Governor Bill Walker grew up in Valdez where snow is plentiful and familiarity with the wonders and dangers of living in snow country is second nature. He was, and continues, to be an avid skier. His old-school method of tackling the slopes, which demanded as much climbing as descending, made him quickly realize the value of the first snowmachines when they arrived in Valdez in the late 1960s. Those first machines opened up the backcountry to recreational adventurers and made his own skiing endeavors much easier.
Today Gov. Walker describes himself as an avid recreational rider. And though the demands of the governor’s office have limited his riding recently, he still gets out whenever he can and makes an annual ride to Long Lake each March to cheer on the Iditarod mushers passing by on their way to Nome.
As sedate as that sounds, Walker has an adventurous side, too. He holds the distinction of being the only Alaskan governor to have participated in the Arctic Man Ski & Sno-Go Classic. In 2014, he went out of the chute as the first skier. The early part of the run was a harrowing descent but the future governor kept his legs under him and when the terrain flattened out and then turned uphill, he used his momentum and powerful assistance of man and machine to get him over the hills and across the finish line.
Since he took office that same year, Gov. Walker has guided Alaska through the steepest oil revenue decline in the state’s short history. Hopefully the lessons he learned during Arctic Man will help Alaska avoid crashing during this unprecedented descent, and ready us for the prosperous heights that await us somewhere ahead.
Q: You were born in Fairbanks and raised in Valdez, correct? That means you know what it means to be blessed with plenty of snow. What were your favorite wintertime sports growing up, and when did you first start riding snowmachines?
A: My winter sports consisted of skiing when I grew up, and that didn’t mean buying a ski ticket, it meant climbing the mountain and skiing down next to a ski tow. It cost a dollar a day for the ski tow in Valdez and we couldn’t afford that and we didn’t ride the ski tow. We walked up and skied down. So, needless to say I didn’t own a snowmachine if I couldn’t afford the dollar ski tow.
I saw some and we envied those who had them. It was probably 1967 when the first snowmachines came to Valdez, when I saw my first one.
Q: What type of snowmachining do you/did you do (racing; recreational; functional, such as hauling wood or setting trails; etc.), and how often would you say you get/got out? Probably this is much less often now that you are governor and so busy, but you can draw on the “height” of your snowmachining days for this question.
A: We didn’t own a snowmachine until about 10 years ago. Had we lived in Valdez, we probably would have owned one sooner but we raised our kids in Anchorage and didn’t have as much opportunity. We are totally recreational. We have a cabin out in the Mat-Su Valley, in the Willow area, and I bought a couple of snowmachines for the cabin. All of our riding is out there.
Q. What were some of your favorite snowmachine-related memories either growing up or more recently that you can share with readers?
A: I think my most interesting experience was Arctic Man. I was the skier and a buddy of mine from Wasilla was the snowmachiner, so that was interesting. It was fun. I enjoyed it. Anytime I get in front of that many people I’m happy to do it, plus I love to ski. Not necessarily on a 72-degree slope, but it was a lot of fun.
Once I hooked up to the snowmachine I could control the speed with signals to the driver of the snowmachine. What I could not control was the 72-degree slope coming down to the snowmachine.
I came across the finish line second and I started first, so the next guy behind me passed me at lickety-split speed. I have no idea what my time was, but I lived, I didn’t fall down, I didn’t embarrass myself. Mission accomplished.”
Q. All sled-heads want to know: What machine do/did you drive? There is definitely a loyalty among the Yamaha/Ski-Doo/Arctic Cat/Polaris crowd.
A: I bought two at Hatcher Pass Polaris and drove them right across the lake to our cabin. I didn’t even buy a trailer because that’s where we snowmachine. I chose Polaris because that’s what they sold, they made me a good deal and I like to buy local. I wanted to buy close to where we would use them, not much beyond that. I still have them but I don’t ride as much as I used to, not these last few winters but we’ll get back there.
Q. Did you/do you have a favorite trail or place to ride? If so, where is that and what makes it a special place for you?
A: Some friends of ours have a place at Long Lake and we go over there every year to watch the Iditarod. It’s a great place to ride and watch. So, all of our riding is out there in that area. The trail system out there is very impressive in the Long Lake, Nancy Lake area.
Q. Snowmachine safety is critical for those in the backcountry, and as we know, avalanche danger is one of the biggest worries when recreating outdoors. How have you managed to stay safe over the years?
A: Growing up in Valdez you have an appreciation for avalanches. I skied Thompson Pass pretty regularly so I have an appreciation for avalanche dangers. And we’ve seen what’s happened with avalanche injuries and deaths in Turnagain Pass and other places around the state. I’m not much of a go-where-the-crowds-are kind of person. The fewer people that are there the better from my standpoint, so I don’t tend to go where there are a whole bunch of folks.
Q: For some more politically relevant questions, we move on to SnowTRAC. As you are well aware, SnowTRAC is a program that has been around since 1997 and helps fund snowmachine projects of interest through designated funds. The snowmachining community’s understanding is that the 2017 program has been vetoed by the administration, but would the administration support a special appropriation to keep the program alive and give the Legislature time to develop this program in a more robust manner? If so, how, and if not, why?
A: We are looking at that. Under the Constitution we can’t dedicate revenues in Alaska. We understand, but when fees are paid, we pay attention to that, if the intent is for specific services. So, we’re looking at making sure the program continues, and we’re in the process of looking at that now.
Q: Those in the snowmachining community consider many of Alaska’s trails “trails of commerce,” in which goods and services are being transported along these routes. As such, the Alaska State Snowmobile Association would like the Alaska DOT to support the maintenance and logistics of a statewide trail program. Would the administration support and encourage Alaska DOT to assist with this project?
A: Well, we look at all requests. The snowmachine community in Alaska is a very significant part of our state, and snowmachining is a significant recreational opportunity for families. Because of that it is certainly very important to us. We’ve closed a number of highway maintenance stations etc., so we will look at how we can fit this program into our current fiscal challenges with a $3.5 billion dollar deficit.
Q: The Alaska State Snowmobile Association, in conjunction with the International Snowmobile Manufactures Association celebrates January 21-29, 2017, as Snowmobile Safety Week. Would the administration support and declare the same week as Alaska Snowmobile Safety week?
A: We certainly consider it, we have a process called request for proclamation and we get them quite regularly and snowmachine safety is very important. Avalanche awareness is obviously very important and we have some unique safety issue in Alaska that we may not have elsewhere. So, absolutely we’ll take a look at that.
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