The Wild Elk

Travel East
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Travel East
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In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn tells Jimmy Stewart, "I have the most wonderful home in Union Dale with a view that would knock you silly."

The Hobson family of Philadelphia also has a home in Union Dale. It sits near the base of Elk Mountain ski area in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. "We love Elk," says Ursula Hobson. "We started skiing a lot more when we discovered it, and it's been a real family affair ever since. We hop in the car the second we get out of work each Friday."

When the owners of Elk Mountain in Union Dale, Pa., first cut trails across old logging roads in 1959, they relied on skiers from the city of Scranton, 23 miles away, to fill liftlines. But soon, residents from Philadelphia and its suburbs began making the 140-mile trip, drawn by reports of 1,000 vertical feet of skiing on terrain that was more challenging than Pennsylvania skiers were used to.

The Keystone State may not strike most people as being one of the great skiing states, but, in fact, last year its 33 ski areas ranked sixth in the nation for combined skier visits, behind only Vermont and New York in the East. Many skiers, of course, use Elk as a training-ground for ski vacations at destination resorts in New England or the West. But they almost always remember their roots. "We develop hundreds of new skiers each year who sooner or later venture to some of the largest ski areas in the country," explains Jim Mancuso, Elk's director of skiing. "But most remain loyal to Elk on a week-to-week basis."

Indeed, loyalty has played a major role in Elk's ability to weather economic downturns. "We depend on our repeat customers," says Gregg Confer, Elk's general manager. "We know many of these people will go back home and tell their friends about us. Once we get them here, we're confident they'll return."

What brings them back? Elk relies on a well-deserved reputation as a "skier's mountain." In fact, whoever first described Elk Mountain as "Vermont-like skiing in Pennsylvania" surely knew a thing or two about its terrain. Confer likens his ski area to Okemo, Vt., for the general feel of the place (customer service, grooming, family programs, etc.); but when it comes to terrain, he thinks of Sugarbush. Elk's natural topography endows its 27 trails with challenging, no-nonsense fall-line skiing. There's rarely a need to traverse long distances to get to the best terrain. "We like our trails to follow the natural contour of the mountain, the way nature intended you to ski," says Confer. "Most of our trails are cut down the fall line."

Elk's black-diamond trails account for some 40 percent of its total terrain. For many experts, the allure begins with Susquehanna, a wide black diamond with a steep pitch at the top. From there, skiers take in one of most scenic vistas to be found anywhere in the state. As part of the Appalachian Mountain Range, Elk is blessed with an elevation of almost 2,700 feet, making it the highest point in eastern Pennsylvania. Rolling hills and valley farms stretch northeastward to the horizon in southern New York State.

Good slopes beget good skiers, and in large part because of its challenging terrain, Elk produces some of the finest rippers in the state. Youngsters such as Emma Hobson, who qualified for the Eastern Junior J-1 and J-2 finals, credit Elk's race program for much of their accomplishments.

Bump lovers such as Tom McDonald head straight to the Tunkhannock trail (virtually all trails are named for Native American tribes). "It gives you a nice consistent pitch from top to bottom and usually has great snow conditions," says McDonald, who learned to ski the bumps at Elk and went on to compete on the Pro Mogul Tour. Several years ago, Elk installed a quad chairlift on the west side of the mountain, using Tunkhannock for a liftline. Now riders of the quad can witness some outstanding mogul skiers (and others not so polished) testing their mettle on the 1,500-foot carpet of bus.

Elk also understands the needs of its many novice customers. This is Pennsylvania, after all, and a wide learning area beckons first-time skiers and snowboarders. Those with a little more experience can hone their skills on 10 intermediate trails, each with unique terrain and generous width. For great views and mellow cruising, Lenape and Delaware¿at opposite edges of the area¿can't be beat. Lenape (pronounced: LEN-a-pee) is especially fun since the grooming crew began building in terrain features from top to bottom. It started as an accident: One morning patrollers had so much fun negotiating whalebacks left after a night of sustained snowmaking that Confer went up and tried it himself. He wound up turning the trail into a half-mile roller coaster of banked turns and gently undulating terrain.

In fact, there's nothing cookie-cutter about the approach to trail design anywhere at Elk. With adequate elbow room, skiers have the luxury of making wide, leisurely turns or carving out a tighter slalom. Even on Elk's busiest days, there's a sense of space and serenity on the slopes. Groomed terrain is an Elk Mountain signature, and smooth, corduroy surfaces can be found on most trails. At 4 p.m. on weekends, groomers often make extra swipes on the heavy-traffic trails, buffing them out for night-skiers. In spite of Eastern snow's proclivity to turn icy, the mountain ops staff knows how to deliver a reliably manageable surface.

