Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Skiing back through the years

Boston, another splitter day! Sweet!

Skiing has such a rich history here in Northeast, and few places capture the lore as well as the New England Lost Ski Area Project, the brainchild of Massachusetts native Jeremy Davis. Just perusing the site, uncovering details of areas I'd been to, or heard about, of live nearby, such as Hamilton Ski Tow, pictured at right (I have no idea who that handsome character is), tugs at This Old Jock's nostalgic heart. This feature was written for the New England Ski Journal.

Lost but Not Forgotten

There’s a distinct paradox at the intersection of Jeremy Davis’ vocation and his cherished pastime. At his “real” job, as a meteorologist for Weather Routing Incorporated in upstate New York, Davis forecasts the future, guiding tankers and cargo ships over the Seven Seas. But in his free time, Davis delves into the past, embracing his avocation — the New England Lost Ski Area Project (NELSAP).

“I’ve always been fascinated by the way things change over time, how things evolve, through history,” says Davis from his home in Wilton, N.Y., outside Saratoga.

Davis, a 32-year-old Massachusetts native who graduated from Lyndon State College in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, admits he’s stuck in a time warp. He launched the NELSAP website (nelsap.org) as a hobby during his junior year in 1998. The idea sprung from a childhood curiosity with defunct ski areas, such as Mount Whittier in New Hampshire or Mount Agamenticus in southern Maine, that his family discovered during summer travels. He started with six and expected to find another 100 or so. At the most, 200. Instead, he uncovered more than 400 in the first few years. What he also learned was that he wasn’t alone in his love of ski lore. The site unleashed a tidal wave of nostalgia among thousands of skiers, young and old alike, and particularly Baby Boomers now taking the time to look in their personal rear view mirror at the winters of their youth.

“People like that lost Americana stuff, like lost diners, lost railroads and lost amusement parks,” says Davis. “This idea fits into that. It’s all fun, all positive memories. We’re representing the good times from the past for a lot of people.”

Narrowly defined, Davis’ site now catalogues more than 600 “lost” ski areas, ranging from tiny backyard slopes to larger resorts. Many were cozy areas with a few lifts, typically rope tows, J-bars and T-bars, maybe a lodge, and about a half-dozen trails. Close to Boston, for example, there’s Boston Hills on Route 114 in North Andover (where you can still barely make out the ragged silhouettes of the trails). Or, in my backyard on Boston’s North Shore, there once was Hamilton Hills. (“I remember the rope tow there,” a friend who grew up here told me. “It used to rip your mittens right off your hands.”)

But relegating NELSAP to narrow definitions is a disservice to Davis’ work. In reality, the NELSAP site is a vibrant, teeming community, a living history of a sport that, to many, is synonymous with New England winters. A decade after its launch, the site still averages 900 visitors a day, and the NELSAP discussion board rivals any on the web unrelated to the Las Vegas line. That’s because, with each ski area, the site captures a place and time capable of setting off a torrent of tales. Those memories are all the more prized because most of these areas no longer exist. NELSAP mends a frayed connection strained by the passing of decades — a cyber world where temperamental lifts run from sunrise to sunset and the snow flies forever.

Glenn Parkinson, president of the New England Ski Museum in North Conway, N.H., understands the deep vein that Davis is mining. Parkinson coined the phrase “lost ski areas” in “First Tracks,” his book on Maine ski history. He added a final chapter on lost ski areas as an afterthought and was stunned by the response.

“It really struck a chord and made ski history local and made it personal,” he says. “Jeremy’s taken it one step further by putting it on the Internet.

“What Jeremy has done with NELSAP is tapped into people who are in their teens, 20s and 30s, as well as their 50s and 60s. It brings people in to see their own personal history, and that sparks an interest in the broader context of ski history.”

Across the six-state region, particularly Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, today’s mega-resorts conjure images of graceful turns on groomed slopes. It’s easy to forget that alpine skiing as we know it, either as a sport or a livelihood, didn’t exist a century ago. But in those hundred short years, the sport has undergone an incredible transformation. Skiing captivated us. With the advent of rope tows and chairlifts, ski areas began popping up like drive-in theaters. Soon, ski trains started hauling well-heeled adventure-seekers from the urban centers of Boston and New York to northern outposts including Stowe, Vermont and North Conway, N.H.

