Alli Harvey: 'Crust skiing' is a fickle spring's reward for skiers

Alli Harvey

When friends started going on about crust-skiing this winter, my inclination was to hate it simply because everyone else loves it so much. Even the term "crust-skiing" sounded insider to me. What crust? Crust is something you wake up with in the corner of your eye. It's the leftover pizza you eat off your kid's plate.

I overrode my antipathy and leaned forward: "Oh, crust skiing, I've heard of this thing -- please tell me more."

"Crust" is a brief phenomenon that occurs in the spring when the temperatures during the day are warm but there are still hard freezes at night. A layer of crust forms on the top of snow that was once too deep to skate ski on, allowing you the freedom to ski pretty much wherever you want. It's basically nature's trail grooming.

You need to hit it just right to ski on crust -- at the right time of year and the right time of the morning before the snow softens up -- which loans crust skiing a kind of mythical (and yes, insider) air. It's here, and then it's not.

Popular places for crust skiing? Powerline Pass. Portage Lake. The second option was where I took my skeptical butt one weekend morning with the question clear in my mind: How could anything be as awesome as people were saying this was? I had given up on winter long ago. The whole on-again, off-again thing has never worked with me, not with relationships and certainly not with seasons. Still, I knew it was somehow important that I give this ski a whirl.

Strapping on my skis at the foot of the lake -- just this last time, I told myself, then I was really done with winter like it had been done with me -- I looked out and could see the black specks in the distance, skiers like me who were much farther out.

Skate-skiing out onto the snow, the sun was remarkably bright in that way that it can be over white snow after a long winter. I saw that the black specks were not just skiers. The prints in the snow were of shoes, fat tires, and, most of all, paw prints speckled in the haphazard patterns of happy jumping dogs.

There were the patterns of blade-like cuts in the snow from the skate skiers that had gone out before me.

Ahead and at either side were mountains that looked more impressively enormous than usual -- I had better perspective, because I could see the people compared to the height of the glacially carved mountains. Everything was bright: the sky, the snow, the mood.

That's when I realized why crust skiing is such a big deal. It's not the condition of the snow that's exciting. It's where those conditions allow you to go. Usually, when I skate ski, it's in the urban, narrow, tree-lined confines of a trail that hopefully has some nice corduroy on it (if I hit it right and am lucky). I pole through on the ice under tunnels, and awkwardly pass other skiers who also need to take up most of the trail to do their thing.

Skiing on the crust out on the lake, the experience was big, sunny and silent. Most noticeably, it was vast. When I turned a corner around the base of the mountain on my right, after what felt like only minutes of skiing, there was Portage Glacier extending its blue jagged shapes into the sky. There were people everywhere, but no one was in anyone's way -- we were the minutiae in the landscape, able to share the big wide view without feeling crowded by one another.

I felt lucky to be there. I felt lucky that I'd read the weather and taken a chance to see if this could be the day, if this was the weekend people had been raving about all winter.

How long would those conditions last? Nobody knows; it's all weather dependant. No one stepped up to a podium in my neighborhood to clear her throat and announce the crust skiing time was here; and no one will step up and let us know when it's done. It will likely come and go several times, in several different elevation ranges, before it's fully over.

Now I have yet another fickle Alaskan phenomenon to hope for. First it was winter, and now it's crust skiing too. I've joined the ranks of the skiers who will talk about it all winter, and sometime a skeptic will lean forward and say, OK, you've been talking about this forever, so tell me about this crust thing.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.


Daily News correspondent