Archive for August, 2011
Ok, so I wrote this blog post a while ago on my way home from New Zealand and then forgot to post it. Its sort of long. But I’ve decided to post it anyway, because at one point I was really excited about it. Here it goes:
The Snow Farm sits at about 1600 meters, 12-kilometers and many switchbacks up a winding dirt road. The road is shared with the Snow Park, which has a turn-off a couple of kilometers before the Snow Farm, as well as with the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds (SHPG)–a car, tyre (thats the silly NZ spelling), and equipment testing area. In bad weather chains are required to get up the road, or at least four wheel drive, and the 1995 Nissan Cefiro that Nils and I have been borrowing from his uncle has neither of those. Also, petrol is quite dear here (haha, doesn’t that sounds funny? But that is exactly how a local would say it). Luckily, there’s a solution to all of these problems: HITCHHIKING! In New Zealand in general, but I think especially near the ski areas, there’s a pretty awesome culture of hitching and picking up hitchhikers. Parents with kids in their car will pick you up. Its pretty cool, and I always felt totally safe. Plus, its a great way to meet some interesting people and learn random new things. I did a lot of hitching by myself, but also some with Nils, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t exactly a car-magnet.
I kept track of the rides I got and something interesting from each one, and here it is:
1. Ride to the SnowPark with snowpark employees–a bunch of young snowboarders, who smoked in the car. One girl told me a story about an American who came to the bar she worked at and was talking about how there was so much wrong with the U.S.–and then got mad at her when she started to chime in.
2. After being dropped at the SnowPark turnoff, I walked for about 5 minutes n a blizzard, before getting picked up by two american car testers. They were surprised to find out I was American and thought it was funny when I told them that Nils was testing snow-blowers–they told me that in Michigan they get prisoners to test the snow-blowers.
3. Ride down with Nils– picked up by SHPG employee–one of the only people in NZ with snow tires–since lots of snow tires get tested there and then left.
4. Ride up–two guys from Auckland, going to snow park, but they drove us all the way–one guy had the craziest sunglass with a gold chain that went around the front along the top, then draped down on the sides of the glasses too. It was part of the glasses. Hard to describe, but pretty hilarious.
5. Ride down–Australian couple going to Snow Farm–Rosemary and Pete. Not sure how they got into nordic skiing, but they had all their own stuff, and come here every year.
6. Ride up–local snowboarders-the car ahead of us had 1/10 written on his rear window, and they explained that they all play a game called “snowdice” where you roll a die to get a trick that you have to do, and then they keep track of whether you complete it. Apparently he was a good boarder but had flopped 9 or his ten tricks, and was never going to live it down.
7. Ride down with Rosemary and Pete again–Pete was working in australia for mining, and he’d be flown out to western Australia, work for 4 weeks, then have 4 weeks back home in Eastern Australia. Apparently lots of Kiwis work in the mines and there’s a lot of money there. He told Nils he should get a job there.
8. German couple, who had moved to Cardrona (right at the base of the road). There are a lot of germans in NZ. They had come to NZ to motorcycle around, and fell in love with it and moved. They also Nordic ski a lot.
9. Gave ride to english kid out to Hawea–told us about dry slopes (skiing on fake grass, basically, and indoor skiing in the U.K. That was how he got into skiing, which seems crazy to me!
10. Up to snowfarm: 4 korean car-testers. They spoke some english, and we saw a rainbow. Learned korean for rainbow–widgiga. (thats what it sounded like anyway!) They’d been up till 2 the night before testing, and were headed back up at 8 am.
11. Ride down- Mary Lee- the Snow Farm owner. I got all the gossip on the SnowFarm, SnowPark, NZ skiing…you name it.
12. Now Alexei Sotskov is here, so I’ll to be able to get rides with him from Wanaka on a pretty regular basis.
13. Austrian ski coach of the Treble Cone academy–a downhill racing school that gets lots of foreign skiers. Headed up to the SnowPark where they set up a little race course and can do lots of laps since its a short slope.
14. After some walking from the snow park–got a ride from Ray, who works at the snow farm–three little girls in the car, and I sat between two girls in booster seats. One of them was named Hannah too. Some quotes: “now there are two hannahs in the car!” “how long have you been walking?” they were very concerned that I may have been walking from the bottom.
15. RIde down with a coworker from last year–Jess–who is now organizing the NZ winter games. Turns out she also lives near us, and said we could use internet at her house!
