HATCHER PASS -- Government Peak Recreation Area opened last year, a new cross-country skiing destination on the south side of Hatcher Pass billed as the Valley's answer to the winter mecca that is Anchorage's Kincaid Park.
Five miles of ski trails twist over creeks and through forests, opening to panoramic views of Pioneer Peak and the Chugach Mountains. Work is almost done on a nearly $1 million chalet with in-floor heat, a kitchen and bathrooms, which will double as a 4,000-square-foot community center.
High school ski teams converge on the area during the week to take advantage of the challenging loops and groomed track. They finally have a place to host races. A junior nordic program is so popular that organizers had to scramble to meet demand.
Government Peak gives the Mat-Su Borough's growing force of nordic skiers a place of their own.
"It's been such a long, heartbreaking process," said 83-year-old Helen Woodings, who started teaching cross-country skiing to women in the 1960s and has advocated for a public recreation area since. "I am so glad for what we have."
Woodings said she attends church with Mat-Su Borough Assembly member Jim Colver, a longtime Hatcher Pass recreation area backer.
"He knew I was a skier," she said. "He wanted to give me a place to go. I said, 'Don't make it fancy. We just need a place to park and pee.' "
CLOSE BUT NOT PERFECT
Valley skiers have talked for decades about a Hatcher Pass ski area.
Historically, talk centered on a downhill ski resort but that idea fizzled repeatedly, a victim of cost and other complications, though alpine development remains a possibility in the future.
Nordic skiers, meanwhile, drove to Kincaid or Beach Lake in Chugiak. Closer to home, they made do with an assortment of lower-elevation trail systems with unpredictable snow cover, like the steep loops of Crevasse-Moraine, or braved the sometimes sketchy drive to groomed trails at Independence Mine -- and then had to ski up a mile-long, lung-busting hill at the trail's start.
Fans say Government Peak offers better snow than other Valley locations because it's slightly higher in elevation. Its location, tucked up against the hillside, cuts down on the wind that blasts Palmer and Wasilla below.
"It's really the focal point for cross-country skiing in the Valley," said Dave Musgrave, a nearby resident who coaches the Mat-Su junior nordic program. "There's not another venue in the area that can really have consistent snow."
But even boosters of the new area call it a work in progress.
The trails, as hilly as they are in places, don't quite meet the international standards -- such as long, steep climbs -- that would qualify the course for nationally sanctioned competitions such as the Arctic Winter Games.
On the other hand, novice or older skiers can find the rolling terrain a bit harrowing.
Woodings spent years hoping for a nordic center like this, she said, but she can't ski Government Peak now that it's open. She's got two artificial hips and wouldn't be able to get herself back up again if she wiped out on one of those curving hills.
Woodings said her oldest daughter, 60, uses snowshoes on the trails and so do her friends. She hopes future expansion plans include some gentler terrain.
"We just need to hurry up and get the teaching trail and get Helen's Trail, the grandma trail," Woodings said.
Government Peak Recreation Area covers 7,860 acres, a mix of Mat-Su Borough and state-owned lands. Along with the ski trails that opened last winter, there's also space for snowshoeing and dog-walking.
Construction of the recreational facilities was funded by roughly $6 million from the federal government -- about half of it highway money from the Federal Transit Administration -- and $3.6 million acquired by the borough.
Community members did their part too. Mat-Su Ski Club volunteers and other groups donated time and equipment to clear trails. Local churches built picnic tables.
The Fishhook Community Council donated $20,000 toward the chalet, according to Colver. The council helped expand the chalet's footprint from a glorified bus stop, as required by the federal money, to a community center, he said. The council, which currently meets in a sometimes noisy fire station off Palmer-Fishhook Road, plans to start meeting at the chalet.
"That really worked out," Colver said.
The Mat-Su Borough Assembly put approximately $500,000 in tourism infrastructure bed-tax funding toward the chalet. It's hoped people can use it for events like weddings, even while ski racers wax up using outdoor plug-ins.
The area isn't just about skiing. Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers also got a grant to put in a single-track mountain bike trail this spring.
Future plans call for equestrian trails and maybe even a terraced amphitheater for award ceremonies or summer concerts.
"Just to the right of that limb there? That's where Bruce Springsteen will be standing," Mat-Su Ski Club president Ed Strabel said, probably only half joking, during a visit to the area this month. "Folks can bring in their blankets or their blue plastic tarps, whatever they prefer."
