Weekend at Cannon Mountain

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Travel East
Weekend at Cannon A 1100

Cannon Mountain was one of New England's first ski resorts when it opened in 1938, and for decades it enjoyed a reputation as a serious hill for serious skiers. Trails were steep and narrow, the weather often forbidding, and nightlife consisted of retiring with your buddies and a six-pack to some ski dorm or hostel to plot the next day's runs. Located in spectacular Franconia Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest, Cannon seemed to embody the ruggedness of its surroundings. If the Old Man of the Mountain¿the well-known nearby rock formation resembling a jut-chinned old-timer¿were to have come down off his perch for a bit of skiing, he could've done no better than the trails at Cannon.

These days, though, old-school skiing is harder to find at Cannon, which like many New England areas has tamed much of its terrain in an attempt to draw families and casual enthusiasts. Still, there's enough challenging terrain to keep you occupied for a weekend and then some. The added plus is that the mountain has stubbornly clung to its no-frills ethos, meaning you won't find a giant hot tub and pulsing reggae awaiting you when you finish your last run of the day.

You won't find tubs and tunes when the area's planned $23 millionoverhaul is complete, either. Cannon, which is state-owned, is in the midst of a 10-year, three-phase upgrade that its managers hope will¿you guessed it¿lure more families and casual skiers to the area. But instead of spending on hotels or a depressing faux-alpine base village, Cannon is doing the smart thing by investing in infrastructure: new lifts, the creation of a beginner area and expansion onto the neighboring Mittersill property, a defunct ski area owned by the state since 1991. Phase 1 of the project is complete: three new lifts installed for last season. Phase 2 would open part of Mittersill, with a lift linking to Cannon, parking facilities, shuttle service and some trail rehabilitation. Phase 3 would fully reanimate the old slopes with new lifts.

It's an ambitious plan with an equally ambitious timetable (and nothing can go forward until Cannon proves it can repay the bond that financed Phase 1), but it suggests the vast potential that skiers and management alike see in Cannon. It didn't take long before I was a believer, too.

Friday Night
My wife and I roll into the Franconia Inn¿located on Route 116, a few minutes south of the town of Franconia¿at the tail-end of the dinner hour and are promptly seated in the inn's gracious, cozy dining room. Dinner is hearty¿roast pork and a nice merlot¿and over dessert we chat with Richard Morris, who owns the inn with his brother Alec.

Richard fills us in on the late-season conditions¿"still a lot of skiing, but you'll want to get there early, before the sun softens it up too much"¿and recounts a recent outing with friends on the old Mittersill trails. Though it has been technically mothballed for years, locals routinely cut over from the Cannon trails to schuss Mittersill's runs¿narrow, twisty, steep, a lot like the Cannon of old.

Suitably primed, we retreat to our room¿again, gracious and cozy¿singing the inn's praises. We are grateful not to be stuck in a faceless ski condo, like the developments that sprawl at the bases of many other ski resorts. Cannon offers no lodging of its own, but skiers in the Franconia area can choose from a wealth of charming inns and B&Bs. For me, the inn simply adds to my emerging sense of the region's rustic civility. That, and the deep quiet that descends when we turn out the light.

Saturday Morning
The day greets us with a view of one of my favorite White Mountain peaks: 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, which rises majestically across the valley from Cannon. We eat breakfast in the inn's dining room, alternately gazing at Lafayette and at the white ribbons of trails at the edge of Cannon. It is a bright morni with a high overcast, which I hope will obstruct the sun's rays enough to keep the snow manageable.

The Cannon parking lot is already half full when we arrive, 15 minutes after leaving the inn. I am struck by how large the mountain is (summit elevation: 4,180 feet) and how minimal the base development is: a lodge, a couple of smaller adjacent buildings, the new daycare center, and that's it. Out of sight down the road are a couple of additional buildings¿the tramway base station and the New England Ski Museum¿but the overall impression of the place is that you came to ski, and just ski. So we just ski.

