Free Skiing

Notes by Sandy Nichols Ward, January 28, 2006.

In my childhood we had free skiing on the hill near our home. It was free in the sense that I never paid an entrance fee nor had to buy a ski-lift ticket.

We did work in various ways, however, to earn the priviledge of that free downhill ride on skis. If the snow was deep with a crust on top, my mother insisted that we pack out the slope before we started skiing downhill. This meant putting on our skis, turning sideways to the hill, and side-stepping over and over again as we slowly made our way down the slope. Not fun! I remember working up quite a sweat during the packing process. This was hard, boring work, especially when we had to pack up again and down again to make ever wider sections of broken crust and packed snow. Only after we had properly prepared the slope could we be free to ski down for fun.

On days with less snow, we didn't need to pack, but sometimes we needed to patch. We'd shovel snow from shady spots under the trees and carry the snow in bushel baskets out to the bare spots on the sunny slope. Thus we could cover the grassy areas and create a smooth slope of snow for skiiing.

That smooth slope required other work before the ski season. It was a cow pasture. My mother said that without cows grazing there, small trees would grow up and gradually fill in the open areas. So the family rented the pasture to a local farmer who brought his cows to graze in the summer. After the cows left in the fall, it was our job to clean up the pasture. We'd take the old wooden wheelbarrow and, with shovel or pitchfork, go along the slope picking up the dried cow patties. It was easy to spot where the patties would be. Tufts of taller grass surrounded the patties. When the wheelbarrow was full, my mother would take it to her compost pile --good fertilizer for next year's garden. We'd also remove stones and fallen branches. My father would then mow the grass close to the ground. He had a special mowing attachment that he put on the front of the tractor (small tractor he walked behind and guided with his hands).

Sometimes we collected pine needles into baskets and spread them on a section of the ski slope. Pine needles are quite slippery and can be used in place of snow if the slope is steep enough. My parents ocassionally conducted ski workshops on pine needles, teaching timid adults to manuver on skis. The pine needles were slower and safer than snow, so this was a good way to start. I also think my parents were impatient for the ski season to begin. The pine needles allowed an earlier start. I don't remember that skiing on pine needles was much fun, perhaps because I was part of the pine-needle hauling crew.

Speaking of hauling things, I should mention the work that adults did to prepare for our carefree skiing pleasures. They hauled out heavy piles of rope and laid the long rope along the line that would become the ski tow. They erected poles with pulleys on top (old spoked auto wheels). They set up an old Model T Ford on blocks and used its back wheels to pull the rope up the hill. They hauled cans of gasoline up to that Ford to keep it running. They sometimes had to turn the hand-crank many times to get that Model T started. They built a shed to protect the Ford (and people working on it) from the weather. In later years a used 1950 Buick was added to pull a second, longer tow, and eventually an electric motor replaced the Ford on the short tow.

The adults also organized a family ski club with modest dues of $10 per family per year. The money collected helped pay the property taxes so that this land could remain undeveloped during the 1950's and into the 1960's. The ski club arranged swaps of used skis and ski clothes, too, so that we could be outfitted with equipment and clothes outgrown by older children. The Locust Lawn Ski Club was a wonderful organization and I enjoyed skiing at Locust Lawn for years. I always perceived it as free, and mostly it was.

In college I was stunned to discover how expensive a day of downhill skiing could be. The costs of taxi rides to and from the ski area and the lift ticket for the day shocked me. I rarely skied after that. I had been spoiled by my easy access to free skiing in childhood. Not only free skiing, but uncrowded skiing accessible on a daily basis. I could ski for an hour each afternoon if I wished (assuming enough snow was on the ground). No need for car, money, or much time. Skiing was an easy, natural form of exercise and I remember it fondly.

In the 1970's I switched to cross-country skiing -- much less expensive than downhill, but I did not live in snow country. Long rides and much advance planning were involved for each ski outing. In the 1990's I returned to New England. Occasionally enough snow lands near home to inspire me to go out for an hour or so of free skiing in the neighborhood. But, as an adult homeowner in an urban area, I must first shovel the walk and driveway. My enthusiasm for snow has decreased markedly. And last year (2005) the nearby wooded lot where I liked to ski was cleared for a new house. Perhaps that is why I sit at this desk writing with nostalgia about the free skiing of my youth.