I find myself in the Mad River Valley fairly frequently, and while technically, it is not part of Addison County, it is less than an hour away from Middlebury by car, and has it’s own outstanding opportunities for running and cross country skiing. One of the two nordic skiing establishments in “The Valley” is known as Ole’s, and is named after a fellow named, not surprisingly, Ole, who developed the area for skiing many years ago before returning to his native Norway. This rather expansive ski touring area has a very different feel to it than the nearby Rikert and Blueberry Hill touring centers. While the nearby ski areas have the wilderness feel befitting areas on or near national forest, Ole’s is entirely on land which serves other uses in the summer months, and weaves its way in and out of active farmland, private homes, and is actually based on a summer landing strip, aka “Warren International Airport”, used primarily to serve gliders in the summer months. I am not going to bother to give detailed instructions on how to find it, since everyone has either a GPS or a cell phone with Google Maps, but it is up on a plateau to the east of the Mad River, and just below the ridge of the Roxbury Mts.
This is a ski center with some definite selling points. It is very “beginner friendly”, since the shorter trails are on a landing strip, and are very flat. When I ski there over the Christmas holidays, there always seem to be quite a few families there giving nordic skiing their first try! Also, since most of the terrain is in open farm fields during the summer, Ole’s can open up, and provide nice skiing when there is very little natural snow, unlike wilder areas which need more snow to cover over rocks, stumps, bear dens, and other natural hazards. The shortcoming of Ole’s is that it doesn’t have any substantial climbs and descents (at least not on the trails I routinely ski). Nonetheless, most of their terrain could be aptly described as “rolling”, so athletic skiers can get a good workout, albeit without lung wrenching climbs or long adrenaline-inducing descents.
I started out at the touring center headquarters, which was festooned with the requisite US and Canadian flags, a Norwegian flag in honor of it’s founder, and a German flag. I had to ask what the significance of the German flag was, and apparently they were displaying it because “it looks good!”. The biggest climb in the area involved the trail immediately to the west, to the top of the modest knoll called “Warren Pinnacle” a 5 km loop which provided for a few nice views back in the direction of the touring center fields. This trail looped in and out of meadows and young birch glades, typical of farmland in the process of reverting to its natural state. Returning to the center after this loop, I headed south to the short 2 km trail which is one of my favorites there, a loop called “Rock n Roll” which makes a series of short loops through active farmland, as evidenced by the corn stalk stubs from the fall’s harvest, which probably provides great wild turkey habitat when there is less snow on the ground. This trail probably has an altitude difference of only 30 ft between its high and low points, but no flat sections, and lots of short fast turns which make for interesting skiing.
After this stretch, I returned to the airstrip field to the north, and after pausing for a moment to enjoy the panorama of the Green Mt ridge to the west , veered to the east, until I hit the East Warren Road, making on last long loop to the north, before returning to the touring center by a short wooded trail.
The entire loop ended up at about 14 km, and while it is hard to figure out the combined vertical climb for lots of small climbs rather than a few big climbs, it was a scenic ski with enough climbing to make for a good workout.
The Rikert Ski Touring Area at Breadloaf remained pretty much unchanged over the course of my first quarter century in Addison County. Sure, there were a few minor trail reroutes, and a few less-used trails disappeared as several more remote trails appeared on the trail map over the years, but it was very much a timeless place. Even the interior warming hut and ski rental shop had not undergone any renovations in anyone’s memory. Two summers ago, those who hold the purse strings realized that this wonderful resource, really a local institution, was in severe need of some modernization if it was to stand a chance of ever breaking even financially. So, in the words of one of the employees there, the college went “all in”, fixing up the interior, and more importantly, adding snowmaking and rerouting the racing trail. The new racing trail was named after the Tormondsen family, who presumably donated some of the funds needed for these renovations (knowing how things work at colleges!). This family has clearly been quite generous, since the Great Hall in Bicentennial Hall was also named after this family – so “Thanks Folks!”
