By Sanjay Arwade
Amherst is a ski town – specifically, a cross-country ski town. Need convincing?
- The Amherst Nordic Ski Association (amherstnordic.org) has more than 200 members from throughout Amherst and surrounding towns,
- A trail network is groomed, courtesy of Amherst Recreation, at Cherry Hill golf course when snow permits,
- The world-class network of trails in the area provides hundreds of kilometers of skiing opportunities,
- Elementary school students at Fort River learn to ski with their dedicated PE teacher Kaileigh Keizer-Lawrence, and
- ARMS and ARHS have a thriving and competitive racing program led by Carl Cignoni and Nat Woodruff.
I’ve always loved winter, and remember the one snow day we had from school in Manhattan during my childhood. Sledding and ice skating in Central Park are pretty special experiences, but skiing meant getting in the car (or on a bus), and heading to the Catskills or other more mountainous spots. It’s not something my family was able to do very often, and when we did, it was to ski downhill.
I didn’t discover cross-country (xc) until faced, as a grad student at Cornell, with the prospect of making it through five years of long winters in Ithaca, N.Y. Ithaca is home to a strong xc ski community that welcomed this beginner with open arms and turned me into a life-long enthusiast. I can tell you that as a kid on 60th Street I had never imagined I would be spending evenings skiing along a 3-foot-wide trail through the woods, in the dark, with headlamp batteries failing. But there I was, there’s been no looking back, and I now look forward to the coming of winter every year.
Of course, people have been sliding around on snow in the Northeast for generations — for fun, for transportation, and to make outdoor work in the winter easier. Amherst was no different and the history of skiing in Amherst is long and varied. Running, hiking, or skiing around Earle’s Trails on the Holyoke Range, one comes across the old lift line of the Tinker Hill ski area, once operated by Amherst College. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a few local high schoolers would take their wooden (or early generation fiberglass) xc skis to high school races and represent Amherst High. Al Hudson, in the 1970s, ran youth programs for kids at the Common School and through the Pelham Recreation Department, mostly skiing on the reliably snowy trails of Cadwell Memorial Forest.
The current era of xc skiing in Amherst began a little over a decade ago, when Nat Woodruff, a science and technology teacher at the high school, founded the Amherst Hurricane Nordic ski team with student Paul Quackenbush and his parents. Along with Barb Bilz, the director of recreation in Amherst, they won grant money to buy grooming equipment to be used at Cherry Hill. Since then, John Coelho, the Cherry Hill superintendent, has taken to the task of grooming with gusto, and when we get more than 6 inches or so of snow, Cherry Hill is home to, as far as we know, the only municipally groomed ski trails in the state. In good conditions Cherry Hill is a fantastic place to ski, with grooming for classic and skate skiing, a great mix of climbs, descents and flats, and access to the ungroomed trails on conservation and private land along the northbound section of the Robert Frost Trail.
Our winters, as we all know, have been getting warmer and less snowy, and, since, well, skiers ski, we’ve become adept at finding the snow. Small differences in altitude can make a big difference in the amounts of snowfall locally. In particular, Shutesbury (Brushy Mountain and the Paul Jones Forest) and Pelham (Cadwell Memorial Forest) often make out pretty well when storms fizzle in Amherst. Those places, along with Mt. Toby, the Pocumtuck Ridge in Deerfield, and parts of the Holyoke Range can be great skiing, delivering that magical feeling of gliding through the forest in a season when it sometimes feels easier to just stay inside.
For newcomers to cross country, getting gear and instruction can be a little bit of a challenge in Amherst. Valley Bike and Ski Works sells good-quality equipment at fair prices with top-notch service. Berkshire Outfitters and the West Hill Shop, a bit farther away, have even larger selections, and both Notchview Reservation in Windsor and Northfield Mountain operate commercial ski centers with grooming, rentals, and lessons. Amherst Nordic hopes to be able to offer clinics and equipment rental or loan sometime in the future.
If you’ve been in love with cross-country for years, are just finding your way in the sport, or haven’t even started yet, check out amherstnordic.org and find your place in a welcoming, enthusiastic and outdoors-oriented ski community, right here in your town. You can join in for group ski touring outings, participate in racing, and volunteer some time to help plan, with Rey Harp and Amherst Recreation, for an even bigger and better future for skiing in Amherst and at Cherry Hill.