The Land of Plenty | ‘Backcountry Skiing’ in the Northeast Kingdom Is What You Make It
After circling snowy back roads in the Northeast Kingdom and scanning the white horizon, I had begun to despair. A friend had shared directions, including notable landmarks like maple trees, old red barns, and missing road signs. I was about to give up the search for the elusive rope tow when something unusual caught my eye: There was the same farmer I’d passed by earlier, throttling forward on the tractor, but this time, he wore goggles.
I slowed down and spotted another unique agri-sight: A second machine roared out of the barnyard; this one a four-wheeler with snow tracks in place of wheels, the driver in ski goggles, skis and snowboard in tow.
Aha! I’d found it.
I parked the car, buckled my boots, put my tele-skis in tour mode, and followed the tracks.
Adventure indeed, Northeast Kingdom style. Having resettled in this corner of Vermont, after time spent in big-mountain places such as the Tetons of Wyoming and the Himalayas of Nepal, it took a while to rediscover that epic ski adventures are not limited to high elevations, steep inclines, or deep snow. Ski adventures don’t even need to be far from the front door.
They do, however, require a certain quality of spirit and mind, one easily enhanced by tinted goggles and an attraction to life off the beaten track.
I happen to have both.
Armed with my tele-gear and ready for anything, I skied through a south-facing pasture, where evidence of Holsteins emerged from the tractor ruts in the early season snow. The place was a typical Kingdom farm with rolling hills and distinct tree lines, and it looked much like the farm I had grown up on—which, in fact, lay less than 10 miles away.
In the clearing on the hilltop, I found the tractor, engine still puffing. The be-goggled farmer was nowhere to be seen, but I discovered the source of power for the rope tow. It was the tractor’s PTO (power take-off) shaft. Brilliant!
I heard laughter first, and then saw the farmer whiz up the hill, expertly holding the rope. He let go and shot forward, gave me a nod as he secured his poles, and dropped into a glade of untouched snow, easily making turns as smooth as any I’d ever seen.
I’m as big a powder hound as any—no time to make friends when the snow is fresh. So I dropped below the brow of the hill. Oh, how I love to make smooth turns in the snow, catching air off little hillocks. Someone hooted from below, where a motley group of skiers had gathered. Above, another skier emerged from the sugar bush, caught air from a rock at the bottom, and quickly turned into the tow, eager for more.
By the end of the afternoon, I’d learned the ins and outs of rope-tow etiquette. The water-skier’s hold is for novice only, the experienced use a slick method of grasping the rope with one arm behind the back. I learned the skill of rope-tow drafting, permissible for children and the uninitiated, where the second in tow, close on the ski tails of the first, enjoys a much less physically taxing ride to the top. It was 400 yards of pure skiing bliss, where one fresh track could be laid next to the other, run after run—giving double meaning to the “farming” of this ski hill.
Now here, I thought, is the essence of skiing: diesel, leather (requisite for withstanding rope-tow friction), and powder—no big resorts, fancy clothing, or expensive lift tickets. I finished the day with ski-tired legs, a tow-tired back, and a new zest for ski adventure in the Kingdom. If a farmer’s rope tow could yield up such fun, where else could winter adventure be waiting?
Still full of a Western zeal for untouched powder found in the backcountry, and now reconnected with my roots in Yankee ingenuity and resourcefulness, I set out to find the answer, and it has turned into an ongoing quest. Once snow comes, each day holds the potential for at least four different backcountry ski opportunities: a dawn patrol skin, a lunch-in-the-backpack tour, a beat-the-sunset cruise, or a moonlit hike. In the other three seasons, I eye potential ski lines—beckoning openings in the dense woods. I am fortunate that this exploration is not restricted by my day job at NorthWoods Stewardship Center. For 20 years, NorthWoods has been common ground for kindred spirits connected to the outdoors.
Three years ago, we launched the Touring the Kingdom (and Beyond) Backcountry Ski Series. While we typically forego diesel power for our own heart-pounding ascents, the spirit of adventure I found at that farmer’s hill accompanies me on each tour. In the past two years, the group has climbed approximately 16,000 vertical feet on snowshoe, skin, fish scale, and pure muscle power; descending in powder, crud, and corn. We have summited the highest peaks in the Kingdom, the rest of Vermont, and New Hampshire, and explored backwoods powder stashes named and unnamed. The gear worn by the group could be displayed on a ski museum timeline , from leather boots and three pins to the newest Alpine touring, split-boarding, telemark, and randonnee rallying technology (we have yet to see a monoski or ski doodle, but hold out hope).
Backcountry skiing in the Kingdom is not a venture for a perfect-snow purist with set rules and regulations about what makes something real backcountry skiing—an open mind is as necessary as any of the gear. If you share the common goal to make good turns and learn new terrain, then no logging cut, gravel pit, power line, snowmobile trail, hayfield, or distant mountaintop is out of bounds. As you drive the back roads of the Kingdom this winter, keep your eyes wide open and your ski goggles handy. The farmer you just passed by may very well make the nicest turns this side of the Mississippi. The gladed hillside that your neighbor logged may hold an epic powder stash. The mountain that catches the high clouds on the horizon may be your next ski adventure destination. That’s probably where you’ll find me.