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Skiing Vermont, End to End

By Sarah Tuff
February 27, 2009
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TUMBLING into a near-frozen creek on a 6-degree day while skiing the backcountry would typically be a sobering event. But on a cold-snap Saturday last month, just south of Middlebury, Vt., I found myself semi-supine in the snow, laughing as the icy water lapped against my back.

The cross-country skiing — miles and miles of gliding through Green Mountain National Forest — had made me giddy. But so did knowing that a hot sauna and a four-course meal were waiting back at the Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen once we reached the car at the trailhead.

“I’m not sure I know how to help you,” my husband said, snapping a photo of my dying-bug pose before he finally released my skis from my boots and pulled me to my feet.

We were on Section 15 of the Catamount Trail, a 300-mile corridor of Nordic centers, former logging roads and remote routes that stretches from Massachusetts to Quebec. It is a winter-only, blue-blazed wilderness track that steeps skiers and snowshoers in quintessential Vermont: wide-open farms, boulder-strewn rivers and groves of birches and sugar maples, all frosted in white. The Catamount also treats skiers to another Vermont pleasure: 13 inns along the trail that soften the backcountry edge.

First skied end to end in 1984 and officially completed just over a year ago, the Catamount is the younger, quieter and cooler sibling of the Long Trail, the 270-mile trail that also traverses Vermont. “It’s a totally different experience,” said Jim Fredericks, executive director of the Catamount Trail Association (www.catamounttrail.org) in Burlington, who, of course, might be just a bit biased. “If you’re competent on your skis, and you’re skiing through a couple of inches of new snow, gliding along, it’s a winter wonderland.”

As the Catamount celebrates its silver anniversary this winter, it is attracting more skiers who want an affordable and athletic alternative to resort-based skiing. The trail’s nonprofit association, which organizes backcountry races and women’s expos in addition to protecting the trail, has had its membership double to nearly 2,000 in the last 10 years. “People are seeking an adventure in the wilderness,” Mr. Fredericks said.

When Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris and Ben Rose first skied the Catamount 25 years ago, they were also seeking a wilderness adventure. In 1981, Mr. Bushey — who had recently graduated from the University of Vermont with a major in geography — was employed as a chimney sweep to finance his next ski trip. One afternoon in late November, he looked up from his work and out to the snow-covered Green Mountains. “I thought, ‘Why not ski the length of Vermont?’ ” said Mr. Bushey in a phone interview.

Mr. Bushey turned his theory — that Vermont’s geography would permit a skier to glide from one end of the state to the other — into a master’s thesis. By late February of 1984, Mr. Bushey had mapped out the route, recruited Mr. Jarris and Mr. Rose, and secured donations from skiing gear companies. The three men spent three weeks testing Mr. Bushey’s theory, encountering sap buckets, rabbit hunters and snowmobilers — and resting briefly at inns and B & Bs.

“The trip was absolutely wonderful,” said Mr. Bushey, who is now a cartographer in Portland, Me. “Skiing the length of Vermont from ski center to ski center and inn to inn was a memorable life experience for me.”

Becoming an “end-to-ender” on the Catamount Trail is also an unusual accomplishment. Mr. Rose is now the executive director of the Green Mountain Club and said some 3,500 people had completed the Long Trail. Mr. Fredericks, meanwhile, said he knew of around 60 association members who had skied the entire Catamount, with more and more on the way. “A lot of people just like to do a section here, a section there,” Mr. Fredericks said, “until they have the whole trail done.”

Though my husband, Carlton Dunn, and I became engaged on cross-country skis and can handle most types of terrain, we are not Nordic fanatics; Alpine is our stronger suit. Still, when we first stumbled upon the Catamount Trail Guidebook at a ski museum a few years ago, we decided on the spot that we would try to ski it end to end.

Because we both worked full-time jobs and couldn’t take off the month that the Catamount Trail Association suggests for a single end-to-end trip, we decided to conquer its 31 sections, each 6 to 14 miles long, in stages.

