Low-Snow 2012 Proved Perfect Opening for Strafford Nordic, Vermont’s Newest Ski Area

Chelsea LittleAugust 20, 2012
The seventh- and eighth-grade girls’ race crosses a field at the Strafford Nordic Center during the 2012 Silver Fox Trot. Photo: Dave Kynor.

STRAFFORD, Vt. – As Jeremiah Linehan turned his huge Ford truck up the driveway of the Strafford Nordic Center, I looked around, but there was no sign for skiing – just one pointing the way to Rockbottom Farm. Linehan reported that he’d taken the ski center’s sign down for the summer, “just so we don’t have to deal with it.”

As his two sons and a 9 year old from down the road chatted in the back seat, we drove along the tree-lined dirt road up towards the dairy farm. Linehan pointed out trails that, come winter, would be filled with skiers. Over there, a trail skirts a small field. Here, it crosses the road and heads downhill to the next property. At the bottom of one large, steeply rolling field sat the biathlon range. Another trail – more of a dirt track, really – was cut into the sidehill so that skiers could traverse the slope. I could picture how beautiful the scene would be on a sparkling winter day.

We pulled into Rockbottom Farm, a rambling house surrounded by a collection of barns,, with dogs and chickens wandering about. A guy in a Polaris Ranger, headphones on and Pepsi can in hand, drove towards us and stopped. Linehan rolled the window down and the two chatted about pouring a foundation for a new barn.

We drove on, past a shed filled with boxes of glass bottles, past the creamery itself, past a barn that houses more than 50 Guernsey cows, past a pile of manure. The boys shrieked that it was smelly. The truck slipped and slid along muddy farm roads – at one point I wondered if we would careen right into a parked tractor – and out towards the pastures, where we came to a stop.

“All right, boys,” Linehan said. “Let’s go! Do you remember how to get to Zig Zag?”

And with that, we hit the trails.

* * *

The view from Picnic Rock down towards Rockbottom Farm in the summer.

There are a lot of things about the Strafford Nordic Center that seem unusual. The Trapp Family Lodge this is not.

“It’s a farm,” Linehan said later. “Cows are there. Tractors are running across the parking lot. But it has also got some of the best terrain for skiing.”

Perhaps the most astounding thing is that Linehan and his two co-owners started the touring center for the 2012 season – which, in New England, was something of a doomed year for skiing and snow. On the National Climatic Data Center’s 1-to-118 scale of precipitation, the winter ranked a five, or “much below normal.”

But the weather didn’t slow down the operation in Strafford. Before the center even opened, Linehan and his crew had sold dozens of season passes, a tally which rose to ninety by January. Then they sold about 1,000 day passes. The group’s facebook page is thick with endorsements: “Some of the best cross country skiing I’ve had,” wrote one visitor. “This place is fantastic and run by wonderful people,” gushed another. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” wrote a third.

What? Let it snow? This was 2012, right?

In fact, the Strafford had a better run of things than most places in New England. With almost 1,000 feet of elevation on the Oak Hill trails 20 miles away in Hanover, New Hampshire, they had consistent skiing when the Dartmouth College venue did not. Linehan had planned on grooming 20 k of trails in their initial season but due to higher-than-predicted demand, he bumped that number up to 30 k.

“As much as it was a really tough winter here, I think in some ways it worked in their favor because they were one of the few places that had enough snow for skiing,” said Cami Thompson, the Dartmouth women’s coach, in a phone interview last week. “I think that helped draw people out there.”

Thompson’s team made a few visits to the center, although the coach said that with limited daylight in the heart of winter it was sometimes hard to make things work with 2 o’clock practice and the 40-minute drive. Still, Thompson said, the availability trails with snow was “certainly wonderful.” Other years, the team has made trips to Stowe during the week for training if it’s the only option.

And the Dartmouth team wasn’t the only group to use Strafford as a backup. The Ford Sayre Ski Club hosts its annual Silver Fox Trot at Oak Hill, which was a no-go with 2012’s snow situation. The club moved its high school and senior Eastern Cup races to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, two hours away, but opted to keep the kids’ event more local.

Strafford is “a beautiful, traditional Vermont setting, and the site has been fortunate to be at a higher elevation to retain very good snow cover,” organizers wrote on their website.

Working with Ford Sayre’s volunteers, Linehan knew he had to do everything he could to make things run smoothly. The farm owner ploughed a field to make an entirely new parking lot; the co-owners agreed to groom whenever, and whatever, Ford Sayre wanted. This was their chance to gain some publicity with a captive audience of over 150 racers and their families.

It worked. After driving through brown, snowless valleys, skiers ascended the hill towards the nordic center and were greeted by good racing, gorgeous views and plenty of white stuff; Thompson said that her own daughter enjoyed the setting. Even if other venues have snow next year, it seems unlikely that the BKL families will forget their experience in Strafford.

* * *

Another unlikely detail about Strafford’s success is that until the nordic center actually started, Linehan was the only one of the three co-owners who skied.

Linehan, here on the Tamarack Hill trails: “I skied more in 2012 than I did in the last ten years combined.” Photo: Dave Kynor.

