Helen Woodings has been skiing in the Matanuska Valley for almost 60 years, and for about half that time, she's been involved in trying to get a ski area built at Hatcher Pass, a popular skiing, touring and snowboarding destination for Southcentral snow buffs.
Woodings finally saw that dream become reality last week, when the Government Peak Recreation Area officially opened.
Woodings, a trail advocate who's lived in the Valley since 1953, has spent much of her life dodging snowmachines and braving treacherous roads to find adequate Nordic skiing in the Mat-Su, an area the size of the West Virginia just north of Anchorage. Now 82, Woodings finally can take advantage of trails groomed for classic and skate skiing at the base of Government Peak, a 3,000-foot peak at the edge of the Talkeetna Mountains.
Government Peak's trails are gentle and meandering, broken up by bridges crossing small creeks. Only 5 kilometers of the trails -- designed by former Olympian Bill Spencer -- are open to skiers, including a multi-use loop for skijoring and walkers -- with up to 50 kilometers possible in the future. It's the first phase in what winter sports buffs hope will one day become a world-class ski area at Hatcher Pass, capable of hosting World Cup-level Nordic events. Maybe even complete with an alpine resort.
Mat-Su assemblyman Jim Colver calls the recreational area a "toehold" in getting a larger development going -- even though it could be generations before any sort of major alpine dreams become a reality.
Long time coming
Plans for more skiing at Hatcher Pass -- a popular winter and summer destination known for its backcountry skiing, hiking, berry picking and its gold-mining past -- have come and gone since the mid 1980s. Nestled in the Talkeetna Mountains about 12 miles north of Wasilla and Palmer, it offers spectacular views and jagged, snow-capped peaks. According to the borough, about 600,000 people visited the area in 2011.
But despite its beauty and relatively easy access for a large population (almost 400,000 people live in the Mat-Su and Anchorage boroughs combined), no major Nordic or alpine recreation has ever been developed in the area, despite numerous tries.
Colver said the lead-up to the 1992 Olympics, for which Anchorage bid, spurred private investment interest in the area. A Japanese corporation at one point entered into a 55-year lease from the state, with hopes to building a four-season alpine ski resort and golf course, but that effort faltered after Anchorage lost the Olympic bid to Albertville, France. Other, smaller development ideas never materialized, either.
But a new century brought new hope. The borough took over a long-term lease from the state and began developing a management plan. The plan includes not only Nordic and alpine recreation areas, but commercial and residential real estate tracts, too.
In 2009 and with assistance from Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, the Mat-Su Borough was able to secure $6 million for the Government Peak project, mostly in highway funds from the Federal Transit Authority.
Colver served on the Assembly from 2000-2006, a time when Hatcher Pass ski proposals came and went. When Colver was re-elected in 2009, he vowed to make something happen.
"Up until now, it's been a lot of talk and little action," he said.
Construction began on the 1-mile road leading to the area this summer. The road, critical to access the trails, cost $3.5 million.
In 2010, Ed Strabel, a longtime Colony High School ski coach and current president of the Mat Su Ski Club, began working with volunteers, many of them local high school skiers, to mark trails, fell trees and clear roots, rocks and other debris.
High school help
On Friday, dozens of skiers showed up for a "solstice sprint," with skiers trading off legs with one another.
Most were Mat-Su high schoolers, decked out in brightly colored spandex racing suits. While the race was unofficial, coaches in the area hope more races will come. Strabel said Alaska's limited winter daylight can be a challenge for high school cross-country skiers, Strabel said.
For years, skiers in Southcentral have had to drive 10 miles up the steep and sometimes treacherous Hatcher Pass road toward Independence Mine, to access ski trails. It's a vital area for nordic skiers in the region looking for groomed trails that open earlier than most others. In years when snow in Anchorage or in the Mat-Su at lower elevations is lacking, Hatcher Pass is often the only place to train.
Dave Musgrave coaches the Mat-Su Junior Nordic Club for children ages 4 to 14. He said it can be difficult to find places to ski, especially for young athletes just learning to ski. Other trail systems, like Crevasse-Morraine near Palmer, are full off steep, rolling hills that can be too challenging for novices. Skiing on backcountry trails in Hatcher Pass means sometimes encountering fast moving snowmachines. So an area like the Government Peak is a blessing, he said.
Strabel noted high schoolers, who may be in charge of driving other students to practice, would no longer have to "risk their lives" driving up the treacherous road up to Independence Mine for a ski workout.
Trails are just the beginning for the recreation area.
The borough is requesting $4 million from the state to continue work on phase two of the project, which will help cover the cost of extending the access road, improving trails, installing trail lights and completing a stadium for mass starts and competitions.
"This isn't for me," Strabel said. "It's for the community."
In the spring, construction will start on a $800,000 chalet at the site, which will serve as community and transit center. Colver said the Federal Transit Authority funds require a mass transit component, so the chalet will become a bus stop for the valley MASCOT buses.
Another benefit to the chalet besides stunning views of the Chugach Mountains? Flushing toilets, a rare commodity at most Alaska ski trails, and something 82-year-old Woodings particularly supports.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com