Excitement in the Air

On November 27, 2010, in Uncategorized, by admin

In the fall of 1980, I arrived at Plymouth State College primed for my freshman year and looking forward to living close to the mountains that had become so important to me in my teenage years. That fall, I had a ring-side seat to the progression of seasonal change out my dormitory window: the colors dappling, then splashing, then exploding across the hillsides, the snows starting on the high peaks and working their way down the ridge until the distinctive ledges of Welch Mountain were swathed in white.

I was lucky that fall. Dell “Deke” Tower, then the owner of Deke’s Sport House in Campton, took a chance and hired me as a salesman in what was arguably one of the best ski shops around. I remember the electricity in the air all fall as we got ready for the season: ski and boot company reps came through on tour, training us on the latest and greatest equipment and providing plenty of cold beer for each session. The guys I worked with — Chuckles, Mark Pendoley — were heroic in my eyes, fast skiers who’d been around shops forever. They were fun and funny, and they seemed know everything about skis and skiing. It was a heady time and place, and I was starry-eyed, even if working in a ski shop every weekend and going to school all week meant I didn’t actually get to do much skiing.

There was something special about being around Waterville Valley at that time. It was undeniably the place to be. The families I outfitted with racing equipment and warm clothes had a certain elegance about them, and hearing them talk about the skiing — or where they were going for apres that evening — at the end of the day gave me a peek into a world I had only barely imagined. In the afternoons, as people came into drop skis off for tuning or to return rentals, I heard tales of epic days and excellent conditions. I also heard tell of epic lift lines at times — on peak days during vacation weeks, cars would park all the way down the access road, and hour-long lift-lines weren’t at all uncommon. To those of us accustomed to high-speed quads, the very thought is cringeworthy — but it does bring to mind the Yogi Berraism, “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”

You hear a lot of folks who’ve been around the Valley for twenty years or more talk about the Heyday with a mixture of awe and nostalgia. You get the sense that they felt like they were a part of something bigger, something alive and very real. You also get the sense that, after fifteen years of indifferent, absentee-landlordism, a lot of that luster has gone by the wayside. The magic of the place remains as strong as ever, but even magic must be marketed (just ask Harry Potter), and these days, the crowds have dwindled as elegant families have found their way north to lesser mountains freshened with the Pixie Dust of capital expenditures and big marketing budgets. You can say it ain’t right — I often do — but people vote with their dollars and their feet.

In October, a group of local investors lead by the Sununu family bought Waterville Valley back from our absentee landlords. For the first time in a decade and a half, the mountain and key assets on the Valley floor are owned by locals who have a vested interest in sustainable growth (as opposed to unsustainable harvesting of cash profits to fuel growth out west). By all reports, the new management team is enthusiastic, has great ideas, but is also realistic about what they have to do to improve the customer experience. With barely more than a month from the time the deal closed until the lifts started to turn, they’ve focused their energies on small but significant changes for this season. This is as it should be.

Mark Twain once said, “Bad news can travel around the world in the time it takes good news to put its shoes on.” For once, I am happy to report that Mr. Twain may have missed the mark. The sale of Waterville Valley has had the skiing press all abuzz about the prospects. Seems we’re not the only ones who remember the magical times, and there are a lot of people rooting for us. I guess everyone loves a comeback story.

So, will it work?

Yesterday afternoon, Nancy and I dug the last important pieces of cold-weather gear out of storage and loaded the kids up in time for a few late-day turns on High Country. As we booted up, a mountain employee stopped by and chatted. Just chatted. Warmly. As I skied off the quad and over to High Country chair, I was happy to see Butch, who threw out his great hand for a shake and seemed happy to see me, too. After we’d made our requisite first turns and were ready to download on the big quad, the lift operator came out and chatted, again warmly. Something different was in the air. This ski area I’ve been coming to constantly for the past eight years, which I have literally made my home, was suddenly making me feel much more welcome.

