Somehow we find ourselves once again a few short weeks from the end of the ski season, at once sated with snow and cold, and wishing it could go on (and on and on). Yesterday, several days deep into technical spring, was a perfect reminder that the White Mountains have little regard for calendar dates or large, impudent, weather-predicting rodents. Yesterday, blustery and cold, was a sharp counterpoint to the bright sun and alarmingly warm temperatures this time last year.
This winter has been a good, not stellar, snow year. As often as not, we’ve been on the fringes of storms scudding by, farther out to sea than nor’easters of yore. The weather tracks, driven by deep dives in the jet stream, have forced storms hundreds of miles offshore. Coastline Massachusetts has had excellent powder conditions, while the White Mountains have had a couple unpleasant warm, wet spells. Luckily, the cold and snow have flooded back in just in time to save the day, and the skiing, several times this season.
The funny thing about being on the edge of a nor’easter at Waterville Valley is the utterly predictable results. We may not get a ton of snow, but we pretty much always get wind as storms wrap around and accelerate away toward Nova Scotia. Yesterday, as we briefly contemplated a coffee break at Schwendi mid-morning, then bailed out down Sunnyside for more sheltered surroundings, we were reminded of another morning in late February when the winds whipped and swirled around the summit of Tecumseh.
The particular morning I am thinking of was a typical edge-of-storm morning. A few inches of fresh powder tempted us out of bed even though the dancing of the spruces outside the bedroom windows carried the promise of wind-holds and chapped cheeks. Nancy and I packed up and delivered our daughter to her job as a volunteer instructor with the Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports program, confident that she would most likely be spending to morning on the lower lifts and wouldn’t be too uncomfortable regardless of the winds. Once she was settled, we booted up and caught the White Peaks quad — crawling at half speed against the beating wind — up to the top of the mountain. The wind, blustery at the base, was fierce once you crested the top of the Chute, and pounded in gusts until you’d skied off and into the lee of the bull wheel to buckle up.
The first few runs were an exercise in everything good and bad about skiing. The snow, especially in the wind shadow of the trees along the edges of the trails, was boot-top deep in some places. It had also been scoured to slippery white concrete in others. When the wind died down, it was just mid-winter chilly. When the winds whipped back up, it downright unpleasant, whether you were on the lift or dropping into a tuck across the flats to minimize your wind-sail.
We took a few runs down the front, but the main quad was stopping with alarming frequency, suggesting at the wind was right on the edge of too much; we decided to give Sunnyside a try. In the lee of White Peak, things were a little better, and some of the falling snow had even managed to settle along edges in even layers. One run down Gema was enough to make you hoot and holler for more, and the ride up the Sunnyside chair was definitely more comfortable, if only because it was shorter. All the same, by the time we were back to the top, we agreed a coffee break was in order. We fought our way across the knob and carefully tucked our skis in the rack, poles looped over the tips to keep everything together. I steadied Nancy on the slick hard snow leading to the deck, and we both staggered against strong gusts.
Settled at a table with a hot cup of coffee, we were in no hurry to faced the blast of the northwest winds. We sipped and chatted and watched out the windows… and we were impressed to see the winds picking up even more as we rested. The pennants along the deck whipped in the wind, eventually wrapping themselves tightly around their own poles. We watched as the Sunnyside chair disgorged its last skier, and as the main quad sputtered and stopped. Finally, we concluded that the chairs were likely shutting down, and we ought to make a break for the bottom and head on home to do errands.
We bundled back up tight against the cold we knew awaited us and slipped back out the vestibule into the full force of the wind. In the thirty minutes we had been resting, the winds had gone from a steady thirty miles per hour with gusts close to fifty, to an honest to goodness gale with hurricane force gusts. The snow of the knob, covered in skis when we came in, was scoured to a sheet of ice (and I suspect more than a few skis had blown down into the trees along Sun Run). The ski racks? Blown flat by the gusts. As soon as we rounded the corner by the vestibule, I had to drop into a low crouch to stay upright, and once we were off the deck and onto the polished snow, we literally had to crawl over to the flattened racks to dislodge our skis.
We found ourselves pinned down by the tremendous gusts. The shriek of the wind ripped past our helmets, and pellets of ice stung our faces. Shouting to be heard over the wind’s howl, we debated going back into Schwendi to ride it out. We decided that the winds were only getting stronger, and that it wasn’t going to get any better soon. Steeling ourselves, we crawled far enough away from the building and the sharp drop by the deck to crouch and click in. We waited, crouched low, till a particularly strong gust had passed, then we literally “reverse tucked” to minimize our profiles and avoid being blown down wind while we skidded a couple quick speed-check turns and dropped down into Oblivion — the only sheltered way down given the prevailing winds.