16. Picked up a patched-jean Aussie guy. Not someone I would have picked up at home, by the looks. Told me he used to be a speedskater and had once raced nordic race in Austria–apparently it was a “pre-olympic race” but he was in great shape from speedskating season and was 52nd. He also said he had a replacement hip and highly recommended them.
17. Alexei–picked me up after I thought I’d missed getting a ride with him from town. He had slept through his alarm.
18. Ride down–Car-testing guys from michigan. Not into telling me what company from, etc. We talked about how you can hitchhike here, I told them about Possum Born, the famous NZ rally car driver who had crashed and died on the road, and pointed out the sculpture of him over on big rock. They were sort of boring.
19. Late in day to get a ride down. Nils and I walked past snow park…at least 3 k walking. Near the Snow Park, saw a photoshoot going on–several vans full of clothes and stuff, models posing up on a big rock, holding a British flag, as the sun set behind them. Finally got a ride with a SHPG office lady.
20. Car was in the shop, so we had to hitch from town: waited 10 or 15 min in town. Then ride w/ a guy driving woman to Queenstown–story about baby biting her leg when she was nannying in the U.S. The guy thought that Nils’ snowblower job was “every man’s dream job”. I’m not sure he understood really what it entailed. They were very talkative and funny. Dropped us at bottom of road to snow farm.
21. Up to Snow Park turnoff–two british women going to snow park. They also talked about indoor skiing, dry slopes, etc.
22. From Snow Park turnoff–Allister and Ann–he used to be NZ skiing organization guy. They ended up giving us ride back down to bottom too–after we had walked some with no luck. But then they were headed in the opposite direction at the bottom.
23. Then got a ride with the same UK women into town–they were headed to trampolining practice, which is apparently very good for learning new tricks. Of our 5 rides today, 2 of them were repeats.
Jericho: a small Vermont town made famous by “Snowflake” Bentley, the first man to photograph snowflakes back in 1885 and discover that no two are ever alike. Over 125 years later, Jericho’s winter heritage is still going strong, even in the summer. Every August, I travel to Jericho to join a crowd of snow-loving biathletes. We train at the biathlon facilities of the Ethan Allen Firing Range (a military base) and we stay in the barracks. When are not busy training, we explore the surrounding community, from the ridges of Mt. Mansfield to the shops and restaurants of nearby Burlington. Over the course of a week or so, we catch up with friends that we haven’t seen since last season’s snowflakes melted.
The Ethan Allen Firing Range is named after Vermont’s well-loved hero and independent-minded leader of the Green Mountain Boys during the Revolutionary era. It houses the Vermont National Guard and is famous throughout the US for its Mountain Warfare School. The base encompasses 11,000 acres along the western slopes of Mt. Mansfield and Bolton, and the frequent percussion of artillery training can be heard echoing off ridgelines for miles.
One of the most memorable parts of Jericho training camps is barracks life. During the recent camp, I was lucky enough to be assigned to the spacious officer’s quarters with the rest of the National Team, but most of the younger athletes were housed in the more traditional barracks. Over the years, we have all put in our time there. The experience gives us a glimpse of what army life must be like.
Imagine a big open bay with two long rows of bunk beds. There is no privacy and space to store the contents of your duffel bag and all your training gear. At night, the bathroom lights and exit signs spill light into the sleeping bays. Athletes in the bottom bunks sometimes experiment with draping extra blankets around their sleeping space to form a dark cave. Every time someone crawls out of bed to go pee or talks in their sleep, the entire room can hear. Industrial-sized fans buzz all night long, circulating hot, humid, stifling air from the open window, which is barely better than having no fans. For those of us unadapted to such conditions, it is very difficult to sleep well and recover from hard training.
During my handful of visits to Jericho, I’ve learned to fall back asleep after I hear drill sergeants bellowing outside my window at 5:00 A.M. I prefer to wake up a little closer to 7 and head to the dining hall (wearing closed-toed shoes of course, it’s a military rule). After breakfast, I join my teammates in our van and we drive a ½ mile straight uphill from the barracks to the biathlon range. The van chatters over washboards, struggling to maintain enough momentum to make it to the top of the hill going the speed limit (20 mph). Our van’s dust cloud settles over clusters of junior athletes whose coaches make them run up the steep hill for a warm-up before practice. I’m glad my coaches don’t make me do that routinely.
