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Going madly where rockets have gone before

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2006

WAITSFIELD, Vt. -- In a valley with a 27-toed cat, a river that flows the wrong way, and an inn where guests can dine on gourmet cuisine in their stocking feet, careering down a closed mountain road on your knees doesn't seem out of character.

So it was that on the day after Christmas I found myself snowshoeing up a mountain pass with a sled tethered to my wrist. I was following guide Guy Dedell up winding Lincoln Gap Road, which was covered in snow and ice. Dedell stopped at a bend by a tree with a cross. ''You see what happens when you don't follow directions?" he quipped.

He was joking, of course, but it was all part of a Rocket Shoe Adventure featuring a mile-long mad, mad, mad, mad sled ride.

Vermont's Mad River Valley is home to Lincoln Gap, a gravel road in the Green Mountains that connects Warren and Lincoln. Hikers know it well as a way to access the Long Trail that traverses the state and as a gateway for the trek to Mount Abraham.

But in winter, the steep, snowy road is closed and sliders take over, like the serious or curious sledders who want to combine snowshoeing and an on-your-knees run on a molded plastic rocket sled.

The six-pound Mad River Rocket (not to be confused with the rocket sled of longtime aeronautical history) was conceived in 1987 when architect Dave Sellers of Warren designed it so children on Prickly Mountain would not run into trees. Not only can you turn and stop the Rocket, but also young adrenaline junkies are taking them off backyard jumps and rails. Benign local hills are choice destinations however.

One serious sledder is the Mad River Rocket Co. president, Whitney Phillips, 26. An admitted thrill seeker who has kayaked down waterfalls and taken the sled over the steep headwall at Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington, he also sleds over cliffs, on logging roads, and down some of Vermont's better known peaks like Mount Mansfield, Camels Hump, and Mount Hunger.

''There's not much open space in Vermont, so we had to turn," Phillips said of the sled's origin. ''Necessity is the mother of invention. We wanted to go through the woods fast."

There are plenty of ways to do that in this valley, with its northward flowing river. Of the two downhill ski areas, Mad River Glen is a throwback to yesterday with minimal snowmaking, no snowboarders allowed, no condos, and a lift featuring single chairs. Sugarbush has the snowguns, development, and quad chairs.

Cross-country skiers can choose between the rolling hills and woods of Ole's Cross-Country Center and Blueberry Lake Cross-Country Ski Center. There is also ski joring (in which a cross-country skier is pulled by a reindeer, horse, mule, dogs, snowmobile . . .) sled dog tours, inn-to-inn horseback tours, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.

Pop into the Chamber of Commerce in the historic district and be greeted by Yoda, a black and white tuxedo cat with 27 toes. Not far from there is the 1824 House Inn, run by Karl Klein and John Lumbra (a Johnson & Wales graduate). It's worth the trip just for the signature rack of lamb or tender filet mignon stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon. Guests also have the unique experience of dining in stocking feet since they are asked to remove their shoes upon arrival.

It's safe to say most people don't go to the valley with the sole purpose of taking a three-hour Rocket Shoe tour. But I did, meeting up with Dedell, the program director at Clearwater Sports on Main Street, which offers the tours. Others on my tour had canceled, preferring to ski since conditions weren't great for sledding. The sleds are best in powder and the pre-Christmas rain had not helped. It was lightly snowing, so we got into Dedell's rig for the 15-minute drive to Warren.

Aside from a winter hiker coming off Mount Abraham, the road was deserted. Maple tap lines hung from the trees. The snowshoeing wasn't difficult with sled in tow, but anyone not able to snowshoe a mile might want to stick to the chairlifts or a hot tub.

A ribbon tied around a tree was the sign we had reached the spot for a lesson in Rocket Sledding 101. It took a few runs to learn how to turn the sled and some good hip action to make it stop like a ski. You don't fall out of the sled, but you roll with it. Initially, you can use your hands like ski poles to make it turn. Do it a few times and, eventually, relax and slalom down the road. Overcompensate and you'll do a 180 or 360.

Destined for the top of Lincoln Gap, we snowshoed on under the light snow. Then it was time for the mile-long 1,000-foot vertical drop run. Being in a kneeling position, even nonreligious people might call on the powers that be for a safe run.

Spins were part of the run. Icy patches were avoided with an occasional walk, but after the last curve I was able to slalom, stop, and laugh after another tumble.

Overnight, 3 inches of powder blanketed the valley, and in the morning I hooked up with Phillips, who lives a short walk from company headquarters. On a hill behind his house, Phillips and I, accompanied by his dog, Rodeo, carved turns in the light snow. Phillips strapped into the sled over his calves. I followed suit.

And on this day, there was a dreamlike sensation on the cushion of snow. There were turns that made me feel like a pro and somersaults that reminded me I was a bruised greenhorn whose maddening laughs fit right in.

Contact Marty Basch, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, at marty@martybasch.com.

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