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Good Grooming: Volunteers Build, Maintain Plainfield Winter Trail Network

  • Bill Knight, of Meriden, runs the Plainfield Trailblazers groomer earlier this month on the 15 kilometers of trails near Plainfield Elementary School in Meriden. Knight has been involved with the group since its founding in 2006. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Bill Knight, of Meriden, runs the Plainfield Trailblazers groomer earlier this month on the 15 kilometers of trails near Plainfield Elementary School in Meriden. Knight has been involved with the group since its founding in 2006. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Members of the Lebanon High School cross country ski team Nick Davini, left, Tori Constantine and Kyle Bellinger wax their skis before taking to the trails. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Members of the Lebanon High School cross country ski team Nick Davini, left, Tori Constantine and Kyle Bellinger wax their skis before taking to the trails. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Knight, of Meriden, left, talks with Roger Stone, of Cornish, while both took a brief break from their activities on the ski trails near Plainfield Elementary School earlier this month. “It’s great having trails nearby,” Stone said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Bill Knight, of Meriden, left, talks with Roger Stone, of Cornish, while both took a brief break from their activities on the ski trails near Plainfield Elementary School earlier this month. “It’s great having trails nearby,” Stone said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pete Martel, of Plainfield, prepares to go skiing in the woods with his dog, Sam. “It’s so dog friendly,” he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Pete Martel, of Plainfield, prepares to go skiing in the woods with his dog, Sam. “It’s so dog friendly,” he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eleri Clifton skiis out in front of her grand parents Jerry and Martha Doolittle on the trails in Meriden. They said they come out to the trails almost every day when the snow is good. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Eleri Clifton skiis out in front of her grand parents Jerry and Martha Doolittle on the trails in Meriden. They said they come out to the trails almost every day when the snow is good. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From front, Lebanon cross country teammates Ian Girdwood, Zach Liebold and Matt Cole practice on the ski trails in Meriden. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    From front, Lebanon cross country teammates Ian Girdwood, Zach Liebold and Matt Cole practice on the ski trails in Meriden. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Liz Peterson of the Lebanon cross country ski team uses the trails in Meriden for practice.<br/> (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Liz Peterson of the Lebanon cross country ski team uses the trails in Meriden for practice.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Bill Knight, of Meriden, runs the Plainfield Trailblazers groomer earlier this month on the 15 kilometers of trails near Plainfield Elementary School in Meriden. Knight has been involved with the group since its founding in 2006. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Members of the Lebanon High School cross country ski team Nick Davini, left, Tori Constantine and Kyle Bellinger wax their skis before taking to the trails. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Bill Knight, of Meriden, left, talks with Roger Stone, of Cornish, while both took a brief break from their activities on the ski trails near Plainfield Elementary School earlier this month. “It’s great having trails nearby,” Stone said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Pete Martel, of Plainfield, prepares to go skiing in the woods with his dog, Sam. “It’s so dog friendly,” he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Eleri Clifton skiis out in front of her grand parents Jerry and Martha Doolittle on the trails in Meriden. They said they come out to the trails almost every day when the snow is good. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • From front, Lebanon cross country teammates Ian Girdwood, Zach Liebold and Matt Cole practice on the ski trails in Meriden. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Liz Peterson of the Lebanon cross country ski team uses the trails in Meriden for practice.<br/> (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Plainfield — After spending the morning grooming trails and coaching cross country skiing, Bill Knight headed for his silver pickup truck in the Plainfield Elementary School parking lot to drive home. But he didn’t get very far.

It was a Saturday, a bright, blue-skyed sparkling with fresh snow Saturday. A dreamy contrast to last year’s brown, snowless season. And winter sports lovers were rejoicing.

Knight, an assistant coach for the Lebanon High School cross country ski team, stopped every few feet to catch up with cross country skiers and snowshoers. Several thanked him as they unpacked their gear. He and a fellow Meriden resident chatted about their kids, who had gone to school together. Ski team member Kelsie Atwater asked if he’d seen her jacket. “It’s in my truck,” he said with a smile, and went to get the coat, one of three that students had left behind that day.

Knight is the unofficial leader of the Plainfield Trailblazers, a group of volunteers who have expanded a small, informal trail system into a web of 15 miles of tidy trails. This winter, they are grooming about 15 kilometers for cross country skiing.

That morning, as Knight groomed, a pair of black Labrador retrievers chased each other in the field behind the school. Skiers hurried onto the snow. Bareheaded, Knight looped the field on the yellow snowmobile, his salt-and-pepper hair mussed by the wind. His day had started early, but Knight, who is facilities manager at the school, didn’t mind.

