PALMER — While many families engaged in non-traditional Thanksgiving gatherings last week, the Palmer High School (PHS) Cross Country Ski team and the Mat-Su Ski Club started a new Thanksgiving tradition. After many of the fundraising events scheduled for the PHS ski team had been cancelled due to the pandemic, the PHS boosters and Mat-Su Ski Club organized the Turkey Trax race on Friday at Government Peak Recreation Area that hosted 67 skiers in four races. The PHS skiers themselves ran the race, allowing their parents, friends, community members and alumni to ski on the day after Thanksgiving.
“It just gives them a sense of how hard the volunteers work and you’re standing there for an hour-and-a-half, two hours just hitting a plunger making sure you’re getting numbers right and what goes into timing and putting on a ski race from the race director to course control to having music playing, an announcer, all of it. What does it take to make that happen,” said Lori Berrigan. “It was very COVID friendly. People didn’t have to be near each other. We had an interval start so it worked out really well. People were very happy.”
Lori Berrigan is a board member for the Mat-Su Ski Club and the PHS Ski Team Booster president. Turkey Trax not only offered an opportunity for PHS skiers to give back to the community, but also an opportunity for local collegiate skiers displaced by the pandemic to get a race in. Berrigan’s daughter Rya, a senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, won the girls classic race in a time of 14:28.6. Just over a minute behind Rya was younger sister Aila Berrigan, who skis for PHS. Palmer ski standout Katey Houser came in second just three seconds behind Rya Berrigan and Rosie Whittington-Evans came in fourth with a time of 15:34.
“Some of the kids got to see their parents race or they got to see younger athletes race or they got to see their own teammates race,” said Berrigan. “They were out there totally cheering them on, working the finish line, using the plungers, making sure they got their times right.”
Palmer High skier Kaj Taylor won the boys freestyle race in a time of 12:49.7, followed by teammate Jaxson Lee in fifth at 14:02.1. Colony senior Garrett Streit came in fourth with a time of 13:30.7. Coming in seventh, Kaj’s father Brent Taylor came in seventh with a time of 15:25.9.
The race allowed for the Mat-Su Ski Club to test its new Zone 4 timing software, which uploads times to the internet almost immediately. Many PHS Ski team members were able to work an early or late shift and ski the GPRA trails during the opposite shift. Some skiers took to the trails in costumes and Berrigan particularly enjoyed PHS alumni that showed up in vintage PHS Ski team gear. Berrigan hopes to continue the event annually and add 1 Kilometer, 5k and 10k distances to allow for more participants. With a grant from the Mat-Su Health Foundation for skis and more sets of ski boots being purchased by the PHS Ski boosters, Berrigan hopes that local middle schoolers will also have the opportunity to learn to ski.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every other local sporting event, cross-country skiing at the high school level has been pushed back multiple times and is set to begin on Dec. 9 with the first races taking place in January. The Besh Cup will take place over three weekends this winter starting in Anchorage on Dec. 18. The Besh Cup provides an opportunity for local skiers to compete for a spot on the Junior National team and approximately 20 skiers from Palmer or Colony High School will compete this winter.
“We live in Alaska, we have these great ski trails. Let’s make sure people can use them,” said Berrigan. “I think the biggest part was people saying they had canceled their plans and this gave them a way of feeling like they connected to the community when they didn’t feel like they could do that in their homes on Thanksgiving day.”