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Alaska trails: Good for us as well as our economy

Steve Cleary
OPINION: It's easy for Anchorage residents to appreciate their miles of trails, but the truth is there are lots of cool spots around Alaska, and as winter winds down, Alaskans everywhere are reveling in the fact that trails bring people together. Loren Holmes photo

It’s been a tough year for snow, with warm temperatures across the state making trails conditions less than ideal. No one knows that better than the Iditarod mushers. But they and their fans were all smiles for the ceremonial start that winds its way along Anchorage’s trails. Thousands flocked to the trail to cheer, high-five the mushers and play in the snow. Those of us watching on the Chester Creek Trail near Airport Heights think we have the coolest spot, but the truth is there are lots of cool spots all along the trail where people are reveling in the fact that this race and this trail bring people together.

The next day, over 1,300 skiers hit some of the same trails for the Tour of Anchorage. Several country flags still fly over the trail just west of Wesleyan Drive. Even though the cross-country ski race was shortened this year due to the lack of snow, it was still a way to celebrate the season and enjoy the trails. Other ski races will follow this month around the state -- the Oosik in Talkeetna, the Sonot Kkaazoot in Fairbanks, the Homer Epic and the Sea to Ski, and the Buckwheat Ski Classic in Skagway.

Trails, even in this not-so-wintery winter, bring people together to get outside and have some fun. The Iditarod continues on as more communities get to celebrate the mushers. As the sun returns, more and more people get outside to shake off cabin fever and welcome Spring.

With 250 miles of trails, Anchorage is home to lots of activities and events including Fur Rondy and the Iditarod start, the Special Olympics Alaska Winter Games, dog walking and skijoring, running and biking, snowshoeing and kick-sledding. A recent poll showed that 95 percent of Anchorage agrees that the trail system contributes toward making Anchorage a great place to live. Trails are good for our health and for our economy.

There are lots of great examples outside of Anchorage as well. Big Lake Trails and other sponsors staged the Big Lake WinterFest in February. WinterFest is a two day event that is uniquely Alaskan and is meant to be a celebration of the ice. It is held on the frozen lake surface at Big Lake. The activities this year included: Big Lake Trails Family Fun Snowmachine Run, 120 Races for the kids, Dog Weight Pulls, Vintage Snowmachine races and lots of good, goofy contests, games and fun.

Alaska Trails has been working for 10 years to not only build and maintain Alaska’s world-class trails, but to highlight the many benefits trails bring -- not just the recreation we all love, but the health, economic and community benefits they bring as well. Alaska Trails’ upcoming 2014 Statewide Trails conference will bring together trail advocates from all over the state to share knowledge, swap good ideas and celebrate Alaska’s trails. We hope you can join us April 24-26 at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. Help us continue to make trails in Alaska a year-round community benefit.

Steve Cleary is executive director of Alaska Trails, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the Alaska trail experience by supporting sustainable trails through advocacy, education and technical assistance.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.