Whaleback Ends in ‘Mayhem’: Closing for Good, Enfield Ski Area Lets Machines Have Last Run

Monday, March 25, 2013
Enfield — The first Sunday of spring looked more like the last vestiges of winter yesterday as competitors on snowmobiles, motorbikes and four-wheelers spent the cloudy afternoon charging up the face of a mountain set to close for the foreseeable future.

The scene at Whaleback Mountain — now closed to the public due to mounting debt after eight seasons of operation — might have made diehard skiiers and snowboarders cringe at the sight of tire treads tearing up snow in a two-day event dubbed “Motor Mayhem,” where motorsports and winter sports collide.

During the snowmobile drag races, an armada of what the enthusiasts refer to as “sleds” was scattered over the base of the mountain.

Scott Russell, of Canaan, explained the appeal of the sport over a cacophony of engine revving that often turned conversations into shouting matches.

“It’s just fun,” Russell yelled over the collective roar. “We love having fun. We race out in the backyard all the time, just playing around. You know, backyard, redneck stuff, pretty much.”

Russell said he has raced four-wheelers as far back as he can remember, though normally on a flat track. He wasn’t racing yesterday, but was there to help out friend instead.

As for Whaleback’s impending closure, Russell said that was a bummer. He used to snowboard at the mountain when he was younger, and while he couldn’t remember the last time he hit the slopes, Russell said that having mountains like Whaleback around is “good for the kids.”

“It gives them something to do, keeps them out of trouble,” he said.

Facing more than $1 million in debt owed to creditors and tax collectors, Whaleback Mountain was hosting its last event yesterday before shutting down its operations. The ski area has been open under various owners since the late 1950s. It was closed for three seasons in the early 2000s before being taken over by its current ownership team — Evan Dybvig, Frank Sparrow and Dylan Goodspeed.

Dybvig, a two-time Olympic skiier from Tunbridge, said the weekend’s events showcase why the mountain served the whole community, not just skiiers and snowboarders.

“There are a lot of people in this region who have snowmobiles, and four wheelers, and motorcycles — and that’s what they do,” said Dybvig. “They’re not necessarily skiiers and snowboarders, but this is how they enjoy the winter and the outdoors.”

It was the first competition for Jared Lee, a 25-year-old Claremont resident who said he has been to similar events, but never participated in one until yesterday. While he didn’t win his first race, Lee was good sport about it when asked if he lost by a half-sled, or got burned.

“It wasn’t that close,” he said, laughing.

Lee said he has skiied at Whaleback before, but that was a “long time ago.” Nonetheless, he was saddened by the news that it was closing.

“It just sucks because it’s a local place where you can actually come here and hang out,” he said.

For Brant Flint — who has manned the bar in the ski area’s lounge for seven seasons — losing Whaleback is also losing the place where he married his wife nearly three years ago, atop the mountain’s peak. But Flint was optimistic that the mountain won’t be vacant for long, and estimated that somehow, a group of people would rally together to save the ski area.

“Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later, but I certainly think if it sits for a season, people will realize how big of a loss it is, and then something will start to happen,” he said.

From the bartender’s perspective, Flint said that the people that come to Whaleback are “a lot more personable” and social than one might see at larger mountains.

“It could be a logger and a lawyer sitting next to each other and they just strike up a conversation, and I think that’s part of the community atmosphere of this place,” he said. “It’s really neat.”

Dybvig said there has been “quite a bit of activity” on the prospect of what he refers to as “Saving the Whale,” though he expressed a desire to step aside and let others lead the charge when it comes to a fundraising campaign. He added that the Whaleback Mountain Club — a nonprofit founded in 2006 and originally known as the Upper Valley Ski and Snowboarding Association — was scheduled to meet at the mountain last night after the events came to a close to discuss a possible path forward for the ski area.

Walking from the lodge to the races, Dybvig said that he had been towed by a monster truck the day before, an experience he described as “one of the coolest” moments of his skiing career — despite competing in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics.

Dybvig estimated that he reached speeds of up to 80 miles-per-hour on what may end up being the last ride the former Olympian ever takes on the terrain he called home for nearly a decade.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213

Mikayla Stone and Ryan Pisco, both of Franklin, N.H., watch the side-by-side snowmobile hill drag races during Motor Mayhem at Whaleback in Enfield. It was the last event at the ski area, which is going out of business. Valley News — Libby March