We warm up on some lower-slope cruisers, Toss-Up and Lower Cannon, finding the March snow coarse but well-groomed. Then we jump on the new Peabody Express quad chair. A vast improvement over the old "Slowbody" Double, it zips us three-quarters of the way up the mountain and into the intermediate playground there. Runs such as Middle Cannon, Big Link, Middle Ravine and a nice little cut-through called Spookie are fun to ski. A few icy patches gleam, but there is plenty of good stuff at the edges of the trails.

Saturday Afternoon
After a lunch break of bagels and Cokes, we head back up the Peabody Express, then cut over on a short stretch of Big Link to connect with the Cannonball Express quad. The Cannonball offers a bird's-eye view of Profile trail¿a steep, bumpy black-diamond that I put on my list for later that day¿before depositing us near the summit, just above the tram station. We stand for a few minutes looking out across the notch at hulking Lafayette. Then we head for the narrow, twisty, ungroomed trails Cannon touts as its remaining old-school runs¿Taft Slalom, along with Upper, Middle and Lower Hardscrabble.

Taft Slalom is a narrow but manageable intermediate trail that heads straight for the old Mittersill runs before veering into the black-diamond Upper Hardscrabble. Upper, with its generally gnarly aspect, humbles me; I hack my way down, followed by the equally snaggly Middle, in a series of linked face plants and sitzmarks. Despite my tortured descent, I can see the appeal; on a powder day (they happen in New England more often than you think) these narrow, twisty trails would offer serious fun¿a little bit of Vermont's Mad River Glen transplanted to New Hampshire.

After our adventures on the Hardscrabbles, we decide to rest our weary legs for the next day and do a bit of sightseeing. Profile and the secret Mittersill trails will have to wait.

We drive through the base of Mittersill, its old chairlift towers rusting forlornly, and proceed uphill through a little village of Swiss-alpine-style houses so kitschy you can't help but love them. If Cannon's Mittersill plan comes to fruition, it may be a mixed blessing for these hill-dwellers: Many of them will be able to ski out their back doors, but they stand to lose their atmosphere of splendid isolation. We're guessing the sudden spike in property values will help soften the blow.

Saturday Night
Back at the inn, after a shower and a restorative Scotch, we wander into a rowdy gathering of a local ski club in the downstairs pub. Kids munch appetizers, swap secrets and chase each other madly; adults, over beers, talk skiing and school functions. "If we lived somewhere else we'd probably bond over soccer or Little League or drama club," one ski mom tells me. "Here, it's skiing, skiing, skiing. No one can get enough of it."

Alec Morris has suggested we try a nearby restaurant for dinner, so we make the short drive over to neighboring Bethlehem for dinner at Tim-Bir Alley, located in the elegant Adair, a highly regarded inn on Old Littleton Road. The restaurant is owned by Tim and Biruta Carr, who started it in nearby Littleton and quickly earned a reputation for having the finest gourmet cuisine in northern New Hampshire.

The move to Adair is a good one: The dining room is cozy and romantic, and the understated decor means it's that much easier to concentrate on the plate in front of you. As if we need help in that department. For an appetizer, we go for the salmon-brie ravioli with artichoke vinaigrette (light, fresh and delicious), and for entrees we both opt for the tournedos of beef on roasted onion mashed potatoes with smoked bacon and cabernet-thyme sauce. It is even better than you are imagining: The beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the sauce is prepared with knowing restraint. As if we haven't splurged enough, or perhaps just to reward ourselves for having survived the Hardscrabbles, we spring for a bottle of Kendall Jackson cabernet sauvignon and split a white chocolate-coconut tart with dark chocolate sauce for dessert. Our bill: $95. A relative bargain.

