It’s minus 20, Sunday afternoon, and here in Fairbanks your choices might be to doze in front of the TV while ball players get a workout for you, or do it yourself on the ski trails.
If you choose to go to the Birch Hill cross-country ski area, you’ll find more than 40 kilometers of trails, prepared by groomers well before daylight, ready to be skied. Some classical trails snake through the woods, and you’re unlikely to meet another skier there. Others are wider, set for classic and skate skiing, and more populated. Some are relaxed and rolling, others pretty steep and sometimes scary.
In cooperation with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks maintains those trails from the first snowfall until there’s nothing left but slush. Most all the effort in maintaining these trails is done by volunteers. We brush trails through the summer and assist as needed through the winter. Grooming costs money, though, so most all of us ski club members open our wallets and donate — at minimum — the recommended heavy user rate of $125 per season. Add that to about 40 hours of sweat equity that most volunteers put in, and it comes out to considerable effort to insure that first-rate trails are available to anybody who cares to use them.
All us ski club members believe that this freely available trail use is essential to a strong, healthy Fairbanks community. Yes, we offer ski lessons for kids. Come to Birch Hill many weekday evenings or any Sunday afternoon in season and you’ll be hard pressed to find a place to park. The stadium area is filled with young skiers just starting out and their parents taking adult lessons so they might keep up with the kids. We offer back-country trips every Sunday as well. We host a variety of ski races, from the long-standing Town Series to national and international events, all supported by volunteers.
This season, we will host for the fourth time the Junior National competition; the following season, we will host the Arctic Winter Games for the third time. Owing to changes in skiing technique, these races will require some changes in our trails, at some cost and more volunteer effort. Already, ski club members are working throughout the community on the preparations to make these events come off without a hitch. We want these events. It’s exciting to watch skillful skiers in action. They will stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores. Our best guess is Junior Nationals will generate 5,000 to 6,000 visitor days when skiers and their families visit Fairbanks next spring. Good for one and all.
These high-profile events may be the most visible element of the Nordic Ski Club, but our mission is deeper and broader. In light of recent concern voiced in Borough Assembly meetings — that support of the ski club represents an expense the borough cannot afford — we would note our members’ many monetary and physical contributions to maintaining a first-rate trail system for all our fellow citizens. In a nation where people slide from overweight to obese to morbidly obese, we offer a healthful alternative. When people complain about the cost of underwriting sporting activities, they may want to consider the much higher human and economic costs of poor health on our community.
The Nordic Ski Club offers ski lessons in the belief that anybody can participate in this lifetime sport. At Birch Hill, you will find skiers from 5 to 75 (and older, we suppose) on the trails. The investment in a good used pair of skis, boots and poles can be small, and the equipment lasts and lasts. No special clothing is required, just wear whatever is comfortable and keeps you warm.
For most of us ski club members, Birch Hill represents an element of the quality of life that keeps us here — keeps us here in the face of days when it may even be too cold to ski. We want that non-skier or novice skier to feel she or he can come to Birch Hill and find good ski trails and encouragement. We feel we offer an activity essential to Fairbanks winter life, and we contribute physically and financially to make it happen. We hope our fellow Fairbanksans agree, and hope to see you on the trails.
Bruce Jamieson is co-president of the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks and Frank Soos is a club member and active volunteer.