Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Green Snow Play

The sport of downhill skiing is right up there with polo. It reeks of entitlement. And though I snowboard and would like to pretend that that's different somehow, it demands the spending of just as much disposable income as its two-bladed predecessor.

Every trip to the mountain has its moments of unease as I wrestle with these facts. The attendant at the nearby Loaf 'N' Jug may never have skied in his life. The workers at the resort cafeteria are all Brazilians or Romanians, jumping at the opportunity to secure a temporary work visa so they can earn $10 an hour flipping overpriced burgers for the yuppie crowd.

And then there are the obvious environmental impacts. Lift motors humming, snowmakers sucking up water, expansive parking lots full of SUVs stretching out before sprawling alpine "villages."

Ironically, though, there's a new trend here. Over the past couple years, I've noticed that many mountains have put up signs saying their lifts are "100% wind-powered," and that their facilities are employing waste water systems and recycled materials.

Is this just an attempt to follow the current of the yuppie market? After all, what's hipper than going green? Think about it a minute, though, and the basic reason becomes obvious: global warming. Of all the world's industries, the ski resort has perhaps the most to lose from a climate in which warmer, shorter winters are the norm. Establishing greener practices isn't just an exercise in rebranding, but rather a somewhat half-hearted attempt to bolster its survival.

Oh well, though there may be self-preservation at work here, the ends justify the means, I guess. But what exactly are those ends? In trying to figure this out, I found a nifty little organization called the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition. Its website rates a number of the American West's ski mountains on a variety of green criteria, such as preservation of environmentally sensitive land and species, use of renewable energy, and commitment to sound environmental policy positions, and ranks each according to a holistic grade.

I was a little distressed on reviewing the "Top Ten" areas (none of which I've skied) and the "Worst Ten" areas (of which I've skied three: Copper, Breckenridge, and Crested Butte). However, my mood improved when I found that the mountain I've frequented for over 20 years (Monarch) and the mountain I most recently visited and loved (Wolf Creek) both scored almost well enough to make the Top Ten list. (Unfortunately, the site has yet to include resorts in the Northeast, although Fast lists Killington, VT, as the 8th greenest in the world.)

Another thing I learned was that all those signs declaring lifts to be wind-powered (including the ones at Copper, uh-hmm), are a little misleading. The lifts themselves, at least those at the resorts I looked at, are not powered by wind energy. Instead, the resorts purchase energy credits from wind farms in other areas of the country to offset the energy used to run the lifts. A half-truth, but better than nothing, I suppose.

In the end, skiing's green trend does little to diminish the aristocratic image the sport conjures in my mind. That said, I'm eagerly looking forward to getting in a few more days on the slopes this season. And I've added Aspen, Buttermilk, and Park City to my must-ski list.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Poles of Cold

The snow keeps falling here in Portland. We're getting into that time of winter now where the cold, dark days start to take their toll. Families head down to Florida in droves in February and March for a desperate seasonal respite.

As a Texan, I sometimes wonder if people were meant to live in an environment where the outdoors is in many ways inaccessible for much of the year. Wouldn't it be simpler not to have to worry about freezing to death? And of course, on a global scale, Maine is actually rather temperate. What must it be like to live somewhere really cold?

Enter the Poles of Cold. These are the locations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres where the coldest known temperatures have been recorded. Not surprisingly, the Southern point is in Antarctica, where a temperature of -129.8 degrees Fahrenheit was measured. But no one actually lives in Antarctica as the ordinary person lives.

In the Northern hemisphere, though, the Pole of Cold lies in northeastern Siberia, and two villages there claim to be the coldest inhabited in the world. Both Verkhoyansk and Oymyakon have registered temperatures near -90 Fahrenheit.

I have trouble imagining what it must be like to call these places home. Oymyakon, for example, is located in a river valley between two mountain ranges, so the cold gathers and remains there for most of the year. And at Verkhoyansk's latitude (pretty much in line with the Arctic Circle), the sun never rises on the winter solstice.

On top of the brutal conditions, there's the chilling history of the region as well. During the first decades of Soviet control, it was rife with gulags where prisoners, many convicted, or merely accused, of minor or political crimes, were forced to work the mines and lay roads and rail lines to propel the country's industrialization. It goes without saying that these camps had an appalling mortality rate. And, when the gulag system was dissolved in the 1950s, where did they go? Were they able to return to their former lives in the relative warmth of southern and western Russia? Or did they stay and put down roots through the permafrost at the Pole of Cold?

Surely there are those who enjoy the frigid life. Supposedly, when the temperature drops below -50F, atmospheric ice crystals produce a crinkling sound known as the "whispering of the stars." Fogged breath hangs as static mist in the air, and the sky's color becomes more vivid.

For me, though, the Maine winter is enough. From my computer spot I can look out the window onto a snowy patch of city and be thankful that the radiators are hissing and popping again inside. And after writing this post, the day doesn't even seem so cold.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


There was thunder last night.

There was a lot, actually, considering that it almost never thunders in winter. I saw the first flash of lightning through my closed eyes as I tried to sleep, and it popped them open. Skeptical about the source of the light, I waited...and listened. There it was, an unmistakable rumble. I counted maybe eight of these before I drifted off.

Of course, it was also raining last night. The weighty snow that began in the afternoon turned to sleet in the evening, coating all the cars in the parking lot with thick ice. The rain started later and turned the world to slush. With drops smattering the windows, it almost felt natural to hear the thunder rolling in.

I'll never forget the only other time I heard thunder in winter. It was mid-December in Vermont, the night before I was to leave the state for good. The second snowstorm of the week, both some of the heaviest on record, was just letting up. Everything was quiet, as it is under such a thick snow blanket, and I lay in bed staring out the window, too wound up to sleep.

There was a sudden flicker, and the sky turned purple. I remember everything purple, the dark clouds faintly glowing from the hazy city night light, the plump sheet of snow on the neighbor's roof, the lazy flakes still in the air, right through to the sheer curtains in my room and the white shag carpet. A quick moment of purple and then, low and soft, the echoes of distant thunder. It happened once more, and that was all. Only two, and soft, but that was my favorite thunder.

Something in that roar makes you feel its power. It's like a jet engine, or an avalanche, but those things are visible, comprehensible. You can look at them and see their boundaries. Thunder is elusive power. And because it's intangible, it becomes even more powerful.

Native Americans in northern North America ascribed boundaries to the thunder of the spring and summer storms. They noticed that the commencement of thunderstorms in the spring coincided with the return of migratory birds from the south. This gave rise to the mythical Thunderbird, a giant creature whose wing beats produced the deafening roar.

Though perhaps more tangible, Thunderbirds retain immense power. Whenever I hear thunder, I can't help but picture a flock of them cutting through the sky. Perhaps last night there was just one, lost in the winter storm, beating its giant wings hard to get home.