How an Anchorage ski organization keeps 100 miles of local trails open and free for all users

SPONSORED: “The Nordic Skiing Association is woven into the fabric of recreation in Anchorage,” said Kikkan Randall, five-time Olympian and executive director of the nonprofit.

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

Even after decades of competitive racing, Nordic skiing still feels like play to Kikkan Randall.

“I love the sensation of gliding,” Randall said. “I still ski up the hills so I can ski down them. The more I go up the hill, the more jumps I get to do.”

The five-time Olympian came to know and love that sense of play as a kid thanks to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. Now, as the nonprofit’s executive director, she helps Alaskan youth make those same discoveries in the flurry of club-sponsored ski races and Junior Nordic programs that take place each winter.

“Kids put on skis for the first time, and they just instinctively know how to play,” she said. “They’re not self-conscious.”

Though Randall’s passion for skiing has stayed constant, today she has a new perspective about what it takes to support a thriving community sports organization, from countless hours worked by indefatigable volunteers to financial support from corporate partners.

“I think a lot of people don’t have a full awareness for all the work that goes into providing such great trails, programs and events,” Randall said. “The Nordic Skiing Association is so woven into the fabric of recreation in Anchorage.”

Life in a winter city: ‘so special’

Anchorage has become a hot spot of Nordic skiing in North America, growing future Olympians and supporting a high quality of life during the six months the city is buried in snow.

“We’re known as a winter recreation city. Much of that is due to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage,” said Alice Tower Knapp, a lifelong Anchorage skier and author of “On Track!” which explores the organization’s 60-year history.

Marley Ireland said skiing is her favorite way to clear her head. She’s a senior at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School and a member of the school’s ski team.

“To have the opportunity to ski here on so many good trails, in such a great community, is really special,” she said.

She enjoys skiing with teammates and by herself, on the Hillside trails and the Tour Trail, especially.

But she also loves to compete. Ireland has skied in nearly every Nordic Skiing Association event and program, from Ski Train and Junior Nordic to the Tour of Anchorage.

Ireland said she still gets nervous before every race. Thankfully, volunteers with the Nordic Skiing Association are always out on the course putting finishing touches on the track, checking in with racers and wishing them good luck.

“They work really hard to put on events, by grooming (the trails) all night and setting up,” Ireland said. “I’m really grateful for their work.”

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. And the club is always looking for more people to join.

Knapp, whose book “On Track!” was published in November, said the group would love to see a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts join, with the same excited spirit that electrified the club’s founders nearly 60 years ago.

A neighborhood race becomes a legacy

In January 1964, the State of Alaska was celebrating its fifth birthday. The devastating Good Friday earthquake was right around the corner. And Sewell “Stumpy” Faulkner held the first ski race — the beginning of a long legacy — in his yard in Bootleggers Cove. More than 100 people participated.

Three days later, Faulkner was one of 40 founding members of a ski club that would go on to become the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. Today, the organization has 4,000 members.

Alice Knapp’s mother, Elizabeth “Betsy” Tower, won the women’s race that day in Faulkner’s front yard. She grew up surrounded by active club members. She’s also a past board president; today, her daughter, Elizabeth, serves on the board, too.

As Knapp dove into the club’s history for the book, she gained an appreciation for the monumental efforts of the club’s members to develop Anchorage’s trails, brought together by a shared passion for the sport and a desire to see it grow in the young city.

Local ski legends like Dick Mize supported the growth of trails that skiers today know and love, first in the Russian Jack Park and later at Kincaid Park and Hillside.

“Every ski and bike trail in Anchorage has its roots in the Nordic Skiing Association,” Knapp said. “Early on, people would decide they needed a trail and would start building it — not always with permission.”

For a stretch in the 1970s and 80s, the city of Anchorage took over trail grooming from the club. That changed after voters passed a municipal tax cap. Funding for trail grooming was removed and the responsibility returned to the hands of the ski association.

Nearly 60 years later, the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage grooms roughly 100 miles (160 kilometers) of trails in Anchorage, Eagle River and Chugiak, and runs popular programs and races like the biathlon and annual Tour of Anchorage — which overlaps with part of the trail “Stumpy” Faulkner set in South Addition in 1964.

