Diehard skiers milk the season's last runs

Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004

FAIRBANKS They are the Nordic farmers of Fairbanks, trying to milk every ounce out of winter and spring that they can before surrendering to that wretched, godforsaken, snowless season known as summer.

''Squeezing in the last little bit,'' said Tom Dolan, as he rounded a corner to exit the Outhouse Loop and prepared to head onto the Tower Loop on the ski trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area.

As he headed into the woods, the sound of his skis scraping on the ice-encrusted snow could be heard through the birch trees, like an ice scraper on a windshield but with a smoother rhythm. It was 7 p.m., the sun was shining bright, it was 40 degrees and the ski trails at Birch Hill were as empty as the streets of a ghost town.

While most people put their skis away for the season a week or two ago, there are still a few die-hards out there who refuse to acknowledge that the cross-country ski season may be starting to wind down.

Don't let the dry pavement, standing water and mud around town fool you, there is still plenty of snow in the woods to ski on and there are still plenty of skiers like Dolan willing to ski on it, no matter how thin, rotten, dirty, icy, crusty, hard or soft it is.

Susan Sugai and Laura Jacobs were at Birch Hill recently, squeezing the last drops out of the blink of an eye that Fairbanksans know as spring.

''I'm one of the few people I know that mourns springtime,'' said Sugai, a 54-year-old oceanography researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. ''I like to go out knowing there's no more snow left.''

The latest she has ever skied at Birch Hill is May 1, but that might be pushing it this year, she says, given the recent warm weather that took its toll on trails. That said, if there's any snow left up at Birch Hill on May 1, you'll know where to find Sugai.

''On my last skis up here I usually have to take my skis off a couple of times,'' she said, wearing only a cotton long-sleeve shirt, sunglasses and Lycra ski pants.

Skiing in April has its advantages in Fairbanks. For one thing, it's a lot warmer than December or January.

''Your water bottle doesn't freeze,'' said Sugai, taking a swig from a bright blue Nalgene bottle.

But probably the most appealing thing about spring skiing is the glide skiers get on snow that melts and refreezes each day and night. In the morning, when it is still frozen, it is akin to ice skating on skis. The snow is just soft enough to offer an edge for skiers to push off. Conditions at this time of year can be such that skiers are able to do things they never thought possible.

''Now is the time we can do all those things they do in those World Cup videos we watch,'' said Sugai with a laugh.

There are some hazards involved with spring skiing in Fairbanks that should be mentioned for safety reasons, however. Every now and then you run into a puddle that has formed and frozen over, which makes things interesting if that puddle happens to be located at the bottom of a steep hill or in the middle of a sharp turn.

''If you know where those places are it's OK,'' said Sugai. ''You just have to be prepared for anything.''

That includes summer, but don't tell that to Sugai and the rest of the Nordic farmers of Fairbanks. They'll find out soon enough.

Tim Mowry is a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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