Birch Hill Recreation Area

Jim Whisenant Ski Trails

Birch Hill Recreation Area 

The Management Model

Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks –
Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks & Recreation –
US Army Alaska

Birch Hill Recreation Area (BHRA) is the competition venue for the 2023 US Ski & Snowboard Junior National Cross Country Skiing Championships. BHRA is a Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB)-owned facility that is managed jointly by the FNSB Parks and Recreation Department and the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks (NSCF).  In addition to the 200-acre Borough park, the 45Km Birch Hill trail system extends onto adjoining military lands that are part of Fort Wainwright under the US Army Alaska (USARAK).  Recreation on the Fort Wainwright lands is make possible by a joint management agreement between FNSBP&R and USARAK.  Skiing at Birch Hill is free for all users

The FNSB maintains and plows the access roads and parking lots, keeps sidewalks cleared, pays for the heating oil for all the buildings in the park, and covers electrical costs to keep the buildings — and 11Km of trails — lighted.

The NSCF pays for all expenses associated with winter grooming and off-season trail maintenance:  labor (the club has a paid grooming/maintenance staff of five), fuel and equipment service and repairs. NSCF puts away sufficient funds each year to make it possible to purchase replacement equipment when any of the pieces of grooming or maintenance equipment has reached the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced.  All NSCF trails funding is made possible by voluntary donations from NSCF members and other users, local sponsors and grants from private and public entities.

About 17Km of trails are in the 200-acre Borough Park.  Approximately 18Km of skate/classic trails and about 10Km of classic only trails are on the Fort Wainwright lands.  The trails depart from a top-notch stadium which can accommodate all race formats comfortably.

BUILDINGS AND INFRASTRUCTURE

For an overview of the Birch Hill Recreation Area Ski Stadium and infrastructure, watch this drone video taken in February 2022 on the mass start day of the Alaska High School Cross Country Ski Championships.

A number of buildings in the park serve a variety of purposes.  The oldest building in the stadium area is the timing building, constructed in the mid-1980’s in conjunction with the construction of a “naturbahn” luge track, which has mostly disappeared.  This building houses the NSCF’s timing operation in a dedicated timing room overlooking the finish line.  The building includes office space for Fairbanks Cross Country (FXC) the NSCF’s junior race program, as well as storage space for a large quantity of race materials.  The Competition Jury will operate out of the timing building basement during the 2023 Junior Nationals.  FNSBP&R has a plan to replace the timing building within the next few years with a larger building designed specifically to meet the demands of hosting a major competition.

At the north end of the stadium is the Birch Hill Cross Country Ski Center (BHCCSC) , a 10,000+ square foot building with a large assembly space, some waxing space and large restrooms to accommodate race day crowds.  Construction of this building was initiated in 2002 and completed in 2003, just a few weeks prior to the 2003 Junior Nationals. The knowledge that NSCF and Fairbanks were hosting the 2003 Junior Nationals was the major motivating force behind the effort to construct this building.  A combination of federal economic development funding and borough funding paid for the construction.

This building includes a unique elevated walkway which offers great views of skiers coming up the final climb on most of our courses and also views of those same skiers covering the last 100m to the finish.  This is a very popular location for spectating on colder days.  The main assembly space accommodates well over 200 people.  The assembly room’s south-facing 70-foot long wall of windows offers unparalleled views of the entire stadium.  The JN 2023 forerunners will operate out of the BHCCSC waxing space.

Rikke’s Roadhouse, a small log cabin just north of the timing building, is the Competition Office on race days.  This cabin was also built in 2002.  In the summer of 2022, GHEMM Construction of Fairbanks donated a major rehabilitation of the roof of this building to cure some long-standing leakage problems that arose due to some shortcomings in the original construction.

The Old Warming Hut is between Rikke’s Roadhouse and the Birch HIll Cross Country Ski Center.  During the 2023 Junior Nationals this will be the Volunteer Headquarters throughout the week.  Normally this is a public space and is open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, but that will not be the case during the 2023 JN’s.  The original warming hut was built in the 1980’s.  That building burned in the early 1990’s, but was rebuilt relatively shortly thereafter during the administration of Mayor Jim Sampson.  Both the first and second incarnations of this building did not include heated restrooms.  Those were added in the mid-1990’s.

