“When I look at a trail, I look at it as a big earth sculpture,” Thom Perkins said in a recent phone interview.
It’s the old joke: what do you do with a fine-arts degree? For Perkins, the recently retired director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (JSTF), degrees in sculpture and photography led to sculpting land.
JSTF’s longest-tenured executive director after spending the last 38 years in Jackson, N.H., Perkins sounded like he was still on the job. His passion for the ski center — and skiing — came through clearly.
And Perkins has done way more than develop Jackson. He organized and skied the first traverse of the White Mountains’s Presidential Range, from Randolph to Crawford Notch, in 1983. In 2008, he collaborated with John Morton to homologate the Wave trail to International Ski Federation (FIS) specifications. At the time, it was one of only three FIS homologated trails in the U.S.
He’s been chief of competition at multiple New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship events, as well as trials for the 1986 World Championships team. JSTF president Kevin Killourie credited Perkins with securing a bid for the 2017 NCAA Skiing Championships.
Perkins was recently nominated for induction into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. In 2010, SkiNH presented Perkins with its Al Merrill award for contributions to cross-country skiing. He’s also a board member emeritus of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. The National Ski Journalists Association gave Perkins an award for lifetime achievement.
In an animated discussion covering Jackson’s history, community, and trail building, Perkins discussed Jackson and his future plans, veering off topic to provide background information, and coming back, all without needing to catch his breath.
Long before the JSTF, people skied in Jackson. Perkins has a photo of a woman skiing on what is now the golf course, taken in the 1880s. A New England Ski Museum timeline mentioned the Jackson Ski and Outing Club. Formed in the mid-1930s, it provided ski instruction and organized ski races, dogsled races, and jumping meets. John Morton won a race at Jackson during his career at Middlebury College. A man named Bradford Boynton, proprietor of the Wildcat Tavern, cut and marked a ski trail behind his establishment. This information came from a monograph attributed to – you guessed it – Perkins.
Jackson’s first executive director was Avery Caldwell, Perkins said. Caldwell wrote the proposal that locals approved to start the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation in 1972. Caldwell resigned in the summer of 1973. According to Perkins’s monograph, “The winter had gone sour with the lack of snow and with not enough skiers paying the $0.50 trail support donation.”
In 1976, JSTF was in its fourth year as a nonprofit that promoted skiing. Perkins was a ski instructor in Connecticut and the artist-in-residence at a private school.
At the time, former Olympian Jack Lufkin was working at the Jack Frost ski shop. He assumed the role of executive director from 1973 to 1976.
“After he left, the board put out a call for resumes,” Perkins said, explaining they received 100 applications for the position. “They interviewed 10 people and hired me.”
Asked about the choice of a nonprofit model, Perkins explained it evolved that way because of land-ownership issues. “The Jackson trail system utilizes a lot of private land,” he said. “Landowners are much more agreeable to allowing the use of their land for charitable purposes rather than profit. I don’t think the model would have worked had it been a profit-making business as well as it does as a nonprofit.”
If the ski center owns all the land where its trails are located, a nonprofit might not be the best business model. “But in Jackson’s particular case, it’s the smartest thing,” he said.
“Most people think skiing is all about the snow. In cross-country skiing, it’s about land,” Perkins added. “You can have all the snow in the world, but if you’re not allowed to go on it, it’s worthless. A huge effort goes into landowner relations. That’s one of the background things that people don’t see when they come in to ski.”
At the outset, Perkins said the trail system used logging roads and “convenient trails” with some 125 kilometers of terrain.
One hundred twenty-five k? Even back in 1972?
“A lot of those were hiking trails, and they were very minimal,” Perkins said. “Cross-country skiing back then was a lot different than it is now. Grooming was primitive; people didn’t expect the kind of grooming we have today. [People would ski] a hiking trail into the backcountry for a long day trip.
“Most of the trails, when I arrived, were either overgrown or very narrow, and all of them were poorly surfaced,” he added. “There were rocks, boulders, stumps and holes… you needed a lot of snow to open a trail.”
In the beginning, trails were cut, rather than built. Just enough trees came down to open a trail through the woods, “without branches flopping in your face.”
As Jackson evolved, many of the original trails were discontinued to comply with the national-forest permit process. “Now that we have 150 k of trails, it’s not that we’ve just added 25. We’ve added a lot more than 25, because we’ve replaced trails as well,” Perkins explained.
“Our emphasis today at JSTF is to make the trails modern, make them smooth, make them wide enough to be groomed, groom them so they’re pristine. Not just a trail of convenience, but a trail that’s designed to ski.”
He explained that the Foundation spends a “third of a million dollars” on fewer than 5 k of trail.
“Trails today are constructed, they’re not just cut. They’re sculpted into the landscape. My degree is in fine arts. When I look at a trail, I look at it as a big earth sculpture. We’re sculpting an experience into the landscape when we design a trail.”
A Natural Setting
Although some other New England ski centers have installed snowmaking, it’s not on Jackson’s horizon at present. Perkins believes that Jackson can give skiers a great experience without snowmaking.
“Because the trail system is so large, we can provide reliable snow in upper elevation plateaus that historically get very good snowfall,” Perkins said.
In some winters when Jackson was dry, there were still 18 inches of snow and 15 to 20 k of trails available without snowmaking.
