His voice is high-pitched with just a touch of northern sing-song elevating out from his tiny frame. His goggles hang off his nose. The unzipped jacket he wears hangs boxy, with the “two winters” fit uniformly known amongst cold-weather first graders.
“Watch out for Death Canyon, it gets crazy if you go in there.”
He points his skis inward and wedges his way down the hill, hands ready like a baseball player.
For uninformed skiers, the metrics of Death Canyon are as follows: a shallow gently sloping divit scooped out of the snow no more than a full adult in volume. Tackling this challenging terrain feature as a 180-pound male traveling at a speed of not-that-fast would require me to gently un-weight the front of my skis for approximately one third of a second. It's a little different for our young local expert though. A few runs later he enters Death Canyon with what may or may not be intent. He’ll probably remember that same moment his volatile cocktail of self-doubt, resent, and fear only for the relieved exhilaration he felt upon exiting the canyon's walls. Or maybe the car has one of those built in TV setups in the headrests and he’ll just settle straight into Sponge Bob. Either way, his minor success is one of dozens of similar attempts on Death Canyon that evening at Chatham Ski Hill.
The dramatic thing happening here, however, isn't the local's propensity for hyperbole when naming features on the single run serviced by Chatham's single electric rope tow. It's not the hand shoveled jumps, or the homemade grooming-rake towed by a snowmobile. The 50-year-old A-frame cabin at the bottom of the run has the bucolic charm of a double barrel woodstove, and decades worth of carvings marking generations of children's passing, but that isn't quite it either. Next to the cabin roars a bonfire surrounded by parents bundled up in Sorrels, snowmobile jackets, all cradling an extra layer of adult insulation in hand. That's about it here, and in the absence of everything the purpose of this place resonates easily through the empty hardwoods into my eardrums as the laughter from 30 shiny nosed kids having the time of their lives on a Wednesday evening.
I know skiing's symphonies, from the soft snow swishes we all long for, to the belting of Beyonce and bag wine we later regret. This is a new pattern, hitting me with some late-twenties-single-millennial-male moment of abstract adulthood, causing the discovery of how much better music can be if it isn't my own.
The 50-year-old A-frame cabin at the bottom of the run has the bucolic charm of a double barrel woodstove, and decades worth of carvings marking generations of children's passing.
Musical performances of any sort are sweeter than just sound waves rattling ear drums, and this laughter dancing through a quiet corner of Hiawatha National Forest because of the people setting the stage. The electricity that runs this rope tow, once spun by the wheel of an old car ran in reverse, flows because the community of Chatham came together to flip the switch on for its children. Organization largely takes place on the Friends of Chatham Ski Hill Facebook page with the hill being staffed by locals like Trevor Case, a military veteran and college student, who knows each of the children by name. At $5 for a “Day Pass” or $150 for an entire family for the season, Chatham isn't out to operate in the black, but rather the community understands the need for this small slope.
It works. The snow that the rake softens thanks to the parents who care makes the perfect medium for bouncing laughs in the air.
The electricity that runs this rope tow, once spun by the wheel of an old car ran in reverse, flows because the community of Chatham came together to flip the switch on for its children.
The challenges they face on their little hill mimic the interactions of adults on larger mountains, but since no kid really knows what they are supposed to be doing, problems are solved in seconds.
On the hill less than half a football field from the fire, Chatham's children compose their laughs without structure. If they want to build jumps they must "Lord of the Flies" their way through size and location regulations, safe traffic diversion during construction, and quality control when the bravest souls tuck hands to knees from the top of the hill to launch skyward towards the unknown. When one falls the others take it upon themselves to assess the situation, slow nearby skiers, and potentially call for nearby help. The challenges they face on their little hill mimic the interactions of adults on larger mountains, but since no kid really knows what they are supposed to be doing, problems are solved in seconds.
The kids don't realize the rhythm they're creating, and that might be why it works. Maybe that's why a bunch of parents who probably don't own ski magazines, or know what rocker really does, keep bringing their kids here decade after decade, despite the lack of improvements.
The sounds of laughter gently rocks through me like the imaginary ebbs and flows felt after a day on a boat while driving away. There is no unseeing what was easily the most content ski community I've ever met. Sure none of them can drive, but none of them are going to have a melt down at the ticket window when conditions aren't great either. The skiing future of most of those kids might be college spring break hero at best, but that will be because they weren't totally raised by iPads. Somewhere, out of service on a road indecipherable from anywhere else in the region, I realize the future of skiing is in the music of its past.