History of UAF Trails
A Brief History of the UAF Skarland Trail System
The First Eighty Years
A Brief History of the UAF Skarland Trail System: The First Eighty Years
The UAF trails may well be the oldest recreational trail system in the state: the first documented recreational use of the UAF trails was a ski race on campus in the winter of 1923. Although there were probably recreational trails earlier, that is our earliest clear record. Then, during the 1930s, trails were built expressly for skiing all over campus and up Ballaine Hill.
With the exception of the road to the T-Field, the trails on campus were built by skiers. Being able to "step out the back door" and enjoy the trails was once considered a primary asset of life on campus. But history has also shown that the main trailhead—which for many years was where Constitution Hall now stands—has been moved farther and farther away from main campus. This trend begs the question: what will happen to the trails in the next 80 years? If we continue to plan "over" the trails rather than "around" them, what will be left of them?
1923 In her history of the UAF trails entitled Respecting Our Routes, Jane Parrish (1997) noted that, "The first documented ski race on campus occurred in the winter of 1923-24. Students were looking forward to a follow-up race in December, 1924, but postponement of the race until spring disappointed all."
1930 In the 1930s, skiing became an integral part of life on campus. Student Ivar Skarland, a Norwegian with a degree in forestry, entered the college in 1931 and received a degree in 1935 (the year the College's name was changed to the University of Alaska). Skarland brought his Norwegian skiing skills with him and inspired interest in the sport. In 1932, Inge Trigstad, another Scandinavian who shared Skarland's love of the sport, designed a two-mile trail called the Circle Tour "west of campus, over the hill and through the birches to the Experiment Farm." Skarland cleared a difficult four-mile trail from the dormitories (where Constitution Hall is now) to the Farm, north to Smith Lake and back to the dorms. In 1936, Skarland left Fairbanks on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University before returning to UAF as a faculty member.
1936 Regular Sunday races were conducted on the new trails, an official Ski Club was organized in 1936 with over 40 members (out of a campus population of 200), and it quickly became "the most popular organization on campus." Also in that year, Charles Bunnell donated a cabin he owned to the Club. Located to the east of what is now Ballaine Road, this became a social center for the campus with students skiing from the dormitories to the cabin and back at all hours of the day and night. The cabin was later moved to Birch Hill and is still there along the abandoned Luge Run.
1941 The University gave skiing the status of a varsity sport in 1941 and most of the buildings on campus were equipped with ski racks for the many students who commuted to school on skis. According to Equinox cofounder Nat Goodhue, legend had it that the UAF ski team during this time was "the fastest in the country."
Mid-1950s Student Harvey Turner was the unofficial ski coach and he and his team spent many hours making trails. They cleared the 9-mile trail, which began where Constitution Hall now stands, wound through the woods west of Ballaine, and returned. Jim Whisenhant, who later founded Birch Hill Ski Area and started Beaver Sports, was one of Turner's skiers.
According to plant ecologist Les Viereck, "Turner was a great person. It is said that when he finally graduated in the mid-50's, after many years of part time school combined with working, climbing, and ski coaching, the entire faculty [probably about 25-30 in number at that time] rose up and gave him a standing ovation."
1958 The first "official" ski coach, Fred Boyle, was hired. Boyle felt the many existing trails lacked adequate challenge for the team and he introduced greater technical difficulty to old trails and created new ones. He arranged racing routes of differing distances to loop into each other, producing a system that provided many choices in trail length and level of difficulty. Boyle, his team and Ginny Wood linked the trails on the east side of Ballaine to Turner's 9-mile trail. This created a 12-mile trail which would be the course for the popular Skiathon races of the 1970s..
1962 An Olympic alternate skier, Jim Mahaffey, was hired in 1962 as Boyle's replacement and remained until 1967. He added the steep and winding Miller Hill trail to add greater difficulty to the Skarland Trail System. Before Mahaffey laid out the Miller Hill ascent and descent, the original 10 km took a lowland route to Smith Lake.
