Conditions were decidedly icy during our early March filming session in the White Mountains, but I had a blast nonetheless and received personal tutorials in backcountry ski basics and snowshoeing—and learned how access to both activities is made possible—over the course of two days in the North Conway area.
No doubt you’ve heard about the growing interest in backcountry skiing, where the skier essentially walks up the mountain on skis in order to access fresh-powder trails through the woods. I learned the basics on how it’s done from REI Local Experiences Instructor Sarah Simaitis of the co-op’s North Conway store.
REI Local Experiences cover a variety of outdoor activities, including mountain biking, paddling, snowshoeing, rock climbing, wilderness navigation and survival, hiking, and, of course, backcountry skiing (Note: check with your local REI to learn about the experiences offered near you). The classes are led by experienced REI instructors, who walk you through the gear and skills needed to enjoy the activity in a safe, controlled outdoor setting. Better still, all rental gear and equipment is provided as part of the experience.
In my case, Sarah walked me through the basics of backcountry skiing at nearby Cranmore Resort, starting with the specialized boots and bindings that the sport requires. Similar to cross-country and telemark skiing, the skier’s boot heels are not locked to the bindings during the ascent, while the boots themselves are hinged to facilitate ankle movement. The binding heels must be adjusted for either climbing or downhill skiing, and feature “risers” that can be flipped up to provide calf support as the pitch increases.
Then there’s the skis themselves, which are typically shorter and wider than Nordic skis, making it easier to navigate deep powder and confined glades. To make ascent possible, special “skins” are attached to the bottom of the skies. The skins are a strips of fabric sporting mono-directional fibers that prevent the ski from sliding backwards. They attach to the front and back of the skis, and are temporarily “glued” to the ski surface with adhesive. When it’s time to descend the mountain, the skins are ripped off and stowed.
As I soon learned, backcountry skiing is a workout! Ascending a mountain in skis takes a lot of energy, so backcountry skiers must be in fairly good shape, dress in layers, and bring plenty of water. A backpack is required for stowing one’s helmet, clothing, snacks, and skins.
After making a few runs at Cranmore and getting the feel for the backcountry gear and techniques, Sarah and I headed to Maple Villa Glade in Intervale, a backcountry trail on National Forest land that’s maintained by the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA). We met GBA’s Tyler Ray in the parking lot and headed up the trail, one of several ski trails originally cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s and recently “reclaimed” by the GBA. As Tyler explained, the organization works closely with state and federal land managers to facilitate backcountry ski access in various parks and forests throughout New Hampshire and western Maine.
Unfortunately for us, trail conditions were lousy on our visit, but we did get to film some GBA volunteers removing a blowdown with a chainsaw. It was just a tiny sample of the hard work done by the GBA to keep the trails clear and accessible, and it goes on all year.
My winter-activity tutorial continued the following day, when I met Doug Dobkowski, another REI Local Experiences Instructor, at the Mount Willard Trailhead in the White Mountain National Forest. An experienced outdoorsman, Doug walked me through the fundamentals of snowshoeing gear before we hit the trail up Mount Willard—a great place for novice snowshoers to gain experience. The relatively short trail features a gradual incline, making it popular among families with young kids. And dogs! We must have encountered at least 20 canines on our trek, which led to a wide, granite ledge with spectacular views of the Crawford Notch valley, Mount Willey, and Mount Jackson.
Back at the trailhead, we were met by Tiffany Benna, Technical Services Staff Officer for the White Mountain National Forest, and Matt Couglan of ReCon Trail Design and a former project manager at the White Mountain Trail Collective (WMTC), for a short hike along Crawford Path, which celebrated its 200-year anniversary in 2019 as the oldest continually maintained hiking path in the country.
The National Forest Service frequently partners with the non-profit WMTC on critical trail-maintenance projects such as Crawford Path, which saw 9,000-plus hours of work done on the trail in 2019. Matt and his crew remove deadfalls and brush, improve drainage, create stone revetments and water bars, and other important infrastructure.
I know that many of the winter hikers we encountered over the course of the day would be amazed by the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make public trails safe and accessible. And if there’s a bright spot to the current pandemic, it’s that more people are enjoying our nation’s remarkable outdoor resources—and appreciating the effort that makes it possible.