Sunday
Rain threatens in the morning, so we get an early start on our mid-mountain intermediate playground, reprising our runs from the day before on Middle Cannon, Big Link and the rest. Eventually I head to the top of Profile, look down, think better of it, then cut over to Vista Way, a mountaintop intermediate cruiser (in surprisingly good shape) that hooks up with Middle Cannon. On the lower mountain, I skid down the fringes of the black-diamond Zoomer¿part of the hill's distinctive "Front Five" trails, which greet motorists heading north on I-93¿as slalom racers in the middle of the run make it look easy. At the bottom, contemplating our next move, the mist begins. So much for contemplation; Profile and Mittersill will have to wait until next year. Minutes later we are packed and headed for a ride on Cannon's aerial tramway, a mile-long marvel opened in 1980 on the site of the first such tramway in North America, which opened in 1938. The ride gives us a slightly different view of Mount Lafayette, which is slowly being obscured by the low gray clouds settling over the valley. Next door to the tramway base is the New England Ski Museum, tiny and pleasantly cluttered. New Hampshire was arguably the cradle of skiing in America in the Twenties and Thirties, and the museum does a great job of capturing the early, innocent days of the sport. It's amazing to consider what people accomplished on ungroomed slopes using wooden skis and leather boots and bindings.

Before heading homeward through the wild heart of the White Mountains on the scenic Kancamagus Highway, otherwise known as Route 112, we make our pilgrimage to poet Robert Frost's old place outside Franconia. The house is a simple white clapboard structure with a stunning view of the omnipresent Lafayette, as well as a sliver of Cannon. No one is around. We peek in the windows and are rewarded with views of a few old pieces of dusty furniture. I don't think Frost was much of a skier, but as I get into the car I imagine the impact the sport might have had on his poetry. Consider:"Two runs diverged in a birchy glade, and I¿I took the one not yet tracked out, and that has made, like, all the difference." Regardless, I'm pretty sure the old guy would have been a big fan of Cannon Mountain.d the understated decor means it's that much easier to concentrate on the plate in front of you. As if we need help in that department. For an appetizer, we go for the salmon-brie ravioli with artichoke vinaigrette (light, fresh and delicious), and for entrees we both opt for the tournedos of beef on roasted onion mashed potatoes with smoked bacon and cabernet-thyme sauce. It is even better than you are imagining: The beef is melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the sauce is prepared with knowing restraint. As if we haven't splurged enough, or perhaps just to reward ourselves for having survived the Hardscrabbles, we spring for a bottle of Kendall Jackson cabernet sauvignon and split a white chocolate-coconut tart with dark chocolate sauce for dessert. Our bill: $95. A relative bargain.

Sunday
Rain threatens in the morning, so we get an early start on our mid-mountain intermediate playground, reprising our runs from the day before on Middle Cannon, Big Link and the rest. Eventually I head to the top of Profile, look down, think better of it, then cut over to Vista Way, a mountaintop intermediate cruiser (in surprisingly good shape) that hooks up with Middle Cannon. On the lower mountain, I skid down the fringes of the black-diamond Zoomer¿part of the hill's distinctive "Front Five" trails, which greet motorists heading north on I-93¿as slalom racers in the middle of the run make it look easy. At the bottom, contemplating our next move, the mist begins. So much for contemplation; Profile and Mittersill will have to wait until next year. Minutes later we are packed and headed for a ride on Cannon's aerial tramway, a mile-long marvel opened in 1980 on the site of the first such tramway in North America, which opened in 1938. The ride gives us a slightly different view of Mount Lafayette, which is slowly being obscured by the low gray clouds settling over the valley. Next door to the tramway base is the New England Ski Museum, tiny and pleasantly cluttered. New Hampshire was arguably the cradle of skiing in America in the Twenties and Thirties, and the museum does a great job of capturing the early, innocent days of the sport. It's amazing to consider what people accomplished on ungroomed slopes using wooden skis and leather boots and bindings.

Before heading homeward through the wild heart of the White Mountains on the scenic Kancamagus Highway, otherwise known as Route 112, we make our pilgrimage to poet Robert Frost's old place outside Franconia. The house is a simple white clapboard structure with a stunning view of the omnipresent Lafayette, as well as a sliver of Cannon. No one is around. We peek in the windows and are rewarded with views of a few old pieces of dusty furniture. I don't think Frost was much of a skier, but as I get into the car I imagine the impact the sport might have had on his poetry. Consider:"Two runs diverged in a birchy glade, and I¿I took the one not yet tracked out, and that has made, like, all the difference." Regardless, I'm pretty sure the old guy would have been a big fan of Cannon Mountain.