You pass a few lone cars first, as you wind up the long road to Eaglecrest Ski Area, spots where cross-country skiers and snowshoers have parked to access the six kilometers of the Lower Nordic trails, groomed each morning the resort is open.
Continuing up the road, you see the mountains leaning down towards you, beckoning, inviting, teasing, begging you to trust them: Troy, Showboat, Ben Stewart.
And then the faces begin to take shape. They exit cars, buses, trails and seem to just magically appear.
Among them is Keith Rush, 60, who has lived in Alaska for 10 years, the last five in Juneau. The first five were in Yakutat, but he and wife Trisha would still try to come to Eaglecrest whenever they could.
“I love the hiking into the bowls when they are open,” Rush said as he walked along the parking lot towards the lifts.
The bowls. Those wonderments that first-year skiers, and some second-year, might not have yet been privy to.
“We have our own special names for them,” Rush said. “We have Keith’s run and Trisha’s run. And we have our secret run, which everybody else knows about too.”
The Rushes are working on their sixth winter on the slopes as Juneau residents. Before Alaska they were backcountry skiers, tackling the little resorts in Montana.
“Because of the limited access in Juneau we have become more area skiers,” Rush said. “We love Eaglecrest, we think it is great.”
The parking lot is lined high with mountains of plowed snow. Huge berms seem to hail you in a hero’s return to the slopes.
Chris Pyle, 40, is in his sixth season as heavy equipment operator and mechanics assistant. He grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I don’t ski as much as I probably should,” Pyle said. “Because I am always up here for the job. I am not a ski bum any more like when I was younger. This is a fantastic place, especially with this kind of snow.”
Pure fun for everyone. That is the Eaglecrest motto.
“That is what we are all about,” said Jeffra Clough, director of sales, marketing and the Snowsports School. “Trying to explore this amazing playground we have up here.”
Skiing and snowboarding runs and terrain are available for all levels, and, for those just getting started or those looking to improve, the Snowsports School offers a multitude of adventures. Wee Ski is a six-week program for all ability levels ages 3-6 (starts this weekend); Race Rats is available for kids 5-7 years old; Mighty Mites, age 7-12, is a learn-to-race program that operates in conjunction with the Juneau Ski Club; Mountain Explorers is 10-week program for ages 7-17; the Women’s First Tracks program (also starts Saturday) and Reach The Peak are designed specifically for women skiing the mountain.
Other programs offered at Eaglecrest include adaptive skiing with ORCA (Outdoor Recreation and Community Access), which is run through Southeast Alaska Independent Living, and designed to get folks who experience disabilities out on the slopes, and Books to Boards, a program funded through the Eaglecrest Foundation that helps out sixth through eighth graders who need a little assistance.
Julie Jackson, 25, is in her third winter at Eaglecrest after growing up skiing in Minnesota, upper Michigan and Wisconsin, Utah and Wyoming.
She is the Youth and Community Outreach Coordinator on the mountain.
“I really love Raven Rock Gully,” Jackson said. “On the east side I love the gullies between Otter Slide and Inside Passage, all those little ones the kids take me through. They are so fun. Little kids love them but I love them too.”
Jackson has skied most big resorts in the south.
“But I grew up skiing at mom-and-pop areas,” Jackson said. “Eaglecrest has that feel of a small hometown ski area but it has the terrain variety of a world-class ski destination. I get excited just talking about it.”
At that moment, 85 Floyd Dryden MIddle School kids begin to arrive and 20 Raven Correspondence School students are just behind, all looking for boots, skis, poles, helmets and fun.
Eaglecrest rental and repair shop supervisor Mike Cole, 35, is working his third Juneau winter. Before that he worked Colorado’s Breckenridge and Utah’s Park City Ski Resorts. He is a 1995 Juneau Douglas High School graduate.
“Everything,” Cole said of his favorite spots. “I love the Hang Ten trees, it’s a secret spot. This place is just home. It feels like home. I grew up in this playground.”
One thing Eaglecrest has that the larger resorts don’t this season: lots of snow.
JP Zamarron, an avid snowboarder and skier, is working his second year in the rental area. Originally from New Hampshire, he has worked at Loon Mountain Ski Resort. The smaller mountain of Eaglecrest has him captivated.