On the parking lot level is the Old Equipment Building.  This building is no longer used to store grooming equipment, but it will be used as a waxing space for some teams during the 2023 JN’s.

There are three parking lots (Upper Lot, Lower Lot, South Lot) which accommodate approximately 250-300 cars.  One of those lots (the south parking lot) will be dedicated space for the team waxing trailers.

Down near the entrance gate to the Birch Hill access road is the New Equipment Building, constructed in 2019 thanks to a State of Alaska grant.  In addition to office space for the NSCF grooming crew and meeting space for the NSCF BOD, this building houses the NSCF’s grooming equipment and trail maintenance fleet, which includes

  • 2 x PistenBully 100s
  • 5 x Ski-Doo Skandics
  • 2 x Alpina Sherpas
  • 1 x Caterpillar skidsteer
  • 1 x Caterpillar mini excavator

 

Jim Whisenhant Ski Trails

The greatest thing about the Jim Whisenhant Ski Trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area (BHRA) is that there is no charge to use the trails.  Thanks to the efforts and donations of the members of the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks (NSCF), and the substantial and continuing support of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department, the trails are available for public use without charge throughout the year — cross country skiing in the winter, and in the summer running, walking, biking and disc golf.  So you don’t have to pay to ski — but donations are appreciated!

The first ski trails at Birch Hill Recreation Area were created in the mid-1970’s by Jim Whisenhant, the legendary Lathrop HS Ski Coach and his cross country skiers.  Shortly after the trails were constructed, Birch Hill hosted the 1977 Junior National Championships.  The trails took shape in a form that would be recognizable today in the summer of 1981 when a modern (by 1981 standards) 15Km system was created in preparation for the 1982 Arctic Winter Games.  This trail system was designed by Floyd Reishus, formerly coach at Eielson HS, Assistant Coach at UAF, and famous for being way ahead of his time in the evolution of waxing technology.

In 1983 the White Bear 10Km trail was constructed on Fort Wainwright lands adjacent to BHRA, increasing by 40% the skiable kilometers at Birch Hill.  The brand-new White Bear trail was used as part of the course for the 15Km 1984 FIS Men’s World Cup race won by Gunde Svan of Sweden.

Since the initial trail clearing in the 1970s and the first construction to contemporary standards in 1981, there have been a non-stop series of improvements at Birch Hill.  After the 1984 FIS Men’s World Cup race in Fairbanks, where the skiers started, then disappeared for 15Km before reappearing (as was the standard case at that time), the trail system was reconfigured into a “cloverleaf” system under the impetus of the UAF Ski Coach, John Estle, which created a much more spectator-friendly facility for watching ski races.  Over the years that configuration has been refined and expanded to the point where a spectator can see skiers pass by multiple times on each lap without having to move from point-to-point — with no sacrifice of technical or physical challenge.

The same year that the course configuration changed (1984), funding from the State of Alaska paid for the installation of lights on about 6Km of trails at Birch Hill.  In Fairbanks, with the short daylight hours in mid-winter, the addition of lights engendered a huge increase in use of the Birch Hill Trails.  When skating entered the mainstream in 1984 and 1985, “old style” trails that had been sufficiently wide for classic skiing — even with double tracks — were instantaneously outmoded.  Over the next few years all of the Birch Hill trails were increased in width to accommodate both skating and classic skiing.  That was a major undertaking that was only accomplished through a lot of labor from NSCF volunteers.

Over the course of the ensuing decades,  there has been a virtually non-stop stream of improvements to the trail system.  Below is a list which is probably incomplete.

