On a crisp Vermont morning last month, I met up with about 50 other enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders who were ready for the coming winter. There was no snow, so skiing was out of the picture, and it would have complicated our objective anyway. We were there to help clean up areas of Brandon Gap, a mountainous area in the central Green Mountain National Forest, notable for its designation by the U.S. Forest Service for backcountry skiing.
Even in the bleak period after the fall had left the trees bare but before the snow would cover the decaying leaves, Vermont is a lovely place to visit — it makes you seriously consider living a slower-paced life.
The volunteers gathered in a trailhead parking lot at the base of Goshen Mountain, loppers and saws dangling from belts and backpacks, waiting for instructions for the day. The group was diverse in age, from children with their parents to teenagers, college students, middle-agers and retirees, all there because of their shared love of skiing. There was a collective sense of excitement for the season to come, and with nowhere to actually ski, this was the most productive place to prepare for future winter endeavors.
“It’s a ski area,” Angus McCusker, the president of Rochester Area Sport Trail Alliance, or RASTA, said proudly, pointing up the mountain behind us. He was comparing the system of trails he and his group of volunteers had built by hand to that of a profit-seeking ski resort whose trails had been created with machines.
The Backcountry’s Allure
For skiers in the Northeast who are tired of the cost and the crowds at ski resorts, there have been few alternatives. That is starting to change with grass-roots organizations that bring together enthusiastic skiers, snowboarders and the local community to work with the Forest Service and private landowners to cultivate areas with good downhill ski terrain away from resorts.
This is human-powered skiing — there are no lifts, and you must hike, snowshoe or, ideally, skin. (To skin, you attach strips of fabric to the bottom of your skis to make them grip the snow. It is an efficient way to get to the top of a mountain, similar to Nordic skiing but with less glide and more traction.)
Enthusiasm for backcountry skiing and snowboarding has been growing across the country for several years. Unlike Western states with ample snowfall and open terrain, backcountry skiers in the Northeast are limited to select alpine locations, several old trails built before ski areas were the norm and secret locations guarded with surfer-style localism.
The advantage to skiing these newly created areas over other backcountry terrain is that the glades and trails are well-planned and maintained with skiing in mind. They also are easier to follow because the routes are defined, and maps of the terrain are readily available.
“There was a lot of concern at first, reactions from people as if it was going to blow out people’s backcountry stashes. That isn’t our intent,” McCusker said, referring to some local skepticism about the project.
Jeff Flavell, from nearby Salisbury, Vermont, and my group’s leader for the day, spoke vaguely about skiing the area before it was legitimized, but his pride in the work RASTA has done displaced any ideas that there isn’t enough terrain for everyone to enjoy. Flavell even showed us some of the more hard to find trails, which he could easily have kept to himself.
Holly Knox, the district recreation program manager for the Rochester and Middlebury ranger districts, described the Forest Service’s relationship with RASTA as one of the first projects where federal land is actively managed for the purpose of uphill travel for downhill skiing and snowboarding.
“A lot of places have backcountry skiing on federal land where they don’t need to manage for it. Out west you can naturally ski through the trees because you don’t have the same amount of undergrowth that you see here,” Knox said.
She added that around 2009 she had received a few requests from individuals asking for new places to ski in the area’s backcountry, but there was no unified voice for the skiers and the Forest Service didn’t have experience working with downhill skiers.
That changed when RASTA formed in the winter of 2013, organizing the backcountry ski community in central Vermont. The first several years were mostly devoted to planning: RASTA was looking for good terrain and the Forest Service was looking at ecological, infrastructure and safety concerns.
Both Knox and McCusker described the relationship between RASTA and the Forest Service as a collaboration that is beneficial to both parties. “I think that we have both the environmental concerns at the forefront of what we are doing, as well as small town economic sustainability and that creative economy that comes with providing recreation opportunities,” Knox said.
In neighboring New Hampshire, Granite Backcountry Alliance has been working toward a similar goal. Led by Tyler Ray, the alliance has followed RASTA’s blueprint in organizing the backcountry ski community and working with the Forest Service to create similar areas for skiing and snowboarding.
Despite New Hampshire’s proximity to Vermont the natural ski terrain has stark differences. “We have the benefits of the high alpine of the Presidential Mountains here in New Hampshire, but we don’t have that below-tree-line ski network of trails,” Ray said about the backcountry ski landscape in New Hampshire.
Ray said the goal of the alliance was to develop a portfolio of terrain options so skiers and snowboarders could choose areas to visit depending on weather, time of day or any of the other complex factors involved in planning backcountry travel. He said the alliance had held 10 community organizing events in the past year with about 1,500 attendees, including three trail work days with more than 250 volunteers developing or maintaining some 10,000 vertical feet of skiable terrain.
A Working Vacation
As the day progressed we moved across the mountain like a herd of goats. Climbing up, over and down the steep hillside, we tore through all of the downed trees and branches that stood in our path. With 10 of us working at a moderate pace, we found ourselves in a meadow with tall grass and hardwood trees at the top of the mountain in about an hour.
I enjoy the meditative state I often fall into while doing physical labor, so a day in the mountains of Vermont seems like a guilt-free and productive vacation. I rarely find myself on beaches because I feel like I should be busy and end up leaving more anxious than when I arrived. My sweat and dirty hands on my day in the mountains were an investment in future vacations that others will enjoy as well.
The Forest Service had instructed us to leave the debris where it was cut to help with erosion control and retain nutrients for the soil, and to avoid creating unnatural piles of debris. The hillside was covered in a thick blanket of decomposed leaves, branches and trees — our goal was to gently add to that blanket. The result is a forest that has islands of trees and low areas that are open, but still look natural.
My mind wandered and my body continued with the task at hand. Visions of what the landscape will look like covered in snow started to emerge. I remembered what it feels like to glide in the snow, and I kept thinking of how I would ride over the rocky lumps and rolls all the way down to the valley below.