After a good snow, Zac Freeman, a founder of the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance and now its trails and recreation economic director, will get to the Braintree Mountain Forest trailhead by 5 in the morning with a handful of friends. Then it’s time to make the first hike in, over a mile long with a 1,400-foot vertical climb.
“It’s a really cool experience climbing up the mountain as the morning unfolds,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
And it’s part of his job, as the alliance works to expand skiable terrain in Vermont’s backcountry.
People like Freeman and his friends were once on the fringe of the skiing community, but the alliance helped them break into the mainstream. It’s one of the first East Coast organizations to work with the community and governments to thin recreational forests to skiable glades.
Freeman was in Stowe last week for a discussion at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum about where backcountry skiing is going. More than 100 people listened — a big turnout for what used to be a fringe sport.
Kim Brown, the Stowe Reporter’s ski columnist, spoke up during the panel discussion and said he was once part of a group he called the Mountain Bandits. They would make glade trails without permission, and Brown said the forester overseeing the woods decided not to stop them, though what they were doing was illegal.
“The forester was actually quite supportive,” Brown said, because the bandits’ work would help people enjoy the land. Freeman’s alliance brought that type of unspoken agreement into the sunlight, legitimizing what was once a common but prohibited practice by people who just wanted to ski in the woods.
The Randolph project started in 2013. The closest resorts are an hour or more away, and people wanted something closer. At first, there was no higher purpose; “we didn’t want to do it for anything other than our own self-enjoyment, at the time.”
That same year, Paul Kendall and Sharon Rives donated more than 1,500 acres of land to the New England Forestry Foundation, which gave Freeman and his pals a perfect opportunity to capitalize on their backyard skiing dreams.
“I skied up there since I was a little kid,” Freeman said.
So, a partnership developed, and the foundation’s foresters helped the alliance do its work while taking care of the environment, too.
The cutting started in 2015 and the alliance now lists five gladed zones in Braintree.
Blazing new trails
Simultaneously, skiers in Rochester were eyeing the Brandon Gap for similar work.
“There was some fun skiing, but not anything too serious or too clean,” Freeman said.
The Randolph and Rochester groups combined forces and did the groundwork while Braintree trail work was in progress. While Brandon Gap had potential, the biggest issue was its federal ownership.
“The Forest Service was a deer in the headlights at the beginning, because no one had done this before,” Freeman said.
Using Braintree as an example — and working with a forester who skis — the alliance was able to get the Brandon Gap project approved. The forest service monitored the Braintree project for three years, and used the data gathered there to create a template for future glading projects.
“It’s pretty neat to have that project as a precursor for the Brandon Gap approval,” Freeman said.
Now the Brandon Gap has 22,000 vertical feet of glades, and it’s getting bigger. With federal approval, the alliance hopes to create a new zone in the Chittenden Brook area “that’s gonna almost double the size of Brandon Gap.”
“We tried really hard to do everything the right way, and it showed,” Freeman said. “We gained the trust of the community and trust of the state.”
That groundbreaking level of cooperation has made similar movements possible.
A backcountry movement
Tyler “Granite Chief” Ray is the founder of Granite Backcountry Alliance, and said he followed the Randolph/Rochester alliance’s trail.
“Part of me thinks that I was invited here to get it on record that, yes, we borrowed the blueprint from RASTA,” he said.
Ray worked as a lawyer outside Boston before diving into backcountry work, and stumbled on the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance while browsing social media.
“What they’ve been developing and how this idea came about, it really just kinda took me away,” he said.
With his legal background and a moment of inspiration, Ray and his family moved to North Conway, N.H., in 2014, started his advocacy company, Backyard Concept, LLC, and began work with landowners and state and federal governments.
Since then, Granite Backcountry Alliance has helped establish and maintains eight gladed areas across New Hampshire and western Maine.
And this is just one group. The trend is still on the rise.
“It’s an honor to get to do this,” Freeman said. “There’s this other side of it we kind of never saw coming – we’ve started a little movement here.”