Alaska doesn’t come to mind as an incubator for skateboard talent. Even properly urban patches are mired in cold, dark and variable weather for the majority of the year. But in-spite of challenges, the skateboard scene in Alaska’s largest city is thriving.
Still, winter is struggle season for a small, hearty band of diehard skaters. And the recent closure of Southcentral Alaska’s lone indoor skatepark has driven skaters underground. Literally. A group of enthusiasts has started taking over a subterranean parking garage, breathing extra life into a scene that’s usually hibernating this time of year.
In a densely populated part of town one recent afternoon, it was slightly below freezing inside a small parking garage, with clumps of snow and veins of ice dotting the smooth concrete ground. Outside of normal business hours the private garage tends to be empty but for the deafening din of up to a dozen skaters throwing themselves at curbs, a metal bike-rack and small ramps they sometimes drive in right past a “No Trespassing” sign.
“There’s nothing to skate in the winter besides this,” Zack Crater explained. At 34, Crater is on the older side of the skaters in the garage, a mix of teenagers, 20-somethings and proper adults (full disclosure: this reporter has recreationally skateboarded for many years, in many places, including Anchorage.)
The terrain itself is unremarkable save that it is lit and covered from the elements. It certainly isn’t heated. If the weather is prohibitively cold, or if the private security guards who patrol the area after hours kick everyone out, Crater sometimes hosts a small crew at the tiny ramps inside his home garage.
“It’s probably the best thing in Anchorage to skate. Besides this place,” Crater added.
Crater is supremely confident on his board, charging into difficult tricks with the enthusiasm of a yellow Labrador engrossed in a game of fetch. He grew up around some of the world’s most famous professional skaters in Southern California’s Huntington Beach, home to some of the skateboard industry’s top talent. But he tired of the crowds and, wanting a change, moved to Anchorage five years ago. To his surprise, he found a weirdly strong skate scene.
“I wasn’t skating as much when I moved up,” Crater said. “But meeting a bunch of homies up here and seeing how hyped everybody was just got me more hyped to skate.”
Anchorage — and Alaska more generally — is an anomaly in the world of skateboarding, which was born of California’s warm climate and abundant asphalt. Neither feature applies to Alaska. And yet small skateparks are scattered improbably around the state, from Sitka to Fairbanks, Nome and Unalaska, even Kwethluk by the Kuskokwim River.
Anchorage taxpayers support five outdoor skateparks between Birchwood and Girdwood, with one of them set for a major expansion in the near future, according to Joshua Durand, a division director at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. From about April through October, the facilities are used extensively, some until late hours under the midnight sun. But like playgrounds or tennis courts, for about half the year the skateparks are useless, enveloped in ice and darkness.
“It hasn’t changed that much,” Brian Adams explained of the perennial hunt for places to skate during winter.
Adams is a professional photographer who grew up skating around the streets of Anchorage and taking pictures of his friends, chronicling the scene over the last 15 years in a zine he put out this fall. Winter has always been an obstacle for skaters in Anchorage. There’s never been a real solution, only coping. It is also one of the reasons the Railbelt skate scene so vigorously cross-pollinates with the snowboarding scene.
In recent years, one of the winter-time escape valves was an indoor skatepark at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Skaters would look for soldiers to befriend in order to get base access in the winter. But this year, the ramps were removed. According to base spokesman Jerome Baysmore, the facility wasn’t getting enough use to justify keeping it open.
“Because we still have never had an actual, long-term indoor skatepark in Anchorage, it hasn’t changed,” Adams said of the scene’s calendrical challenges. “We’re still skating the same old spots.”
In spite of the parking garage’s rising popularity this year, it’s been a semi-secret winter spot since Adams was a teenager.
Durand with Parks and Rec said that while privately run indoor skateparks have come and gone over the years, he’s not familiar with any model where one is run by a municipal entity. Heating, real estate and insurance costs are a challenge. Still, he doesn’t believe those obstacles are insurmountable, just policy decisions that haven’t been made.
In Adams’s telling, the strength of the skate scene in Alaska has fluctuated over the years, but the overall technical caliber of skateboarding keeps progressing.
“It’s amazing what they’re doing today,” Adams said. “It blows my mind.”
Generally, the status of skateboarding along the Railbelt is tied to whether or not there’s a locally owned snowboard or skate shop. Right now, that role is filled by Blue and Gold Boardshop, run by a former professional snowboarder, and nestled, like so many other Anchorage enterprises, within a sprawling strip mall. This fall, the small business put out “Evoke,” an impressive 30-minute video edited and produced by filmographer Kris Marshall, which showed off the current crop of local skate and snowboard talent. It’s the first such “shop vid” made in Alaska in more than a decade.
One of the star skaters is 30-year-old Tim Blevins, who works at the shop, and one recent morning rattled off all the Alaska towns he’s gone to explore for skate missions.
“Anchorage, Girdwood, Seward, Homer. I have skated in Kodiak, there’s not much there,” Blevins rattled off as he mended a snowboard boot. “We don’t really have much, man.”
Blevins recalled once driving five hours so a friend could try riding down a long, steep paved road inside Denali Park, ultimately succeeding by achieving a terrifying velocity.
Blevins grew up in Fairbanks, which has an even smaller, scrappier skate scene than Anchorage. He’s quick to expound on why his passion is less of a sport than a lifestyle or an ethic.
“It’s like contemporary art: you take ten dudes and put them in front of a spot and they’re all going see something different,” Blevins explained. “People try to emulate their favorite skateboarder, whether it’s through clothes or through tricks. But you’re never going to be that guy. You’re only gonna be yourself. So you have to be yourself on a skateboard and do what you want to do.”
For the thin band of skateboarders in Alaska who are at Blevins’s level of talent, there’s a stark choice to make. If they want to achieve industry recognition and make enough money to live on from skating alone, then they have to leave Alaska. Blevins did live in the Lower 48 at one point and, in his younger years, seriously weighed trying to make it as a pro. But the lifestyle required didn’t mesh with what he loves most about skateboarding.
“I think guys up here that skate are… real skateboarders,” Blevins said. “It doesn’t matter where it is, what it is. It could be a curb, a piece of plywood on the flat ground, but they have so much passion for skateboarding that they will do it no matter what.”
For Blevins and others, the same environment that forces skaters into frigid garages is what has causes a gritty creativity to thrive in spite of it.