HATCHER PASS — The long awaited ski lift in Hatcher Pass finally has a name: Skeetawk. Submitted by Kevin Tubbs, it translates to 'where we all slide down' in Dena'ina. Skeetawk beat out 459 other names submitted to Hatcher Pass Alpine Xperience. The other three finalists were Fishhook, Ptarmigan and Pinnacle.
Families, dogs, skiers, and boarders flocked to the parking lot at mile 10.6 of Hatcher Pass road to witness history. For decades, groups and individuals have toiled to no avail in efforts to get a ski lift up to Hatcher Pass. With a grant from the Mat-Su Health Foundation of $500,000, it became that much closer. With a name, it became real.
The orchestrators of Skeetawk have spent two years organizing fundraisers and community events. A storage space was built for the grooming tool, the snowcat. After the board of directors narrowed the list of names submitted down to four, the 164 members of HAX voted. In a landslide, Skeetawk won the contest.
Kevin Tubbs, lifelong skier, submitted the winner.
"I heard they were having a contest and I thought I should be able to come up with a name. This was all Dena'ina land before we got here so I wondered if there would be respectful phrases. I pulled out my handy Dena'ina to English dictionary and started looking for phrases and came up with about two dozen. I narrowed it down to a dozen and submitted them. The literal translation is the place we slide down or the place we let it slide. it doesn't get more appropriate than that for a ski resort," said Tubbs.
"It's nice to pay respects to the folks who were here before us, and it's a nice play on words."
Community involvement for HAX started two years ago with Louisa Branchflower.
"We have people on our board who have seen all the previous ones too so they've had a skin in the game for a long time. David Hendrickson started the Alyeska ski patrol 65 years ago. I got involved because the Borough put out some money to get something happening out here. I organized the community to see if anybody was doing anything about it and that’s how all these people started coming out and decided it was up to us to do it, and here we are," said Branchflower.
"I'm super-excited, beyond excited. It's good to have a name now, and a Dena'ina name that honors them. There's not too many places around here that have native names anymore, it's kind of cool. Our mission is to build a ski area but what's happening is so much more. We're building a community, making family and friends. A lot of these people I didn't know two years ago are like family now. We want to bring together a community and give our children a place to safely recreate outside, give them a passion for recreation, for the mountains, for the sport, for the families. We want this to be a place where Valley people can afford to come regardless of income. We want to encourage this instead of all the other things that they could be getting into, healthy recreation," said Branchflower.
Pickup trucks and hybrid sedans lined the parking lot well before the posted start time of 11 a.m. Some showed out of curiosity, but many showed to take advantage of an open slope. Parents slid down the hill, holding onto their children’s sleds in front of them. Some brought their own skis and put skins on to hike up higher before descending. Some were there for the snow, but many were there for the cocoa. A fire was started in the corner to keep those warm who had not dressed to ski. Hot dogs were handed out and the cocoa was hot and ready with marshmallows, whipped cream and extra chocolate. A community gathered to celebrate the naming of what so many have worked for over two years, and so many have anticipated much longer than that.
"This really represents a community effort to have a resource for people that want to learn safely. And we're looking towards ski programs for people in the Valley that want something close by, we're looking forward to education programs. This effort has been going on for 30 years and so one of the conversations we have all the time is: is this really happening? The health foundation grant signals that we're serious and we have a plan and enough structure in place that this is moving forward. That's big for us," said Ellen Edwards.
The lift is not in place yet. More funding is still necessary to get the lift purchased and shipped from New Hampshire. But those that have seen the movement progress have the utmost confidence that a ski lift will grace the slopes in one the coming winters.
Branchflower encourages conversation, as she has heard a lot of rumors and speculations about ruining Hatcher Pass, a rumor she claims is simply not true. The planned lifts will not interfere with existing 16 mile or Paradise road runs, and hope to eventually reach the upper peaks. Phase 1-A is what is in the works, but there are more runs planned farther up the mountains and father into the future.
"It'll be what the community wants it to be. We're not for skiers or boarders, we're for whatever people want. We're here for those days that the backcountry may be not safe. A lot of our board and stakeholders are backcountry skiers. There's a niche here for everyone. People that love 16 mile are going to continue to ride 16 mile, but dropping your kid off at the top of 16 mile and meeting them at the bottom is kind of terrifying," said Edwards. "People are cautiously optimistic given the history. The fact that all of this has happened in two years is pretty amazing.”