The old racing trail, which was 7.5 km long (10 km if the section on the Battell Loop was added) was very narrow, and had several very tight turns which forced racers to check their speed, or at least know the course well in order to ski it their fastest. The nature of the trail made it such that it was very difficult for skiers to pass each other when skate skiing, and since this technique has been a part of ski racing for about 30 years, it made sense to find a way to widen the trails. Finally, while we all love seasons with great snow, there have been many years where Ripton has been pretty much snow-repellent – like last season! I seem to remember hearing that there was one group of nordic racers in the late 80′s who never had a chance to race on their home course over their four years at Middlebury. The addition of snowmaking to a significant section of trail not only keeps the area open for carnival races, but may turn our little local area into a ski touring area with greater regional appeal.
After the recent January thaw, and a week of howling cold weather, this weekend brought a few inches of fresh snow, and Sunday turned beautifully warm (if 20 degree weather is “warm”!) and sunny. Snowcapped Breadloaf Mountain in the background gave the scene “pinch me is this real?” beauty.
The new race trail, listed as 5 km, is a little shorter than the old trail, but this makes sense given the economics of setting up the permanent plumbing required to supply its outer reaches with snowmaking. Some of the new trail uses segments of previously existing trail, much of it is set on new trails created during the summer of 2011. The course has a similar layout, with one shorter loop in the Myrhe’s Cabin side, and a longer loop on the Craig’s Hill side of ski touring area. While the Tormondsen Family Trail does not have as much altitude gain as the old trail due to its shorter length, it doesn’t have any flat sections either, so it will definitely challenge competitors. The trail is well marked from the beginning and, in addition to greater breadth, can also be distinguished by the snowmaking pipes which follow the course.
While older racers may bemoan the loss of the technical challenge of the old “S-turns” or the long hard climb up “Craig’s Hill”, the current and future generations of racers will have a blast on the wide, banked, fast turns which characterize the new course. When I thought I had finished the trail, I looked at my GPS, and realized that I had not yet covered the full 5 km, and realized that the races usually start with a big loop of two in the open fields for the benefit of spectators, so I threw in one loop around the field at the end, and brought the distance up to about where it should be. Conservatively, there is about 400 feet of climbing on this course, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that the longer races will loop around it as many as 4 times!
We have the opportunity to see the first Winter Carnival race held on this new trail next weekend (Feb 15, 16), and the NCAA championship races in early March. Come on up and check it out!
Only two weeks ago, one of the biggest snow storms ever to hit northern New England blasted us with about two feet of snow, but the relatively mild weather which followed made me wonder whether my weekend enjoying the mountains would be in the winter, the spring, or mud season? Or all of the above perhaps? After Friday’s wonderfully springy weather, I realized that if I was going to get in any last long ski outings, I had better do them soon, as I suspected that the snow cover would be melting away quickly. With that in mind, I set out along the Ripton-Goshen road on Saturday morning. The road was fine at first, but is shortly became a series of frozen muddy ruts which made the drive rather adventurous for my low clearance front wheel drive vehicle. By the time that I reached the Blueberry Hill ski touring area, I realized that I had been fortunate to arrive with my oil pan intact. The ample snow cover was tempting, but I also realized that I needed to get onto paved roads before the frozen ruts melted into a quagmire with a high potential to suck my poor old Ford Escort into the Vermont equivalent of quicksand. Thus, I decided to head back to civilization, through the better roads heading down towards the Goshen Village, and return to Middlebury via Forestdale – definitely the long way, but the right way back considering the road conditions.
Undaunted, I headed back up to the Rikert ski touring area, which was fully accessible by paved road. While the snow cover was starting to get a little on the thin side in the field, there was a ton of VERY HARD snow in the woods. On the limited trails where the Rikert staff had groomed, the skiing was actually pretty nice, especially for skating skis, but forays off the groomed trails led to very challenging and limited skiing. As I was skiing along, however, I realized that the rather unyielding snow might be good underfoot for ….the first trail run of the year! So after skiing around a variety of loops close in to the touring center, I vowed to return to the mountains on Sunday, in running shoes rather than skis.
