What Up (and Down) in Charlemont

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

If you haven't been riding in Charlemont, MA, next summer is the time to go.  

"The Recreation Capitol of New England" as Charlemont calls itself, is a wonderland of views, maple syrup, flannel shirts, grass fed beef cows, zip lining, rafting, kayaking, down hill skiing, snow tubing, and now, mountain biking.  In this quaint New England town nestled in between two mountain ridges in the Berkshires of Western Mass, the mountain bike scene is exploding as you read this. Three hubs of single-track, Warfield House, Zoar Outdoor, and Berkshire East, provide mountain bikers with a total of 35 miles of single track plus endless dirt and farm roads,  double tracks, and snowmobile trails. The town is bisected by the Deerfield River, Route 2, and a rail road.  A short road ride connects the riding hubs, with Berkshire East on the south side of the valley, and Zoar Outdoor and Warfield House on the north.

Building began in earnest about four or five years ago, when Jonathan , 'Jonny' Schaefer of Berkshire East Ski Resort, Bruce Lessels, owner of Zoar Outdoor (an outdoor adventure, outfitter, rafting and lodging company) and Harold Green, past president of NEMBA, were having a few beers at Warfield House and the idea to bring mountain biking to Charlemont in a big way was hatched.

The latest addition to the scene are down hill, one way, lift accessed trails being built at Berkshire East Ski Resort. Schaefer, manager of Berkshire East, and mountain bike rider says.  " We want to continue enjoyment of the outdoors year round. That's the way my brothers and I were brought up."   A progression of green to difficult black diamond trails are in the works.

Determined to do this the right way, Schaefer consulted with his insurance agent who recommended Gravity Logic, an international gravity trail building and resort-consulting firm based in Whistler BC.  Planning began in 2009, and lift serviced trails are scheduled to be open in 2015.  Jonathan Schaefer sees Berkshire East and the town of Charlemont as a center of activity for the many bicycling disciplines, from road rides, to gravel grinders, mountain bike races and other bicycling events.  Having the lift access trails as well as the numerous cross country trails already in place creates a great venue for enduro races (races which don't time the uphill, only the downhill sections), endurance rides such as the Whole Enchilada Ride, a 30 mile mountain bike ride touring both sides of the valley, and other mountain bike races and events. Berkshire East has the potential to meet the requirements for World Cup mountain biking events, something very few east coast resorts have.

Jon continued," We are committed to being a dynamic year round family destination and resort."  A paid trail crew is in the plan for the future and that crew may be working on the cross country as well as the down hill mountain bike trails.

"The easiest lift access trail is designed and built for first time down hill mountain bikers as young as 7 years old, and will be fun for more experienced and skilled riders as well." explained Gabe Porter -Henry, marketing manager of Berkshire East and another flannel clad employee of Berkshire East.    "High end mountain bikes, guided tours, and lessons will be available also."

Out on the trail following the whirring noise of the chainsaw, Chris Conrad, project manager for the crew from Gravity Logic, was clearing corridor for the 3 ½ mile green trail.  Originally from North Carolina, and an avid mountain biker, he headed to Colorado for his ' soul ride' and while riding found a job at a ski area building trail and eventually went to work for Gravity Logic.   "The first trail to open will be the green trail, wide (4 feet wide), with low grades of 5-7½ %, good sight lines through the turns, and low berm walls. Gravity Logic has guidelines for the trail designations that have been tested through experience.  The powder blue (novice/intermediate) trail will be 2 or 2 ½ miles long, with rollers, and is machine made also.  A true blue trail with tighter turns, bigger and steeper berms is in the plans.  The black diamond trail has a steeper average grade with some fall line on ledge and more technical features such as jumps and drops.  It will be a single track and mostly hand built."

Conrad explained the design process, " We meet with the client, look at topos, identify wet areas or other areas of concern, and for the green trails and machine built trails, access is very important. You want the green trail to start very near the top of the lift."  To cross downhill ski trails, the trail needs to be flat and straight. Out west, berms and other features can be constructed in ski trails due to a higher snow pack.

Further down the green trail, past a beautifully constructed wide berm with grade reversals to manage water and to control the speed of the rider, Kerry, another Gravity Logic employee, was running a full sized excavator across a couple of hundred feet of fractured rock.  A few days ago, the jack hammers crushed a swath of ledge into a manageable pile of rock.   Kerry is from out west, and this is the first time he has experienced the challenges of building trail in the east, but he was very enthusiastic about the opportunity to build here.  As trail builders in the  north east know, rocks are a blessing and curse.  

While the new down hill trails are in progress, building also continues on the cross country network, Charlemont Trail System or CTS.  Two miles of beginner trail, Bear Cub, leave from Berkshire East parking lot. Turns are being polished and new connections are being built so making it possible to stay on single track and avoid double tracks.  Also two blue cross country trails were built in the last year, Farmstead and MST, near the top of the Berkshire East side. Harold Green, a former president of NEMBA, is now leading the work on polishing turns, benching off camber sections, and putting boardwalks on wet areas.  Also with more riders, the trails are becoming smoother and a bit easier to ride. But don't be fooled, these trails will kick the butt of even advanced riders!  For those who enjoy climbing, the trails in the ski area property will be open to ride to the top of the mountain with a pass.

Over the past four years, Harold brought the resources of NEMBA into play.  Under the auspices of NEMBA, CTS has been awarded an RTP grant to build boardwalks on the Rice Brook Trail in the Warfield hub, has sponsored a NEMBA trail school, and provided a tool crib.  The second edition of the CTS map has been published and is available at Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East.  Information, led rides and event listings are also available on the CTS Facebook page. Harold is, " excited to have more people riding in the community." He is also looking forward to having more events, possibly a weekend festival with races and rides sometime in 2015.

Bruce Lessels, owner of Zoar Outdoor, says, "right now, the trails appeal to a certain type of rider. One who is very fit and doesn't mind rough trails and climbing. However, the new blue and green trails at Berkshire East will appeal to the intermediate riders, and we are looking for more places to put trails that will be good for a wider range of abilities." MIT recently had an intercollegiate mountain biking race with many different events such as short track and double slalom. A number of the racers stayed at the Zoar Outdoor campground. Some of the bike trails lead right from the campground.  "The single tracks at Zoar were originally offshoots of cross country ski trails." Bruce continues, " There was only a trickle of mountain bikers, but it is becoming a steady stream. "

Riding the trails in the Charlemont can be a challenge, but the rewards are well worth the effort.  Riders pop out of the forest to see views of farms, the valley below and surrounding hill tops.  Following trails with the names of General Hospital and Get Smart, the rider will find an abandoned TV tower, purchased by the town in 1960's because there was no TV reception in the valley.    Or skip the climb, and park on East Road (a dirt road behind Berkshire East) and ride to check out the 227 ft wind turbine and the 1800 solar panels which provide 100% of the electricity for the ski resort and then some.

This is truly a unique area. The trails are pure New England with a taste of Whistler. Have fun exploring the ups and downs of Charlemont, and don't forget your extra tube, a  snack, and a sense of adventure.  You'll need it!

Berkshire East Mountain Resort
Zoar Outdoor
Charlemont Trail System

By Paula Burton (SingleTracks #137)