Last night we joined the surprising throng at the Conference Center for the New Season apres party sponsored by the Waterville Valley Ski Resort. Everyone was there — it truly felt like a homecoming party — and everyone was very happy. There was a great buzz in the room, a kind of electricity that I haven’t felt in a very long time. Chris Sununu took the stage and talked briefly about their plans and hopes for the future. I couldn’t hear everything from my vantage in the back of the room, but I can tell you that the crowd approved, heartily. Later, Chris made his way through the crowd introducing himself and chatting easily with the faithful. He seemed genuinely surprised at the size and enthusiasm of the turnout. He shouldn’t be too surprised. There are a lot of us who love this place, who’ve seen it through the lean years but always believed that the core of greatness remained. We’re grateful for the new hope and looking forward to the return of the luster and magic. Everyone loves a comeback story.


Numbers and a Sense of Pride

On November 19, 2010, in Uncategorized, by admin

Disclosure: It’s down to the many hats thing again, folks… as I write this, I have to remember that I am both a duly elected member of the Waterville Valley School Board, and parent to approximately 4% of the entire school population. Neither of those facts diminishes my satisfaction at what I am about to report. You should revel in it, too.

Yesterday, I received a note from Waterville Valley Elementary School principal Gail Hannigan, quietly but proudly proclaiming the kind of success everyone who goes into education must hope for. Gail had received her second email in two weeks from another New Hampshire school principal, congratulating her on WVES’ extraordinary results on standardized tests last year and asking for her council on what exactly it is we’re doing so well.

Curious, Gail started looking at the numbers. She found that our Little Red Schoolhouse — 31 students strong last year, and 26 deep this year — had tested Number One in the entire state among primary and middle schools in reading, and Number Five in mathematics. That’s out of a universe of the 375 elementary and middle schools, and 87,034 students state-wide.

Gail’s a smart woman, and possessed of a scientific mind. She realized that numbers without context aren’t very meaningful. She knew that more cynical observers might attribute the school’s extraordinary performance to its small class size and high per-student expenditure — a reasonable presumption. Being a math teacher, she dug in on the numbers a little further, comparing WVES to schools of similar size. She found that, in reading, schools of similar size ranked anywhere from #6 to #365, with a mean of rank #202. Neither class size nor per-student expenditure alone account for our students’ success.

As Gail Hannigan says, “We have a reason to celebrate. This is because of the culture we have built: philosophy, team work, assessment-driven instruction, dedicated and talented staff, coupled with philosophical support from the School Board, cooperation of our parents, and support of the taxpayers.”

Regardless of your political leanings, I do believe there is a lot to the Hillary Rodham Clinton-popularized notion that “It takes a village to raise a child.” If you do the numbers, the cost of our tiny school amounts to a relatively small but noticeable percentage of our total town budget. However, if you consider the results, or speak with any of our students about what they’re learning or how they’re learning it, or you see the extraordinary light in their eyes, and notice their confidence when they answer you — I believe you, too, will feel a real sense of pride about what our small village has accomplished.


Stick Season Hike

On November 12, 2010, in Uncategorized, by admin

Before we made the move full-time to Waterville Valley, my wife and I were both concerned that we’d feel isolated during the long shoulder seasons in the mountains. Summers, winters, and early autumn are all buzzing with activity, we knew, but what would it be like in stick season? Mud season? Would we feel adrift?

Turns out, not really. For those of us lucky enough to live in Waterville full-time, the shoulder seasons are actually a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of resort life. We slow down a little (or, a little more, from a city perspective), get together with our friends for quiet fire-side gatherings, and find joy in the subtler charms of the mountains as they go to sleep for the winter, or start rousing from their long slumber in the spring.

