Ski the Beach honors memory of Chugiak outdoor enthusiast

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 12:02
  • Erin Johnson of Chugiak married her longtime outdoor adventure partner Abe Schmidt just two weeks before she was killed in a black bear attack last June 19 near the Pogo mine in Delta Junction. (Photo courtesy Barb and Steven Johnson)
  • Skiing and outdoor adventuring are legacies of Erin Johnson her family aims to keep up through a memorial fund dedicated to getting youth involved in outdoor fun. (Photo courtesy Barb and Steven Johnson)
  • Erin Johnson, second from left, stands alongside her husband Abe Schmidt and parents Barb and Steve Johnson last Mother’s Day. (Photo courtesy Barb and Steven Johnson)
  • Erin Johnson donned her first pair of skis at age 2 and was hooked on the outdoors immediately. (Photo courtesy Barb and Steven Johnson)

Erin Johnson loved the backcountry trails of Chugiak and Eagle River and believed getting outside was good for the soul.

That’s why a network of friends decided to dedicate the Ski the Beach 2018 event in her honor. Everyone is invited to pick a skiing level and join the Chugiak-Eagle River Ski Club Feb. 25 on a route that starts at the Beach Lake Ski Chalet off the South Birchwood Loop exit. The chalet is on the left one-third of a mile past Chugiak High School.

The ski club has a long tradition of holding a spring fun race called Ski the Beach on the last Sunday in February. Kids and adults ski around sporting “beach” outfits over their outdoor clothes — put on a lei or dig out that loud Hawaiian shirt. This year’s plan is to ski to the tune of the Beach Boys’ music broadcasting through the tree branches.

All proceeds from the race will go to the Erin K. Johnson Memorial Fund.

Erin grew up on Bear Mountain, graduated from Chugach High in 2007 and continued throughout her young life to enjoy the outdoors in any weather or terrain.

That’s why her tragic death last June 19 hit her family and the community so hard. She was mauled and killed by a black bear while working for Alaska Biological Research Inc. doing contract work for the Pogo Mine near Delta Junction. She’d worked for the company for five years.

Erin and other contractors were working at an exploration site collecting soil samples several miles from Pogo’s main camp when the bear, described as “predatory,” attacked. Six contractors were doing fieldwork in teams of two. Erin was working with Ellen Trainor, 38, of Fairbanks, who was also attacked but survived. The two used bear spray to keep the bear off, but it returned several times to attack.

Erin was just a month shy of her 28th birthday when she died. She had married Abe Schmidt, her longtime boyfriend and outdoor adventuring partner, less than two weeks prior to her death.

Now, not even a year after losing her, Erin’s mother, Barb Johnson, said she was deeply moved when the Chugiak Eagle River Ski Club told her the board wanted to honor Erin’s memory in this year’s race.

“I feel so grateful and honored that they want to keep her spirit alive in this way,” Johnson said. “It also will help to build up the memorial fund that can then be used as an endowment to help get kids outdoors. She loved to be outside to recreate for good health and competition too, and I think this would be her wish, to help others discover the outdoors.”

Since her first skis were slipped on at the age of two, Erin liked to be outside. Barb and her father Steve Johnson took her on ski and hiking treks in the Eagle River Valley and other parts of Alaska.

Her parents, both outdoor enthusiasts, had met in a forestry and natural resource camp at Pingeree Park while at Colorado State University. Steve’s career in natural resource management included working in the Teton Mountains on a peregrine falcon project with Barb, and work as a park ranger in Chugach State Park before switching to education. Barb worked seasonally in outdoor and environmental education before switching to teaching in the Mat-Su Valley after Erin was born. The couple had moved to Alaska in 1981.

They built a home on Bear Mountain where Erin was raised skiing the backcountry.

“In sixth grade at Mirror Lake Elementary, she wanted to join the Nordic ski team and ski on the groomed trails. It was one of the very best things she could have done,” Barb said. “She met such great friends in the program, ski friends that remained close throughout her life.”

In 2006-07, while in her junior and senior years at Chugiak High, Erin qualified for the Junior Olympics, which took her to competitions in Houghten, Mich., and Soldier Hallow, Utah.

She attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Montana at Missoula where she earned a degree in geology in 2012. She spent two seasons during college in Greenland on a climate change project.

As an adult, she hiked, backpacked, pack-rafted, mountain biked and skied her way “around Alaska and the world,” her family said. But she continued to take part in skiing Eagle River Valley trails with her friends and future husband.

That area, particularly around Chugiak High School where the Ski the Beach 2018 takes place, is the perfect setting for a good community ski event, Johnson said.

“She skied those trails, so it’s the perfect place in her memory.”

The Chugiak Eagle River Nordic Ski Club has attracted a loyal following of about 50 people for the annual race each year in the past decade, said Jason Dennis, the club president. “This year, we’re hoping to get 100 people to participate,” he said.

“I didn’t know Erin but I was involved in the ski community and a lot of people around who knew Erin recommended I should go and meet her parents,” Dennis said. “They (Steve and Barb) wanted to help coach the (youth) group as a legacy for her daughter. Through the discussions, we thought wouldn’t it be a good idea to dedicate the race in her memory to give the family healing. Because skiing meant so much and that Erin would like it. It grew legs from there.”

The event is meant to give the community a sense of closure as well, Dennis said, and provide “a fun event to help celebrate her life.”

The event might continue on each year as a memorial to Erin after a vote by the ski board later this year, he added.

Skiing should be good. The trails look great after a fairly good depth of snowfall this month, he said.

The event features a course for all age groups: The little kids’ race for kindergarten-age is a 1.3 kilometer course from the Beach Lake Chalet on a brief loop to the “pasture” area and then back.

For junior Nordics, elementary age, the course goes 3.1k to include a more hilly route that also loops back to the chalet. For the other age groups there’s a choice between 7.6k and 15.5k that utilizes the full trail system route twice.

“All the trails are between the school and the railroad tracks. It’s free to participate with optional donations to go to the memorial fund,” Dennis said. “Eventually the memorial fund will facilitate cross country activity and science education for kids. It will do amazing things for our community for young kids.”

Prizes were donated by REI, Barneys Sports Chalet and Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking.

To participate, register at noon to 1 p.m. or in advance at https://cernsc.wildapricot.org/event-2827269

If you have questions, call Jason Dennis at 726-7092.

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