“The new experience of being in Alaska,” Zamarron said of his passion. “This area has some great terrain and access to the back country. It has a lot to offer. You can really progress quite well here.”
For runs on the mountain, he tackles the Face and Wolverine.
Ski School Coordinator Thomas Hall, 57, has been on the mountain for eight years.
“It changes every day,” Hall said when asked what is so special about the area. “It could be the weather. It could be my skiing, it could be somebody else’s skiing. It could be a chair-lift ride conversation. That is the beauty of it. Every day is something different that makes that day special.”
At the ski rental shop, Celline Souza, from Brazil, is working her third season at the ski area.
“I like the people that come here,” Souza said. “That is what I love about it. And just having snow is very nice.”
On the top of Ptarmigan, lift operator Jered Garvin, 25, is beaming like the morning sun breaking through the snowy clouds. Born in New Mexico and raised in Arizona where his snowboarding spread to Colorado and Utah, Garvin left the western ski areas and traveled to Juneau in October.
“This is the most amazing country I have ever seen in my whole life,” Garvin said. “It’s awesome.”
His favorite runs have been every route he has taken.
At the ski patrol station, as skiers exit Ptarmigan and are blown right, or turn right by choice, Brian Davies, 50, is often on scene.
Davies, the director of snow safety, has been with Eaglecrest for 24 years.
“In the benches and through the trees,” a wily Davies says of his favorite runs. “That’s as much as I will disclose. That is the beauty of this place. We all have our spots. It is a great little mountain to mix and match. The people that come here like to ski, they don’t have a whole lot of attitude, they just like getting out and having fun.”
Today, Davies’ right-hand man is 21-year-old Nick Waldo, an Eaglecrest skier for 19 of those seasons and a Volunteer Ski Patrol member since age 15.
“I don’t remember starting,” Waldo said. “My favorite run is probably going far out to the West Bowl because there is always a fresh line you can find out there.”
Many ski the same open parts on the bowls, but Waldo looks for the fresh snow on the ridges in between.
“Eaglecrest is great because it is the town’s mountain,” Waldo said. “It is never that crowded, so you know everyone on the mountain, people you’ve been skiing with for years, and there is a ton of good terrain.”
The West Bowl, or Pittman’s Ridge, is named in honor of Tom Pittman, one of the original 3rd Cabin (Juneau Ski Club) folks. Showboat Ridge, North Bowl, High East, Bear Trap, The Benches, all are names of runs not mentioned on the Eaglecrest Ski Area map. These are the extra special little runs in powder, crud, chowder, corn, dust on crust, or whatever generation is out there.
Snowboarders Alissa Henry, from Haines, and Becky Janes, from Juneau, adjust their strappings off the lift.
Janes, 34, is married to Shaun, the great-grandson of local ski guru Bob Janes, another 3rd Cabin skier who has a 20-year service award in his name issued by the ski patrol.
“I didn’t really start skiing until I met my husband Shaun,” Janes said. “I think the best part of Eaglecrest is the steep and variable terrain and the access.”
Barb Lindh, another 3rd Cabin skier, learned at age 10, and is an instructor for the First Tracks and Reach the Peak programs. Lindh’s chute in the East Bowl is named after her husband Craig.
“It makes winter so much better,” Lindh said of learning to ski. “When I first skied here there were not a lot of women on the slopes, and now I see women all over the mountain, just going after it. That is exciting to see. They are buying the fatter and fatter skis and are out there skiing the powder with everybody.”
Telemark skier Jeff Machakos, 41, started at age 10 in New Hampshire and has been on slopes through Colorado.
“It’s about the turn not the speed,” Machakos said. “Ideally I look for the softer, more carvable stuff. It is all about the access here. All these mountains that you see, for backcountry skiing it is phenomenal here.”
After skiing, and equipment return or a hot chocolate, you might be lucky to catch one of the mountain ski pros lounging in the area.
Cedar Miles, 10, has been skiing Eaglecrest for eight years.
“It would probably be Traverse or Steep Chutes,” Miles said of his favorite runs. “It’s fun.”
Overall though, Miles thinks Eaglecrest has something most resorts don’t have, at least in this abundance.
“Everybody is smiling,” Miles said. “You can always share a smile and, also, it is never crowded in here, not like Whistler or places like that. It is always just right.”