Friday, February 8, 2013

The long and winding trails

By Meghan McCarthy McPhaul

They just don’t make ski trails like they used to, and for those of us who ski areas that came of age in the 1930s and ‘40s, the original trails are often our favorites. A look at Cannon Mountain’s trail map reveals runs that curve with the mountain’s contours – twisting here, turning there, rising and falling with the slope, merging into other trails, then separating again. These trails have character – and history.

Cannon, Ravine, and Taft Slalom trails, circa 1939.
My three favorite Cannon runs are Upper Cannon, Upper Ravine, and – if the natural snow is good and deep – Middle Hardscrabble. Long and winding trails all, and each with its own charm. The Cannon Trail was cut in 1938 to correspond with the opening of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, which was the first passenger tram in North America. Ravine was added a year later, and Hardscrabble soon after.

For a couple of decades Cannon Mountain hosted weekly time trials on the 2-mile long Cannon Trail. The second trail cut on the mountain, Cannon originally coiled its way down from high summit to mountain base. Much has changed in skiing in the past 75 years, including the trail, which is now separated into Upper, Middle, and Lower Cannon and intersected by several other runs and a couple of chairlifts.

Despite the changes, Upper Cannon retains most of the curves and all the allure of its original design: winding around thick clumps of spruce, turning with the mountain’s undulations, and twisting down steep pitches. Last week, in that brief window between blessed new snow and dreaded winter rain, I caught the trail with no one in front of me and kicked off downhill, turning only where the trail turns, clinging to corners, absorbing rolls, blissful in the power and speed that have drawn so many to skiing for so long.

Whenever I ski Upper Cannon I think of all those racers who would line up at the top of the mountain for the time trials each week. Those who raced the length of the trail in under three and a half minutes won a coveted Gold Cannon pin. The weekly challenge was discontinued in the early 1960s for a variety of reasons, including the changing landscape of the trails system.

The records were retired, aptly, by Cannon’s two Olympians of the day – Joan Hannah on the women’s side, and Gordi Eaton on the men’s. (That’s right; Bode Miller is not the first world-class skier to emerge from Cannon. The mountain has been the home hill of Olympians since alpine skiing became an Olympic sport in 1936.)

In the days before snowmaking guns and snocats, ski trails were created narrow and winding to protect and hold the natural snowfall. There were no bulldozers to scrape and remove a mountain’s lumps and bumps, only axes, cross-cut saws, and occasionally dynamite to blast away large boulders.

Adding to the challenge of completing the Cannon trail in time for winter came the roaring Hurricane of 1938, which toppled trees along the designed route, including some high timber legendary trail designer Sel Hannah had hoped would block the winds that push through the mid-section of the mountain.

Early grooming at Cannon involved a crew of shovelers working its way slowly – over days, not hours – down the long trails to fill in ruts after a busy weekend. Ski patrollers followed to foot pack the snow. Today’s powerful grooming machines restore the snow each night into neat, even rows of corduroy that make cruising these old trails an absolute joy. The runs have been widened some over the years, and smoothed a bit, but they retain enough of the original design that their character remains intact.

I am not alone in loving these long and winding trails. I have asked longtime Cannon skiers from different generations about their favorites, and they nearly always claim the twisting runs. Likewise, the young skiers I talk with at the Franconia Ski Club nearly always pick Taft Slalom (cut in 1933), Upper Cannon (1938), or Upper Ravine (1939) as the most fun to ski.

Sure, it’s fun sometimes to bomb the wide, steep swath of Avalanche or count your turns on the wide open Cannonball. On powder days, laps on the Zoomer Chair and the “front five” trails are a blast. But whether the snow is natural or manmade, the sky blue bird or dull gray, I like to chase the mountain’s legends down Upper Cannon, the wind in my face, connected through my skis and my joy to both the skiers of long ago and the ones getting off the tram just behind me.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul and posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay also appears in the February 8, 2013 edition of the Littleton-Record.

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