By this time last year, the Mat-Su Ski Club had already been grooming the Independence Mine State Historical Park trails for cross-country skiing for more than a week. With funding from a Mat-Su Borough grant to cover the cost of maintaining four ski areas in the region, the club, its members and other users were set to enjoy a long season in and around the mountains.
Things look a little different for the 2020-2021 season. To start with, there’s not yet anywhere near enough snowpack at the mine or at any other area to lay ski trails. And, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Borough’s tourism-reliant bed tax coffers are likely not full enough to support a grant to the club for this season.
But Lucas Parker, president of the Ski Club, said neither of those things have dampened his spirits – or the enthusiasm of the club’s members.
“We all need to find something that we enjoy doing throughout the seasons especially in Alaska in the winter,” he said. “My view is that if you can’t find something you enjoy in the winter, you’re not going to be able to enjoy life very much.”
For Parker that something is cross country skiing all winter long. And it’s why he and the club’s 11 other board members and one paid staff member dedicate countless hours to grooming about 60 kilometers of trails at Independence Mine and up Archangel Road in Hatcher Pass, at Government Peak Recreation Area (GPRA) and on the Moose Range.
That work costs the club about $25,000 a year in fuel, lights and maintenance, a tab usually covered by the borough grant, Parker said. But with funding to the bed tax down significantly, he said the club is looking to other sources of funding grants, such as the Mat-Su Health Foundation.
Ski area grooming isn’t the only thing the club offers Borough residents, though. About 350 area kids ages 4 to 16 are already registered for Junior Nordic ski lessons that start in early 2021. Held in six weekly sessions over four days, the lessons cost $50 per child, plus a $50 club family membership fee, a very affordable sport in the world of kids’ sports, Parker notes.
“Skiing is already naturally social distanced as a sport unless were doing mass starts, which we’re not doing,” he said. “It just lends itself well to this day and age.”
The club also offers adult lessons, something they’re looking to expand this year – and give a price increase. In the past, lessons cost $5 each, but lacked predictability for the instructor since students would frequently not show-up. Although the board hasn’t decided just how high the new price will be, they plan to pair it with a system that will lead to more buy in from students and more consistency for instructors, he said. They also plan to add beginner-focused lessons that assume no Nordic skiing experience and start with very basics, like what kind of skis to buy.
Outside of lesson fees, Parker said the club encourages anyone who uses the trails to join and show their support for the work required to maintain the trails by joining as a member. While grants do typically cover the cost of the actual grooming, club equipment – like their incoming new super wide track for grooming Archangel — is purchased through money raised by lessons, memberships fees and registration fees for their annual race, the Icicle Double, he said. Family memberships run $50 for the season, and the club has about 400 members, according to the ski club website.
Locals interested in learning more about the MatSu Ski Club have a chance to do so Oct. 17 at the club’s annual meeting. The meeting will be held outdoors at GPRA and followed by a social, Parker said.
“The rest of the year we are just waving and smiling at each other on the trails, and this is one of the events where we can hang out and socialize,” he said.