And The Winner Is….

FasterSkierApril 2, 2003

It was August 31st in New England. The nights were starting to get cool and
the first leaves were beginning to turn light shades of orange and yellow. If
Linda and I were going to be living in XC Town USA by the first snowfall, we
had a lot to do in about two months.

First we had to decide which town would come out on top in our extensive search.
Being the computer geek that I am, I had come up with a spreadsheet of all the
potential towns, and ranked them according to criteria such as trails, snowfall,
jobs, cost of living, culture, mountains, and water. There were about twenty
towns on this list, and I am pretty sure we could have been happy in all of
them. We really liked Hanover, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont but we
weren't sure we were ready to move back east just yet. We knew that living in
Tahoe, Sun Valley, or Bozeman or Bend would be a lot of fun, but after six years
in Park City, I wanted a place that wasn't so similar to Utah. We liked Portland
and Bellingham, but they were just a bit too far to the snow for me. And as
much as I would love to spend every day skiing at a place like the Methow Valley
or Jackson New Hampshire, I think I will need a job sooner or later (much sooner
than later).

We were discussing our options and our impending decision as we drove to Boothbay
Harbor, Maine for a September 1st wedding of a good friend of mine. This particular
friend grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and is very well connected in the Alaska
ski community. Thus, there were a lot of cross country skiers from Anchorage
who made the trans-continental flight for this wedding.

As you may have noticed from early XC Town articles, Anchorage was one of our
favorite locations right from the start, but we never really discussed it, much
less visited it on our trip. This was because it was simply too far to go. Both
Linda and I were well aware of Anchorage's wealth of options for skiing and
outdoor adventure. Linda's sister and family lived in Anchorage for three years
and Linda visited often. I made numerous stops in Anchorage during early season
training camps. We knew that it had most of what we were looking for, but we
were reluctant to pack up and move because it costs a fortune to move to Alaska.
In fact, I think the whole purpose of our summer-long road trip was to find
a place with all the skiing amenities of Anchorage in the lower 48.

As our trip neared its conclusion, we hadn't found "The Place" yet,
but we still weren't really thinking of going to Alaska. It had been so long
since we even discussed Anchorage, that I think both Linda and I had counted
it out based on geography alone. Until we got to the wedding.

Right from the start of the wedding weekend we were introduced to many skier
from Anchorage. In the course of every conversation, the question would come
up – "So where do you live?" This would inevitably lead to my 30 second
recap of our search for a new home and our criteria, which was always followed
by the other person saying, "You should come to Alaska!" Everyone
was so enthusiastic and so positive about Anchorage, that we were forced to
deal with some positive feelings of our own that we had been repressing because
of the costs involved.

On our drive home after the wedding, Linda and I talked, for the first time
seriously about making the move. The Alaskans at the wedding had reminded us
of all the reason we wanted to go there.

Anchorage is the only town of its size in the US to have a World Class ski
facility (Kincaid Park) within the city limits. Not only that but there are
also two more groomed ski trail networks in town (Hillside trails and Russian
Jack). What makes it even better is that there is a network of multi-use trails
that allow you to ski from one area to another. Through a network of bike paths,
ski bridges and tunnels, you can ski from Hillside, nestled at the foothills
of the Chugach mountains all the way clear across town to Kincaid Park on the
ocean's edge. This is essentially the route the Tour Of Anchorage ski race takes.
And when the snow melts away, these trails are all great for running and biking,
while the bike paths allow you to rollerski right through town while being surrounded
by woods and never crossing a road. You are almost as likely to see a moose,
or possibly even a bear, as you are another person when you use the running
and biking trails.

Me skiing at Kincaid in 2001

And if you are looking for outdoor adventure, Alaska has everything you can
imagine. I started to write about all the things you can do in the wilds of
Alaska, like kayak Prince William Sound, backpack through the wilderness, backcountry
ski in the Chugach, but my head almost exploded from all the options. So suffice
it to say that if it is an outdoor adventure – you can do it in Alaska, probably
more so than anyplace else.