Two hundred yards down the trail, we were finally out of the wind’s blast. I had to stop and pull my fingers out of my gloves to warm them. Just a few minutes in the fearsome wind and my fingertips were painfully chilled; I hoped no one was caught unaware by the ramping winds above treeline. Here we were, moments from the fireside warmth of a ski lodge, and the last few minutes had frankly been a bit scary. I didn’t even want to think about what it would’ve been like up on Franconia Ridge.
The higher summits catch more than their share of weather, and being on the fringe of the storm often means more than we expect. I doubt Nancy and I will ever forget our brief few minutes caught out in nature’s full force, and I know we will respect the lesson we learned for a long time to come.
Greeley Ponds Trailhead March 16th, 2013
I’ve been a bit slow with an update on the Greeley Ponds Trail project, but I have great news to share. Thanks once again to the extraordinary generosity of our donors, the Waterville Valley Foundation was able to meet our fundraising goal of $10,000, to go along with $10,000 already pledged to help restore the Greeley Ponds Trail, which was gravely damaged during Hurricane Irene in September 2011. Our funds will be matched by the National Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation, and we are hoping the restoration project will begin this spring. For updates, please visit the Restore Greeley Ponds Trail page on Facebook. As news breaks, we will be sure to post it there.
For the last few years, I have admired the efforts of both the students and the staff of the Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports program. If you ski at Waterville Valley, you’ve certainly seen them, too: instructors in royal blue coats flanking — coaching, sometimes coaxing, often hurrying to keep up with — their students all over the mountain.
Adaptive clients run the gamut from young children on the autism spectrum, to young adults with cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome, to wounded warriors finding their way back from a war zone and reconnecting with life, though all too often a life profoundly changed. The volunteer instructors of Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports are carefully trained in techniques to support and coach people with all forms of special needs. The program is very fortunate to have the guidance of nationally recognized adaptive snow sports expert Kathy Chandler, and the enthusiastic stewardship of operations director Kim Sawka. It is also incredibly lucky to have a body of stalwart volunteers who give freely of their time, energy, and devotion year after year, making the program possible.
As a parent of two “normal” teens, I can tell you few things are more satisfying than having happy, tired children. This theme resonates in so many conversations with the parents and loved ones of Adaptive clients as well. Through the program, their loved ones find a special kind of engagement that makes their hearts — and quite often, the students themselves — sing. When their days on the snow are done, they are tired but happy, deeply satisfied, and ready to take on the challenges of their lives refreshed.
What defines people with special needs is not their special needs, but rather that they are people: people with hopes, fears and dreams, and an undiminished capacity for enjoying life. Whether physically, developmentally, or emotionally challenged, Adaptive clients all find something special on the mountain; freedom, joy, independence, accomplishment, friendship.
On Saturday January 12th, I hope you’ll consider joining the Waterville Adaptive community for a day and evening of fun as we celebrate the second annual Amazing Race Weekend. During the day, bring your team to join the fearsome but fun competition as teams race to complete a series of challenges around the mountain (details and registration in https://wtrvlfdn.ejoinme.org/wvamazingrace).
Then, in the evening, the celebration continues at the Waterville Valley Conference Center starting at 5pm with cocktails and a silent auction, followed by a festive dinner and a live auction hosted by the inimitable Tom Gross (more information at http://www.waterville.com/events-deals-apres/event-calendar.html?id=5418. All proceeds go to support the WVAS programs throughout the year.
I don’t remember exactly when I first had my dream, but it’s one of the very few recurring dreams I’ve had in my otherwise richly populated but poorly remembered nightscape. I suppose it was sometime in my late teens, because it involved skiing along a narrow, sinuous trail that followed the contours of a big mountain that most definitely wasn’t Pats Peak. In the earliest versions of the dream, it was Great Eastern at Killington. Later versions featured Bear Claw at Loon, and later still, Oblivion here in the Valley.
Setting that aside, the dream is always the same: bright sun and deep packed snow, eventually morphing to glorious spring corn. In my dream, I am always with friends — first my high school ski pal, Todd, but later a precession of other great friends — and we’re always skiing along and laughing when we round the bend and the snow abruptly ends, leaving us to sadly remove our skis and walk through the muddy grass, the delight of ski season crashing down to an untimely end.
