LODGING

Vermont Dog Sled Rides

From New York Times Article January 26, 2003, Travel Section

for the section on Eden Mountain Lodge and Dog Sled Rides

Just Snow and Lots of It

by Jillian Dunham

It was an unseasonaably warm January in New York, and my friend Suzanne and myself were sick of it. We dreamed of snow - the Vail or Whistler kind of snow. But time constraints made Rocky Mountain longings impossible to fulfill.

Struggling last winter to come up with someplace closer, we remembered a quiet spot in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, a few miles south of the Canadian border: Jay Peak.

The mountain dominates the tiny town of Jay (population 400 or so), a smattering o0f roadside motels and snowmobile stops. The resort has eight lifts, including the states only aerial tramway, serving seventy five runs ranging from novice to expert. The mountain's snowfall ( averaging 351 inches annually ) is among the best in the east. and gives some Colorado destinations a run for their money. This offers the skiers at Jay an extraordinary number of powder days and some of the best off-piste skiing in North America.

But those looking for the frills of a sprawling mountain resort will be disappointed. Although new restaurants and bars are being added, there is no scene at Jay Peak - no trendy night life, no gym, no fancy spa - just a ton of snow and people who seek it.

To save time, my boyfriend Matt, and I hopped a quick commuter flight from La Guardia to Burlington, Vt., and rented a four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer for the remaing seventy miles northeast to Jay. There we met up with Suzanne and her boyfriend Julian, who had arrived the night before and had spent the day on the mountain.

The lifts had just closed, so I dashed into the resorts ski shop to have my girlish-pink K2's (circa 1990) adjusted and tuned. The repairman, Jason, was thorough and - even better - didn't make fun of me for my ancient equipment. Things were off to a good start.

We wanted to eat before heading to our lodgings, but the resort's main restaurant was booked for the night, and our other on-mountain options - pizza and wings at the hotel bar - were dismal. A short drive away, on the outskirts of neighboring Montgomery Center, we found the Belfry, an old red schoolhouse converted into a dark and homey pub.

Inside, former church pews made comfy booths, and old logging tools and a pair of antique miniature skis (called minis) adorned the walls. We ordered a round of Trout River pale ale and watched as people streamed in, then had a hearty meal of tasty pub standards, including the restaurant's traditional Friday fish and chips.

Sated, we headed 25 miles south to Eden Mountain Lodge, where we were greeted enthusiastically by Peaberry, one of the Alaskan huskies belonging to Jim Blair, the lodge's owner and an amateur dog sledder. We had intended to stay at Jay Peak, but by the time we got around to calling for reservations, the resort was full - our good fortune, as it turned out.

The lodge's 75 acres are the perfect backdrop for a pair of cottages - a rustic log cabin that serves as the retreat's namesake and a simple bungalow added in 2001. Our newly renovated two bedroom guest house came with a fully stocked kitchen and a gorgeous Vermont Iron wood stove, which we cranked up to almost narcotic effect.

Eden Mountain Lodge abutts several thousand acres of pristine backwoods owned and maintained by the Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust. The next morning, before heading out to ski, Suzanne and I explored the wide cobweb of groomed trails behind our cottage, including part of the Catamount cross-country ski trail (which leads from the northern tip of Vermont down to Massachusetts ) and portions of Vermont's extensive snowmobile trail system. Low clouds kept the morning cool and windless as we hiked the silent woods, debating which runs we should hit first.

At midmorning we piled into a car and headed a half hour north on quiet Route 100 to Jay. Lift lines were short, and as we snuggled into our parkas on the northernmost chair we could see Canada and the St. Lawrence River Valley.

When we arrived seven minutes later near the mountain's 3,861-foot summit, we had a great view of Lake Memphremagog in the distance. An assortment of intermediate and expert trails trickled down in front of us. (There are only 11 beginner trails at Jay Peak, so beginners or those in need of a quick refresher course - like me - have to make do.)

Our favorite was Ullr's Dream, a solid three-mile run that wound its way down the side of the mountain in a series of challenging pitches. Constant winds make the snow a little hard to judge, but in places that were icy, the runs had been carefully groomed.

