Some skiers start small, really small
SOUTH BERWICK, Maine ” It takes 40 seconds to reach the top of Powderhouse Hill and half as long to ski back down.
There are no gondolas or chairlifts at one of the United States’ tiniest ski areas, only an old rope tow powered by a noisy 37-horsepower motor bolted to the back of a 1938 Ford pickup. There isn’t a fancy ski lodge or restaurant and a lift ticket costs only $5.
Unlike larger ski mountains in New England that have vertical drops of more than 2,000 feet, the dimensions of “the hill” are more modest.
“We have, like, 2,000 inches of vertical,” Jack Kareckas said on a cold February night as he tended the 800-foot rope tow that gains 175 feet in elevation as it pulls skiers and snowboarders to the summit.
Powderhouse Hill is typical of the small ski hills that pepper the American landscape, playing a vital role in grooming the next generation of downhill enthusiasts. The National Ski Areas Association says 57 percent of the country’s nearly 500 ski areas are among the smallest of the small.
These are the ski areas that few have heard of. They can be found from Maine to California, with T-bars, Poma lifts and rope tows to get skiers up hills with vertical drops of a few hundred feet and just a handful of trails.
“They are the heart and soul of our business because that’s where people learn to ski,” said Scott Brandi, president of Ski Areas of New York.
New York’s Sawkill ski area, for example, has a 130-foot vertical drop and a “magic carpet” conveyor belt-like lift that takes skiers to the top. The Plumtree ski area in Illinois gets only 2,000 to 3,000 skier visits a year. And in Alabama, the Cloudmont Ski Resort in Mentone has two trails, a 150-foot drop and “Ski Bama” bumper stickers.
Janis Carrier, who manages Cloudmont, has been known to pray for cold weather. To run the snowmaking equipment, it can be no warmer than 28 degrees and the ground has to be frozen.
“We’ve had plenty of sad times when it gets warm and we just watch the snow melt,” she said. “We say, ‘Here’s the death of the ski slope again.'”
Cloudmont draws skiers from around the region, including Florida, Carrier said. At Powderhouse Hill, skiing is almost an entirely local affair.
Powderhouse Hill got its start in 1939 when a ski enthusiast rigged a rope tow on a privately owned hill just a few blocks from downtown South Berwick, a town of about 7,000 just over the New Hampshire border about 45 miles south of Portland.
The hill is owned by the town these days and run by a few dozen volunteers who oversee the rope tow, keep watch over skiers, and sell hot chocolate and snacks inside the warming hut. The volunteers pay a one-time fee of $25, which allows them to ski or snowboard for free as long as they’re volunteering.
The mountain, if it can be called that, has three short trails and is open for business only 12 hours a week. There are no ski rentals, no ski patrol and nobody dressed in expensive outfits. At $5, the lift ticket is cheap; passes at Maine’s largest ski areas cost more than $75, while skiing at some of the pricier resorts out West can run more than $100 a day.
The Ford pickup was driven to the top of the hill to power the rope tow in the late 1950s. When the original truck engine died, it was replaced by a four-cylinder model that was bolted to the truck’s frame. For two hours Wednesday and Friday nights and four hours on weekend afternoons it chug-a-chugs along, pulling skiers and snowboarders up the hill.
The skiers, mostly kids, twist and turn and fly through the air as they make their way down. For some, the trip takes just 15 or 20 seconds.
At the base of the hill, a small cabin offers the warmth of a wood-burning stove. The lost and found is a string tacked to a wall with hats and mittens hanging on clothespins.
Skiers can bring their own CDs to play over the speakers that hang above the slopes. They also get free duct tape to wrap around their mittens to protect them from being ripped up by the rope tow.
Powderhouse Hill reminds Bill Page, who volunteers and skis here, of hills he learned to ski on years ago in Hanover, N.H.
“The bottom line is, this is just a fun place to be,” Page said.
Sarah Hebert of South Berwick comes here regularly with her two children. The hill is little more than a big bump compared to the slopes she saw in her competitive skiing days in college in Vermont, but it’s convenient and doesn’t have big crowds. Plus, it’s hard to beat the price.
“Part of the charm of moving here 11 years ago was, ‘How cool is this?'” she said. “This little town has this great little ski hill to teach your kids to ski.”
Powderhouse Hill Ski Area: http://www.powderhousehill.com
National Ski Areas Association: http://www.nsaa.org