By Joseph Robertia
There are the reading, writing and arithmetic standards that all students everywhere should learn. And then there is regional knowledge, inherent to a specific place or climate. In Alaska, that often means outdoor abilities. Those skills might not make it into any official curriculum, but some schools find ways to expand lessons to include those of the life variety.
At Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof, learning takes place in the classroom during the school day, and beyond. In this case, surrounding the school, both before and after school hours, all winter long, thanks to resurrected ski trails that have been developed around the school.
Dave Michael, a fourth-grade teacher at Tustumena, was also a member of the U.S. Olympic cross-country ski team in 1980. He saw a need for ski trails available for school and community use that don’t require a drive to Soldotna or Kenai.
“Using all the potential loops, I will groom about 2.5 kilometers of very easy, gently rolling ski trail. I will attempt to keep both a classic track as well as a skate surface groomed on a weekly basis or as it is needed. It is definitely intended for community use on the broader scale,” he said.
The trails were defunct pathways though the forest behind the school.
“The first set of trails was established here probably close to 30 years ago when Al Besh was the building administrator. As I understand it, Al was able to get the Army Corps. of Engineers to bring in a small bulldozer and cut a trail that extended outward behind the school in a left-hand loop, which was about one to 1.5 kilometers in length,” Michael said.
The trails were actively used for a time, but as can be the case with things involving work to keep up, maintenance waxed and waned with time.
“After some time, the interest and use of that trail seems to have died out. With lack of use and yearly maintenance, some of the trails became overgrown and some sections became inaccessible due to the development of adjacent roads, neighborhoods and homes,” Michael said.
Still, once the decision was made to resurrect the existing trails, Michael said it was good to know he and other volunteers were not going to have to start from scratch.
“I was hired on at Tustumena 18 years ago. In all of the schools where I’ve taught, I have developed and run an intramural ski program so I was pretty excited to come to a school with portions of a ski trail already in existence,” he said.
Michael found that some trails needed less work than others.
“Initially I began to use just those portions that were easily accessed without cutting. I simply maintained and reopened what was already there. At the beginning of each season I’d spend a little time clearing downed trees and brush so the trail did not become overgrown,” he said.
For Michael’s first 15 years at Tustumena, he maintained and groomed about 1.5 kilometers of ski trail. In recent years others have gotten involved and helped the trails grow.
“About three years ago, (teachers) Marina Bosick and Kerri Nelson helped us get tied into a program called Schoolyard Habitat which allowed us access to grant money. The overall purpose is to tie in potential 4-H areas of focus, such as gardening, greenhouses and development of the school campus as an outdoor educational facility. So we have used some of that money, and also money from a U.S. Forestry grant, to re-establish and expand the existing ski trail system into a multiuse trail,” Michael said.
Using the newly acquired money, the heavy work went much more quickly, according to Michael.
“We were able to contract with a small construction company to thin and remove downed trees and simultaneously expand the trails. After this initial reworking of the trails, the surface was pretty rough, but skiable with snow,” he said.
Then in August, physical education teacher Mike Chase brought in a large rototiller and backhoe.
“Mike was generous enough to donate his labor and that of one of his set-net crew, along with the fuel and equipment. We worked together and in about eight hours were able to remove larger stumps and roots while leveling the surface of our trails to a very nice and useable surface,” Michael said.
The Tustumena staff is also currently working on getting signs to mark the trail loops and intersections, and an “outdoor classroom” is being planned, with a shelter and benches to create an instructional setting on the trail. In the meantime, the revived trails will soon be getting use by Tustumena Elementary students.
The intramural skiers start Jan. 20, meeting two days a week after school, and continue until the week before spring break in March.
Michael said he’d also like to see skiers in the Kasilof community and beyond add this site to the list of trail options on central peninsula.
“The wooded sections of the trail are very scenic in terms of a woodland environment,” he said. “Due to the thinning of trees and removal of downed trees and debris, it’s a very enjoyable ski through the woods and a great way to remind yourself why we choose to live here.”