Tuesday, February 10, 2015

To Ski or Not to Ski

     Poor Hamlet. He's got yet another question to ponder. This one's about his winter recreation options in Washington County. If "To ski" is his choice then he's headed for Willard Mountain. It's our one and only downhill spot.
     "Not to ski" might lead him to the next hill east of Willard. It once was the site of the Easton Valley Ski Area until the lifts shut down over forty years ago.
     Jeremy Davis's website NELSAP (New England Lost Ski Areas Project) has information about Easton Valley and several other locations in the county where people once skied but are now all but forgotten. His site and books involve some great detective work and I urge you to check them out.
     Both current and former ski areas are located in the Town of Easton in the southwestern corner of Washington County. Route 40 runs north-south here bisecting the town and marking the boundary between the Hudson Valley to the west and the Taconics to the east. From Greenwich south to Schaghticoke is a rumpled swath of hills with relief up to 1000 feet. This is the leading edge of the Taconic klippe and Willard, at 1421 feet, is the highest of the bunch. It has always been a prominent local landmark. Easton Valley was located on a slightly lower hill about a mile to the east.

Willard Mountain

     As ski mountains go these are mere bumps but people have always found big fun on these little hills. I don't downhill ski but I'll still swing by Willard occasionally to feel the energy and listen to the happy shrieks of kids and gravity mixing. Holly raced here on the school team and we've had downstate friends stay with us over winter break so they could shuttle their kids to these slopes everyday. I used to climb up along side Bunny Hop to watch the races and explore the summit. When the snow melts people hike up for the views and runners use the mountain for hard workouts.  
     Willard may be a private (fantasizing about profit) business but it's also a community resource. It can't be easy dealing with fickle weather, high taxes and insurance, and competition from both New York State (Gore and Whiteface) and supersized ski corporations with their mega-resorts. How do they do it? They're friendly, hard working, creative and care about their customers. Pretty much what you need for success in any business.

                                                       To ski - Willard late on a Sunday afternoon

     Easton Valley shut down sometime in the late `60's or early `70's. I don't know why one mountain stayed open and one closed. Easton transitioned to a nudist colony for awhile and is now a men's spiritual retreat (all this in conservative but tolerant Washington County). A short lane leads off Herrington Hill Road over the crest of a hill and into an enclosed valley. There's a pond and an eclectic melange of buildings with the overgrown ski slope seemingly inaccessible across a marshy area. This wetland is the headwaters of Fly Creek and it looks to be great wildlife habitat up here. The place has a Shangrila feel of being set apart from the rest of the world. Evolving from ski area to nude resort to spiritual retreat seems like a natural progression towards its best use. You can get a feel for the place at Easton Mountain's website.

Not to ski - looking across the wetland to where Easton Valley's trails used to be

     What can Willard and Easton Valley tell us about the business of outdoor recreation? That you have a 50/50 chance of success? It's a small sample to draw that conclusion but certainly nothing is guaranteed. One obvious point is the seasonality of sports here and the challenges that poses. Ski season is short and expenses pile up even when the snow doesn't. I recall a couple of short-lived cross-country ski operations: Thunder Mountain in Greenwich and another on Craig Road in Putnam. Apparently there wasn't enough snow or skiers or profits for them to hang on.
     Washington County doesn't have the cachet of Vermont, Saratoga or the west side of Lake George. It may never be a major destination and maybe that's ok. It's appeal lies in a certain low-key, bucolic feel. Visit here and you'll find a dispersed, small-scale family of businesses offering outdoor fun. Here's hoping they grow (a little) and prosper while industrial scale recreation meta-sizes elsewhere.

Fun for Sale
     A brief look at WC's outdoor recreation business scene...

     Near the Vermont border we have the Storc family's Battenkill Lodge on Hickory Hill Road which caters to fly fishermen with accommodations, river access and guiding. Also there's Battenkill Valley Outdoors, Don and Lisa Otey's establishment on Rt. 313 that offers paddling rentals, lodging, a retail shop and other services to enjoy the river. Downstream is Battenkill Riversports and Campground with sites along the water and everything you need for river trips. I think there's another campground on the lower river below Middle Falls off Fiddlers Elbow Road as well.
This looks like fun

     Lake George sees every water based activity imaginable and some unimaginable but most businesses seem to be based on the Warren County side. Anything in Pilot Knob, Huletts, Gull Bay or Glenburnie? I'm not sure.
     Dieter Drake's Anthem Sports stages the Tour of the Battenkill and other bike races bringing economic benefits to southern Washington County. There are also running, triathlon and obstacle races, some professionally organized and others the work of local volunteers.
     Hunting is huge and I've heard of a few places that host sportsmen including: Pheasant Ridge in Greenwich, Easton View Outfitters in South Cambridge, Battenkill Hunting Preserve in Salem and the Battenkill Lodge near Shushan.

                                                           Battenkill Lodge - Gone ice fishing?

 We've got more horses than a John Wayne movie with stables and arenas scattered across the county. Walkers in Fort Ann has an attractive store filled with merchandise for cowboys and cowgirls.
     Finally, you can charter a ballon flight where you'll probably spot some outdoor businesses I overlooked!
     All this talk of fun and games has got me antsy. I'm going outside to play. See you there.

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