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Auld Lang schuss

For some, New Year's Eve at the ski area is a family tradition

PRINCETON -- Tomorrow night, the nation's No. 1 party time, Bjorn and Nancy Kapstad and their three kids, will be jamming with the rest of the celebratory world.

But while there will be the usual feast and fireworks, the Kapstads will make New Year's Eve a night for another family passion: skiing.

Like most ski resorts, Wachusett Mountain will throw a bash tomorrow night, but rather than separate the generations, as party life often does, skiing will serve as the element that holds the Kapstads and thousands of other families together.

Taking advantage of a special Wachusett package, these revelers will add skiing under the lights to an evening featuring a catered meal of several courses and a countdown to midnight fireworks. They'll also get a suite for the night.

"It's a friendly and safe atmosphere," said Bjorn, who races in a Monday night league at Wachusett. "And the kids aren't watching TV."

For thousands of boarders and skiers, the Christmas holiday is the first chance to head to the North Country for an extended vacation. The Killingtons, Jays, and Loons -- the establishment of Northeast skiing -- are by all counts doing a brisk business this week.

Despite a warming trend, conditions have been as close to perfect as they get this early in the winter, with an 8-inch dump of snow last Sunday, timed exactly right. But for countless others, such as the Kapstads, the holiday week is a time to stay close to home and try out the new boards and skis at local areas.

"When you go up to a big resort," said Shiela Atkins, who was skiing with two friends at Nashoba Valley on Tuesday, "you feel like you want to ski every hour, every day, just to get your money's worth. But staying home, it's not so intense. We come up here for a few hours and then go do something else."

Nashoba Valley, in Westford, is about 30 miles from Boston, while in Princeton, Wachusett is about 50 miles from downtown. Both have full-service lodges with lounges and restaurants that complete the apres-ski package. Just south of the city, the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton also is offering a New Year's Eve celebration, followed the next day by organized hikes.

Starting at Houghton's Pond, near the base of Blue Hills, the First Day Hikes will begin at 1 p.m. following a lunch of hot soup. Hikers are asked to bring a canned good to donate to Father Bill's Homeless Shelter.

Without a huge vertical drop, Blue Hills, like many smaller resorts, is a good spot for learning and practicing before heading to the bigger mountains of the North. But the area does have a steep face known as Big Blue, which newer skiers work to conquer.

"I started boarding last year," Rich Kelley, a 10-year-old from Weymouth, said Tuesday morning. "At first, that run looked so wicked to me I didn't think I could ever do it. I've been down there about five times already, and I just got here."

Last year, an early storm gave the region some decent pre-holiday snow cover, but it was followed by a rainy spell around Christmas, then a deep freeze.

"So far, so good," said Al Fletcher, manager of Nashoba Valley, the area founded by his father, Al, in 1964. "We had good temperatures for snowmaking right along, but then we got 8 inches Sunday night from the big guy in the sky. I'd say conditions right now are much better than average. December can be a tricky time, like March. We're not really into the heart of the season yet, and so the weather can do anything. This year it's been good so far, and we're all ramped up."

Larger than the other two areas, with a 1,000-foot vertical drop, Wachusett this week opened its new 1,500-foot chairlift after a bitter decade-long struggle with environmental groups opposed to expansion on state land.

"It may have been compromised from the original plan," said Jeff Crowley, president of the area, who also participates in a Thursday night race league. "But still, it's really going to help us open up an intensive zone with lots of Alpine terrain and two new trails."

While Crowley expects a night of merriment tomorrow, he sees the mission of his ski area as being different from the ordinary party life. "We have things like fireworks, live music, a balloon drop, and snow tubing. But it's not all about the drinking scene," he said. "This is more a place for families to be here and enjoy all parts of a winter celebration."

The strong snow season has also put a smile on the faces of cross-country skiers in the Boston area. At the Weston Ski Track, all 15 kilometers of trails are groomed and tracked for both classical style and skating.

"We're just in great shape," said Mark Jacobson, manager of the area, which is located on a Metropolitan District Commission golf course. "We only average maybe two snowy Christmases in a decade. But this has been one of them."

Weston serves several purposes, from recreational skiing to team racing. This week, the Bill Koch Youth Ski League has kicked off its active season in teaching youngsters race techniques. When the natural snowfall is not quite so generous, normal winter temperatures allow the area to blanket the terrain with machine-made snow.

"Along with all the natural snow we got with the storm, we've had four snowmakers going constantly," said Jacobson. "People say the rain [forecast for the weekend] is going to wipe it out, but it won't. Our snow will hold up during the rain. That's how much we have."

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