A bright morning moon greeted Wayne Carnes Tuesday as he loaded gas cans onto a sled and prepared to groom the Pioneer Road trial on North Douglas.
Carnes is one of about 40 volunteers from the Juneau Nordic Ski Club who groom several local trails from first snow to last, laying down a corduroy pattern on hard-packed snow that opens up mountains of winter recreational opportunities to local enthusiasts.
Carnes pointed to ski tracks and footprints along the trail as signs of heavy use from the day before. He said the trail is popular with local skiers, fat tire bike riders, and dog walkers and often sees a few hundred people over the weekend or on a holiday, like Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
He said that many people don’t realize volunteers are behind many of the groomed trails available throughout Juneau.
“We aren’t like a lot of places with Nordic facilities. We move around town and we have different climatic conditions,” said Frankie Pillifant, president of the Juneau Nordic Ski Club, adding that the “snow hole” at Montana Creek is a favorite for members.
Pillifant said that ample winter recreation opportunities and Juneau’s unique climatic conditions are part of the reason skiing is so popular in the area.
“Skiing is another way to get out and enjoy living in Juneau during a time of year that can be hard,” Pillifant said.
Pillifant said that the snow reflects the light, and the atmospheric pressure changes lift spirits.
“We are having a stunning winter this year,” she said in a Wednesday morning call with the Empire, clarifying that Nordic Skiing is a type of cross country skiing but distinguishable by the use of a groomed trail rather than skiing on open snowfields.
The distinction is a crucial element for the club, which grooms several local trails an average of over 100 days per season, using two snow machines, two rollers, two ginzu groomers/track setters, and older backup equipment, as needed. Pillifant said volunteers with shovels also pitch in to clear parking lots and trail entryways.
Sometimes grooming includes tree removal. In early fall, the club removed 47 trees from the Montana Creek area to clear paths for the winter.
Pillifant said that the club includes about 1,000 paying members and serves even more people who enjoy the trails.
“We are happy to see the smiles on the trails and we hope that translates into a membership,” she said.
Pillifant said that 80% of the club’s budget goes to grooming efforts — a cost kept down thanks to a stable of volunteers, like Carnes, who invest up to 30 hours a week in grooming activities.
Building the future
In addition to grooming trails for use, the Nordic Ski Club is also focused on creating a new generation of skiers.
According to Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, who is involved with the youth programs, the Nordic Ski Club offers popular options for students from elementary through high school.
“We’ve doubled our program in the last year,” Knutson-Lombardo said. “It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Knutson-Lombardo said that the club now serves 110 youth skiers–the largest cohort to date.
“We have an amazing crew of over 25 coaches, and that’s really what makes our program run,” he said in a Tuesday call with the Empire. “They are there in the dark and when it’s raining with headlamps on and they are bringing the fun and energy.”
Knutson-Lombardo said that the club serves skiers of all abilities and that the pandemic accelerated growth as families looked for safe ways to get kids active outside.
He said the club’s commitment to helping new youth skiers find high-quality gear through a rental system is one of the keys to the program’s success.
“What’s really cool is that we are a little different from other clubs in that we provide gear rental,” Knutson-Lombardo said. “We also are really set that you don’t have to be a skier before to come out and join us.”
He said that skiers in the middle school and high school groups enjoy opportunities to travel to ski events around the state and benefit from experts the club brings to town. This weekend, former Olympic biathlete Maddie Phaneuf will visit Juneau to coach skiers and provide insight, he said.
In addition to programming for kids, Pillifant is organizing three events aimed at women this winter. She said the events offer a chance for women to learn more about the sport and get coaching to help them grow their skill set.
Pillifant pointed out that skiing is a desirable activity for families because they can get outside together and do something in a short window but still have time for other clubs and personal plans.
Pillifant said as the club and popularity of the sport grows, members are focused on identifying new places to ski.
“We see some amazing opportunities that have not yet been addressed,” Pillifant said, adding that the club has created a “bold plan” outlining a future for Nordic Skiing in Juneau.
“We need more kilometers and better planning for the future,” she said. “Climate change means we need to get up higher. Ample winter recreation is one of the many reasons people love living in Juneau.”
Know & Go
Visit jnski.org to join the Juneau Nordic Ski Club or learn more about upcoming races and events, including the club’s inaugural Romeo Race to remember the local wolf that often interacted with dogs, hikers and skiers near Mendenhall Glacier.
Also, there’s still time to register for the club’s Ski O’Caching event, a cross between geocaching and orienteering, using cross country skis, to find clues posted near a groomed trail.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-308-4891.