The Other Cannon

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Is New Hampshire's wild child about to be tamed?

"One of the things about Cannon," explains Trevor Hamilton as he presses his aging Audi into the curves of New Hampshire's Route 18 on a chill March morning, "is there's the trail-map Cannon, and then there's the other Cannon." Trevor, who's been skiing Cannon for 28 of his 32 years, gives me a sideways glance for emphasis. His freckled mug shows a hint of mischief, as if he's just released a silent fart into a roomful of librarians, but it leaves no doubt as to which Cannon we'll be skiing.

Which is, truthfully, the Cannon I've come seeking, a Cannon Trevor describes as "skinflint and bare knuckle," whose reputation has been built on a "go-yer-own-way" ethic of shaggy beards, duct-taped Gore-Tex, and gouged bases. "It's the red-haired stepchild of New Hampshire," says Trevor, not without pride, perhaps because he, too, is bestowed with carroty locks.

He's not alone in his assessment of the mountain: "Oh, Cannon. Yeah, a lot of people are afraid of it," says the matronly proprietor of Magoons, a health food store in Franconia, where Cannon's located. Even my friend Dirk, a pass-holder at Mad River Glen -- not exactly your typical blond-haired, blue-eyed, please-and-thank-you kind of hill -- gushes about Cannon: "Man, that's a great mountain." Dirk rips every inch of Mad River's notoriously sketchy terrain to snowy tendrils, and I've skied with him enough to know that when he says "great," he means "trees, rocks, steep, and on occasion, deep."

Thing is, not everyone would agree with Dirk's definition of "great," and that's exactly why Cannon is undergoing a three-phase expansion so ambitious that some locals feel it will transform the mountain and turn it against its tenacious, gnarled roots. Thus far, only Phase One, with its goals of improving the Cannon experience for beginners and increasing skier capacity, stands near completion. The ski area has added a new learning center and lift and redirected traffic on newly widened lower-mountain trails. Two aging double lifts have been replaced, one with a high-speed quad, the other with a triple. By 2002, Cannon hopes to begin the extensive renovation and expansion of the main Peabody base lodge. Phase Two follows, with two new lifts (a double and a triple), even more beginner and intermediate terrain, and a link to Mittersill, a now-defunct separate-but-attached hill that's become the locals' playground.

And then -- the administration hopes by 2003 -- comes the $12-million development of Mittersill. What does 12 mil buy? How about a 9,000-square-foot base lodge, a new lift, a hotel, extensive trail development, and a wicked case of nervous jitters among the local rippers who ride Cannon's lifts primarily to access the sweet terrain that plunges off Mittersill? Trevor worries that with the development of Mittersill, tree-starved skiers will flock like lemmings to runs that now hold powder for days on end. "There's only a finite amount of terrain. But I can't stop progress, unless I buy the whole mountain, and that ain't gonna happen," he chuckles ruefully.

As we head up the mountain, the breeze carries a warm lilt that hints at an afternoon of corn snow, and our spirits are running high. Conditions aren't perfect -- February's bounty of powder has been washed away by a week of warm rain -- but there should still be ample base on which to explore the other Cannon.

Trevor and I bang out a quick warm-up on one of Cannon's updated cruisers, then head straight to Mittersill, to ski it at its morning best. Mittersill hasn't been fully lift accessible since 1979, but it's hardly five minutes of skiing and hiking from the top of Cannon to Mittersill's tight, steep stash, where the locals have whiled away countless summer evenings clearing invading underbrush and thinning the thick forest.

By the time we get there, the temperature has risen into the upper 40s, but because the snow has seen norooming in the past 21 years, and very little skiing in the past few days, it's already turned thick and gloppy; we'll be dining on mashed potatoes, not corn. We drop into Candyland, Mittersill's main trail, which funnels in and out of tight chutes to relatively open minibowls. Mittersill is not an expansive, towering peak; it offers about 1,800 feet of vertical and about 95 potentially skiable acres, and the slope and serpentine nature of the half dozen or so trails make it a hard-fought 1,800 feet. Guiding our skis in and out of the tight passages hacked into the encroaching forest is sweaty duty, and we stop frequently to catch our breath and marvel in the solitude. We're hardly a stone's throw from the cacophony on the main mountain, but it feels as if we've stepped through a looking glass into a snowy parallel universe.

Although it's nearly noon and Cannon's main mountain is thick with beginner and intermediate skiers taking full advantage of the new high-speed quad, we're putting down first tracks in the heavy snow. The absence of other skiers, coupled with the looming, almost ominous presence of the decaying lift towers and a rotting lift ramp, create a spooky, ghost-townlike atmosphere. Every time we pop around a corner, I half expect to see someone -- or something -- clad head to toe in wool and leather, shooting down the hill with wooden skis and impeccable form. Trevor stops me a half dozen times to point out barely discernable openings along the sides of the trail, each leading to the weblike network of out-of-bounds tree runs. Without the benefit of copious powder, exploring them would be foolhardy at best, so we must content ourselves with Mittersill's more open -- but still far from tame -- offerings.

