Snow Dance

By Jessica Shepherd

Come the first good snow, cross-country skiing became the antidote to the uncertainty and melancholy this pandemic has imposed. 

Spring equinox after a relentless winter. We wake early to shifting light on the bedroom wall and eat a late dinner as the sun sinks to a tangerine glow over Kachemak Bay. Sunny days give us spring fever, despite a raw wind, and we itch to be outside. 

Alas, the garden is still covered in hip-deep snow and icy roads make for treacherous walking. Winter, which rolled in with a punch in mid-December, has delivered zero-degree blasts and snow-globe storms at regular intervals. Just about the time we clear the stairs, we wake up to another six inches. The gardener in me is ready for the smell of warm earth, a glimpse of crocus shoots, and the first off-key notes of a varied thrush – due any day. But, despite my penchant for sun-drenched summers, I’m grateful to the Snow Gods for sending us frosty air and idyllic ski conditions. 

Like so many, working from home and social distancing, we forfeited family visits and kept to our tiny bubble of Covid-safe friends to ride out the pandemic. Throughout the summer and late into the fall this included a weekly work-trade at nearby Synergy Gardens and neighborhood gatherings around a bonfire. Come the first good snow, cross-country skiing became the antidote to the uncertainty and melancholy this pandemic has imposed. 

This could have been one of those snowless winters we had a few years back. I remember a bleak Christmas eve with hard rain on asphalt as we walked toward the plane bound for an equally-barren Denver. That following January, pussy willow buds opened months early. In February, rhubarb nubs erupted from bare soil. Secretly, I relished the extra months of gardening, despite what it foretold of the climate.

But this year snow prevails and the cross-country skiing is exceptional. Once or twice a week Hal and I ski the nearby trails at McNeil Canyon School and adjacent Eveline State Park with their expansive views of Kachemak Bay and the radiant glaciers beyond. We often arrange to meet up with neighbors Dave and Melisse, and almost always run into friends and colleagues along the way. With most social events canceled, skiing is a means of staying connected. 

Feeling a need to expand our range, we began to explore Roger’s Loop on the west side of Homer. The trails here twist through close spruce forest and lowlands too boggy for summertime travel before climbing to deeper snow. Like the McNeil and Eveline trail system, Roger’s Loop allows dogs as long as you clean up after them. We wax our skis, suit up our short-coated bird dog, and head out to explore the lure of groomed trails and visit with folks we seldom see otherwise. 

When we drove to Anchorage to call on our good friend David and restock at Costco, we brought along our skis. One would have thought, after so many winters in Alaska, we would have explored the city’s ski system before. But while we’ve walked some of the trails during the summer months, skiing them opened up a whole new way of seeing the city. 

We hit the trails twice, once striking out from the UAA library parking lot to Goose Lake and beyond, and the second time from a neighborhood off Dunbar in north-eastern Anchorage with access to Russian Jack Park. I classic skied while Hal skate skied with long strides - graceful as a dancer. What we realized, as we crossed a pedestrian bridge over Northern Lights Boulevard, is that the two trails connect. In fact, the ski trail system in Anchorage covers some 220 miles, weaving all over the city through parks and under highways. And there are 24 miles of lighted trails for nighttime skiing. For maps and information see here.

Everyone seemed to be outside skiing, playing ultimate Frisbee, or skating across one of a dozen frozen lakes. Families were out in force, as were the dog-walkers. Had pandemic-induced cabin-fever prompted everyone to venture out? With no masks required, we smiled or nodded to one another from an ample distance and filled our lungs with the cold, quenching air. 

The trails skirted lakes, crossed streams, and ran through light-filled birch forests. Glittering hoar frost gilded every twig and branch like a fairyland. Our dog Arlie, smart boy that he is, ran ahead to each junction and waited for us to see which way we’d go before bolting ahead. There’s nothing he likes better than a new trail, and we felt the same. We paused along the way to examine rabbit tracks, listen to the burble of Chester Creek under a bridge, and savor the sweet notes of pine grosbeak. 

It’s as if Anchorage has a shy side, screened by trees, where commerce recedes and nature thrives. I wondered who had the forethought, before Anchorage was built up, to reserve all this land, put in these trails, and acquire the budget and equipment to maintain them year-round. What a gift, especially now, when we all need the freedom these natural places have to offer.

Back home, Hal decided to ski the Kachemak Bay Nordic Ski Marathon. The 42-kilometer route runs from Lookout Mountain to Roger’s Loop with lots of brisk climbs and plunging downhills, making it both fun and challenging. This year, with Covid, the race organizers opted to forgo a one-day event and instead opened the race up as a month-long choose-your-own-day ski from March 1 – 31. In preparation, we headed up to the Lookout Mountain ski trails (new territory for us) so Hal could learn that section of the route. I kick-glided along as he skated ahead, snow dancing on perfectly groomed trails. Hal ran the marathon the day after the equinox, coming in spent but beaming. 

In the weeks ahead, given the depth of snow in the hills, we should have exceptional spring crust skiing to look forward to. Crust skiing sets up when the surface softens on warmer days and firms up on clear, cold nights, making it possible to ski anywhere without trails. If you’re looking to explore the backcountry on a bluebird day, this is what you wait for all winter. 

Skiing has given Hal and me a shared activity and an excuse to get away from the computers and headlines. Our outings have enabled us to deepen friendships and explore more of this lovely landscape we call home. Gardening, as it turns out, is not the only way to celebrate the return of the sun and the fledgling hope it brings.