ANCHORAGE — Getting up to catch a 7:30 a.m. bus on a Sunday morning might not seem like most kids’ idea of a good time. Unless it’s a snow day.
Nearly 90 students from Chugiak-Eagle River joined dozens of their peers from across Anchorage on Feb. 18 in a bus caravan south to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, where they converged for a program that for two decades has been introducing generations of skiers and boarders to the mountain.
“This is pretty sweet,” said Jake Rogers, a sixth grader at Mirror Lake Middle School while taking a lunch break in the day lodge.
The Alyeska Discover program is a partnership between the resort 30 miles south of Anchorage and local schools, which provide “team leaders” who travel with the students and coordinate and recruit adult chaperones.
“It’s a great way to introduce skiing and snowboarding to the kids,” said Mirror Lake teacher Todd Gillespie, who began helping out as a chaperone 17 years ago when his oldest son was learning to ski and now serves as a team leader. Gillespie said there’s one chaperone for every 10 kids who sign up.
Alyeska director of marketing Sandy Chio explained there are three levels within the program. For beginners, the resort offers basic lessons that get kids up on their feet. Intermediate skiers can sign up for specialized instruction that helps bridge the gap between learning and being on their own. For the more advanced kids, lessons aren’t part of the package — although the bus ride and discounted lift tickets are a major benefit.
Chio said participants sign up for a block of three days as part of a package. In addition to the cheap lift tickets and transportation, Chio said a big draw of the program is that parents know their children will be in a semi-supervised environment.
“You want to know your kids are safe and secure,” Chio said.
Students interested in participating in the program can inquire at their school or visit www.alyeskaresort.com.
Chio said the program wouldn’t work without the help of the teachers, who serve as team leaders who organize the chaperones.
“They’re the glue,” she said.
Although the kids are supervised, Alyeska is a big mountain. Once the kids are turned loose, most (especially the advanced skiers and boarders) are free to explore the resort’s 1,000 acres of skiable terrain on their own. For sixth-grade snowboarders Jake Rogers and Trevor Tarbox, the freedom of being among so many other kids is a big draw.
“Sometimes you come here with your parents and you don’t know many kids here,” Rogers said. “When you come here with your friends you know exactly what you’re gonna do and you know exactly what you wanna do.”
Before Rogers could finish, Tarbox cut him off.
“And you get to go places your parents won’t let you go, like the North Face,” he said, referring to Alyeska’s popular off-piste terrain.
The boys’ sixth-grade classmate C.J. Doubek said he was boarding for the first time on Sunday. Although he spent a lot of time on his rear end, Doubek said he was already hooked.
“I’m literally soaking wet right now from snowboarding and it is awesome!” he said.
When students who participate return to school on Mondays, Gillespie said they’re usually full of stories about their exploits on the mountain.
“The conditions this year are amazing, and the stories are always about that jump or that wipeout or that fresh powder,” he said. “This year we’ve had a lot of snow, so the chitter chatter is about the conditions. They just don’t stop with these deep snow stories.”
That kind of enthusiasm is what makes the program so worthwhile both as a recreational opportunity and in the classroom, he said.
“As long as you can use it to get kids motivated about something, you want to hold onto it,” he said.
Gillespie said the program makes even more sense for kids from Chugiak-Eagle River, which is located an hour’s drive north of Girdwood.
“Eagle River has one of the biggest turnouts, I think logistically because it’s so far away,” he said.
Fellow teacher and team leader Todd Harrington agreed. But he also said he thinks the Chugiak-Eagle River area has a high number of people already into winter recreation.
“It’s part of the culture there,” he said.
Having a bus that can provide safe, reliable transportation to and from the mountain is a huge help to parents, he said.
“It’s really turn-key,” Gillespie said. “It’s just an excellent deal.”
Chio said the idea is to get kids hooked on skiing and snowboarding for a lifetime.
“In a lot of ways for us it’s a no-brainer to support this kind of program,” she said. “If they fall in love with skiing or snowboarding at a young age, they’re going to continue as adults.”
That’s just what happened with skier Zach Stark, a former program participant from Chugiak who now serves as a chaperone. Stark said many former student participants enjoy returning because it’s a fun way to stay involved with the sport.
“We’re lifers,” he said.
Parent volunteer Andy Craig said getting so many kids on the mountain at once is a great way to foster excitement for the sport.
“They get to go ski with their friends, show off and just have a good time,” Craig said.
Students who missed out on previous three-weekend sessions still have one more opportunity to participate, with the final block set for April. With Alyeska experiencing one of its largest snowfalls in history this winter, Travis Harrington said kids would be wise to sign up now.
“Over 500 inches of snow, it’s going to be some great spring skiing,” he said.