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ALSAP in the News

Alaska Coast magazine (March 2009) by Justin Matley


Eagle River's The Alaska Star article (09 November 2006) by Chris Lundgren
Eagle Valley Resort: The ski area that never was

For The Star

A sketch shows what downtown Eagle River may have looked like had Eagle Valley Resort become a reality in the 1980s.
Illustration courtesy of Rogner Touristik International
You've seen the bumper stickers: "Eagle River: My Home Town," "I (Heart) Eagle River," and "Eagle River: The Aspen of the North."

The Aspen of the north? Say again?

Once upon a time, Eagle River dared to picture itself as one of the world's premier ski destinations. Back in the 1980s, when excitement was high about bringing the Winter Olympics to Anchorage, an Austrian developer named Robert Rogner began planning a huge project. The Eagle Valley Resort would sit on and below Harp Mountain, just out Hiland Road (and inside Chugach State Park). Rogner envisioned a place with nine ski lifts, two hotels, 900 condo units, an indoor pool and athletic center, a convention center, a movie theater and even a Russian Orthodox church.

The developer constructed a mock-up of the resort, and people streamed through the Eagle Center to get a look at it. "It was a standard ski resort arrangement with the lifts on one side and down below would be a village that would be patterned on a gold rush theme," said Lee Jordan, founder and former publisher of the Chugiak-Eagle River Star, now the Alaska Star.

The state's economy had bottomed out, and the Eagle Valley Resort would reportedly provide employment for 2,000 residents. "The promise of local jobs was one of the most exciting parts of the project," said Eagle River real estate agent Eva Loken. "That and the idea that Eagle River could be a good place for a ski resort."

Jordan agrees that residents initially were thrilled by the idea. "The big thing was the potential for putting Eagle River on the map," he said.

Rogner planned ski runs that would meet Olympic standards and attract World Cup races, particularly early in the season when other locations lacked snow. And residents hoped the area would bolster Anchorage's bid for the 1992 and later the 1994 Winter Olympics.

State officials worked quickly to grant a concession allowing the ski operation to exist within Chugach State Park. One official promised the state would be supportive and suggested the resort could transform Eagle River into "the Aspen of the North."

Flies in the Ointment

As Rogner moved ahead, costs mounted. His $170 million estimate mushroomed to $250 million. A year into the project, Rogner asked the Alaska Industrial and Economic Development Authority to guarantee $150 million in loans.

Loken says this was Rogner's mistake, and it marked the beginning of the end for the Eagle Valley Resort. Before the state would agree to guarantee loans, it required a feasibility study to determine if the resort could succeed. A Seattle consultant conducted the study and in March 1989 announced the project was not economically viable, and there was no international market for Alaska skiing.

Loken contends the study was deeply flawed. Specifically, she says, European travel agents were polled about how many clients had requested a ski vacation in Alaska. "But we didn't yet have a place to go skiing in Alaska," she said.

But others in the community saw an entirely different scenario. Pete Panarese, Chief of Field Operations for Alaska State Parks at the time, felt it was Rogner's development plans that were flawed. The project had the potential to leave the state with long-term operational and infrastructure costs, he says. "It went from being one of, 'Give us permission to proceed and we will bring $150 million of investment into your community,' to one of, 'Guarantee our $150 million investment and we will build a ski resort and condominium project for you.'"

Panarese also saw the project as a real estate speculation deal. "The ski area development was secondary," he said. "The developer brought us lots of drawings of buildings like condos and shopping malls at the base of the ski area, but had no knowledge of property ownership or snow conditions." Soon after Anchorage lost the Olympic bid, Rogner and his staff pulled up stakes, Panarese said.

Termination Dust

Had it become a reality, Eagle Valley Resort would have challenged skiers of all abilities.
Illustration courtesy of Rogner Touristik International
Rogner's representative, Klaus Ressman, stayed in Eagle River for about four months after the state declined to guarantee the loans. His aim, he reported to The Star, was to work toward increasing international demand for Alaska skiing. But Rogner soon summoned him back to Vienna to work on other projects. In July 1989, the state canceled its agreement allowing the developer access to Chugach State Park. The project was officially dead.

