Editor’s note: Tom Slayton of Montpelier is editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
GOSHEN – Innkeeper Tony Clark, one of the pioneers of cross-country skiing in Vermont, has seen the handwriting on the snow. Or rather, lack of snow.
“The season is getting shortened from both ends,” he said glumly last week.
At the same time, he believes, changes in the sport have reduced the overall number of recreational cross-country skiers and vacation patterns are shifting. None of those changes is good news for small, back-country inns like his.
“I’d love to see this place go on as it has,” Clark said. “But the numbers just aren’t there.”
A visit to Blueberry Hill Inn earlier this month seemed to confirm his concern. The forested high country surrounding the inn sported thin patches of thawing snow. The inn’s parking lot was empty and the inn itself was chilly and closed. Clark expects to reopen for the holidays.
Nevertheless, it was a striking contrast to the scene at Blueberry Hill some four decades ago, when Clark and his then-wife, Martha, bought the place and began transforming it into one of Vermont’s first cross-country ski centers. Snowfall then was plentiful. So were the skiers, who came to explore the inn’s 70 kilometers of ski trails and often stayed to enjoy one of the loveliest and most distinctive Vermont country inns.
Blueberry Hill had its own special atmosphere, much of it supplied by Clark himself. Witty and outgoing, he would organize cross-country ski workshops, lead ski tours through the woods or high on the flanks of Hogback Mountain, and then preside over a communal soup pot in the tiny ski shed adjoining the inn, joking with skiers and urging them to go out for “one more loop” before it got dark.
“You don’t need any wax,” he once cheerfully informed a couple new to the sport. “Just go out and have a ball!”
Blueberry Hill rode the crest of the wave as cross-country skiing became a sensation, both in Vermont and throughout the Northeast. For much of the 1970s the inn was home base for the Vermont Ski Touring Club, one of the first groups organized in Vermont to promote and enjoy the sport.
Nordic skiing’s informal, beginner-friendly style and its decidedly outside-the-mainstream ethos fit perfectly with the tenor of the 1960s, and for a decade or more, it was the fastest-growing winter sport in the nation.
It was all very easygoing, low-tech, and inexpensive. Equipment consisted of narrow wooden skis, bamboo poles, and low-cut Nordic boots that looked something like a leather sneaker. Clothing was eclectic — wool sweaters and knickers with knee socks for some, Johnson Woolen Mill pants and gaiters for others, 60-40 parkas, and hats of all descriptions. A trail pass at early ski areas like Blueberry Hill cost a dollar or two.
But those days are now long gone. Equipment, technique, and the sport itself have changed, and according to Clark, those changes have made it tough for smaller inns like his.
Olympic medalist and Vermonter Bill Koch introduced skating as a racing technique in the 1980s. It was faster and more athletically graceful than the classic diagonal stride, and became an overnight sensation. But it set the bar higher for the average recreational skier and so, Clark believes, discouraged those who lacked the strength or agility to master it.
Boots got higher, stiffer, and more supportive, and wooden skis, beautiful as they were, were largely replaced by higher-performance fiberglass models. Wool sweaters and knickers gave way to sleeker Lycra and nylon garments, and everything became more and more expensive.
Cross-country ski centers co-evolved along with the sport, widening their trails for skaters, adding more challenging trails and trail networks, and purchasing sophisticated grooming machinery to maintain them. Equipment and clothing shops appeared to meet the burgeoning demand.
In some ways, Clark says, the development of cross-county skiing repeated the evolution of downhill skiing, moving from an informal band of rugged outsiders to a mass-marketed sport dominated by large ski centers, no longer done on the cheap, emphasizing speed and technique.
Unfortunately, as the sport changed, so did the weather. Global climate change has shortened Vermont’s winters. Snow is no longer as deep or as predictable.
Areas like Blueberry Hill that used to have plenty of natural snow, December through March, now look at bare ground or ice for a significant part of the winter. And without dependable snow, skiers do not come.
“It’s tiresome to lose money all winter and then have to make it up during the rest of the year,” Clark says.
In the 1970s, Blueberry Hill’s ski center logged 8,000 to 10,000 skier-days per winter. Now in a good winter it has 1,500 to 2,000 skier days.
He put Blueberry Hill Inn on the market last year, asking $1.2 million for it. The inn hasn’t sold, and Clark is convinced that it probably won’t.
“The fantasy of owning an inn in Vermont has diminished,” he says. “You used to be able to get by on Romanticism and Laura Ashley curtains, but those days are over.”
In fact, the mortality rate for small Vermont inns has always been high. A quick Internet check this week turned up more than 30 Vermont inns for sale and there are probably more. Highland Lodge in Greensboro, another highly-regarded inn with a fine network of ski trails, closed its doors a couple of years ago and has not reopened. (Its ski trails remain open, run by the nearby Craftsbury Nordic Center.)
Ultimately, Clark predicts, all but a handful of Vermont cross-country ski centers will be forced to close or seriously downscale. Those that survive, he said, will be the ones that have wealthy investors behind them and snowmaking equipment – in essence, the larger ones: Craftsbury Nordic Center, Trapp Family Lodge at Stowe, Rikert Nordic Center at Breadloaf in Ripton, and a few others associated with large alpine ski areas.
His own immediate plan is to scale back, simplify, and hope to recapture some of the skiers that fondly remember Nordic skiing’s earliest days.
“We’re going back to basics,” he says. “Simple recreational skiing.”
Long term, he’d like to re-incorporate his ski operation – possibly Blueberry Hill Inn itself – as a nonprofit. He’s already engaged in discussions with the USDA’s Moosalamoo National Recreation Area along those lines.
Clark’s fondest project, the 15,875-acre Moosalamoo Recreation Area that he helped establish, is secure. Now 69, he is thinking of retirement, but hopes Blueberry Hill can survive in some form.
“This area is now protected for future generations,” he says, adding with a look around the inside of the closed inn, “I’d love to see this place also protected for future generations.”
And then, at the end of the week, Clark got an early Christmas present: an early snowstorm dumped a foot of snow on Vermont.
Editor’s note: Author Slayton, a cross-country skier himself, said he knew this snowstorm would happen by writing this column.