BARTLETT, N.H. — As the fire crackled from the tall fieldstone fireplace, Scott James sat by it in the alpine-style Great Room.
An American flag hung on a wall above him within sight of a dart board and comfortable wooden bar all echoing a way of life for generations of skiers dating to when ski trains ferried Boston schussers to the mountains of North Conway.
“This is not for everybody,” said James, 49, a skier and construction company estimator from Danvers. “But for those it’s for, it’s great.”
From outside, the houses easily blend in the Mount Washington Valley neighborhoods of North Conway, Bartlett, and Jackson about three hours north of Boston.
But telling clues tip passers-by that there might be something different inside. Signs usually give it away, announcing territory belonging to curious-sounding groups such as Ski-Bees, Ala-Byes, Skiwheelers, Polecats, and in James’s case Massa-Schussers. There are larger-than-normal parking areas, maybe a dumpster, and when the snow-loving weekend warriors arrive or return from the slopes, it’s the number of cars and people milling about that signal that’s no ordinary Victorian or rustic chalet.
It’s a ski club house, a second home to its members, and often a curiosity to those who drive by wondering what’s inside.
Nearly 20 of the 23 clubs belonging to the Eastern Inter-Club Ski League (EICSL) have ski houses in the valley. The collection of ski clubs from Massachusetts and New Hampshire offers its members benefits such as lift ticket discounts, inexpensive lodging, social events, travel opportunities, and ski racing.
Each club is a non-profit organization with a board of directors and active voting members. Clubs have their own styles, from family-oriented to those focused on members in their 20s and 30s. Bunk beds, kitchen, dining room, common area, and equipment storage are the norm. There can be male, female, and co-ed sleeping quarters. Members pay annual dues and do light chores. When the snow melts, members turn to hiking, paddling, and biking.
James and his wife Sheryl, a couple of empty nesters, decided on joining the Massa-Schussers Ski Club with its house in Glen that sleeps 60 not far from Attitash two years ago. The club, founded in 1947 by a group of skiers meeting at the Oak Grove Community House in Malden, was the affordable option to purchasing a ski house.
“We found there was a great value in belonging to a club like this,” he said. “It’s dormitory living and you can revisit your college years. We like the shared expenses that keep the heat and lights on.”
A few miles away off an Intervale backroad is the simple brown cabin-like Ala-Bye Ski Club with a summer camp feel dating to the late 1940s. Family oriented, the club is at its capacity of about 40 members.
John Brady of Hanover, N.H., a Dartmouth College ski and sailing instructor, first joined in 1971, took a hiatus (”I had a family and life happened”), and later rejoined.
“When I first started I was in college [University of New Hampshire] and working at Wildcat,” said Brady, 59. “I needed a place to stay.”
For Brady, the club gives families a financial break. Instead of going on a Disney vacation, he says members can ski and stay at the club some 25 or 30 days.
“They see that as the money they spend on vacation,” he said.
The club scene is also a teaching tool, not only allowing skiers to get better by hitting the slopes with fellow members, but also for grooming children in social situations.
Glenn and Kathy Zeiders of Newport, R.I., joined last fall and alternate coming alone with bringing their granddaughter Gwendalin, 8.
“She loves being around people,” said Kathy through an Alabama accent. “If there are other kids here, great. If she’s the only child she’s learned how to respect others and be quiet in the morning and evenings when it’s time to go to bed.”
Glenn, a Navy captain with 28 years of service, appreciates ski area military discounts to keep skiing’s premium prices at bay.
“Before joining we’d be up every six weeks or so because of lodging expenses,” he said. “Now we’re up virtually every weekend in winter and a couple of times in summer. We eat out regularly and go to the stores. We’re up here more and do a lot more.”
Bringing guests, word of mouth, and open houses (even busing prospects among clubs) all contribute to finding new blood. Prospective members spend time in the club before members vote on whether to accept them.
Boston electrical contractor project estimator Bob McMillan, 29, is in his fourth year as a Polecat, a youthful club in Intervale founded in 1953 with a large 13-room house that sleeps 48. He eventually tired of ski bus trips to the mountains and opted for the club and its $550 annual membership.
“The Polecats are laid back,” he said. “We do our own thing.”
Frequent trips to the slopes allowed McMillan to disconnect from the frenzy of the work week but the camaraderie and social opportunities connected him to his girlfriend, Boston attorney Holly Purdy. Purdy, 34, belonged to another club, met McMillan during a social event, and this year decided to become a Polecat.
“A lot of relationships come out of these ski houses,” she said holding her pet dachshund. “I just didn’t think I was going to be one of those.”
She, too, likes the slower pace of rural over urban. She’s also become a better skier (club members include ski instructors), traveled to ski areas outside the region, and is considering trying ski racing this winter.
“We’re not here to sleep,” she said. “We’re here to go skiing.”