Seventeen-year-old Joe Dubay of Coon Rapids, Minn., stood atop a small hill and took in the view Monday at Kincaid Park, his eyes fixed on snow-capped Sleeping Lady across Cook Inlet.
Told that the peak was one of the smaller ones around, his eyes widened.
"This right here is about as big as the hills are at home," he said, gesturing to the gentle slope he was standing on behind the stadium scoreboard.
For those concerned that Alaska is extending too warm of a welcome to some 350 out-of-state skiers in town for the Junior Olympics cross country ski championships, don't fret too much.
Warm weather may have turned parts of Kincaid into swampland -- including and especially the stadium, where races are supposed to start and finish but as of Monday was unskiable because a lake's worth of snowmelt had pooled there.
But the kids don't seem to mind the slop.
"The Midwest has these days quite often," said Dubay, the winner of Monday's Junior I boys classical sprint. "I like it. I'm glad it's sunny and not freezing."
Besides, he's seen worse. Earlier this year, Dubay represented the United States at the Scandinavia Cup in Estonia, an international race series just one step below the World Junior Championships, meaning it's a prestige event
"It was a hundred times worse than this," Dubay said. "It was like racing on dirt. There was no snow and it rained every day."
It's never too early for ski racers to learn to go with the flow even when there is no snow, said U.S. Ski Team development coach Pat Casey, who's in town from Salt Lake City for the championships. Inclement weather and marginal trails are part of the game, he said, whether you're a Junior Nordic novice or an Olympic veteran.
"It's part of ski racing," said Reid Pletcher of Sun Valley, Idaho, the bronze medalist in the Older Junior boys sprint who returned last week from the World Junior Championships in Italy. "Once you see other people skiing in the same thing you're in, (you realize) you've just got to work with what you have.
"Conditions are always changing. You can't do anything about it."
Not that race organizers and volunteers from the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage haven't tried.
They've used sump pumps to drain water from the stadium. They've held shoveling parties to move snow from the woods on parts of exposed trail where there is no snow. They've reconfigured race courses at the last minute to give racers the best trails possible.
The week-long championships is costing the club money as well as sweat and anxiety -- about $200,000, much of it covered by fundraising and in-kind donations, race chairwoman Diane Moxness said. More than 200 volunteers have helped along the way, she said.
Their efforts go back to last summer, when extensive trail work was done at Kincaid with the championships in mind.
Among the additions: hilly new spring trails around the stadium, a widened and re-aligned Elliott's Climb, a spectator's bridge and trail above the stadium, and new shortcuts and connecters to give race organizers extra options when setting up courses.
Even before the changes, Kincaid was a world-class venue that has hosted everything from Olympic trials to U.S. Nationals to the NCAA championships.
But it's never looked like it does this week -- and not just because of the brown spots and water puddles.
The upper parking lot is filled with trailers, one for each of 10 regional teams to use for ski waxing.
The old Army bunker next to the chalet, usually the place where waxing happens, has been temporarily turned into an Athlete's Village, filled with carpeting, pingpong and foosball tables, board games and other small amenities for the racers.
Kristin Halvorsen of Stowe, Vt., spent several hours in the bunker -- or as she called it, "that bomb shelter" -- Monday during the break between morning preliminaries and afternoon quarterfinals of the sprint race.
Skiers inside the cavernous building read books, played games, took naps and played with Eskimo yo-yos.
The yo-yos are a nice touch by race organizers. At Sunday's opening ceremonies downtown, the King Island Dancers performed, and some of their littlest members gave out yo-yos to the racers. After only a day, athletes were already boasting about their growing yo-yo skills.
Another nice touch: instead of handing out small bouquets of flowers to the top three finishers in each race, organizers are giving them cowbells -- blue for first place, red for second, green for third. With 18 cowbells awarded for each race, Kincaid could be a noisy place by the time the fourth and final race day rolls around Saturday.
Some of Monday's cowbell-winners got an added bonus: They received their awards from America's hottest thing on skinny skis: Anchorage's Kikkan Randall, a two-time Olympian who put in a surprise appearance.
Randall -- who in December became the first American since 1983 and the first American woman ever to win a World Cup cross-country race -- was scheduled to remain in Europe for another week. She changed her plane ticket to catch a week of hometown relaxation before heading to the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver for Canada's national championships next week.
Randall has seen Kincaid looking better, but like Dubay, she's seen worse. On the World Cup circuit, no less.
"You should've seen the stuff we skied on this year," Randall said.
In the Czech Republic, the trails that will host next season's World Championships were a mess, she said.
"The hills were brown. There were rocks, dirty snow. They were hosing it down with fire hoses," Randall said. "It's great to see we can make it work (at Kincaid) under tough conditions."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.
WHAT SKIERS ARE SAYING: To get an insider's look at the national championships, check out the blogs. A sample entry from Team England: "Five minutes of seeing the mountains here are worth the whole uncomfortable plane ride up here."
And one from Team Midwest: "Every participant was given an Alaskan yo-yo and a challenge to master it by week's end. Practice commenced immediately, as did the trash talk. It's harder than the cute little Eskimo girl made it look."