Sunday, of course, ended up as a near perfect late winter/early spring/pre-mud season day, so I headed for the wide open and well packed terrain of Forest Service 59 ( also known as Steam Mill Road). I have mentioned previous runs and skis on this road which is closed to car and truck traffic in the winter, but maintained for snowmobile use. Rather than accessing it from the Rikert side, I thought I would try and reach it from the Ripton side, and looking at maps, realized it could be accessed from the Natural Turnpike. For those who don’t know this road, it departs from Rt 125 to the left just after passing the Ripton town buildings, and weaves its way up into the decreasingly populated higher elevations. While this road passes all the way to Lincoln in the summer, a forest service gate blocks vehicular passage at a convenient parking lot. I have never seen this parking lot before, but it seemed like a good place to head into the forest.
While the footing might have otherwise proven a little slippery, given the thin veneer of corn snow on a rock hard base, my recent acquisition of the perfect running shoe for the situation made for sure-footed running. Asics makes an amazing shoe called the “Arctic” which has small spikes in the sole for just these sorts of condition, which gave me confident footing throughout the run. Joining the snowmobile trail labeled by the trailhead signage as “7A South” I quickly joined the far north end of the closed off portions of Steam Mill road.
A steady climb on this wide snowy boulevard brought me to the Steam Mill clearing itself, the trailhead of the trail to Skylight Pond, and a wide open area with great views of Breadloaf Mountain to the left.
As I was running along, I realized that I was not the only person who saw the potential to enjoy this route on such a gorgeous sunny day. I saw numerous skiers, hikers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers out as well – the only thing missing was a few dogsledders! After a little over 3 miles, I reached the Forest Service gate at the Rikert end of the road, so simply retraced my path for a 6.6 mile round trip. I also noted a variety of other trails branching off from this newly discovered trailhead, and I am looking forward to exploring them this summer on foot!
I am not including my usual altitude profile for this run, as the run had only a few small climbs and descents, and my GPS actually gave some odd results, indicating a nonexistant 500 foot drop and climb in the first mile – no need to scare off other explorers with spurious data! The next question is – will there be more skiing? Is it really running season? Or will it be so much mud that attempts to take either off road will require a cleanup with the garden hose to rinse off before entering the house? We will see….
Driving up into the mountains on Sunday, I was initially undecided whether to head into lesser used trails, or confine my late afternoon ski to more groomed terrain. Noting the piles of fresh snow everywhere, but untracked paths at all my favorite trailheads, I decided that the old racing skis I had brought would lead to a far more pleasurable ski on the well groomed trails of the Rikert Ski Touring Center at the Middlebury College Breadloaf Campus. As I approached the touring center, I was initially surprised by the huge number of cars parked there, until I remembered that there was a Bill Koch League (the youth nordic ski racing program) festival happening there. There has been a resurgence in nordic ski racing over the last few years, in part fueled by Rikert’s active Bill Koch League program and the leadership of the Frost Mountain Nordic Club, as well as the very popular Middlebury Union High School Nordic Ski Team. Inspired by these eager young athletes, it seemed a good day to travel the entire 10 km racing trail used by the college racers for their workouts, and yearly Winter Carnival races.
Family events precluded my witnessing this year’s winter carnival races, but on most years, the Saturday race is a great spectacle. The men ski the 10 km loop twice, and the women ski a slightly shorter 7.5 km loop twice. The high point of both of these events is the mass start involving all the racers in a mass start, looping around the field a few times in their amazing splash of color before heading into the woods. While the waxing tents set up by Sunday’s much younger racers and their coaches and parents were not as plentiful as those set up by the collegiate racers, they created much the same festive competetive atmosphere.
Leaving the fields festivities behind me, I headed into the first of the three loops which make up the race course. While this loop is officially named “the Battell Trail”, it has long been known by its nickname (and long ago official name) “the Turkey Trot”. This is a favorite first loop for many local children and neophyte adult cross country skiers due to its modest length, climb and descents. It also makes a for a good stretch of trail for the early stages of a mass start race, due its wide boulevard feel, making for relatively easy passing as the racers stretch out their legs. It also made for very pretty skiing for this long retired racer, with the previous day’s fresh snows clinging to the conifers.
