Winter fun has just begun

Juneau residents sharpen their skates and wax their boards in anticipation for new season

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2006

Skating on a crystal ice lake. Snowboarding on the backside of Douglas Island. Cross-country skiing through a spruce forest next to a mad-rushing river. Windsurfing on a southeasterly down Gastineau Channel.

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For many, staying inside in the winter months is not an option. There's too much to do outside.

"If it's above freezing and windy, windsurfing is the thing to do," Bill Glude said about one of his favorite winter sports. "This time of the year our storms often bring the best winds for performance windsurfing. We'll get 20- to 40-knots gusting and that's just the perfect range for an experienced windsurfer."

Glude and his girlfriend, Melora, prefer the wind and water combination at Sandy Beach, or in front of DIPAC and sometimes as far out as Eagle Beach and St. Theresa's Shrine, he said.

"That's my choice of outdoor activities if it's a warm day. Otherwise, I go look for snow," Glude said.

John Ingalls has ice skated around Juneau for decades. After a stint of putting on folk concerts in the 1980s, he switched to putting on ice skating events in the 1990s.

"He would set up large flood lights and a sound system and put on music to skate by," Liz Saya said of Ingalls' skating parties at Twin Lakes and Mendenhall Lake. "Sometimes (the music) would be classical, sometimes salsa, but it would have a gliding quality to it," she said.

Ingalls now usually skates at the ice rink where he's taken up hockey. He still goes outside, though, and still skates under the sky when the conditions are right.

"The lakes downtown are better because the snow disappears when it rains. The lake in front of the glacier gets so much snow on it that it's too hard to clear it, and it gets so cold out there that it breaks the ice up and there are a lot more flaws in the surface," he said. Ingalls warned that people can get hurt if a skate blade catches in a crack and causes them to fall.

Breaking through also is a risk this early in the season, he warned. "One time at the glacier I broke through about 10 inches of ice and was up to my head in water. I started to pull myself out and every time I did it kept breaking underneath me. Finally, I had the good sense to go away from the shore where the ice is stronger," he said. Ingalls lived to tell the story and pass on the warning.

Juneau's on-again, off-again maritime climate limits how many really cold days there are, and how thick (and safe) the ice can be at any time during the winter months. When the weather is cold enough, the ice is thick enough, smooth enough and safe enough, people flock to Twin Lakes, Mendenahll Lake and Auke Lake with skates in hand, but with iPods and headphones instead of outdoor speakers.

Juneau's backyard also features a slew of cross-country trails. Besides the upper and lower loops at Eaglecrest, there are popular trails at the Mendenhall campground, Dredge Lake, Herbert River and Spaulding Meadows.

"Herbert Glacier Trail is wide and graded all the way to the glacier, and it gets snow early on," said Scott Fischer, owner of Foggy Mountain Shop and part-time volunteer cross-country ski track setter. "It's a very scenic trail that ends at the Herbert glacier terminal moraine. It's not a huge elevation gain, so just about anybody can ski on it," he said. The trail is about 4.6 miles long.

Cool times

For more information on outdoors activities around Juneau, go to:

Juneau Nordic Ski Club:

Eaglecrest Ski Area:

Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center:

Fischer said Spaulding Meadows and the area around the John Muir cabin also are likely to have early snow for cross-country skiing. The trail to the cabin is about three miles, but there's some hiking before you can put your skis on, he said.

Downhill skiers and snowboarders have been hiking up and skiing/riding the runs at Eaglecrest for a couple of weeks already. The conditions at the top are fine, but toward the bottom they become risky, with stumps, rocks, devil's club and other obstacles still uncovered.

Tom Aberle, a telemark skier who hiked up last week, said the snow at the ski area was good. "The Fruit Bowl is very good because there is less coverage needed there and the fairly low-angle runout is all above treeline," he said.

This year, Eaglecrest adds a snowshoeing trail to its list of outdoor opportunities, the first segment of an trail to planned to reach Cropley Lake. Zipline Adventures will open during the holidays to offer cable and harness gliding tours through the alpine forest.

Avalanches in the backcountry are always a concern, even when the snow isn't that deep, warned Glude, who runs the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.

"Backcountry travelers should be aware that even small avalanches can be hazardous. You don't need a big avalanche to get into trouble if it carries you into trees or rocks or dumps you into a gully and buries you."

Glude recommends staying aware, wearing a beacon, carrying a shovel and probe and going with a friend. He cautioned that the weather we had last week laid down a weak sugary layer followed by a heavier, wind-loaded layer on top of that, a ripe scenario for slab avalanches.

"Depending on conditions this weekend, the instability could persist or pass. But travelers should always take care to see if there are still signs of instability," he said.

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