The Anchorage Nordic Ski Association is probably the largest and most influential
local ski club in the country. They organize races, tours, the Ski Train (I
could do a whole article just on the Ski Train). You can get in a full season
of ski racing without leaving the city limits. There are numerous training groups
for skiers of all ages and abilities, such as the APU Nordic Ski Club, the Alaska
WinterStars, Muni Masters, and more.

Anchorage still has its faults. It is still a city of 250,000 people and it
has crime and traffic problems as such. A lot of the city was built in the ten
to fifteen years after the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. The seventies were
not a particularly memorable time for development, unless you like urban sprawl
and shag carpet. I think the city lacks zoning regulations and has too many
strip malls. And unless you dream of the day you can fill up your F350 pickup
with fuel drilled from ANWR and drive over former National Forest Wilderness
that is now developed on your way to Juneau, all while complaining that the
Rush Limbaugh guy on the radio is too liberal, you might find the political
climate a tad conservative.

But the thing about Anchorage, is that it is so easy to escape the city. There
are parks and trails all over town. The whole town is an amazing dichotomy of
urban sprawl and forest trails. I heard someone say recently that everyone in
Anchorage thinks that they live in the best part of town because of how close
they are to trails, parks, and wilderness. I would be willing to bet that no
where in town are you more than 5 minutes from a ski trail. That is pretty cool.
From downtown, you are within a 30 minute drive of a number of hiking trails
that can take you deep into the Chugach National Forest where you can get lost
for days if you so desire. It doesn't take long to leave the city behind.

So by now Linda and I had worked ourselves into a frenzy with thoughts of setting
out for Alaska. When we got home, we researched the drive on the Alaska-Canada
Highway. We researched the Alaska Ferry system. We found that if we waited until
October 15th to take the ferry from Bellingham Washington to Haines Alaska,
we could do the whole trip for about half what we originally thought it would
cost (thanks to off-season rates). We could get both our cars, stuffed with
all our belongings, and ourselves onto the ferry for about $1500. That clinched
it. We were moving to Anchorage, Alaska.

I am sure that doesn't come as a surprise to many of you. I have posted many
articles on this site during the winter that essentially gave away my location.
But for those who hadn't already guess, Anchorage, Alaska is my XC Town USA.
Anchorage had everything I was looking for at this point in my life. But my
XC Town USA will not be the same as the best XC Town for many of you. As skiers
we all desire a lot of the same things, but as people we also have a lot of
different needs and wants. If I was wealthy and retired, my XC Town would probably
Jackson New Hampshire or Winthrop Washington. If I was in high school and looking
at colleges it would be Hanover New Hampshire or Marquette Michigan. And if
I had died and gone to heaven it would be all these places rolled into one.
Its is more fun to have a lot of different ski venues, each with their own style
and culture, than to have one that is clearly the best. Besides, if we all agreed
on "the one" XC Town USA, we'd all end up living there and you'd almost
never get first tracks.

Epilogue – Six Months Later
You know the irony in all of this don't you? I spent three months looking for
the perfect ski town, and I could have moved anywhere. And I picked Anchorage
– which then went right ahead and had its worst winter in at least 30 years.
Hardly any snow, bare ground for much of the winter. Many of the biggest races
were cancelled. And I was here while many other places enjoyed great winters.

In some ways I guess I had that coming. In all of my research on ski towns,
I forgot that Mother Nature always has the last word in where the best place
to ski is.

I'll admit that this winter was pretty tough for me. We arrive in Alaska in
late October, which is when snow usually arrives. But snow did not come until
mid-December , two months late. Then at the end of January, just as the season
was returning to normal, it started raining and wiped out all the snow in town.
Winter in Anchorage lasted for exactly six weeks this winter. So all of you
who believe that I missed XC Town USA by overlooking your favorite spot can
find a bit of satisfaction in my misfortune.

