In winter, some colleagues think Elaine Richard is crazy. Then again, others go along with her after work, on those 10-degree nights when channel surfing from a warm living room sofa loses to the appeal of skiing down lighted trails.
At least once a week, Richard, 44, of Standish, Maine, a quality assurance auditor at a Westbrook laboratory outside Portland, makes the one-hour drive to Shawnee Peak. Driving through dark, rural Maine to Bridgton, she knows she's nearly there when the lights of the area illuminate the night.
''It's nice after a stressful day," she says. ''I look up at the stars, breathe in the cold air, and ski down at my own pace. There is no hassle."
When the sun goes down, the lights go on across a few dozen New England ski areas. Groomers lay down more corduroy when the majority of ski patrollers across the region are doing sweeps. As office lights go off along the Route 128 corridor around Boston, the lights are going on at small suburban ski areas such as the Blue Hills in Canton, Ski Ward in Shrewsbury, Nashoba Valley in Westford, and north of the city at Ski Bradford in Haverhill. Go west toward Worcester and watch schoolchildren hit the slopes at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, where they are followed by corporate race leagues with about 200 skiers on a weekday night.
The Berkshires are busy as well, from Berkshire East in Charlemont to Bosquet in Pittsfield and Jiminy Peak in Hancock.
That's just in Massachusetts.
''If people want to keep the spirit alive all week long and not live for Saturday's four-hour trip up north, nights offer opportunity and spontaneity," said Tom Meyers, marketing manager at Wachusett. ''Spontaneity and skiing don't necessarily go hand in hand when you have to plan those treks up north."
They also come out at night at Rhode Island's tiny Yawgoo Valley in Exeter. Hartford skiers and snowboarders drive 45 minutes to make runs at Mount Southington in West Hartford, one of a handful of nocturnal spots in Connecticut. Vermont lights it up 20 miles outside Burlington at Bolton Valley and by Mount Mansfield under the gondola at Stowe.
Next door in New Hampshire, the lights are on in several areas from the Merrimack River corridor to the frosty Whites Mountains. Outside the state capital in Concord is Pats Peak in Henniker, while the city of Keene has Bennington's Crotched Mountain nearby. Gilford's Gunstock is the Lakes Region magnet. Cranmore, Bretton Woods, and King Pine sparkle under the White Mountain sky. Maine has about a dozen nightspots, including Mount Abram (a few miles from Sunday River) and Shawnee Peak.
Night skiing is an acquired taste. According to a report furnished by the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo., only 7.2 percent of skiers in the Northeast ski at night.
Make no mistake. Leaving the cubicle for the slopes at night can be a cold affair, especially on those bone-chilling February nights when the bar beckons. Though the trails are illuminated, it's not like carving turns on a sunny April day. There are gray areas in some spots, and with goggles on you can miss unanticipated dips. Also, not every area offering night skiing is open every night. Some offer it only on select nights, holidays, and weekends. Plus, at some mountains, only a few trails are lighted, limiting the terrain.
Still, the slopes at night are a quick fix for the skier looking to chill. For the family, it's a chance to spend some quality time together during the week instead of on the more crowded and expensive weekends. At night, lift tickets generally cost less. It doesn't feel as if your pocket is being picked if you want to use a ski area as you would the local athletic club, for only a few hours.
At Stowe, a night ticket is $24, less than half the cost of an all-day ticket. Five hours of night skiing at Bolton Valley is $30 midweek. Saturday nights at Pats Peak are $29 to ski and ride on 20 of 22 trails. That includes rentals and tubing. Want to ski past midnight? Crotched Mountain has X-Treme Midnights Friday and Saturday with six-hour tickets 9 p.m.-3 a.m. for $29. Shawnee Peak has a number of deals, including Monday night tickets and a Saturday Night Fever 7-10 p.m. ticket, both for $10.
At Wachusett, a four-hour night ticket is $31, while a six-hour ticket is $36. Five hours at night at Nashoba Valley are $25 for an adult compared with an all-day holiday rate of $37.
Nights take on various personalities, too. Race leagues with locals and businesspeople are midweek. Friday and Saturday see more families and teenagers. Sunday nights can be quiet.
Activities under the night sky aren't limited to traditional skiing and snowboarding. Some half pipes and terrain parks are lighted, too. Snow tubing is a popular lunar pastime. And don't forget cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Though alpine areas offer programs for night treks, when the moon is full in the winter sky, Nordic centers have moonlit cross-country and snowshoe tours using Mother Nature's glow or the streak of light emanating from a headlamp.
Avid cross-country skiers, retired teachers Doug and Candy Armstrong of North Conway, N.H., venture out on the trails at night.
''It's always a rewarding experience," said Doug, president of the Mount Washington Nordic Club. ''It is often peaceful and quiet, a great group experience."
At night, perspectives change. Being on cross-country skis and going over a bridge by the light of the moon becomes exhilarating. Nights can be clear, cool, and silent -- or wild and crazy with snowboarding at midnight.
''What I like is when you leave, the lights are still on," says Richard, a skier since preschool. ''You can leave, look back, and see where you enjoyed the night."
Contact Marty Basch, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, at firstname.lastname@example.org.