Eaglecrest season pass holders breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when the hill opened. The ski season in Juneau almost became the winter that never was, skiers say.
"I was really starting to get pissed," said Tom Vandewater. "There was no snow even on the top of the mountains."
Juneau has endured a rainy spell throughout the weeks that traditionally see snow. Needless to say, skiers have a lot of catching up to do.
"We'll be here all day, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that," Mike Bahn said.
Some skiers were hiking up the mountain and skiing downhill before the park opened, said Colin Vogler, who is experiencing his first winter in Juneau after arriving from California.
"(There) I would go to Tahoe with friends and we would be there for three days and that was it," he said. "Having this amount of skiing every day is incredible."
On opening day, Eaglecrest General Manager Kirk Duncan, estimates about 800 to 1,000 people came by, many of those being ones with season passes burning holes their pockets.
"I don't think anyone is working today," said Duncan, on Thursday.
Several skiers on Thursday said they either took the day off from work or school to be the first ones down the slope.
"I played hooky," Vandewater said. A ski area in the backyard and quick access to other outdoor activities are the reasons Vandewater lives in Juneau, he said.
Duncan said the thought crossed his mind that Eaglecrest would not open this year, due to the weather reports that forecasted warm temperatures. Regardless, he kept his staff on the payroll and ordered food for the cafeteria two weeks ago in anticipation of snow falling in the end of January.
Crews worked 18-hour days last week to prepare for the opening. Normally, Duncan said, ski areas need three weeks to pack the snow down and ready the slopes. But the staff was able to knock out the work in four days.
"When I told people that we were opening on Thursday, they looked at me and said, 'You're joking,'" staff member Shayne Wanstall said.
Well, it's almost complete. The ski patrol is still clearing slopes from avalanche danger on the west side of the mountain and a tubing ride will open later, Duncan said.
Also, a lower cross-country ski path is awaiting more snow, Duncan said. Despite the mounds of powder that make Douglas Island look like a winter wonderland, the whole area would be better off with another 3 or 4 feet of snow, he added. He plans to run the snow-making machine in some places.
If normal spending habits from patrons continue through Eaglecrest's closure in April, Duncan estimates the public park will need a $150,000 subsidy from the city to offset the soggy December.
That's less than the $350,000 Duncan mentioned he would need in a worst-case scenario if the area had not opened.
Eaglecrest normally makes about $850,000 in revenue during its season, with about $575,000 coming from season pass sales, according to Duncan and the park's budget. The management was not planning to give refunds if the park did not open.
Duncan said he can't predict how much money Eaglecrest will make this year. "That depends on how many tickets and french fries we sell," he said.
Eaglecrest's latest-ever opening was Feb. 22. Plans are in place to develop other forms of recreation at the park to gain more revenue, such as a possible dog sled track and treetop a zip-line expected this summer.
"Now it's just a matter of getting people up here so that they can enjoy it," Duncan said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com