More often than not, the transition from autumn running to winter cross-country skiing is a long, frustrating period of time, derided as “stick season”. This year, however, a warmer than usual November, followed by more generous than usual early season snow, seems to have shortened the season in which it is “too cold and rainy to run, too warm or snowless to ski” to a few short weeks. That said, the seemingly inevitable Christmas rains have dramatically reduced the snow cover in Vermont, and when I checked the conditions at Rikert, and they were reporting 3 km of trail open for skiing, this did not bode well for holiday skiing in Addison County. So, I decided to look elsewhere, and followed the usual rules of thumb, which are 1: Go north and 2: Go high. So, I decided to make the slightly longer drive to the Trapp’s cross country ski touring center, high on a hillside above Stowe Vermont.
As most Vermonters know, the Trapp Family Lodge was established by the one and only Maria von Trapp of “Sound of Music” fame shortly after she and the rest of the family emigrated to the United States. They first established a modest ski lodge up on a hillside with views which reminded them of the views in their native Tyrol, and then pretty much introduced nordic skiing to the northeast with the opening of their touring center in 1968. Meanwhile, the original lodge burned down in 1980, sending poor old Maria out into the cold in her nightgown. The much tonier modern lodge, which I have driven by many times but never actually entered, was built a few years later. The Von Trapp family also has apparently flourished, as witnessed by the fact that there seem to be as many Von Trapps as there are Smiths in the northern Vermont phone books.
I skied at the Trapp’s Nordic Center a few times a year in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but as my commitment to nordic ski racing faded, corresponding to increased family priorities, I had not skied here in many years, perhaps as many as 20 years, so I was looking forward to this excuse to return. The Rikert ski touring area, while more convenient, has one major drawback – it is lacking in long climbs and descents. It isn’t flat mind you – the Tormondson Race Trail packs in about 400 ft of climbing and descent in each 5 km lap, but due to the limits of the topology, breaks these climbs and descents into bite size pieces. Trapp’s on the other hand, is literally on the side of a mountain, and has trails which take advantage of this – it is full of long, grinding climbs, followed by generous, multi-kilometer descents which which make you want to whoop with joy as you gather speed and maneuver through corners.
I was not disappointed in the amount of terrain under conditions which have virtually wiped out most of the cross country skiing in the state – they had 25 km of trails open, and with my Rikert season’s pass, I was able to get one day of free skiing there this year. Experienced skiers have known of the challenges of skiing Trapp’s, but due to the fame of the Von Trapp family, as well as the rather plush orientation of the tourism industry in Stowe, most of the skiers there are tourists who might ski once every ten years. I was also somewhat astounded by the many languages I heard on the lodge – Spanish, French, British English, Russian, German, and other languages which I didn’t recognize were within my earshot. They must be doing some rather brilliant marketing to get people who live much closer to real mountains like the Alps, to come to Vermont to ski!
The only consistently flat trail at Trapp’s is the main access trail which traverses the side of the mountain for a little over a mile. Given the less experienced nature of most of their clientele, this trail is almost comically crowded with beginners, wearing their downhill skiing attire with ski technique that could be described with the terms “wobble”. “careen”, and “sprawl”. But hey- we all have to start somewhere – I hope that these folks try this great sport again! This section of trail also had numerous benches for skiers to sit on, and plenty of trail signs to ensure the clientele that they were not yet lost in the wilderness. Curiously, they also had a sign with a Robert Frost poem (saying nothing about roads less traveled) inscribed, perhaps taking inspiration from our own local Robert Frost Trail? More experienced skiers inevitably strive to survive the long climb to “The Cabin”, perched at higher altitudes and achieved after a pretty steady 4 km of climbing. When I last visited this cabin, it had a small snack bar, providing free water, and selling hot chocolate, and hot soup to the proud skiers who managed to get up there. This time around, while the cabin was still backwoods rustic, it had a more complete menu than I remembered, also offering grilled sandwiches and baked goods. I wasn’t there to eat however, I was there to ski, and this cabin, at the highest altitude for skiers also provided the beginning of what I came there for – the screaming descents!
