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Lost in the Woods

Lost in the Woods

Travel
By Alex Wells
posted: 05/31/2005

On a snowy February afternoon near Castleton, Vt., Jeremy Davis sidesteps a rusting box spring and scampers around a sagging chain-link fence. He trudges up the half-flooded, quarter-mile entrance road to Birdseye Mountain, a ski area that has been closed since 1964. Davis approaches the base of the hill and enthusiastically identifies landmarks: This flat area was the parking lot; that brushy area was a run. Scrambling farther uphill through soggy, shin-deep snow, he points out a poma lift, now in the thick of a pine forest. And at the top he calls attention to some old nightski lighting-bullet-riddled garage lights on a wooden post festooned with a single vine.

This is Davis's hobby-or what might be more accurately described as his obsession. For more than 10 years, the 27-year-old meteorologist from Queensbury, N.Y., has scoured hillsides for the relics and ruins of defunct ski areas. In recent years, he's taken to posting his discoveries on a website known as the New England Lost Ski Areas Project, or NELSAP. "It's kind of like a modern-day archeological thing," says Davis. "You look for parking lots-there had to be places for people to park, although in some cases they parked on the street-and for foundations where there were lodges or other buildings. You'll see parts of lifts. Sometimes you'll find a groomer all smashed up in the woods. Snowmaking equipment. Snow rollers."

Davis first felt the lure of an abandoned ski area during a family trip to New Hampshire in the early 1990s. Passing through the town of West Ossipee, he noticed a gondola tower-part of the defunct Mt. Whittier Ski Area-still standing in what had become the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant. "You could see the gondola line go up the mountain from there. It went over the road, Route 16. The cable was intact. The towers were there. And next to the old base lodge, which had been converted to a gift shop, there were three gondola cars. It was a ghost of something," he says.

[NEXT ""]When his family passed another lost ski area later on the same trip, Davis realized he had a new passion. He'd always been fond of skiing, Americana and history. The derelict areas combined all three and, best of all, most were abandoned. "I've always liked 'before' and 'after' pictures," he says. "There's something fascinating when you see a place that was all buffed out, with the trails filled with skiers and the lifts all running and everybody having a good time, and then you see it after it's been closed for 20 years and it's falling apart and all grown in. I like the sense of time, the sense of history."

To get "before" pictures of ski areas, he began collecting vintage ski-area guidebooks, trail maps, brochures and postcards. To get the "after" pictures, he made plans to explore the mountains themselves. As soon as Davis was old enough to drive, he started hiking through lost areas, places with names like Ark Ski Tow, Ski Haven, Ohoho and Red Jacket. Pushing through the undergrowth, he thrilled to discoveries such as lift towers, which seemed as meaningful as monuments. "Deep in the woods you find a lift tower," he says. "Someday people are going to wonder what the heck it was. It will be rusted solid, standing there as a silent reminder as to what was there 75 years ago. The metal will be there for generations."

Betsy McDonough, a 30-year-old Vermont native who answers email for NELSAP, shares Davis's passion. "The anticipation is the best part of it," she says. "You're driving up there thinking, what's going to be there? Are we going to see any buildings? And then you get there, and you're either disappointed because there's nothing there, or you luck out and you're excited that the lifts are still there and they're rusting and falling apart." McDonough pauses. "It's kind of a weird hobby."

[NEXT ""]In 1998, while attending Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vt., Davis decided to go public with some of his findings. He creat the NELSAP website (nelsap.org), posting histories and photos of six lost areas. He also invited readers to contribute information. To his surprise, site visitors began identifying dozens of lost ski areas, including many he'd never heard of. Some had been run by families solely for their neighbors and friends; others had been owned by clubs; many were small-town municipal ropetows. Most were tiny, with vertical drops of less than 300 feet-too small for mapmakers and national ski area associations to track closely. "When I started, I thought there were 200 lost ski areas, tops," says Davis. "I keep upping the estimate because I keep finding more. Now I wouldn't be surprised if there were 600 in New England alone. It's amazing to think how much skiing there would be today if all these areas hadn't closed. There'd be ski areas in nearly every town. They'd be as common as McDonald's."