One of Jay's many perks is its system of glades, wooded groves where whispery powder is allowed to accumulate virtually untouched. While some of the glades are expert, a few are appropriate for novices. Toward the bottom of Ullr's Dream, we had the choice of staying on the groomed trail or veering off into one of Jay's easier glades, Kokomo. The runs tend to peter out at the end, but I didn't mind a little regulation of my speed on the new terrain. Between the trees the snow was soft and malleable, a perfect, gentle ending to the first day.

Standard apres-ski practice at Jay is to meet at the Golden Eagle, the resort's fraternity-like bar, to rehash the day over a game of pool. It wasn't long before a hundred or so tired skiers overran the sweaty little room, and our comfortable bungalow beckoned.

On the way back to Eden Mountain, we stopped at the grocery store in Montgomery Center, about 10 miles from Jay, where we picked up a couple of movies from Flicks, the only video store I've ever seen that also rents snowshoes. After dinner at home, I soaked in the tub with a glass of wine and a book, and the only thing I could hear was the wind screeching around the house as the temperature dropped and flurries began.

Snow was still falling when we set out the next morning, so we were grateful for the S.U.V. we had rented in Burlington (even Suzanne's and Julian's capable Subaru slid into a snowbank on the hilly rural roads near Eden Mountain). By the time we reached the resort, the peak had disappeared behind a uniform, heavy cloud. Dark and haunting, the celebrated Jay Cloud swirls and assembles in the prevailing winds of the St. Lawrence River Valley, then drifts south to the mountain, where it dumps its cache of snow.

On the lifts our chairs were swallowed by vapor, and the top we struggled to see more than five feet ahead. The dense cloud made for spooky morning runs, but to my surprise, the limited visibility made me focus down the slope, and as I descended some of the weekend's tougher runs, I actually skied better.

On steeper grades the snow was thick and poorly packed in places, which challenged our quadriceps, as if we were skiing through room-temperature cream cheese. Some trails emptied into cozy bowls, where the snow became lighter and more forgiving. The snow continued all day, and as we made our way down the misty runs, dusted by the flakes, we were filled with childlike glee.

We ran into two of Julian's friends, Mal and Sheila, who came back from snowboarding in some of the more difficult glades covered from head to toe in fresh powder, giggling like crazy. The lines at the lifts were practically nonexistent, surprising on a holiday weekend, except for a handful of skiers and boarders exactly like us - cold-nosed, wet and beaming.

The snow continued into the night, but the next morning (our last), we woke to sun blazing through the windows. It seemed the perfect day to take advantage of a rare opportunity - a ride in a dog sled.

Jim Blair offers guided trips of various lengths in the neighboring woods and invited us down to the kennels to see what it was all about. Although Jim does the driving himself, he taught us some of the basics, like how to hook up the sled, and asked us to help.

Setting up a dog sled is an exercise in chaos management - the eager huskies need to be collected and attached to the line, and once they are set up, they need to be watched so they don't get into mischief. Jim introduced us to each of the dogs and taught us how to put on their harnesses. We tried to outfit a few of them ourselves, but that quickly disintegrated into a comedy of errors - the dogs squirmed out of reach and loped about, inviting us to play.

Once Jim had regained control of the situation, the huskies were hooked up to the sled in pairs by a 40-foot line. Two white females, Licks and Luna, were at the head of the pack. Matt and I climbed into the bed of the narrow sled, and Jim stood on the back to drive.

The 10 rowdy dogs didn't need to hear the command "Hike!" As soon as Jim raised the snow hook, a metal anchor that keeps the sled grounded, the barking stopped and we took off, their footpads making little drumbeats in the snow. They ran full speed ahead along a path into the woods heedless of hills or turns.

As Jim shouted the commands - "Gee!" for right and "Haw!" for left - we wound speedily through the sugar-maple woods, past moose-crossing signs and creeks hidden under snowbanks. The dogs attacked the terrain, digging in for long inclines and barreling down the hils as fast as their legs would take them. Though the sled was not terribly comfortable (a little like sitting in a bathtub), we hardly noticed.

Toward the end of the six-mile loop we ran along a ridge where we could see the crests of three distant mountains, which merged in the way that the Green Mountains do. Tiny red dairy barns and silos were the only signs of civilization emerging through the trees in the valley below. The dogs had slowed their pace to catch their breath, but picked up again as they marched up a hill.

As we rounded a turn at the top, the barn emerged in the distance, and down the hill, our cabin. It had already started to seem like home.