Imagine ...

How would Eagle River differ today if the resort had been built? It depends on who you talk to. Many people feel the state's feasibility study was valid. Some point to the poor snow conditions we've had in recent years and wonder if the resort could have stayed open long enough each season to turn a profit. Perhaps the Eagle Valley Resort would be our town's white elephant.

Others feel more positive. "It would have been the biggest snowmaking operation in the world at the time," concedes Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Gorski. "But there was a good water source, so that didn't frighten away the developer."

Loken believes the resort would have helped create a more vibrant downtown. With the expansion of Alyeska in the 1990s and the potential for development at Hatcher Pass, the Eagle Valley Resort would have been ideally situated within driving distance of both and would have attracted international visitors to the area, she says.

Eagle River is unlikely to see another project like the Eagle Valley Resort. Land status has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. But our neighbors to the north may have better luck as hopes for a Hatcher Pass ski resort live on.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, November 9, 2006.


Humble predecessors of Eagle Valley Resort

Alaska Star staff

At least two other local ski spots predate the Eagle Valley Resort, according to the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project Web site. The first, from around 1953-54, was located on the hillside east of the Old Glenn Highway in downtown Eagle River, behind Tips Bar. A rope tow powered by someone's car engine pulled skiers to the top of the slope. Skiing was free.

Chugiak's Ptarmigan Valley Resort operated in 1967 on the west-facing slopes of Roundtop Mountain (at the end of Ptarmigan Valley Trail). It included a lodge and a ski rental shop as well as two rope tows run from Dodge Power Wagon trucks. One of the ropes spanned 2,000 feet and sagged in the middle despite a support pulley, forcing skiers to hold the rope up out of the snow. Owner Ray Beam closed the area after a year because of conflicting land claims and financial trouble. See the Alaska Lost Ski Area Project Web site at www.alsap.org for more information.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, November 9, 2006.


Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article (26 March 2006) by Dermot Cole
In 1950s, local skiers took flight from Fairbanks ski jumps

FLYING HIGH: Two images zoom into view when I hear the words "ski jumping."
One is of an athlete stretched out over his skis as he tries to defy gravity without getting killed. The other is of the opening sequence to "Wide World of Sports," in which a crashing ski jumper became the TV symbol of the "agony of defeat."

As the Olympic ski jumpers glided gracefully across my TV screen the other day, I thought of writing about the time when ski jumping was a spectator sport in Fairbanks and liability issues were not a big worry.

I learned much about this from a fascinating Web site set up by Tim Kelley of Anchorage and Dave Brann of Homer. They call it the "Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project" and it's an ambitious attempt to preserve the skiing history of Alaska. Their Web site is at www.alsap.org.

With contributions so far from about 300 people, they have compiled a list of about 125 areas where people used to ski in Alaska. They have posted written accounts, maps and photos.

Kelley figures that we have many "lost" ski areas in Alaska because decades ago Alaskans had few options for winter recreation and on a per capita basis, more people took to skis for entertainment and exercise. A lot of these areas are now used for other purposes.

"We realize that Fairbanks has intense pride in its skiing history. So even though Dave lives in Homer and I in Anchorage, we put a lot of effort into the Fairbanks area ALSAP Web pages," Kelley said.

Indeed they have. There is information on Cleary Summit, Murphy Dome, Ski Boot Hill, Ullrhaven, Birch Hill and other locations. Kelley said at the moment they are particularly interested in finding ski pictures from Ski Boot Hill and Ullrhaven.

Their site contains some great accounts of the ski jumps at the University of Alaska and on Chena Ridge in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The UAF jump was on the hill just beyond the Patty Center, while the Chena Ridge jump was up on the hill above the Pump House restaurant.

Harvey Turner, who now lives in Anchorage, and Merritt Mitchell, a resident of Homer, were top competitors for the university in four events in the late 1940s and early 1950s--slalom, downhill, cross country and ski jumping.

