The name might be new, but the passion of Ridgeline Outdoor Collective — formerly known as Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Alliance (RASTA) — which is to develop community-driven, multi-use backcountry trails and glades in central Vermont, is the same as ever.
Ridgeline hosted a name change launch party over the summer at Green Mountain Bikes in Rochester, an event that, naturally, included adult group and family rides on some of the trails Ridgeline has developed over the years.
Greg White, Ridgeline’s president, explained why the change was made.
“I am happy with the new name, as it better captures the geography of the three ridges and corresponding valleys in central Vermont that encompass our trail networks and backcountry ski zones, which includes towns beyond Rochester and Randolph,” he said. “Personally, and as club president, I strongly agreed and supported our board’s decision after they decided that the acronym ‘RASTA’ evoked associations to a name that wasn’t ours to use and out of respect for the Rastafari religion and movement.”
White, a 30-year Rochester resident, is among the small group of locals who got together in town following the devastating floods of Irene in 2011 to discuss how they could bolster outdoor recreation in the valley and help revitalize the region’s economy. They founded the organization in 2013, partnering with private and public landowners, including agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, to develop a network of public-use trails. The organization, a 501c3, is the pilot chapter of Catamount Trail Association and now a chapter of Vermont Mountain Bike Association.
“The club has been successful because the members that live locally put in a tremendous amount of volunteer time in supporting trail development and maintenance, participating as board members, and supporting events and fundraising,” White said. “We also have great support from our communities, local businesses and land owners. Without their support, we would have not been able to accomplish what we have.”
Ridgeline’s first major project was to create more accessible ski zones in the Brandon Gap area of the Green Mountain National Forest. “Many of us had been backcountry skiing on the natural glades located in this area for years,” said White. Around the same time, the club’s Randolph members began working with private landowners to develop the Braintree Mountain Forest backcountry zones.
While the initial emphasis was to develop these ski trails, their work since has expanded to encompass activities in all seasons, including development of multi-use trails for hiking, running, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and mountain biking. Their work today reaches well beyond Rochester and Randolph to include neighboring towns like Chittenden, Goshen, Pittsfield, Stockbridge, Bethel, Braintree, Brandon and Hancock.
“The Rochester area has had great backcountry skiing and mountain biking for a long time, but a lot of it was unknown to most unless you lived here,” said White, who got his start backcountry skiing while attending college in the late 1970s. “It has been so gratifying to see what a small group of likeminded people with limited resources and a passion for what they’re doing can get accomplished.”
The build-out and expansion of mountain bike networks has been one of the biggest new highlights for Ridgeline, White said. “This has been achieved through aggressively pursuing grant funding opportunities and a tremendous amount of volunteer time by club members,” he said. “It has been an amazing accomplishment for a club our size with limited financial resources.”
Karl Fjeld, a Brandon resident who serves as Ridgeline’s vice president, praised all the work done to create new mountain biking terrain.
“The trails that Ridgeline has developed around Rochester and Randolph, as well as the Green Mountain Trails network in Pittsfield, are amazing and rival any network in the Northeast,” Fjeld said. “Seeing the progress made by Tom Lepesqueur and his crew on the new Velomont trails in Rochester is inspiring. These are some long, serious flow lines and travel through some fantastic areas of the Green Mountain National Forest leaving directly from Rochester village. I am eager to see riders’ reactions as they discover these new loops.”
Another emerging emphasis for Ridgeline is to engage youths in the area to become more involved in outdoor recreation of all kinds. Ridgeline has developed and expanded after-school bike programs and summer camp bike programs, and is starting and sponsoring a youth mountain bike team. Ridgeline also worked hard to remove participation obstacles by providing bikes and equipment for youths who might not have access to these resources.
“The success of Ridgeline’s youth mountain bike programs has been a huge highlight for me,” said Angus McCusker, a founding member who now serves as executive director. “Seeing kids out enjoying trails that we helped create is pretty amazing. The kids are pumped to hit the trails as soon as they get out of school. It’s great to be able to help provide an opportunity for them to have fun, get exercise, and enjoy the outdoors with each other. For the older kids, the youth mountain bike race team has been a huge success for Ridgeline as well.”
Now that we’re in November, the Ridgeline community has again shifted its focus to ski season. Volunteer glade work weekends are in full swing, and the activities calendar is starting to fill in. As in previous years, the organization hosts tours throughout winter to introduce skiers and riders to the vast amount of terrain available. The tours give participants a good overview of where the skin tracks and glades are both in Brandon Gap and Braintree Mountain Forest glade zones.
Brandon Gap features about 20,000 vertical feet of backcountry skiing on nearly 20 glade lines across four separate ski zones. All the skin tracks for these zones are marked and accessible from two trailheads leading up to a 3-mile section of the Long Trail:
-Bear Brook Bowl showcases the longest and most challenging ski lines in Brandon Gap, each intersecting along a 1,300 vertical foot descent.
-No-Name Zone, also accessible from the Bear Brook Trailhead, provides 1,100 feet of vertical drop from a choice of intersecting descent lines.
-The Sunrise Bowl features easier terrain, providing about 500 feet of vertical down several lines.
-Goshen Mountain rises above Sunrise Bowl to the summit, where it is distinguished by high-altitude meadows and low-angle descents. Below the meadows are steeper lines requiring higher ability.
Braintree Mountain Forest includes four peaks in the Braintree Range, including Round Top, Twin Peaks, Skidoo and Braintree Mountain. The backcountry zones within this parcel have been developed along the eastern flanks of these four peaks. Trailhead parking is located at the intersection of Riford Brook and Laroque roads.
“We’re excited to host various backcountry tours,” McCusker said. “The tours are great for those looking to network or explore the areas for their first time.”
McCusker also said Ridgeline will host the New England Rando Race at Brandon Gap on Feb. 5. The race is a stop on the United States Ski Mountaineering Association tour, with 10 stops scheduled this winter in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.
The Ridgeline community today has about 300 members. It is an active group which volunteers its time and expertise. The organization also collaborates with other partners — like Velomont Trail and Hut Network — and CTA chapters around the state. A Ridgeline membership also includes an annual membership with both CTA and Vermont Mountain Bike Association.
“There is always plenty to do and room for more folks to join the efforts,” Fjeld said. “It is great to see so many young folks become involved in Ridgeline. We are counting on them to bring the club’s mission into the future.”
Ridgeline’s meeting schedule and zoom meeting access information can be found on the calendar/events tab on its website (www.ridgelineoutdoorcollective.org). Fjeld said trail work days typically draw anywhere from six to 20 volunteers on weekends.
“There are lots of opportunities to get involved with trail work and club activities, come to a meeting or a work day and join in,” Fjeld said. “We try to post everything on our website and get the word out through social media.”
The explosion of outdoor recreation activities in many parts of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic has created some stress on the land and trail resources people use to access these activities.
“We are not immune to this issue and our board is constantly weighing and discussing how to not over-develop our backcountry areas and trail networks,” White said. “It is important to do this well because once you lose the support of any of your stakeholder groups it’s very difficult to get it back.”
White said Ridgeline has seen interest in the terrain, trails and youth programs continue to grow in popularity, but there has not been an issue of having too many people for the zones to handle. “The users that come to our towns are a big economic plus for the communities,” he said.
“We’re thankful for all of our partners and land owners who make local outdoor recreation opportunities possible,” McCusker said. “It’s a privilege to be able to use trails on someone else’s land — as it’s their trails that we help build and maintain — so we are extremely appreciative of that. We love seeing folks get outside and enjoy the outdoors.”
Matt Boxler can be reached at [email protected].