Sunday, February 09, 2003
West Virginia ski area full of atmosphere
Trail leads to good times
The White Grass Touring Center gives cross-country skiers more than flat trails to enjoy through winter.
By MARK TAYLOR
DAVIS, W.Va. - Richard Leahy got his skiing start bombing down the slopes at alpine ski areas, catching a mechanical ride to the top then doing it all again.
A resident of Charlottesville, Leahy has been getting his snow-riding kicks another way the past few years, gliding quietly through the woods on a set of narrow cross-country skies. When he gets to speed down a hill, it's only because he got to the top under his own power.
"It's like the difference between bass fishing and fly fishing," he said before heading out for a day of cross-country skiing at White Grass Touring Center in West Virginia's Canaan Valley. "It's the big and flashy vs. the quiet and natural.
"People are getting it, even people like me who have been downhilling for 25 years."
For Leahy and many others, Nordic skiing is as much about atmosphere and camaraderie as the activity itself. That's why so many are drawn to White Grass, a quirky little ski area known both for its great trails and for the somewhat eccentric cross-country ski bums who run the place.
Chip Chase, one of White Grass' owners, sets the tone. Short and wiry with a rugged complexion earned outdoors, 49-year-old Chase is part ski freak, part comedian.
One minute he will be extolling the virtues of a particular style of ski or boot, the next he will jokingly trip over a customer's gear, landing with a crash and sending everyone in the tiny lodge into fits of laughter.
"Chip's cool," said Susan Andrews of Harrisonburg.
The lodge is cool, too. Not much bigger than a living room in a moderate-sized ranch home, the lodge is packed with ski gear. It also holds a half-dozen tables, which makes sense because the building also houses a natural foods cafe known for its delicious, made-from-scratch soups and sandwiches.
There are no video-game consoles or walls of quarter-eating gear lockers. While on the trail, skiers simply stash their street shoes under benches. Eclectic music from a public radio station in Pittsburg provides a mellow soundtrack.
Leahy took in the scene, smiling.
"You can't buy atmosphere like this," he said.
Chase and friends started White Grass in 1979, near White Grass Knob in Virginia. Two years later, they moved the operation to its current location, a long-abandoned small downhill ski area near Davis, W.Va.
"We figured out where the snow was," said Chase, who leases the area during the ski season. "This place gets more snow than anyplace in the world - around here."
In a typical winter, 150 inches of snow fall on the area. The past few winters have been anything but typical, with disappointing snowfalls. This winter, nature seems to be apologizing, transforming the Canaan Valley into a white winter wonderland. About 2 feet of snow covers the ground. A recent warm spell, rain, then a freeze created a crust on top of the deep base. Then 6 inches of fresh powder fell Thursday night.
"Every time I come here I think, 'These are the best conditions I've ever seen,'" said Harrisonburg skier Dana Harshberger, who was skiing for the ninth time this year at White Grass on Friday. "Then I come back and say, 'No, these are the best conditions.'
"It's been stellar."
White Grass provides easy access to more than 30 miles of maintained trails. About 15 miles of the trails are machine groomed, a specially equipped snowmobile packing the snow then laying down a perfect ski track.
The well-marked trails zigzag across the mountainside, climbing to a high point at Bald Knob at 4,300 feet - 1,000 feet above the White Grass Lodge. Ambitious, fit skiers can use the area's trails to reach the nearby Canaan and Timberline downhill ski areas, as well as a way into the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, which borders the area to the south.
"I had no idea there would be hills," admitted Erin Johnston, one of Harshberger's five skiing companions Friday. "I thought it would all be flat."
Not that she was having problems. The six skiers, who met through mountain biking, were all in good condition so they had little trouble climbing the gradual ascents.
"I think it's easier than I expected," first-timer Natalie Tornatore said after the group had reached Round Top, a lunarlike opening about 650 feet above the lodge. "I thought I'd be wrecking a lot."
"We're going to go down now," she said.
Sure enough, Tornatore - and several others in the group - ate snow on the gradual slide back to the lodge.
An all-day trail pass at White Grass is $10 for adults and $3 for children. Rental equipment for adults costs $10 on weekdays, $15 on holidays and weekends. The rental gear is all for sale - "Make an offer" reads a sign in the lodge - and the lodge also has a small shop that's well-stocked with new gear.
A mini cross-country lesson is $6. The area also carries telemarking gear and offers telemarking lessons.
White Grass opened this season on Nov.18. Chase said the area's typical season runs from early December through March. He adds, not surprisingly, that the season is flexible.
"We're skiers," he said. "We're not marketing executives.
"If there's snow, we'll be open."
For more information on White Grass Touring Center, call (304)866-4114 or see whitegrass.com