My recurring dream came perilously close to reality last March when, after a decidedly dicey season, winter came to an unceremonious end after days of bright sun and unseasonably warm temperatures. One weekend, we picked our way down Sunnyside, carefully steering around ever growing brown patches, till the brown patches had grown to the width of the Gema headwall, leaving one turn’s worth of suspiciously greyish-white cover on the far skier’s right. We shifted to the front side, then to Northside, seeking shadows and snow that didn’t splash with each turn. The only refuge was the very narrow lee of the trees on Tyler, and in our heart of hearts we knew it was all but over.
Rumors circulated that the Resort was going to hold out for two more weeks, that they’d secretly been banking snow and really wanted to honor commitments to late-season skiers coming in from the UK. We watched the brown patches grow bigger each day and shook our heads. We were going down hard. By the last Saturday in March, we knew it was over, even if the lifts were still turning. Nancy, Nathan, Ellie and I called a few friends and met in the seasonal locker room for one more morning of skiing. We were rattled by how much snow had disappeared under the lift. The Chute was more granite than snow. At the top, we skied off the lift and made our way over to the top of Northside.
We all set off down Tippe, carefully threading our way though the bare spots. Incredulous that it was all grinding down so far, so fast, we took the lift up one more time and tried Tyler. Same story, different book. Surprisingly, the best snow and the best turns of the day were to be found over on Valley Run, where the low angle and occasional shade kept things somewhat wintry, at least till you hit the frightening cravasses at the top of the Valley headwall.
And so it ended, with hugs and handshakes and a sense of disbelief for a season that almost never was. I don’t think I could identify it at the time, but somewhere down inside, I felt cheated and angry. I tossed my skis into the our locker unceremoniously and stashed my boot bag in my cubby at home without much further thought. If winter wanted to abandon me, I could do perfectly well without winter. Let the mountain biking begin. My bad skiing dream had finally come true.
The spring and early summer passed without much ceremony. I was busy with work and family commitments. Somewhere down inside, I was still angry. When I had ski dreams, they all ended in patches of dirt and snow so slushy it was no fun to slide on. Every dream was like reliving the worst last day I could remember.
Finally, something broke, like the fall weather finally turning cold and the snow guns lighting up on High Country. I woke to the early August sun streaming through my bedroom window, and realized I’d had a mid-winter dream, one of high snow banks and smooth trails and gliding at top speed. I was getting over it. Within a few weeks, I had ordered new skis on eBay and booked a ski week out west with my family. Sometimes it takes a while, but we skiers are nothing if not resilient by nature.
Today was a typical stick-season day in the Valley. The morning sun revealed a surprise dusting of fresh snow on Tecumseh, coating the trails all the way down Sunnyside. Blustery winds blew occasional snow showers about, and the faithful, or slightly ski-addled, took each big flake as a portent of great things coming. Last season sucked. I can say that now. I know the season to come will be much, much better.
If you’re a fan of Waterville Valley, you’re probably a fan of the Greeley Ponds Trail, too. It stands for many of the best things about life in the Valley: family hikes, the enduring beauty of nature, and the hardscrabble history of loggers and farmers who realized the real value of the land was in welcoming visitors looking for peace and a connection with the mountains. The Greeley Ponds Trail was, for all intents and purposes, scrubbed from the map by flood waters from the remnants of Hurricane Irene in August, 2011. Now, the Waterville Valley Foundation has joined forces with the Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Association, the National Forest Service, and the National Forest Foundation to restore this historic trail. To find out more, please visit restoregreeleypondstrail.org.
When the Waterville Valley Foundation last met in early September, we parted excited at the prospect of our biggest project ever. We each went back to our families and our weekend duties. Later in the day, though, WVF treasurer Mike Furgal and I found ourselves footloose and duty-free, and decided to go for a hike.
We started out with a simple mission in mind: tramp out the remnants of the Greeley Ponds Trail to survey the damage and take a few pictures. With Cliff the Wonder Dog in the lead, we hiked out through Depot Camp and turned onto Greeley Ponds Trail. For the first few hundred yards, very little had changed. The footway was flat and relatively smooth, and we made good time walking side by side along the old trail. Quickly, though, we ran into signs of storm damage from Irene. In places, the middle of trail was scoured out where the nearby Mad River had spilled its banks and run along the trail.
This is was just a movie trailer for the real destruction, though. Soon, we reached long stretches where all that remained of the trail were two foot-wide tracks of newly packed earth straddling chest-deep scars where the trail used to be, lined with boulders and uprooted trees. Even on foot, you had to pick your way along in places.