That winter, in early 2003, we skied the last section first: it was a 12.3-mile stretch near Jay Peak Resort that began with a 1,000-foot drop through the woods. During the descent, I landed on my backside so many times that I officially dumped cross-country skiing and, almost, Carlton. A long, nearly effortless cruise on a flat snowmobile trail to the Canadian border and a couple of microbrews that night at the lodge, however, patched things up. I was smitten with the Catamount.

But out-of-state travels, Alpine skiing and starting a family delayed our Catamount plans for a few seasons. This winter — emboldened by early, prodigious snowfalls and the bracing temperatures that make a Nordic workout seem more appealing than sitting on a chairlift — we decided to chip away at a few more sections.

“We like to think of the trail as a kind of snake,” said Mr. Fredericks, explaining that about 60 percent of the Catamount crossed private land, and some parts lacked the landowner easements to permanently protect the linear corridor. Since 1984, the trail has wriggled back and forth across the Green Mountains; only in the fall of 2007 was a critical 4.5-mile section in Winhall, in southern Vermont, unwrapped from red tape and added to the trail.

Certain parts, however, run relatively straight. Ten Nordic centers directly on the Catamount help pin the trail to the map. (Skiing and snowshoeing the Catamount is free, but crossing some touring centers may incur a day-use charge.) Earlier this winter, I had been thinking about taking on the best-known section of the trail, Bolton Valley Nordic Center to Trapp Family Lodge; beloved by backcountry skiers, it climbs 1,300 feet for views and then steeply drops 2,300 feet.

But my husband and I now have a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old in tow, so day-tripping from our home in Shelburne, Vt., to the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross-Country Ski Center and exploring the next-northerly section to the Bolton-Trapp route with our children was a more viable option.

Or so I thought. Though our daughter seemed happy and warm in the single-child sled called a pulk that Carlton dragged, our son protested, even when snuggled in his BabyBjörn. We took turns with them in the lodge, and by the time I finally found the blue paw-print blazes that mark the Catamount Trail, it was time to turn around and go home for naps.

I countered my disappointment by booking a room for two weekends later at the Blueberry Hill Inn, an azure-painted farmhouse built in 1813 that has a sprawling touring center and is about halfway along the Catamount. When the time came, we drove there with a baby sitter, dropped her Saab at the Widow’s Clearing trailhead lot north of the inn, lunched on the soup that Blueberry Hill doles out to skiers at noon and then left the sitter behind with the kids as we set out again on the Catamount.

At first, Carlton and I skied single file, mostly in silence, noting the moose droppings in the grooved tracks and the pine trees atop a nearby mountain that looked as if a bag of confectioner’s sugar had been poured on them. As this part of the Catamount turned onto a snowmobile trail, we raced side by side, then crossed Goshen Dam by the Sugar Hill Reservoir. The milky afternoon sun was dropping; my heart rate remained high as the pole-holes of the Blueberry Hill groomed trail gave way to more animal tracks and the powdery snow of the backcountry.

Every fall, Catamount Trail Association members spend days clearing brush, building bridges and otherwise maintaining the trail. A few years ago, Carlton and I worked on this section in the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area — Robert Frost country. But in the snow, the once-familiar forest was unrecognizable and we were unsure of how many miles we had to go to the car. After my tumble into the creek, we skied for about 20 minutes longer until we saw the sign for Widow’s Clearing.

Carlton looked at me, frowning. “Already?” he said, our little adventure over too soon.

Back at the Blueberry Hill Inn, Carlton supervised the kids’ dinner while I crossed the property’s frozen pond to the sauna, sitting in the dark and breathing the heat into my well-exercised lungs until I realized it must be 6:30 p.m.: hors d’oeuvres.

We chatted with other inn guests over platters of Manchego cheese and salami before entering the dining room. During the exquisitely prepared meal of butternut squash soup, mesclun salad and salmon in coconut milk, we told our dining companions about our Catamount pursuit.

“We have about two sections done,” Carlton said. “Only about 98 percent to go!”

Well, technically, it was more like 93.5 percent. And that, I thought while dipping a spoon into my lemon posset, was just fine with me.

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