Skiers turn to a website to reflect on the areas that got them started - and have since vanished.
The genius of Jeremy Davis struck me over Thanksgiving. In typical early-winter fashion, four of my 40-something siblings and I swapped tall tales of our skiing exploits. The banter inevitably focused on the sketchy local ski hills that served as our training grounds as kids. The trails were rough-cut strips of snow and ice, and our folks couldn't pry us away from them. The lifts - J-bars and rope tows - were ominous contraptions. So we screwed up our courage, held on as best we could, and had the time of our lives.
At least that's how it seems in retrospect. Many of those ski areas have disappeared. Yet of all our childhood recollections, few are more vivid than our first turns on the slopes. Nostalgia replaces blue ice and biting winds. Frozen toes and fingertips are no match for the warmth of reminiscence. If Davis, a Chelmsford native, didn't grasp that intuitively when he launched his homespun website, the New England Lost Ski Area Project (www.nelsap.org), in October 1998, he knows it now. The avalanche of memories that he's unleashed is too big to ignore.
"It's a time capsule, really," says Davis, 27. "What we've touched is a place and time that people have great memories of. And it's precious, because it doesn't exist anymore, and they can't go back. The website creates a permanent place for these areas.
"Davis's hobby was fueled by his own curiosity. Defunct areas at Mount Whittier in Ossipee, New Hampshire, and Mount Agamenticus in York, Maine, intrigued him. While a student at Lyndon State College in Vermont, Davis created the site with six "lost" ski areas. Today, it catalogs 555 New England areas, including 60 from Eastern Massachusetts. Hamilton Slopes in my adopted hometown shows up.
"I remember that rope tow - it would rip the mittens right off your hands," says former Hamilton skier Aaron Millett, laughing. "It was a rite of passage to be able to hang on and get to the top of the hill. Now it's somebody's front lawn. It used to seem so big, I can't believe how small it looks today."
That's the attraction of NELSAP. It both distorts and enhances our memories. Some local slopes where we first dabbled in the joys of gravity survived as "feeder" hills for larger resorts. While a family ski trip may cost $1,000 today, Davis says, 40 years ago, a day at a local hill might have cost a family $30. "And that's gone."
The death knell for many areas rang during the late 1970s and early '80s, when skyrocketing fuel and insurance prices coincided with lean snow years. Snow making was too expensive for smaller areas. Some operators were forced to walk away from their hills and let Mother Nature reclaim them.
Fortunately for ski buffs, Davis, a meteorologist in Glens Falls, New York, pursues his pastime with uncommon passion. With the help of three dedicated colleagues, Chris Bradford, Betsy McDonough, and John Gallup, Davis keeps pace with a torrent of photographs, personal memoirs, and memorabilia. How popular is the site? It averages 900 visits per day.
"We have this huge group of baby boomers who are approaching their 50s, or are in their 50s and 60s, a time in life when you do look back and appreciate what happened in your youth," says Glenn Parkinson, president of the board of directors for the New England Ski Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire. "What Jeremy has done is tapped into people who are in their teens, 20s, and 30s, as well as their 50s."
Davis, the youngest member of the museum's board, says a sense of urgency hangs over the project. "We're at that point where there are still people who remember skiing in the '30s," he says. "In 10 years, you're not going to have that many people left."
Even shuttered, the former ski areas still lure the adventurous. Davis hosts several outings a year. ("These places are like ghost towns that you can explore. It's kind of neat, like . . . [an] archeological dig.") For others, the memories are enough.