1963 The First Equinox. Mahaffey and one of his team members, Nat Goodhue, organized and cleared the trail for the first annual Equinox Marathon in the spring and summer of 1963. Goodhue, who as a Trail Planner would later make major contributions to trails throughout Alaska and Vermont, won the race in just under four hours. In one of the early Equinox Marathons, Mary Shields went the entire way with a live pet owl on her shoulder.
1965 Skarland Ski Trail System Named. Following Dr. Skarland's death in 1965, the student body recommended that the trail system be formally named "The Skarland Ski Trail System" in his honor.
1967 Jim Whisenhant started the vernal equinox (skiathon) counterpart to the autumnal Equinox Marathon by the end of the 60's. The last Skiathon that included off-campus trails was held in 1979. It was abandoned because there were too many road crossings and the trails were too narrow to handle the faster skis. Since then, few competitions have been held on campus. However, it was a wonderful, widely publicized community event much like the Equinox Marathon. The Equinox is well-known and supported even by people who will never run the race themselves. The Skiathon was once as well-known and we should consider returning it in some form to its place on campus, even if it uses only on-campus trails.
1970s What are now called the Whizzy Loops were built by Ski Coach Mark Woldseth in the 1970s. When Jim "Whizzy" Whisenhant fell on a particularly steep, sharp turn on one of the loops, the trail was dubbed in his honor.
Late 1970s. The Ski Hut on West Ridge was built with funds from the Fairbanks Kiwanis and Lyons Clubs. Community members and avid skiers Kent Karns and Rick Solie organized a large work party to build it.
According to local journalist Fred Pratt, who was on the ski team at the time, former ski coach Mark Woldseth widened the trails on the West Ridge with a bulldozer in the late 1970s for two reasons. The main reason was that the trails were narrow, tree-lined and crossed by exposed roots, meaning no one could ski on them until late in the season, usually sometime in mid or late December, even when snowfalls were good. During that time, the team skied at the golf course or zoomed back and forth along the road between the top of the West Ridge and the top of the T-Field.
Woldseth thought UAF should take advantage of its extra long season with its opportunity for skiing before the competitive season began. This was more important at the time because roller-skiing was just beginning, and skiers didn't have the opportunity they have now to build and maintain a fitness base with long-distance skiing all summer. Woldseth widened the trails and smoothed the surfaces so that snow would cover the trail earlier. Now skiing starts regularly in mid-October.
The second reason Woldseth widened the trails was to create two parallel tracks. This made passing safer and easier, and it allowed mechanized equipment like snowmachines to set track. Prior to this, all track setting was done by skiers, usually a team of four or five breaking trail and skiing in the track. Wider ski trails became popular throughout the world in the mid-1970s when mechanized track-setting devices came into use. Most of the equipment couldn't fit down the old trails, and wider trails quickly developed into double-track trails.
The trails were not widened for ski skating; the skating technique developed after these changes. Wider trails made skating the more efficient technique, and racers soon adopted it. Trails were widened further to eliminate conflicts between classic and skate skiers, with a lane for classic skiers along one side.
Early 1980s Lights were installed along a loop down the T-field Road to the Potato Field and back (see Map 1).
1982 The Skarland and Equinox Marathon Trails were the first to be dedicated to the public in the Fairbanks North Star Borough's (FNSB) recreational trail program. The FNSB and UAF signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 1980, which provides that UAF "will include preservation of the trail in future campus planning and development." Under the agreement, UAF agreed to protect and preserve the trail, although it reserved the right to relocate the course of the trail if necessary. However, if relocation were required, UAF would provide that the trail tie in with segments presently located on non-University land."
Mid-1980s Wooden skis were quickly being replaced by faster, narrower plastic skis. Plastic ski bases became so fast that skiers could "skate" on them, much like ice skating on very long skates, but the technique required much wider trails for safety at the higher speeds. Ski coach John Estle hired a bulldozer to widen parts of the Six-Mile Trail, changing them from narrow, winding paths to 20-foot and wider corridors.
