Friday, September 20, 2013

The Stone Hut on Mt. Mansfield

It that time of year again: time to apply for a reservation at the Stone Hut on Mt. Mansfield. The Stone Hut is jointly administered by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation of the State of Vermont, and Stowe Mountain Resort. Here’s the blurb from the reservation form that describes the Stone Hut:

The historic Stone Hut was originally built in 1936 as a warming hut by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). These same crews cut some of the original ski trails on Mt. Mansfield. Once a home away from home for the ski pioneers of Vermont, it is now operated as a winter public lodging facility between mid- November and mid-April through a unique partnership between the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and the Stowe Mountain Resort (Mt. Mansfield Company). The Stone Hut is a rustic overnight lodging facility that is only heated by a woodstove. Guests should be prepared for winter camping as there is no electricity, lighting or cooking facilities in the Hut. (

In other words, skier’s nirvana. Think about it: You and eleven of your best ski buddies, bunnies, and bums squeeze into the rustic Stone Hut. You’ve spent the afternoon making repeated trips up the FourRunner Quad, hauling up sleeping bags, camping supplies, and beer--lots and lots of beer. Soon you’ll have roaring fire in fireplace, and steaks sizzling on the grill. As the lifts shut down and the ski area goes to sleep, the sound of the groomers laying down corduroy can’t match your laughter in the cabin. But first, you have to have a reservation.  

In order to fill reservations for the Stone Hut, the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation operates a lottery. Applicants must pre-select their desired dates. Applicants can select up to five consecutive nights (this is a new twist from previous years, when the maximum length of stay was seven nights). Preference is given to five-night applicants, who are chosen first until all the potential five-night slots are filled; the drawing then moves on to the four-night applicants, then the three-, two-, and one-nighters. A complete explanation of the entire process can be found at the Stone Hut website

But there’s a little wrinkle in this system. Though the selection process claims to be a “randomized” lottery, that’s not quite how it works, because there are people who win reservations at the Stone Hut every year--some of them on the same date every year--and there are people who are never selected. The lottery is flawed.

Since the Stone Hut sleeps twelve persons, it’s possible for a group of twelve people to all apply for the five-night maximum stay for the same dates. The Stone Hut receives around 300 applicants each year, meaning the chances of being selected go up drastically when a group of people can coordinate their applications. 

On page four of the application form, the Stone Hut selection rules apparently address the issue of group coordination with this disclaimer:

Multiple requests from the same party are considered an attempt to bypass the lottery system and all of those requests will be considered last. 

How the operators of the lottery will be able to recognize coordinated efforts by groups is a mystery, because there’s no spot on the application to identify yourself as the member of a party. And who would?

There’s a better solution for this process, and it actually comes from within the same agency in the State of Vermont. The Department of Fish and Wildlife, in the Agency of Natural Resources, operates a lottery each year for moose hunting permits. Upon being drawn for a permit, applicants are subsequently excluded from applying for the next three years. Applicants who aren’t selected receive points toward the next drawing. The points essentially push them closer to the front of the line, increasing their chances. 

Another thing that can be done to ensure that more people have access to this state resource is to require a reservation list. If you stayed at the Stone Hut during the winter of 2012-2013, you’re ineligible to stay there the following winter. That would make the clause about “multiple requests from the same party” enforceable.

An even better idea would be to allow only three- or four-night stays from applicants; no more five-night, two-night, or one-night stays. Simplify the process by offering either a Thursday-Friday-Saturday night stay, or a Sunday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday night stay. That would assure the Stone Hut of 100% occupancy during the winter, and reduce the amount of work needed to make the selections. There would be only two piles of applications: three-night and four-night.

What’s certain is that the current system of meting out access to this wonderful state resource is unfair and flawed. A change is needed. If it is truly a state resource, then let’s treat it like one, and ensure more access for more people. If it’s not, then privatize it totally. But it’s time to stop promoting one thing and administering another.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Time for Vermont to Get Its Groove On

It’s happening again. It feels premature to talk about it already, but autumn is upon us: my oldest son is beginning his freshman year at the University of Vermont, and his younger brother is beginning his senior year at Stowe High School. These are sure signs of fall. In my last column, I talked about the August change in the weather. And as soon as that was posted, we returned to a soupy, tropical, late-summer environment in Northern Vermont. But fear not, because despite the blip in temperatures, the one thing that defines fall in Vermont has begun: the change in foliage. 

To understand why the foliage in Vermont in the fall is so famous, so vibrant, so iconic, you have to go back to winter. In winter, Vermont is white (Vermont is white in many other ways, too, but that’s a column for another time). We’re blanketed under snow for five months, blanching our eyes. The only points of reference are the denuded forests reaching through the snow, and the ribbon of asphalt leading up to the ski area. 

Snowmelt in April reveals a ravaged landscape heaving its way through the transition. It rains. It snows. It muds. And finally, around the third week of May, it greens. The buds on the trees explode with pale green, an effervescent green that’s a marketeer’s delight. Throughout the summer the shades of green on the trees progress, moving to a deep, dark, foreboding green by the end of July. This is the color that chokes the forests, keeping them cool and shaded. This is the green that gave Vermont its name.

It’s worth noting that while it’s easy for me to say, “This is the green that gave Vermont its name,” we’re still unclear about who, or how, Vermont got its name. One thing that’s certain: it wasn’t Samuel de Champlain. Nor was it the indigenous peoples who frequented the area. Like all myths, the naming of Vermont is murky and difficult to document. For an academic discussion of this history, check out “Samuel de Champlain and the Naming of Vermont,” by Joseph-Andre Senecal, Ph.D.

The disambiguation of nomenclature aside, Vermont could easily have ended up being named Whiteburry, or “Place of the Deep Snows,” or “Mudville”--or something that reflects the state’s most stunning season, autumn. And therein lies another myth.

In precolonial times, Vermont didn’t have the blazing foliage that has made it famous today. According to forestry historian Charlie Cogbill, the dominant tree species in Vermont before European settlement were American beech, spruce, and hemlock. The maple, which comprises one third of the trees in the state today, was barely present. That’s important not only for the maple syrup industry, but for the tourist industry as well, because it’s the prismatic progression of maple tree foliage in late September and early October that dominates the color scheme of our famous landscape. And the reason the maple tree took over is because most of Vermont was deforested in the 19th century to provide lumber for a growing nation. The second growth forests that restored Vermont were predominantly deciduous, the maple first among them. And that’s why the state isn’t called “The land of the blazing colors,” or some other marketing proviso.

But it could. Because now, as we lose the deep greens of summer, as the chlorophyl recedes from the foliage, paling the leaves, moving them toward their seasonal glory, we move back to our colors, and beyond that, when the foliage drops, and we’re left with the peace and grace of stick season, waiting for the snows.