THERE ARE PLENTY of outdoor activities during a New England winter that don’t involve downhill skiing. Heck, some of them don’t even involve snow — no small factor after last year’s “winter that wasn’t.” (For the record, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting that “the eastern half of the country will see plenty of cold and snow” this winter, with “red flag” warnings of likely big storms from February 12 to 15 and March 20 to 23.) As temperatures fall and meteorologists get excited about potential nor’easters, consider adding these activities to your wintertime bucket list.
SPOT BALD EAGLES
Distance from Boston: 136 miles
Each winter, thousands of retired Americans migrate down Interstate 95 to spend the winter in balmy Florida. Around the same time, dozens of North American bald eagles follow the Connecticut River south out of Canada, seeking the warmer air and open water of Long Island Sound, where they spend their winter. For 25 years, Jerry Connolly, owner of The Audubon Shop in Madison, Connecticut, has led groups of birders out to spot them. The group sets out at 8:30 a.m., driving to five or six locations where they hope to see eagles, along with other birds of prey and waterfowl. “In 25 years of tours, we’ve had a 100 percent success rate,” Connolly says. “I don’t guarantee we’ll see eagles . . . but it’s better odds than a whale watch.” This outing is especially suited to people who don’t like the cold, because participants get a chance to warm up in their cars between bird-watching sites. The tour is also a bargain: The $20 ticket includes soup and a sandwich at Oliver’s Tavern in Essex, Connecticut, where Connolly leads a discussion of the various species they’ve spotted.
> The Audubon Shop outings are held Saturdays from January 26 to March 2. Call the shop to reserve; most trips sell out. (Binocular rentals are $4 extra.) 888-505-9056; theaudubonshop.com
> Carlisle, MA
LEARN TO X-COUNTRY SKI
Distance from Boston: 26 miles
During the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, Carlisle resident Dusty Johnstone worked as a volunteer assisting with the cross-country ski competition. Afterward, he returned to Massachusetts determined to create a facility for Nordic skiing complete with snowmaking, grooming, and lights for night skiing. In 1982 he opened Great Brook Ski Touring Center in a state park in Carlisle. Within a few years the snowmaking operation closed because it wasn’t economical, but 30 years later the groomed trails and night skiing live on (on Tuesdays and Thursdays, conditions permitting, courtesy of kerosene lanterns), with Dusty’s son Stuart now in charge.
It’s a difficult business: During 2011-2012, it never opened due to lack of snow. But when there are flakes, Great Brook is a fabulous place to try the sport, with lots of gentle terrain and decent rental equipment. “The sport of cross-country skiing doesn’t require a lesson — you can just put the skis on,” Johnstone says. “We try to make this as great a first day on skis as we can. We want people to love the sport.”
> On weekends, adult trail tickets and rentals at Great Brook Ski Touring Center cost $25; rates for weekdays and kids are less expensive. Call first to make sure it’s open. 978-369-7486; greatbrookski.com
TOBOGGAN LIKE A CHAMP
Distance from Boston: 193 miles
When you see the phrase “US Championship” as part of a sporting event, it may bring to mind an epic confrontation between world-class athletes who’ve spent their lives preparing for this moment. Rest assured: The US National Toboggan Championships at the Camden Snow Bowl ski area in Camden, Maine, aren’t anything like that. “It’s like a big tailgate party,” says Camden Snow Bowl assistant Beth Ward. “Folks are dressed up in costumes. . . . People hang out and have bonfires, and there’s live music.” There’s also plenty of hot food, including organic pizzas cooked in a portable concrete wood-burning oven that one vendor tows in on a trailer. Indeed, based on descriptions of this weekend-long event, the tobogganing sounds a bit like the horse race at the Kentucky Derby — it’s the centerpiece, but mostly it’s just an excuse to throw a giant bash.
Next year’s event runs February 8 to 10. The championships are held on a toboggan chute that runs 400 feet onto a frozen lake; top riders can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. Noncompetitors who arrive on Friday and pay $5 apiece can ride down the track themselves. (Loaner toboggans are available for free.)
