DOUGLAS — Tall, bald, wearing a semi-waterproof jacket from the 1980s and stretch ski pants from the 1960s, skis perched on his slightly hunched shoulder, Pete Huberth's bowlegged gait progressed through the Eaglecrest Ski Area parking lot on Douglas Island. In his early 80s, both knees, hips and shoulders replaced, our "bionic man" wouldn't miss a day of skiing for anything. And at the end of that day, his eyes gleaming under thick brows the color of fresh-fallen snow, his wide smile won't go away.
Back in early December 2016, on the first day of the ski season, Pete took a freak fall and broke his neck. Two months later, he passed on to the great ski run in the sky. "When I ski I want to ski deep, soft, powdery snow. It is as if you would ski in the sky amongst the clouds transported by the wind," a friend posted on his Facebook page.
Pete was among a long line of passing Eaglecrest elders — people who cherished nothing more than the glee of letting gravity carry them down a snowy slope on slidy things attached to their feet. Ski patroller Willette Janes loved skiing along the trees of a run called the Inside Passage. Poet and 10th Mountain Division veteran Sig Olson passed on the first day of winter in 2008, unable to squeeze in another season.
People like this created Juneau's city-owned-and-operated ski area, which is marking 40 years in operation this ski season.
Eaglecrest was born at the behest of ski patrollers and Forest Service colleagues Bob Janes and Craig Lindh, the father of world champion and Olympic medalist Hilary Lindh. With a bit of air reconnaissance, they chose Fish Creek Basin as the ideal spot due to accessibility, variety of terrain, exposure and the potential for avalanche-free road access.
The terrain resembles a cross between coastal New Zealand and the Swiss Alps, with a vertical drop of about 1,400 feet. More than 30 trails spread over 640 acres, including open cruisers, challenging chutes, steep faces and bowls.
Our old friend Shaggy calls Eaglecrest a cherished "community value," with inclusive programs that offer free season passes for all fifth-graders, learn-to-ski lessons for low-income families and programs that bring people living with disabilities to the mountain for lessons and activities.
Eaglecrest is much more than a recreational outlet. It's home of what we consider our extended family. We've seen snow-riding couples become snow-riding families. We've also lost people like Peter, the bighearted snowboard instructor who perished in a tragic kayak accident.
On Easter Sunday, kids on skis and snowboards chase a big purple bunny down trails of scattered candy. On Christmas Eve, a ski school Santa Claus shows up at the lodge and hands out gifts. Of course, in a close-knit community disconnected from the road system, we see the same people at the grocery store we see at the ski area. But Eaglecrest connects us in a special way.
"We so rarely get to see our friends engaged in what they are doing in such a dynamic and focused way," observes my ski buddy Beth. "I can spot someone from the lift and it brings me real joy to see them experiencing the present moment so intensely."
Thanks to climate change, we hadn't seen a lot of our friends at Eaglecrest during the past two years of scant snow. But this year, the snowpack is back — and so are skiers and boarders.
There is no bar at Eaglecrest, so the walk back to your vehicle at the end of the day is often through a gauntlet of gatherings, where the ubiquitous beverage of choice is Rainier beer. Leaning back on the tailgate of his truck, our friend Freddy refers to the tall Rainier in his hand as, "Cropley Lake swill water," for a small well-frozen lake at the base of steep chutes just out of the ski area boundary.
"I missed the family big time," he laments. "It's good to be back together." Steve stokes up his portable propane grill and offers me a fresh-cooked brat.
We moved to the city and borough of Juneau from California in 1992. Back there, a day of skiing could require rising in the middle of the night and making a four-hour drive through traffic. So we couldn't believe another world was a mere 20 minutes from our new Douglas home. It can be rainy, foggy and dark in downtown Juneau and Douglas the same time it's a snowy winter wonderland at Eaglecrest.
There's a bumper sticker: "A bad day of skiing is better than a good day of work." Local diehards are on the hill even on days when the temperatures rise and the snow is extra heavy or, in lean years, when there's barely enough snow to cover the runs. They see only the good things about being in the mountains.
A standard saying is if you can ski Eaglecrest, you can ski anywhere. A friend who grew up in New York City and learned to ski at Eaglecrest was incredulous at the relatively easy "intermediate" level runs on a recent ski trip to Colorado.
Granted, Eaglecrest has some of the slowest chairlifts in the country and hit-and-miss snow conditions. Hit or miss depends on a narrow temperature gradient, due to our coastal mountain weather. Thirty-eight degrees and raining at sea level could be a 28-degree powder day at Eaglecrest, or a 33-degree mess.
This spring the snow is deeper, the avalanche risk hovering on high alert. Beth and I were recently descending the lower traverse in the West Bowl on what appeared to be fresh powder snow. With the temps just over freezing, we bordered on getting stuck in what's known as Sierra Cement in California. Still, you can't tell the ski conditions from town. You have to go up there.
Going "up there" is how my husband Karl and I and our two adult children, Kaitlyn and Kanaan, spend the better part of our winter weekends. I've taught skiing, my husband's a ski patroller and a Juneau Mountain Rescue volunteer, our daughter grew up on the race team, and our son and his buddies jumped and rode their way through homemade ski and snowboard movies.
The decade our daughter put in with the ski team made her one of the smoothest and most efficient skiers on the hill. In his post-college years, my dad raced a bit with ski clubs in Colorado. He taught me to ski in the Lake Tahoe area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our kids were 4 and 6 when we moved here, and had just learned to ski in California.
On a recent sunny, cold Saturday, Karl and I boot packed up to the ridge overlooking Admiralty Island, Stephens Passage and endless islands and inlets. There, perched on a rock and reminiscing about shared awkward moments in first grade were Kaitlyn, a nurse, and her friends Linda, a lawyer, and Marnita, a teacher. The Facebook caption of my snapped photo: "Twenty-five years of friendship."
That long ago, my son Kanaan and his good buddy Chris met when they literally collided into each other on the hill. They were 4 and 5. On a recent powder morning they took a break from their fishing and avalanche forecasting jobs and spent the morning together at Eaglecrest. Since middle school they've been part of a pack, one after the other heading downhill with speedy abandon, lining up at natural promontories to take turns launching themselves. "It's the feral method of learning to ski," remarked Sigrid, mother of Will, a mainstay of the gang.
In the years since we've witnessed countless groups of young feral skiers bombing down the hill beneath the chairlift — "little rippers" they're fondly called.
On March 10, North Douglas residents Pat Dryer and Jackie Ebert announced the arrival of their first child, Oliver. Pat is on the ski patrol and also serves as the president of Juneau Mountain Rescue. Jackie is an active skier and volunteer with the rescue group.
No doubt, Oliver is on his way to becoming a little ripper, with a shared love of community that finds joy in sliding on snow.
Freelance writer Katie Bausler is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA creative writing nonfiction program and a devoted resident of the island kingdom of rainy Douglas, Alaska.