Park gives youth place to get around

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

To most of us, popping a nollie kickflip off a fly box or doing a fakie crooked grind down a rail makes about as much sense as a lecture on the ins and outs of advanced subatomic particle physics.

However, to a group of area skateboarders, these terms are as clear as the sun sparkling off the polished metal ramps at their new skateboard park in Kenai.

"They're ecstatic," said Bob Frates, director of Kenai Parks and Recreation Department. "(The park) has gone over very well, in fact, the most negative statement I hear among the kids is that it's not big enough."

The park, a fenced-in area at the Kenai Recreation Center, was two years in the making. The idea originally came from area youth, Frates said. The concept was considered and approved by the Parks and Recreation Commission. The project was than approved for construction by the Kenai City Council.

Bowman McDonald, a sophomore at Kenai Central High School, is an avid skateboarder and was involved with the park project from the beginning.

"We came up with a plan to go to the city," McDonald said. "Lots of the kids here were getting in trouble. I thought it would be a break for us and the businesses to have a place to go and have fun."

Frates asked a group of skateboarders, McDonald included, to help choose the types of ramps the park should have. Parks and Rec ordered the unassembled ramps and other elements from the American Ramp Co. in Missouri and put them together with the help of area welders and a representative from the skateboarding company.

"The representative from the skateboard company who came up to help commented that these welders were some of the best he'd ever seen," Frates said.

The park opened with a kickoff celebration and opening ceremony Sept. 15. About 200 parents, skateboarders and residents came to listen to the band and watch the skateboarding demonstration put on by Zumie's from Anchorage, Frates said.

Standing in a corner of the park nearly a month after it opened, McDonald pointed out the different ramps and elements, casually explaining the names and uses that a re second nature to him.

The drop-in ramp is where the fun begins. This ramp gives the skateboarder a starting place to gain the speed necessary for most aerial stunts. At the other end of the park is a quarter pipe ramp, which is taller and more curved than the drop-in. It is also used to gain speed for stunts and to begin a run.

In between these ramps are the fly box and the fun box. The fly box is a square, raised platform with ramps extending off two sides facing the drop-in and the quarter pipe ramps. The fun box is used to launch the skateboarder into the air to perform stunts that require height and speed.

Next to the fly box is the lower, rectangular fun box, which is used to perform grinds and slides, McDonald said. Grinds and slides are where a skateboard moves along an object sliding on the wood part of the board or the board's metal trucks (the wheel housings), rather than the wheels.

Two metal grind rails complete the course, a smaller one off to the side of the ramps and a larger one on top of the fly box. Skateboarders can do a variety of grinds and slides on rails.

"The rails are more difficult because they require more balance," McDonald said.

They also can be more dangerous.

"What freaks me out is falling backward off the fly box handrail and cracking my head open," said Tyler Harris, a junior at KCHS.

According to Frates, the price tag for the park -- including the ramps, rails and fence surrounding it -- was $32,000. The funds came from the multipurpose project fund and were approved by the Kenai City Council and Parks and Recreation Department Commission.

"It's a pretty good park right now. I'm pretty happy with it," McDonald said. "It's mostly beginning ramps here. I would like to see more advanced and harder ones."

McDonald's dad used to ride BMX bikes, and when McDonald was 5, his dad started him riding. McDonald also snowboards. He got into skateboarding to improve his snowboarding skills during the off season. A lot of his friends skateboard, as well, which was another incentive for him to get into the sport, he said.


Tyler Harris waits to make another run near sundown.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

McDonald has been coming to the park after school -- rain or shine, even though the ramps are slippery when wet, Frates said.

"I just come and try whatever I can think of," McDonald said. "I landed a couple varial flips, and I'm trying to be more consistent on those."

A varial flip is a kickflip and a shove-it (see terminology sidebar) combined, he explained, using his hands to illustrate the skateboard's movements.

If the traffic increase at the rec center since the park opened last month is any indication, the new skateboard park has been well received.

Since then, 210 skateboarders have signed up for park privileges and gone through the orientation process. To be able to use the park, skateboarders must attend an orientation meeting with their parents and learn about safety precautions and the rules of the park.

"The rec center has had a lot of, I think, unnecessary rules, but you can go inside and get drinks and stuff, so that's nice," said Harris. "It's to get us out of the public places. It's someplace we know we can skate and not get kicked out of."

Overall, Harris said he thinks the park is a lot of fun, but is not happy with it being fenced in, having access restricted to scheduled hours and having it open to the elements.

"I wish they'd cover it up," he said. "If they spent the money to fence it in they could put a roof on it."

Harris has been skateboarding for two years and snowboards, as well.

"I started listening to punk music and skateboarding seems to go with punk," he said.

