Skyview High School as we know it may be gone, but the adjacent Tsalteshi Trails are still thriving.
The trail system is experiencing a boom with a growing community of active runners and bikers in the summer and cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter.
With over 15.5 miles of trails, local athletes and weekend warriors are taking advantage of an increasing number of events to showcase their skills and enjoy good competition. The trails have been there since 1990, but the difference now is how many members of the community are taking advantage of them not just in the winter, but in the summer as well.
“I always ran around town in the summers in high school, but the trails weren’t really here,” said Rex Shields, 25, winner of Wednesday night’s Salmon Run Series 5K. “The last five years have been huge here, and it’s nice to have them.”
Shields is perfect in road and trail races this summer, winning all five that he has entered, including three of the four Salmon Run Series races. The final race of the series is this Wednesday.
Shields was born in Soldotna but was raised in Utah, where he ran track at Brigham Young University. Every summer, Shields returns to Alaska and regularly contends in races.
“Trail running is fun. It’s fun to just get back there and run,” he said.
In its third year of existence, the Salmon Run Series has seen exponential growth since Kenai Central senior Allie Ostrander came up with the idea her freshman year. It began as her Caring For the Kenai project, which challenges Kenai freshmen with the question, “What can I do, invent or create to better care for the environment of the Kenai Peninsula or help prepare for a natural disaster?”
After seeing initial attendance figures of 50 or lower, the series brought out 150 runners Wednesday evening.
“I never thought I’d see it this big,” said Paul Ostrander, Allie’s father. “We had, like, 50 people the first time, and now it’s over 100, both last year and this year.”
Perhaps the best way to gauge the success of an event is not just the pure number of competitors, but the number of competitors that have never run a 5K before and would otherwise have no motivation to get out and sign up for races.
Dan Pascucci, 35, is a Kenai Watershed Forum employee, and said this is the second year for he and wife Amy, 36, competing in the races.
“The year before that, I laughed at everyone doing it,” Pascucci said. “Why would you spend a Wednesday night running a 5K? Then I did it, and I realized that it’s so much fun to see everyone come out and know you can run 5K.
“It’s a good way to make sure we get out and do it,” Amy added.
The Pascuccis acknowledged that one of the perks of the series is the variety of courses. Each of the five races tasks racers with a different course layout.
“It’s nice to see the diversity,” Dan said. “All levels represented, and it’s not super competitive, it’s very friendly, you say, ‘Hi,’ to people you haven’t seen in a long time on the trail.”
In addition to the Salmon Run series, the Salmon Cycle series has also taken off in popularity, drawing 43 riders Thursday.
Mike Crawford, board member of the Tsalteshi Trails Association, said the increase in events and usage of the trails is exactly what he envisioned when he joined the board.
“We basically had three community events; the Everything But the Red Run, the Ski for Women, and Spook Night in October,” Crawford said. “Now we have about 24 events year-round.”
Included on the list is the Caveman 5K — a race in which footwear is optional — the Relay for Life 5K, the PsychoCross bike race, and the Fountain of Youth 5K, a race scheduled for Aug. 13 that features a staggered start seeded by age and gender.
“That’s what the organization is for,” Crawford continued. “We have a lot of race experience.”
The experience that Crawford has for organizing intriguing and popular events has no doubt been a factor in Tsalteshi’s boom in popularity, which is also impressive considering the various weather conditions that the first half of 2014 brought.
“This year was a difficult season early on, with poor snow conditions and then the smoke, but we’ve subsequently had some good runs,” he said.
Jordan Theisen, a racer on the Kenai Central cross-country running and track teams, teamed up with Allie Ostrander in the week leading up to the fourth race of the Salmon Run Series to form a summer running camp for up-and-coming runners ages 7 to 11. Starting July 24, the group met every morning at the Skyview track, and utilized the trails to introduce new runners to the sport and expand on experienced runners’ repertoire.
With six practices in a seven-day span leading up to Wednesday night’s race, Theisen and Ostrander led a group of at least 30 kids, many of whom were new to the Tsalteshi Trails, and in the kids 1K race, a crowd of enthusiastic faces took off into the woods with Theisen in tow.
Theisen said when he and Ostrander were organizing the camp, the question of a venue never came up.
“We really didn’t need to talk about where we wanted to go, it was pretty obvious,” Theisen said. “Where else are we gonna take 30 kids?
“We knew it was gonna be Tsalteshi, it was just about which entrance to meet at. The Skyview entrance was the most well known.”
Theisen, like Ostrander and Shields, is a regular contender for overall victories in summertime races, and so his and Ostrander’s visibility in the community was a natural quality to have in leading a group of future athletes. His involvement in hosting the camp on the trails only served to heighten the appeal of trail running.
“There’s really nowhere else we could’ve done it,” Theisen said. “These are just fantastic trails.”
Theisen applauded the effort of Tsalteshi head trail groomer Bill Holt, who has put in countless hours of work on the trails over the years, both in summer and winter seasons.
“Bill Holt should be super proud of this, and I feel really happy for him,” Theisen said. “It’s really cool that people are getting into this stuff, and it makes me feel kind of special to take part in it because I know I’m helping him out. He works really hard, and the more attention we bring to it, the better.”