By Clark Fair
About 10 years into the history of Soldotna, a transplanted Norwegian got together with some other area residents, such as surveyor Stan McLane, and decided to create a local downhill skiing site.
At a time when oil was being discovered on the Swanson River field, and Soldotna was about to experience its first growth spurt since homesteading in the late 1940s, these individuals opted to carve out of the woods an alpine recreation area.
The Norwegian, Ralph Soberg, the Alaska Road Commission boss who had directed the construction of the Sterling Highway, took a Cat and part of his ARC crew up on what is now known as Ski Hill Road, and cleared a 200-foot-high hillside facing the Sterling Highway as it exits Soldotna south past the Kenai River bridge.
Whether Soberg, who had been a charter member of the Anchorage Ski Club in 1937 and was said to be an expert ski jumper, had permission to clear this Kenai National Moose Range land is the subject of some speculation.
Several people who lived in the area at the time do not agree, but some of them think permission was likely because of a favorable administration there and the different attitudes of the times.
Dave Spencer, an avid skier and the first moose range manager (1948-1956), had moved on, but he had been succeeded in the position by his assistant manager, John Hakala — and Spencer could still exercise some control over the situation because he had become the supervisor for all refuges in the state.
Regardless of the permission obtained or not obtained, the deed was done.
The hillside had been shorn of trees and brush. Well driller Jess Shelman had helped install two electrical light poles — one at the top near a warming hut, and the other about halfway down the slope — and a manager from the Homer Electric Association had helped hook them up.
A small road had been punched through the forest near the bottom of the slope to allow for parking. The body had been stripped from an old Road Commission truck, and the chassis and transmission had been hauled up the hill to use as a power source for a rope tow.
A heavy rope under tension was pulled up the hill by moving around the rim of one of the truck’s front wheels. It was guided by other wheel rims to the bottom of the slope, where it was anchored with a pulley. Later, a large electric motor was installed in the truck chassis to power the rope tow.
By the winter of 1958, after Pat McElroy had finished his two-year hitch at Fort Richardson and had driven through Soldotna to the commercial setnet site he had purchased in Kasilof, the ski hill was in business, and McElroy became a ski instructor.
McElroy, a Class A racer who had skied for the Army alpine team at Fort Rich and had worked on the ski patrol at Sun Valley, joined Stan McLane and fellow racers, Billy Duncan, George Rydin and Grant Fritz, as instructors for area kids who came to learn the basics.
“It was a small hill, good for teaching kids how to turn and run slalom,” said McElroy, now 77.
McElroy and several others taught their ski lessons for free at the ski hill, which was open for business every weekend and occasionally on Wednesday evenings.
“It was a community service, basically,” McElroy said. “We even organized some races and took the kids to Homer.”
Homer had its own alpine area near Ohlson Mountain above the city. The Homer program was more established, successful and long-lasting, according to McElroy.
Still, he said he liked the Soldotna Ski Hill from the moment he first saw it.
“There were a lot of people involved in the project (building and running the facility). It was a community effort. There was no individual who did everything, by any means, and it was done right.”
McElroy was especially impressed with the rope-tow system.
“I’d been around rope tows all my life — grew up with them in Colorado — and these guys up here did a real crackerjack job on it.
“The people that were doing it all had never had any experience building ski tows, and they just read books and went around and did it. The same thing happened in Homer. A bunch of old fishermen actually designed and built those things from looking at other ski tows in other areas.”
Throughout the 1960s, the ski hill remained popular, often used by dozens of skiers at a time, working their way downslope and then grasping the rough rope to be pulled back to the top for another brief run. If the weather was cold, they sometimes congregated in the plywood-sided warming hut at the top of hill, huddling around a barrel stove in a room used mainly for the storage of old Army surplus skis.
But times changed, as times usually do. The little kids who had been so excited to learn on their own little hill became bigger kids who wanted a bigger hill. And the weather didn’t cooperate, said McElroy.
“We just never got the snow. We had three or four years in a row where it was just rain. As soon as we’d get a little snow, we’d open up. And then would come a big rain, and the snow would melt and get all icy and it’d be impossible to keep it running.
“People just lost interest, and by that time the kids had all gotten to the point where this little hill — they outgrew it, basically.”
They moved on to the larger and more consistent slopes of Alyeska.
By the mid-1970s, the ski hill had been abandoned. The truck chassis had begun to slowly rust as trees and shrubs grew up through its hard steel frame. And the bare hillside had begun to fill again with birch saplings, clusters of alders, and spikes of spruce.
Now it takes a careful eye to spot the outline of what was. It takes a patient step to work through the thick, brushy hilltop to find the old truck frame. And it takes some imagination to picture what, for the winter denizens of the central peninsula, was a community gathering place, where the season didn’t seem so cold and the nights so long.