A Juneau Nordic ski primer

With snow in the air, Juneau's abundance of trail options beckons

Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2002

Hope, anxiety, longing, doubt.

The emotions of Juneau Nordic skiers have run the gamut over the past few months as the lack of a snow cover - or, until recently, even a snowflake at sea level - has pushed back the start of the season.

But as the snow starts to pile up and tracks are set on the trails, skiers are dusting off boots and bindings, dragging out skis and poles and getting ready to take advantage of Juneau's cross-country choices.

Nordic, or cross-country, skiing provides great exercise, offers the challenge of mastering various techniques, and affords many local residents the opportunity to see familiar locales in a whole new light.

"The brush is covered, the bugs are gone, the water is frozen - things open up," said Betsy Fischer of Juneau's Foggy Mountain Shop.

While the topography of the Juneau area prohibits long networks of trails, there are plenty of choices for short jaunts, half-day trips or full-day treks for cross-country skiers. Options are available for both classical and skate skiing.

We've selected some of the countless trails around Juneau to describe below. For newcomers to Nordic skiing in Juneau, consider this an introduction to some local trail highlights. For those more experienced, here's a chance to make a checklist for excursions as snow conditions allow.

Out the road

While there are skiing options further out Glacier Highway, Eagle Beach is the last bastion of groomed trail networks.

All the construction work done over the past year at the state park between the beach and Eagle River should translate to an excellent skiing experience this winter, said Marc Scholten of the Juneau Nordic Ski Club. He said the state has purchased new grooming equipment for Eagle Beach.

"The trails will be in much better condition for skiing," he said. "Eagle Beach will be a fun area to ski."

Scholten said the Eagle Beach trails are generally easy and are good for beginners.

A nearby option for a day trip is a trek up the frozen Herbert River.

Scholten said the river requires several weeks of cold temperatures to freeze enough for safe skiing - obviously, that hasn't happened yet - but "once that happens, it's one of the greatest Nordic experiences in town.

"It's so much fun to get on the river. The views are tremendous; when you get to the glacier, it's dramatic."

Those who attempt the trip should keep an eye out for patches of soft ice or open water that can linger through the winter. Scholten said a good bet is to follow old ski tracks up and follow your own ski trail back. The nearby Eagle River is faster moving, making the ice far less safe.

Auke Bay/Mendenhall Valley

A little work can make for a memorable day of skiing at Spaulding Meadows.

Accessing the meadows often requires hiking and carrying your skis several miles up the Spaulding Trail, which starts at Auke Bay; Scholten recommended wearing cleats for the journey. But once the work is done, the fun begins.

"It's a great place to take someone and teach them elementary techniques," said Betsy Fischer of Foggy Mountain Shop, who along with her husband, Scott, offered thoughts on various Juneau ski trails.

Those who like to skate-ski should try the meadows later in the season.

"When the snow conditions get a little hard-packed, the skate skiing is phenomenal," Scholten said.

Much of the meadows area is open to motorized use, so skiers should keep aware of others around them.

Growing in popularity are the Dredge Lakes trails, which tie into a loop on Mendenhall Lake and are close to a groomed loop on the Mendenhall Lake Campground road.

The Dredge Lakes trail system has received a lot of work in recent years. Scholten and other volunteers have brushed out a web of about a dozen interconnecting ski trails that can be accessed from several parking areas - at the Back Loop Road bridge, the National Weather Service office, the end of Dredge Lake Road and from the Mendenhall Glacier bus parking lot.

"It's unbelievable how much work they've done to open up the trails," Scott Fischer said.

Betsy Fischer said she likes the fact that it's nearly impossible to get lost on the Dredge Lakes trails, but it is possible to get "pleasantly disoriented," even while so close to populated areas.

The Mendenhall Campground and Mendenhall Lake loops, along with the Dredge Lake and Crystal Lake trails in the Dredge Lakes system, are set for both classical and skate skiing; all other trails at Dredge Lakes are classic-only.

Scholten said they will be groomed once there is a foot of snow on the ground, and after every snowfall of more than 2 inches after that.

Mendenhall Lake can be skied when frozen, but beware the danger of falling pieces of the glacier and thin ice near the Mendenhall River and Nugget Falls.

Douglas Island

The two Nordic loops at Eaglecrest Ski Area are at a higher elevation than most Juneau-area trails, so they tend to have a reliable snow pack when other trails may be marginal. They are also groomed for classical and skate skiing, and unlike other trail they require an Eaglecrest day pass or Juneau Nordic Ski Club membership for usage.

The lower loop starts from the Eaglecrest parking area and criss-crosses the rolling meadows with about four kilometers of trails. The 2.5-kilometer upper loop requires either a walk up the downhill slopes or a chair-lift ride, and contains more challenging hills and terrain.

Venturing upriver

One unique option for local skiers is a flight out to Taku Glacier Lodge, which is offering overnight cross-country ski packages this season - though they are booking up fast.

Owner Ken Ward said the lodge has dozens of miles of trails that are track set according to guests' skiing wishes. The Taku River Valley is usually colder than Juneau, meaning there's more snow, and the views of the river and nearby glaciers are stunning.

"The opportunities are endless," said Betsy Fischer, who made the journey to Taku Lodge last season.

"We skied 20 miles and didn't even touch the potential up there," Scott Fischer said.

The lodge is offering Juneau residents a rate of $150 per day through the end of February, $200 per day from March 1 through the end of the season, which includes double-occupancy rooms, meals and access to the trails; air fare is extra. For more information, call the lodge at 789-5932.

Up-north adventures

When snow conditions are marginal in Juneau - or when a change of scenery is desired - there are plenty of cross-country ski options up Lynn Canal and into Canada.

Haines offers several choices. Last winter a 10-kilometer classic loop was set in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve at Mile 25 of the Haines Highway, and there is more remote skiing on the desolate snowfields atop Chilkat Pass.

For those in search of a little competition mixed with a lot of fun and community spirit, Skagway is a prime destination in late March.

The Buckwheat Ski Classic - what is arguably the most significant Nordic skiing event in Southeast Alaska, though it's technically held just over the Canadian border from Skagway at Log Cabin, B.C. - is scheduled to be held on the weekend of March 21-23, 2003.

The event is labeled by founder and namesake Buckwheat Donahue as a race "designed primarily for the lazy and infirm - and the very few who are fast." For more information, contact the Mountain Shop at (907) 983-2544.

The Log Cabin trails are maintained throughout the winter by residents of Skagway. Last season, about 10-20 kilometers were set prior to each weekend.

And further north, the Whitehorse area has an active Nordic skiing community and maintains a number of trails. A focal point is Mt. McIntyre, whose 60 kilometers of groomed trails also include about five kilometers of lit trails for nighttime skiing. For more information on Whitehorse area trails and trail conditions, look on the Web at xcskiwhitehorse.ca/.

Season outlook

Scholten said the Nordic ski club is hoping to bring back Olympian Adam Verrier for skiing workshops this winter; last season's workshops were very successful. A cross-country ski swap may also take place.

The club maintains a Web site with information on weather, trail conditions and other details about skiing in Juneau. It can be found at home.gci.net/~jnordski/.

Once the snow arrives for good this winter, Scholten said Juneauites will have access to an excellent network of ski trails.

"It's great," Scholten said of the expansion of Juneau's cross-country ski options in recent years. "If we get consistent snow, we'll get more skiers all the time."

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.

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