The beach is free, but there's no place to ski

Empire, Juneau newbie shares his experience of Alaska's great outdoors

Posted: Sunday, March 11, 2007

Flying down the slope, you forget it's cold.

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Cutting across the powder toward the line of Sitka spruce, you set an edge and turn and glide back across the expanse of snow. The exhilaration, the speed - they make Juneau seem like paradise. They distract you from the slush and the gloom.

But they can't make you feel your toes because, being a half-witted newcomer from Florida, you wore cotton socks, now soaked and frozen into ice-booties.

Ah, toes. Life was so different for you on the beach.

When my wife, Jen, and I decided to move to Alaska in the middle of winter, we weren't exactly drawing from experience. The farthest north either of had lived was St. Augustine, Fla.

The nation's oldest city, St. Augustine is a Spanish-flavored town along the Intracoastal waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. It's 70 degrees and sunny there now, great weather for a beach walk, surfing, skim-boarding, sun-tanning, whatever.

Forecast for Juneau: gray and more gray. Jen and I are facing a period of adjustment.

Cold, you see, is much colder than we thought.

But we don't want to give in to depressed boredom. We want wilderness and thrills, at least until we can afford cable TV.

So we ventured into the snow. We hit the slopes, the flat tracks, anything that looked fun.

We started with cross-country skiing, renting two sets for a weekend for about $50. That was fun but exhausting. We did a lap at Skater's Cabin with our neighbors in the rain. After five minutes, I was panting.

Zooming past spruce and hemlock, catching glimpses of the Mendenhall Glacier, I couldn't help but feel elated. Bald eagles cruised. Skilled skiers blew past us, smiling, focused.

There's something odd about sweating when you're wet and cold. It felt refreshing. That was before I learned that it could cause frostbite, or worse.

After a few minutes, the flailing of the poles and lack of coordination started to smooth out. You start to flow. And then you're gliding, gliding, with that soul-lifting feeling of flight. Until you crash.

Cross-country skiing is fun, but it's work. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is nothing but a thrill. Jen and I signed up for a three-day deal for lessons, equipment rental and lift tickets at Eaglecrest Ski Area. It cost about $200.

A beach day is free, but a day on the mountain is money well spent.

I'm thinking about buying my own board now. Jen lost interest after wipeout No. 117. That bunny slope is murder. But if you survive the beginner's lift - which is fine for skiers but jerks snowboarders off their feet - then it's all downhill from there. Really.

The next step is to get on the chairlift. As the contraption crept up the slope, I started to relax and enjoy views of the mountains towering left and right, the tiny skiers zipping by far below.

Getting on and off the lifts was the hard part. After that, it's just a question of how many times you're willing to tumble down a mountain. At least you're closer to the ground.

I know you're always supposed to be in control. And at some level, I suppose I was. And so were the teenagers screaming past so fast that I could barely hear them laughing at me. But we all flop now and again.

This week, I got trapped in powder. Tell that to someone in Florida, and they'll likely suggest treatment for a cocaine addiction. I was feeling confident and thought I'd try a path from one slope to another. But the snow was so fluffy and deep that I sunk as if it was quicksand.

I tried to push myself up, but my hands sunk deeper and my gloves and jacket filled with snow. I tried wiggling my way out, but succeeded only in jamming snow into my boots and down my pants.

Just as I centered myself over the board, the powder gave way and the board slipped from under me. I was stuck again. By the time I escaped, I had snow on every part of me. Somehow it had even gotten inside my hat, which never fell off.

You can shake snow out of your sleeves and still stay warm. You can brush it off your lower back, and the bite goes away in a minute. But there is nothing more useless, more impossible to correct, than a soaking wet cotton sock.

The good news is, the toes go numb after half an hour. Or maybe that's the bad news. It throws off your balance. But if you're patient enough to dry off a bit, you may have time for a few more runs.

You can experience more of that intoxicating glide, carving back and forth, floating down the slope. It's a great way to spend a day.

After a couple months in Juneau, I'll swear by one thing. The difference between hating winter and loving it can be summed up in one word: Eaglecrest.

Let's go outside. Cotton is for Florida. This time I'll wear wool.

• Ken Lewis can be reached at

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