After about 2 km in the woods of the Battell trail, this spectator friendly course loops back into the field before taking a right turn towards Myhre Cabin and the first substantial climb of the course. A short, but steep climb followed by a short descent and yet another climb up the hill behind the Myhre Cabin leads to the most technically challenging part of the course, the “S-turns” which can be easily seen in the Google Earth GPS projection of the route at the end of this posting. While this section is not particularly steep, racers can build up some decent speed while taking on some tricky hairpin turns. Shortly before one of the last descents in the S-turns I noticed a curious sign. Existential skiing anyone?
Looping back below the cabin brings one back to the field again before taking on the last major challenge of the loop, the long arduous ascent of Craig’s Hill. One of the best places to watch racers is on the short flat stretch about 2/3 of the way up this climb – as the skiers make their second loop, you can often see their exhaustion and guess which racers are going to have the energy needed for the upcoming sprint finish. A little more climbing after this point, followed by a short descent takes you to the section known as “The Figure Eight” although only half of the 8 can be skied without forcing racers to cross each others paths. The fast final descent down the section of trail still bearing the name of an exiled former professor brings you to the finish line behind the touring center. I realized at this point that I had not yet covered a full 10 km, so two loops of the ballfield brought my distance up before calling it a day.
While I have not entered any citizens races for quite a few years, I felt like I was skiing this loop at a fairly brisk pace, which took me about an hour to complete, with just a little time off along the way for photography. The top college racers can do this loop in less than a half hour – and then do a second loop to complete a 20 km race in about an hour. Many exercise physiologists consider nordic racing the most demanding sport in that it works every muscle in your body while pushing it to aerobic extremes. The top racers achieve levels of fitness most of us can only dream of. Most impressive!
Sitting in my living room on a snowy Saturday night, I have a hard time believing how warm and sunny it was just a few hours earlier, as I set off to ski The Widow’s Clearing Trail. Since the posting on the history of the Widow’s Clearing from one of last summer’s runs elicited a lot of interest, I thought it would be fun to return to this site on skis once winter hit. Well winter has definitely hit! The snow cover is outstanding for cross country skiers, with almost all hazards other than the larger streams completely buried.
This ski began, as did many of last summer’s runs, at the Brooks Road (aka Chatfield) parking lot off of Rt 125 just past Breadloaf. Usually, this lot if pretty empty, but on this gorgeous morning, there were numerous cars from which other outdoor enthusiasts had already departed. The goal for the day was to cross over the to Widow’s Clearing parking lot on the Ripton-Goshen Road. After about a half mile of easy climbing, I reached the clearing, which was not unexpectedly enveloped in a sheet of white, with only a few brushy trees poking through the uniformly smooth cover of the freshly fallen snow.
The skier-packed trail continued through the forest, passing several minor trail crossings, but staying on the Widows Clearing Trail, which also coincided with the Vermont’s end-to-end ski trail, the Catamount Trail, with its characteristic blue blazes, for much of its path. Deeper into the woods, I came across a pleasant surprise – the groomer from the Blueberry Hill nordic ski area had set tracks beyond the normal confines of their more heavily used trail system offering the unexpected pleasures of smooth kick-and-glide skiing. Eventually the Widows Clearing Trail and the Catamount Trail parted ways, and I bore right down the short descent to the end of the trail at the Widow’s Clearing parking lot on the Goshen-Ripton Road.
I had originally planned on doubling back on the same route, but when I rejoined the Catamount Trail, the day was too nice to end prematurely, so I headed right, taking further advantage of the groomed terrain. A second short descent to the Goshen-Ripton Road provided a brief roller-coaster descent staying in the deep set tracks.
The return trip passed too quickly, but was made even better by a chance meetings with a few friends and acquaintances along the trail, and several energetic but well-behaved golden retrievers. This route covered a little less than seven miles….I mean 11 km…..with almost all the climb in the first half mile. If this snow keeps up, I hope to blog skiing, rather than running into April this year!