Mitchell grew up in Minnesota and had been going off ski jumps since his childhood. Like Turner, he was a World War II veteran, and he enjoyed the thrill of the campus ski jump.

"It was something to do between classes," he said. "It was a good way to get the cobwebs out of your head because there wasn't much else for recreation."

Mitchell and Turner, now both in their 80s, estimated that skiers would be airborne for about 40 or 50 feet on the campus jump. It was built of poles and scrap lumber. The top was about where the road to the West Ridge is today.

Skier Donn Huber and others built a larger ski jump in the mid-1950s on Chena Ridge. Also made of trees cut from the site and scrap wood, the Chena Ridge jump allowed skiers to go about 90 feet in the air, Turner estimates. The jumpers would pack down the snow by walking sideways up the hill and zoom down and go off the end and up into the air.

"It was a thrill. It gave you a sensation that you just couldn't otherwise experience. You couldn't see where you were landing when you first took off, so that made it interesting," Turner said.

They said 10 to 20 people, most of them UA students who were World War II veterans, went ski jumping in those years. When they had competitions, dozens of spectators would attend.

Turner once broke a leg on the campus hill. It was not because of the jump or the landing, he said, but because his ski hooked a tree while he was slowing down.

Huber, who still lives in Fairbanks, said the jumpers did not try to get flat over their skis while airborne, the way jumpers do today.

"We used to do a lot of windmilling, leaning forward and moving our arms to keep from going too far forward," he said. "The biggest concern we had was falling forward and going head over heels."

The jumpers today look far more graceful, he said. He said that UA President Terris Moore used to park his airplane near the top of the UA hill. Sometimes the president would ski down the jump with the students. He didn't have a good takeoff at the bottom, but that didn't matter.

"We always admired him because he tried," he said.

Had snowboarding been around back then, Huber said, the ski jumpers would have undoubtedly given it a try.


The Alaska Nordic Skier (March 2005), article by Dave Brann
A Gold Mine of a Different Sort

Not many people have the pleasure of discovering a real treasure.  I was fortunate recently to discover one in my own community. 

I’ve know Merritt Mitchell for a number of years, first as a volunteer for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and later in a wood carving class.  Recently, a contributor to the Alaska Lost Ski Areas website suggested I talk to Merritt Mitchell of Homer for information about Anchorage and Fairbanks ski jumps.

My first phone conversation with Merritt gave hints of the treasure that was about to be uncovered.  Merritt said yes, both he and his wife Liz had been avid skiers and part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Ski Team.  Yes, he had been a jumper and had jumped in Anchorage and Fairbanks in the late 1940’s and through the 50’s.

Visions of the mother lode danced in my head as Merritt mentioned that he and Liz had quite a few black and white pictures, slides and even some home movies of their skiing days.  I was like a kid waiting for Christmas as Merritt and Liz visited a skiing buddy, Harvey Turner of Anchorage, to get more details about the Chena Ridge Jump in Fairbanks and to look for more pictures.  I know the excitement of finding color in a pan and I know how a few tiny flakes can send one imagining a pan full of nuggets.

As I sat down at the kitchen table in their home on Diamond Ridge, Liz produced a cup of fresh brewed coffee followed by three photo albums.  Merritt took a series of 8 X 10 black and white photos from a manila envelope.

For the next two hours, the treasure was spread before me.  Scattered throughout the albums were pictures of Merritt making a record jump in Anchorage, of Al Paige in flight from the Skarland jump in Fairbanks, of Liz on the slopes of Cleary Summit, of after ski parties in the graffiti decorated ski hut and ski mountaineering expeditions.

With these nuggets came the stories of friends, fun and adventure on skis, modest tales of a nearly perfect jump, skiing down a mountain with a broken ankle, of trophies and medals, and of slalom and downhill runs.

I have yet to see their slides of Salcha, but look forward to that as the early miners looked forward to the spring cleanup.  It was then the miners could determine the richness of their find.

As I go over the photos and reflect on the stories, I realize Liz and Merritt Mitchell are a real treasure, every bit as valuable as a strike on a distant mountain stream.

