PRINCETON — There are many delightful nooks and crannies here at the Wachusett Mountain ski resort, including the Hallmark-like 1930s stone cabin, the mountain’s original lodge, which in recent years has been refashioned into a ski-up concession stand aside Tenth Mountain Trail, dispensing hot cider and fresh-baked cider donuts.
Al and Nancy Rose operate the Bullock Lodge donut stop, with its two working stone fireplaces, its rustic stone floor, and its nostalgia nearly as thick and sweet as the sugar coating on those cider sinkers.
“We’re selling the sights, the sounds, and the smell,’’ noted Al, who needn’t have pointed that out to a visitor with such veteran nose for news. “When the donuts are cooking, we vent the smell right out toward the trail.’’
Sure, there ought to be a law against that, and one day maybe there will be, but for now the pastry/warming hut is a throwback to America’s dietary glory days: carbohydrates without an ounce of remorse.
Wachusett, roughly an hour west of Boston, next weekend will stage its 50th year celebration, although the anniversary is merely to recognize the resort’s first T-bar. Skiing actually began at Wachusett around the Great Depression in the early ’30s, and it took until 1962 for that first bit of modern-day skiing technology to be integrated. The hill’s true emergence into big-time downhill didn’t begin until 1969, when Worcester’s Ralph Crowley submitted a blind bid of $16,002 to the Commonwealth and won a five-year lease to operate the place.
“All because my dad took the whole family, five kids, to Mount Snow one Sunday,’’ recalled Dave Crowley, today the resort’s general manager and chief operating officer. “He was really a hockey guy, at least he was until that day. That trip to Snow cost him $100, and he came away from it thinking, ‘Any business that can take 100 bucks out of my pocket on a Sunday must be doing something right.’ So he started looking for a ski mountain.’’
Forty-something years later, Wachusett draws some 400,000 visitors per season and is the state’s biggest ski operation, with 22 trails, 8 lifts, and more than 1,000 employees in peak ski season. Like all ski resorts, it is also forever looking for the new, next best thing, and on Friday afternoon that new, next best thing was sitting quietly in a container at Logan Airport.
“Still waiting to clear US Customs,’’ noted Tom Meyers, Wachusett’s PR spokesman, who grew up in Buffalo, the birthplace of snow. “If everything goes right, it will be here by Monday, and our plan has been to have it set up by the weekend as part of the celebration. It started in Amsterdam, made its way to New York, and now, finally, it’s in Boston. So, we’re getting closer.’’
The world traveler waiting to clear Customs is actually a Dutch-made BigAirBag, and it is exactly what it sounds like — a humongous, inflatable pillow, the likes of which have become very popular throughout Europe in recent years. What does one do with such a big pillow? Station it in a resort’s terrain park — the acreage devoted almost exclusively to young, exuberant daredevils on skis or boards — and invite one and all to barrel down a hill, race up a fixed jump, and then fly worry-free into the deep, thick, inflated cushion that is fast becoming the bane of orthopedic surgeons around the world.
“It’s for a certain demographic,’’ noted Crowley.
Let’s be specific, that demographic is not the same that receives AARP monthly and lines up early each morning for mall walking and late afternoon for early-bird specials. Seniors, be warned, don’t try imitating this BigAirBag thing at home, OK?
“It adds a level of bravado to the whole experience,’’ added Crowley, who first saw the giant inflatables a few years ago on a trip to Europe with his brother, Jeff, the Wachusett Mountain president. “You can fly down the hill, take off, and you don’t have to be worried about landing on your head. And if it’s not for you, then you can sit in our restaurant, stay warm, and watch the kids have at it.’’
Crowley figures the sweet spot for the BigAirBag set is ages 14-20. YouTube is chock-full of videos that back him up. It’s mostly teenagers and young adults, all of them far too young to be scared off by memories of the introduction to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” that had the ski jumper wiping out while Jim McKay somberly intoned, “The agony of defeat.’’
A couple of decades ago, snowboarders were the new, next best thing in the ski industry. At Wachusett, and most ski areas, boarders now make up approximately 50 percent of the traffic.
“Now the boarders are getting old, too,’’ said Meyers.
Ergo, air bags. Wachusett rented one for a week last ski season and it was a huge hit, according to Crowley. Kids lined up day and night. The incessant traffic led Crowley to partner with Sun Drop, the citrus soda maker, to make the $40,000 BigAirBag a permanent fixture at Wachusett. Once it can be set free from Logan Airport, of course. The mother of all soft landings first must get a ticket out of East Boston and then passage through the Sumner Tunnel before it can make its own soft landing just south of Route 2.
Meanwhile, it is supposed to snow Sunday or Monday for the first time this ski season in southern New England. Wachusett has some 400 snow guns, so it can make snow like Hostess once made Twinkies.
“If the temp’s low enough and the humidity’s low, too, we can bury this place in a hurry,’’ boasted Meyers.
Five of Wachusett’s trails remained open Friday when temps reached into the 40s. Business always picks up in the ski industry when Mother Nature works her wintry magic, but no matter what the temp, the BigAirBag will always be at the ready. And no one in the terrain park will be expected to air on the side of caution.