FAIRBANKS - When Mark Ross told me the trails were rolled and the skate skiing at Birch Hill Recreation Area was "great" on Monday, I didn't believe him.
There's no way, I thought, that there's enough snow to ski at Birch Hill yet. Not even 4 inches of snow had fallen at Fairbanks International Airport and Birch Hill didn't get an inch or two of that because the first snow of the year missed the east side of town, for the most part.
Of course, anyone who knows Ross knows why I might be a little skeptical, too. For Nordic nuts like Ross all it takes is a few flakes of snow, or even a hard frost, to provide what they consider adequate skate skiing conditions. If the grass is frozen, they'll ski on it.
When I talked to him Monday, Ross said he had been skiing for a week at Birch Hill. His first ski of the season was on Sept. 28.
"All you need is an inch of snow to ski on," Ross told me, "but you have to be a technically good skier because you're still skiing over the terrain of the trail. You have to have good balance at this time of year. You've got to be able to jump leaves, sticks and dirt spots."
Another thing you need for skiing at this time of year is a pair of "rock skis," the term skiers use to describe old, beater skis they use early in the season, the premise being that it won't matter if you hit a rock because more than likely you're going to hit some rocks.
Unfortunately, one of my rock skis snapped in half last winter, and I am in the market for another pair - or at least a ski to match the one I have - which is another reason I wasn't necessarily champing at the bit to check out the trails at Birch Hill.
But after talking to Ross, my interest was piqued. Lacking a pair of rock skis, I had two choices: wait for more snow or risk it and ski on my good skis. It wasn't much of a choice, especially when Dave Edic raised the possibility of turning my good skis into rock skis and then buying a new pair of skate skis.
Edic skied at Birch Hill on Sept. 28, within hours of the season's first snowfall.
"There was a little stretch of the Relay Loop that had snow so I just skied around that about 10 times," Edic said.
Edic returned five days later on Friday afternoon after it had snowed a couple more inches.
"They had rolled it, and it was great," Edic said. "I skied 10K in 45 minutes. I did the whole lighted loop and part of it again."
Even Edic, who has been skiing in Fairbanks for years, was surprised at how good the conditions were given how little snow there is.
"I don't think I hit a single rock that whole time," Edic said.
I arrived at Birch Hill at 6 p.m. Tuesday to find about a half dozen cars in the parking lot. As I walked up to the Warm-Up hut, I ran into Bruce Gard, who had just finished skiing.
Like Ross, Gard is a hard-core skier. His first ski of the season was on Saturday, and he had already skied 40 kilometers in four days. Even with only a few inches of snow, this time of year offers some of the best skiing of the season, said Gard. Temperatures are still warm compared to what they will be in a month or two, the snow is fast, there's still lots of daylight and there's hardly anybody else skiing because most people don't think there's enough snow to ski yet, he said.
While I wasn't necessarily drooling as I scraped the storage wax off my skis, I was excited at the prospect of the first ski of the season after talking to Gard. I went outside, clipped my boots into my bindings and pushing off on my right ski.
It was as if I had stepped on a banana peel. My ski almost flew out from under me, probably a combination of fast snow and slow reflexes after not being on skis for six months. It took me a few kilometers to get my "ski legs" back and it will take me a lot longer to get my "ski lungs" back, I know, but it felt refreshing to be gliding across snow again.
The trail was littered with leaves but the snow was fast and there were no patches of dirt showing. I skied 8.5 kilometers and didn't crash once, though there were a few close calls. I didn't see another skier on the trails.
Even when I had to stop at the top of hills to hack and cough and wheeze while at the same time trying to gulp in mouthfuls of oxygen, it felt good to be back on skis.