By Jenny Neyman
There are many reasons why cross-country skiers love Tsalteshi Trials in the winter — nine miles of well-maintained, groomed trails; lighted loops for night skiing; two parking lots offering easy access; and a centralized location behind Skyview High School. Those same qualities make the trails attractive to snowshoers, as well, but earlier this month the board of directors for the Tsalteshi Trails Association decided that skiing and snowshoeing at Tsalteshi don’t mix.
In the spring, summer and fall, the trails are frequented by many different users — runners, stroller-pushers, dog walkers and bicyclists — which made snowshoers all the more confused that once snow falls, the trails are off limits to everything but skis.
After a community meeting Nov. 14 to discuss snowshoe use on the trails, the Tsalteshi board on Friday decided to loosen the ban by allowing snowshoes on the Wolverine Loop at the base of the trails system, accessed by a parking lot and trailhead off of Kalifornsky Beach Road across from the Soldotna Sports Center. The board also is asking for volunteers to serve on a committee to discuss further ideas for facilitating snowshoe usage on the trails.
Laura McIndoe, of Soldotna, went to the Nov. 14 meeting and subsequently volunteered for the committee after she heard about the ban.
“I was dismayed, I was saddened and I didn’t know why (snowshoes were banned), so I did appreciate that they had a meeting to talk about it. I told them I would be on this committee because I can see both sides,” she said.
McIndoe, a Soldotna-area teacher, skis and snowshoes at Tsalteshi a few days a week after school lets out. With her 30-year-old, classic-style skis, she does both activities for exercise and recreation, rather than racing, but her sons competed on the Skyview High School ski team when they attended school there, so she’s familiar with that perspective, as well.
Yes, there are plenty of other places she could go to snowshoe, she said. The Kenai Golf Course is open to skiing
and snowshoeing in the winter, the trails behind the Soldotna Airport are open to skiing, snowshoeing, dog-mushing and skijoring, and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters on Ski Hill Road — right across the Sterling Highway from Skyview, has trails that are open to skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. And the ultimate benefit of snowshoes is that it opens almost any snow-covered terrain up to walking, whether it’s on a groomed, designated trail or not.
But the location, accessibility, maintenance and terrain of Tsalteshi make it a particularly good snowshoeing spot, McIndoe said.
“I like that they have hills, there’s not many hills at the refuge,” she said. “And I could go out to Skilak (Lake) or somewhere like that, but Tsalteshi is close to home. I can go snowshoe lots of places but if I only have a couple hours of daylight after school I can get there after school before dark.”
The issue is primarily a safety concern about potential collisions between skiers and snowshoers, especially on high-speed downhills and blind corners, said Adam Reimer, president of the Tsalteshi board.
“Some of the downhills, your speeds can be pretty high and you don’t have a whole lot of choice where you’re going
to be on the trail,” Reimer said. “Sometimes the corners just put you into a certain place, and other places maybe you can control where you are but you’re moving at a high rate of speed. Especially if snowshoers are side by side on the trail, we felt that that was a safety concern for both skiers and snowshoers.”
Another issue is the added work for trail groomers. In some snow conditions, and with older-style snowshoes, snowshoeing doesn’t impact the trails any worse than skiing. But newer, metal snowshoes often have more-aggressive claws and a weight-bearing pivot point under the foot that digs out little discs of snow. Those discs and the divots they create in the trail can freeze into ice chunks and ice holes that require extra work for trail groomers to remove.
“It does increase the time and cost of grooming. One of the things that keeps skiing safe is having a well-groomed trail and it’s harder for us to do that if we have to take care of snowshoe tracks as well as ski tracks,” Reimer said.
So the board decided to ban snowshoeing, for much the same reasons other forms of activity aren’t allowed at Tsalteshi during the winter. Walking, running, dogs, snowboarding, bike riding, kick sleds, etc., are all asked to stay off the trails in the winter, because they present collision risks with skiers and compromise the quality of the groomed trails.
“They request the moose not be there either, but the moose aren’t paying attention,” McIndoe joked.
Reimer said that the Tsalteshi board heard some negative feedback to the ban from area snowshoers who had questions, and some misconceptions, about the trails. One analogy raised is that skiers and snowshoers are like bicyclists and walkers, which co-exist on the trails in the summer. But bikes have brakes and are easier to control, slow and stop on downhills than skis are, Reimer said.
Another point he’s heard brought up is the trails are meant to be multiuse for the entire community to enjoy
That’s partly true. The trails are never open to any sort of motorized vehicles, except for sanctioned grooming and maintenance equipment. In the summer, many types of activities are allowed. But the reason the trails were created and still are maintained is for cross-country skiing. Tsalteshi Trails Association is not an arm of any taxpayer-funded government, such as the borough or city of Soldotna. It operates through membership dues, fundraising, grants and a lot of volunteer labor.
“The reason that Tsalteshi Trails exist was because the borough leased the land to the trails association to provide a venue for school district-sanctioned activities. In that context we’re really mandated to manage the trials for cross-country skiing,” Reimer said.
