“Are you kidding me?” puffed a skier as he pushed his way through the thick, soft snow at the McNeil Canyon Ski Area before the start of Saturday’s Kachemak Bay Nordic Ski Marathon.
“Is this it? … Is this the trail?” inquired another passerby of his friend as they squeezed in a warm up on the beginning of the course.
“I think so,” his friend answered.
Foreigners to the McNeil tail system were a bit taken aback at the level of grooming — which, though it began at 3 a.m. the morning of the race, appeared minimal thanks to several hours of additional snowfall — but they were all complimenting the marathon’s three courses by the time they got to the finish line.
The Kachemak Bay Nordic Marathon’s 42 kilometer, 25K and 13K races are usually held at the Lookout Ski Trails on Ohlson Mountain Road. Lack of snow in the past has forced the event’s cancellation. This year, in the face of yet another bout of inadequate precipitation, organizers weren’t taking no for an answer.
They moved the race to the McNeil Canyon trail system and the land beyond, creating a completely new and unique course map, said Marathon Coordinator Deland Anderson.
“We have a pretty extensive … two systems of trails right here,” he said. “And then you can hook them together … by grooming out certain trails.”
Organizers were also able to lay in some temporary trail on Kenai Peninsula Borough property, which got them up to about a 25K route. Utilizing the existing McNeil and Eveline trails was all well and good for the 13K tour and the 25K race, but Anderson and the Kachemak Bay Ski Club had to get creative in order to provide a stand-alone 42K trail.
“They (the 42K racers) also in addition to that (25K) do 15 kilometers that takes them out to Bald Mountain, because I’ve always respected what happens in these races in Alaska, and that is if you ski longer, you get better scenery,” he said.
The club ended up getting special permission from the Native corporation Cook Inlet Region Inc. for the course to cross some of their lands in order to plot the 42K course up to Bald Mountain. Organizers also got permission from a private land owner. This year’s race, therefore, was very likely a once-in-a-lifetime event, Anderson said.
In addition to the prolific views the 42K racers were treated to, all of Saturday’s participants got a taste of slightly more rugged trails in general. Places like the Lookout Trails and the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna are what Anderson called engineered trails — in other words, they are carved from the ground and leveled out with machinery. Trails around McNeil are simply groomed by snowmobile.
“They’re more homey,” Anderson said. “But they’re narrower and they tend not to be as level side to side. They slope a little.”
Of the 82 total marathon participants, a whopping 41 of them signed up for the 42K. The longest race usually has the fewest skiers, Anderson said. He said the increased interest and the continued participation in the marathon as a whole is due to the chance to experience backcountry Alaska on groomed trails.
“It takes a willingness to put on an event that’s special,” Anderson said. “I mean, you could have easily said, ‘Let’s just use the trails we’ve got and make them go around twice.’ It’s like, no no no no no. It’s not fun to ski 25 kilometers and then do it again. That’s not fun.”
Though many locals turned out, some with the youngest members of their families in tow, it was skiers from Soldotna or Anchorage that nabbed first place in each of the marathon’s races. Anchorage’s Dave Amick came in first in the 13K tour in 1 hour, 1 minute, 5 seconds. He drove down to ski the event along with his wife and daughter, a South Anchorage student and skier for Alaska Pacific University.
Abby Amick, the APU skier, and her friend Sadie Oswald, a skier for South Anchorage, were the first two women across the finish line of the 25K. Soldotna High School’s Bradley Walters took first in that event with a time of 1:30:43.
“I didn’t know what to really expect,” Walters, a sophomore, said. “This is my first time coming down and racing here. And this course apparently is new. I just kind of, I went for it.”
Several racers commented on the conditions, which ended up better than many of them had anticipated, what with several swaths of dark cloud coming up ominously behind the skiers. Many described the snow as slow, but not necessarily sticky.
“It was pretty good,” Walters said. “I feel like it was a little bit slow in the beginning, and as it warmed up, the skis picked up.”
“I mean, it was definitely slow in parts, but it was super fun,” Abby Amick said.
When asked which parts of the course they felt like they had to work the hardest on, she and Oswald answered in unison: “the hills.”
Gavin Kentch crossed the finish line in flashy peacock leggings to claim first place in the 42K race in 2:25:02. Kentch said he last skied in Homer six years ago and that it had been “a blast,” but that it had also kicked his butt. His return was to see how he could ski the marathon now that he’s more experienced, he said.
“Winning was possibly maybe in my mind,” Kentch said. “I came to have fun and I had lots, and lots and lots of fun.”
He said the trails were beautiful. They varied from perfect grooming, to not much grooming, to fresh snow, he said.
“There was everything,” Kentch said. “There was blue sky, there was a snow storm, there were mountain views. I have only good things to say about the course, the volunteers. They’ve done a very, very good job.”
“In all sincerity, I really want to thank my wife, Julie, for watching the children,” he added. “Because all four of us came down here on a weekend vacation and I literally would not be here if she would not have watched them.”