Last Sunday finally gave me what I was looking for – blue skies, blue wax conditions (for those of you on waxable cross-country skis) and great snow cover – perfect for the first ski posting of the season. I decided to begin the day’s ski from my home area- the Rikert Ski Touring Center operated by Middlebury College, and make the route a mixture of well-groomed touring center trails and lightly traveled remote paths. The day’s route began by reversing the route described in one of my posts from last winter, entitled “The Robert Frost Cabin”. Heading up Craig’s Hill, the beauty of the fresh snow and groomed trail provided all I needed to justify stopping for a picture.
At the top of the first hill, I took a left on the “Figure 8″ trail, and then followed the signs leading to the Frost Cabin. The lack of any truly bitter cold subzero days this winter have made it so that many of the surface streams are still running, rather than iced over, and in a few spots, I had to chose my path carefully to avoid waterskiing. Around the periphery of the Frost Fields, the 2-3 inches of snow from the previous nights snow on packed trail made for pretty easy skiing, but the snow was up to my knees in the unpacked powder! Joining the trail heading into the woods behind the Frost cabin at the top of the meadow, which by this point in the season was pretty well packed by previous skiers, brought me to the site of the title of this entry – the Wagon Wheel Road.
The Wagon Wheel Road was so named due to the presence of dance hall by that name which operated at the end of the road, where the Rikert Trails meet the road, until about 60 years ago. I wanted to try and find a source of information on this former Ripton hot spot, but found the best information from an unlikely source. A friend told me that a well-done booklet on the history of Ripton was put together by the 5th and 6th grade classes of the Ripton Elementary School back in 1996, and that it might have some information on The Wagon Wheel. Fortunately, I learned that a copy of this book was available on the bookshelves of the Rikert Touring Center. According to this source, the dance hall operated from 1950-1952 with dancing every Saturday night in the summer, and was owned an operated by one Leonard Zeeman. Although the language used to describe this site is appropriately guarded, given the age of the authors, one gets the impression that it was a pretty wild place! They also report that the owner, who was also a contractor, collected enough beer bottles that he used them to build the cellar walls of a home he constructed in Middlebury. The dance hall stood derelict until 1962, when it was torn down, leaving behind just another cellar hole. With all the snow, there was no chance of finding this, but a small clearing at the end of the road appears to be a good place to begin searching for it in the spring.
My original plan was to follow the Wagon Wheel Rd as far as I could towards its source in the more civilized parts of Ripton, but was surprised by the fact that the upper reaches of the road were actually plowed. There was enough snow at first, but after about a km, the cover got too thin to ski, so I reversed my path, and headed back to the touring center. When I reached the Frost meadow, I took the upper trail back, which led to the well-groomed tracks on the outer Frost trail. From this high point on the terrain, I descended to the touring center to complete this 11.5 km route.
Once again, I am reverting to the common use of metric measurements when describing nordic ski routes, as is common. Curiously, the only time I have received any “troll comments” on my postings was last winter when one reader took offense at my use of this Unamerican system of measurement!
While the snow cover is much improved from my last posting, the gorgeous spring-like weather could bring the ski season to an early close, so I had to get out over the weekend and enjoy the deep, but increasingly slushy snow. You will also notice something very different about this post. As a rule of thumb, I am usually a purist in that I earn my descents by putting out the effort to gain altitude first. But today, I felt that a lobster analogy was quite appropriate. Most of the time, the effort of cracking open the lobster, and prying the meat out of its exoskeleton is just the cost of enjoying its sweet flavor. But every now and then, as a treat, you just have to say “to heck with it” and order the Lobster Newburg. Today was my Newburg day. How so? I cheated and took the bus uphill, making it a tour with far more descent than ascent.
My primary destination today was The Norske Trail, a short wilderness run which begins just above the entrance to the Middlebury College Snowbowl on Rt. 125, and concludes at the Rikert Ski touring area. Instead of doing this route as an “up and back”, I made use of the ACTR bus which picks up passengers at Breadloaf and concludes at the Snowbowl. The trailhead for the Norske Trail is a 5 minute walk uphill on Rt. 125 from the turnoff to the Snowbowl.
