With a 0-14mpg blast Elizabeth Gagne holds on tight as she loads the rope tow at the Abenaki Ski Area in Wolfeboro. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
WOLFEBORO — Though it's been in operation for 80 years, Abenaki Ski Area has lately been something of an unknown entity outside of the Wolfeboro area. The secret's getting out, though, thanks to the dramatic improvements which the town-owned facility has undergone over the past decade, highlighted this year by a new lodge.
Over the past decade, the ski hill has been kept ever busier with club teams, school groups, and, when it's open to the general public, it is a favored place for beginners as well as local kids.
"For those of us who have been involved in it for a long time, it's very gratifying," said Ted Newman, of the Friends of Abenaki, a fundraising organization. The current state of the ski hill is due to generous support, both from private benefactors as well as Wolfeboro taxpayers, he said, though it was not too long ago that the recreational facility was at risk of being abandoned.
The Abenaki Ski Area, located on Route 109A, dates back to 1936, when the members of the Abenaki Outing Club cut the first trails on the land known as Poor Farm Hill. A rope tow and base lodge were added shortly thereafter. For the following two decades, the hill was popular among skiers, both locals and visitors from throughout the Northeast.
By the 1990s, though, inconsistent snow conditions led to a pattern of infrequent use. The area never opened in the winters of 2003-2004 or 2005-2006. There were fewer than 1,000 skier visits in the year in between. There were grumblings in town by some who felt the town should quit spending its resources on the facility, since it was used so little, and let the trails return to forest. Fortunately for young local skiers, there were enough who felt differently. The Friends of Abenaki was organized in 2005. By the winter of 2006-2007, the group had added a new snow groomer, a new rope tow for the beginner hill, and most importantly, portable snow-making equipment.
"If you're going to have a beach, you need to have water to swim in," said Newman. The same goes for a ski area: it isn't much good if there isn't snow. The portable snow guns made it possible for the hill, with its four trails, to have consistent snow as long as there is cold weather.
If you make snow, skiers will come. Nearly 2,000 skier visits were recorded in the winter of 2007-2008. That figure has grown each year, with 7,436 visits last winter.
Abenaki now has permanent snow-making equipment, fed by a pond at the base of the hill. Earlier this winter, the town cut the ribbon for its new lodge, which replaced one built in 1940, and which enjoyed broad support in the town.
The new lodge represented the most expensive upgrade sought by the Friends of Abenaki. In 2014, the group had plans drawn up for a four-season lodge, which would cost $600,000. The group was able to raise $350,000 through private donations, and asked the town to contribute the rest. The warrant article, at Town Meeting, was given 80 percent support, a gleaming seal of approval by the taxpayers. Afterward, it was learned that the town could use grant money to cover most of the taxpayers' burden.
Support for the lodge project surely indicates how valuable residents consider their ski hill. Christine Collins, recreation director for the town, said the resident rates for use are kept very affordable. Wolfeboro children can buy a season pass for $30, a family season pass for residents is $105. Nonresident rates are more, but still a fraction of the cost at a larger ski area. Rental equipment is also available, at a similarly reasonable rate.
"We wanted to keep it affordable for the residents," said Collins. After all, town funds are utilized for the upkeep of the property. "They are paying for it through their taxes."
Newman noted that the Abenaki Ski Area opens skiing to many who wouldn't be able to make it to Gunstock or King Pine.
"Like many towns, we're not all wealthy here," he said. Many of his fellow townspeople struggle economically, he noted. "The have families, we want to accommodate all of them."
Monday and Tuesday are reserved for schools and club teams. The ski hill is open Wednesday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., and opens at 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Collins said that there is a group of a few dozen local youngsters who treat the ski area as their after-school club, taking the fast rope tow up to the top of the 200-foot-high hill, zooming down the 1,300-foot run, and then grabbing the rope to do it all again.
Some of those kids have grown up to be teenagers that come back to work at the facility, many more will become parents whose children will take their first runs there. Alongside them will be other children, whose parents spent many a winter afternoon on that very slope.
As Newman said, it all goes back to that same sentiment 80 years ago, that a group of people can come together to make something good.
"Really, it's about community involvement," he said.