Growing up mostly here in the Upper Valley, except for a brief stint to Anchorage, Alaska, Linehan took to skiing early. He went straight from high school into the world of high-level nordic combined racing, competing all over the country and in parts of Europe. Then, he transitioned to special jumping, started a couple of World Cups, and retired in his mid-20’s.

Even when he was competing, Linehan had an idea that the Upper Valley was a great place to train.

“I thought about how cool it would be to have a ski area of my own, or at least trails,” said Linehan, who dreams of one day helping to host an elite-level team in the area.

After leaving the nordic world, Linehan got a degree at Vermont Technical College and went into construction. When a spot opened up in Hanover, he became a firefighter. The job is tough, he says, but he also has plenty of days off. That’s partly what has allowed him to build his own 10 k trail network above his house, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Strafford Nordic Center.

“I began cutting my own trails,” Linehan said. “They made tracks for ATV’s, and that’s pretty much what made it affordable so I could do it. I learned that way. For six years, we’ve been grooming a 10 k up by my house, with my neighbors, and it’s open to the public for free. Anybody was welcome.”

Two years ago, the Upper Valley had a fantastic snow year and the hills of Strafford were blanketed by nearly four feet of fluff. That made Linehan think that maybe there could be more than just the trails he had built in his backyard. So he went to two of his best friends, Earl Ransom and Rett Emerson, who owned adjoining farms.

“I went to Rett and said, ‘what do you do with your farm in the winter?’” Linehan explained. “And he said, nothing, that he needed to find something. Then I went to Amy [Huyffer, Ransom’s wife] and Earl and asked what they thought about me grooming some trails down there, and they said they’d love to… Everyone was on board, but those guys didn’t know what it meant to do a ski area.”

The three men have turned out to be good partners. Although Emerson and Ransom weren’t skiers, they were businessmen, and provided caution and realism against Linehan’s big dreams. The three balance each other out, Linehan says, and because they were already close friends, they respect one another even when their views differ.

The co-owners used all of their own resources at the beginning. The nordic center has only five employees; besides the three men, Huyffer does the books and Linehan’s wife Hilary organizes the programs. The team didn’t have to buy much of anything, although when Linehan’s insurance company declared his sailboat totaled after Hurricane Irene, he did purchase a groomer. And there are things that they have simply decided not to invest in – for instance, your standard trail markers. Instead, they nail handmade ones to trees.

Another cost-saver was the fact that they didn’t build any new trails. Vermont’s Act 250 regulates land use and development, and the owners wanted to avoid the permitting process and associated costs. They were in luck: with a lot of large, open fields, they could groom whatever they wanted to. Ransom’s farm in particular offered miles of old logging roads to wind through the woods. An apartment above Ransom and Huyffer’s house serves as the lodge. With a little mowing and lopping, the team created a trail network without doing any construction.

“Vermont Act 250 affects anything commercial over ten acres, so we couldn’t build stuff,” Linehan said. “And we didn’t – we actually didn’t make new trails. We used existing trails and just connected stuff up. So we weren’t lying when we said it.”

Besides Act 250, there is are current use and forestry plans to deal with; the nordic center is far from the main business taking place on the land, but the team doesn’t feel limited. And they are already benefitting from their low startup costs. The trio didn’t expect to make money on the project for at least three years, but after their remarkable 2012 season, they were able to pay Huyffer and Hilary Linehan, which was an unexpected bonus.

“We’re out of debt,” Linehan said, clearly still struggling to believe it. “It’s our first year and we’re out of debt. We’re very happy about that… It exceeded our financial dreams last year.”

* * *

With Act 250 and the other plans dictating how the nordic center grows, it’s likely to remain very much a winter occupant of the farms.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that this is their work, their livelihood, and I’m a guest,” Linehan said.

The Strafford Nordic Center shares land with Rockbottom Farm’s cows.

That’s also partly because the two farms are plenty successful the other eight months of the year. For instance, although Ransom was thrilled to have something to do with his farm in the winter, Rockbottom’s Strafford Organic Creamery sells its milk and cream throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, and its ice cream is highly acclaimed (full disclosure: okay, it’s been the author’s favorite ice cream for the last ten years). The farm was featured in Michael Abelman’s book Fields of Plenty, which highlighted small, sustainable farms across America.

A few kilometers away, the balance of fields and forest shifts and you find yourself at Tamarack Hill Farm, another thriving business and one that feels more like a typical Vermont ski resort. This is Emerson’s domain.

In the summer, Tamarack Hill’s lawns and fields are mowed by machines, not cows. Instead of Guernseys in the barns, there are horses – nice horses. Rett Emerson’s father, Denny, is an equestrian legend, but despite a long career that has included wins at almost every one of three-day eventing’s biggest competitions, including a team gold at World Championships, the elder Emerson doesn’t rest on his laurels. Instead, he teaches, and thousands of riders have come to train or compete at his impeccable farm.

Rather than logging roads, skiers find themselves on a few trails which were designed with cross-country horsemanship in mind. Depending on snow levels, solid wooden jumps may peek out in the fields – or they may be buried to form a sort of nordic terrain park.

