By JOEL GAY
Anchorage Daily News
April 20, 2005
They gambled on Alaska's weather but arrived after a string of flight-grounding snowstorms had frustrated other heli-skiers for nearly a week. Now the sun poked through. Walsh, along with Alex Bissonnett and Guy LaFleur, watched blue sky spread in big patches.
"We scored!" he crowed.
In a few minutes they were off, flying effortlessly over waist-deep snow and thick brush, past isolated valleys and ice-rimed peaks, to untracked slopes and what Walsh later called "one of the best days of my life."
Chris Owens hears that often. Alaska is emerging as the new must-go destination for heli-skiers, and Owens, co-owner of Girdwood-based Chugach Powder Guides, keeps track of the buzz. The state's heli-ski industry is small but building, he said. It brings a welcome dose of winter tourism dollars for a renewable commodity - powder snow.
"Alaska's time has come," he said.
Fans see the helicopter as a perfect fit for Alaska, but disputes erupt virtually everywhere the business lands. Even as skiers, snowboarders, flightseers and heli-assisted mountain bikers rave about their flights, people on the ground in Juneau, Haines, Valdez and, most recently, Cantwell and Moose Pass have gone hoarse yelling stop.
In Moose Pass, the antipathy toward heli-business goes beyond the high-pitched whir of turbine engines and percussive whop of rotor blades. Rick Smeriglio, one of several Moose Pass residents who sued to block expanded helicopter skiing on the Kenai Peninsula, says the incessant expansion of tourism seems to override local concerns.
"My chief complaint with the Forest Service is that they recognize no upper limit," Smeriglio said. The agency, which manages most of the land in the Kenai Mountains around Moose Pass, nearly doubled Chugach Powder Guides' operation over community objections.
Guided heli-skiing in Alaska began as early as 1974. Eight or more companies now operate in Haines, Cordova, Valdez and Girdwood, with seasons typically lasting 10 to 12 weeks. Almost no statistics exist to monitor the industry's size, growth or value.
Elsewhere, it's big business. A 2002 study in British Columbia found that even in a poor winter, skiers paid more than $63 million to reach untracked powder by helicopter or snow cat. That's just a fraction of the amount spent at the region's ski lifts. But person for person, heli-skiers spent $20 for every $1 spent by conventional skiers.
Alaska can and should get a piece of that, said Kevin Quinn, owner of Points North Heli-Adventures, which operates out of Cordova. "The future is huge," he said.
And the market is expanding, thanks to the new generation of wide, easy-turning skis. Almost anybody in good physical condition can heli-ski.
Noise may be the most notorious characteristic of helicopter tourism, but many in Moose Pass say it's a minor issue. A bigger concern is how their community, surrounded by government-managed lands, can have a say in its own future.
Annie Gaule moved to the Seward Highway community in the late 1970s. It was a little quieter then. "We played Frisbee on the highway, on the Fourth of July weekend," she recalled, laughing at the memory.
Now highway traffic is nonstop in summer. On the far side of the lake, Alaska Railroad trains rumble past several times a day.
The area is already noisy, the Gaules agreed, but it's not what drove them to join the lawsuit protesting the expansion of heli-skiing.
"As we grew into this and learned the issues," John Gaule said, "we realized the Forest Service overstepped their boundaries for what we felt their job is, to protect the forest."