I once thought this time of year was the Useless Season. No snow. No prospect of snow. The equipment packages at the local ski shop are at full price. (Not a discount to be found.) We are still wearing shorts and T-shirts, for gosh sakes. (I look like a fool in my red chamois shirt. My wife and kids agree.) Some years we even swim this time of year. (I’ll do it this autumn, in a cool White Mountains lake, once the virus refugees leave the North Country hills and return to their suburban lairs.)
But maybe it is not so useless after all. There are plans to make, brochures to rumble through. It’s a good time to make sure the moths haven’t rampaged through our winter outfits. And while the air grows crisper by the day, let us admit that so does the fare of the season.
Damn the pandemic, full speed ahead to Brooksby Farm in Peabody, Mass., for apple cider; to Wallingford’s Orchard in Auburn, Maine, for cider doughnuts; to Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine, for a fruit turnover; and down the hill a few miles over to the Apple Shed Bakery in Kents Hill, Maine, for a blueberry pie, the last of the season before the fresh berries are replaced by the canned variety.
All that and one more thing: the easy chair, and a good book.
When I was new to this sport — hell, it is still true, now that my helmet covers gray hair — my mother used to say that it was easy to find the young David at a ski area. Just look for the kid reading a book in the line for the beloved but now departed Skimobile at Mount Cranmore, in North Conway, N.H.
To my taste and, if you are reading these pages, perhaps to yours as well, there is no good book quite as good as one on our winter sport. The pages of the quality newspapers may be full of lists of the best books on World War II, or the best mystery novels by women, or the best spy novels of the Cold War. The last page of this magazine contains my list of the best books on skiing. Indulge me, and yourself.
So take a stroll with me over to my winter bookshelf and thumb through a couple of these:
“The Legendary Jackrabbit Johanssen,” by Alice E. Johanssen (McGill/Queens University Press, 1993). This is the story of Herman Smith Johanssen, known throughout Quebec simply as “Jackrabbit,’’ famed for his devotion to skiing and for his heroic ski adventures, many in the backcountry of the Laurentians, often when he was dead broke. He designed a ski jump, did some backbreaking work for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, was a star competitor and infused North American skiing with energy and enthusiasm.
“The Dartmouth Book of Winter Sports,” edited by Harold Putnam (A.S. Barnes & Co, 1939). My copy is autographed by Harold Putnam himself, 62 years after it was written. Dartmouth was and is, of course, the ski college, and Putnam was one of its great skiers and promoters. This book is full of the folklore of the old Dartmouth and of the old ski culture, plus an unforgettable riff by Otto Schniebs, the ski coach who began his ministrations at Hanover in 1930: “Vell, chentlemen, I’m going down now. Take it easy on the last schuss — it is not ve vein the race; inschted dot ve ski it. Damn ve vin anyway. It is not dot ve break a ski, or a leg…”
“Snow in America,” by Bernard Mergen (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997). Here is an erudite examination of snow, the snow culture, the science of snow, the artistry of a great snowfall, even poems about snow. And of course the science, artistry and poetry of making snow— “designer snow,’’ in Mergen’s characterization. Heavy going in places, but so is a great snowfall.
“Two Planks and a Passion,” by Roland Huntford (Continuum Press, 2008). The chronicler of the great winter explorers Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, Huntford is a scholar who held academic positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. In this volume he explores the history of skiing from ancient times to our own and from “longboard racing” among California miners a quarter-century after the Gold Rush to the rush for gold at modern Olympics.
“The Hannes Schneider Ski Technique,” by Benno Rybizka (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938). Both title and author drew me in, and might prove irresistible to you as well. Schneider was the Austrian refugee from Hitler’s Europe whose arrival in North Conway might be regarded as the founding act of the modern sport of skiing. Rybizka was his protege for seven years in St. Anton am Arlberg. In a Foreword to this volume, Schneider acknowledges that “skiing cannot be learned by studying books.” In the pages that follow, Rybizka all but refutes his mentor’s skepticism. No one teaches skiing this old-fashioned, knees-together way anymore, to be sure. But no one skis with that elegance and grace anymore. Except for those who might treasure the next title.
“Lost Ski Areas of the White Mountains,” by Jeremy K. Davis (History Press, 2008). You can no longer ply the slopes of Spruce Mountain, Thorn Mountain or Tyrol (all in Jackson, N.H.), nor spend a sunshine afternoon at the Intervale Ski Area (Intervale, N.H.). Cate’s Hill and Mount Jasper up there in Berlin, N.H., no longer service skiers. The view from Grandview Mountain in North Woodstock remains grand, but the 1,000-foot rope tow is long gone. We may be experiencing the golden age of skiing these days — perhaps, if the virus subsides, even this winter. But these old ski areas, now overgrown and forgotten, seeded New England with skiing. No one can bring back these town ski tows and local areas. But this book preserves their memories — and their heritage.
See you at the library, and maybe a few weeks later on the slopes. I’ll be easy to find. Look for the guy reading a book in the chairlift line.