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ON SKIING

Remembering trails in this lost and found

OK, shredders, dudes, dudettes, rugrats, whippersnappers, all of you out of the room. Go find something else to do today. Clean your room or something. This one's for your parents, or even grandparents.

Not every ski or riding story has to be about the legions of airborne teens with pants skidding south. Skiing had modest, nay quiet, beginnings, the nostalgia for which hangs strong in the air the day we make that first foray to a snowcapped summit on an early winter morning. And most of us labor under a notion that skiing is a strenuous exercise -- the packing, the driving, the crowds, all the equipment -- before we reach the moment of nirvana for which we have to fork over so much cash.

Didn't it used to be simpler, or is that just the hazy lens of nostalgia smoothing everything out again? But for those who appreciate the minimalist instinct, it is well to remember Tom Corcoran's reason for opposing universal helmet wearing on the slopes.

"Skiing," said the Olympian who founded the Waterville Valley resort in New Hampshire, "is really a glorified walk in the woods."

Well, if memory is the gift it's supposed to be, that is how most skiers remember their first days on the slopes -- an effortless, spontaneous walk in the woods.

I recently came upon the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, which is an organization (of sorts) dedicated to finding, listing, and digging up information on the 573 "lost" ski areas in New England. Lost, as in disappeared, muscled out for business reasons, or subsumed by housing developments

On one level, NELSAP, founded by Jeremy Davis, is a kind of local history project, digging up the early days of skiing on the farm fields, moraines, and tilted granite slabs of the New England countryside. The big ski areas on the big mountains are still pretty much there.

On another level, NELSAP mines the very soil of nostalgia in a search for origins -- those family Sunday afternoons when, if it was farther than walking distance, dad would load the kids in the old beach wagon and drive to the local hill, where a tractor's winch towed skiers up a slope for that daring moment of descent.

Daring? Who could control those long hickories with bear-traps (if you were lucky) and the glorified bowling shoes that were that era's ski boots? And who could maneuver through the ungroomed, chopped-up snow now known as "crud"?

These days, almost everyone can appear to be an expert skier given the equipment and groomed trails. In those days, as Herbert Schneider reminded me a couple of years ago, the line of demarcation was clear. One did not achieve mastery of the sport without years of returning to ski school, and lots of practice in between, said Schneider, who carried on his father's work running the Cranmore Ski School for several decades.

Having grown up on the South Shore, I remember one such local ski area now on the NELSAP list of the 64 "lost" areas in the eastern part of Massachusetts: Furnace Brook/Heavenly Hill , where all the kids who could not get to Blue Hills showed up with skis, sleds, toboggans, anything that would help gravity break you free.

There was Ferncroft Valley in Danvers, Cat Rock in Weston, Riggity Alps in Ware, and one of the later areas to succumb, Klein Innsbruck, an area I skied only a decade or so ago.

In Western Mass., there was Happyland in Becket, Jacob's Ladder in Lee, and Black Panther in Huntington.

Like these names, the very language of skiing in the post-World War II euphoria had a ring of innocence, as we find in Lowell Thomas's description of an early ski experience in New Hampshire:

"The woods seem to fly past in a dizzy blur. The rush of wind whips tears from your eyes. No sport can match the freedom from earthbound plodding that you feel as you sail down a long straightaway. What a thrill is this mastery of muscles, what a zest in flirting with disaster at every bend in the trail. (The skier) is tinglingly alive. Every nerve is tuned to the highest pitch."

Of course, everything was bound to change, and skiing/boarding these days scarcely resembles the early origins of the sport -- not to mention the first skiers, mostly college kids who "skinned" up long verticals for what was then considered foolhardy descents fraught with danger, as Thomas writes, in every turn and natural obstacle.

It was in the '50s and '60s when skiing got big quickly. It was all about equipment and real estate, about creating and perfecting snow, and all the investment in the technology to do so. No one wanted to return to a ski school for 10 years before feeling proficient. We want things now, of course, and we don't mind paying for it.

But as I pore over NELSAP's list of lost areas and look at what photographs still remain with their grainy, faded testaments to the innocent exuberance we felt in our new winter sport, I went looking for a Robert Redford quote from a Ski Magazine interview he gave more than 30 years ago.

"There are things that concern me about skiing," said Redford, who developed a ski area in Provo, Utah. "It doesn't need hype, affectation. There's a whole shopping-mall kind of mentality that's taken over. We've gone too fast. We've pushed too hard to create an image, spent too much money on building those aspects of skiing that are just not important to the skier."

For more information on NELSAP, visit nelsap.org or skimuseum.org, or call 800-639-4181.

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