Posted June 6th, 2008
Thanks to an abundant snowpack across most of Vermont this past winter, backcountry skiing at lower elevations has been unusually tempting. Why end our ski season when we can continue sliding effortlessly through hardwood glades, down logging roads and through open pastures … right down to the river?
While skiing along a riverbank after one memorable “peak to creek” ski this winter, it occurred to my wife and me that many great Vermont rivers wind through valleys in which everything from gently rolling farm fields to steeper, gladed hillsides sweep right down to river’s edge. In the weeks that followed, we spotted countless areas along these rivers that looked not just skiable, but totally irresistible. So, why not throw the skis in the canoe, paddle downstream, and stop to ski along the way?
By late March, several wintertime thaws had freed many rivers of their ice, and with spring runoff not yet in full force, river levels were still rather low. At higher elevations, especially in central and northern Vermont, and along north and east facing aspects, there was still plenty of snow. It was time to test our canoe-and-ski theory on the Mad River.
We packed dry bags with a change of warm clothes, extra shoes, and a towel. We also packed enough newspaper and kindling to start a nice fire, and other basics such as food and water. If we somehow accidently flipped the boat on the gentle river or otherwise got wet, we could dry off and be warm and cozy again within minutes. We dressed in our usual ski attire—soft shell pants, a wool layer or two up top, and maybe a shell, a hat, some simple gloves, and shades—and slipped on our cross-country ski boots, which we would wear as we paddled. For skis, we brought our cross-country “backyard specials,”—Karhu’s XCD Guide—relatively lightweight, wide, waxless backcountry skis that enable climbing without the hassle of skins.
We waited for weather that was just warm enough to soften up the wind-scoured snow of the riverside pastures, but not so warm that it would turn sheltered powder to glop—and we went for it.
Strapping skis and poles across the middle thwarts of our canoes, we did little else beside shuttle a vehicle to the take-out before setting sail. The canoes doubled as icebreakers in the quiet pool of the put-in, where a thin shell of ice had formed after two cold nights. Breaking into the open current, our curiosity had us paddling upstream toward a giant disc of ice, 20 feet in diameter, which was rotating within a large eddy below a roaring rapid. We paddled in circles around this most unusual iceberg, listening to redwing blackbirds in the trees, before beginning the trip downstream.
We had chosen an easy stretch of river broken by only a few gentle rapids, and one easy portage around a short waterfall that is best run when the river is up. Although the river was low, we rarely scraped bottom in our 16-foot canoes. Walls of ice from the last big thaw lined the banks of the river, shimmering and dripping in the late morning sun. At times, it felt like we were along the edge of a great glacier. Where the water was calm along the shoreline, a delicate layer of ice creaked and crackled as the wake of our boats rolled under it. We spotted several pairs of beautiful mergansers floating downstream, and then a curious river otter, who stood tall for a moment along the shore, then slid into the river and swam midstream before diving and disappearing.
Before long, a large rolling pasture came into view. It featured a steep “headwall” and a long run to the river, with options for glade skiing above the pasture. Having scouted an especially promising glade downstream, we decided to warm up in the pasture, and save the glades for later. We swung the boats into a small eddy below a gentle rapid, and wasted no time pulling the boats ashore. Fifteen minutes later, we were at the top of the headwall, with 100+ acres of untracked snow before us. We took several runs, dancing with gravity in the pasture, finding corn snow in the sun and sun-softened snow in the shade. The waxless skis enabled a seamless transition from one run to the next, and although the runs were short, we felt thoroughly satisfied upon our return to the boats.
Back on the river, we enjoyed some fun rapids between snow-capped boulders, and were surprisingly tempted to jump in the clear river for a swim. One dip of the hand settled that matter. With our sights set on our next stop and glade ski, we floated downstream and felt as though we could be anywhere in the world, skiing undiscovered terrain in some far off place. Viewing these hills as we never had before, our little river valley seemed refreshingly unfamiliar.