When the conditions are right, cross-country skiing feels like flying to Ray Imel.
"It's just phenomenal," he said. "You can travel such great distances with relative ease and it's just neat to be able to cruise and cover all that territory."
Imel began cross-country skiing in Juneau in 1985. Of the many courses he's explored, he cited Spalding Meadows and the two Eaglecrest loop routes as particular favorites.
"The loops up at Eaglecrest - when there's snow - are awesome," he said. This year, "everything else was just horrible, but they run the groomer over it and it makes a nice layer of sugar over a hard base. That makes it awesome."
Juneau's winter began promisingly for skiers, but quickly degenerated into rain and cold before the snow returned. Even during the bad times, Imel and several other cross-country enthusiasts said conditions were better than they expected, particularly on Eaglecrest's 2 1/2-mile upper trail.
"It is (at) about 400 or 500 feet elevation above the lodge," said Marc Scholten, longtime skier and treasurer of Juneau's Nordic Ski Club. "Of course it's a lower temperature, so they get larger snow amounts."
Scott Fischer of Foggy Mountain Shop agreed.
"It's got consistently better snow conditions and it's got more interesting terrain," he said. "I like the areas that it goes through better. It goes back into the Hilda Creek drainage and it's just pretty back there, some old-growth timber."
Meadow Loop, Eaglecrest's 3.1-mile lower trail, was open at the beginning of the season before rains in December washed it out, although it has since reopened after recent snowfall. Under ideal snow conditions it would be groomed every day, said Rick Kaufman, operations manager at Eaglecrest.
Generally, the Hilda and Troy tracks that make up the upper loop are groomed on weekends and holidays.
Under a special arrangement, both tracks are patrolled with help from the Nordic Ski Club. Regular members of the club pay $35 a year for a pass to ski the lower loop, while gold members pay $75 for access to both loops. Money raised up to $7,500 is split 80-20 percent between Eaglecrest and the club, while anything above that total is divided 50-50.
"They have determined that on a normal year, it costs them about $7,500 to maintain the trails," Scholten said. "Essentially we went into the agreement ... to promote and provide low-cost skiing opportunities to Nordic Ski Club members. Before we had the agreement, the prices were pretty high for us."
This year the club has 40 gold members and 90 regular members.
"It was going really great when we had the snow," Scholten said. "Then once the monsoon hit - of course the interest wanes."
Skiers were back on the loops last weekend as fresh snow fell. They hope they will remain snow-covered through the end of the season, which Imel said generally comes in early May.
During warmer, wetter times, skiers have to guard against the hazards of stumps and branches exposed by melting snow.
"Sometimes there actually is open water because the creeks are running," Imel added. "You might fall into a little chuckhole."
The challenges to skiers also make it harder to groom the trails, Kaufman said.
"Right now in low snow cover, if there's a stump there and you go over it, or a rock or something - that takes its toll," he said. "Grooming equipment is meant to groom snow, not stumps and dirt."
Despite Juneau's two years of bad weather, Scholten thinks cross-country skiing is still a popular pastime for local residents.
"The last two winters have been very detrimental," he said. "(But) we provided a lot more opportunities. We brushed over 10 kilometers of trails in Dredge Lakes."
For skiing enthusiast Don Thomas, the benefits of skiing are too much to resist.
"You get good exercise," he said. "It's easy on your body. Your knees aren't getting strained or anything like that, and you're using your arms as well as your legs. You're getting quite a workout."
Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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