We clambered up the side of a huge water bar, and stopped to study scraps of what appeared to be a logging drag-sledge unearthed by the heavy machinery dispatched to turn the river back toward its original course. We were reminded that the modern Greeley Ponds Trail follows a much older path blazed by loggers and woodsmen a century ago. As we looked around, it wasn’t hard to imagine the land around us clear-cut and tangled with slash; we were glad we’d missed that scene.
By the time we reached the site of the former Knights Bridge, Mike and I were both feeling a bit depressed by the reality of the destruction that Irene left in her wake. Looking across the river, where my namesake bridge once stood, and seeing the rutted trail beyond, we realized how much it was going to take to bring back one of our favorite trails.
We turned back toward the Valley, but it was clear that Cliff wasn’t ready to go home, and instead of heading back, we turned right and headed up the Timber Camp Trail. In conversations with Dan Newton and Harry Notowitz of the Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Association, we’d learned that the most likely path for a reborn Greeley Ponds Trail was along the existing track for roughly the first mile, then turning up the bluff and away from the riverbed on the venerable Timber Camp Trail, then turning along an older, abandoned path, the Greeley Brook Trail. As usual, Dan had described the scene well, and we knew what to look for as we climbed away from the river and up a steady grade.
Unlike the old track of the Greeley Ponds Trail, which followed the course of the river and climbed gradually (though at times over rough and rooty patches), the Timber Camp Trail reminds you where your leg-muscles are as you climb away from the valley floor. Soon enough, we caught glimpses of the far wall of the Mad River Notch, a panorama of steep mountain shoulders relieved by a few open rock faces.
The cut-off to the Greeley Brook Trail isn’t particularly hard to find if you are looking, though I bet thousands of hikers and mountain bikers have gone by over the years without giving it a second thought. Mike and I saw it right away; it was evident by two essential features: first, the sharp drop-off on the right side of the trail finally transitioned to a flat, continuous ridge, and second, the hardwoods that made up the forest along the steep bluff suddenly changed to a line of dense young firs. We shimmied through the line of boughs and immediately found ourselves on a flat track following the contour of the ridge. Cliff the Wonder Dog took off ahead of us, threading his way through ferns and hobblebush just taking root on the old trail.
We plodded along steadily for a few hundred yards till we encountered a wall of young spruce reclaiming what was once an open meadow. We stopped and scanned for a path – even Cliff wasn’t sure which way to go – until we finally decided to plow straight through the trees to see what was on the other side. I took the first few tentative steps until the trees grew less dense and we were sure we were back on the old path, then let Cliff and Mike break trail through an astounding number of sticky, creepy cobwebs. Finally, the spruce grove was behind us and we were trucking along Greeley Brook Trail once again.
I had studied a map briefly before we left, so I knew – roughly – where we were and where we were headed. The old Greeley Brook Trail follows the contour of the ridge, slightly up and slightly down, until it meets a branch coming in hard from the right (the eventual continuation of the Greeley Ponds Trail, returning to the river bed on an old logging road). We continued on straight, though, as the trail angled up and through a wet section, where we took to the woods on the high side, hoping to keep our feet dry. A few hundred feet more, and we came to Greeley Brook, a pretty stream tumbling down the steep mountainside over a rocky, mossy bed. We studied the remnants of an old logging bridge – several thick, moss-covered peeled trunks, probably hemlock, spanning the brook and stripped of bridge decking by the ravages of time. We’d gone as far as we would go today. Even Cliff seemed ready to turn for home.
As we headed back the way we’d come, we were both glad we’d gone the extra mile. It had been a while since we’d had time to just hang out, but more to the point, in a little over an hour, Mike and I had managed to span more than a century of time. We’d seen evidence of the region’s history along the Greeley Ponds Trail and in an old, neglected path; we’d seen the ugly reality of the trail’s present, etched deeply by Irene’s flood waters. We had also glimpsed the trail’s future as we trudged up the Timber Camp Trail and out along the old Greeley Brook Trail. It wasn’t quite time travel, but for a cool, fall-like Sunday afternoon, it was plenty close enough.
To learn more about efforts to bring back the Greeley Ponds Trail, please visit restoregreeleypondstrail.org.
In the four or so years I have been involved with the Waterville Valley Foundation, we have always been very proud of our charter — supporting the people and traditions that lend distinction to life in Waterville Valley, and those things that make Waterville Valley unique. We are equally proud of the local organizations we have been able to support through their fledgling phases. We pride ourselves on being careful stewards of your donations, and are grateful for your ongoing support.
