By Joseph Robertia
There sometimes comes a point in long sled-dog runs where a decision must be made — keep pushing ahead, even though conditions are difficult and the route forward is tough to see, or call whoa, put on the brakes and abandon the trail.
The Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association is finding itself in just that position as an organization and in regard to the 10-plus-mile trail under its care near the Soldotna Airport. If new blood isn’t recruited to reinvigorate the organization, the trail system that’s lately fallen into disuse might not be maintained for use, period.
Remaining PSDRA board members and interested parties met last week to discuss the nonprofit’s immediate needs in the coming year, and longer-term strategies for keeping the organization going and the dog-friendly trail system maintained for public use.
“Personally, I feel that the trails are a treasure that should not be lost. The place is beautiful and the trail is an exciting and technical run. There is a good future for it if we can get a maintenance group excited about keeping the trails in usable condition,” said PSDRA board member Mindee Morning.
The trailhead at the west end of the Soldotna Airport takes off on a series of varying-length loops south of the airport, winding through the rolling terrain of spruce and birch forests on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge land.
Unlike the ski trails nearby at Refuge Headquarters and Tsalteshi Trails, the PSDRA trails are multiuse and open to leashed or harnessed dogs, whether their owners are mushing, skijoring, skiing or snowshoeing. Many area mushers, particularly recreational mushers or racers with small kennels, honed their skills on the PSDRA trails, and gained experience in the mushing spring races PSDRA used to hold.
“I raced there for the first time in 1999,” said Jane Adkins, an Iditarod veteran from Kasilof.
She said that the PSDRA trails used to be an active host for sprint racing, and served as the racecourse for the mushing portion of the Arctic Winter Games in 2006.
As Adkins’ teams have aged, she said she doesn’t race as much as she used to, and in recent years — partially due to poor snowfall and partially to a lull in board activity — PSDRA has not hosted nearly the number of races it used to. But Adkins said she would hate to see the organization and trail become defunct.
“I don’t have the same interest in running there as I used to, but I don’t want to see it die,” she said.
Many professional mushers on the central Kenai Peninsula have access to trail networks directly from their home or kennel, Adkins said, but the PSDRA trails are good for a change of pace for their dogs, and especially for smaller kennels and newcomers to the sport who don’t have ready trail access of their own.
“There’ve been times when I wanted to give people rides and the PSDRA trails were a much better place than out of my place. Also, not everyone has 30 dogs at home, and it’s important to keep a trail system for people who want to get into it. People with a dog at home, it’s nothing for them to find a cheap sled somewhere and come out and give the dog exercise. Then the dog sleeps well at night and their owner got off the couch for a few hours,” Adkins said.
In order to keep the organization going, things are going to need to change, said Jill St. Clair, current PSDRA board president.
“The goal is to get more interest, more use and more help financially and physically maintaining trails all year,” she said.
She said she plans to meet with representatives from the city of Soldotna, refuge, Tsalteshi Trails Association and Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, “to see if the trails can move toward a better system of maintenance and see if the use type can be expanded to include other user groups, such as fat-tire biking, for one example.”
St. Clair said that the board hopes to hire a trail groomer to put in and maintain the trail system all winter long. Currently, the group relies on the availability and motivation of volunteers to make and keep the trail passable.
She said they also hope to build a wider volunteer base, possibly with members of the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts or other community service-oriented organizations, to help the groomer clear trails, tune up the snow and assist with race coordination and logistics.
To fund the seasonal groomer position, suggested options included selling pull tabs, as the Tustumena 200 does to generate some of its annual income, as well as pursuing grants from the city of Soldotna and other sources.
PSDRA is tentatively planning at least one race this winter, in part to generate revenue from entry fees, and also increase public awareness of their trail system.
For now, though, with the winter’s first snow finally falling, PSDRA volunteers began clearing the trails of deadfall and other debris so at least portions of the trail can be used immediately.
“The hope is opening up the one-, three- and four-mile trail,” Morning said. “And if we are surprised by fewer downed trees than we expect, we might get the six-mile. The longer trails will have to wait until there is good freeze-up and snow to have them put in.”
The next PSDRA meeting will be at 6 p.m. Dec. 9 at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof. Anyone interested in the trails — particularly those willing to pitch in to support them — is welcome to attend.
“We are actively seeking candidates to fill three board slots and president, vice president, secretary and treasurer,” St. Clair said.
Morning said that, based on how last week’s meeting went, she thinks some new blood and more-active participation will help not only keep the organization alive, but help it thrive in the future.
“I thought the meeting went well and there were a lot of practical suggestions and straightforward thinking on the situation,” she said. “I have hope. It’s very nice to know that there are people in the community who feel these trails are worth saving.”