After a short water break, I continued past the cabin on the Haul Road, a long fast descent down the back side of the touring area. My past memories of this descent also included memories of great views of Mt Mansfield, but given how many years it has been since I last skied there, the previous open views along the trail were now mostly obscured by young birch forest. That was OK, as my downhill technique is not what it once was, so paying attention to my skiing rather than the views was probably a good idea. Of course, what goes down must come back up again, so after this great descent, I climbed up a different trail, known as “Bobcat”, circling back up to the cabin for another descent. For my second descent, I explored a trail which was new to my experience, apparently put in 5 years ago, known as “Chris’s Run”. This trail is probably the most spectacular descent in a groomed cross country ski trail in Vermont – it had pretty consistent pitch, with just enough steep sections to keep you literally on your toes, and zigzagged its way down the mountainside for what was probably 3 km, with excellent views through the hardwood forest. After this descent, I worked my way back to the beginner bumperpeople trail, with a side trip behind the Lodge, to complete my longest ski of the season and one of my best ski workouts in a few years.
All in all, this made for a 15 km ski with about 1400 vertical feet of climbing, and more importantly, descent. Yah!
For many years, I fancied myself a passable cross-country ski racer. Despite an inauspicious start, finishing dead last as the anchor leg of the 1981 Hanover Relays, a race in which the anchor leg of the winning team went by the name of “Bill Koch” (yup – THAT Bill Koch, and I was attired in a fuzzy blue sweater, blue jeans, and bamboo poles), I gradually improved over the years until the demands of parenthood and other interests diminished my ski training time to the point where racing was pretty futile. At my peak in the late 80’s, I, and a handful of my friends made it our goal to ski 1000 km in a season, and with the mileage from three ski marathons in a month on top of a shorter race almost every weekend, several of us managed to reach our goal. One of the symptoms of this particular version of OCD was an obsession with ski waxes. I would wax at least one pair of skis every night (and yes, I had several pairs, almost always the latest and best) based on the next day’s weather prediction. The bane of the ski-waxer’s existence was the particularly goopy wax for warm or icy weather known as “klister“. While the stuff really does work, putting it on one’s skis is a real pain, and part of the reason why for many years now I have almost always broken out my skating skis, which do not require kick wax, on warm springlike days.
So, on an unseasonably warm and sunny Sunday morning, I found myself with my classic skis at the Rikert Ski Touring Center, and of course, my plastic bags full of every wax under the sun. Realizing, to my dismay, that it would indeed be a “klister day” I dug into my bag and pulled out a tube of silver klister wax which was probably older than most of the skiers out on that particular day. The best way to apply this sticky gooey mess is to squeeze a thick line from the toothpaste tube it comes in onto the kick zone of my skis, and then spread the wax by running my thumbs across the base. Then the fun really starts – as all this wax on one’s thumbs can’t be washed off ( I had forgotten how insoluble it is in water!), so I ended up shmearing streaks of silver goop on the sinks of the Rikert men’s room. Of course, it would not do to leave this for their staff to clean up, so I eventually settled on wiping it up with a generous stack of paper towels. The scene was actually reminiscent of the challenges of cleaning up the “pink goo” from the Dr Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back“.
Skis all prepared, I set off up the hill, not really dead set on where exactly I was going. Taking the freshly groomed tracks on Holland to Frost, I came to the end of the Brown Gate trail, and realized that the section connecting this point and the trail to Blue Bed House was one I had never been on before. This two or three year old section of trail seems to be replacing the old connector from Holland, which seemed to be badly flooded in recent years due to beaver activity. This narrow trail, which wove through the hardwood forest was made more challenging by the darn klister – the conditions were an odd mix of powder, ice, and frozen granular snow, so I found myself intermittently flying, and lurching to a near halt when my skis chose to grab. Nonetheless, I plowed on, connecting to the Blue Bed house trail, and bearing downhill, to Wagon Wheel Rd.
The last time I had passed this way, the Wagon Wheel Rd. had been plowed, making for less satisfying skiing, but to my pleasant surprise, no plows had been this way since the last generous snow storm. So, I took a right turn at the blue gate, planning on following the old Middle Branch trail, which I knew would eventually loop back to the touring center. A few hundred yards later, I came to a surprise which forced me to re-evaluate this plan. While the Middle Branch trail, to the right, looked neatly tracked, I noticed a new, less manicured section, labelled as a segment of the Catamount Trail, bearing left. To the right – the comfortable trail I knew well. To the left, a trail whose known destination was…..Canada. Once again, I chose the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.