At times, though, we as a board have discussed the need for a bigger project, a greater calling if you will. In August, 2011, that opportunity quite literally fell from the sky when Hurricane Irene stomped her way through the Northeast, dumping a deluge of rain in a few short hours. Meteorologists refer to a “hundred year storm”, an event that is likely to happen but once in a century. In terms of sheer volume of rain in very short order, Irene was all that and more.
If you were around the Valley in the weeks after Irene, you spent a lot of time shaking your head at the sheer destruction Mother Nature can wreak when fully unleashed. Portions of Route 49, the principle route into town, were washed away to the yellow center line, and long steel span bridges were washed a quarter mile downstream on the Mad River Trail. The Mad River — which literally defines the geography of Waterville Valley — changed course in a number of places.
While the destruction on Route 49 required instant attention by federal, state, and local officials, the area’s ancient network of hiking and recreational trails by necessity took a back seat. Among the most heavily damaged trails was the popular Greeley Ponds Trail, which ran from the Livermore Road near Depot Camp, along the Mad River by gentle grades, all the way to the scenic Greeley Ponds in Mad River Notch, and then on to the Kancamagus Highway high up above Lincoln. I say “ran” advisedly, because long sections of the trail simply ceased to exist when Irene blasted the Valley and the Mad River burst its banks. The first mile or so of the trail is still — barely — passable, though erosion damage has left only narrow foot-wide monorails along deeply eroded trenches that look for all the world like a dry riverbed.
Beyond the popular Scaur, Goodrich Rock, and Timber Camp trails, the Greeley Ponds Trail is closed altogether. At the first river crossing, Knights Bridge was swept away by the raging floodwaters, and north of the river, the trail is almost entirely washed away. There is no access the Greeley Ponds, the Kancamagus Brook Ski Trail, or the Kancamagus Highway beyond. The Greeley Ponds Trail as we knew it, once an important logging route but lately popular with hikers, cross country skiers, and adventurous families looking for a not-too-challenging walk, no longer exists.
Early this summer, I joined Waterville Valley Foundation board members Mike Furgal and Bill Powell for a cautious mountain bike ride, balancing precariously on the narrow band of trail left in places along the washed out Greeley Ponds Trail, teetering on the edge of a nasty drop onto boulders in places (“single track with consequences” we joked). We were stunned at what we saw. Throughout the summer, we had an ongoing conversation about the trail and its future. In August, a casual conversation with WVF Vice President Bob Fries led to a chat with the National Forest Service about the possibility of supporting restoration work on the trails. A day later, he received an enthusiastic call back from his Forest Service contact: not only would they be interested, but the National Forest Foundation might also be willing to match funds.
If we as a board wanted a bigger project, and one where your donations could be leveraged to do even greater good, we knew we had found it. For us, the Greeley Ponds Trail has it all: historical significance, the beauty of the White Mountains, and important recreational opportunities. By joining forces with the Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, and the Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Association, we can bring back this great trail for the enjoyment of generations to come.
The Board of Directors of the Waterville Valley Foundation has committed $10,000 out of our reserves, and has pledged another $10,000 we intend to raise from our annual fund. These funds will be matched by the Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation for a total budget of at least $55,000. This will go a long way toward restoring the trail, rerouting major portions, and building a new bridge at a safer crossing point higher up on the river.
We hope you will consider this a worthy endeavor and lend your support as well. Watch this space for further updates, or visit our special project website at http://www.restoregreeleypondstrail.org. You can also check in on our Facebook page, Restore Greeley Ponds Trail (https://www.facebook.com/groups/423895211007534/).
As always, we thank you for your support!
Back when we were weekend commuters, I really looked forward to Friday night arrival, when we would unload the car and transfer sleepy kids to bed, then settle down for a few minutes’ relaxation before we fell into bed ourselves. We had a little ritual that involved shaking a small batch of martinis and sitting quietly on the couch to decompress. After we brushed our teeth, I had my own ritual, too: I would drink several glasses of cold, clear, fresh Waterville Valley water, and bring one to the bedside table. It always tasted just “right” to me, and after a week of Boston tap water, I felt like I was at home in the mountains again. I reversed the process (sans martinis) on Sunday night or Monday morning before we’d head south again: car loaded, I would sweep the condo, then stop to drink a couple glasses of water, a tonic to sustain me through the week.
Several mornings this week, I found myself out on the mountain with the weekday morning die-hards, making early season turns on the steadily improving snow. There were the usual complement of BBTS/WVA racers, training and drilling along the edge of High Country. There were a smattering of guests, thrilled to be skiing but wondering where the other trails were hiding. And there was a cadre from the Silver Streaks, Waterville Valley’s season-long ski program for skiers 50 years of age and up. All morning long each weekday, the Streaks meet to ski together, mixing and matching and socializing for the chair ride up, but skiing quite seriously all the way down.
