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Winter Nordic Sports Center Here At Home



story by Carla Occaso; photos by Marichel Vaught

MONTPELIER — It is winter. Snow has piled up. Ice is solidifying. You don’t have to go out to Bolton or Waitsfield to enjoy the season, there are plenty of outdoor sports available right in town. Some residents — led by Parks Commissioner Carolyn Grodinsky and others — would like to see our area viewed as a Nordic winter sports center. This means to take advantage of outdoor activities that can be had in our city parks and nearby centers.

The Bridge decided to experience hyperlocal outdoor winter sports available within a few miles of our office at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. At the urging of Grodinsky, I agreed to do some immersion reporting as long as I could bring someone else — in the person of our photographer and layout designer Marichel Vaught.

Cross Country Skiing and Ski Skating

Starting on our cross-country excursion at Morse Farm Ski Touring Center
Starting on our cross-country excursion at Morse Farm Ski Touring Center

First stop:  Morse Farm Ski Touring Center. Conditions were not perfect. In fact, a few raindrops started the day, but we decided to go for it, since we did not know what weather to expect later. We were right to go because a warm spell followed, bringing with it icy conditions. But that didn’t spoil our experience that day. When we arrived at Morse’s, a woman was just coming in off her early morning excursion. I asked her why she comes here. “It has beautiful, nicely groomed trails where you can be in close contact with nature and see a deer or two if you are lucky,” said Nicole Demestihas.

Others echoed her enthusiasm.

Lu Van Zeeland, assistant manager of the Morse Farm Ski Touring Center, has been working there for three years and really enjoys her time on the trails. “I wanted to be able to do a seasonal job. … I wanted something that connected people to the outdoors …especially in winter,” she said.

Hosting a ski touring center at Morse Farm — just outside the capital city — was an act of entrepreneurial genius. Many tracts of farmland, including their’s, lie largely unused during the winter months starting around November and only come alive for sugaring season in March. But someone had an idea that changed everything. Morse Farm had a farm stand and maple sugar operation until around the early 2000s, when some investors together with property owner Burr Morse suggested putting together a ski trail operation.

Brett Leeper and Lu Van Zeeland of Morse Farm Ski Touring Center
Brett Leeper and Lu Van Zeeland of Morse Farm Ski Touring Center

“They all came and bought equipment and Burr provided the facility,” said manager Brett Leeper. “John Morton designed and built the trails.” Leeper drives the grooming vehicles and sounds like he enjoys it. Leeper said the facility has attracted the Bill Koch program and plays host to a lot of young families and retired people — especially a “healthy group in their 60s.”

Enough talk. We decided to hit the trails.

Marichel got fit with a shiny new set of cross country skis, boots and poles while I brought my own trusty Rossignols, which I had purchased just three years ago from the Village Sport Shop in Lyndonville. I grew up using wax skis with my parents as a child, so I still do. But most people are using waxless skis with the fish tail type patterns on the bottom. It was a blue wax day at around 25° F, but the scant rain on top of snow made the surface slick. Not impossible, but slick.

Lu Van Zeeland and Marichel Vaught take a break on the trails
Lu Van Zeeland and Marichel Vaught take a break on the trails

We had fun sliding along on the beginner trails because even the mildest slope challenged our balance. The views were expansive and it was nice having the place to ourself on a mid-morning Tuesday. Although we hadn’t planned on it, we might have been better off on snowshoes, which Van Zeeland said is growing in popularity — especially among those who are less experienced on skis. In fact, on February 7, the center is hosting a guided snowshoe tour at 1 p.m. with naturalist Rose Paul, director of science for the Nature Conservancy in Vermont.

We had so much fun that we went directly to Onion River Sports where Marichel got her own pair of skis, poles and boots so we could do it again soon.

Ιce Skating

The ice pond at Hubbard Park
The ice pond at Hubbard Park

Ice skating is also growing in popularity right in town. A move is under foot to put a skating rink on the State House lawn, though it did not make it this winter. However, there are other nearby places to bring the skates, including the Central Vermont Civic Center on Gallison Hill. But some prefer the outdoor ice skating experience. The Hubbard Park pond can be used, but it is quite small. People also go to Curtis Pond. But in recent years the Recreation Department has been shoveling off the Montpelier Pool for outdoor skating. This has been impossible in recent days due to warm weather, but maybe conditions will return before the season is over.

Taking in the view from the tower at Hubbard Park
Taking in the view from the tower at Hubbard Park

Ηubbard Park

Back to Grodinsky, who is also a parks commissioner, and her enjoyment of the outdoors in winter. Grodinsky suggested we spend some time on the trails in Hubbard Park. Hubbard Park is an excellent place for many sports, such as winter hiking and snowshoeing. And, although she didn’t mention it, there is a little pond near the entrance kept clear of snow for ice skating when the weather cooperates.

We decided to snow hike. We had brought our snowshoes, but there just wasn’t enough snow. We took a wide loop around the park, starting at a point near the new shelter. From there, we headed west, where we walked past some of those exercise stations and had a little fun doing sit-ups and pull-ups along the way. Then, we followed the path up and around to the tower. Just seeing the tower among nothing but trees makes me feel like I was an explorer from an older era. The stairs inside the tower have been kept up, so you feel safe ascending to the top, where you can look over the city of Montpelier ,and beyond, to an expansive vista of mountains.

Vicky Tebbetts of Cabot and Carla Occaso meet a Hubbard Park winter resident
Vicky Tebbetts of Cabot and Carla Occaso meet a Hubbard Park winter resident

There were three of us and we spent over an hour walking in the woods, laughing, talking and getting enjoyable exercise.

Fat Βiking

Another winter sport requiring equipment, is one which I have never tried: fat biking. This is growing in popularity, but it is hard to find trails that allow fat biking in winter, said Kip Roberts, general manager of Onion River Sports. Roberts is also a member of the Parks Commission.

Wearing his hat as Onion River Sports manager, Roberts told The Bridge about fat bikes. “We rent bikes. There is demand, but there is no supply of trails (where it is legal to ride) There is one legal mile of trail at North Branch Park, off Cumming Street. As for who is doing it? Roberts said ten employees of the shop do it and there are probably around 30 other fat bikers in Montpelier. You can ride on the roads in Hubbard Park, but not on the trails, except the trail leading up to the tower.

This is a hot button issue in town. “The Montpelier Bike Association requested (the city) open up the 200 acres in Hubbard Park” to fat biking, but opposition prevailed.

“People thought it was reckless, cut-off-jean, pony-tailed extremists riding, but what it really is, is your family doctor, your family lawyer,” Roberts said.

Montpelier should continue to foster a growing cycling culture for summer and winter.

“Our city is behind the times as far as safe biking infrastructure,” said Roberts adding that he would like to see more community corridors linking neighborhoods to the schools and other places. And fat biking is an interesting new winter sport. “It is an alternative to skiing, snowshoeing; trail riding in the winter.”

Τying it Αll Τogether and Creating a Νordic Center Ηere in Μontpelier?

At least one city official likes the idea:

Mayor John Hollar: “I love the idea of creating a Nordic culture in Montpelier. We live in a cold climate where there are countless outdoor recreation opportunities, so why not make the most of it? I’m a big fan of Morse Farm and skate ski there most weekend days when snow conditions are good. I’ve recently taken up fat biking and that has been a ton of fun. I occasionally hike up Mt. Worcester in the winter on snowshoes. I’m not much of an ice skater, but I’m hoping that we’ll have ice skating on the statehouse lawn next winter.”

Occaso tries an excercise station at Hubbard Park with success
Occaso tries an excercise station at Hubbard Park with success