But having said that, I think it speaks volumes for the the ski community in
Anchorage that even with a miserable winter, there were great ski trails somewhere
nearby from late October through the end of March (and counting!). Early season,
the APU Nordic Ski Center groomed trails at Hatcher Pass, an hour and twenty
minutes from downtown. The was the only thing that kept us all sane from late
October until snow fell in town on December 10th. Then, when the snow in town
melted at the end of January, APU and the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club arranged
for a 14K track to be groomed up at Glen Alps, a 30 minute drive from downtown.
The skiing at Glen Alps is all we have had since the middle of February, but
it has been beautiful (with the unfortunate exception of the week that Masters
Nationals were held there and the winds and snow were howling). Today (April
1st) I classic skied under the sunshine in beautiful, hard tracks on Extra Blue
hard wax. Not too many places in the country that still have those conditions.
Every place will have a bad winter sooner or later, and very few of those places
will have decent skiing like Anchorage even in the worst of winters.

And not to be underestimated, Anchorage also has what might be my favorite
spot, on any ski trail anywhere. From the high point of the Andrew Lekisch Loop
at Kincaid Park, you have a beautiful 360 degree view of all that makes Alaska
great. On three sides you are surrounded by the Ocean with Knik Arm to to the
north and Turnagain Arm to the south. Across Turnagain Arm you can see the wilderness
of the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Refuge. Across Knik Arm to the north, on a clear
day you can see Mount McKinley (Denali – highest peak in North America) and
the spectacular Alaska Mountain Range. To the east is the city. Beyond the city
you can see the trails of Hillside Ski area, and above that the Chugach Mountains
rise abruptly from the Anchorage Basin. And below, you get a great view of the
world class trails of Kincaid. This is one of the few spots on any trail that
I always stop at. Not to mention that when you leave this spot you immediately
head down a screamer downhill with some fun, tight turns. In my book, this spot
is rivaled by few others on any ski trail anywhere, possibly the view of Mount
Washington from the Dark Forest Trail at Bretton Woods, or the view of the Tahoe
area from Tahoe/Donner Ski Area, but that's about it.

Me crust skiing at Eklutna Lake, Feb 2003

Skiers on the NSAA Ski Train Trip, March 8 2003. A train takes you to the middle
of nowhere, you ski all day, then party on the train ride home.

Me skiing on the Ski Train Trip

The Final List
So to wrap it all up here is my personal ranking of all the towns we visited
on our trip. I ranked them according to trails, snowfall, jobs, cost of living,
culture, mountains, and water (lakes, rivers, etc), and a couple of other variables
on a scale of 1 to 10. This is how it all shook down. And remember that these
are the cream of the crop, so being the last town on this list is still very
good. The ranking are completely based on my opinion and all ties were broken
by my personal preference. And the rankings are constantly changing from day
to day. This is how they stand today.

1 Anchorage,
2 Methow Valley, Washington 8.5
3 Mt. Washington Valley,
4 Burlington, VT 8
5 Bend, Oregon 8
6 Tahoe, California 8
7 Lake Placid, New York 8
8 Hanover, New Hampshire 7.5
9 Sun Valley, ID 7.5
10 Bozeman, MT 7.5
11 Marquette, Michigan 7.5
12 Jackson, WY 7
13 Hood River, Oregon 7
14 Salt Lake/Park City,
15 Hayward, Wisconsin 7
16 Steamboat, Colorado 7
17 Duluth, Minnesota 7
18 Crested Butte, CO 7
19 Minneapolis, Minnesota 6.5
20 Bellingham, Washington 6.5
21 McCall, Idaho 6.5
22 Fairbanks, Alaska 6.5
23 Boise, Idaho 6
24 Portland, Oregon 6
25 Seattle, Washington 6

Final footnote: A month or so ago, a skier in our training group here in Anchorage
pointed out another website to me that was astonishingly similar to my Search
For XC Town USA. This guy, who also ranks a bunch of his favorite towns, calls
himself 'the Dus' and he is really into windsurfing. But he is also into skiing,
biking and running and many of the places and the rankings are very similar.
is worth a look.


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