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Friends of Abenaki aim for more improvements at town ski area

With permit in hand, fundraising is ongoing for installation of permanent snowmaking system

October 08, 2009
WOLFEBORO — There is no voice in a cornfield. There is no Ray Kinsella or Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. There's no Shoeless Joe Jackson emerging from seemingly out of nowhere.

However, the famous Field of Dreams quote, "if you build it, he (they) will come," certainly rings true at Abenaki Ski Area in Wolfeboro.

Through the hard work of the Friends of Abenaki, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and upgrading the town-owned ski area on Route 109A, snowmaking arrived on the scene just a few short years ago and skier (and snowboarder) visits are through the roof. Now, the Friends of Abenaki have received approval to move ahead with the next phase of the plan, once the money is raised.

The town recently received notification from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services that a permit had been granted to allow water withdrawals from the wetlands at the bottom of the Abenaki Ski Area, between Route 109A and the Pop Whalen Arena. The water withdrawals would be used for a permanent snowmaking system that the Friends of Abenaki are currently fundraising to purchase.

Currently, the Wolfeboro Parks and Recreation Department does draw water from the pond, though through a small pipe, just enough to run the portable snowmakers that the Friends of Abenaki purchased a few years ago and to create the outdoor ice rink behind the Pop Whalen Arena.

The town has received a permit allowing the withdrawal of about 280,000 gallons of water, which would put the pond's water level down about 1.76 inches. The pond holds about 6.5 million gallons of water at its full capacity.

"There's more water going in and out than we're going to take out," said Friends of Abenaki member Ted Newman. "There's a lot of water that goes into the brook."

Parks and Recreation Director Ethan Hipple, whose department is in charge of running the town's ski slope, noted that in the spring time, most of the water drawn out of the pond will eventually make its way back down to the pond when the snow on the hill melts.

Friends of Abenaki member Bill Swaffield pointed out that the current portable systems have been a great addition to the hill, increasing visits in the two years they have been in operation. With the portable units, however, the snowmaking doesn't even reach the top of the hill, which means a lot more hours are spent moving the snow with the groomer that the group purchased back in 2005-06.

"It takes a lot of groomer time," Swaffield said. "And it's inefficient."

Hipple noted that a permanent snowmaking system certainly wouldn't increase his department's labor costs, but would likely decrease them, as the grooming time and the snowmaking time would decrease dramatically with a permanent system in place.

"Right now they're moving it all over the place," Swaffield said.

According to Newman, the permanent snowmaking system, if installed, would allow the ski area to make snow two or three really cold nights early in the season and then if the winter progressed as recent ones have, the system would just be needed for occasional touch-up work.

The town-owned ski area is a bargain for any skier or snowboarder in the area, with cheap ticket prices, but for a number of years, the hill didn't open because of the lack of snow.

Friends of Abenaki got involved and raised money for the purchase of the groomer and the portable snowmaking systems and the number of visits has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years, with 2,700 documented visits last winter.

"We're on a steady, upward trajectory and that's just with the equipment we have," Hipple said.

"It gets kids outside in the winter and it's affordable and easy to get to," Swaffield said. "It's a really good way to spend some time in the winter."

Swaffield also noted that with a fully-operational Abenaki, groups of skiers from local schools could choose to use the area for their skiing programs instead of transporting kids to mountains further away, with King Pine and Gunstock being the current closest areas.

Swaffield also noted that former Parks and Recreation Director Don Brookes, who passed away earlier this year, came up to himself and other members of the Friends of Abenaki during the group's annual pancake breakfast this winter and praised the idea of snowmaking.

"He wondered why we couldn't have done this 30 years ago," Swaffield said.

Newman said that there was talk about installing a snowmaking system back then, but the technology wasn't what it is today.

Additionally, the equipment that the Friends of Abenaki are pursuing is among the "greenest" you can get, using low air, low electricity and a variable speed pump that senses the demand and adjusts its speed accordingly.

"It's so green that PSNH (Public Service of New Hampshire) will give us a break because we're installing a green product," Swaffield noted.

Parking woes

The town also got the good news that one of the biggest problems at the Abenaki/Pop Whalen complex would soon be alleviated, as the parking expansion recently approved by voters got the go-ahead from the state (wetlands were involved). Currently, if there is a hockey game or tournament going on at the arena, there are almost no parking spots left in the cramped parking lot. The new expansion will take place on the west side of the rink and Hipple noted that, with funds already approved, that project was out to bid and he was hoping to have the work started this fall, in anticipation of the busy hockey and ski seasons at the complex.

"We can finally take water out of the pond and you don't have to park on the side of the highway," Swaffield said happily.

The Friends of Abenaki are hopeful that they can raise some funds soon enough to have the pipes for the snowmaking system installed while the parking lot is being laid out, with the pipes running under the new parking lot beside the arena and up the hill under the main rope tow.


The Friends of Abenaki remain hopeful that they can raise the funds to install the permanent system sooner rather than later, but there is no doubt it will require a bit of money.

"We need some community support," Newman said. "We need some people to join Friends of Abenaki, we need to broaden our base."

The improvements for the ski area, paid for completely in donations by the Friends of Abenaki, have been a three-phase process, beginning with the purchase of the new groomer back in the winter of 2005-06.

Phase two saw the purchase of the new novice rope tow for the ski area's kiddie slope in the fall of 2006 and the purchase of the two portable snow guns in the winters of 2006-07 and 2007-08. To date, the Friends of Abenaki have raised and spent more than $140,000 to improve the ski area, but the permanent snowmaking will be the costliest of the phases.

The estimated cost of the system, as proposed by Snow Economics of Natick, Mass., is $300,000, which the Friends of Abenaki are looking to generate through their fundraising efforts.

While not everyone is able to contribute funds, Hipple notes that there are many other ways to help out the Friends of Abenaki.

"We can always use volunteers," he said. "There are other ways people can help Friends of Abenaki."

Newman noted that the Friends of Abenaki will also provide scholarships to those in the community who want to enjoy the ski area but can't afford to get on the hill.

Swaffield pointed out that the group is simply working to make a town-owned treasure a little better.

"It's owned by the town and run by the town; we're just helping with the infrastructure," he noted.

The Friends of Abenaki are gladly accepting funds for the purchase of the new snowmaking system and anyone interested in donating or looking for more information can write to the group at PO Box 506, Wolfeboro, NH 03894. The group's Web site, www.friendsofabenaki.org, has been experiencing some problems lately, but the group hopes to have it up and running soon.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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