This week has brought an odd — pleasant, but disconcerting and odd — patch of weather. A ridge of high pressure has resulted in bright sun, clear blue skies, and, unfortunately, a thermal inversion, which has temperatures at the summits of the mountains a good ten degrees warmer than the valley floor. Nice, if you like early October. Not so great if you’re anxiously awaiting the first turns of the season.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a fast and furious morning of work, I realized I was sitting at my desk, hitting refresh, waiting for responses to a dozen emails. I looked out at the beautiful afternoon and decided to go for a solo hike. I consulted with my friend Mike Furgal, trying to locate a back-country trail that he’d ridden (well, hike-a-biked) with other friends this summer. The fabled “Rough Rider” trail, they told me, ran from just below the top of the Snows Mountain chairlift, directly across the face of Snows Mountain, connecting up to the Criterion Trail.

I stuffed my small backpack with a bright-red fleece, hat and gloves — none of which I really needed on this 50 degree day — and put on a bright orange vest (hunting season is on, folks). I slid out my back door to pick up the Upper Criterion trail and tramped south along the ridge.

Sidebar: I spent ten years working on web design for the financial services industry. In that time, I often heard the concept “growth at a reasonable cost”… as I eased along the trail, I passed several new houses going up close to the path. For several years, I have enjoyed the Upper Criterion trail as a pleasant escape out my back door — very close to town, but it still felt quite remote. My initial thought was, yikes, growth is impinging upon my wilderness experience… but another few hundred feet along the trail, I reached the old beaver pond, and was greeted by the sight of new activity. The dam level has gone up, the water is now deeper, and there were freshly-dropped trees. If the beavers don’t mind new neighbors, I certainly don’t. Call it growth at a very reasonable cost. I’m looking forward to meeting my new neighbors — but until we do, a word of caution: the first time the grooming cat goes by this winter, you WILL be startled and think that the aliens are landing in your back yard!

Beaver Dam off Upper Criterion

OK, back to the trail… passing the beaver dam, I dropped down the startlingly steep section of trail called The Wall, and reach the junction of Criterion, HB Highway, et al. I took the left-most fork and followed Upper Criterion up the steady grade. Mike had provided me with a good description of the entrance to Rough Rider, and I watched to the left as I climbed, studying each small lead off the trail (there are a lot, if you look hard). Finally, about 300 feet past Junction 16 (see the WV Nordic Center map), I noticed a line of rocks along the ridge to the left — obviously man-made. I turned onto the old trail and found a few faint blazes on trees. This was Rough Rider.

I started to climb back to the north, following the steady grade. I had to skirt several significant blow-downs, but for the most part, the trail was a veritable back-country super highway — several feet wide, with a fairly smooth track. As I rose along the ridge, I caught glimpses of Mt. Tecumseh through the leafless, open hardwood forest. I dipped down to cross several small brooks, and heard the gurgling of a submerged spring under a big boulder right on the trail. I could see the leaves had been disturbed by a large animal just a short time before I passed through, and I noticed that there were frequent patches where the animal had swept the leaves aside — particularly common on the bank above the trail, where the slanting sun hit. I can only guess as to who did it and why. A bear? A moose? In either case, probably browsing for some delicacy under the leaves. This went on for the better part of half a mile. I like to think it was a black bear, out for a last fall supper of wild mushrooms before turning in for the winter.

Rough Rider runs, as Mike suggested, an almost straight shot from Criterion in the South End of the trail network, nearly a mile (crossing both the south and north ends of the Snows Mountain Trail) until it connects with the Upper Snows cross country trail, just below the top of the chairlift. In places, it’s smooth (yes, Mike, even rideable)… and in places, it nearly disappears into the forest, traversing fields of boulders, and leaves you searching carefully for the next blaze. As I hiked along, I wondered at its history; I haven’t been able to find specific reference to it in any old guidebooks, so I am left with an educated guess — that it was originally a logging track, later appropriated for recreational purposes. In any event, it made for a wonderful woods-walk.