“What are you going to do at 5 a.m.?” he asked, grinning.

Over the course of a weekend, several hundred people use the trails, he said. “That makes it worthwhile.”

Plainfield is one of several Upper Valley towns blessed with a public trail system organized by volunteers. The area is used by skiers, dog walkers, hikers, hunters and mountain bikers.

The trails closest to the elementary school are the easiest, Knight said, with more technical terrain farther out.

Ellen Langsner, principal of Plainfield Elementary, said the trail network is “really, really a valuable resource.”

Staff members exercise there, and quite a few students use the trails to get to school, Langsner said. “The kids are out there all the time.”

Teachers often take students into the woods to hike and conduct “unobtrusive” science experiments, and winter Fridays find the school community skiing and snowshoeing, she said. “We are very fortunate here.”

The community enthusiasm and involvement with the trails are just what the Trailblazers had hoped for when they began their work eight years ago.

In the 1960s, Meriden resident Ira Townsend built several bridges across Blood Brook. The bridges provided access for Kimball Union Academy students to the school’s ski hill, Knight said, but due to flooding, none lasted very long.

The original trails could be accessed from back roads in town, but without a bridge, there was no way to reach the trails from the elementary school. For years there had been talk of building a new bridge, volunteer Carin Reynolds said, and in 2005, a group of outdoor enthusiasts decided it was time.

The timber bridge, which Knight designed, connects Plainfield Elementary School with the trails system. Built with private donations, the 67-foot span is named for Townsend and his wife, Sara, who lived in the town for decades.

A KUA graduate, Ira Townsend later worked at the school, serving as its treasurer and business manager and overseeing the grounds, his son, Jim Townsend, said. A Lebanon native who grew up skiing, Ira Townsend generously shared his love for the sport.

He coached KUA’s team and designed and built the school’s ski area, along with a lodge and two ski jumps, his son said. “He was happy to do the volunteer work,” and built trails “all over Plainfield and Meriden,” including those leading to French’s Ledges, a popular lookout spot.

To preserve the area for hikers and skiers, the Townsends sold off the development rights to the land around their home. Ira Townsend, who now lives in Lebanon, will turn 93 this week. His volunteerism is being carried on by the Trail Blazers.

Throughout the complex process, the group has worked with a range of organizations, including Plainfield’s Selectboard, School Board and Conservation Commission, KUA, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, and the Meriden Village Water District.

People of all ages have helped build and maintain new trails traversing more than 900 acres of land belonging to KUA, Plainfield Elementary School, the town and eight private owners.

“It’s a real patchwork of public and private land,” Reynolds said.

The trails serve as training grounds for the 45-member Lebanon boys and girls cross country ski team, which practices there most days, snow permitting.

Les Lawrence, a Lebanon High School teacher who has coached the team for three decades, said they were grateful to be able to ski there.

So many people helped develop the trails and donated materials, and landowners allowed their land to be used, Lawrence said. “It is an incredibly generous thing that they do.”

The team has previously practiced other places, including KUA and Dartmouth, but they “really wanted to have our own trails (where) we were the priority,” he said. “Our kids kind of consider it their home.”

That’s no small thing for a sport like skiing, which is entirely dependent on the weather.

“In our world, unfortunately, a lot of mornings we wake up wondering, Where are we going to get to practice today?” Lawrence said.

At times, the coaches have driven around the Upper Valley scouting for snow, he said. When they found a snowy spot, they’d ask landowners’ permission to practice there.

If there’s enough snow, the team will host several races at the Trailblazer network this year, including the Connecticut Valley Conference championships and a meet for New Hampshire’s top skiers.

Over the years, the team has helped with trail maintenance. Some of the skiers were also Boy Scouts and built small bridges in the trail network for their Eagle Scout projects, Lawrence said. “It’s a wonderful community situation.”

Jerry Doolittle, 75, has seen the wooded area change over the years.

Doolittle and his wife, Martha, moved to Meriden from Massachusetts in the early 1960s. There, they met Townsend, who became their mentor.

“We’re basically city folks. We didn’t have much smarts about country-type things,” Jerry Doolittle said. “We were new in town, but they sucked us into the social life … a mix of town and KUA people.”

Townsend and teachers from KUA would take boys who needed to let off a little energy outside to build trails, Doolittle said, and they also installed a poma lift.

“These guys, they really were ambitious,” he said.

Decades later, remnants of the hill, one of the state’s “lost ski areas” include an old wooden lift shack and A-frame base lodge.

