Cabin fever at 3rd annual Vermont backcountry forum

While the temperatures on the November evening might have indicated the approach of spring instead of snowfall, winter was clearly on the minds of at least 200 people that packed the hall for the third annual Vermont Backcountry Forum last night in Rochester.

If the number of cars parked around the town green and the lines for buying raffle tickets and for food and drink were any indication, the Vermont Backcountry Forum has grown in the three years that it’s been held at the Pierce Hall Community Center in Rochester. The hall has seen progress as well; while there was still some exposed sheetrock and timber and the balcony railings were still strung with construction lights, the hall featured an elevator for universal access and more bathrooms.

The standing-room-only event attracted a broad swath of Vermont’s skiing community. Characters like guidebook author David Goodman, photographer and organizer for the Vermont Backcountry Alliance Brian Mohr, Vermont ski builders Harrison Goldberg and Vin Faraci with their respective brands, HG and WhiteRoom, Ski The East editor Alex Kaufman, and crews from, the Catamount Trail Association and Rochester Area Sport Trails Alliance joined generations of ski bums for an evening of catching up, sharing ideas and getting excited for the coming season.

Building momentum

In the two years since skiers and land managers met for the first forum, Vermont’s backcountry community has been steadily gaining momentum. The year that followed saw the creation of the Vermont Backcountry Alliance, its incorporation as a project area of the Catamount Trail Association (CTA), and the drafting of a code of ethics. Meanwhile, the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA) the CTA’s first chapter, has spearheaded its first glade-cutting activities in the 1,500-acre Braintree Mountain Forest since last fall and has recently raised over $9,000 to fund further development including a parking area, signage and more glades.

Around the state, other recent projects have gained attention among the off-piste crowd. The new nonprofit Mount Ascutney Outdoors approaches the purchase of the former Ascutney ski resort property in West Windsor with plans to operate a small community ski area while keeping rest of the mountain open to mountain bikers and skiers. Further south in Marlboro, residents continue work on the defunct Hogback Mountain ski area on Route 9, clearing trails to restore habitat while simultaneously expanding opportunities for skiers willing to explore. In the Burke area, the Northeast Kingdom Backcountry Coalition, the CTA’s second pilot chapter is on track with a plan to explore glading opportunities in the Willoughby State Forest.

In mid-October, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) approved RASTA’s plan to cut a series of glades on Goshen Mountain and the area around the Brandon Gap in the towns of Goshen, Chittenden and Rochester – the first project of its kind on National Forest land. In the face of disastrous and illegal trail cuts on Big Jay in 2007 and in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico early last month, Holly Knox, District Recreation Program Manager at the Middlebury and Rochester ranger stations, urged the crowd to be patient as the Brandon Gap project awaits final approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and not begin cutting on their own.

“People are looking at us as a model,” she said. “They’re recognizing the value of this kind of partnership between groups like RASTA and the Forest Service and we want to make sure we do it right.”

Cabin fever

A dream of many backcountry skiers is not to just spend a morning or entire day chasing untracked snow – it’s to spend consecutive days out exploring the mountains. In Vermont, the closeness of ski lines from people’s back doors doesn’t always necessitate a place to overnight. But for local or visiting skiers looking to go the distance hunkering down for a frigid night in a snow cave, bivy sack or primitive lean-to understandably doesn’t have the appeal of retiring after a long day to a cozy cabin with hot soup on the stove and a place to dry your skins and boots. Western mountain ranges have renowned networks of huts available, as does the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, home of the Chic Choc Mountains. All of these locations feature a range of amenities, from full-service retreats with porters, bedding and hot tubs, to more Spartan affairs with a simple countertop, a few cots and a wood stove (you provide the rest).

The main discussion of the evening centered on the possibility of creating a hut-to-hut network in Vermont, connecting state and national forests to other public and private lands. Aside from more “rustic” (read: cold) options, choices in Vermont include inns and bed-and-breakfasts, cabins and shelters maintained through the Green Mountain Club, friends’ homes and miscellaneous ski lodges.

Options for overnight stays in neighboring states include the Adirondack Mountain Club huts in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and huts maintained by the Dartmouth Outing Club, Randolph Mountain Club and Appalachian Mountain Club huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Vermont author David Goodman discussed Maine’s developing openness to backcountry skiing and overnight travel. Maine Huts and Trails, a non-profit in western Maine, manages a system of backcountry cabins on 80 miles of trails open year round for all kinds of recreation.

“In 25 years, Maine has gone from being a backcountry skier’s backwater to a backcountry skiing Mecca,” he said, adding that the year-round huts have provided employment and a boost to the tourist economy.

Discussion yielded more questions about types of shelters, ownership, management, amenities and services.

The night ended with raffling off a swath of gear including jackets, packs, DVDs, multiple pairs of skis and a truckload of t-shirts, towels and hats before Burlington rock duo Josh Panda took the floor for the evening’s entertainment. Slowly, the masses headed home to pray for snow.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.