The Norske Trail is much more of a wilderness trail than those in the ski touring areas, or snowmobile trails of earlier posts. It starts off with a series of modest climbs and descents, and despite the lack of grooming, is never particularly challenging. While the trail never seems to get heavy use, you can pretty much count on the trail being broken within a day or two after every good dumping of snow. Cruising along through the open hardwood forest, I eventually came to an overlook, with good views across the valley to Moosalamoo, and the meadows of the Breadloaf campus. I could see from the well-beaten snow where previous ski and snowshoe parties had also enjoyed the vistas since the last storm.
Continuing the gradual descent, one eventually gets to a section where there are several intersecting trails, including the Burnt Hill trail, an easy summer hiking trail which reaches the top of the Green Mt. Ridge. I chose to follow the ski trail marked with blue diamonds until it intersected with Forest Service 59. At this point, I had been descending at a leisurely pace, covering a little over 4 km in about 45 min. I knew that a right turn on FS 59, and a left turn onto the Gilman Trail would bring me to the Rikert Center in about 10 min, and I wasn’t ready to call it a day, so I instead stayed on FS 59 for another km or so until I got to the groomed descent on the Brown Gate Trail, extending my afternoon’s ski a little deeper into the touring center. The remainder of this route is made up of the same trails described in the opposite direction at the beginning of my post entitled “Robert Frost Cabin“. Immediately after crossing the bridge over the beaver pond outlet, I spied a notice affixed to a nearby tree. Curious as to its message, I stopped for a moment to read it. Needless to say, I am relieved to note that some of my fellow backwoods sojourners are concerned for my safe passage in the presence of fierce wildlife.
An easy cruise on Rikert Center trails brought me back to my car at the touring center. This was a relatively short tour, covering a little over 9 km, with an overall descent of about 600 ft, but with enough ups and downs, and less manicured trail to keep it scenic and challenging.
As a postscript, when I arrived at Rikert to catch the bus up to the start of the day’s ski, I was a little surprised to see an older gentleman skiing in a tux and stovepipe hat, as well as a much younger woman cruising on by attired in a jogbra and blue jeans. Unbeknownst to me, Sunday was the day for the rescheduled Breadloaf Citizen’s Race, a “Just for the Fun of It” race which I have participated in on many occasions in years past. While I was sad to have missed the race, I was glad to see the race go on in the same spirit of semi-competetive fun which has been its hallmark for decades.
The continued snow drought is keeping me in the higher elevations. That said – the snow is still great up there! This week’s ski is a winter variation on one of my running posts from last summer, the Sugar Hill Reservoir run. Start this ski tour in the Brooks Road parking lot,which is found about a quarter mile from Rt. 125 just east of The Rikert Ski touring area. This parking lot is a popular starting point for skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers. I have also found that it is a great place to ski in low snow conditions, like this year, or early in the season before the first serious snow dumpings hit. Once again, some of the best skiing is on snowmobile trails this season, and since the lower 2/3 of the Brooks Rd. climb is groomed for and by snowmobiles, this is where I started!
The first hundred yards or so were pretty rocky, so I made a mental note to make sure I was not going too fast at the end of the descent (a little literary foreshadowing there) so that I wouldn’t get hurt. The snow coverage got a lot better as soon as the climbing started, however, except for a few short stretches where overhanging pine trees diminished the ground snow cover. These few minor problems aside, it was a steady easy climb on skating skis due to the fast, granular snow which has seen a few freeze-thaw cycles and just enough traffic to keep it from icing up. I knew the lowest 2/3 of the road would be fine, as this section is almost always well groomed for snowmobilers, and had planned on turning off the road towards the Sugar Hill Reservoir – following the route of my aforementioned summer run. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that the upper reaches of Brooks Rd. had been groomed for skiing for the first time in my recent memory. I presume our friends at Blueberry Hill have run their super-duper ski groomer Pisten Bully over this section at some point in the not too distant past, as this stretch is not open to winter motor sports. After about another mile of easy climbing, there was a slight descent to the end of the road. Given that it had been a few years since I last ventured up here in winter or summer, I was a little bit surprised to see the road end prematurely, but I followed the less impeccably groomed trail beyond this point. I quickly saw why the road had ended – apparently the old bridge up here had washed out at some point, and it was replaced by a nice little footbridge. I am not sure when exactly this went in, but I suspect that it was another of the fixes necessitated by the massive thunderstorms which wreaked havoc on Hancock, Ripton and East Middlebury in August 2008.
