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Matt Dickerson: Melting down, still thankful

In the midst of our ongoing yo-yo winter of melt-downs alternating with arctic blasts — the latter of which admittedly haven’t been nearly as intense in Vermont as in the Midwest — my wife and I managed to get out into the woods on our cross-country skis a couple times. And despite the many days when conditions simply didn’t encourage or even allow an outing, I’ve found myself appreciative of just how good we have it in Addison County.
The windows of opportunity for ideal cross-country skiing have not been large this winter. It seems that snow falls deep and heavy, raising my hopes for a glide through snowy woods of the Bread Loaf campus and the Green Mountain National Forest. But before I can even get my Nordic boots laced to my feet the rain comes and washes everything out. As I write this column, the thermometer reads 49 degrees F in Middlebury and 46 degrees F up in Ripton. Big puddles are forming in my yard. Rikert Nordic Center still lists most of their trails as open with spring-skiing conditions, but it’s too wet for any grooming activity. More rain is in the forecast.
Because of my own busier-than-usual schedule of work and travel this January, my wife has taken advantage of those windows better than I, getting up the mountain without me a couple times — leaving me just a bit melancholy as I looked out the window of my office at the snow she was skiing in and I was only looking at. Still, as noted, we’ve managed to get up to Rikert a couple times together when the conditions were beautiful: when a fresh few inches of powder covered all the crust and ice from the earlier rain, and though we had to traverse a few frozen springs, no barren ground blocked our way. Even the drive up the Middlebury Gorge has been stunning the past few days, watching the Middlebury River rush and tumble over and around myriad unique formations of towers, shelves, and arches of ice. We collaborated in our attempt to describe the unique color of green. Emerald? Sea? Glacial? None quite captured the beauty of the water.
One of my trips that kept me off the trails at Rikert for a weekend was a recent speaking trip to Freeport, Maine, where I gave a talk at L.L. Bean on my experience as artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. The trip wasn’t a complete washout in terms of skiing. Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook, not far from the borders of Portland, is the oldest continuously operating dairy in the United States. The 500-acre farm has been in the Knight family since the 1700s. They sell their milk in reusable, redeemable glass bottles, and in addition to the farm fresh skim, 2 percent and whole milk they also have Maine blueberry-flavored milk along with the more traditional chocolate, coffee and strawberry milks. For half the year, they even offer banana milk.
To make the best use of their land and keep it from being developed, the farm has also added cross-country ski trails: about 25 kilometers of groomed trails winding through the woods, over streams and along the edges of meadows. They even have a little rental shop. We showed up at the farm a few hours before my talk at L.L. Bean (about half an hour north of the dairy) and bought a pass. Though the friendly woman at the little shed that serves as their ski center showed us the recommended beginner loop, we took off on the more adventurous trail that she warned us did lots of winding through the trees with plenty of dips and climbs. Over the next 75 minutes, we managed to ski essentially the entire perimeter of their trail system, with several loops and turns in and out of the woods to add distance. Though most of their snow had also been washed out by the rains of the previous week, a fresh five inches of powdery snow blanketed the ground. Except for one or two slightly bare patches where pine needles or grass broke through the snow, conditions were quite good. The woods were quiet — remarkably so, given our proximity to one of the larger cities in New England. We saw only one other skier, and any sounds of traffic were remote and muffled.
On the one hand, it wasn’t Vermont. Whenever we popped out of the woods, we were aware of industrial buildings lining the far side of the meadow. At one point we skied a quarter kilometer underneath a big powerline. The hilliest sections we skied were about as hilly as the Battell Loop at Rikert, which I think of as the flat part of the trail system. And being so close to the coast, the snow just doesn’t last as long there.
Still, as I glided beneath a big stand of tall pines, and over a wood bridge above a meandering stream, I thought that if I lived in Portland I would spend a lot of time there at Smiling Hills. I’m sure the trail system would become familiar very quickly. So would the various flavors of milk.
But most importantly, they also make homemade gourmet ice cream from the fresh milk and cream of their own dairy, which they sell year round in their dairy and scoop shop about 30 yards across the parking lot from the ski center — a shop that stays open an hour past the closure of the ski trails. A little bit of their ginger ice cream along with a big swig of Maine blueberry milk proved a perfect ending to an afternoon exploring some new woods. Yes. I would miss the great skiing opportunities of Addison County if I had to move to Portland. But I could definitely imagine becoming a regular at Smiling Hill.

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