You can share in their treasure by going to the Alaska Lost Ski Areas website at www.alsap.org.  Tim Kelley and I will be posting some of the photos to the appropriate sites.  Check “recent updates” to find what has been added.

There are plenty of treasures still to be found, maybe you will find the next one.

Anchorage Daily News (14 November 2004), article by Craig Medred
History hides in remains of state's lost ski areas

(Published: November 14, 2004)

FIRE ISLAND -- Beneath new-growth cottonwood trees and alder, protected from the elements in a long-abandoned shed, the engine that once powered a rope tow at a ski hill just offshore from Anchorage looks almost ready to go.

Next door, the ski-waxing shack is roofless and deteriorating. But the metal-clad powerhouse remains in good repair, as does the tiny, log ski lodge almost lost to view in the regrowth forest.

This is where the long-gone citizens of this Knik Arm island used to ski.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Air Force manned a North America Radar Defense site here. As many as 150 people called the island home. They lived in an encampment one step removed from civilization.

Only five miles away across the mud flats sprawled a small but growing city of about 50,000 residents. Getting to the island, unfortunately, wasn't easy; it still isn't.

You can fly to an airstrip near the island's North Point, or take a boat to the beach on the high tide as Tim Kelley, his wife, Tammy, and a group of us did this summer for a look around.

A shareholder in Cook Inlet Region Inc., Anchorage's regional Native corporation, Tammy was able to obtain a permit to visit what is now one of the largest private landholdings in the Anchorage area. We spent an evening mountain-biking roads that criss-cross the island, running on the beaches and exploring what little is left of the human occupation.

Then we caught the morning tide for the run back to the Ship Creek boat ramp.

The Air Force abandoned the island decades ago. For a time, the Federal Aviation Administration based a few families there to maintain navigational aids used by airlines approaching Anchorage International Airport.

But by the 1980s, they were gone, too, the navigational aids by then having been fully automated.

The abandoned housing would eventually be demolished. Today, the only FAA building standing is a concrete fuel-storage bunker holding a big old fuel tank.

And the small structures associated with the ski area.

They appear to have been overlooked by the demolition crew that came to decommission the FAA station. The towers for the rope tow can still be found in tall thickets of alder growing along grassy fields that were once, obviously, the ski runs.

A talented Nordic skier, Kelley became interested in lost Alaska ski areas after talking to Dave Brann of Homer. Brann, a founding member of the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club and the father of Homer's Baycrest trail system, was inspired by the New England Lost Ski Areas Project years ago.

He subsequently decided to start poking around Alaska to see if there were any lost ski areas here. He found dozens, so many that Braun and Kelley have now begun their own Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project, found online at www.alsap.org.

As of last week, the Web site was "celebrating 67 lost ski areas in Alaska.''

Long before most of today's Alaskans arrived, the residents of the territory destined to become a state in 1959 were finding ways to enjoy the long winter.

Exactly how many ski areas -- alpine, nordic or jump -- were scattered across the far north is still unknown. Kelley and Brann think they're a long way from documenting them all.

"Hopefully more people will contribute stories, facts, leads and pictures to this site,'' they write on www.alsap.org. "And this site will become the definitive historical source for Alaskan ski sites."

Why make a lost ski areas Web site?

"Interest in Alaska history, and in preserving it," they write. "Love of skiing. Love of Alaska. Curiosity."

Also to appreciate the legacy of early Alaska skiing, "and because it's fun."

Last week, Kelley said he'd finally tracked down the story of an old rope-tow pulley in our Hillside neighborhood. I'd walked past it hundreds of times over the years and wondered about its history.

A neighbor, now deceased, told me there was a ski hill in the area when he'd built his house some 20 years ago.

Kelley said the Paradise Valley Rope Tow ran from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Four families living near the end of Switzerland Drive obtained a surplus, electric-powered rope tow from the Alyeska Ski Resort and set up a tow with 100 feet of vertical, he said.

There's no telling how many kids learned to ski there before the hill gave way to a subdivision and an associated Nordic ski trail was swallowed in part by what is now the road past my house.

