A snow kayaker celebrates finishing a run down the slope. (Courtesy photo)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
FRANKLIN — In the middle of an old-fashioned New England winter, with lots of snow and cold weather, the idea to host a downhill kayak race event – the first of its kind on the eastern half of North America – seemed solid. But then a warm spell settled during the week prior to the March 4 event, and the recently snow-covered Veterans Memorial Recreational Ski Area was looking rather bare.
There was more at stake than an afternoon of ill-advised fun. More, even, than the opportunity to raise funds for the Franklin Outing Club and the Mill City Park initiative. The Boat Bash Snow Crash downhill kayak party was a declaration of community and vitality – a counter-argument to those who see the empty storefronts on Central Street as indication of a city whose best days are in the past. Cancel the event? Not a chance.
"The nice thing about doing things in Franklin," said Tim Morrill, Outing Club board member, "When you do volunteer efforts, everyone gets involved. It's pretty fun to watch the amount of people that jump in to help out."
An old groomer, which had logged many hours on the community ski hill, was repaired at the top of the hill in frigid conditions. An improvised snow-making apparatus was assembled using borrowed and re-purposed components. Electricians, landscaping contractors and builders arrived with heavy equipment. The work went through the night, making snow, moving snow, and shaping parallel runs down the slope. The party was on.
The Veterans Memorial Recreational Ski Area first opened in 1962, built in the Great Gains Forest conservation land as a living memorial to veterans. In fact, it was veterans of World War II who built the ski area, located on Flagpole Road.
"Back in the day, this used to be a place where, even if your kids didn't ski, you came up here every Thursday night to have dinner and congregate," said Jim Jones, of the Franklin Outing Club.
But things petered out, especially in recent years. Weather sometimes was to blame, such as the past winter, when there wasn't enough natural snow for the ski area to open. The meteorological tables turned this year, though, and the ski area's Facebook page is full of pictures of people, including many children, heading down the slope.
The Outing Club was also able to hold all the events of its annual Winter Carnival – which concluded with the March 4 kayaking event – including the Webster Lake Fishing Derby. The derby wasn't held last year due to warm weather, but this year nearly 600 people registered for the event, including 218 children. The Winter Carnival kicked off on Jan. 28 with a casserole supper and bonfire, and also included a pancake breakfast, cardboard sled races and skiing and snowboard races.
Despite great conditions this year – kayak race excepted – membership in the Outing Club is lagging.
"Membership is extremely low this year," said Jones. In order for the club to thrive, he said it would need around 250 dues-paying members. There are fewer than half that now.
Yet, in the same way that they look at empty storefronts and see opportunity instead of decline, supporters of the Outing Club are optimistic, and are hoping to convert a good winter, capped with a novel event, into long-term interest in the club.
One of those supporters is Marty Parichand, an Epsom resident who is one of the founders of Outdoors New England, a sporting goods shop that specializes in whitewater paddle sports. He is also part of the effort to bring a whitewater park to the stretch of the Winnipesaukee River that runs through downtown.
Outdoor activities could be Franklin's new calling card, Parichand believes. There's the nearby Highland Bike Park in Northfield, a destination for mountain bikers. Great Gains Forest already has many miles of hiking or biking trails, and will be opening a woodland-style disc golf course this summer.
As such, a vibrant Outing Club is as much about economy as it is about community.
"It's those things, mixed in with Mill City Park, that will be a huge catalyst to keep things moving forward," said Parichand. "There's a lot going on, a lot of positive things to be excited about."
How many other people are similarly excited, and want to be part of that positive change? An answer will be provided on May 6, when the Outing Club will be hosting a spaghetti dinner to discuss the club's plans, to see what direction its members want to go, and to grow its membership.
"There's a lot of kids that I grew up with here, who I now see coming with their own kids," said Morrill.
"Those are the people we need to reach, that's the only way this is going forward," said Jones.
Marichand said the kayak event provided "undeniable traction," as nearly half of the large crowd that turned out for the event were people who had never before set foot in the lodge.
"The future is going to be that crowd," Jones said. "It's that crowd that has that kind of disposable income that are willing to come up here... It's really important that we attract those young Millenials."
Kathy Fuller, treasurer of the Outing Club and daughter of one of its founders, said it's encouraging to see interest in the club renewed.
"I think I see it as an organization that is expanding, that is growing, that is offering new outdoors activities, which is where the original founders wanted it to go," said Fuller, noting that the club's original badge design included a canoer. "I'm excited at the partnerships, the opportunities, (which) bring new people in. I'm excited to see what happens next."
Young skiers hone their skills at the Veterans Memorial Recreational Ski Area in Franklin. (Courtesy photo)