This segment of trail was totally new to me, and from the geography, I knew it would eventually lead me to Steam Mill Road (aka FS 59) but I had no idea how long or far away this would be. So, I just glided through the woods, gradually climbing,the klister working well in the rapidly softening snow, and enjoying being the only person for a few miles. And at this point, it hit me – I was reconnecting with a sport that has been shortchanged for quite a few years. After all those years of skiing an enormous amount in my younger adulthood, finding time to keep up with the sport has proven elusive more recently. I found myself suddenly reminiscing and reconnecting with a sport which at one point in my life was my favorite sports activity. This introspection aside, this is a very pretty section of trail, mostly through hardwood forest. The trail is at its most scenic in one segment where it hugs the rim of a rather dramatic broad gorge, with the Middle Branch flowing a few hundred feet below.
After a while, however, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into, as I was somewhat directionally disoriented (albeit not “lost” – the trail was well marked) until I came upon a group of skiers coming down the trail from the opposite direction. One of this party was a friend I had not crossed paths with in a few years, Andy, and as we stopped and conversed, I learned that he was responsible for the layout of the trail we were on! Pressing him for information on his other trailblazing activities, he offered to share some of his favorites in exchange for some help with trail maintenance. Sounds like a good deal to me! I also learned that I was a short distance from Steam Mill Road, which is closed to vehicular traffic in the winter, and maintained for snowmobile use. I joined this road at the broad clearing which in the summer is near to the popular trailhead to Breadloaf Mountain. I found it curious that there was a large sign, standing in the middle of this field proclaiming “WILDLIFE CLEARING”. Since the only tracks I saw in the snow were of human origin, I guess the sign was right – the wildife was cleared!
At this point, I was still a few miles from the Rikert Center, but the return was easy, following the road in the tracks of numerous previous snowmobilers, and getting onto Upper Gilmore near the Brown Gate, and following the obvious downhills back to the touring center.
On the technical side, this ended up being a slightly more than 9 mile route, with about 700 feet of altitude difference between the low and high points. I am also looking forward to checking this out on foot this summer as well. The soul of this day however, was how invigorating it felt to just get lost in something that I really enjoyed. So, take the time to reconnect with something ( or someone I guess!) you love.
I spent much of the morning on Sunday, potentially the best ski day in years, at a family gathering in Massachusetts, but as this get-together wound down, I realized that I just might be able to squeeze in some skiing in at the end of the day, if I could get home early enough in the afternoon. Fortunately, the other members of my family accompanying me on this trip fell asleep shortly after departing Massachusetts, so I took this opportunity to drive a little faster than I might normally. While I missed the banter of my family on this several hour-long trip, they did manage to sleep through my driving back to Middlebury at a pace which might have made them a little bit nervous, and indeed, when they awoke a half hour from home, I was implored to continue at or around the speed limit. Nonetheless, I pulled into my driveway with just enough time to take advantage of the sunny day and spectacular conditions, and headed up to Breadloaf!
In my most critical views of the Rikert area, my only complaint over the years has been that while there is a lot of good skiing here, it seems that a lot of it is in small, tight loops, never getting far from the touring center itself. When snow is good, I frequently hit Forest Service 59 in order to get deeper into the forest. When I arrived at the touring center however, I noticed some new trails on the map, some of which were rarely groomed, and another which until this year never existed. In particular, I was intrigued by the new trail, labelled “Upper Gilmore”, which ran along the eastern periphery of touring area, paralleling, but never quite contacting FS 59, which serves as a snowmobile trail on the VAST network.
I started this particular ski, warming up on the loops on and around the Battell trail, before turning onto Freeman to access the old Gilmore trail. Previously, this trail has served primarily as a connector to the forest service road and the Norske Trail, but as I cruised by Gilmore House (one of the more out of the way dorms at the summer Wordloaf Conference) and neared the road above, I saw the anticipated new trail veering to my left, and headed up it. This is a great new addition to the trail network – it went on for close to a mile, and in sections had the feel of a bobsled run before connecting with the better known Brown Gate trail. Kudos to Mike and his work crew for putting in this great trail last summer!
