By Clark Fair
In many ways, the genesis of the system of cross-country ski trails on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land near Soldotna can be attributed to the Billingslea family, who moved from Anchorage to their new home four miles south of town in 1967. The Billingsleas didn’t know much about skiing back then, but they had plenty of energy and enthusiasm.
“When we came down here, we could barely ski,” said Freddie Billingslea, now 79. “We were just learning, but we loved it, and it was a family thing.”
When they had started skiing a year earlier, they had done so mainly for health reasons. Freddie’s husband, Earl, had a torn knee ligament that he was trying to strengthen. Freddie herself had arthritis and wanted to stay active.
Progress was slow, but they pursued their new activity with great vigor.
“We would ski from here into town,” Freddie said, “and (some friends) would give us a ride back in their truck.”
Soon, however, the Billingsleas were helping to form the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club, working to carve trails from wilderness, and Freddie was skiing nearly every day, regardless of the weather.
In high school, daughter, Sydney, and son, Everett, participated in the very first Kenai Central High School cross-country ski team. Coincidentally, that team, which began in 1977, was coached by Alan Boraas, who later became the last president of the ski club.
In that first winter, the ski club was just a loose affiliation, featuring the Billingsleas, Bill and Charlotte Ischi, Nels Kjelstad, and a handful of others who would soon help create a community trail system.
But the Billingslea family is only a part of the story of the trails. Another key character in this tale was Dick Mommsen, who had grown up around Mount McKinley National Park, where his father had worked for the railroad. Mommsen, who was a Department of Transportation employee, spent much of his free time outdoors, mostly skiing and hiking.
Mommsen knew people, and those people knew people who knew how to get things done. In the late 1960s, he used his connections to help the growing core of skiing enthusiasts get permission from what was then the Kenai National Moose Range to construct a series of ski trails in the area between the Soldotna Ski Hill and Headquarters and Nordic lakes.
Then into the story stepped Joe Stanski, who worked in the area in the summers and was also enthusiastic about skiing.
“He knew a lot about building trails,” said Freddie, “and he wanted to build them for races.”
Together with Mommsen, Stanski laid out the first 2.5-kilometer loop in 1968, and then Mommsen led a trail-building crew of ski club volunteers, who followed the prescribed route with hand tools, sawing logs and hacking away at the undergrowth.
In the winter, Mommsen did most of the grooming — all of it, in fact, if no help was available. Grooming was also done by hand — actually, by foot.
If three people were available, all would don traditional wooden snowshoes. The lead groomer would walk firmly down the center of the trail, snowshoes close together to pack the snow as well as possible. Then the other groomers would overlap the leader’s tracks by one snowshoe per side, producing a four-shoe-wide trail.
Later, another 2.5-km trail was added to the first, and eventually a third 2.5-km loop was connected to the second one. Each of these trails was groomed by hand until the ski club, which was responsible for trail maintenance, was able to obtain a snowmachine.
Most skiers from the early days remember a particularly precipitous descent in one section of the trail, named for the trail’s designer — Stanski’s Drop. At the bottom of the hill, the trail veered sharply, and those who could not navigate the turn had to hope to navigate the large birch tree on the corner. At some point, a mattress was tied around the tree to soften any collisions, and much later the trail was re-routed to avoid the sturdy obstacle.
Meanwhile, the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club — so named to give it a more central-sounding feel — was burgeoning. A club roster from about 1970 shows well over 100 members, and club-sponsored activities were going strong. Mimi Morton designed and made a club patch — a large black snowflake, black lettering and black trim on a field of white — which the club sold for a dollar apiece.
Youth memberships in the club cost $1 a year, while adult memberships were $2 and family memberships were $4. The entry fees for most activities ranged from 50 cents to $2. It was possible to outfit an adult skier with standard wooden skis, plus boots, poles and bindings for less than $100.
The activities ranged from a free 1968 cross-country ski clinic put on by the Army biathlon team at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, to a club-sponsored, U.S. Ski Association-sanctioned race on refuge trails in 1970.
In the 1970s, the club also sponsored an event known as the Stampede, a race along the Kenai Spur Highway between Kenai and Soldotna. To please the participants in both cities, the starting and finishing lines altered between them annually.
When the club wasn’t hosting its own races or participating in races elsewhere, members frequently headed for the hills. On most weekends, Mommsen led day tours and some overnight trips into the mountains around Cooper Landing or Summit Lake.
One of his favorite destinations was Manitoba Mountain, but he also led club skiers on some wild treks across avalanche chutes and up mountain ridges, and he once took a group down the ice over the Kenai River from the lower canyon to the upper end of Skilak Lake.
Freddie Billingslea, who accompanied Mommsen on several of those backcountry trips, said that she didn’t worry about the danger as long as Mommsen was leading the way.
“He knew these mountains, and all over and every place,” she said. “I trusted him implicitly.”
By the 1980s, however, some of the original torchbearers for the ski club were ready for new blood. A few early members had moved away or on to other interests, and those remaining were ready to let someone else lead for a while.
Meanwhile, with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, the refuge had changed its policy on sanctioning races on its trails, and the interest in local racing began to wane.
By the mid-1980s, Boraas, along with Charlotte Ischi, had closed out the club account at the bank and attempted to reformulate the organization as the Kenai Peninsula Nordic Ski Club. The new effort didn’t spark the hoped-for enthusiasm, however, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the fortunes of organized cross-country skiing on the central peninsula began to improve.
The change came shortly after construction began on Skyview High School, just across the highway from the Soldotna Ski Hill. Boraas inquired about the hilly land adjoining the campus, and soon he and a few others had laid out a tentative first trail and sought permission of the Kenai Borough Assembly to build it. Then Allan Miller, an Olympics-caliber skier, joined the Skyview staff and, as Boraas put it, “energized a lot of trail work.”
By the time the school opened in the fall of 1990, the Green Trail was in. Over the years, many more trails followed, and the Tsalteshi Trail Association filled the void left by the end of the Kalifonsky Nordic Ski Club.
And now, as Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, likes to say, there is once again in place a northern sport participated in by a northern people living in a northern land. He believes that sports involving the natural landscape best allow the people living in that landscape to bond with their environment.
“If nothing you do is ‘here,’ why live here?” he said. “It’s hard to live here. But you do live here, and we have to create the culture of the north that allows us to embrace this place.”
Freddie Billingslea would agree. Although bad knees keep her off her skis these days, she still loves outdoor exercise, and when she speaks of skiing, the enthusiasm rises in her voice, perhaps as it did more than 30 years ago when she was just getting the hang of an exhilarating sport.