There aren’t many people better positioned to tell the story of the growth and expansion of cross-country skiing in Anchorage than Alice Tower Knapp.
Knapp, who was born and raised in Anchorage, has been there since the beginning and skiing on the city’s trails since her youth.
Her recently released book “On Track!” covers the establishment of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage and the development of miles of trails over the past half century. It also profiles the people who over the last 60 years propelled the sport to its current state.
Knapp had the institutional knowledge to undertake the massive project. Her parents were pioneers of the Nordic Ski Club, the precursor to NSAA. She was a former co-president and had even met her husband on the club’s annual Ski Train. And as a retired school librarian, she finally had the time. Knapp thought the project could be relatively short, potentially a pamphlet or even an article.
So in 2020, she headed to the club offices and grabbed every box of miscellaneous material and old newsletters she could find, and brought them up to her cabin in Talkeetna.
After six weeks, Knapp had established a roadmap. But the more info she compiled, the bigger the project became.
“I can’t write the history without telling you about the people,” she said. “I can’t write about the people without telling about all the things that they’ve done for the town. I can’t talk about the people and all that the club has done without talking about the trails and how they got developed. And, wow, I can’t really talk about all that without talking about where the club is now and where it’s going. And so all of a sudden, it wasn’t an article. It was the outline for a book.”
And the book delves deeply into each of those topics. There’s more than 40 pages of club history, from the race in early January 1964 that provided the origin for the club to the expansion of trails throughout Anchorage. There’s also a section on favorite club events like the Ski Train and mini-biographies on some of the people that helped make Nordic skiing a huge part of Anchorage’s outdoor identity.
That includes club pioneers like Don and Marion Richter and Olympians like Nina Kemppel and Dick Mize, for whom the famed Mize Loop at Kincaid Park is named.
“The bulk of the efforts over the years have been volunteer and it’s just people with an idea and drive and energy and blood, sweat and tears,” Knapp said. “In many ways this book is a tribute to them.”
One of the biggest challenges of the book was documenting the various developments to the city’s trail system that the ski association has been responsible for over the decades.
The association currently grooms and maintains over 165 kilometers of trails in Anchorage and has been the animating force for developing projects like the Tudor Road Bridge near Alaska Native Medical Center.
“Amongst the Nordic community worldwide, Anchorage is known,” Knapp said. “We’ve hosted international races and it’s especially well known as an urban environment (for skiing). To be able to ski from from Kincaid all the way up to Hillside without crossing the road is pretty amazing, and on groomed trails no less.”
Knapp applied for and received both a Rasmuson Foundation grant and an Atwood Foundation grant to help complete the project. That helped pay for publishing, design and an editor in John Wolfe Jr., who had recently worked with his daughter Rebecca Wolfe to update the classic outdoors guidebook “Alaska Adventure 55 Ways.” As someone who is a skier but not an expert racer, Knapp said Wolfe was good at emphasizing clarity for potential readers.
“He was ruthless,” Knapp said. “We spent all summer in the editing phase ... He was OK with most of my writing, which was gratifying. But the details, if it didn’t make sense to him, he made me track it down and work it out.”
Any sales for the book will be used to set up an archive and ski museum. Initially, that will be at the NSAA offices on Jewel Lake Road. But Knapp hopes to be have a larger presentation at Kincaid and eventually an establishment of a winter activities recreation center that could house the items plus be a headquarters for Anchorage’s many winter pastimes.
Knapp said the book and any subsequent public displays will primarily serve to maintain awareness of the history for future generations of skiers.
“My goal is to get the book out to as many people as possible because I want them to learn about all that has happened here,” she said.
Knapp will be presenting for the Cook Inlet Historical Society on April 20 at 7 p.m.