After enjoying the easy downhill shuss on the Brown Gate Trail, I was treated to a second surprise. The primitive trail leading towards the pile of rubble known as “The Blue Bed House” was also groomed and maintained! Don’t expect much of a house, let alone a blue bed – the eponymous bed probably hasn’t been there for 30 years, and I think the last wall of the house fell 10-15 years ago! Jokes about the condition of the “house” aside, this is a pretty section of forest, which was skied somewhat in the past, but was not made part of the Breadloaf touring area due to property line issues with one of the private land owners. I am glad to see that this has been worked out! The trail then snaked its way into a beautiful open meadow, offering another easy descent and more great winter vistas. Like most abandoned meadows in Vermont, this one had a few ancient apple trees left behind long after all other farming here had ceased. I know of some local hard cider brewers who are interested in heritage apple varieties – perhaps they should explore here! I also couldn’t resist the temptation to make my initials in the otherwise virgin snow, and squared them for good luck – after all I AM a science nerd!
Following the signage to get back to Rikert in time for closing, I enjoyed another particularly pretty stretch of skiing through the tall narrow pine trees that line the trail for a short distance right above the Robert Frost Cabin, and after a loop through these fields, I headed back to the touring center more out of respect to the workers who undoubtedly bad put in a long day, and probably wanted to go home, rather than wait for the stragglers (like me) who didn’t want to quit!
All in all, this made for a slightly longer than 8 mile loop, and brought me much farther into the forest than most skiers at Rikert usually get. There will be no more “not enough long loops” complaints from me, at least as long as the great snow holds up.
Saturday brought the long looked for break in the ski conditions thus far this year: It finally started to warm up to the mid-teens, and there was enough (I hoped!) snow to do my first backcountry skiing of the year. I knew the cover would be a little on the thin side (That always seems to be the case, somehow), so I headed to the higher elevations and a place where there was a high likelihood of being ample cover. Once again, I found myself drawn to my favorite trailhead, the parking lot off of Brooks road, found on the south side of Rt 125, midway between Breadloaf and the Snow Bowl. The Brooks Road itself, which climbs up the hillside to pretty high altitudes becomes part of the VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) trail system during the winter. As such, it benefits from the regular grooming offered to regional snowmobilers, making the VAST trails also ideal for skiing deep into the mountains, even on skating skis, which demand a wide groomed path. This excellent grooming makes high altitude forest roads, like the Brooks Road, some of the best places to ski early in the season before the first dumpings of snow come our way.
Setting off from the parking lot up the hillside, the late afternoon sun filtered through the branches arched over the road created the sense of trees covered with diamonds. I was surprised by the degree to which some of these trees were still encrusted with ice from the storms of the previous week or two.
Continuing upward I also came to a section where a stand of beech trees s flanked the road, the the husks of beechnut shells littered the snow. Looking at them more carefully, they kind of looked like a bunch of bearded little Pac-men. What do you think?
I went into this ski with delusions of a long a glorious exploration of mountain trails, but my late start (It is scary how starting a ski tour at 2:30 in the afternoon is late this time of year!) and the realization that the trail coverage wasn’t quite as good as I hoped it was forced me to reconsider my plans when I reached a trail confluence about 2.5 miles up the mountainside. To the right, I saw the much narrower trail which I knew would bring me to the Sugar Hill Reservoir, but looked rather bereft of snow. Straight ahead, on the continuance of the Brooks Road, but on a section which is not regularly maintained for winter travel there was more snow, but since I was touring on skating skis, this section’s loose ungroomed snow felt like a bit of a slog when I very briefly considered continuing further. And it was getting colder, fast! So, at this point, I turned my heels and sped back down the mountainside to the warmth of my car. Of course, in this fast snow it provided an opportunity to use my Garmin GPS and see what sort of speed I could generate on the two relatively steep descents. On the first steeper drop-off I became so enamored of staring at my watch that I had my first crashandburn of the season! Only slightly less worse for the wear, and covered in white I brought myself back up to speed and held a tuck without distraction for the second, and longer fast section of the descent, and after finishing discovered that I had gotten my speed up to 25 mph! Not exactly olympic downhill speed, but not bad for inch-wide racing skis with detached heels!
All in all, while this was a shorter than planned ski outing, measuring in at slightly less than 5 miles and 500 ft of climb and descent, it was a great way to spend a small allotment of time on a cold but pleasant weekend day
Up to this point, the post has had little to do with the title of the post, so I guess it would be time to conclude with a resolution. These solo skis or runs in the mountains leave plenty of time for quiet, introspective thought. Readers of this blog can probably tell that I enjoy setting myself up for personal physical challenges, and then meeting those challenges, but this resolution is a little different. While the personal accomplishments will hopefully continue, what I really want this year is to make great new memories with those who I care most about.
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!