Local areas — true mom and pop operations — sprouted everywhere, creating new generations of skiers, and establishing a relatively inexpensive feeder system for the bigger resorts. I’m a product of those times, growing up in the 1960s just outside of New York City. My siblings and I admired legends including Jean-Claude Killy and Billy Kidd, and tried to imitate their exploits on any incline we could find. Often, those delusions of grandeur were played out on tiny, rough-cut hills near my grandparents’ home in Manchester, N.H.

Most, sadly, have vanished. The 1970s were especially harsh on smaller slopes, when a confluence of high gas prices, a spike in insurance premiums and several severe snow droughts forced many to close. Often, a padlock was slapped on the lodge, and owners simply walked away. At others, equipment was auctioned off. All left behind spectral trails that grow more dim with each passing year.

Still, like any history, evidence of these “lost areas” remains. There are photographs and illustrated trail maps, brochures and patches, newspaper accounts and magazine articles. Much of the proof is as ephemeral, and elusive, as memories, oral tales passed down through generations, recollections of those who braved Old Man Winter, donning leather boots and strapping on spring-loaded bindings and wooden boards.

There also are tangible vestiges of these bygone slopes — base lodge foundations, warming huts, lift shacks and engines, tower stanchions, entire lifts. These remnants, distant cousins of the hand-built stone walls that lace old farms or fishing villages dating back to Revolutionary times, are cables connecting us to the past, a testament to skiing’s New England legacy.

“You can almost see all the people having fun, the way things used to be,” says Davis, acknowledging that the kinship that once defined the sport is fading. “It’s definitely a different experience now, and a lot of these areas are catering to the upper-class vacationer, rather than the neighborhood kid.”

Today, having recorded close to 600 lost areas in New England alone, and almost a hundred more elsewhere in the Northeast, Davis can barely keep pace with the free flow of photographs, memorabilia, written recollections and historical fact. Combined with technological advances, from satellite photography to digitized articles, Davis is awash in material for the site.

“People are giving me more information than ever,” says Davis, who admits that his responsibilities as a full-time forecaster and homeowner have cut into the time once devoted to the website. “The floodgates are open. But the great thing about e-mails is that they never go away. I have all that information, and it’s all great stuff.”

Davis also loves sleuthing lost areas year-round, on skis, on snowshoes or on foot, and often organizes NELSAP outings. What’s the attraction? “Why do you go to a ghost town?” Parkinson replies. “It’s the mystery.”

For Davis, seeing these slopes in person brings them to life, strengthening that bond. “When I visit these areas, I always try to find pictures from newspapers or magazines, to see what they were like 20, 30, 40 years ago,” he says. “Then, when I’m looking up at an overgrown slope, with its broken-down lifts, I try to mentally picture everything that was going on. You can just use your imagination, like a Polaroid camera, to erase the trees, and eventually see the place as it looked back then.”

However, there also is a sense of urgency about Davis’ efforts. Not only are the areas being lost to time’s inexorable march, but so are those who were so connected to the sport’s earlier days. “Time is running out to document a lot of the areas, particularly the more obscure ones,” he says. “They’re either being developed, or they’ve grown in so much that they’re totally indistinguishable.”

At the ripe old age of 32, Davis has a renewed perspective with the realization that several areas he skied at as a youngster, such as King Ridge in New Hampshire, have shut down. There also is the human component. Memories fade, and older skiers, get, well, older. Many are now gone, taking their memories and stories with them.

“We only have so many years before a lot of these older skiers unfortunately pass away,” says Davis. “We’re at an age when there are still people who remember skiing in the ’30s, but in another 10 years we’re not going to have that many people left.”

For those of us who remain, NELSAP offers a welcomed run down Memory Lane, long after our favorite childhood areas have faded from the landscape.

For more information on the New England Lost Ski Area Project, or to purchase Davis’s new book, “Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains,” visit nelsap.org.

All the best,

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