Throughout my 20s, 30s and into my 40s, I fancied myself a passable nordic ski racer. I, and a group of friends calling ourselves “Team Ross” (named in honor of long-time Middlebury College ski team coach and former olympian, Patty Ross) made the rounds to many local races, including the Breadloaf Citizens Race, the Stowe Derby (my favorite for many years!), and the now defunct American Ski Marathon at Blueberry Hill, which was part of a National Ski Marathon Championship Series formerly known as “The Great American Ski Chase“. In addition to the usual technique and conditioning skills, this sport required a certain level of mastery in the art of ski waxing. The difference between a great race and a miserable frustrating day was often the choice of ski wax, and the care with which it was applied, especially in races where the “classic” technique was required. For many years, I found great pleasure in this art. On days when I chose to ski in the classic style, I would head up to the Rikert Ski Touring Center, bringing along my full kit of waxes, and once I checked out the temperature and snow conditions (wet, or dry? Fresh, old, or rock hard?) I would go into the waxing room at Rikert, spending anywhere from 5 min to a half hour waxing up before heading out. And, of course, I secretly scorned the beginners and their noisy, slow, waxless fishscale skis! As the years went by, and the time that I had to dedicate to careful waxing diminished (cough cough..kids) I found that my waxing time diminished to the point where I would “nail” the wax about 25% of the time, get it “good enough to have fun but not quite right” about 50% of the time, and totally “miss the wax” about 25% of the time, leading to either spinning my wheels, or slogging along with glue under my skis. Fast forward to the current covid era – while my passion for waxing has been fading for years, this year the social distancing requirements prohibit spending time indoors in the old Rikert waxing rooms, so I was forced to guess the wax from my home down in the valley. And, I kept guessing poorly. Add to this the fact that my decades old gear, once state of the art, was now badly worn out and ancient technology. So, I swallowed my pride, and drove up to Burlington to buy a pair of (shudder) cheap waxless fishscale skis! I had heard that all outdoor gear, including cross country ski gear was in short supply this year, due to a surge in outdoor activity and upset supply lines, and was fortunate to be able to purchase the last pair of skis and boots in my size in the store. I have to admit, skiing on them has been a pleasure! They are a little slow at times, but realistically, the aging version of me is as well. And, I will never ever ever have to wax my skis again! My new “waxless wonders” reside in my car for the winter, ever ready for a spur-of-the-moment opportunity to use them. My blog posting today describes one route I took on them.
Another covid era complication, has been the need to quarantine after travel out of state. My life required a trip to Boston earlier in the week, and although I eschewed all unnecessary human contact, I returned to Vermont willing to continue human isolation until I am cleared by time or a negative test. That said, I was not going to let all this great snow go to waste! The main entrance at Rikert was clearly off limits, as it is busy with people at the entrance, and in the vicinity of the lodge and inner trails. An alternative place to begin my skiing was up the short road from Rt 125 at the parking lot for the Robert Frost Cabin. While this parking lot, and the immediate vicinity is part of the Rikert trail network, a few hundred yards bring one onto national forest, and these outer trails are infrequently skied. For the duration of this ski, I only saw three other skiers who were easily avoided.
Heading straight up the hill past the old farmhouse and the Frost Cabin, I found myself immediately in a forest of Red Pines, their lower branches still heavy with snow.
While the snow was still pretty fresh, it had been skied out just enough, and my waxless wonders were performing marvelously. At about 3/4 of a mile, the trail forked, and I took the right turn continuing uphill towards the Blue Bed House. I have written on this house in the past – when I first started skiing back here in the 80’s it was still a discernable, partially standing home, but the eponymous blue bed was nowhere to be seen. When I was last here, chronicled 11 years ago in the summer, the house was reduced to a pile of rubble, but still recognizable as a former structure. It’s current status? Frankly, if I hadn’t known it was once there, I probably couldn’t have discerned it’s location, especially with all the fresh snow. Nature is quickly reclaiming this spot!
Continuing on this trail, at the next trail junction, I took a sharp left on the trail whose sign indicated that it was heading towards the Blue Bed House meadow – probably the remnants of the old hill farm associated with the house. This open area is one of my favorite places in this part of the woods, and its former use as a farm site can also be identified by one of the surest signs of its former habitation – the old apple trees planted many generations ago.
Going straight at the bottom of this meadow (the left turn here is where I went on my return), and after a short steep descent, I came down to the terminus of the Wagon Wheel Road, one of the back roads in Ripton, where the road had been plowed, but not sanded, and was fine for skiing. This location was probably the site of what was probably a pretty rowdy dance hall from the early 1950s called – you guessed it – “The Wagon Wheel”. I did a little looking into the history of this former den of sin for the residents of Ripton in a previous post. Curiously, uphill, not far from here, I once found the rim of an old wagon wheel laying down on the ground, and I made the point of leaning it against a tree, but have never found it again since then.
At this point, I turned right up the plowed, but skiable dirt road beyond the locked gate. There is clearly someone who lives up this road during the winter months, but fortunately they leave this section open to foot, ski, and snowshoe travelers during the winter. After a short ascent on this section, the trail system takes a well- labeled right turn onto a true trail, with the continued road ascent at this point well-labeled with No Trespassing signs. I knew from past experiences that there were options to loop back to the Blue Bed House from this point, and that was my original plan. Passing by a beaver pond meadow, I came to the next trail junction. Most of the tracks continued straight, heading towards Forest Service 59, but I had had enough climbing for the day, so I chose to take the right turn onto the old trail called “Kiwi”.
Kiwi had long been one of the most primitive trails in the Rikert trail network, and is still marked on contemporary Rikert maps. Decades ago, while not maintained, it was easily followed, and skiing in the winter I could guess that it was braided with tiny streams which were easily covered by snow and ice in the winter. More recent runs back here were a little bit disorienting, and I soon realized that beaver activity, and erosion had created a real stream here, requiring wet feet. Since this trail was still shown on some Rikert maps, I was hoping that it could be crossed more readily in the winter, or that perhaps the Rikert staff had added a primitive bridge. However, as I followed the tracks to the edge of the stream, I looked across and saw nobody had passed this crossing since the last storm, for obvious reasons! So, I turned around, and retraced my tracks to the site of the old Wagon Wheel site.
On my return, I chose a shorter route, following the signs pointing towards the Frost Cabin, and soon found myself in the red pine forest, enjoying a gentle descent back to my car. The sun, low in the sky, made for a lovely view by the cabin!
The total length of this semi-loop ski was about 5 miles, with a modest 530 ft of climbing and descent. And the best part? I won’t have to scrape and clean the nasty old wax from my ski bases!
Postscript: Heading out of another ski, on the next day, I noticed that road access to the Robert Frost Cabin has been closed by Middlebury College. This is understandable, as the possibility of accessing “in bounds” Rikert Trails by those not holding a seasons pass (I did purchase the pass) was possible here. Also, probably more importantly, current Covid rules require that the touring center maintain records of all daily visits, should contact tracing be required.