Even inexperienced tobogganers can compete in the main event: Unlike the Olympics, these championships are open to all people who organize themselves into two-, three-, or four-person teams and pay the $30-per-person registration fee by late December. If speed isn’t your thing, don’t despair: Organizers offer several nonperformance prizes, including one for the oldest team. In 2010 it went to a four-man group whose oldest member was 90. “They called themselves The Cadavers, and they were sponsored by a local funeral home,” Ward says.
> The US National Toboggan Championships routinely draw more than 8,000 visitors to tiny Camden, filling hotels and inns. So if you hope to compete or just watch, make reservations early. 207-236-3438; winter.camdensnowbowl.com
GO DOG SLEDDING
Distance from Boston: 189 miles
Although dog sledding may sound like an activity better suited for a Sarah Palin reality program than for a New England weekend, more than a thousand people hop onto a dog sled each winter at New Hampshire’s Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel, which houses more than 100 dogs and offers rides from its main facility in Jefferson, as well as from other locations in the state: the Omni Mount Washington and Mountain View Grand resorts and Rocks Estate.
Before the ride, guests at the Jefferson location tour the kennel and meet the dogs, then help Muddy Paw’s “mushers” harness the canines to the sled. During the ride, guests recline in a basket at the front of the sled, but mushers often let them take a turn standing at the rear to shout commands to the dogs and try steering. “We’re not just a ride — we want our guests to be as hands-on as they’re comfortable being,” says Emma Burnell, Muddy Paw’s office manager.
> Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel offers a variety of ride and tour packages, ranging from a $48 adults/$39 children ticket that includes 20 minutes riding on a sled (wheeled ones when there’s no snow) to a two-night, $1,010-per-couple outing that includes a 50-mile full day of gliding through White Mountain National Forest. 603-545-4533; dogslednh.com
TRY ICE FISHING
Distance from Boston: 210 miles
Going fishing in warm weather is a snap: Simply get a license, a pole, and worms, and you’re good to go. Going fishing in winter is a more complicated process that requires knowledge and fortitude, from knowing whether the ice is safe to cutting a hole and setting up a shanty to figuring out how to catch fish. That’s why newbies hire guides from the Fly Rod Shop in Stowe, Vermont, to take them on three-hour excursions to nearby bodies of water. The guides provide and set up all the equipment (including a propane heater) and bait, and they help find the fish. Depending on the catch, some guides will cook the fish on the spot for lunch.
Those of us who don’t fish may have a preconception that ice fishing is simply an excuse for guys to spend hours sitting around drinking beer together — sort of like a poker game, but without the cards or chips. “There are a lot of local people who might partake of beverages out on the ice, but we don’t encourage that,” says Bob Shannon Sr., a Fly Rod Shop employee. Instead, pack a thermos of hot chocolate.
> A Fly Rod Shop’s guided ice fishing expedition costs about $350 for four people. Depending on the temperatures, the season usually runs from January through March. 802-253-7346; flyrodshop.com
TAKE A SPIN ON SKATES
Distance from Boston: 54 miles
Wintertime visitors to New York City line up to skate on the storied rink at Rockefeller Center, right in the heart of midtown Manhattan. But smart New Englanders head to the Bank of America City Center’s rink in downtown Providence. It’s twice the size of New York’s ice, less than one-fourth the cost (admission in Providence is $6 per adult; in New York it’s $25), and there’s rarely a line. When you tire of skating, there are plenty of apres-ice activities — including great restaurants like Local 121 and Red Fez — nearby. “The rink is right in the center of this really vibrant arts and cultural district in Providence,” says Flannery Patton, program coordinator for Greater Kennedy Plaza, the organization that handles special events at the rink.
Not a skater? The rink can help: It offers a six-week series of lessons for $90, or try a Sunday morning drop-in lesson for $15. They probably won’t teach you to do triple axels, but you’ll acquire enough know-how for a fun spin on the ice.
> The Bank of America City Center’s rink opens November 21. 401-331-5544; providenceskating.com
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount of snowfall recorded in Boston during January 2012
Amount during January 2011
Average temperature in Boston in December
Average temperature in Montpelier in December
Source: National Weather Service
Percentage of US adult leisure travelers who usually travel with their pets
Source: US Travel Association
Percentage of US adult leisure travelers who hit the road as solo travelers
Source: US Travel Association
Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and frequent travel writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.