Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part story about the history of the Tsalteshi Trails, which are the main training ground for three central peninsula high schools and the local centerpiece for skiing and running competitions. Last week’s article discussed how the land was acquired and the trail-making was planned. This week’s article will show how a confluence of motivated individuals opened up the ridge line for skiing, running and mountain biking. The next article will demonstrate the unqualified success of the trail system and its continuing growth and refinement.
By Clark Fair
The film “Field of Dreams” starred Kevin Costner as a man who, despite the consternation of his wife and the incredulity of his friends and neighbors, becomes obsessed with the idea of building a baseball diamond where a cornfield stands behind his house. The film premiered April 23, 1989, and popularized the line, “If you build it, he will come.”
Two years earlier, members of the Kenai Peninsula Nordic Ski Club had had a similar notion: On May 19, 1987, the club presented to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly an ambitious plan to build a trail system in the wooded hills north of Skyview High School. Alan Boraas, one of the key members of the ski club, recalled, “The assembly grudgingly OK’d it for us to put trails in, but they were very clear that these were not dedicated trails. (But) I knew that once we got them built — if we did it right — it was going to accelerate. And that’s what happened.”
Over the next quarter of a century, the ski club’s vision evolved into a top-level facility called Tsalteshi Trails, which is used year-round by runners and skiers, walkers and snowshoeing enthusiasts, mountain bikers and a host of organizations seeking a training ground. It is a major draw for all of Southcentral Alaska, it is considered one of the state’s best trail systems, and it has hosted triathlons, state events, qualifying races for the Junior Olympics, Besh Cup series races, and the Arctic Winter Games.
But it started rather inconspicuously, and very much on the cheap.
“Up until about four years ago, the trails, by design, were very lean in terms of budget,” Boraas said. “We had no borough funding; we still don’t. We had no state funding; we still don’t. And no federal funding. About five years ago, we started applying for major trail grants, so we now have a considerable amount of federal money that has helped with things like lights and so on.
“We did get some funding via federal dollars for the Arctic Winter Games — snowmachines and such. But before that, it was all volunteer. The core of the trails was all volunteer labor, me and Allan Miller.”
Allan Miller — whom Boraas once affectionately called “a pied piper” for his ability to attract
enthusiastic, talented runners and skiers and keep them excited and motivated — came to Alaska in the mid-1980s to teach after a successful career on the Dartmouth College ski-racing team. After teaching in Yakutat and Glennallen, Miller moved to the peninsula and became a Russian language teacher at Soldotna High School, where his life took an unexpected turn.
According to a 1997 Peninsula Clarion article by J.R. Rardon, when Miller arrived in Alaska he was ready to put competitive skiing behind him.
“I was sick of competing,” Miller said in the article. “From the time I came up here, it was five years until I decided to race again.”
One of the motivations for this master motivator was Marlene Benson (now Byerly), who was then one of two assistant principals at overcrowded Soldotna High. In early 1990, when the borough school district decided to open Skyview High School that fall, Benson was named the new school’s head principal, and one of her teaching recruits was Miller.
Miller thus moved to Skyview, agreeing in the process to assume control of a brand-new ski program, according to Rardon.
Then, Benson, “knowing the potential for skiing, included in the startup (some) money for a double-track, single-ski alpine snowmachine for grading trails,” Boraas said. If Benson had not recruited Miller or arranged to fund the grooming equipment, contended Boraas, “We might not have the trails today.”
Although Homer and Seward high schools had ski teams, Kenai Central High School’s team had disbanded in the early 1980s, and Soldotna High School had not yet had a team. If Miller hoped to popularize the sport on the central peninsula, he had his work cut out for him.
Fortunately, he had been thinking about the possibilities for a few months. In the previous autumn, according to a 1997 Anchorage Daily News article by Gus Guenther, Miller and Boraas had gone together to the Skyview campus, eyeballed the forested hills to the north, and mulled the opportunities they saw there. After Miller was brought on board at Skyview, Boraas became his assistant ski coach.
The vision for the trails may have originally been Boraas’, but he gives the lion’s share of program-building to Miller. “I do not now have, nor have I ever had, the charisma (exhibited by Miller),” Boraas said. “I give him total credit for that, and for the energy he brought to it — and he brought a lot of energy.”
He remembers Miller recruiting prospective runners and skiers to help build the trail — encouraging them to enjoy following the bulldozer, picking up sticks and rocks, and using hatchets to chop through the many tree roots protruding from the exposed earth.
Boraas also illustrated Miller’s motivational enthusiasm with this story, quoted here from Rardon’s article: “I can remember the first year we had the ski program, and I was coming down to the intersection behind the tennis courts. I came around and heard singing, and the sun was just going down. I looked out over the field, and there’s Allan with seven or eight skiers behind him, singing Christmas carols.
“Of course, they were skiing better than they were singing. But it was amazing to me, the way he could motivate these kids. When they get older, they might not remember that specific instance, but they will remember sharing the outdoors of Alaska with a coach they admired.”
As a result of the expertise and inspiration Miller brought to his running and skiing
programs, Skyview became almost immediately successful. The Panthers won their first region ski title in their second year of existence, and the success at Skyview made it easier for Boraas and Miller to encourage the startup of similar programs at SoHi, KCHS and Nikiski.
But the focus of all this activity and success was the trail system. And all of the planning and dreaming, and all the flagging and reflagging of routes, culminated in late summer or early fall of 1990 with the actual beginning of trail building.
First on the agenda was the nearly one-kilometer Green Loop, with Skyview vocational instructor Hans Bilben operating a rented Cat and “putting together a root-infested trail,” Boraas said. Next came the three-kilometer Blue Loop, as they worked to stay ahead of the weather and finish the core of the planned system before the ski season began.
“We finished the (two-kilometer) Red Loop when snow was coming down,” Boraas said. “It was Bilben again on the Cat. And all the kids from the ski team were out there. Hans is roughing it out. I’m walking a hundred yards ahead, flagging, and Allan’s back with the guys, going, ‘This is great! This is fun!’”
For the more difficult, more finely tuned work, Boraas and Miller relied on the volunteer efforts of retired Kasilof bulldozer operator, Don Jones, who had purchased a John Deere 450c and was eager to assist with the trail-making project.
By the time of Guenther’s 1997 article, Jones had put more than 100 hours of work into building more trails and shoring up the existing ones. “I just wanted to help the kids,” Jones said in the article. “I think people ought to help out. They’re all pretty nice people out there.”
Although Skyview’s first cross-country running team had had to use only the trails on the hillside on the edge of campus, plus the soccer fields, for its racing and training, the first Skyview ski team had the use of the actual early trail system.
Ski team member Holly Quick wrote about that inaugural season in the first Skyview yearbook: “Every day, rain or shine, the Skyview Nordic ski team goes to practice. They started out the season with no snow and would run on what now is the ski trail. Then they went out with their skis and slid across the frozen grass. But the snow soon came, and after the trails were groomed and clearly marked out, the ski team was off, and there was no stopping them….”
Boraas and Miller had built it — the trail system and the ski program — and the best was yet to come.