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Story Last modified at 10:27 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Enjoying Eagle River's own ski hill before the snow melts
Annual Merry Marmot Festival a reminder of the fun in our backyard

Alaska Star


John Trimble celebrates after successfully, and safely, negotiating the adult tube race course during the Merry Marmot Festival.

Fierce wind gusts did little to slow the party at Arctic Valley. If anything, they helped lift the smell of grilled salmon burgers higher up the hillside.

For the seventh year, the Anchorage Ski Club hosted its annual Merry Marmot Festival at the laid-back ski area in the Chugach Mountains, a wacky, fun-themed bash meant to celebrate the people and the backyard ski slopes they call home.

"We're just here for the love of Arctic Valley," said Beth Sharp.

Sharp was flipping burgers outside the resort's Alpenglow lodge and arguing with fellow griller Tony Freije over who was in charge.

"It's grillmaster Tony and assistant Beth," Sharp said.

"No way, I'm the assistant," Freije fired back.

The debate was never really settled, as both took turns flipping burgers and keeping the reindeer hot links from getting too hot on either side. As they cooked, another volunteer stood by, patiently waiting to bring another tray of fresh food to the folks inside – most of whom were sipping beer and tapping their boots to live bluegrass.

Outside, a handful of skiers and boarders took advantage of one of the season's last days (the final day of operation is April 9), getting a few last trips down the windblown but still well-covered terrain.

"It's surprisingly good," said Chris Page, who as a ski rep for Icelantic skis was one of the few people working at the event.

Page said he'd sent a number of demo skis out on the hill, and "they didn't come back beat up," a good sign that the skiing was still decent.

Though he wasn't overcome with business, Page said it was worth the 10-mile drive up Arctic Valley Road just to take part in the festival.

"I like to support the local hills," he said.

Most of the partygoers were Arctic Valley regulars, no surprise for a ski area that relies almost entirely on the folks who ski there.

One of those people is Al Heckart, who explained that the nonprofit ski hill wouldn't be operational without community support.

"The hill itself probably burns up 80 percent of what our budget is each year and it probably makes about 30 percent," he said.

The rest of the money to help fund Arctic Valley comes from fundraisers and ski club memberships. And while the area did hire a couple lift attendants this season, unpaid friends of the mountain do the rest.

"We can't run without volunteers," Heckart said.

Though many people preferred to sit inside and enjoy the food, music and beer, the Merry Marmot Festival is, after all, about celebrating the mountain. And so its slopes hosted a feast of events, including a snowshoe race, a downhill kayak race, a big air contest, tube races for kids and adults and the "dummy drop," in which decorated dummies were sent flying off a makeshift jump.

Aquarian Charter School student Richard Gordon-Rein, 10, won the kids' tube race, pumping his arms in celebration after beating a half-dozen other children across the finish line. He said the secret was a fast start.

"I got ahead early and then at the end of the race when I hit the powder, someone came up and hit the back of my inner tube and I kind of rocketed forward," he said.

Adult tube winner Brian Kirkpatrick used the same strategy to claim victory.

"I had a running start," he admitted after winning the race.

Though not a winner, fellow competitor John Trimble said the 15-second ride down the hill was more than worth the face full of snow most competitors ended up with at the bottom.

"Best 20 bucks I ever spent," Trimble said.

Heckart said that's pretty much the idea behind the festival – to have a few laughs, mess around on the hill and enjoy one last weekend with the Arctic Valley family.

"Just a fun day," he said. "It's a party."

Contact Matt Tunseth at or 694-2727.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.