A peek at ‘Valley’

Nashoba still serving families, but that’s not all the area offers

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / February 9, 2012
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WESTFORD - Al Fletcher likes to tell a story about his daughter, Pam, who at the time was not yet 3. When the lifts closed at the end of one day, she threw a tantrum demanding that they be started up again so she could continue skiing.

Since Al owned the ski area, Nashoba Valley, the lift operator called him to ask if he should indulge the little girl.

“Hell, no,’’ Al remembered saying. No one can quite remember how long the tantrum went on. But everyone knows how that girl grew up to be a national champion ski racer, World Cup winner, Olympian, and television commentator, a career arc undoubtedly fueled by the passion that tried to get that ski lift restarted so many years ago.

Now Pam Fletcher, “Fletch’’ to her former teammates, is back at the ski area Al founded nearly a half-century ago, and that is carrying on its original mission, catering to families. Run by the family that founded it (Pam’s brother, Al, bought it from their father), she serves as events marketing and sales manager.

Though he says he’s retired, 80-year-old Al Sr. looks in on things a couple of days a week.

“I was selfish,’’ he said of when he arrived in the area and bought a tract of land with the 248-foot vertical hill in the middle, with a couple of pleasingly steep faces.

“There were a lot of little ski areas all around with 100-foot drops, but I like to ski fast, and by the time you make one turn you’re done. So, I wanted better skiing for myself.’’

Area skiers and riders who are now used to Nashoba Valley’s plush snowmaking and grooming, full cafeteria and restaurant, and the largest tubing park in the state, would have a hard time picturing the area in its first year, 1964.

Skiers got their boots on in a one-story building with a gravel floor, heated by a potbelly stove. Then they’d snag onto the rope tow to the top of the hill. The only grooming they would expect is where workers packed snow with skis and shovels, and of course the only snow was natural.

In fact, that first season was so warm that the area had but 14 days of skiing open to the public, and Al knew what he had to do to make it work.

“You had to do something about the consistency of the snow,’’ he said. “The worst thing about it was the inconsistency. Some places you’d have powder, then glare ice. That was the bad part of skiing.’’

To combat it, Al bought a power tiller with teeth to grind up ice and mix it into the snow. It was so revolutionary, he took it to the Boston Ski Show and it landed on the cover of a skiing magazine. Even owing for years of development in snowmaking and grooming, “That was the biggest advance I’ve ever seen in skiing, and pretty soon everyone was getting them,’’ he said.

Nashoba Valley is a survivor, of sorts. Once, it was among several small ski areas near high population areas that drew people into the sport and trained them for the bigger fare in the northern mountains. And yet if it is a good training area and place to bone up on your skills, there are plenty of regulars who need nothing more.

Last Monday, the sun was high in a deep cobalt blue sky and temperatures soared through the 50s. Al looked at the abundant snow on Chief and Bull Run - the steep faces lifting out of the base area - and gave a smirk. “This will be good today,’’ he said, “Good and fast.’’

In fact, speed always has been in the mix at Nashoba Valley. For a few years, the US Pro Ski Tour made regular stops there, with the likes of world champions Phil and Steve Mahre flashing through gates of a dual-slalom course. On Feb. 17, Pam Fletcher and freestyle legend Wayne Wong will lead a morning outing dubbed “Ski With The Best.’’

But there is another side to Nashoba Valley. At lunch time on Monday, Eleanor Guili took a break from her skiing, stopped on the sundrenched deck outside the base lodge, and declared, “This is the best ski day of the season.’’

At 80, Guili doesn’t make it to Nashoba Valley every day anymore, but manages three days a week, depending on the weather. Along with a couple of friends (who call themselves the “Three Muskedears’’), she has been skiing Nashoba Valley for decades.

“I’ve skied all over the Rockies and Europe,’’ said Guili. “But now I just ski here and I love it. Nashoba is just a cheery little place with a lot of ambiance.’’

Retired ski instructor Madeline Evans is another of the Muskedears, along with Al’s ex-wife, Nancy.

“At first, this was just a hobby, and it was a little scary,’’ Nancy Fletcher remembered of Nashoba Valley’s early years, during which she was writing out season passes and working the lunch room. “But then the business just got so big, we didn’t expect that to happen.’’

Because Nancy was busy with their two sons, and with Al running the business, they did not see much of Pam’s racing career - most of it with the US Ski Team on the World Cup circuit in Europe. But Nancy was on hand on the fateful day, Feb. 19, 1988, at the Calgary Olympics.

As one of the few hopes to medal for the United States in the downhill, Fletcher had a high-speed collision in the fog with an errant course worker during a warm-up run the morning of the race, resulting in a broken leg.

But that was a couple of careers ago, and in her capacity as events marketing and sales manager, Pam Fletcher works at developing offseason business for the area. One of the things she’s most proud of is the Sunset Tiki Bar and Grill, which spreads out on a pondside beach across from the ski area, and which bears a fair resemblance to the set of Gilligan’s Island. It is an outdoor party setting for corporate events, featuring a sound stage, bar and restaurant, and plenty of space for beach volleyball and random cavorting around the sand.

“It just adds a huge amount of fun to the whole mix of what we do here,’’ said Pam. “And it lets us keep the business active so there’s not really an offseason.’’

Which, says Al Sr., is something of a mixed blessing. “You don’t just close the place down and get to take a summer vacation anymore,’’ he said.

Just a few minutes down Route 119 from the Concord Rotary, Nashoba Valley is convenient to most Boston-area skiers and snowboarders. For all its modernity, the area still combines many of the older values it started with - serving everyone from families to school race teams to athletes seeking terrain park thrills on boards and freestyle skis.

“It’s easy to get a feel for what Nashoba Valley is all about,’’ said Pam Fletcher. “And once skiers get that, they always come back.’’

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