When he's at the park, Harris mainly likes to just skate around, he said, but he's also working on being able to do an ollie -- an "air" performed by smacking the tail of the board on any surface -- where the skateboarder jumps and tries to keep their feet with the board.

"One of the things I find surprising is the skill level of some of these kids," Frates said. "I'd hate to venture a guess as to where they acquired these skills -- probably behind some of our local businesses -- but they are very good. That's neat to see the kids improving over the last month. And I know better than to get out there and try it because I know what would happen.

"A lot of people don't recognize skateboarding as a sport, but it is a skill builder. They're working on balance and coordination."

When asked if they considered skateboarding a sport, the skateboarders at the park answered with a resounding yes -- but not a team sport like basketball or baseball.

"It's an individual sport," Harris said. "You don't have to depend on anybody else. If you screw up, it's your fault, and there's no set rules; you just do whatever you want."

Team sports can exclude people who are athletic and competitive, but would simply rather rely on themselves.

"(Skateboarding) helps a lot with balance, mostly it's a challenge," McDonald said. "It's something that I enjoy. I've tried (team sports) before -- we're just not really into them. Here when you land a trick it's just you doing it, it's not a team effort. When you land something you've been trying forever, it's a great accomplishment."

As with any sport, skateboarding comes with risks. Cuts, scrapes, bruises, turned ankles and worse can come from an ill-executed stunt. There is a wide variety of safety gear available, but the problem is getting people to wear it.

"I'm taken by the fact that a lot of the kids find it uncool to wear safety gear," Frates said. "It's unfortunate. I think it's important to be creative and find ways to encourage kids to wear safety gear. I don't have any answers for that problem at this time, but there's got to be something we can do, like maybe we can loan out gear."

The rec center encourages but does not require park users to wear the gear. It would be too much of a liability issue to require it, Frates said, and unfair to the kids who don't have any.


A skateboarder casts a long shadow on a recent afternoon at the Kenai Recreation Center's new park.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

For now, the rec center staff is dealing with the problem through the orientation meeting and constant reminders to be careful. If a park user breaks one of the rules by being unsafe, they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, Frates said.

"The kids need to be aware of their abilities and skill levels and not try something they shouldn't do," Frates said.

The skateboarders gave the same types of reasons for not wearing gear: they don't have it, they don't want to buy it or they don't think they need it.

"I wear it for biking because you're going a little bigger on bikes," McDonald said. "I'm starting to think wrist guards would be a good idea. Lots of times when you fall your first reaction is to put your hands down."

But the threat of injury, no matter how severe, doesn't seem to scare the park users into getting pads and helmets.

"I know it could happen any time, but I love what I'm doing," McDonald said. "They said skate at your own risk. I would give up anything to be doing what I'm doing right now. If I break something, it'll heal and I'm back out here again."

The only skateboarder wearing a helmet at the park Oct. 12 was Dean Howell, a sixth-grader at Kenai Middle School, who said his mother requires him to wear the helmet. On the upshot for Howell, he gets a dollar off pop in the rec center for wearing safety gear.

Neither of his two friends at the park that day, Michael Wirz and Anthony Borromeo, also KMS sixth-graders, had gear on.

"You fall, but for every time you fall you get better," Wirz said.

So far there have been only a few minor injuries at the park, which haven't created too many problems for rec center staff, Frates said, although he did find the kids' reluctance to wear safety gear surprising.

The other challenge, Frates said, is trying to get the park's users to care for the facility.

"The biggest challenge to us is to try and instill this pride in the kids -- that they wanted the park and now they've got it so take care of it and be responsible for it," Frates said.

Park users have risen to the challenge so far, he said, although there is some room for improvement.

"I hope we can prove to them that we can handle it so they will make it bigger," Wirz said.

Frates said the park will close in the winter and reopen in spring. In the meantime, parks and rec will listen to comments from park users and community members.

"Having kids and parents go through the orientation gives us an opportunity to talk to the parents and get feedback," Frates said. "We'll get through this fall and look at what changes need to be made next spring."

The possible changes would be expanding the park, finding a new location for it, covering it and rearranging the hours so bike riders would be able use it more.

Another possibility is to do a skateboarding demonstration, like the one at the park's opening, a skills camp or a competition.

"I'd love to see competitions for bikes and skateboarders, that would be fun for everyone," McDonald said. "We could test our skills against our peers, and it's also a way to see what we need to work on."

Despite the comments asking for changes, Frates said he believes the park has been a success and will be used as a model for other communities looking into building a park.

The park is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. There are separate times for BMX bike riders and skateboarders. Bikes will be allowed in the park Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. and in-line skaters and skateboarders are allowed to use the park the rest of the time.

"This could not have happened without the support of parents and kids in the community, the support of the city council and parks and recreation committee members, parks and recreation staff members and the cooperation and coordination with the local businesses and oil field companies," Frates said.

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