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Community Ski Areas

February 7, 2017

Imagine a tiny ski lodge nestled against a small hill, the lodge no bigger than a typical single family home, packed with kids and families sipping cocoa around a crackling fireplace. At the helm of a small desk at the center of the lodge, the lodge “mom” sells $5 lift tickets, $3 hamburgers, and keeps a watchful eye on the many unattended children, dispensing stern discipline and motherly warmth with equal measure. Every half hour or so a ski patrol member walks in, stomps off her boots, and puts another log on the fire.

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Abenaki Ski Area in Wolfeboro, N.H.

Outside, the snow falls as dozens of kids and families wait for their turn to be pulled up the high speed rope tow, powered by a truck engine at the top of the hill. The kids swarm the hill like winter-crazed ants, bundled up and racing each other from top to bottom. The handful of narrow trails wind through the secluded groves of trees and gentle contours of the hill, eventually all leading back to the small base area. Even kindergarteners can navigate this place on their own. Lights on poles dot the hill, so as darkness falls, the hill is illuminated and skiing continues on into the night.  A bonfire is lit at the base, and small groups of teenagers and younger kids gather around the fire and watch each other hot-dog down the hill as music floats out into the night.

While this scene may sounds like a Norman Rockwell-tinted vision of the past, these very scenes are being lived out every day at small community ski areas throughout New England. There may be no better place to introduce young kids to the world of skiing than these community-based ski areas that are experiencing a resurgence throughout the country. Throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, small town-run ski areas were a dime a dozen, with literally dozens of them in each New England state. Folks would simply drive a tractor to the top of a hill, hook a rope to the drive shaft, build a little warming shack at the bottom of the hill and voila—a ski area!

Over the years, changing climate patterns, consolidation, and the drive for profit put many of these smaller ski areas out of business as few municipalities had the appetite for the expense of running this kind of community amenity. The website of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project documents the rise and fall of many of these ski areas, and makes for interesting reading for anyone with an interest in the history of skiing in the U.S. or the multitude of ghost-town ski slopes that still haunt our New England hills.  

But a few stragglers held on, and all the New England states boast several community-run ski areas with low rates, cheap food, and friendly atmosphere. And through blood sweat and tears, along with a healthy dose of volunteerism and private capital funding, these community-run areas are alive and well today. They make a great destination for families looking for an old-fashioned, completely unique and authentic winter adventure. Many offer kid-friendly low-speed rope tows and learning areas, and lessons are also available.

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Many community ski areas have old fashioned high speed rope tows. With a little practice, they can be as efficient as a chair lift—and provide a great workout as well.

As large ski resorts raise prices and cater more and more to an elite clientele, many middle class and working class families have increasingly turned to the handful of remaining community ski areas that serve as an affordable alternative to the corporate profit machines. What the community ski areas  lack in vertical drop and mountain vistas, they make up for in spades with character, affordability, and soul. Each has it’s own character, reflecting the passion of the volunteers and community members that make them tick.

Before my family and I moved to Portland, Maine, I ran the small but mighty Abenaki Ski Area, part of the Wolfeboro Parks and Recreation Department in New Hampshire. Over my eight years there, I saw a place that was beloved by locals and visitors alike, where generations of family members learned to ski on it’s 210 vertical feet and five trails. It was so much more than a ski area though. It was a community gathering space that brought people together during the cold winter months, to share experiences by the bonfire, to forge new friendships and get fresh air. It created social bonds that would not have existed otherwise.  And it was cheap: locals skied for $5 a day, and out of towners (who weren’t contributing to the tax base that subsidized the operation) paid $17 for a day pass. Pretty hard to find a cheaper place to ski with your family.

There was a popular saying amongst the old timers who had learned to ski at Abenaki in 40’s and 50’s. They would say wistfully, “My mom dropped me off at Abenaki when I was 8 and didn’t come back to pick me up until I was 16.” In a society where many kids never spend a moment out of the gaze of a watchful parent or teacher, these community ski areas provide a safe place where kids can gain independence and confidence. Even in this age of helicopter parenting, it is still common at these community ski areas to see a long line of parents dropping their kids off for the evening, letting them come to explore, socialize, and have adventures. None of those kids were inside playing on a screen. They were outside, breathing fresh air, under the watchful eye of a handful of adults, but independent enough to have an adventure or two on their own.

All of the areas listed below have day tickets available for less than $25, with many offering even lower cost options. This is only a partial list of selected highlights. Finding a community ski area is kind of like finding a secret swimming hole—many other areas exist off the radar, but with a little digging and asking around, you can find your hidden gem.

So dig those old dusty skis with the rusty edges out of the garage. Heat up the iron, wax your skis, and start searching Craigslist for some secondhand winter gear for the kids. Fill up the tank and head out to these small areas that epitomize the soul of winter in New England—adventure awaits!

Whaleback Ski Area, Enfield, N.H.

Abenaki Ski Area, Wolfeboro N.H.

“The Kanc” Ski Area, Lincoln, N.H.

Northeast Slopes, East Corinth, Vt.

Cochrans Ski Area, Richmond, Vt.

Spruce Mountain, Jay, Maine

Big Squaw, Greenville Junction, Maine

Otis Ridge Ski Area, Otis, Mass.

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Ethan Hipple

Ethan Hipple fell in love with the outdoors as a teenager, when he worked on a Student Conservation Association (SCA) trail crew. He has directed the New Hampshire Conservation Corps and is currently the Parks Director for Portland, Me., where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two kids. He is a former blogger for AMC Outdoors. Her latest book for AMC is Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, cowritten with Yemaya St. Clair.