Today NELSAP's website identifies more than 550 defunct ski areas in New England and a few dozen more in New York state and elsewhere. Many closed in the '70s and '80s. Because most were barely profitable and unable to afford expensive snowmaking equipment, they were vulnerable to a variety of misfortunes. "In some cases," says Davis, "the lodge burned down or insurance rates went up or they had a few seasons with very little snow when they were hardly able to open and made very little money." The areas were often labors of love for the founders, he adds. When these owners fell ill or died, the next generation often closed the areas down or sold out.

Soon after launching NELSAP, Davis noticed that some contributors were interested in the quirky old lifts-in the early years of New England skiing, most tows were built from used car or truck motors and spare parts. Most contributors, however, simply wanted to share memories of skiing at lost areas. He began posting the readers' stories on the site, and today, some 570,000 hits later, NELSAP reads like a collective memory of New England skiing. The contributors tell tales of broken legs, blackberry brandy, out-of-control runs, ropetows, ripped mittens, "hoagies under an orange sunlamp" and "skis piled like brush" in a school bus. One contributor remembers expert skiers who slalomed down the T-bar line using skiers on the lift as gates; another re-collects a few close calls involving the pond at the bottom of a beginner run named "Little Dipper"; a third tells of a skier who refused to let go of the T-bar after falling and was dragged sideways all the way to the top. "When I think back on it, the ski area was kinda strange," he concludes.

[NEXT ""]Yet memories of the oldest lost ski areas are hard to come by. "If you get a place that closed in 1940, not many people will remember it," says Davis. "In another 10 to 15 years, almost nobody will remember the first places." A half-century or more after closing, these areas can also be hard to identify at ground level. "There are some that we can't find. We're almost positive where it should be, then we go there and it's so grown in that we're thinking, 'Is this it?'" In some cases, the only way to identify such an area is by the terrain underfoot. Ski area operators often picked trails clean of rocks, and the smooth texture remains to this day. In places where the land was regraded for surface lifts, there may also be a thin strip of bedrock or eroded ground that has minimal plant life. Davis watches carefully for these strips, just as an archeologist might scan the ground for pottery shards betraying an ancient settlement buried below.

Davis's site isn't the only one that chronicles lost ski areas. Visitors to NELSAP can click on links to similar sites in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest (see "Resources," this page)-but NELSAP seems to have the most loyal following. One reason for its popularity may be that tiny ski areas near northeastern towns were more likely to disappear altogether or to be reborn as entirely different, and generally less fun, enterprises. For example, Strawberry Hill, near Davis's home in Queensbury, N.Y., was bulldozed when the road at its base was straightened. The lodge at Big Bear Ski Area in Brookline, N.H., became an establishment known as Dotty's Dance World. Sky-Hy Park, in Topsham, Maine, turned into a Christian conference center. The NELSAP site reassures skiers that their memories aren't failing them, that the areas really did exist, that fun was had and simplicity lost-in short, that the areas were not always ghosts.

Late on that snowy February afternoon, as he drives away from Birdseye Mountain, Davis is still contemplating the relics on the hillside. He eagerly points out a wisp of abandoned ski trail that is fleetingly visible from the highway. "You can almost see a little bit of the slope if you use your imagination-a little curl where there might be the remnant of a trail. If you crane your neck right now you can see it. And now it's gone. And you'd have no idea there was ever a place there."

FEBRUARY 2005

ss fun, enterprises. For example, Strawberry Hill, near Davis's home in Queensbury, N.Y., was bulldozed when the road at its base was straightened. The lodge at Big Bear Ski Area in Brookline, N.H., became an establishment known as Dotty's Dance World. Sky-Hy Park, in Topsham, Maine, turned into a Christian conference center. The NELSAP site reassures skiers that their memories aren't failing them, that the areas really did exist, that fun was had and simplicity lost-in short, that the areas were not always ghosts.

Late on that snowy February afternoon, as he drives away from Birdseye Mountain, Davis is still contemplating the relics on the hillside. He eagerly points out a wisp of abandoned ski trail that is fleetingly visible from the highway. "You can almost see a little bit of the slope if you use your imagination-a little curl where there might be the remnant of a trail. If you crane your neck right now you can see it. And now it's gone. And you'd have no idea there was ever a place there."

FEBRUARY 2005

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