The elder Emerson is firmly behind the idea of the nordic center and had even considered putting in ski trails himself in the 1990’s. He doesn’t stay in Vermont in the winters; while the eventing barn moves to Southern Pines, North Carolina, Rett Emerson stays in Vermont and manages the Strafford side.

When the nordic center began, Emerson dove straight in. He now does much of the grooming, which he learned from Linehan, and picked up skiing as well.

“Rett went from never skiing to skiing every day,” Linehan says. “That’s what he does in the winters now – he hated winters, and now he loves it. It’s this total turnaround for him.”

The co-owners had considered siting the lodge at Tamarack Hill, since there was a free building there as well. But they decided against it. After one winter of operation, Linehan believes that although driving into the horse farm would have provided skiers with a more typical first impression, Rockbottom is the right location for the lodge. People love the farm, he says; they love the fields, and they love the cows. It’s different than any other touring center, but the atmosphere has been well-received.

Even Thompson, a former World Cup skier who grew up in Stowe and has skied pretty much everywhere, didn’t mind.

“I slid off the parking lot the first day we went out there,” Thompson laughed in a phone interview last week. “You know, the bus is up on the hill and the tires aren’t that great. Luckily they have lots of tractors there, so they just pulled it out while we went skiing. They were great.”

That can-do attitude, exemplified by Linehan’s boundless enthusiasm, shows up over and over again. From the beginning he wanted to include biathlon in his nordic center, so he set up some targets in a large field. When Laura Spector showed up – she was then a member of the national team – he moved them around and eventually had her scout a better location to relocate the range.

“Jere had contacted me with general questions about biathlon last year, so I knew the range was going up and I asked him about training there when I was in the area,” Spector wrote in an e-mail. “There wasn’t access to the actual range because there wasn’t snow enough to cover the connecting trail, but he moved a target into the upper field for me to use alongside the regular trails. In the spring I helped them clear trails and the site of a newer range.”

* * *

Linehan walking the trails this summer.

The success or failure of the Strafford Nordic Center, of course, will come down to its trails.

As we walked up Zig Zag with Linehan’s boys, I tried to envision what the old road, now overgrown with tall grass, goldenrod, and raspberry branches, would look in the winter (as the thorns tore across my legs, Linehan mused on whether it was time to mow yet). It’s a tough trail, climbing up and up to the top of the nordic center, but it’s a fun one – lots of changes in the grade, twists and turns in new directions. Linehan said that almost every skier they had this winter made it up to the top of the hill.

And as we entered a high pasture, I could see why. It was hazy the day I visited, but I could still see across several towns and the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. On a better day, Linehan couldn’t help bragging, there were views of the Presidential Range. Even the foreground, a patchwork of woods and farm fields, was beautiful. Maybe it’s not so surprising that Emerson suddenly developed an interest in skiing.

“The trails are fun to ski on – it’s a little bit old-time, and they’re groomed with a small machine, but they have some great little loops,” Thompson said of the Strafford experience. “I think it’s a really great place to train because it requires some agility. There’s quick little downhills and corners and turns and things like that. The guys did intervals one day in particular and it was really good for that.”

Spector agreed, calling the trails “extensive and fun.” Before she retired this summer, Spector had spent several years at Dartmouth, training for biathlon while simultaneously studying. When she wanted to ski and shoot together, she had to drive over an hour and a half to a national guard base in Jericho, Vermont; Dartmouth has ski trails and a somewhat deteriorating range, but they aren’t in the same place. Strafford, she thought, would be a big improvement.

“It will be great for biathletes who move to the Upper Valley, providing them with a place close by to train in the winter as well as the summer,” Spector wrote. “Considering the distance I was driving to get to Jericho, of course Strafford is a more convenient location. It’s going to make continuing biathlon through college less of a challenge and more of a possibility for younger biathletes.”

Linehan hopes to host the center’s first self-organized race this winter, and down the road to perhaps have bigger events; he has a 5 k loop picked out that he thinks will become the race course, and he will probably investigate homologation down the road.

But he’s not interested in catering just to skiing’s elite, or its racers. Even in the center’s first year of existence, it saw pretty much everyone: tourists, college teams, kids. Plenty of children came to ski over the course of the winter, but one of Linehan’s big goals is to get more kids skiing, whether it’s through after-school programs, phys ed classes, or actual ski teams.

And Thompson believed that recreational skiers might benefit the most from the new trail network.

“I would think for the general population it would be great,” she said. “It’s really nice to have another place to go. Just skiing day in and day out, five days a week at Oak Hill, it’s boring. I think people want variety, they want to be able to try different places. And it’s totally different to go to a place like that.”

The owners’ fingers are crossed that their enterprise will continue to grow. After all, they benefitted from 2012’s lack of snow, but they certainly aren’t hoping for another terrible drought.

“It has become this group of three families now that are learning and growing, and finding out that it’s possible,” Linehan said. “We have to see if it works next year with everybody else having snow. We could be flop, you know? Last year we were the only game in town.”

A group of skiers take a break on the trails this winter. Photo: Dave Kynor.

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Chelsea Little

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