Originally, I had planned to pay my final respects to the 2001-2002 Ski Season at Cannon Mountain in the Franconia Notch. I was leaving open the possibility of visiting Burke in mid-April considering they recently received some of the best snow of the year. However, Friday night I learned that Burke would close that weekend despite having all of their trails open with ample coverage to last well into April.
My dilemma began. Cannon is my favorite mountain in New England and the front face trails beckoned for me to ski them one last time this year. Both ski areas were having Pond Skimming events on Saturday; however, I could only choose one. I went to bed Friday night with thoughts of Cannon in my mind.
Saturday morning, I got a late start on purpose due to rain and poor weather. I packed up and had the wheels rolling from my home in Haverhill, MA at 6:30 PM. The entire drive up I-93 was miserable with rain (rather heavy at times) and low visibility. While driving through Concord, NH, I phoned both mountains for their trial reports. Cannon reported fewer trails open than expected with a quad on hold, while Burke promised sunny skies with all trails open! The decision had been made, but that didn’t make driving by Cannon any easier. A look at the Front Face trails at Cannon confirmed my decision to be correct. The Front Face looked to be in awful condition with thin cover, dirt, rocks, and low base depths showing prominently in many spots on all of the Front Face trails. Amazingly, after passing by Cannon and driving out of the Notch, the skies cleared! The further North I drove, the more sun and fewer clouds I saw!
A Morning At Burke
Arriving at Burke around 9:00 A.M., I grabbed my gear and headed for the Lodge wearing a T-shirt. With weather reports expecting temperatures in the mid-fifties, the morning was already proving the forecast to be accurate. A local was selling his remaining tickets just outside of the Lodge, so I bought my ticket from him for $20, locked the skis, and quickly geared up in the Mid-Burke Base Lodge.
First runs down were on fairly wet snow. Although Burke didn’t get much of the rain storm over night, they got enough to soften the snow to mush in some places. First run down Big Dipper proved that turning was going to require effort in the soft and slow snow. Second run down The Shoot to The Ledges confirmed my suspicion of tough natural conditions. I continued down the mountain making great effort to stay vertical on my skis… I experienced mixed results.
The sun began to show in full force later in the day and conditions began to rapidly improve. With clear Blue Skies by early afternoon, snow consolidated and was less saturated, and began to become soft and forgiving hero snow. Runs down Willoughby, Bear, and Practice Slope were down right fun! The snow was becoming quite firm and enjoyable. Pre-lunch, I enjoyed wonderful bump runs down Wilderness and Doug’s Drop. Both trails were still rather soft and saturated but showed promise for a return later that afternoon.
This was my first time witnessing the unusual event known as Pond Skimming. It seemed like the entire population from the surrounding towns came out to witness the Pond Skimming! Non-skiers outnumbered skiers by about four to one, with most of the audience being clad in hiking boots and jeans. It was amazing to see that many people gather at the usually uncrowded and quiet Burke Mountain. It was a party atmosphere, featuring a local radio station, beer tent, and barbecue! The competition began at 1:00 P.M. and was set near Mid-Burke Lodge, next to the Poma. Groomers had plowed up a plateau next to the Poma in which a trench had been dug about three feet deep, ten feet wide, and seventy-five feet long!. Blue plastic tarps had been placed over the snow, and the trench was filled with thirty-five degree water. A guy in a wet suit was stationed inside the pool to assist those less fortunate at attempting the crossing.
Superheroes was the the theme for the event and the contestants did not disappoint with their efforts at winning the Best Dressed prize. Various impressive Costumes included several Patriots Players, Superman, Spider Man, Bull Winkle the Moose, Presidents (current and past), Tina Turner, Native Americans, and various other oddities such as the aptly named Aqua Man. Contestants paid $10.00 to receive a Bib Number and a chance to avoid getting wet. Since everyone who succeeded in not getting wet advanced to another round, most contestants eventually met a watery fate. Prizes were awarded for Best Costume, Best Wet Look, Best Exit, Best Splash, and what ever else the judges decided to award. The Grand Prize was a seasons pass for next year.
I watched almost the entire first round of carnage. About half of the contestants were able to escape watery doom and advanced to the next round. Four rounds were played out in total, and I am not sure what the results were. Fortunately for the pond skimmers, it was a rather warm day! However, with a water temperature of thirty-five degrees, it could not possibly be warm enough! I was amused for a full hour by various antics and heroics, but needless to say I had traveled to Burke to ski! This day was too short to watch four rounds of fools taking headers into a pond!
For the remaining two hours of skiing, I opted to hit up the expert terrain. I hit all the bump trails, including The Ledges, Doug’s Drop, Wilderness, and Warrens Way (which featured mini-bumps). For my run of the day, my second time down Wilderness was a dream! All the wet snow was firmly packed down by this time, leaving perfect bump conditions. Half the trail was shaded, half in the sun depending upon your snow condition preference. I tore down the center of the trail and bared right into the sun as I progressed. Great lines were had every where. The only problem with this gem is it is too short! Big Dipper, a wide open blue square that drops steeply straight down the fall line at consistent grades, was tops on everyones list. With soft and forgiving snow directly under the sun, Big Dipper trail was a dream. For my final run, I tracked down Willoughby, which was also building up small bumps, straight down the center. Loved it! I was hardly ready to stop, but with the sun going down, the lifts shutting down, and my legs begging for mercy, I relented and straight lined a green circle back to the Lodge.
While many consider the 2001-2002 Skiing Season to have been abysmal, depressing, and the worst in recent history, days like the 30th of March prove beyond a doubt that fantastic skiing was available in New England if one looked closely enough. For myself, I enjoyed countless hours of skiing this season, and drove home not once thinking I had a bad day skiing. By carefully choosing my destinations and days, I thoroughly enjoyed this ski season from mid-December through the end of March. While we did not receive much snow and were plagued with warm weather and a drought, I kept reminiscing how bad the season could have been if not for our amazing technology. With amazing snow making and grooming technology, what could have been the winter that wasn’t for skiers, turned into a season of opportunity. A poor season is all relative; just think of what this season might have been like fifty years ago before such technology could turn a snow less season into white bliss?
Burke continues to amaze me. With 100% of their trails open and enough cover to continue long into April, Burke closed down this last week in March. The only reason for this is simple: operating costs. Burke has probably received more fresh snow than most of the mountains in New England and has near perfect conditions from January through March. While other areas tried vainly to open snow making trails, Burke was offering up tree skiing and natural snow trails all season. While some areas had a disappointing season and closed early in March due to lack of snow, Burke closes up due to not enough anticipated skier visits.
The most overheard thing people say at Burke is “Don’t Tell Anybody!” Every lift ride up, someone jokingly throws that out there. Jokingly because we all know that in order for Burke to thrive, more people need to ski there. However, one of the greatest things about Burke, is how uncrowded it is! I think the word is getting out. But I am still amazed that an area 100% open and with some of the best conditions in New England is closing on March 31st. Something is not right about this situation.