As I watched these skiers — some a little older than me, and some my parents’ age — carving graceful turns down the hill, I saw a spectrum of techniques from a modified wedeln (probably learned from a Swiss instructor in the 1950s) to a thoroughly modern race-turn. I also saw something that would make most demographers smile and scratch their heads. These people were the definition of “active older adults”.
I thought about my many older neighbors in Waterville Valley, and was struck by their collective energy and robust good health. I thought about Doctors Suzi and Phil Boulter — Suzi was my pediatrician when I first moved to Concord, NH about four decades back (I am sure she was a child prodigy) — who are master athletes on and off snow. I thought about Nate Grifkin’s long, graceful GS turns. I thought about Harry Notowitz and Brenda Conklin, who climb peaks and maintain trails with unparalleled energy. And I thought about Toni Fallon, working her way into the Coyote Grill with slow, deliberate steps and holding my arm lightly, telling me she’d had to retire from skiing and tennis a couple years back, and how much she’d missed it.
What is it about Waterville Valley that draws and sustains so many vigorous older athletes? Is it something in the water? The statistician in me knows that this is a highly self-selected group. You don’t find suburban mall, Rascal-riding seniors here. The environment just doesn’t support that species. Instead, you find an environment that encourages active play, and a cohort to do it with. You find friends who will form a league or a team or a ride group, and better athletes willing to coach and provide advice and support while you buck the odds and get better. You find a resort that values active older adults, with programs like the Silver Streaks and tennis teams for all abilities. And you find something else very important: role models for aging well and gracefully.
I am pretty sure that the water doesn’t hurt, either.
I learned an awful lot my freshman year of college: Psychology 101 was more interesting than English Composition 101 (minor issue: I was an English major). Dining hall meals, while survivable, aren’t Mom’s cooking. Laundry doesn’t do itself. Peppermint schnapps doesn’t mix… with anything. And depending on the weather for anything important can make you crazy.
This last lesson was brought home to me that winter, when I worked at Sport House in Campton as a sales person. The early winter was classic New England: a wet fall, early snow, decent Christmas week, and a catastrophic January thaw. The mountain recovered for February vacation, but March brought unprecedented warm temperatures and hard rains. Skiers returning rental skis to the shop in the afternoons were somewhat shaken and told tales of having to jump crevasses on Valley Run to make it back to the base. My winter job ended a month earlier than planned, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing if you were a college freshman unaccustomed to having weekends off.
It was a valuable life lesson, though… at 18, I thought I had my life pretty well planned: I’d work in a ski shop and dabble in writing and photography until I somehow magically broke into skiing photojournalism as a career. What could be easier? That spring, I figured out that I really didn’t have the constitution to have my livelihood dependent on the whims of New England weather. I got a job in the psychology department’s rat lab and consigned skiing back to hobby status.
I am reminded of all this by the upside-down weather we’ve been enduring the last few weeks. First, a decent cold snap, which allowed Waterville Valley and other ski areas to get a good jump on snowmaking, especially at higher elevations. That was unfortunately followed by a warm spell — which broke just in time for a dandy ten-inch snow storm on Thanksgiving Eve. Waterville opened on High Country for a great first weekend (Bob Fries told me they were just 100 feet short of opening down to Northside. One more night of snowmaking… but they ran out of cold). The snowpack held up splendidly through the holiday weekend’s warm temperatures, though it was more like late March then late November. Unfortunately, the topsy-turvy weather has continued, with more warm, then hard rains and big winds last week, and more rain and fog this week.
The weather has oscillated between snow-making cold and April-warm-and-rainy. The Resort has done a great job of dealing with the fickle conditions, but in the end, we really just need winter to make up its mind and settle in for good. The latest weather forecast promises some snow tonight and colder temperatures for the foreseeable future. We should finally be able to get on with the season — but I know I made the right call all those years ago when I surrendered my dreams of life in the ski-industry. I just haven’t got the constitution for it.
It’s that time of year again — the Waterville Valley Foundation will be sending out our Annual Appeal letter. We trust we have met your expectations for the stewardship of your donations, and hope you’ll consider once again supporting us as we seek to support the things that make Waterville Valley unique. In the mean time, I want to once again thank Waterville Valley Realty and Roper Real Estate for their ongoing support: we have received generous donations from both agencies in recent weeks. Their donations, combined with generous gifts from several private donors, mean we’re off to a good start for 2012, but we still need your help!
