If You Dig It, They Will Ski

Up in Creola is one of the most unusual neighborhoods you’ll ever find — 13 homes built on the shores of a competition water ski lake. This is the story of its residents and the father-son duo who willed it into existence.

Man water skiing on a lake
Photos by Matthew Coughlin

When Keith Henley looks at the lake, he doesn’t see what the rest of us see. Where someone else sees a hilly shoreline covered with tall pines, Keith sees the treeless mountain of red clay he pushed into that very spot more than 30 years ago. When someone peers over the dock into the water, an unnatural, artificial blue, Keith sees the pit of mud he carved into the forest floor over the course of five years.

The 52-year-old, dressed in jeans and an untucked work shirt, leans against the dock’s piling as he speaks. The blue dye, he explains, helps keep grass from growing on the lake’s floor. Ski lakes aren’t very deep, 10 feet at most, so sunlight can easily reach the bottom. Without the dye cutting down on the amount of sun breaking through, grass would grow as thick as a shag carpet and eventually float to the surface.

Just off the dock, a slalom course of orange and yellow buoys dots the surface of the lake, and a large fiberglass ramp sits unmoving near the far shore. The skies over Creola, 25 minutes north of Mobile, threaten rain, and a wind ripples the water’s surface. 

If this looks like the perfect lake for water-skiing, that’s because it is. Ski Chaste Lake, as it’s called, was built by Keith and his father, J.R., to accommodate all three competitive skiing events: slalom, jump and trick. Keith, now with a mop of dark grey hair, was at one time the best three-event skier in the area. He still holds an Alabama state record in the jump, a feat that surprises him. 

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“I set that record on my 74-inch skis,” he says, “and they’re using 90-plus now — like airplane wings.”

Ski lakes like this are pretty rare; in fact, Ski Chaste Lake is one of only eight like it in the state and one of just two that hold tournaments. There are many benefits of a lake built solely for water-skiing: its long, skinny shape is better equipped to handle a boat’s wake, its north-south orientation ensures that the sun is never directly in a skier’s eyes, and an island at each end allows a boat to circle, creating a convergence point for wake as the boat makes the turn to start another run down the straight-shot course.

Man standing on the dock at a lake
Keith Henley poses at Ski Chaste Lake with his throwback 74-inch skis. Henley estimates he personally dug 90 to 95 percent of the lake.

Over the decades, the lake has fallen in step with the natural environment. Birds sing from the surrounding trees and fish glide past the dock. (Interestingly, fish can spread to isolated bodies of water when their eggs stick to the legs of birds.) That’s all to say, the scene today is a far cry from what this area looked like when J.R. and wife Anne, Keith’s stepmom, bought 80 acres of Creola woodland in 1987 with a plan to plop a ski lake in the middle. 

“This was just solid woods,” Keith remembers, looking across the water. The devoted son quit his job at Delchamp’s to help his father’s dream come true, and after five years of sweat and diesel, they had a lake. Now, 34 years after that purchase, 13 homes sit on the lake, all housing an active (or retired) water-skier. The result is one of the most unique communities in the region — a collection of people whose lives revolve around a common obsession.

Shauna Crenshaw, 56, is one such community member. She and husband Scott bought their lakeside property 20 years ago after falling in with the Henleys. Shauna comes across as a laid-back lake-dweller, but a competitive intensity lurks right beneath the surface. After all, she continues to water-ski even after a ski jump accident 12 years ago cost her “an ACL, an MCL and a hamstring.” Not surprisingly, ramps, water skis and motorboats have been the recipe for many nasty spills over the years. “It’s exciting, it’s fun,” Shauna says. “But when it goes bad, it goes bad.”

“I saw my dad in the bottom of a boat many times when I was a kid,” Keith adds. “I was paralyzed myself for about two minutes one time.” 

Despite the risks, competitive waterskiing attracts a passionate bunch, but there’s no denying it’s dwindling in popularity.

“The sport is dying,” Crenshaw says, citing exorbitant equipment prices (a high-end slalom ski will set you back about $2,000) and a lack of public interest. But you wouldn’t know it at Ski Chaste Lake, a neighborhood united in their love for water-skiing and indebted to the vision of J.R. Henley. After J.R. died this past February at age 77, following a two-year battle with cancer, friends and family gathered to pay their respects at the lake, now a 17-acre memorial to the man who took raw land in the woods of Alabama and transformed it into a site that would host the Junior U.S. Open Championship in 2017 and 2019.

“Everybody on this lake will tell you how much we loved that man,” Shauna says, emotion in her voice. “It’ll make me cry … all he ever wanted to do was just see people ski.”

Woman holding a water ski by the lake
Despite past injuries, Shauna Crenshaw still loves to run the slalom course. Crenshaw, who moved her family to Ski Chaste Lake 20 years ago, says the neighborhood holds a special place in her heart; her youngest daughter’s wedding and reception was held lakeside.

From the Creek

The story of Ski Chaste Lake actually begins on Bayou Sara near Satsuma. On the adjoining Gunnison Creek, J.R. was taught by his father how to live — and play — on the languid green-brown water.

“My granddad was a big fisherman and hunter,” Keith says, “and that’s how his family ended up on the creek. He leased a fishing camp, and he and my dad maintained it and killed all their food. Then somewhere down the line, hunting turned into playing on the water.”

J.R. raised his only child Keith on a self-built houseboat on Bayou Sara and stuck him on water skis for the first time at age 5. As J.R. became fascinated with competitive skiing, he fashioned his own slalom ski and, with a fellow skier named Margaret Ann Woodard, began the Aqua Nuts Ski Club in the early 1970s. 

