FAIRBANKS - They are called "rock skis" and if you're a cross-country skier living in Fairbanks, chances are you own a pair.
George Salmon had his thrown over his shoulder late last month at Birch Hill Recreation Area. There was barely enough snow to cover the ground, much less ski on, but that didn't stop a determined Salmon, who was covered with sweat after getting in a quick 5-kilometer ski on his lunch hour.
"It was pretty grabby in the stadium but once you got up in the hills it was pretty good," an upbeat Salmon said of the trail conditions at Birch Hill.
Salmon is a rock skier, part of a small clique of impatient, die-hard Nordic skiers in Fairbanks who don't wait for groomed trails before breaking out their boards. As soon as the first snow falls, even if it's only a half-inch, they click on a pair of old skis and hit the dirt, rocks, roots, sticks and whatever else happens to be sticking up, which is where the term "rock skis" comes from.
While some people might think they have rocks in their heads, rock skiers can't help it.
"When I see the first snow come down I get excited," said Mark Ross, a member of the rock skiing fraternity who was out Sunday in the half-inch of snow that fell overnight Saturday. "I want to get on it."
Ross is among a handful of bandit skiers who sneak onto Fairbanks golf courses and ski on fairways.
"Those fairways are mowed like carpets and it works really well," he said, declining to name the courses he frequents for fear that he would be kicked off. "My skis glide without hitting rocks or dirt."
Ross tested the trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area on Monday for the first time and was pleasantly surprised. There were a few rocks and patches of dirt that stopped him in his tracks, but for the most part, he said, it wasn't too bad.
"I thought it was OK, but not everybody would agree with my idea of conditions," he said.
That may help explain why Ross has accumulated quite a collection of rock skis over the years.
"If you ski early in the season like this you develop rock skis," he said. "I've got lots of rock skis."
Rock skis are required on Smith Lake. The lake, which is part of the West Ridge Ski Trails on campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is another popular destination for Nordic skiers looking for an early season workout.
Once the lake freezes, all it takes is a thin blanket of snow to make it acceptable to Fairbanks' most impatient skiers, who are content to do lap after lap around the lake. There are no rocks, dirt or sticks to contend with, just the monotony of going around in circles.
"It's skiing; it's snow," said Mike Kramer, who started skiing on Smith Lake Sunday in a half-inch of snow. "It gets a little slippery in spots where the snow hasn't been packed down or has been pushed off to the side by other skiers."
All in all, conditions on the lake aren't bad, he said, especially for skate skiing. A loop around the edge of the lake has been rolled and packed down by traffic.
"It's boring but it beats being at home," said John Klingel, one of two skiers and about a half dozen ice skaters on the lake Wednesday afternoon. Klingel was zipping around the lake on a pair of skate skis, gliding along as if he were on a foot of snow instead of an inch.
"These are my good skis and there are no problems," he said. "I wouldn't hesitate to bring my best pair of skis out here."
Even though some people are skiing at Birch Hill, the 55-year-old Klingel said he wasn't willing to sacrifice his skis or body to do that, at least not yet.
"If it isn't good skiing (at Birch Hill) I'd rather go around in circles," Klingel said.
As Klingel spoke, the "click-click-click" of ski poles hitting the ice could be heard as Tim Buckley made his way around the outskirts of the lake on a pair of classic skis.
"It's skiing but it's not skiing at its best," a sweaty Buckley said, pausing to take a swig of water from a bottle he was carrying on a belt around his waist. "I've been rollerskiing all summer so this is a step up."
Buckley, 58, agreed with Klingel that conditions were pretty good considering there was only an inch and a half of snow on the lake.
"You can put some wax on and you can get moving pretty good," added Buckley.
Smith Lake has been getting more popular the last few years because of the shortage of early season snow in Fairbanks. Things were so bad last year when there wasn't much snow and warm weather melted what little there was that good skiing spots became top-secret information in the ski community.
"Last year we had a new destination every few days," said Kramer. "We'd find a good spot and wear it out and then find somewhere else.
"Everyone kept their little secrets because if you overskied a spot you could only get a few laps in before it was worn out," he said.
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