There is something endemic in human nature which makes us subtly but acutely aware of the passage of time and the changing of the seasons. I’m fairly sure it springs from some deep genetic memory of a time when we truly lived by the seasons — migrating with game, harvesting wild bounty in the short, fleeting days before the dark months returned. My wife Nancy’s Aunt Marj lives in Palm Springs, California — not really a place notable for profound seasonal change — yet after living in the desert for 20 years or more, she is exquisitely aware of every nuance of the coming of each new season. I’d bet if you woke her from suspended animation and let her look around at her environs for just a moment, she could tell you the date within a week. It’s uncanny.
Here in Waterville Valley, the rhythms of the four seasons (seven, if you count mud, blackfly, and stick — I do) are much more pronounced. The slow rotation from winter to spring is anything but a linear process… a few warm days are often followed by gray skies and surprise snow late into April. None the less, there always comes a day with bright sun and shockingly blue skies that breaks the back of winter and heralds the warmer months. Usually about the time the first big bare spots show up on Sunnyside in the spring, my friends and I start pushing the season a bit by road-riding on our mountain bikes and taking small, sometimes mucky forays onto the trails. The truly adventurous (or, some might say, senseless) among us will even venture onto the hard-packed snow of Livermore Road or Moose Run for short spells of wheel-spinning fun.
This season-pushing tendency is certainly because we love mountain biking, but there’s something else in play, too. We start riding as soon as we can, because it eases the ineffable sadness of the end of ski season. For us, the end of ski season is a period of mourning. We celebrate the season past and dread the snowless months ahead.
My family has evolved a tradition of thoughtfully calling our last run on the last day of the season, and ending with hugs all around and careful savoring of the season’s last turns together. Last spring, I stood at the top of Lower Bobby’s and watched my son and daughter carve beautiful turns in sun-softened corn, and wondered how it was possible that they were suddenly so big and so competent when I remembered skiing with them between my legs just a few short moments before. It’s not so easy skiing a bumped-up Lower Bob’s with tears in your eyes, take my word for it.
So, if mountain biking is in part a palliative for the loss of skiing each spring, it’s kind of funny I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon each fall the last few years. As the days draw shorter and the mornings frostier, we ride less and less — but I think we enjoy each ride that much more. The signs of seasonal change are all around us — leaves down, small patches of snow in the shady woods from fall flurries, and trails that look and ride entirely different than they do in the summer. The fallen leaves mask the track, and the bare branches allow light to fall in unaccustomed ways. The cold air is bracing and makes long climbs more comfortable but fast descents chilly enough that you think twice before letting ‘er rip.
This morning my friend, Waterville Valley Foundation treasurer Mike Furgal texted me and asked if I was up for one more ride. A little while later, I picked him up at his house and we headed out with Cliff the Wonderdog trotting along to keep us company. We pedaled up the Tripoli Road and out through Osceola Vista Campground to pick up one of our favorite short rides, the gently rolling Moose Run-Wicked Easy loop. Even though we’ve been off our bikes more than we’ve been on in recent weeks, we both had retained enough conditioning to make good time. We talked quietly and breathed deeply of the cool air. The November light, filtered through gray skies, flooded softly through the woods with no shadows. A light breeze stirred the bare branches, and we stopped on several bridges to let Cliff take a drink.
Summer rides can be a touch competitive, with everyone riding hard for long stretches. The last ride of the fall, though, is all about savoring: the feel of your suspension rising and falling over the terrain, the crunch of your tires in the leaves, the cool wind playing over your face and neck. There were no tears in my eyes behind my glasses as we rode down the last hill from Moose Run and back through the campground, but there was once again a sense that another season was behind us now, never to be lived again. It’s the thought that we’ll be skiing again next weekend makes that knowledge bearable.
What does change sound like? Sometimes it sounds like the quiet whir of an electric motor.
I grew up around diesel engines. My parents owned a small moving company, and from the time I could walk, I was around trucks every weekend and all summer long. I played around them, I worked around them, and I often slept in the sleeper cab while my father drove long distances. The sound of a diesel engine is oddly relaxing to me, and to this day, I retain the not-particularly-useful ability to tell the difference between a Cummins diesel engine and a Caterpillar diesel just by the sound.
