From a health and fitness standpoint, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that modern snow sports in New England are primarily thought of as participatory activities and not spectator events. When you think of “going skiing’’ for the weekend, it usually doesn’t involve standing around watching others whiz past.
But decades ago, winter sports in the Northeast were synonymous with cheering hometown hopefuls at multi-event race meets that lasted for several days and drew throngs from as far away as Quebec and New York. Communities would plan for months to break up the boredom of winter by staging elaborate carnivals that were as much social events as athletic contests.
With one of the most fearsome ski jumps in the country, a slew of challenging race hills, and numerous outing clubs and colleges churning out top-notch Nordic and Alpine skiers, one was likely to witness world-class competition on any given winter weekend in northern New England. If you included one of the nation’s oldest sled dog racing clubs in the mix (back when mushing was an aspiring Olympic sport), it was also possible to catch a glimpse of elite four-footed competitors as teams whooshed between towns in qualifiers for the Winter Games.
Ninety years ago this month, a Boston Daily Globe account of the White Mountain Winter Carnival in North Conway, N.H., described the event from a spectator’s view:
“It was a day to inspire the fun-seekers,’’ the Globe reported on Jan. 28, 1922. “Visitors from far and near flocked into the usually stilled and tranquil streets of this town and filled the valleys and wooded slopes of this delightfully picturesque resort with their gladsome, healthy shouts of laughter; People came from every direction, lured by the assurance that expert ski jumpers were to indulge in their thrilling and dangerous pastime at Cathedral Ledge, a precipitous, rocky crag 2 miles from the center of town.’’
Although jumping was the major attraction that weekend at North Conway, skijoring (horses pulling skiers at breakneck speed down the main drag) was also a big draw. Skating and cross-country ski races were carnival staples, while oddball events - men on a frozen pond chasing roosters or an obstacle race for ladies wearing snowshoes - did not withstand the test of time. (The Globe explained the poultry chase ended early when the gent who caught the rooster was unwilling to give it up, and the obstacle course hit a snag when “women complained the barrels through which they were obliged to crawl were not roomy enough.’’)
New England still boasts a handful of must-see winter spectator sports. Several draw crowds measured in the thousands, with the common theme of the most successful events being the ability to watch from up close or actually participate in the fun.
Harris Hill in Brattleboro, Vt., one of only six Olympic-size ski jumps in the country, has hosted annual events dating to 1922. Closed for safety reasons between 2005 and 2008, a $300,000 community fund-raising effort modernized and restored the unique, natural-hillside jump to International Ski Federation specifications in 2009. On Feb. 18 and 19 it will host the Fred Harris Memorial Tournament, which will feature worldwide skiers soaring to earn a spot in the 2014 Winter Games.
“We turn this cornfield into a little Olympics one weekend a year,’’ said Dana Sprague, a volunteer and historian for Harris Hill.
“One of the coolest things is that you can climb the hill and get up close to the takeoff,’’ Sprague said. “A lot of places don’t let people do that, but we do. It’s a rush. These guys are going 60 miles per hour. It’s a blur, a shot-out-of-a-cannon feeling. It’s definitely something you should experience - bring your camera, for sure.’’
It’s also affordable - $15 for adults, $12 for kids 6-12, under 5 free. There’s music, food, a beer tent, and a bonfire (details at harrishillskijump.com).
Last year Harris Hill drew 5,600 spectators. Sprague said “usually the parking lot’s full by 11 a.m.’’
Camden Snow Bowl in Maine hosts the 22d annual National Toboggan Championships Feb. 10-12. The community-owned ski resort is known for its stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean and its 400-foot toboggan chute, the only one like it in New England.
Teams from 2-4 people compete in contests of speed and creativity, and the races are rivaled only by the overnight camping and tailgating in the run-out area on frozen Hosmer Pond.
“It’s really become a three-day event,’’ said marketing director Andrew Dailey, who predicted Camden might eclipse last year’s attendance of 9,000. “Last year we had a Dutch national team and a family from London come to compete’’
Only 10 (of 425) team buy-ins are still available, and you can be a novice to enter.
The only charges to spectators are $5 for vehicle parking (the lot gets full by 9:30 a.m., so take advantage of free shuttle bus service from downtown Camden). For an additional $5, you buy a Friday-only wristband that gets you unlimited runs on the toboggan chute before the competition starts. There’s a row of restaurant vendors, the mountain is open for skiing, and some activities such as live bands and fireworks over the harbor continue in town after dark (see camdensnowbowl.com).
Other spectator-centric events this winter include:
■Sled dog racing: The New England Sled Dog Club has hosted races since 1924, and the Jan. 28-29 Lake Chocorua event in Tamworth, N.H., is the oldest continuous sled dog meet in the Northeast. There is no admission fee, parking is first-come along Route 16, and fans are encouraged to interact with mushers and dog handlers in the holding area (nesdc.org).
■Equine skijoring: In this event, horses tow skiers for speed and agility over a frozen obstacle course. The North East Ski Joring Association has three free events in New Hampshire, in New London (Jan. 21-22), Newport (Feb. 11-12), and Claremont (Feb. 18-19). Details at nesja.com.
■Primitive Biathlon: Racers decked out in historic garb shoot targets with antique firearms and race through the woods on vintage snowshoes. It’s free for spectators, and several biathlons offer hands-on training for newcomers. The Smugglers’ Notch Primitive Biathlon (Jan. 28-29) kicks off the Vermont season, with weekly events to follow at other locations (primitivebiathlon.com).