New nordic ski trail comes to Girdwood

Beth Bragg
A new informational kiosk is at the trailhead of the new trail, about one kilometer from the road system near the Hotel Alyeska. Girdwood Nordic Ski Club board members Chuck Dorius, Peter Zug, Deb Essex and Jim Braham gathered to ski there Tuesday, December 18, 2012. A new 5-kilometer Nordic ski trail has recently been completed in Girdwood. The Girdwood Nordic Ski Club oversaw the project.
Marc Lester
A new 5-kilometer Nordic ski trail has recently been completed in Girdwood. The Girdwood Nordic Ski Club oversaw the project. The trail is seen under construction in October 2010 at top. At bottom, skiers use the trail on Tuesday, December 18, 2012.
Marc Lester

Trace the roots of the new 5-kilometer nordic ski trail in Girdwood and you wind up in the Anchorage saloon where Deb Essex used to wait tables.

Trace them back even farther and you find Jim Galanes, a three-time Olympian who created and once directed what is now the Alaska Pacific University nordic ski center.

Trace them back farther still and you find the very people who helped put nordic skiing on the map in Anchorage -- people like Sven Johanson, Dick Mize, Jim and Sally Burkholder and Jim Mahaffey. Back in 1960s, they were among a couple of dozen people who built a 10-kilometer trail system in Girdwood that played host to the 1969 U.S. Junior Nationals.

After about a decade, Girdwood's rain forest swallowed that trail. Today, the rain forest will be the scene of a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new trail, one that was three years in the making and more than twice as long in the planning and fundraising.

The $800,000 Girdwood Nordic Ski Trail brings back cross-country skiing to Girdwood, a ski town that offers great alpine skiing at Alyeska Ski Resort and several kilometers of wide-open, skiable flat terrain in Moose Meadow, but until recently no year-round trail designed specifically for nordic skiing.


Where are the trails?

A good starting point for the story of the new trail is 2005. Two critical things happened that year -- a feasibility study on a Girdwood trail system was completed by the Boutet Company, and Essex moved to Girdwood after marrying Keith Fiedorowicz, the owner of Alpine Air Alaska.

In November 2005, Essex went to a cross-country race that had been moved to a makeshift course at the base of Alyeska because of poor snow conditions elsewhere. As she stood there watching, she wondered aloud why there were no real nordic trails in Girdwood.

"I was standing next to Keith and on the other side of me was Jim Galanes and he said, 'Well, we're working on it.' And he was. He was hosting town meetings," Essex said.

Essex, who was raised in Iowa by parents who taught her not to complain about something if she instead could try to change it, went to a meeting and liked what she heard. As a newcomer to Girdwood, she wanted to get involved in a community project -- and she was already weary of driving to Anchorage when she wanted to cross-country ski.

Soon she announced to her husband that she was starting a non-profit with the goal of building a trail system. Then she helped create the Girdwood Nordic Ski Club, which operates and maintains the new trail and also provides grooming at Moose Meadow, and then went to work raising money and researching trails.

"I Googled everything," Essex said. "How to build a trail. How many nordic ski trails there are in Alaska and the United States. How many ski resorts in the Pacific Northwest have nordic skiing mixed in with them and how much they charge. I even Googled how to have a ribbon cutting."


'Bottomless muck'

The rain forest accommodated the project begrudgingly. The ground is filled with clay that Essex said turns to "bottomless muck" when wet, which is often.

"Our biggest obstacle was water -- there's an immense watershed here," she said. "We realized we'd have to build some bridges; we just underestimated how large those bridges needed to be."

The trail begins at the end of a one-kilometer access trail from Arlberg Road, near The Hotel Alyeska, and because of all that muck, it required nine bridges and almost twice as many culverts. The bridges are natural, built from spruce and almost unnoticeable, Essex said.

The trail was designed by Galanes, who also helped design the Lekisch Trail at Kincaid Park, and built by Statewide Clearing, Inc. Construction began in 2010 and wrapped up this year.

"They built in rain, sleet and mud 90 percent of the time," Essex said. "I figured they'd end up hating me and they don't. (Statewide owner) Joe Carlos greeted us with a smile on the trail every day.

"Those who have built in Girdwood were shaking their heads, because they knew how hard this would be, but I didn't know. The best thing going for me is I had no idea."

The project involved excavating gravel from the forest, because importing it would have raised the price significantly.

"This whole trail depended on finding gravel, and when they found it, it was like finding gold," Essex said.


Grant money

Building in a watershed meant plenty of surprises, challenges and delays. Advice from Chris van Imhof, who for years was the manager at Alyeska, proved valuable: "He said, 'Don't be in a hurry,' and that advice really stayed with us. We didn't concentrate on the obstacles, we just concentrated on moving forward."

Though the trails are not affiliated with Alyeska, resort owner John Byrne and his family were among the first major donors, giving $50,000 to the project, Essex said.

Heritage Land Bank also donated $50,000 and Girdwood 20/20 pitched in $20,000. Eighty percent of the funding came from grants and a single $200,000 legislative appropriation, with the rest coming from private or corporate donations.

"My dining room table became Grant-writing Central," Essex said.


'I didn't know how to ski'

Anyone who donated $1,000 or more will get their name engraved somewhere on the trail, which brings us to the Anchorage saloon Essex used to work at. One of those donors is Darwin Biwer, a Girdwood resident and the owner of Darwin's Theory.

When she first moved to Anchorage after graduating from Iowa State, Essex -- who turns 44 on the day of the ribbon cutting, something she swears is coincidental -- got a job at Darwin's. There she became friends with Lauri Bassett, a bartender at the time who later became part of the running and skiing scene as a co-owner of Up and Running Event Management.

"She had just started skiing so I went to REI and rented nordic skis and skied with her in the Ski for Women, which I remember because I didn't know how to ski," Essex said.

Soon she became friends with nordic skier Adam Verrier, a 1994 Olympian who created the Oosik Classic 50-K in 2001 with help from Essex. At the 2005 Oosik Classic, Essex met Fiedorowicz and they married that summer.


No charge for access

The trail consists of intermediate to advanced terrain, with three climbs and some scary-looking downhills. There's no charge to it, which, based on Essex's extensive Googling, is unique for a nordic system right next to an alpine resort.

"I don't know any resorts that have free cross-country trails next to them, and I've done the research," she said. "We enjoy Alyeska's support, but it's good to be separate, because it feels like it's the community's.

"... I was out grooming today from 9:30 to 1 and it was zero (degrees), and skiers were out on the trail. We knew all along if we built it, people would come."


Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.



Video: See what it is like to ski in a rain forest - introducing Girdwood's newest nordic ski trail.