Before that, Kelley wrote, there was quite the little ski area in Paradise Valley.

"Sam (Hayes, one of the founders) was a principal at a local school that was re-lighting their parking lot. So Sam obtained the old parking lot lights and installed them in trees to illuminate this little ski area. Each family had a key to the rope tow and lights. So whenever they felt like skiing, they'd turn on the lights and tow and ski away.

"Ken Richardson (a neighbor) said: 'It was a great ski hill for kids.' "

Richardson, who still lives on Switzerland, set up a Nordic trail just to the northeast of the intersection of Switzerland and Norway drives. Kerosene lamps lit it at night. I have no doubt Norway Drive was once part of the trail system, because the first time I drove it at the start of the '80s, it was still more trail than road.

A lot has changed since then, but there are still a few kids skiing back in the valley and more of them snowboarding.

It's the kind of healthy exercise that might help them avoid a track that's leading so many other kids to join America's obesity epidemic. We all might consider what our predecessors did to help kids stay active through the long, sub-arctic winter.

It doesn't take much of a hill or trail to get them started.

"Our Times"Alaska FAA Retirees newsletter (October 2004) & "Alaska Nordic Skier" newsletter (November 2004), by Tim Kelley

The Lost Ski Area of Fire Island



Like many skiers that frequent Kincaid Park, I often take in the awesome views of distant mountains from the park’s highpoints.  The Western Chugach to the east.  The Kenai Mountains to the south.  The volcanoes and peaks of the Aleutian Range and Tordrillo Mountains to the west.  The Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains to the north.


And like many Kincaid Park skiers, while gazing at distant peaks I often look right past Fire Island.  We folks in Anchorage don’t often think much of this little island.  This is probably because it’s a hard place to get to and there is not much of a reason to go there.  Besides glancing down at this island as we fly into the airport, we don’t pay much attention to it.


But this summer I found out there is more to Fire Island than many may think.  My wife and I got a permit to visit Fire Island from the Cook Inlet Region Corporation (CIRI) and we made three trips by boat to the island.  We found this deserted island to be a beautiful place to explore.  It is an island with an interesting history.  And it is an island that has long harbored a lost ski area.


That’s right.   There once was a ski area on Fire Island.  Half a century ago, 20 years before any trails were built at Kincaid Park, skiers were riding a rope tow and skiing down a small hill - 5 miles to the west of Kincaid.  There was even a small ski lodge and night skiing at Fire Island.


Back in the 80’s I remembered reading a newspaper article, which mentioned there was once a ski area at Fire Island.  So when we went to the island this summer, 20 years after reading the article, trying to find remains of this old ski area was a goal.  On our first trip it took a lot of bushwhacking but we finally located the ski area.  On a second trip we found the tow engine and ski lodge.  And on our third trip I tried to photograph as much of the ski area remains as I could.


So the obvious question is: “Who built and used this ski area?”  I figured the ski area had military or FAA roots, but I didn’t know the facts.  So I went searching on the Internet and I found Charlie Muhs.  Charlie is the editor of “Our Times”, the newsletter for FAA retirees that once worked in Alaska.  I asked Charlie if he could request from his colleagues any information about the ski area on Fire Island.  Thanks to Charlie I got some good feedback and was able to piece together some of the history puzzle of Fire Island and its ski area.


Jerry Brookman gave me some good historical information on Fire Island: In the early 1950’s the United State Air Force built a radar site on Fire Island (completion date was 1951).  This was one of the first four NORAD (North America Radar Defense) radar sites the USAF built in Alaska.  The other three sites built during that time were at King Salmon, Galena and Murphy Dome, north of Fairbanks.  The USAF built the Fire Island radar site on a high (300’) hill  in the mid-southern section of the island.  The site had living quarters for up to 150 personnel stationed there, plus the needed infrastructure: operations and control center, a fuel storage facility, maintenance shops, a power plant, etc.  Roads from the radar site were built leading to landing strips at the north and southwest ends of the island (however the southern strip was destroyed by the ’64 earthquake).