Changes in speed, equipment, trail width, and clothing caused a rift in the skiing community, sometimes referred to as "the woolies versus the lycras." UAF botanist David Murray said of this debate, "I think people were totally unprepared and then shocked to the core at the initial look of devastation. Some asked why hand clearing was out of the question. Ski Coach John Estle did a good job of explaining and justifying the widening of the trail and the need to take out some of the sharper turns, which at the higher speeds the good skiers achieved became quite dangerous." But, as Parrish put it, "some of the wounds are still healing" from the division caused by the new ski techniques.
1993. Floyd Reishus was Assistant Ski Coach at UAF from 1982 to 1999. His son Karl was a UAF skier, student and Security Guard. He went on to become a police officer in Sitka, but was killed in a tragic police training accident in 1991. When Farmers Loop Road was rebuilt (with a substantial impact on the trails) money was set aside for trails, and the new loop was named after Karl.
1994 The ski trails require "smoothing" every 4-to 5 years to fill in holes and ruts and keep the brush down. Also in that year, the Whizzy Loops were "smoothed" with the standard bulldozer. The dozing was done when the Calypso orchids were blooming and Dr. Pat Holloway of the Botanical Gardens was not happy about it. She had wanted to build a nature trail for many years and this convinced her it was time. She renamed the Little Whizzy the "Calypso Orchid Loop" and made it an interpretive trail. Now many tourists who visit the gardens also enjoy learning about the native vegetation along the Calypso Orchid trail.
The earliest trailhead on campus was located where Constitution Hall sits today. In the 1960s, it was moved west of Patty Center. In the late 1970s, it was moved to the ski hut on west ridge. Completion of the first of the Elvey additions placed the hut very close to the building and once again the trailhead is directly in the path of planned future developments. There may be a need to move the trailhead again.
The days are gone when a student could put on their skis at Constitution Hall and ski a loop of 12 miles or more without having to take their skis off and carry them. Jan Parrish, in her 1997 study of the ski trails, says it best:
"If the trails had been part of an overall plan early on, we would have had an idyllic inter-campus network weaving through the buildings and trees. It is not too late to reclaim some of the old paths. It is certainly feasible to plan new ones. A trail system integrated into future construction projects is something we can give to generations to come.
In order to protect and benefit from the rich history of skiing at UAF, the integrity of the trails must be permanently protected."
In summarizing the history of the trails on campus, it is important to recognize that—with the exception of the road to the T field—the trails were built and have been maintained by skiers (see The Zamboni of the Trails in the next section). The skiers have always shared them with other users for jogging, hiking, biking, and horseback riding in the summer months and for the most part there haven't been any major conflicts between users.
But the Fairbanks population is growing. According to the State Department of Labor, Fairbanks is expected to grow considerably in the next 20 years and with that growth will come increasing pressure to use the trail system. Junior nordic ski lessons for children increased in enrollment from 103 in 1996 to 267 in 1999—an increase of 159%. Likewise, two local vendors of skis report growth in ski sales of 10% per year. In addition, snowshoeing and interest in outdoor sports have increased dramatically. This in addition to the growing interest in nature education and the increase in population spells increasing demand for the trails.
Winters are painfully long for those who try to ignore or escape it. But if one can embrace the season, celebrate its better points, winter is far more enjoyable.
While this plan attempts to provide for non-skiers, it also respects the vision of those early skiers who first saw the need for trails on campus, and had the mettle to build them. It is important to remember that the UAF trails are one of only two groomed ski trail systems in Fairbanks (the other being Birch Hill). As those who built and maintain the ski trails point out, pedestrians can walk almost anywhere, dogs can go almost anywhere, but premium ski areas are very rare. They require a great deal of maintenance on a weekly basis, and the skiers themselves have paid the bulk of that expense. The UAF ski trails—for that is what almost all of them were built for—are truly a monument to their love of the sport and of the season that makes it possible.