University employee keeps ski trails in top condition
By SAM FRIEDMAN
Mar. 03, 2018
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Jason Garron knows the University of Alaska Fairbanks ski trails about as well as anyone, but he hardly ever skis there.
For the past 11 years, Garron has been the trail manager for the campus's 26-mile ski trail system. He heads out on a snow machine at 6:30 a.m. most days to pack down a trail and set ski tracks in time for the morning commute skiers and the lunchtime ski rush. He grooms on weekends when snow is at least 2 inches deep.
This past week, the job has required as much chainsawing and pole-sawing as snowmachining, as Garron cleared a path through the many snow-loaded, downed trees.
During a lunch break in the maintenance garage just off the trails, Garron laughed when asked whether he ever goes skiing on the trails he grooms. During the winter grooming season he's too busy to ski much, although he does get out skijoring when he can with his dog on the trails near his home in Goldstream Valley.
"I would love to ski more," he said. "I literally don't have time."
But that's OK, he said. Garron enjoys his time driving the university's 1,600-pound Alpina Sherpa dual-track snow machine.
"I just can't stand being inside," he said. "It's claustrophobic stale air. It's just nicer outside. I get to see the sun rise every morning."
Garron always knew he wanted a career outdoors. He's been a park ranger in Maine, an ice climbing guide and a science field technician.
Originally from Bridgton, Maine, Garron has been grooming trails since he was on his high school ski team. Before practice, it was the students' responsibility to groom the trails they would ski on.
Garron now has a daughter in high school and a son in elementary school. His daughter isn't a big cross country skier, but his son frequently uses the UAF trails as part of the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks Junior Nordics program.
Garron came to Alaska for three reasons: the wilderness, the affordable land and the university.
In the winter, before he had children and before he became trail manager, Garron enjoyed mountaineering in the Alaska Range. Although he doesn't have time for long winter trips now, he'd like to one day try the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic.
Unlike the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks trail crew across town at the Birch Hill Recreation Area, the University of Alaska trail crew is a one-man operation. Although he has a big inventory of trails to maintain, Garron said he's glad he doesn't have the heavy load of ski race setups that the Birch Hill trail groomers have.
When he started, Garron learned some of the eccentricities of grooming in Fairbanks' sugar-like snow conditions from longtime Birch Hill groomer Tom Helmers. He uses Helmers' specialized trail-setting equipment because it compacts dry snow better than factory-built track setters do.
In the slower summer months, Garron cuts down weeds and mows the trails. He's worked to expand the Big Whizzy loop and reroute the Skarland 6-mile trail. One of his next big projects is dealing with a persistent line of permafrost holes that opened on Potato Field, down into the Midnight Express loop.
Garron started grooming at UAF with a pair of Yamaha Viking Pro machines. Four years ago, Garron's job got significantly easier when the university purchased the big Sherpa machine.
In addition to being wider, the bigger machine grooms better because it packs the snow well and has the power to pull weighted groomer trailers without overheating. But this week, Garron is on the old Yamaha machines while the Sherpa gets a front bearing worked on.
If groups of skiers see him on the trail, Garron said he appreciates it if they all pick the same side of the trail to move to so he can get by more easily.
After he's done grooming, Garron posts an update on trail conditions on the Facebook page facebook.com/UafNorthCampus, and on the UAF website at bit.ly/2ETjJdZ.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com