Mike Hajdukovich has a philosophy when it comes to sports: You have to make it fun. Sports is a way of life for Mike, owner of Trax Outdoor Center. Growing up, he and his family stayed active, indoors and outdoors, all year round, and Mike eventually discovered a talent for basketball. He played college basketball for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and later traveled the state for 15 years, organizing and leading basketball clinics for after-school extracurricular programs in rural Alaska. Yet, it was paddleboarding with his wife that inspired Trax.
“We were on the water, and it was so peaceful,” he says. “And I thought if I love this, anybody can love this.”
Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle
Located at the base of Birch Hill Recreation Area, Trax is also known, in part, for all things associated with skiing. Mike grew up downhill skiing but got a literal crash course in cross-country skiing.
During his basketball years, Mike found cross-country skiing a bit slow for his taste. But on 1 particular day, he was skiing Birch Hill with his brother, looking at his cellphone as they moved along. His brother advised him to put the phone away as they were about to descend a hill. Mike ignored the warning, given his years of experience downhill skiing and his perception of crosscountry skiing as a slow sport. Then suddenly, he found himself accelerating quickly until he wiped out at the bottom of the hill.
“That’s when I thought this sport is amazing!” Mike says. In its 10 years of providing recreation equipment and gear to Interior Alaska, Trax has developed a full-service environment that can outfit beginners, help them develop fundamental techniques and enhance their fitness. In the summer, it sells MasterCraft boats and offers products and lessons for paddleboarding and waterskiing. In the winter, it offers products and lessons for the 3 styles of cross-country skiing: classic, skate and touring. Trax also offers yoga classes year round.
With another long winter starting, Mike says it’s important for people to find recreational activities that can help pass the long dark months, especially for those who have just moved from warmer climates. For those ready to try a winter outdoor activity, Mike recommends taking a few skiing lessons to determine which style of cross-country skiing is most enjoyable. He says each style has its pros and cons and is better suited for certain temperatures.
While classes are typically geared toward the fundamentals, Mike believes fun should be at the forefront.
“Just get out and move,” he says. “It’s OK that the technique isn’t perfect. You have your whole life to figure it out. The most important thing is that you move.”
For those not yet ready to venture outdoors in cold temperatures for exercise, Trax has a schedule full of different yoga classes. Though Trax focuses a significant part of its inventory on outdoor equipment, Mike says yoga is the backbone of a healthy lifestyle and a sport in which every person, regardless of age or fitness level, can participate. He describes yoga as an hour of healthy movement that promotes strength, flexibility and injury prevention. It’s an activity he recommends to everyone, whether they are involved in an outdoor activity or not.
Hit the Trail
Logan Hanneman is someone who knows ski trails in Fairbanks, especially those near Trax. As a cross-country skier who competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics, he has spent many hours training, racing and having fun on Fairbanks area trails. He grew up near the Birch Hill Recreation Area, where he and his family skied together as a way to pass the winter months.
His older brother Reese also competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics, providing Logan insight into what it meant to be a competitive skier. Logan started with the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks Junior Nordics, a program for children ages 5 to 14 that emphasizes fun, fitness, technique, care of equipment, trail etiquette and sportsmanship. It wasn’t until high school when he achieved success on the Junior National level that he took competition more seriously. From there, he competed in NCAA Skiing while attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks and later at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, where he became teammates with his older brother.
Though Logan mostly trained for competitions in Anchorage during his last few seasons, he misses the ski trails on Birch Hill. Flatter trails like those found at UAF were sometimes better suited for longer, easier workouts, while Birch Hill has various trails suited for different types of cross-country skiing at every skill level. At 1st glance, the winding loops that make up Birch Hill and the adjacent Jim Whisenhant Cross Country Ski Trails are a little overwhelming. Yet, Logan credits NSCF, which works in conjunction with the Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department, on improving trail signage.
“Basically, every trail flows counterclockwise,” Logan says. “The ski club has done a good job putting maps around the facility to make it easier to figure out where you want to go.”
A couple of key features make Birch Hill a great place to ski. Each trail is identified by skill level, style of skiing and whether or not it is lit in the evening. Approximately 10 kilometers of trails are lit by photocells activated at dusk and set to go off around 9:30 p.m., which is great for people who only have time to ski after school or work. Likewise, the recreation area has 2 main on-site facilities. The Birch Hill Cross Country Ski Center is the most obvious building. The large, red structure with tall windows overlooking the “stadium” area offers bathrooms, changing areas, a kitchen and an assembly area. The old warming hut is a smaller area with bathrooms and a small gathering space. Several other buildings within the area serve as offices, equipment storage and race-specific functions. Though the ski center closes in the evening and on days when the temperatures are minus 25 degrees or colder, the old warming hut is open 24 hours a day.
“The health benefits are a wonderful thing,” Logan says about cross-country skiing. “It’s a low-impact endurance activity that is great for anyone with knee or joint issues. Fairbanks winters are also cold and dark. It’s easy to stay inside and not get the exercise and fresh air we need. Plus, the Fairbanks Nordic ski community is 2nd to none.”
Free access to extensive cross-country ski trails is a luxury that shouldn’t be taken for granted, Logan says. Likewise, he says it’s important to recognize NSCF for dedication to trail maintenance throughout the year and trail grooming in winter for skate and classic skiing. Many of these activities and their programs are funded by donations. To donate to the Birch Hill Trail Fund, go to the NSCF website.
Get In Gear
Mike will be the 1st to point out that no one will have fun outdoors if they’re cold. To that end, he recommends people invest in the right gear for the right temperatures. Given how low temperatures can drop in Fairbanks, it’s easy to imagine looking like the Michelin Man in cold weather gear. However, Mike says modern fabric construction has made warmer fabrics, such as merino wool, lighter for layers. Likewise, there are more options for protecting the face and head in inclement weather and more ways to keep hands warm.
“Where clothing is concerned, there is an answer to everything,” Mike says.
Logan adds that gear selection doesn’t necessarily need to break the bank. He says many companies make quality, affordable gear, and Fairbanks fundraisers, including the West Valley Ski Swap, offer used gear for purchase.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed and think you need to have the best and the latest,” Logan says. “There are less expensive options, especially as you’re trying to figure out the style of skiing you want to pursue.”
Once people are geared up and outfitted with skis, Logan says it’s important not to feel nervous about going on the trails. He says everyone falls, and falling is part of the learning process. However, if the idea of falling is preventing someone from skiing, he encourages them to take a class from Trax or the Nordic Ski Club.