Osceola as seen from the top of the Snows Mountain Chair November 10th, 2010

Once I had popped back out onto the familiar Upper Snows trail, I paused to look around. The bare trees revealed a panorama — albeit through a picket fence of limbs — of the north end of the valley, from Osceola to Flume Peak to Mt. Kancamagus and the Tripyramids. I stood quietly on the trail and enjoyed the view, a cool breeze sighed through the trees from the north. The only sound was the wind and the gentle rattle of a few dried leaves. I reveled for a few moments in the solitude of the mountains, and was once again grateful to be in a special place.

Image of sign for the Elephant Rock Trail

The trail home -- Elephant Rock Trail


Historic Trails

On November 12, 2010, in Uncategorized, by admin

Waterville Valley has been a destination for lovers of the outdoors since the early 1830s, when the Greeley family first took in a summer boarder, one Ephriam Bull of Concord, MA — who went on, it is said, to cultivate the famous Concord Grape. Mr. Bull, still in his pre-grape salad days, enjoyed his time in the Valley so much, he returned the following summer with his wife.

This and other interesting anecdotes from the early days of Waterville Valley can be found in A. L. Goodrich’s excellent book “The Waterville Valley: A History, Description and Guide”. Published in 1892, this small volume is long since out of print, but is available through the wonders of Google Books and their Library Project. It’s well worth a look.

I am something of a low-grade New Hampshire history buff, and I love the lore of our small town: the early, vain attempts at farming; the steady growth of the hostelry industry; the impact of logging on the forests and town. I am particularly intrigued by the evolution of the hiking trails in the Valley. I’ve written before about the delights of the Goodrich Rock Trail, which was masterfully and whimsically laid out. The Waterville Athletic and Improvement Association has long been a driving force in the development and maintenance of trails in Waterville. When Goodrich wrote his book in 1892, there were over 30 miles of trails “…all well-wooded, all well kept, and all secure from intrusion.”

Many of our modern-day trails follow these ancient routes, though with many concessions to change on the valley floor. Read Goodrich, or browse an early edition of the AMC White Mountain Guide, and you realize that life very much centered on the old Waterville Inn (which stood where the Tennis Center and Waterville Valley Academy buildings are today). All trails led from there, regardless of their ultimate destination.

Reading trail descriptions from the early part of the 20th century, you also realize how the landscape has changed. Placenames from the 1800s like Beckytown and Swazeytown are only dimly remembered (both lie off of what is now known as the Livermore Road); working dams on Snows Brook and the Mad River are now long gone. Where most modern-day hikes toward the Tripyramids and the north end of the valley today take off from the Livermore Trailhead, Goodrich writes about tramping north from the Inn along paths to the Cascades, before cutting left and crossing over Slide Brook to intersect the Livermore Trail.

And the Livermore Trail? Most of us think of it as a primary route into the north end of the trail network, whether on foot, skis, or bikes; it serves an extensive network including the Greeley Ponds trail, Big Pines, Kettles Path, Norway Rapids, Upper Snows Mountain, and of course the Tripyramid trails. Relatively few of us have continued on past the North Slide cutoff, where the Livermore Trail becomes more technical and muscular, and very few ever venture past the height-of-land, through the boggy forest, and on down to the Kancamagus Highway.

I’d be willing to bet a cup of French-pressed coffee at the Emporium that only a few curious souls know that the Livermore Trail was once more commonly known as the American Institute of Instruction Trail, and was opened as an early bridle path from Waterville to Crawford Notch in 1860. According to the 1922 AMC White Mountain Guide, an old sign still stood by the Waterville Inn which read, “Mt. Washington 28 Miles, Old Crawford House”. Crossing the Pemigewasset Wilderness, it met up with and followed the Sawyer River (and railroad grade) to the Saco Valley and on north to the Presidentials.

Armed with these old texts, I feel like I have a mission… I look forward to exploring these old trails with a new eye toward their history, finding “lost” trails and enjoying the solitude of the woods, much as the early visitors to the valley did.