Going downhill, the old-fashioned way
It's late March and I'm nosing my trusty Saab up a greasy dirt road just a couple miles from the Capitol's golden dome. Leaf-like snowflakes float slowly from the gray heavens, draping the landscape with the stuff Snowflake Bentley lived for. Well, Bentley and a cadre of Vermont ski and ride fanatics like me.
It's been snowing all day -- 4 inches of the fresh stuff blanket everything with at least 500 feet of elevation and there's more higher up -- and I'd been cooped up at work. I feel like a caged dog. This may be the season's last powder day, and I don't want to miss out.
Fortunately, other people in this world feel my pain -- people like David McGraw. As I pull into his driveway, it's immediately evident I've found salvation. A solitary ski lift sits idle next to the house and not a single ski track mars the main slope or any of the half-dozen trails fingering down from the sparse woods. Inside the Dutch Colonial home, a.k.a. the "summit lodge," The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" filters through the stereo speakers as McGraw prepares to give me the magical mystery tour of Widow Moses Basin. It is, quite possibly, the smallest ski area in the East.
"Welcome to the snow corner of Washington County," McGraw exclaims, rushing around to find an extra lift ticket and a trail map. Not that either is really necessary. Lift privileges are free and by invitation only. And the Basin essentially consists of McGraw's back yard, so getting lost is improbable. Still, the multicolored ticket with its line drawing of a leather-faced Widow Moses catching big air -- without her dentures -- is a keeper. And since McGraw is willing to share his personal stash of fresh powder, I'm not about to question his motives.
Nevertheless, with a half-dozen major ski areas within an hour's drive of his hillside property, you have to wonder what compelled McGraw to install his own lift on the back 40? Quite simply, it was the escalating cost of skiing in the 1980s -- and a yen for making first tracks -- that initially fueled his desire, says the gray-bearded McGraw, a science teacher for the past 23 years at Montpelier High School. Back then, he had two young daughters and a burning desire to pass on his love of skiing.
"Once lift tickets hit $50 a day, I thought, 'There has to be a better way,'" he recalls. McGraw's "better way" wasn't to purchase a season pass or a Bash Badge to Smuggs, but to have his own family ski area a la the Cochrans in Richmond. "That's probably where I got the idea to do something like this," admits McGraw, a one-time ski coach who used to bring his Montpelier team to the Cochran Ski Area. In 1992 the inveterate tinkerer plunked down $250 for an old rope tow driven by a Model-A engine dating from the '20s. Soon his tiny ski area was born -- and named after a real "Widow Moses" who lived over the hill in the late 1800s.
"Aside from the cost benefits, it's first tracks every time," enthuses McGraw, his face growing animated as he clicks into a pair of shaped K2 skis. "It's so frustrating to get up early in the morning and show up at Mad River and there's a hundred people ahead of you. Here it snows 6, 8, 12 inches and I can go out at 10 o'clock in the morning and still get a dozen first tracks."
McGraw plugs in the safety switch and smiles as the 5-horse-power engine springs to life. I offer to release the rope, which requires stopping at each lift tower all the way down. McGraw replies appreciatively, "Are you sure? Gee, thanks!" and bolts down the hill, laying tracks in the dense spring powder.
When I reach the bottom, about half a football field below, I can't help but chuckle. "This place is a little kid's dream," I suggest. "Big kid's, too," McGraw replies.
Back up at the top, we take a moment to check out the Model-A transmission. In second gear, the rope turns at 10 miles per hour, or about the same speed a skier goes downhill on this slope. In third, the bluebird house perched on the middle lift tower begins to vibrate and skiers can whip uphill at 22 miles an hour.
Soon, Widow Basin begins to hum, as if the antiquated but effective lift were a dog whistle calling local powder hounds to supper. Friends and neighbors seem to appear out of the woodwork as we make laps on a handful of Lilliputian trails with names like Blue Jay Way and Robin's Run. "We made warm-up runs at Mad River a little earlier," one pair of blurry-eyed regulars quips before pointing their tips downhill. The scene is reminiscent of neighborhood kids getting together to ride their bikes.
Local ski hills like Widow Moses were once a fixture of Green Mountain life. In 1966 Vermont had 81 ski areas, according to the New England Lost Ski Area Project website. Today, fewer than two dozen remain; the rest fell victim to rising liability insurance and snowmaking costs. In the process, inexpensive community skiing has become a fading memory. McGraw, who grew up skiing in a community area outside Plattsburgh, has done his part to stem that tide in his adopted home. "Several families have learned to ski here that couldn't have afforded to otherwise," he notes with pride.
If he takes satisfaction in getting people started on skis, McGraw seems equally enamored of tapping into the history of the sport, and his property. Perry Merrill, the Vermont state forester who put the Civilian Conservation Corps to work cutting slopes at Stowe during the Depression, once ran a commercial ski operation just down the hill from Widow Moses Basin. The summit lodge -- McGraw's ex lives a short shuss away in the "base lodge" -- was built by a Swedish farmer who made jumping and cross-country skis out of maple and hickory in those "lost months" between harvest and planting.
"They're beautiful," says McGraw, leading me over to the barn to show off a pair of antique 8-footers. "He was a real craftsman."
Like the Swedish farmer and the state forester before him, this ebullient teacher has crafted a niche of his own in the ski world, even if McGraw never records a single ticket sale. Widow Moses is strictly a no-money operation. "Our motto is 'Ski Free or Die,'" McGraw says, "and it's the 'free' part that I'm most in favor of."