Thursday, March 11, 2010

The annual physical

CONSUMER WARNING: The following blog entry contains material of explicit nature, which some readers may find unsettling, or even disturbing!

Boston, waiting for the storm

There are few things in life more revealing, or more, um, invasive, than the annual physical. Not confession, not those heart-to-heart chats with my bride, not those long, soul-searching conversations with the man in the mirror. Nope, the annual physical exam takes the cake, because your body doesn't lie.

This year, I shuffled into Dr. Taylor's office resigned to hear the worst. It hadn't been a good year, physically speaking, and my body was a veritable road map of inactivity. Between a banged up shoulder (the result of a nasty over-the-handlebars mountain bike spill) and a persistent groin injury, my cycling and hockey playing had been severely curtailed over the past 18 months. And the proof was hanging over my belt. I had packed on at least a good 20 pounds of lard, absolutely useless adipose tissue. I knew that wasn't going to go over well with Dr. Taylor, a straight-shooter who I've known for almost a quarter century now.

A nurse in pajamas takes me through the rudimentary, baseline tests. I'm still a shade over 6-foot-2, which means I haven't started to shrink, vertically speaking. Horizontally, I continue to expand. My weight now hovers around 230. I'm tempted to toss off every last stitch of clothing, but I know that's not going to make much of a difference. The fact that the nurse says my weight "isn't bad" for someone my height and age (52 now) tells me all I need to know about the collective health of this country. She says the same for my pulse and blood pressure readings, which, if you charted on a graph for the past 15 years, would look like the front side of the Matterhorn. "OK," I tell myself, "you knew this wasn't going to be pretty."

So the doc comes in and, patiently, listens to my concerns and my confessions (I always feel, somehow, that I've let him down when I've let myself go). Some things are a natural byproduct of age ... the fading eyesight and faulty hearing. Others -- primarily a waistline running amok and the loss of muscle tone and flexibility -- are self-imposed. Dr. Taylor nods and smiles, pokes and prods, and records all the salient points on his laptop. In his matter-of-fact style, he tells me what I already know: I'm woefully out of shape, and need to turn things around if I hope to keep pursing any kind of truly "active" lifestyle. Actually, he didn't say "woefully," but I know better.

No physical, of course, is complete without "the exam." And Dr. Taylor, always the gentleman, always saves this indelicate test for last. I honestly don't mind the notorious digital exam. Not that it's pleasant, mind you, but it sure beats the alternative of not knowing if I might have prostate issues. Rarely can ignorance be more dangerous.

But everything seems to check out OK this time around. I pull up my trousers, and think about pulling myself up by the bootstraps and getting back into a sensible, and serious, exercise routine. I owe it to Lauri and the girls. And I owe it to myself.


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 ( 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

All the best,

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ski Moguls

Boston, springtime!

As long as I can remember, I've been inspired by ski racers. In my youth, Billy Kidd and Jean Claude Killy captured my imagination. Later, it was the Mahre brothers, Bill Johnson, Franz Klammer, or Hermann Maier (the Herminator!). This past weekend, the girls and I were up in northern New Hampshire at Cranmore, which was hosting a masters ski race. The atmosphere was tremendous -- good-natured competition interspersed with a lot of laughter and more than a few tall tales and stories of bygone days. The competitors ranged in age from late 20s up to 95! Those folks are my heroes. So are Carolyn Beckedorff and Jessie McAleer (above), two skiers I profiled for UNH's alumni magazine.

Ski Moguls

Two women, teammates on the University of New Hampshire ski team, one enduring common passion. The fact that Carolyn Beckedorff '89 and Jessie McAleer '93 still share a love of racing and an indomitable will to win guarantees that the two also share the same hill almost every winter weekend on New England's Sise Cup masters ski racing circuit. As a result, they also must share the limelight.

Since 2001, when McAleer entered the masters ski racing ranks, either she or Beckedorff have taken home the season's top Sise Cup honors. The results are uncanny. In those nine seasons, McAleer has won five crowns, Beckedorff four. Each time McAleer has won, Beckedorff was second. McAleer has two second place finishes (having missed the 2008 season to injury).

"I love the fact that Carolyn and I push each other," says McAleer, 39.

"It's an amazing rivalry," echoes Beckedorff, 41. "I know if I want to win on any given day, Jessie's going to be coming after me. We both raise each other's game, and that's really neat."

Last ski season is a perfect example. McAleer came back from total knee reconstruction with a vengeance, winning the overall 2009 Sise Cup title with Beckedorff, the 2008 champ, finishing a close second. However, at Sunday River in Maine last March, Beckedorff was able to defend the national masters slalom crown she won in 2008. McAleer, racing full out to make up an 18 one-hundredths of a second deficit to Beckedorff after the first heat, straddled a gate in her second run and was disqualified. The giant slalom followed the same scenario. The wins were sweet redemption for Beckedorff, who saw McAleer eclipse her combined time by 1 one-hundredth of a second in the 2006 slalom nationals.

Still, the roads leading to this remarkable intersection are winding, even though they both ran through Durham. Though teammates on the Paul Burton-coached squads, McAleer and Beckedorff didn't share the same success. Beckedorff was star-crossed, with a litany of injuries, including a blown-out knee and broken tailbone. McAleer, three years Beckedorff's junior, eventually garnered All-East honors despite fracturing both her wrists her freshman year. "I was never that superstar, but I sure did love it," she says. "Being part of that ski team was one of the best experiences of my life."

Beckedorff agrees. "The program at UNH is a lot of fun," she says. "They're very serious and they want to win, but I don't think they burn out a lot of people. They do a really good job of fostering a lifetime love for the sport."

Off the hill, though, the two are very different people. Beckedorff is the lead trader for a Boston investment firm, a wife and a mother (son Harrison is 7 years old). McAleer is single and, after a 7-year stint on the pro ski-racing circuit, is now a recruiter for a Boston-based software company. "After I got out of school, the bug still had me," says McAleer on her pro career. "I'd been doing it for 20 years, and I felt like I had a lot more in me."

Both returned to masters ski racing through coaching. Beckedorff answered the call from Burton to help with the program at Gunstock Ski Area, where she met her future husband, Tony DiGangi. McAleer, after a two-year hiatus from the sport, returned to the Mount Washington Valley ski program, and her former coach, Dave Gregory.

In the gates, Beckedorff and McAleer take decidedly different approaches to achieve startlingly similar results. Beckedorff is more tactical, a superb technical skier who relies on precision to find the quickest line. McAleer, by her own admission, is more about raw power, and the rush. "I just love it. There's really no other place I'd rather be," says McAleer. "I'm going to give it 110 percent."

"Physically I'm very strong," says McAleer. "But mentally, I'm not shaken by terrain or weather or other people. Actually, that stuff tends to jack me up and I get even more excited. It brings me to a different level."

Neither has any intention of slowing down. Both remark how they admire the masters races who compete well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, yet are focused on the upcoming season. Beckedorff says she has "probably trained harder this spring, summer and fall than I ever have. I guess I am competitive in that way, because I want to bring my A game."

McAleer, meanwhile, spent two weeks this summer skiing in Chili. "I think I skied the best slalom of my life down there," she says. "I had an epiphany. I felt really strong. So I'm feeling really, really good about this season."

Which is good news for this unique rivalry, and bad news for anyone else aiming for the top spot on the Sise Cup podium.

All the best,