  • 987 – NSCF volunteers create a biathlon range on Fort Wainwright land for the 1988 Arctic Winter Games
  • 1980s – Volunteer groomers Steve and Don Moilanen “expand” the White Bear trail by adding Moilanen Meadows on the north side of White Bear
  • 1990s – Head groomer Russell LIzotte lays out and helps clear White Bear Classic and North Star Classic classic-only loops
  • 1990s? – Lights added to the Relay Alley and Relay Loop within BHRA
  • 1995 – Original approval for and layout of Sunnyside trail
  • 2002 – Approximately 4Km of lights installed on White Bear trail (BHRA to “Sonot Junction) through Department of Defense (DOD) funding
  • 2002 – Biathlon range and stadium expanded and new building constructed at biathlon stadium through DoD funding
  • 2002 – Birch Hill Ski Stadium is expanded to its current dimensions in conjunction with the construction of the Birch Hill Cross Country Ski Center building
  • 2011-2012 – Significant trail improvements and modifications (e.g. Black Funk Cutoff, SuperDuper, South Tower, Medivac) in preparation for 2013 Junior Nationals
  • 2011-2012 – Sonot Connector Trail constructed; Blackhawk and Chinook classic-only/MTB trails constructed through DoD funding
  • 2012-2016 – Following acquisition of a PistenBully PB100 in spring 2012, courses were modified to accommodate efficient grooming with a “big machine.” Until that time all Birch Hill grooming had been done with snowmachines.
  • 2013 – Biathlon range expanded and biathlon stadium improvements through DoD funding in preparation for 2014 Arctic Winter Games
  • 2016 – Significant trail improvements and modifications (Black Baron, Lizotte Chute, Roundabout, Tommyknocker Extension) in preparation for 2017 SuperTour Finals/Distance National Championships
  • 2016 – Sunnyside/Cliffside trail system constructed with funding from Rasmuson Foundation
  • 2016 – FIS issues homologation certificates for courses to be used in 2017 SuperTour Finals
  • 2022 – FIS course homologation renewed for competition courses still in use; new courses will receive their first homologation certificates;  all 2023 Junior National races will be held on FIS-homologated courses

In the future plans call for the addition of more lights, continued off-season improvements to prevent erosion, etc., creation of a system of less physically demanding trails accessible from the Birch Hill Ski Stadium in the flatter terrain to the north of the White Bear, on FNSB and USARAK properties, parking expansion, etc.  At some point, Birch Hill will be “complete” — but no one knows when that will be.

 

Timing System

The timing system used by NSCF to time races at Birch Hill has progressed through several iterations over the years, from stopwatch days when Bob White or Dwight Ittner, among others, led the timing crew standing out in the cold, or in a very small timing hut that was towed into the stadium for the winter.

In the 1990’s the NSCF graduated to a computerized system using SplitSecond timing software to take the impulses from the start wand and finish beams.  Kay Kindt was the operator for this laptop-based system which brought the club up to the “industry standard” for race timing.  The club used this system for 10 or more years, into the early 2000’s.

In 2002 the club purchased hardware and software from Summit Timing Systems in Salt Lake City.  With assistance from Ernie Page, the owner/operator of Summit Timing Systems, the NSCF crew, under the leadership of Terry Schmidt, learned and mastered the timing system which took NSCF timing and race organization to a higher level.  After Terry Schmidt got the crew tuned up with the new system, he was able to successfully lead the crew (with on-site assistance from Ernie Page) through the 2003 Junior Nationals. Carol Haas took over the timing responsibilities from Terry Schmidt and held the Chief of Timing position for several years and through many major events, including the 2013 Junior Nationals, 2008, 2009 and 2017 SuperTour finals and the 2014 Arctic Winter Games.  Anna Sorensen, the current NSCF Chief of TIming, took over from Carol Haas.

In spring 2021 the NSCF purchased chip-timing hardware and software from Zone4 Timing in Canmore, Alberta, and began using the system in the winter of 2021-22 so that the crew would be famliar with the system well before the 2023 Junior Nationals.  The Zone4 system further elevates the NSCF timing operation, providing live online results throughout each day of racing.

The NSCF timing crew has been fortunate in having very dedicated personnel who have staffed the crew for many years.  Without such well-trained, consistent help, timing so many races each season would be a very challenging task.

Watch this website for links to start lists and results through the Zone4 system.