The couple still ski in Plainfield when the snow is good, Doolittle said. “In more recent years, there’s been a lot more general interest in trails.”

Michael Schafer, KUA’s head of school, said parents, faculty members and staff frequently use the land behind the elementary school, and the KUA ski team sometimes practices there. Schafer said keeping the land open to the public helps the school continue its cooperative, collaborative relationship with the extended community.

“The school has always been a part of the village, and the village has always been a part of the school,” he said. “What the community is doing to continue to maintain (the land) is also beneficial to KUA, and greatly appreciated.”

Although it’s volunteer powered, the area is run much like a professional ski area. Grooming the entire network takes about eight hours, Knight said, and snow permitting, someone hits the trails almost every day. Reynolds emails a grooming report to about 100 outdoors enthusiasts, and she and others periodically lead tours on the land.

The group has annual budget of $5,000-$7,000, depending on the year, Knight said. The money is all donated, and this year they’ll need to raise additional money for equipment maintenance. The Plainfield Pig-Out, an annual fundraiser run by the ski team, will take place some time in February.

Each year, about 30 or 40 volunteers pitch in on projects, Knight said. This year, they hope to improve drainage on the ski trails and cut a new single-track mountain bike trail at the base of French’s Ledges.

Last summer, they used an excavator to even out the ground so it would be skiable with just a few inches of snow, a concession to the unpredictable snowfall in recent winters. They also smoothed out some of the hard turns and steep inclines that make grooming a challenge, Reynolds said.

As the ski team warmed up on this Saturday, another group was gathering behind the school at the kiosk that contains a trail map. A recent email from Reynolds had enticed three people to come out for a tour led by her and fellow volunteer Norm Berman.

Before hitting the trails, the skiers talked gear, chewing over the pros and cons of waxless skis, comparing classic skiing to its older sibling, skate skiing. Using his ski pole, Berman pointed to the map, describing various trails they might explore, including one with a steep section.

“Do you feel more comfortable going up or down that?” Reynolds asked.

“Up!” skier JoAnn Clifford said, laughing.

“You can always take your skis off,” Reynolds said.

Then, they split up into two groups, one wearing classic skis, the other on skate skis. Linda Coolidge, of Cornish, was with the classic group.

She often skis the trails alone, Coolidge said, usually on the 1.2K Townsend Loop. This time, she decided to go with the group, in order to explore some new trails, and invited Clifford, her friend and fellow Cornish resident .

“It’s nice to have company,” Coolidge said.

Clifford, who sometimes travels to Stowe or Waterville Valley to ski, said she was excited to have a place so close by, with trails of various lengths. When she’s pressed for time, “it’s nice to have short loops,” she said.

In the woods, the late morning sun slanted through the trees. Hemlock twigs with tiny brown cones dotted the snow.

“It’s beautiful out here today. Oh my gosh.” Clifford said.

Throughout the morning, Berman stopped at the edge of downhill stretches, giving the skiers a chance to prepare, a move Clifford nicknamed “the warning stop.” At a juncture, he asked the women if they wanted to add another loop (they did). Along the way, the Meriden resident pointed out landmarks, such as an ungroomed single track trail leading to French’s Ledges.

When Berman first started mountain biking the trails 20 years ago, they were unmarked.

“I would get lost every time,” he said.

Now, there’s little chance of that. The junctions are marked with green wooden signs, some painted by Plainfield Elementary School students.

Like the trails themselves, the connections among the volunteers and other skiers often lead back to the elementary school. Many of the Trail Blazers’ children were students there. Reynolds was formerly chairwoman of the School Board, and Knight is facilities manager at the school, where his wife, Laura, teaches first grade.

Knight says the school was a natural location for the primary trailhead.

It’s a public place, “a spot where people can congregate,” he said. “You don’t feel like you are intruding.”

It’s also convenient, offering easy parking and access for the groomers, which are stored on school grounds. Knight, a contractor who focuses on energy efficiency, built the shed with blowdown from the trails. Volunteers milled the wood. It’s the kind of teamwork that has characterized the group’s efforts all along, and evidence of a community spirit that Knight doesn’t take for granted.

“Too often now we have the sense that the only way we know people is at work,” and in some towns, people don’t even know their neighbors, Knight said. But in small villages with compact centers, like Plainfield, East Plainfield, and Meriden, people “regularly rub shoulders.”

“We’re really lucky in Plainfield,” he said. “You have to have the right sized town with the right geography to keep towns together these days.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.