Another essential item that had to be developed was a pipeline to get diesel fuel from fuel barges docked in Shelter Bay, on the west side of the island, up to the site.  It is my theory, based on aerial maps and the location of pipeline remains on the island, that the pipeline was the catalyst for the ski area.  To get the pipeline up to the radar site, a large swath of the hill to the southwest was bulldozed.  After the pipeline was laid in this section and covered, a nice wide, open slope existed to the southwest of the radar facility.


USAF personnel working at Fire Island were stationed there.  Meaning – they were stuck there.  There was no popping into Anchorage after work for beer and dancing.  They were forced to devise their own on-island entertainment.  So I figure a group of them said: “Hey – we’ve got this nice skiable hill right here, and lots of time, so lets build a rope tow!”  And the ski area happened.  A rope tow with electric lights on the towers was built.  And a log warm-up hut for the ski area was erected.  Again, this is my theory.  If anyone knows that I’m wrong, I would love to have someone contact me and set the record straight.


In the early 60’s the work environment at Fire Island changed a bit.  The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) had recently been created and it was decided to make joint use of USAF radar sites.  So now a mix of FAA, USAF and Army personnel staffed the site.  According to Jerry Brookman, the Army folks where there to man a part of the control center used for early warning in connection with the Nike missile batteries at Site Summit, Goose Bay and Kincaid.


It was during the 1960s that the Fire Island ski area first got lost for the first time.  Former FAA’er Jim Vroomam said that during the 60’s and early 70’s he and his Fire Island colleagues had no knowledge of a ski area on the island.  So apparently the rope tow wasn’t used during the 60’s and early 70’s.  But the ski hill was used as a toboggan run then.  Susan Ross spent from 1971 to 1974 on Fire Island.  Her husband was an FAA mechanic working on the island.  During this time the staffing of Fire Island was waning, only 20 or so adults lived on the island with their families.  Susan mentioned that she has fond memories of zooming down the hill on homemade toboggans.  And that her husband and friends tried to resurrect the ski tow, but never got it operational.


But during the latter years of radar site operations, the ski tow did come back to life.  Mark Kelliher worked on Fire Island from 1974 to 1979.  He said that a group of his friends got the ski tow working again.  The catch was, the ski tow’s automatic shutoff didn’t work anymore.  So they needed someone to man the top of the rope to make sure no one got sucked into the tow motor shack!  Mark said “We only used [the lift] on weekends when we could get enough people to: run the lift, keep us in beer, food, etc.  It was an island family affair.”  Sounds like the ski area had a good last few years!


In 1980 a radar system was commissioned at the former Wildwood Air Force Station, near Kenai.  This facility replaced the need for the radar at Fire Island.  And manned operations at Fire Island were discontinued.  Only an automated VORTAC site remained from then on for guiding planes enroute to Ted Stevens International Airport.


So as of 1979 or 1980, when the doors of the radar site were last closed, the Fire Island ski area was again lost.  And this time I wonder if it was REALLY lost.  I say this because during the early 90’s (though I’m not exactly sure of the timeframe) massive cleanup operations were undertaken on the Fire Island radar site.  All buildings, except the fuel storage facility, were razed.  But for some reason the ski area was untouched.  Why was this?  Was it because no one thought the ski tow engine, towers and cabin needed to be removed?  Or were the ski area remains so overgrown with alders and devil’s club that the ski area escaped detection and removal?


I imagine the FAA retirees that spent time on Fire Island have fond memories of this place - whether or not they skied or sledded the old ski hill.  Fire Island is a beautiful place with many diverse and unique features.  It’s a great place to explore.  And like Sharon Ross said there’s “so many things to do” on this island.  I definitely agree with Sharon.  And I am sure I too would have enjoyed living, working and, of course, skiing on Fire Island.


I’d like to give immense thanks to the following FAA Alaska retirees for their input on Fire Island history: Jerry Brookman, Charlie Muhs, Jim Vrooman, Sharon Ross, Mark Kelliher and Ken Odsather.