Thrive in the Deep Freeze
Get your winter on—outside
Apoplectic weather forecasts, high fuel bills, frozen pipes, and that bane of Berkshire existence: the “wintry mix.” Yes, it’s pretty to watch as snow softly falls on farms and fields. But after a few weeks of slippery roads and blocked driveways, winter weariness sets in.
That’s the wrong attitude.
Just ask Marla BB, who runs Hilltown Wilderness Adventures in West Chesterfield, 40 minutes east of Pittsfield. Hilltown’s year-round programs include customized and guided outdoor adventures for adults and children, even dog-mushing, Alaskan-style, in the dead of winter. “Clients learn how to harness and hook up a team of sled dogs bred from Iditarod champion huskies, then drive them on a four-hour circuit through the snow,” says Marla. The lowdown: Snow is fun. The right gear makes all the difference. And the combination of exercise, invigorating cold, and a winter wonderland is a recipe for instant attitude adjustment.
To help you thrive in winter—not merely survive it—we’ve selected a range of seasonal activities, from high-octane, adrenaline-pumping sports to soul-soothing walks in the woods.
First, the classics: skiing and snowboarding. Berkshire County has six ski areas: Catamount (on the Egremont-Hillsdale border) boasts the region’s steepest trail. Jiminy Peak (Hancock) and Berkshire East (in Charlemont, just over the county line) have the biggest vertical drop. Ski Butternut (Great Barrington) and Bousquet (Pittsfield) both have tubing, perfect for kids who are too young to ski. And Otis Ridge (Otis) is a tiny, unintimidating area beloved by families. If you’re a beginner, splurge on a lesson; an experienced instructor can shorten the learning curve and reduce the fear factor. If you have the luxury of making your own schedule, ski on weekdays: You can ski multiple runs without crossing another skier’s tracks.
If careening downhill in constant negotiation with gravity doesn’t seem like fun, try cross-country skiing. It’s slower, less frightening, and more vigorous exercise—with no lift lines and less expense. Golf courses are good places to learn the basics: the diagonal stride (for forward motion) and getting up after a fall (inevitable). Rail trails, with their flat profiles, are also good choices. The 11.2-mile Ashuwillticook Rail Trail runs along Route 8 from the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough to Adams. For more of a backcountry experience, Notchview Reservation in Windsor has more than 3,000 acres, including 9 miles of prepared cross-country ski trails and opportunities for off-trail activities including snowshoeing. The Arcadian Shop in Lenox rents skis and snowshoes; the friendly advice for where to hit the trails in nearby Kennedy Park is free.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to fly across a snowy mountain, you can watch ski jumping up close and personal at Salisbury Winter Sports Association’s annual Jumpfest, February 12-14, in Salisbury, CT, in neighboring Litchfield County. There’s also a Friday-night chili cook off, human-dogsled races, ice carving, bonfires, and an annual “snowball” dance. SWSA also hosts the junior national ski jumping competition, February 23-27.
There’s something bracing about skating in the great outdoors. Locals clear a section of Great Barrington’s Lake Mansfield when the ice is thick enough. (Skate at your own risk; stay within marked areas.) In Monterey, the fire department floods the pavilion for an outdoor rink without the risks of skating on a lake. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Pittsfield has an indoor rink.
Looking for a something new? Wide-tire bikes, also known as fat bikes, have wider forks and over-sized tires that chew up unstable terrain. They’ve been used for winter trail riding and racing in sub-arctic Alaska on the Iditarod Trail, so a Berkshire winter should be a ride in the park. They can also be used on sand, pavement, and traditional mountain-bike trails. For riding on snow, choose a trail that is several levels below your normal riding level to get used to maneuvering; Kennedy Park in Lenox has a variety of trails. Berkshire Bike and Board (stores in Great Barrington and Pittsfield) and Arcadian Shop have rentals.
If you’re happier with your feet solidly on the ground, winter hiking is possible, even with three or four inches of snow. You’ll need warm, ankle-high boots and gaiters to keep the snow out. In slick conditions, wear instep crampons or “creepers” (mini-spikes that strap onto the soles of your boots) and use ski poles for balance. Stick to trails you usually think of as easy; a layer of snow ups the challenge.
When snow gets too deep for walking, try snowshoeing. “The best places to snowshoe are wherever you want—your backyard, parks, golf courses,” says Lucinda Vermeulen, proprietor of Kenver Ltd., in South Egremont, which specializes in winter equipment. “Or take it up a notch at Bash Bish, Jug End, or even Monument Mountain.
“Today’s snowshoes are lightweight and flexible for a close-to-just-plain-walking experience. The binding technology allows for easy adjusting and releasing in the cold. Add a pair of Nordic poles, and your workout increases along with your stability and speed. Everyday snow boots work just fine.”
Remember to reward yourself after your adventure. Light a fire and warm up with some classic winter fare: grilled cheese, onion soup, a hearty winter stew, and hot chocolate—and don’t forget the marshmallows.