THE STRABEL FACTOR
Strabel, a longtime Colony High School ski coach now coaching Wasilla, started early work prepping trails for the ski area with a devoted corps of volunteers -- many of them ski team members -- back in 2010.
A longtime force behind Mat-Su cross-county trails, Strabel and his sons spend countless hours grooming area trails and coaching various teams.
He skate-skied from his nearby bed and breakfast to meet a reporter, easily powering up a short hill as he chomped on a wad of cinnamon gum.
He plans to personally ski the hardest option in an upcoming inaugural Government Peak event, the two-day Mat-Su Icicle Double on Dec. 28 and 29. Participants in the family-friendly event can opt for distances from 2.5 kilometers to 30, using classic technique the first day and freestyle -- classic or skate -- the second.
Anyone who actually finishes two back-to-back 30-Ks gets a pint "beverage" glass with the race logo. They also get a good warm-up for the Tour of Anchorage ski marathon on March 2.
Community events like the Icicle Double weren't possible before Government Peak opened.
The place is starting to match what he imagined for the area, Strabel said. "We wanted to basically meet the non-motorized needs of everybody."
As he spoke, dozens of high school athletes poured out of cars and pickups in the parking lot.
Ski team members from Palmer, Wasilla and Colony high schools horsed around, wrestling and skidding across the snow-coated pavement. Things were about to get serious, given Strabel's drill for the day.
"Skate skis and boots plus classic poles," he told another Wasilla ski coach. "Double pole in tracks until their arms give out. Skate 'til their legs give out."
LET THERE BE LIGHTS
Along with providing a nearby place with fairly reliable snow for school teams to train, the new venue at Government Peak has also triggered an explosion of interest in the local junior nordic program for skiers ages 4 to 14.
Last year, about 85 youth signed up for the program, according to Musgrave, the junior nordic coach. This year, the number jumped to 220. Musgrave scrambled to find coaches to help out, given the spike in numbers. He had split the group into two sessions to make sure there was enough parking and trail space.
Right now, all those young skiers face an extra challenge, given short days and after-school training schedules.
Headlamps are a must for anyone on the trails in the dark of morning or night. A grant from Mat-Su Health Foundation is paying for temporary lighting in the small stadium area and on a short loop where junior nordic participants start out, but darkness prevails everywhere else.
"Last year we didn't have lights," Musgrave said. "It was like a bunch of little fireflies up there."
Headlamp skiing is not for the faint of heart. Screaming down the hills of Government Peak with just a narrow beam of illumination bouncing off the terrain ahead is more than some skiers want to handle.
"If we had lights there," Musgrave said, "it would probably increase our usership by about three or fourfold."
MORE TRAILS NEEDED
The borough and various local clubs still hope to expand the recreational opportunities at Government Peak.
There's another $6.65 million worth of work left to do, borough officials say. Still needed: lights for trails and parking lot; paving for the mile-long gravel road that climbs from Edgerton Parks Road to the Government Peak parking lot; and more trails.
"We want to make an Olympic-class trail system," borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan said.
A master development plan is expected to be released for public review next month with the layout for various trails and facilities on the southern end of the recreation area.
The next phase of expansion calls for another 10 to 15 kilometers of competition-level trails higher on the hillside.
Bill Spencer helped design the trails at Government Peak. Spencer, a 1988 Olympic skier and former national champion, has designed many of Anchorage's most popular trails -- he's the "Spencer" in Spencer Loop -- as well as the Lookout Trails in Homer.
He praised the borough's foresight in developing Government Peak for non-motorized recreation.
"It's a south-facing slope, good snow, no wind, You don't find that in a lot of places in the Valley," Spencer said.
That said, designing the Government Peak trails took some compromise.
The original contract for design called for "purely recreational trails," Spencer said. But by the time trail work actually started, the concept had changed into a course difficult enough to challenge high school ski teams, he said. That meant more climbs and more downhills.
"My intent is that you make a trail that can be skied safely by anyone but can be skied faster by someone that's good," Spencer said. "You want the terrain and the turns and the climbs to challenge them, to get them good at it and make it fun for them so they don't go off and go snowboarding."
Spencer skied the Government Peak trails last winter. He said he was reasonably pleased, noting just a few sharp corners and hills that could use a bit more banking. The area also will need a bigger stadium up the hill from the existing flat start area for any future competition venue.
That said, even Kincaid wasn't built in a day. It took decades to develop the world-class trail system the park offers now.
"I see it being something like Kincaid Park," Strabel said, of Government Peak. "Kincaid Park's been going since the '60s and they're still not done yet."
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.