Ah, springtime — that season of soft snow, goggle tans and skier celebrations. Since there have been ski areas in New England, the end of ski season always has included jovial events that are part bittersweet adieu to winter and part happy salutation to spring. Easter parades with wacky costumes, picnic lunches enjoyed along the sides of trails, and — in recent years — a celebration of neon colors and one-piece suits known as ’80s Day.
Amid all the hilarity is what has become a favorite at many ski areas come March and April: the pond skim.
“Pond skims have grown in popularity, especially in the last couple of decades,” said Win Smith, principal owner at Vermont’s Sugarbush Resort, which lays claim to the longest continually run pond-skimming event in the country. “You have the people who are really intent on making it across, and you have people who are just there for the fun and frivolity.”
While Smith couldn’t pinpoint the exact start date of Sugarbush’s pond skim, he figures it started soon after the resort first opened for the 1958-59 ski season. That means New Englanders — some hearty souls, anyway — have been attempting to ski across barely unfrozen water for more than half a century.
As a perpetual pond-skimming spectator, I’ve often wondered about the appeal of throwing oneself down hill and attempting to skim across a long, slushy pool while a huge crowd watched — and hoped for a spectacular, splashing crash.
“I guess there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” said 13-year-old Ryan Ayers, who’s participated in Mount Sunapee’s Slush Cup since he was 10 years old. “Your friends are cheering you on, or you just want to do something fun, or it’s tradition. For me, it’s all of the above. I do it because my friends are there, and I have family watching — and it’s fun.”
Ayers has made a tradition out of the annual Slush Cup despite failing to make it across — instead sinking into the pond — on his first attempt. And despite the firsthand knowledge that, “It’s really cold water. It’s slushy.”
Smith also participates nearly every year in his resort’s pond skim and has since his first winter there, in 2002. While he has cruised the entire length of the Sugarbush pond unscathed every time, he said a big part of the spectator allure is the dramatic crashes that soak participants — and sometimes the onlookers closest to the pond.
Besides being the oldest pond skim, Sugarbush also has one of the longest ponds, measuring somewhere between 100-120 feet each year.
“You really want about 90 percent of the people not to make it,” said Smith. “If 100 people made it across, people would be bored to tears after about 10.”
New Hampshire’s Sunapee takes a slightly different approach, said marketing director Megan Burch: “Perfect pond-skimming size for success is 84 to 87 feet, so this is what we do.”
Sunday River in Maine ups the ante with two ponds to skim across, and a snow buffer in between to maneuver.
“If participants clear the first pond, they have to contend with a fairly significant drop into the second pond,” said the resort’s marketing manager, Karolyn Castaldo. “Many will try to earn style points from the judges by backflipping into the second pond.”
Ah, yes, the judges. While every pond skimming event varies, most have some competitive component, with prizes awarded in categories like Best Skim, Best Crash (or Biggest Splash) and Best Costume. At Sunday River, the panel of judges is made up of the resort’s snow-making crew.
Costumes, while not generally mandatory, are highly encouraged at these splashy events. These range from Storm Troopers to gorillas, Indiana Jones to the Cat in the Hat, and dinosaurs to cartoonish penguins. I’ve even seen a three-piece-suit-clad businessman cruise across a pond while reading the newspaper and clenching a cigar in his mouth.
Ayers suggests pond skimmers should consider the aerodynamic properties of a costume before making a choice. Those blow-up T-Rex costumes are cute and all, but they’ll slow you right down mid-water. He offers a couple more tips for skimming success: Keep up your speed, and lean back just a little bit.
“I think commitment is a big part of it. My first year I was too afraid and just fell over,” Ayers said, adding, “If you lean too far forward, you’re going to take a digger.”
In the end, the teenager said, pond skimming — like all those celebratory spring skiing events — is really all about having a good time.
“Even if you crash, just laugh about it, because a lot of people crash,” he said. “You’ve just got to have fun with it.”