Out of the Office: Best ski of the year

Memory is strongly tied to place. That’s why I can never take the ski from Arc Lake to Slikok Lake without thinking of Alan Boraas, the late Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor.

My last extended conversation with Boraas before his death in November 2019 happened on that trail.

The trail from Arc Lake to Slikok Lake is part of a network of winter trails that fans out from the northwest border of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association trails near the Soldotna municipal airport, Headquarters Lake, Slikok Lake and Arc Lake can all be linked by the enterprising skier willing to negotiate wonderful, rolling terrain through tight, snow-capped trees.

Whenever I get on those trails in the right kind of conditions, it’s always the best cross-country skiing I’ll do all season.

It was the condition of those trails that started my conversation that day with Boraas.

He saw a big future for those trails. With the boom in fat tire biking, Boraas thought the enthusiasm of that group could be parlayed into regular grooming and maintenance of the trails.

He saw a trail system that could get you all the way to the benchlands between Tustumena and Skilak lakes.

He saw fat tire biking that, when combined with the Tsalteshi Ski Trails just across the Sterling Highway, would make the Soldotna area a destination for winter endurance athletes and a place where residents cherish, and not dread, winter.

As a journalist who’s heard lots of big dreams, I was skeptical. As a ski enthusiast who knew this was the guy who once envisioned a world-class ski trail system emanating from then-under-construction Skyview High School in 1987, and then actually turned that vision into Tsalteshi Trails, I was intrigued.

There was a catch.

With rare exception, like the Ski Hill Multi-use Trail, bikes are not allowed in the refuge.

Every user group — hunters, fishers, snowmachiners, hikers, campers, trappers and more — has had reason to chafe at refuge regulation. I took the opportunity to do the same here.

“It could be worse,” Boraas said. “It could be the Valley.”

I asked him what he meant.

He said to imagine that we were not currently skiing on refuge lands. Imagine there was a house here, powerline there, and road that we soon had to cross. Would it be the same experience?

Dealing with a maddening rule on bikes was tough, but it was in service of a greater commitment to giving these lands the unique qualities that make them such a special recreation destination.

If there wasn’t a refuge to carefully balance the needs of each user group with the refuge’s mission to conserve the nation’s fish and wildlife heritage, the refuge would likely no longer be the refuge I craved. The refuge that always makes me feel like a child again.

It was impressive to see Boraas pivot so quickly from cheerleading a strongly held dream and vision, to realizing the merit of a system that was presently thwarting that vision.

We can’t have the world we want if we all get what we want.

It’s a lesson worthy of reflection, and just another reason why Arc to Slikok is the best ski of the year.