Anchorage snowmaking system running at low capacity

ANCHORAGE (AP) — A long-awaited snowmaking system covering cross-country ski trails at Kincaid Park is now functioning, but at much less than its planned capacity.

The system only can support about one-third of its 17 snow guns at one time, according to Dick Mize, a board member of the nonprofit responsible for the project’s construction. And it’s still not ready to hand it off to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, which will ultimately maintain and operate the system.

For now, snowmaking will have to proceed in phases around the three-kilometer loop the project’s backers had initially aimed to blanket all at once. They still hope the system can be expanded, but it’s not clear how soon that could happen, or who would pay for it.

“At some point, you have to call it finished even though there’s more that could be done,” said Fred Stutzer, the volunteer board secretary of the Kincaid Project Group, which raised the money for the system and is overseeing its installation.

Snowmaking, Stutzer added, will still be a “fantastic asset,” with the potential to kick-start the ski season each fall, and to delay its conclusion every spring. It also could help the city attract national, and even international, races.

“It can be improved, yes. But there’s a lot of communities that would die not only for the trail system we have, but also snowmaking equipment,” he said in a phone interview.

The snowmaking system’s roots date back more than 10 years, to the Kincaid Project Group’s founding in 2002. Boosters of skiing, biathlon, and soccer formed the organization to push for a series of upgrades, which the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Commission ultimately approved in 2006 after a flood of public comments — some of which said the proposals to put in a new soccer stadium and fields, a new biathlon range, and the snowmaking system would diminish the wilderness feel of Kincaid’s 1,400 acres.

The effort was billed as a public-private partnership, and the group ended up raising nearly $13 million, Stutzer said. That includes $5 million in donations, $1.2 million from the city, and roughly $6 million from the state, Sturtzer said — more public money than the group had initially anticipated.

“By the time we got our legs under us and got a good run at things, the economy kind of tanked, and we were dealing with peoples’ changing giving habits,” Stutzer said.

So far, the group has put $2.8 million into the snowmaking system. Initial plans called for completion as early as 2010, but problems with one of the soccer fields led to the snowmaking work being pushed back, Stutzer said.

The equipment was expected to operate last winter, but testing uncovered two problems: a leak in its main water line, as well as sand and silt in the water, which clogged parts of the system.

The company that did the construction, Roger Hickel Contracting, covered the costs of fixing the leak, which Stutzer said stemmed from a mistake they made in putting a fitting together.

But Kincaid Project Group had to pay to have its two snowmaking wells fixed, to stop the penetration of the sand and silt. And the adjustments, which included a new type of filter, ended up restricting the flow of water into the system — which means it can only operate at partial capacity.

“That cut us in half from what we had last year,” said Mize, the Kincaid Project Group board member and a former Olympic biathlete.

Mize was out testing the snowmaking equipment at Kincaid Park recently, working with a representative of TechnoAlpin, the company that designed the system.

The Kincaid Project Group ultimately plans to turn over maintenance and operations to the city and the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage — but before the transfer occurs, there’s still “quite a bit of work that needs to be done,” Mize said.

The ski association and the Kincaid Project Group are hoping to complete that work in the next few weeks. But Mize said one of the remaining tasks involves insulation of equipment that can’t be done until next summer.

Ann Gore, the ski association’s executive director, said her organization had hoped the snowmaking system would be ready this winter. But her group will not take responsibility for it until being assured that it meets “quality controls,” she said.

“When we’re going to get to that point, I don’t know,” she said. “We’re just waiting to see what happens over the next couple of weeks.”

Skiers at Kincaid are excited about the potential to extend their season — but they’re also impatient. Jan Buron, who coaches the Alaska Winter Stars club, said he was frustrated to see how the soccer projects at Kincaid had been finished, while the snowmaking system was still awaiting completion.

“We have (the) stadium ready to play, and we don’t have cross-country skiing,” he said.

When the system is done, though, he said he would be especially excited about the potential for keeping his athletes on snow until as late as April — since that can be the best time of year for skiers to adjust their technique.

“It’s warm, we can talk, we can do step-by-step,” he said.

There are many cross-country ski areas with snowmaking across the rest of the United States, but the new system at Kincaid will be Alaska’s first on a large scale.

Birch Hill Recreation Area in Fairbanks has a very small system, which is primarily used to fill in dry spots, rather than to create snow for an entire loop or stretch of trail.

The equipment at Kincaid, as it’s currently functioning, will be able to cover a three-kilometer loop in seven to 10 days of ideal conditions, Mize said.

While the system is only working at partial capacity now, Stutzer, the Kincaid Project Group’s secretary, said it could be expanded in the future — perhaps by drilling another well to boost the flow of water.

Stutzer said he did not know how much that would cost, but he said the additions may end up being the responsibility of another group. His organization is made up volunteers who have been working on the project for years, he added, and “the idea is that we’re trying to call this a completed project, from the standpoint of Kincaid Project Group.”

“At some point, you have to be able to move on,” he said.