“J.R. and I were kind of ramrodding getting it started,” Margaret Ann says on the phone from her home in Slidell, Louisiana. The 83-year-old water-skis to this day. “We learned a lot. We called people from the American Water Ski Association, and they told us different things. We didn’t know anything about skiing, but we just learned.” 

Man driving an open-top Jeep
J.R. Henley on the worksite, August, 1988. Photo courtesy Anne and Keith Henley

“It was beer drinking and water-skiing,” Keith summarizes. The club exploded in popularity, growing to about 100 members, and J.R. and Margaret Ann became increasingly interested in the finer points of the sport. 

“Margaret Ann and my dad did everything wrong the first couple of tournaments they went to,” Keith says. “They had no clue. So they actually bought a slalom course, put it in the creek. They built a jump — my dad wanted to jump. But it was so hard to ski because there were so many fishermen and “yahooers,” what we call people just boating around, and you just can’t ski like that. It was hard to have tournaments. And then they found a place on the Causeway, and we moved the ski club over there. Very little traffic except for the alligators. Had to dodge them.”

“The Slough,” as the Causeway ski course was known, had its advantages. Located in a cove beside where 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center is located today, there was hardly any boat traffic, and on good days, the water was smooth as glass. But in the end, the alligators had the final say.

“You’d see their heads, and then you’d take off skiing and they’d go down,” Shauna remembers. “That’s one reason we really wanted to find some other place to ski.”

“It got to the point where Dad just wanted a safe place where nobody would fool with us,” Keith says. “And eventually, he started building this.”

To the Lake

Sixteen-year-old Nora Bally skis down Ski Chaste Lake at 28 miles per hour. She swings to her right, waits for the perfect moment, then makes a swift cut across the wake to her left. When she hits the ramp, she’s actually traveling faster than the boat itself. Once airborne, she points the toes of her skis skyward, leans her body forward and, 75 feet later, meets the water with a smack. She sticks the landing, rope still in hand, and continues cruising down the lake.

Nora, a sophomore at Saraland High School, moved here with her family from St. Louis three years ago. Parents Marsha and J.C. raised her and 11-year-old brother Nicholas on skis.

“When you’re loading up the car on weekends and driving to people’s ski lakes, you start feeling like a mooch,” Marsha says. “We always wanted our own place.”

The house on Ski Chaste Lake was more affordable than anything they could ever find near St. Louis, so the Ballys became Alabamians. A three-event skier, Nora estimates she skis about 10 hours a week during the summer, a necessary investment for what she calls “the most unforgiving sport.” She hopes to one day compete on the Alabama or Auburn water ski team.

It’s a funny thing for Keith to behold, the technologically advanced nature of the lake that Nora skis today. Cameras located along the tree line assist the photogrammetric system that measures with amazing accuracy how far a skier soars on a jump. It replaced the old-school triangulation method, which required spotters positioned on the shore, shouting out degrees and measurements to one another. If anything represents the resourcefulness of father and son, it’s the jump ramp itself. J.R., who worked as a maintenance foreman at International Paper Company for 28 years, brought home some scrap building materials and Keith welded the thing together. It was ski-lake-building on a budget Keith explains with a trace of pride. 

“The only equipment we could afford was used stuff,” he remembers of the front-end loader, earth mover and backhoe he operated. “I would drive it for a day, then we’d work on it for two days.” 

In order to finance his dream lake, J.R. came up with an idea: He would sell the lots surrounding the lake in order to pay back investors. Little by little, lot by lot, year after year, J.R. sold the lots to water-skiers-turned-homebuilders and Keith pushed dirt. His old friend Margaret Ann even bought a lot, not to live on but to help fund J.R.’s passion project. 

I ask Keith how much of the half-mile-by-300-foot lake he thinks he personally dug. He squints one eye at the thought. “Ninety, 95 percent,” he estimates. 

The work was slow, hot and repetitive. In June 1989, encouragement came from above in the form of a drenching rain. The impatient boys tractored a boat over the dirt, strapped on their skis and, in little more than a muddy rain puddle, christened their new ski lake. Then, they converted the motor and transmission of J.R.’s truck into a water pump, emptied the flooded pit and went back to digging.

“It just shows you how much of a dream J.R. and Keith had,” Shauna says. It also demonstrates how much J.R. enjoyed good company. “He loved water-skiing, but he loved people,” she says, not to mention a few après-ski Old Milwaukee Lights. “He eventually ‘upgraded’ to Bud Light,” Shauna says, smiling.

What J.R. never could have predicted was the distance people would travel to move to his lake. Skiers from frigid parts of the country began stumbling across Ski Chaste Lake online and couldn’t pass up the (relatively) cheap opportunity to live on a water ski lake in a warm climate; Missouri, Indiana and Washington state have all been represented at the lake. Even accents from California and Hawaii can be heard at the after-ski social gatherings — people attracted by the prospect of an affordable retirement and, in some cases, proximity to grandchildren.

They all share the responsibility of maintaining the lake: tending to the buoys of the slalom course, adding dye to the water, even judging the tournaments and maintaining the camera equipment. When ski tournaments are held here this summer, just about every family on the lake will host skiers they’ve come to know at other competitions. Margaret Ann, J.R.’s partner in crime from their Bayou Sara days, is just glad that her friend lived to see it all come to fruition.

“One day I was sitting out with J.R. on his deck, and I looked at him, and he had the most peaceful look on his face. It was just such a happy look. And I told him, ‘You’re one of the only people I know who has ever accomplished their goal, their total goal in life. You built this beautiful facility from scratch. You didn’t pay someone to come in and build it — you did it,’” Margaret Ann remembers. 

“He left a legacy like few people have done. He always wanted to have his own lake.”

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