It’s probably for that reason alone that I’ve always been willing to forgive the High Country Double’s sluggardly ways. When my kids were little, I found it somehow comforting to hear the putt-putt-putt of the old diesel, and it really wasn’t such a bad thing that the chair came around the bullwheel at the speed of a slow walk. The littlest kids could board without ever slowing the chair down. On the other hand, it was a little bit frustrating to see BBTS racers skating up the hill faster than the chair moved, and the 6 minute uphill-time for a couple hundred vertical feet was almost the same as the ride on the White Peaks Quad from the base to 3600 feet. If I was feeling charitable, I might tell you that it was a good place to go rest late in the morning.
Most of the time, though, I was not feeling charitable. The slow lift meant I seldom had the patience to go up to the summit. Worse still, my environmentalist sensibilities were rattled every time the engine belched to life with a big black plume.
That’s about to change, though. The venerable High Country chair is receiving a heart transplant this fall, with an efficient, and much faster, new electric motor. Skiers and the environment will both see an immediate improvement. Much shorter ride times will open the summit to the impatient, and should dramatically shorten early season lift lines. The old diesel engine, which produced hundreds or thousands of pounds of soot and carbon dioxide emissions each winter, is now a thing of the past.
Best of all, though, is the short-but-sweet terrain that a faster High Country chair opens up. In years past it was seldom worth the six slow (often cold) minutes up for the quick run down High Country. Because of its altitude — the chair tops out at 3800 feet — the runs on High Country are the first to open each fall. All winter long, you’ll often find untracked snow along either edge of the open slopes. And if you stay hard to skier’s left, you’ll find an under-appreciated delight — the soft, silent snow of Tangent, the natural-snow-only connector that runs from High Country to Periphery, bypassing the top of the Northside Double. Narrow and tunnel-like, Tangent is a throwback to the first trails cut on New Hampshire mountains, and on a good morning, it’s a great experience.
I’ll probably miss the comforting burble of the old diesel on the High Country Chair — but no where near as much as I will appreciate the swifter ride up to the summit.
Last Friday night was the grand opening of the new 1829 boutique in Town Square. As happens a lot around here, the faithful were out in force, shopping, chatting, hanging. It is a lovely store — a harbinger of the future, I hope — and the welcoming crowd brought a positive vibe. As I scanned around at all the familiar faces, some weekenders and some residents, I thought about the strange gravity that brings us all back here, or makes us stay. The old marketing campaign, “Love”, really wasn’t too far off the mark. With that thought, I give you the first twenty-one reasons I could think of why you should abandon the comforts of the suburbs and move to Waterville Valley full time. Or, as I say in my more candid moments, “Brains… more brains… fresh brains…”
1. You ask your friends what time they’re arriving Friday night, because it never occurs to you that they might not actually be coming up.
2. You hit refresh more than three times on the Resort webcam during a conference call.
3. You know where Swazeytown is.
4. You care where Swazeytown is.
5. You smell woodsmoke and leaf mold and your Pavlovian response is to start waxing your skis.
6. You feel just a little better when you put on your WV fleece or baseball cap.
7. You know exactly when it’s time to say goodbye in Thornton, because you know exactly where your cell phone will drop on Rt. 49 on the way in.
8. Your server at the Coyote says, “I won’t bother with tonight’s specials. The Buffalo Meatloaf and a very dry Grey Goose Martini, super cold, slightly dirty.” And she doesn’t wait for confirmation.
9. You stop in the middle of Lower Bobby’s, and you can pick out your condo.
10. You hear Warren Miller intone “I’ve been telling you, move to a ski resort this year. If you don’t, you’ll be one year older when you do”… and in your heart of hearts, you know he’s right.
11. The sight of a moose thrills you nearly as much as the sight of your bride/groom standing at the altar. Nearly.
12. The thought of running into a bear on the trail secretly pleases you.
13. The idea that a family of red foxes might be your closest neighbors seems pretty good to you.
14. You wonder why Real Life can’t be like this.
15. You scheme on Sunday nights for a reason to stay.
16. You realize that “work-from-home” Fridays can mean “work-from-the-Valley”. And then you actually work, so you get to do it again.
17. Your kids’ best friends are the kids they ski with every weekend.
18. Your best friends are the grown-up kids you ski with every weekend.
19. You know what time the Saturday morning warm-up crowd at the Schwendi breaks, so you can always get a table. No, I am not sharing.
20. You recognize and appreciate the fact that Steve, the Schwendi chef, will always play four songs you know and one you don’t, but love, in his house music mix.
21. Regardless of where you spend your weekdays, you only truly feel at home when you’re in the Valley.
If more than a few of these ring a bell for you, you have my condolences… what time do you want to meet for coffee on Tuesday morning?