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The route to Eaglecrest

Valleys behind downtown, West Juneau were Juneau's first downhill ski areas

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

You would never guess by looking at it, but a muskeg- and tree-covered, windswept hill just above the junction of the Perseverance and Granite Creek trails is the birthplace of Eaglecrest, Juneau's recreational ski area. This hill was the site of Juneau's first mechanical ski operation in the early 1930s.

The "proprietor" of the ski site was an 80-year-old prospector named Alexander "Sandy" Smith. Smith lived in a cabin near the trail junction where skiers were invited in to warm up and sip coffee. Nearby, a motor bolted to a toboggan operated a rope tow that pulled skiers to the top of the hill.

Smith was working a mine near Granite Creek, said Tom Stewart, a retired Superior Court judge who has skied in Juneau since the early 1930s. After skiing down the hill, many skiers would continue down what was then Perseverance road, said Stewart, 82.

"People today just have no idea," said Al Shaw, about the differences between downhill skiing in the '30s and the sport today. Shaw, a retired teacher, began his Juneau skiing career in the downtown graveyard in 1937 at age 6 when skis were wood, the bindings leather and the poles bamboo.

"It was all force," said Shaw, referring to physical power needed to steer the skis.

"You couldn't steer," said Stewart, who learned skiing on Gold Street, one of Juneau's steeper hills, where kids would build a small ski jump.

 

Later, when bindings evolved from leather to metal "bear traps," knowing how to fall was critical.

"You either broke a leg or somehow your foot popped out of the binding," said Dean Williams, who taught more than one generation of Juneau youths how to ski, including the proper technique for taking a spill.

"You need to get your legs extended and slide in on your hip," he said.

"When plastic skis first came in we called them 'cheaters' because it seemed you could make them turn by wiggling your toes," Shaw said.

Skiing remained a minor recreational activity in Juneau until the Douglas Bridge was built in 1935, said Stewart. The bridge and the construction of the Dan Moller Trail opened Kowee Creek Valley above West Juneau to skiing. With its continuous elevation gain and open meadow areas the valley offered a number of skiing opportunities and the Perseverance rope tow was hauled up to the first meadow and installed. The Forest Service built cabins at meadow areas. A bowl-shaped basin at the end of the valley with just the right elevation for snow accumulation offered further promise for skiing.

Another development that increased the popularity of skiing in Juneau was a revolutionary technique introduced by two European immigrants. Stewart said both men, one from Austria and the other from Germany, probably came to United States to escape Hitler and to Alaska to put some distance between themselves and U.S. immigration officials. The men had been invited to Juneau by two avid Juneau skiers, Kurt Shattuck and Norman Banfield, who had met them at Sun Valley, a ski resort.

 

The two Europeans taught Juneau skiers the Arlberg technique, where the skier bends forward, placing the body's weight on the balls of the feet.

"That's not a natural thing to do. The natural thing is to set back on your heels," Stewart said. The technique allows skiers to rotate their weight and steer the skis.

Following his return to Alaska after World War II, Stewart made a trip north where he spotted a 1,000-foot ski rope tow system outside the town of Seward. Off-duty soldiers looking for something to do had put the operation together, said Stewart, who purchased it as surplus from the Army for $50 and shipped it to Juneau. In addition to the rope, the assemblage included an old Dodge truck engine and wooden pulleys. The rope tow was installed at the second meadow and became the focus of skiing in Juneau until the early 1950s, said Stewart.

The third step up the valley occurred in the mid-'50s when the Juneau Ski Club purchased a snow cat modeled on a tracked vehicle used by Adm. Richard Byrd during his exploration of Antarctica. Named the "Oola," Norwegian for "the strong one," the cat cost $10,000.

"That was a lot of money in those days," said Stewart, who helped raise the funds.

As many as 40 people were packed on the back of "the strong one" and pulled up to the bowl area at the end of the valley where a small rope tow carried people to a ridge.

"Oola suffered a lot of breakdowns but we kept it going for 10 years," said Williams, who then worked for Pan American Airways.

"On an excellent day we never had more than 200 people up there. That was it," said Shaw, who with other Juneau skiers put pressure on the Forest Service to build a road up the valley.

The idea was to get a road up to the 1,200-foot level where snow levels provided quality skiing, said Shaw. There was also a growing awareness that Juneau had fallen behind the rest of the country in developing skiing areas.

"Up until the late '40s we were equals with what other ski areas were offering, but by the 1950s that was no longer true," said Shaw.

Snow avalanches, snow removal and the necessity of switchbacks were some of the reasons the Forest Service balked at building a road up Kowee Creek. So Juneau skiers began site surveys of their own.

"Our vision was Steep Creek," said Williams, about a plan he and Art Skinner, a local businessman, championed. Steep Creek is a bowl area on Thunder Mountain near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center. An investor from Spokane was interested because summer visitors could use the chair lift, said Williams, now Juneau's reigning senior tennis champ.

The Civilian Conservation Corps had identified Fish Creek Valley, where Eaglecrest is located, as a good site for development in the mid-1930s, said Shaw. But it took some subterfuge to get the Forest Service to recognize the site in 1960s, he said.

"I told them to go (hike) to the end of the valley, where the parking lot is now. Once they saw that area, that was it," he said.

By this time, the Juneau Ski Club had become a powerful lobbying group and had a strong influence not only with the Forest Service, but on the development of Eaglecrest by the city of Juneau. The site opened to the public in 1975.

Although Stewart has retired from skiing, Shaw and Williams still frequent the slopes of Eaglecrest.

Mac Metcalfe is a Juneau free-lance writer. He can be reached at agmet@ptialaska.net.



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