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Emilie Springer: Ohlson Mountain Rope Tow

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Sarah Banks
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     “The closing day for Homer’s rope tow is coming right up,” Bill Wiebe tells me as we sit down to talk about some history.  May 9th is the last day, one more Sunday! “Come on out, even if you don’t ski!  Come up and look at it, it’s pretty cool,” Wiebe says.  He’s joined by Sarah Banks.

     “We may have a little hill but people come out of here being great skiiers and snow boarders. You have talk to Davey Baird,” both Wiebe and Banks agree.  

     The Rope Tow has been around for more than 50 years now, there have been several different locations.  “It started out with just axels from old trucks.  Someone would just take the tire off, put a rope around it and run it up the hill,” Wiebe explains. Banks says, “it’s been around 72 or maybe even 73 years, now!  It’s the oldest non-profit in Homer.”  
     “It was going really well in the 70’s, that was the best up-grade of the Tow, we had two or three before that but that’s when they moved it to the top of the hill,” he says.  Then there were some bad snow years in the early 80’s and it went through some slower seasons.  Wiebe says that’s about when he started participating, “I wasn’t on the Board then, I just had a six year old who wanted to go skiing.”  “In the last couple years it’s really started to get more popular again.  We’ve had some really good snow,” Banks says.
     
     And this year? “Sundays exploded with consistently big crowds.  We had one day with more than 200 kids,” Wiebe says.  “Actually, for most of the season it was 150 plus,” Banks says.  “It was a good snow year and people were looking for outdoor stuff to do without wanting to drive up to Girdwood,” she says.  And, Wiebe says, “there has also been some real passionate work done by some of our staff with the infrastructure up there.”

     I ask how many people it takes to run the operation.  “It started out with 2 or 3 but now we’re up to 6 because of COVID precautions, spacing, setting up more lines and gates.  We definitely needed a few more volunteers and hopefully we’ll be able to drop back down.  We kind of ran into volunteer burn-out because we needed so many people this year,” Banks explained.  Really, throughout the conversation, both speakers have mentioned many names of people who have participated in various volunteer positions starting back in the 1970’s, it definitely sounds like a true community effort and something that people will hold on-to.  

     I did get a chance to talk to Davey Baird about (some) of his experiences in world-class, professional snowboarding and how they relate back to growing up with Homer’s Rope Tow.  Also joining me on the deck of Baird’s new Kachemak Bay tour boat, the Seabird, were long time rope tow snowboarder Adam Barker and Davey’s fiancé Lindsey Seneff.  To start with, I asked him some of his earliest memories of the Ohlson Mountain snow.  In about 2011, Baird’s dad would tow him, cross-country from their home on West Hill “over back country, gullies and valleys over to the tow and then I would ride all day, dad would hang out with his buddies and then he’d pick-me up.  It was kind of our Sunday deal,” Baird said.  Baird asked Barker, “What was your first rope tow experience?”  Barker remembers a little farther back, “in about 1989 or 90 there was a good group of snowboarders using the rope tow.  The first year I snowboarded, we had to get a license to shred or no ride at Alyeska because snowboarding was so new that they weren't sure that you'd have control to get on the lift and stuff,” he said.

     Baird says he never really skied at the rope tow, he always snow-boarded starting about age 8.  He started traveling for snow pretty much right out of high school. “I did a couple of winters in Salt Lake City and spent some time sort of road tripping around and exploring the skiing, snowboarding community in other States, which is like a really cool thing,” he said.  “It's very prominent in certain areas of the United States and not so much here. You see a lot of snowboard films that that come out of Alaska because we have the super gnarly mountains but the culture is dispersed here,” he said. “You go to these big hubs, like Salt Lake City and Bellingham and find these super tight knit skiing, snowboarding communities. And just trying to find that, integrate myself into it learn what the whole culture was about is a super cool experience,” he said.  

     Next, Baird participated in the “qualifying tour.”  He explains for me, the qualifying circuit is for international competitive snowboarding.  There’s a circuit that runs in the United States and Canada, another in Europe and another in the Oceanas for big mountain free riding. Adam immediately asks where the qualifiers were: “I hit six of them. One in Revelstoke, one in Red Mountain in British Columbia, and then won a Grand Targhee. One in Taos, New Mexico, Colorado, Crested Butte.”  

     Lindsey casually points out this is a big deal, he’s being pretty modest. “It was funny because I had never competed before. And, I just kind of like threw myself into these competitions and was sort of the new guy,” he said.  Since then, he’s competed for 4 winters and now, is ready to take a break.  Not finished, but ready for a break. “I was just having a hard time supporting myself with all the travel,” he said.  “Gear wasn’t a problem, I got as much gear as I could ask for but no one was really supporting me financially with travel and general living expenses” he said.

     He comes back to Homer’s Ohlsen: “That's why the rope tow is so beautiful too, because it's cheap and it gets people out and you get some vert and you can be creative, build some jumps if you want to.”  Barker and Baird agree, the slope at Ohlson “is totally conditioning.”  Baird says, “when I was younger and it wasn’t quite as busy You'd have your core squad and you guys would just ride to the top. As soon as you were at the top, you could bomb down and literally just ride loops and never stop on your snowboard.  You just ride right up to the rope and away you go. The verticle drop you’re getting in a day is probably more than Alyeska.”

     We talk about some ski runs on the other side of Kachemak Bay that locals use. He’s modest, again, but eventually says, “backcountry skiing across the bay reached a new level for me this year. My friend Parker Sorensen got a ski plane and we were able to do some pretty amazing trips onto the glaciers. You need a permit from the park to do that, but I’m the lucky friend who got to do that a few times.”  

     Lindsay reminds him of another “milestone” of the year: “We got a group of four people together, plus Parker flew up for a little bit. We flew out to Talkeetna up to the Alaska range and camped on a glacier for like nine days and did some really fun riding up there. Yeah. The snow was incredible! But cold! It was negative every morning.”  Clearly, many more stories here.

     We finish with the presence of Ohlson for the season.  Adam’s the one who was there most frequently: “I'm so glad that they were able to work through COVID and make it happen. There were several of us that might've been a little bummed that the little day lodge thing was closed down, but It never was an issue.  They had the fire going, kids were able to warm up and the nice fire pit and all the benches around the new deck.”

     Thank you, everyone at Ohlson for everything!  World class training for all of our skiers.  Join the rope tow on their last Sunday and come check it out.  Everyone is welcome.

 

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