How's the skiing on the other side of the fence?
An old and faded sign near the lodge listed the East Mountain trail as intermediate in difficulty. But for the past 20 minutes or so, every sign we passed had the more ominous “Most Difficult” designation. Given the rookie status of half our party, there were a few murmurings of concern. But we pressed on.
The weather was about as perfect as one could hope for on a cross-country ski trip. The ski was brilliant azure, without the faintest wisp of cloud. The temperature — in a pleasant change from the previous week of sub-zero readings — was warm enough to ski without a hat or coat, but not enough to soften the snow. The snow itself, as we all we know, is the most abundant we’ve had in a long time. And while I was mumbling a little about its quantity and weight while shoveling my roof last night, the cross-country ski conditions are as ideal as one could imagine. We couldn’t have wished for more as we headed across Lake Champlain on the Crown Point ferry and wound our way westward through the Adirondacks toward the villages of Keene Valley, Keene, and Lake Placid. With our friends the Nops, my wife and I were spending a couple days skiing around the old Olympic site at Mt. Van Hoevenburg.
Until last week, I had never been skiing in the Adirondacks. My office window, high on the western side of Middlebury’s McCardell Bicentennial Hall, looks out at their peaks. And I admit those peaks have often beckoned me. While the grass might not actually be any greener on the other side of the fence, the truth is that the mountains are, in fact, somewhat higher on the other side of the lake. They turn white sooner in the fall, and remain white later in the spring. The rivers are wilder and colder, and the lakes and mountain ponds more abundant. I’ve crossed the lake on occasion to hike, canoe and fish.
But never to ski.
Not until last week. Truth be told, one thing that Vermont does have over our neighbors in both abundance and (in my opinion) quality, is cross-country skiing. The Blueberry Hill and Rikert Ski Touring Center trails are hard to beat, at least in the Northeast. And on rare occasions that I get bored with them, I can drive less than an hour and ski Mountain Top in Chittenden or Sleepy Hollow in Huntington, or a bit further and enjoy the Trapp Family Lodge.
But the trip to Mt. Van Hoevenburg proved to be worthwhile. Including the ferry, it took us well under two hours to get to our B&B in Keene Valley, from which it was only another 20 minutes to the ski center. The drive through the narrow valleys along Route 73 was stunningly beautiful, as were the views once we got to the ski area. The drive alone made the trip worthwhile. As one might expect from a former Olympic site, the trails themselves were wonderfully groomed and provided a breadth of terrains and difficulty levels.
And, as noted, one of those levels was “Most Difficult.” On a day with less-than-ideal conditions — crusty snow or ice or patches of exposed ground — that level might have caused some problems. But on this day the snow was so perfect that even the most difficult East Mountain trail turned out to be quite doable for all of us. We labored up a steep climb, enjoyed more wonderful views (and a homemade cookie break) on a sunny patch of trail at the top, and then cruised slowly down the backside.
Over the course of the afternoon, with a long lunch break and several cookie breaks, we managed a moderate 10.5 kilometers of skiing — enough to justify the cost of our ski passes, which turned out comparably priced with the ski touring centers on this side of the lake, and even a couple dollars cheaper than Trapp. It was also enough to qualify as a workout, but nothing that left us too exhausted to enjoy a nice meal in Keene Valley later on.
The next morning, after a leisurely meal at our B&B, we explored another nice feature of the area’s Nordic skiing experience. The Adirondack Ski Touring Council has established a long public (and mostly free) cross-country ski trail called the Jackrabbit Trail running from near the village of Keene all the way through Lake Placid and out toward Saranac Lake. Not nearly as long as Vermont’s Catamount Trail, of course, but with about 25 miles of trail it is easily long enough for a couple days of recreation.
After our previous afternoon on meticulously groomed trails, we had a long morning ski in untracked snow along the Jackrabbit Trail, enjoying views every bit as good as or better than the day before, before catching a meal (including fresh homemade pies) at a local diner. Then we headed back across the fence to the Vermont side, where the mountains, and perhaps the grass, are still definitely greener. But probably not quite as white.