“Our emphasis was to make sure those trails were available, accessible and groomable with very small amounts of snow,” he said. “We’ve probably got upwards of 50 k of trail we can groom with 4 inches of snow on the ground. And when we started, we maybe had five k. Maybe eight k, if we’re lucky.”
Jackson is perhaps best known for its annual 30 k marathon, but Perkins explained that the White Mountain Classic explores a small portion of the trail system. One of his favorite events is the Dave Duncanson Memorial Groomed Trail Challenge.
“Our challenge is simple: try and ski all the trails in one day. I dare you,” he said. “Only three people have done it. Dave was the first, and a very good friend of mine. He died of cancer last year and we renamed the event in his honor. There could be 115 k of trails open.”
When JSTF started, their forest-service permit was a free permit. Until 1980, there was no charge for the use of National Forest Service land. In 1980, JSTF transitioned to a fee permit, which offered revenue flexibility.
“It was a tough nut to swallow because in 1979, 1980, we didn’t have any snow,” Perkins said. “Nobody had any snow in the East. ‘Now you have to pay us,’ and we didn’t have any money. It was very slim pickings in the ’80s. We operated on a budget that was microscopic.”
Asked about working with the National Forest Service and private landowners, Perkins reminisced, “Back in 1970s, the [national forest] district ranger Swede Olsen and I and a couple of his staff would go walking in the woods. We’d hang flags and Swede would look at it and say, ‘This looks really good. This will be great for skiing. Go ahead.’ And that was the approval process. Walk in the woods, cut the trail. And now, the approval process is probably two years, and $10,000 for paperwork. What’s really interesting is the end result – the trail that we built with the science and without the science is exactly the same.”
And the entire forest has a mileage allotment for new trails for all uses. “Everyone’s fighting for something like 10 miles of new trail, forest wide. I’m not sure of the exact number, but there’s a small allotment of trail.”
To get around that, JSTF offers to abandon trails that don’t work for them in order to build better trails elsewhere, which doesn’t increase their total miles of trails.
As for private landowners, each one is different, Perkins said. “We have 65 individual landowners. Some are extremely amenable if you suggest something. Others are wary of the use of their land and will say, ‘No, I like it the way it is’ or, after a lot of talking, planning, a lot of handholding and consulting, they will agree to make the changes.”
Asked if Jackson had a desired balance between groomed and backcountry trails, Perkins said they don’t have a ratio or percentage goal in mind. “Certainly JSTF is big enough to accommodate all types of skiing. That’s what Jackson does, is accommodate all skiers.
“It’s a matter of understanding the market,” he continued. “As the market evolves, the percentages may change. And you say, ‘We’re doing OK with this, we need to improve that.’ Right now, JSTF has 17 major projects on the five-year plan. Three of those were accomplished last fall. There are 14 left to do in the next four years. And they’re all doable. The foundation is not going to wait around. It’s a very active organization. It just wants to be better all the time.”
Perkins spent the last 35 years seeking access to a high-elevation plateau called Prospect Farm. Last year, he finally received permission from “very generous landowner” to build a parking lot on the land. Four days after getting the go-ahead, the construction company JTSF hired was cutting trees, and a week later, the parking lot was finished.
Improving the Alice’s Alley trail was another project. “We rebuilt it,” Perkins said. “We resurfaced, widened, pulled a bunch of rocks out of the way, rerouted one section, and improved the drainage. That trail went from requiring two feet of snow to a trail you can ski with four inches of snow.”
The White Mountain Classic included that trail this year because of the work done in the offseason. Last year, Alice’s Alley wasn’t used in the race because of snow conditions.
A Labor of Love
A quick glance at Perkins’s blog suggests he’s living the life: skiing every day, kicking back in the sun. The reality of his work was different.
“I spent more time providing the skiing than doing the skiing,” Perkins said.
Between October 15 and April 1, his average workweek was between 70 and 77 hours. Some weeks were even busier, like the White Mountain Classic Week, in which he worked up to 100 hours.
“Every single day, I was dealing with marketing and staffing and all kinds of stuff,” he said. “The foundation is a major economic engine for Jackson in the wintertime. The variables that happen every single day, if you’re not on top of it, you won’t know what hit you. Every single day, you have to pay attention.”
“I spent more time providing the skiing than doing the skiing.” — Thom Perkins, Jackson Ski Touring Foundation executive director for 38 years
Would it have been easier financially to operate as a for-profit business?
“It wouldn’t work,” he said. “The community spirit that’s been developed in Jackson is extraordinary. There are a couple places across the country where that’s been emulated. The people in Jackson are very protective of the trails. There are municipal ordinances protecting the ski center because the townspeople recognize the importance of what we do. No one can conceive of Jackson without cross-country skiing. Jackson IS cross-country skiing.”
While he may be retired, Perkins doesn’t plan to sit around. He plans to remain in the vicinity of Jackson. He’ll be sailing – he’s a certified merchant marine captain, and has sailed off the Maine coast for 30 years. An accomplished musician, he and Kathy Bennett will be touring New England this summer.
“I’d like to go to the Quebec Winter Carnival, ever since I saw it in National Geographic in the 1950s,” Perkins said.
And he’ll stay connected to skiing. “I’m looking to offer my expertise to other cross-country ski areas on a consulting or a short-term basis so they get more of what Jackson does, so that the sport will grow,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that believe cross-country skiing is a special sport. And I would like to see other cross-country ski areas be the best they can be, so the sport itself grows.”