The Jericho biathlon range and ski trails rank among the finest facilities in the country. In the past, Jericho has hosted large international competitions and the club still frequently hosts important events such as junior world team trials. Jericho’s range is one of a handful in the country with paved trails for summer rollerski training.
Training at Jericho provides a great opportunity to practice the transition from skiing to shooting and vice versa. Transitions are a complicated process requiring lots of practice to perfect. For example, while approaching the range you need to slow down, glance at the wind flags, take some deep breathes, remove poles, look for an open point and check its corresponding target downrange, and open the sight covers and bolt, and then set-up on the shooting mat.
The venue also features superb rollerskiing. Its trails that flow naturally over challenging terrain. They snake through the woods dipping, climbing, and twisting around corners. I feel much safer rollerskiing on isolated trails like these than trying to avoid traffic out on the roads. The only obstacles we run into are camouflaged soldiers who randomly pop out of the woods during their land navigation training and woodland critters. Recently wildlife highlights: a mother doe and two spotted fawns frozen in the middle of the trail and a daring turkey that strutted under the targets during a shooting clinic for beginner biathletes.
One common complaint about Jericho is the weather. Even a perfect summer day always feels hotter and more humid than seems reasonable, despite the base’s mountain setting. The local landscape creates its own weather patterns, and they tend to be more extreme than the rest of the state. For example, incoming clouds from the west get caught on Mt. Mansfield and create violent thunderstorms and hail. The weather, combined with the relentless biting flies can make some workouts feel absolutely miserable. Luckily, the base has a saving grace for mugginess: a couple swimming holes in the Lee River. We just have to remember army rules: never walk anywhere alone and never walk through the base wearing only a swimsuit. Luckily, they haven’t outlawed swimming itself. After practice we cool off in freezing stream water and hope we won’t climb out with any leeches attached.
By late evening, the heat finally relents a little bit. If you were to walk out the front door of our barracks at dusk, you’d see soft spots of LCD lights dotting the facing hillside. They could almost be mistaken for fireflies except for the accompanying murmur of conversations. A closer inspection would reveal about 20 soldiers (and a bunch of athletes) sitting in the dewy grass and talking/texting on their cell phones. One corner of that hillside boasts up to three bars of cell service despite the rest of the base having none. With no internet on base, “cell phone hill” is in very high demand.
To get our daily internet fix, we drive into Jericho Corners in the mid-afternoon. Across from the historic Old Red Mill and Snowflake Bentley museum, sits a cafe and bakery called The Village Cup, or “Athlete’s Cup” as we fondly refer to it. We visit so frequently that by the end of our training camp we start to feel like regulars. Instead of napping all afternoon to recover from training, we eat generous slices of raspberry pie or chocolate torte and cruise Facebook. We compose blog entries to a background of classic tunes, such as Cat Steven’s Wild World. It’s a pretty quiet place, but one day, a teammate (who himself is a multi-time Olympian) returned all excited because he had spotted a celebrity on the back porch: a member of the band Phish.
Another favorite off-base escape is the Jericho Country Store, located in Jericho Center. Our most common objectives are fresh sandwiches and soft-serve maple ice cream. However, as the oldest continuously running country store in VT, this small establishment boosts many curiosities. Every nook and corner is filled with something interesting, such as old-fashioned glass jars full of candy, a checker game set up on a barrel table, specialty soaps, greeting cards by community artists, local beef, all sorts of historic signs and pictures, and antique post office boxes. (The store still functions as a post office). After finding some sort of yummy treat, we wander across the street to sit under a tree on the town green to savor it.
The culmination of the annual Jericho training camp is a couple of rollerski biathlon races, hosted by the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club. These races are technically “Rollerski Biathlon Nationals” but they often feel more low-key than that. Many athletes view them as a way to get some practice racing in during the summer months. However, this year the races were important. They served as part of the trials process to determine who will represent the US in European competitions in November/December.