Perhaps the most consistent quality of Elk's personality is consistency itself. Not unlike the skiers they serve, Elk's staff is a loyal lot. From its acclaimed ski patrol, named best in the northeast in 1998, to the friendly cafeteria personnel, Elk's turnover ratio is relatively small, and many employees have been at Elk for 25 years or more.

But success has also been tempered with challenges. Nearby Montage Mountain¿county-owned and taxpayer subsidized¿took a bite out of Elk's business when it opened in 1984. And Elk needed all its resources to cope with a 1999 fire that devastated its snowmaking system. Intense flames essentially melted the compressor building. The loss exceeded $2 million, but within three days, and with assistance of local vendors, mountain manager Chris Weldon had secured 14 portable diesel compressors and restored snowmaking production to about 75 percent of original capacity. Seven months later, Elk unveiled a new compressor system capable of making more snow in marginal temperatures. "Without the tremendous support from the community and our local vendors, none of this would have been possible," Weldon says.

Elk Mountain embodies a sense of community and small-town friendliness. Clarks Summit, a suburb of Scranton 20 minutes from Elk Mountain, is the closest borough to the ski area. Jammed motels each weekend this past ski season were indicative of a successful year at Elk. "A good portion of our weekend business are Elk skiers," says Bill Nichols of Nichols Village in Clarks Summit. "We host people from New Jersey, Philadelphia and as far away as Washington, D.C., and on most weekends throughout the winter there is a waiting list for rooms."

The closer travelers get to Elk Mountain itself, the fewer their options become for dining and accommodations. Driving up the access road you'll probably notice more buffalo grazing in the fields than you will B&Bs. It has to be said: Nightlife and après-ski fun are just not big components of the Elk experience. There's no lively downtown to explore; just pretty countryside dotted with lakes and the occasional stone-arch bridge left over from the railroad era. Also noticeably absent are the trophy homes one normally finds at a ski resort. A residential community of about 125 private homes and townhomes huddles near the base of the mountain, but none are available for weekend rental. And therein lies Elk's dilemma. Does it remain a secluded, frills-free ski area catering to purists and nonconformists? Or does it attempt to grow its annual average of 100,000 skier visits by adding such attractions as on-mountain condos? Will water slides, snowtubing and elaborate terrain parks soon follow? Those skiers who privately refer to the ski area as "Club Elk" hope they already know the answers to those questions.

Elk's management admits it would like to increase skier visits by about 20,000 each year, but says it won't do so at the expense of the mountain's character. Going against the grain, Elk has until now steadfastly resisted the temptation to build the slopeside condominium units so popular in the Seventies and Eighties, opting instead for a very different kind of growth: trees. Seventeen years ago, Elk began planting at least 1,000 white pine and Norway spruce saplings per year. Some are now approaching 50 feet in height, giving the trails they line a serene, cozy sense of seclusion. "They add to the aesthetic of the mountain," explains Confer. "But they also serve as a great wind-breaker during snowmaking."

To ski at Elk is to ski a mountain void of pretensions and liftlines. Even as the crowds and varied license plates begin to roll in each Friday, Elk's down-home charm takes front and center. And though it's unlikely Katharine Hepburn herself ever skied at Elk, a Philadelphia Story of its own kind is alive and well in Union Dale.? Or does it attempt to grow its annual average of 100,000 skier visits by adding such attractions as on-mountain condos? Will water slides, snowtubing and elaborate terrain parks soon follow? Those skiers who privately refer to the ski area as "Club Elk" hope they already know the answers to those questions.

Elk's management admits it would like to increase skier visits by about 20,000 each year, but says it won't do so at the expense of the mountain's character. Going against the grain, Elk has until now steadfastly resisted the temptation to build the slopeside condominium units so popular in the Seventies and Eighties, opting instead for a very different kind of growth: trees. Seventeen years ago, Elk began planting at least 1,000 white pine and Norway spruce saplings per year. Some are now approaching 50 feet in height, giving the trails they line a serene, cozy sense of seclusion. "They add to the aesthetic of the mountain," explains Confer. "But they also serve as a great wind-breaker during snowmaking."

To ski at Elk is to ski a mountain void of pretensions and liftlines. Even as the crowds and varied license plates begin to roll in each Friday, Elk's down-home charm takes front and center. And though it's unlikely Katharine Hepburn herself ever skied at Elk, a Philadelphia Story of its own kind is alive and well in Union Dale.