Brooks Road Washout Bridge
Immediately past the new bridge, the remnants of the old road funnel into a true trail, marking the entry into the Blueberry Hill Ski Touring Area, so continuation beyond this point leaves you morally and fiscally obligated to drop by the touring center and pay for use of their well-kept trails. I have no objection to paying their very fair fee, but since I really didn’t have time to make full use of their trails, I chose to turn around and return to my car. The return was fast and easy, and with the steady, but not too steep descent I thought I would use my GPS to see how fast I could get going. The very lowest sections are the steepest, so this provided to opportunity to check my pace. While my speed was not at all alarming, I wanted to see if I could at least break 20 miles per hour, so was skiing with my eyes on my wrist rather than the trail. Just a little faster……A moment after I saw my speed break 20, (21 mph to be exact), I looked up and saw a small bare patch in the snow which was too late to avoid! Note to self – old granular snow makes for easy gliding, while old granular dirt does not. While my skis put on the brakes, the momentum of my body kept the rest of me traveling along briskly, with the expected result. Ouch! Fortunately, the worst bruises were to my ego as I got up, dusted off, and returned to my waiting car a short distance away.
This ski trip is 12 km (about 7.5 miles) round trip with about a 750 ft climb and descent.
With the dearth of fresh snow and thinning cover, I usually head for higher altitude terrain. While pleasantly surprised by the conditions at the Rikert Ski Touring area last weekend, I had a hunch that the cover would be even better on Forest Service 59, which has the advantage of being just a little higher up the mountainside. Skate skis are usually the best call in these conditions – it is hard to set the good deep tracks for optimal classic skiing when the cover is light.
Forest Service 59 is the dirt road which passes behind the Breadloaf Campus before climbing into the mountains and eventually looping into backroads Ripton. While the road is fully accessible to 2WD vehicles in the summer, it is plowed for only the first mile or so, and never sanded during the winter. Nonetheless, the lower segment makes for poor skiing due to the modest vehicular traffic it receives. One can reach the well-covered upper reaches through the Rikert trail system, however. On this day, I warmed up with an easy partial loop on the Batell Trail. After the short descent on this well-travelled trail, take a hard right up the short climb onto Fletcher, and another right turn shortly thereafter onto Gilman. After crossing FS 59 at this point, follow Gilman for a kilometer or so, until it rejoins FS 59 higher up. Here, take a left turn onto 59, but if the cover is thin, don’t worry about it, as this only lasts for a hundred yards or so. You will immediately reach a sign indicating the end of winter maintenance for motorized vehicles (other than snowmobiles), and this is where the skating gets great.
This road is maintained for snowmobile travel for many miles, and I have found that the groomer which they use for these machines makes for a near perfect ski skating surface. Thanks once again to VAST and the snowmobilers who support it! You can also ski here on classic skis, or course, but the wide road, lack of tracks, and frankly, lack of snowmobiles, makes a long easy skate most appealing.
At this point, you can pretty much go as far as you want. The road climbs gradually, but relentlessly for about 10-15 min until you reach the height of land. From this point on, the skiing is very easy, with a few short descents and climbs, and is a great place to really stretch out your stride and go for great gliding. I found this trail very reminiscent of much of the course for the Gatineau 55, a ski marathon on the Worldloppet tour which I sort of competed in many years ago. No time for a marathon today, so for my much shorter ski I arbitrarily chose to turn around after a few miles at the Sawmill Clearing, which also serves as the trailhead for the easy climb up to Breadloaf Mountain. Perhaps I will carry my snowshoes on my back another day to add this climb to the short ski tour.
