The founder of the city’s outdoor recreation program is heading down the trail, leaving a warehouse full of bikes, kayaks, skis, snowshoes and camping gear he built up during 32 years with Spokane Parks and Recreation.
Mike Aho, 52, is leaving this week to become the director of a new city outdoor recreation program in Eagle, Idaho, a growing town of 20,000 people on the north edge of Boise.
“I’ll have a staff of one – me – just like when I started in Spokane,” he said.
Aho tapped elements of his survival training and yard-sale shopping skills to outfit up to 5,000 Spokanites a year, often for their first taste of outdoor experiences ranging from bicycle tours to Dutch oven cooking.
“Our bikes came from the (police) stolen property room,” he said.
“Our skis – snowboards weren’t around yet – came from the area ski patrol gear swaps. But we didn’t have money to buy the skis, even second-hand. We stood outside the door when the Mt. Spokane Ski Swap ended and convinced people who didn’t sell their equipment to give it to us so they didn’t have to pack it home.
“We led the nation in donated garbage.”
But it did the job.
“The outdoor program started as a teen program for youth at risk,” he said. “It was the perfect platform to build from.
“Those kids are used to making do with very little. I quickly found out they have the best adventure spirit. They’re not the team players that fit into the organized high school experience. They wanted adventure – biking, camping, survival, snowshoeing, canoeing. It was easy to work with them outdoors. They ate it up.”
Aho was just enrolled as a student in Eastern Washington University’s outdoor recreation program in 1980 when he began working part time with Spokane Parks.
“I came in at the end of huge downsizing in the parks programs based at the five community centers,” he said, noting that he was hired full time in 1989. “The outdoor equipment inventory was minimal. We had six bombproof canoes and a dozen pairs of snowshoes.”
Paul Greene, EWU outdoor recreation professor, said Aho was a standout graduate student, a tireless volunteer with an infectious enthusiasm for helping underprivileged youth.
Aho met Sarah, his wife of 30 years, while they were both working for the Spokane Parks youth center.
“He’d get all sorts of qualified people to volunteer help, including me, to take rafts full of kids down the Spokane River,” Green said. “We’d use all the (personal flotation devices) we had at Eastern and then have to borrow more from Fairchild (Air Force Base) to get one on every kid.”
Aho said those trips for youth at risk “are the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my career.”
Green remembers Aho motivating a male group of college students to pour themselves into learning how to cross-country ski during a winter camping class at Lookout Pass:
“He gathered them in a circle before they took off on their skis and held out a $100 bill – back when that was a lot of money. Mike said, ‘OK you bastards, if you can touch me, this is yours.’ ”
Green said he’s never seen a group so focused on developing their skiing skills.
“He had the sweat pouring off of them as they followed him through the trees, learning all the way,” he said. “After three days, they were good skiers, but they never caught him on skis.”
Green said he’s been inspired by Aho’s devotion to youth at risk.
“He’s used outdoor experiences to get them through transitions, whether the trip was for foster kids or kids out of drug rehab,” he said.
“I remember a girl on a raft trip who was 14 and pregnant with her third child. Another girl jumped in the water to cool off after the trip and bugs came off of her. She’d been living on the street and it look like a hatch was coming out of her clothing.
“That girl got cleaned up, off cocaine, and went on to graduate from Whitworth.”
After building the youth outdoor program, Aho began bringing the outdoor experience to the general population.
“We’d taken teenagers on great bicycle tours of the San Juan Islands for five years before we started running trips for adults,” he said. “In the mid-’90s, we started running the popular adult bicycle tours through wine country near Yakima, Walla Walla and the Okanagan Region of British Columbia.
“The adult trips ran at bargain prices, but they were still revenue makers as opposed to the youth programs.
Using grants as much as possible, Aho built more inventory to cater to a wider clientele. Cross-country skis were purchased through a national second-hand program.
The downhill skiing program got a boost when Aho convinced Silverhorn Ski Area (now Silver Mountain) to let kids enrolled in his classes to ski free.
“Loulou’s Ski Shop gave us free bindings and adjustments, so we were able to offer kids free skiing and instruction,” he said. “We charged them only for the transportation in our vans. Heck of a deal.”
The city parks warehouse still holds some of the backpacking and camping gear Aho secured when the Northwest Outward Bound program closed its Portland office.
“I drove over and packed a pickup full of backpacks, sleeping bags and other stuff,” he said.
One idea that bombed in the effort to generate more revenue was a set of “adventure scouting trips” Aho offered.
“Exploring new bike routes or trails can be a lot of fun, so we thought we’d allow people to pay to join us,” he said. “Turns out it’s not so fun when you get lost.”
Snowshoeing classes and treks have become the most popular city parks outdoor offerings, he said.
“It’s simple and you can literally do it out the back door,” he said. “We do a snowshoe class and everyone has success. You’re a beginner the first time you’re on snowshoes. Five minutes later, you’re an intermediate.”
The budget crunch facing the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department is a factor in Aho’s decision to resign as the recreation supervisor, a position that paid $73,400 last year.
City officials have been instructed to carve $1.3 million out of the Parks and Recreation Department’s $24.9 million budget. The recreation program’s $3.6 million budget likely will take a significant hit, especially the $168,300 allocated in 2012 for outdoor programs.
“They’ll still have good stuff, but I expect they’ll have to cut back the outdoor offerings by about half,” Aho said.
“I wouldn’t have lost my job, but some of the staff could have been gone if I’d have stayed.
“The main thing is that my next career step in the department would be blocked for years.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to move up and really manage and lead a program. The people of Eagle are very enthusiastic about this new program they’re asking me to start. They have the Boise River there, a ski area 30 minutes away, and all sorts of dedicated trails and parks.”
Spokane has a similar package of outdoor offerings, he said.
“I have so many fond memories of hiking, biking, paddling and skiing right here in town,” he said.
Before the city banned cross-country skiers from golf courses, Aho would take advantage of a big snowfall to groom ski trails for skier enjoyment and to lead them away from greens, where they could cause damage to the fragile grass.
“I actually looked forward to it,” he said. “Grooming at night after a fresh snowfall was just magical. I groomed on Christmas morning one year so people could ski on Christmas Day. I felt like Santa Claus out there.
“And I groomed on New Year’s Eve for Y2K in 2000 so people would have a chance to ski before the world ended. What a way to go.”