North Star.
“It’s a lot warmer than Creamer’s Field,” DeRuyter said. “It’s usually between 10 and 15 degrees warmer than (Fairbanks International Airport) if there’s any kind of inversion at all, and Creamer’s Field is colder than the airport.”
Having a presence at the golf course in the form of skijorers also provides a form of security for the golf course, Evans said.
“It’s nice to have people there we can trust,” he said.
The cart path does take a little longer to thaw out in the spring after being packed down all winter but it doesn’t seem to damage the course and it’s thawed by the time the rest of the course is ready, Evans said.
With hazard stakes sticking out of the snow and yard markers and tee box signs visible at different points along the trail, DeRuyter, an avid golfer who plays at North Star regularly in the summer, can’t help but think about golfing as she’s grooming the trails.
“I thought about taking my golf clubs out there with an orange ball and trying it, but then I think, ‘How am I going to swing a club with this snowsuit on?’” she said. “I can’t even hit the fairway in the summer.”
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.