While you know you are going uphill most of the way out, you don’t realize how much you have climbed until your return – I was amazed to see that my return took barely half the time of my trip out. Cruising back to the touring center by pretty much the same route made this a 13 km (8 mile) trip – just right for a busy Saturday when I had other family needs to attend to.
After my last post on the Blueberry Hill ski touring area, I had to follow up with a post describing a favorite loop at my home in the mountains, the Rikert Ski touring center on the Breadloaf Campus. I have purchased a season’s pass here pretty much every winter since I moved to Vt, and I can’t say enough good things about the place and the people who run it, so I won’t! The Rikert area has many kilometers of great trails, but has a compact trail layout, so I am going to describe a route which includes some of their lesser known trails, and some less maintained sections of forest service land outside the ski area boundaries. This loop includes some perfectly manicured terrain, skier-packed side trails, and a short section on Forest Service 59, an unplowed dirt road which is maintained by VAST (Vermont Area Snow Travellers, aka Snowmobilers).
Starting at the touring center, take the trail descending directly into the woods towards Breadloaf Mountain. This trail is labelled as the “first loop” as it is the start of the 7.5 Km loop used by the Middlebury College Ski Team for the winter carnival races. Follow this trail as it makes a quick climb, short descent and veers right for another short climb. Go straight on Holland, which continues the gradual climb. A short distance after topping out on Holland, you will see an ungroomed but usually well skied trail descending to the right. This trail is usually referred to as “Brown Gate”. There are a few springs in this section of trail, so watch out for a few bare spots. An opening in the forest to the right marks the beginning of a series of beaver ponds. The trail eventually makes a sharp right to a bridge which crosses over the outlet of the beaver ponds, but if the little buggers have been recently active, the bridge is sometimes under the ice. From here it is about . 75 Km of climbing until you reach the brown gate which gives the trail its name, where the ski trail system meets FS 59. If you are reading this, and wonder how on earth you will ever follow these instructions, just remember (as the blogger furrows his brow and does his best Yoda imitation) No wrong way, there is, only new ways. Hmmmmmm.
Take a left here on the VAST-maintained trail. I rarely see snowmobilers here, and when I do, I step aside, wave pleasantly, and thank them, as it is their dues which keeps the trail maintained. I am looking forward, however, to the extinction of the smoky and loud 2-stroke machines and their eventual replacement with quieter and less noxious 4-stroke engined snowmobiles. Another Km or so of easy climbing brings you to the height of land, where the trail takes a soft left turn, and starts to descend. Keep your eyes open for a tighter trail descending to the left. You will recognize it when you see a no snowmobiling sign on a trail frequently well packed by snowmobiles. The next few Km are a long fun descent which eventually bring you back into the outer fringes of the Rikert trail system. There is a gorgeous section paralleling the Middle Branch River. Shortly after you cross the river on a major bridge, there is a hard left up a short steep hill. Head up this, and then take the right fork when the trail splits again. You may notice a wooden sign pointing to Breadloaf, but this is easy to miss as it is in need of a paint job. Stay on this trail, which eventually passes through a pine forest before emerging in a clearing adjacent to the Robert Frost Cabin.
Frost spent the summer and fall here every year from 1939 until his death in 1963. I have noted that many locations around New England lay claim to Robert Frost, although “Robert Frost lived here” historical markers are not quite as common as “George Washington slept here” seems to be in the Mid-Atlantic states! The large white farmhouse below is the Homer Noble Farm, which made the news two years ago, when it was vandalized by a large group of high school-aged kids drinking beer. The New York Times article discussing this sad incident can be found at
This sobering thought aside, the bluebird skies and blue kick wax conditions made for yet another ahhhhhhh… moment on a perfect day. From this point on, just follow the obvious trails back to the central sections of the ski touring area, and kick it in back to the touring center.
The total distance on this loop was 13 Km, with a 700 ft altitude difference between the highest and lowest points. You will notice, I am giving all distances in Km now. This is so that I can maintain credibility in the nordic skiing world, where apparently English system measurement is verboten.