How did the races go for me this year? Not as well as I had hoped, but they certainly weren’t a disaster. I was able to ski hard despite the heat and had some of the top rollerski times both days, but I struggled in the shooting range. Results from the two races can be found on host Ethan Allen Biathlon Club’s website:
One reason I enjoy racing in Jericho is that I consider it my home course. I first ski raced in Jericho trails at the young age of eleven for the New England Bill Koch Championships and I also competed there for high school state championships. The Ethan Allen Biathlon Club is the parent club to my home biathlon program in Craftsbury. The Craftsbury Outdoor Center often sends a crew of volunteers for the races. It’s been wonderful the last couple years to see so many GRP teammates and coworkers help out and bring home more enthusiasm for the sport. I often have an additional fan club of family and friends cheering me on, which is a rare experience when we spend most of the winter racing in Europe. Dear fan club, next time I’ll make sure I let you know if the race start time changes to something earlier than posted- sorry about that. This year was special because my cousin, Jesse, who is in the Guard and happened to be training on base, stopped by unexpectedly.
Hands down, my favorite thing about spending time in Jericho is the community. The August races and training camps are the only time during summer months when the majority of the US biathlon racing community assembles together in one spot. There are very few people in the United States who understand biathlon and can relate to the experience of being a biathlete. When we come together it is an empowering experience for everyone involved. The entire US National Team competes alongside juniors, beginners, the National Guard teams, and older masters groups. On a given year, racers and coaches might hail from New England, New York, Pennsylvania , Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington state, and Alaska. We often see representation from the eastern Canadian providences as well, such as Quebec, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
Once the racing crowd dissipates, the locals remain. The National Guard’s biathlon team and the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club (civilians) use the range year round. These groups are made up of amazing people who are passionate about the sport and never fail to be friendly and helpful. I always enjoy sharing the range with the Guard athletes and the club team. Many thanks to Major Parsons and his crew from the Guard who create a welcoming environment on the base and maintain top notch facilities. Thanks also to the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club and their numerous volunteers for both hosting high quality races and for promoting the sport to people in the local community.
Once the snow came in NZ, I basically skied a lot. This took up most of the day because I had to go back and forth from Hawea to the SnowFarm. I’d be up at 7, drive in to Wanaka or the base of the SnowFarm road, and then hitch up the hill. Often I could get a ride with someone I knew. Then I’d ski. Eat lunch, rest a bit, and then ski again, before starting the hitch down. It was tough to make it back home before dark, and the house would be the same temperature as the outside air. We’d light a driftwood fire in the little coal stove, put the electric heater in the bathroom to make for a pleasantly warm shower, and then make dinner. The conditions were awesome, and it was just so nice to be skiing in the summer, that it was hard to not just keep doing this every day of the week. But it got pretty exhausting with so much travel and not much rest between workouts. Some days I helped with the local junior program to earn my season’s pass. I had thought that I’d be able to work more giving lessons, but they didn’t really need me much, so I only gave a few lessons. This also made for a lot of time on skis!
NZ biathlon was having a kids biathlon camp for a week, and I was given the opportunity to stay up at the SnowFarm Lodge and help out with the camp. This was pretty nice since it cut out the traveling time, and the food up there was also awesome!
After about 3 weeks of skiing almost every day and putting in a lot of volume, I was feeling pretty ready to do something else. So Nils and I headed to the West Coast to do some backpacking. As you head west from Wanaka, its not long before you go from brown sheep pasture to green mossy jungle, going impossibly steeply up into snowy, jagged mountains. The West Coast is crazy. We hiked on the Copland track, which is a popular route for most of the year, but was pretty quiet for us. We stayed at Welcome Flat Hut–which looked more like someone’s house than an alpine hut, even though it was a good ways out. This was due to the fact that its situated right next to hot springs. Plus its in this cool little jungly valley surrounded by gigantic rocky peaks. The hot springs are good and natural–they are full of green slime and surrounded by a rainbow of colors–bright orange and yellow mineral deposits mixing with green algae, and of course the smell of sulfur. They were awesome!! After a bunch of soaks in the hot springs and a cool trail run up-valley, we headed back down the valley and stayed at another tiny little hut. It was a great break from skiing, and made me more psyched to ski more before I came home.
A quick update on the spinach I planted in the coldframe: it took almost a month to germinate. In the 7 weeks since I planted it, it grew to be about `1-1.5 inches tall. It had just started to get its real spinach leaves. We had to move it to the compost pile before we left, which was sad…but it was an interesting experiment, and I even ate a few little spinach-shoots.
Now, after 24 hours of travelling, then a few busy days at my cousin’s wedding in Palo Alto, CA, and then another almost 24 hours of travelling, I’m finally back in Craftsbury! Yay!