Safe and free trail access for all: Who makes it happen?

The work doesn’t stop when the snow melts. Volunteers and organization staff spend the off-season grading trails and clearing trees, getting ready for winter.

The workload is immense. The ski association places crucial emphasis on keeping trail access safe and free for all users.

“In most other places in the country, you’d be paying upwards of $25 a day to ski,” Randall said, “and you’d be having someone stop you and check your pass. In Anchorage, it’s really about the collective enthusiasm.”

Chris Seaman joined the ski association board a few years ago to give back to the organization that gave him so much as a young skier in Anchorage.

Seaman has been stunned by the volunteer support that goes into bringing the events and programs together.

“When you’re outside, it just sort of seems to happen,” he said.

Seaman is a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips Alaska, which has donated more than $300,000 to the club since 1993. The company has sponsored bibs, promotional items, and ski races, as well as provided grants to execute inclusive, accessible, fun, and memorable community events.

In 2023, ConocoPhillips Alaska provided support for the annual Ski For Women and Ski 4 Kids, both held in February, as well as the Tour of Anchorage in March, Midnight Sun Ski Jump-a-Thon in June, and Solstice Tree Tour in December.

Support from corporate sponsors like ConocoPhillips Alaska is crucial, Knapp said. The ski association has 4,000 members, who also help lift the community through annual dues.

Sponsors such as ConocoPhillips Alaska understand how important it is to develop a high quality of life in Anchorage, Knapp said. Employees like Seaman are volunteers, donors, and trail users.

“A lot of people live here because we have good schools and great recreation, year-round,” Knapp said. “And I think Conoco really values that, as shown by their support in the organization.”

For Knapp and her family, the support truly matters. She can access the club’s trail systems from her backdoor, without crossing a road.

“That’s why we live where we live,” she said.

The ski association has lofty goals for the future, Knapp said. The organization’s popular ski jumping program continues to grow, operating out of facilities at Hillside, where it’s raising money for a new club house. It hopes to help improve trail access in Chugach State Park and to have the ability to make snow on Hillside trails.

“This winter, we’ve been so fortunate to have incredible snow,” Randall said. “But some winters, we don’t.”

A new generation of Alaska athletes unlock a lifetime love of skiing

Randall is also excited to connect more Alaskan skiers with the larger global Nordic system, so they have access to the same competitive opportunities as skiers in other parts of the world.

Before qualifying for nationals and the Olympics, Randall raced in Junior Nordic and as a student at East Anchorage High School.

She said teaching kids to ski when they’re young is crucial, as it’s easier to learn the movements earlier in life and unlock a lifetime love for the sport.

“You can go out and get a great workout, physically and mentally, and it doesn’t even feel like that,” Randall said. “It feels like play.”

As a senior in high school, Ireland said racing in ski association-sponsored events with her team has taught her that having the fastest race times isn’t the most important part of the experience.

“It’s more about the individuals that make it up. All my favorite memories are with my team,” Ireland said. She said one of her biggest goals is to keep skiing after she graduates high school.

Seaman, the board member, has spent time living both in and out of Alaska as an adult. While he’s found opportunities to ski everywhere he’s lived, he said the incredible access in town in Anchorage has fueled his addiction to the sport.

“It’s amazing how you can be super stressed from work or whatever life events are happening, and get on a set of skis. It’s quiet, whether you’re with friends or by yourself, and you can get out there for an hour or two and feel refreshed,” he said.

Now, he’s raising little Nordic skiers of his own.

His kids are two and four. They just did the Ski 4 Kids.

“They loved it,” he said. “We got done with the 1-km race, where you get the cookie and hot chocolate and sandwich at the end, and my four-year-old ate it and said: ‘Dad, can we go skiing some more?’”

Hearing that was music to his ears.

“I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

This story was sponsored by Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage and ConocoPhillips Alaska. The Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage is committed to promoting healthy outdoor activities and lifestyles and protecting Anchorage’s trails for future generations.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.