At the bottom of Candyland, we make a three-minute traverse across yet another narrow passage in the trees and pop out at Cannon's base lodge, where novice skiers in designer-label jacket-pants combos -- exactly the sort of skier the Phase One portion of the expansion was designed to attract -- mingle with scruffy old-school types. Now ready to ski Cannon proper, we hop on the new Peabody quad and head up for a run on Upper and Middle Hardscrabble, an ungroomed, sinuous, bucking bronco of a trail. It's runs like this, along with the foreboding Front Five -- the five upper intermediate and expert trails that are visible from I-93 -- that have served Cannon with the reputation it's now trying to outgrow. To our utter delight, it's utterly empty and utterly untouched by Cannon's changing tide.

This is not by error or sheer luck of the draw: "We made a conscious effort not to disturb the classics, to retain a lot of Cannon's character," says mountain manager Dick Andross. After scrapping with Hardscrabble and sampling old-school hand-cut trails like Upper Cannon, Upper Ravine, and Taft Slalom, I'm feeling gushingly grateful for Cannon management's good sense. But when the subject of Mittersill comes into conversation, Andross is less reassuring. "The proposed development will alter it, in the sense that the backcountry skiing that's going on there now will be gone. But there's plenty more of that kind of terrain on the mountain."

Perhaps. But after a handful of delicious runs on Mittersill's unblemished bounty, it's hard to find solace in his words. Though some comfort can be found, ironically, in the sheer breadth of Cannon's expansion goals. Phase One has already pushed them to the edge of their borrowing limit. It'll take time -- very likely more time than they've allotted, Andross admits -- to recoup their expenditure and carry on. Plus, there's the somewhat sticky fact that the peak of Mittersill sits on Forest Service land, which means a land exchange or lease will have to go down before development can begin. Can you say red tape? For the time being, at least, it seems Mittersill is safe from the encroaching hand of "progress."

Two-thirds of the way down Hardscrabble, we stop to rest our aching quads and turn our faces to the afternoon sun. Trevor is quiet for a moment, leaning into the slope on his poles. Then he looks up at me and, squinting into the glare, offers the same devious look that crossed his face this morning. "See," he says, almost gleefully, "it doesn't really matter what they do. It's still Cannon; it's still an expert's mountain." Without waiting for a response, he pushes off, dancing down the hill with the smooth, quiet confidence of a skier who knows exactly where he is in time and place. In the midst of its burgeoning growth, Cannon may not have the same certainty, but it's still a damn fine place to ski.

Destination: CANNON, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Top Elevation: 4,180 feet
Vertical Drop: 2,146 feet
Average Annual Snowfall: 150 inches
Skiable Acres: 163
Terrain: 22% beginner; 40% intermediate; 38% advanced/expert
Lifts: 7 total (1 aerial tram, 1 high-speed detachable quad, 1 fixed-grip quad, 3 triples, 1 surface lift)
Trails: 40
Info: 603-823-5563; www.cannonmt.com

Getting There: Take I-93 to the Franconia Notch Parkway to exit 2 (Tramway) or exit 3 (base lodge).

Prices: Weekend adult, $42; teen, $35; senior/junior, $27. Midweek adult, $30; teen/junior/senior, $20. Two-for-one Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lodging: The Stoney Brook Motorlodge (800-722-3552), just north of Cannon, offers a decent night's rest for only $50-$65 a night. Parker's Motel (800-766-6835), just south of Cannon, has a cheap ski-n-stay package (two days' lift and two nights' lodging for $72 midweek; $139 weekend per person).

Food & Drink: For all you beef lovers, the Franconia Village Restaurant's specialties include a mammoth-size steak au poivre or steak Diane for $14.95 and live music on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

What's New: A tubing park and Time Zone, a recreational racing trail.uads and turn our faces to the afternoon sun. Trevor is quiet for a moment, leaning into the slope on his poles. Then he looks up at me and, squinting into the glare, offers the same devious look that crossed his face this morning. "See," he says, almost gleefully, "it doesn't really matter what they do. It's still Cannon; it's still an expert's mountain." Without waiting for a response, he pushes off, dancing down the hill with the smooth, quiet confidence of a skier who knows exactly where he is in time and place. In the midst of its burgeoning growth, Cannon may not have the same certainty, but it's still a damn fine place to ski.

Destination: CANNON, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Top Elevation: 4,180 feet
Vertical Drop: 2,146 feet
Average Annual Snowfall: 150 inches
Skiable Acres: 163
Terrain: 22% beginner; 40% intermediate; 38% advanced/expert
Lifts: 7 total (1 aerial tram, 1 high-speed detachable quad, 1 fixed-grip quad, 3 triples, 1 surface lift)
Trails: 40
Info: 603-823-5563; www.cannonmt.com

Getting There: Take I-93 to the Franconia Notch Parkway to exit 2 (Tramway) or exit 3 (base lodge).

Prices: Weekend adult, $42; teen, $35; senior/junior, $27. Midweek adult, $30; teen/junior/senior, $20. Two-for-one Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lodging: The Stoney Brook Motorlodge (800-722-3552), just north of Cannon, offers a decent night's rest for only $50-$65 a night. Parker's Motel (800-766-6835), just south of Cannon, has a cheap ski-n-stay package (two days' lift and two nights' lodging for $72 midweek; $139 weekend per person).

Food & Drink: For all you beef lovers, the Franconia Village Restaurant's specialties include a mammoth-size steak au poivre or steak Diane for $14.95 and live music on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

What's New: A tubing park and Time Zone, a recreational racing trail.