Skiers beyond just school teams are welcome to use the trails, and the trails association operates several community events and programs, such as ski clinics and fun races.
The more the trails are used and appreciated, the more support Tsalteshi has in the community. In that sense, having the community clamoring for more access to the trails is a good problem for the trails association to have.
“This is really a symptom of success that we have more and more people wanting to use the trails, people who used them in the summer and now they want to start using them in the winter. All of our user groups are growing,” Reimer said. “It’s a negative in that it’s a growing pain and makes people unhappy, but on the other hand it’s a sign of success that people really love to use the trails, but with that increased level of use we have to start managing a little more actively than we have in the past.”
In the winter, the priority still is skiing.
“When it’s wintertime and ski season comes around we’re putting 100 to 200 minors under 18 (years old) out there
a day, through high school, middle school and our junior Nordic ski program. That level of use doesn’t exist in the summer because we don’t have all those school-affiliated programs going on,” Reimer said.
Still, Reimer said that he thinks there is room for skiers and snowshoers on the trails in the winter. The Wolverine Loop — the three-kilometer trail that the board decided Friday to open to snowshoes — should be a safe alternative, he said.
“With that lower loop it takes away a lot of the terrain concerns. There really aren’t any blind corners or high-speed corners. In that regard, the safety issue should be managed,” he said.
And with the formation of a snowshoe committee, the board can continue to discuss the issue.
“If people want to be involved and get on the committee and help us with signage and talk about places where there really are risks, and places where the risks are minimized, I think there’s room for that. The thing I was pleased with is when we had the meeting and had the chance to explain what the concerns were, people seemed really reasonable, and I think everybody feels that there’s a huge middle ground here. There’s a lot of room for compromise where everyone can be happy, and we can work toward that,” Reimer said.
McIndoe has some ideas — possibly allowing snowshoeing on hills on the designated uphill sections (the trails are designated for travel in one direction to prevent skiers from running into each other), or about closing the trails to snowshoes when certain snow conditions are present.
“I don’t see why we couldn’t come up with some good plan. We’re creative individuals and I think the perception that the public has is these are winter trails, not just ski trails,” she said. “We’re a bunch of people who like being outside, and I think we can figure it out.”
One thing McIndoe and Reimer both emphasize is that snowshoers need to be aware of proper trail etiquette, to minimize safety and grooming problems no matter where they end up being allowed on the trails.
Snowshoers should walk single file off to the side of the trail opposite the classic ski tracks. Stay out of the middle of the trail where skate skiers, with a wider stance, pass. Wherever possible, walk on ungroomed snow on the margin of the trail. Keep an eye out and yield for skiers, especially around corners and downhills. Sleds for towing kids are allowed in the winter, but dogs are not. Walking without snowshoes is not allowed, since it creates even deeper holes in the trail for the groomers to contend with.
“Good manners are always nice, wherever you are, and I think if people don’t know what the expected manners are then they don’t do as nice a job,” McIndoe said. “So education would be really important, because if people don’t know then they make faux pas in any situation.”
Reimer asked that anyone interested in participating in the snowshoeing committee or contacting the board do so through email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The trails association also maintains a Web page at www.tsalteshi.org, and has a Facebook page.
“The trails are actively managed but we want to work with people,” he said. “One thing I think is really important for people to realize is that, when people think about recreation in Soldotna, they don’t focus just on Tsalteshi. There are a lot of options out there and I think, from our point of view, when you consider the recreational opportunities on the peninsula you consider all of those together.”
Snowshoeing at Tsalteshi Trails
- Snowshoes are allowed only on the three-kilometer Wolverine Loop, accessed at the trailhead along Kalifornsky-Beach Road across from the Soldotna Sports Center.
- Snowshoers are asked to walk single file, off to the side of the trail opposite the classic ski tracks.
- Wherever possible, walk on ungroomed snow on the margin of the trail.
- Keep an eye out and yield for skiers, especially around corners and downhills.
- Walking without snowshoes is not allowed.
Other winter rules:
- Sleds for towing kids are allowed in the winter for both skiers and snowshoers.
- Sledding is allowed only on the hill directly behind Skyview High School.
- Dogs are not allowed anywhere on the trails in the winter.
- Motorized vehicles are never allowed anywhere on the trails.
- Snow bikes, kick sleds, skijoring, snowboards, downhill skis and other winter activities are not allowed.
Upcoming events at Tsalteshi Trails
- Tsalteshi Trails Association Board of Directors will meet Dec. 6 at the Emergency Operations Center on Wilson Lane in Soldotna.
- Robert Johnson Memorial Ski Clinic, Dec. 11 behind Skyview High School. Soldotna High School graduate and Olympic hopeful skier Brent Knight will offer clinics on skate skiing at noon, classic skiing at 2 p.m. and ski waxing at 3:30 p.m. Refreshments will be provided. The event is free but donations are encouraged, to benefit the Tsalteshi Youth Ski Program.
- She Can Ski costume ski race will be held Feb. 5 in time to be home before the Super Bowl. The registration fee is $25, with proceeds shared with the LeeShore Center in Kenai.