Friday, March 9, 2012

Time for a Miller Run

On Sunday I went downhill skiing, the first time – I’m embarrassed to say – this winter, even though we’re already into March.  It’s been a busier, stranger winter this year, which has prevented me from doing as much as I would like to outside. 

For this short ski trip, I drove to Peuramaa (“Deer Land”), a nice, typically small ski hill about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of my home in Helsinki.  One thing to know about skiing in Finland is that the really good downhill spots are in the north, mostly in Lapland, where Finland’s only actual mountains are located.  I say “mountains”, but sadly the topography in Lapland is nothing like the Alps or the Rockies, or even my native Appalachians. 

View from the top of Peuramaa.
Finland has been ground down too much by ancient ice to boast anything other than tunturit (or “fells”), massive, solitary, rounded mountains that don’t rise much above tree line – which in Lapland isn’t hard to do.  That far north you run out of trees at around 600 meters (2000 feet).  That’s not very high even by Georgia standards (the small part of Georgia that has mountains, that is). 

Still, you don’t have to be towering to be wild and barren.  The word tunturi has the same root in the Sami language that gives us “tundra”, which tells you something about the environment on the flat summits of Lapland's highest peaks in winter. 

That’s Lapland.  The rest of the Finnish landscape rises and falls in a mosaic of hills and ridges, but mostly nothing approaching mountains.  In the part of southern Finland where I live, the highest patch of ground is some place I’ve never heard of that’s only about 160 meters (500 feet) above sea level.  (Well, that’s still higher than half of Georgia, but it ain’t that high.)

Peuramaa, where I went skiing last weekend, is lower than that.  It stands only about 50 m (160 feet) above the flat farmland to the west (if my Suunto altimeter can be believed), but it does rise abruptly, making the lower slopes quite steep.  That seems normal for ski hills in extremely southern Finland.  Most are situated atop kalliot, which are giant humps of rock that sometimes rise vertically from their immediate surroundings. 

Sunset on Sunday.
The weather on Sunday was awesome.  Blue sky, temperatures just below freezing, no wind at all, and a bright sun that didn’t set until just before the place closed at six.  The fact that it’s not already pitch dark by that time is another plus for springtime skiing. 

It was a perfect day, and as I stood on top of the hill watching the setting sun, I was put in mind of the place where I first “learned” to ski long ago.  (I have to confess, I’ve never taken lessons, as my deeply flawed technique shows all too well, but I still manage.) 

As unlikely as it might sound, Georgia used to have a ski resort.  Sky Valley wasn’t big, though it did have a vertical drop bigger than Peuramaa’s.  And it is barely even in Georgia.  To get there, you had to drive over the state line into North Carolina, and then reenter Georgia on a small dead-end road to reach a small basin under Georgia’s second highest peak (Rabun Bald, 4696 ft, 1431 m). 

When it opened in 1969, Sky Valley held the distinction of being America’s southernmost ski hill this side of the Rockies.  That is, until Cloudmont, an even more unlikely ski area, cropped up in Alabama a year later.  Building a ski resort so far south requires a level of optimism I can scarcely imagine, especially the one in Alabama, which isn’t even as high as the hill behind our family home in Georgia – a hill no one would rightly consider ski-resort material.   

Yet, Cloudmont remains in operation, while Sky Valley closed to skiing in 2004, after the resort changed hands.  It now seems to be mostly a secluded golf resort and vacation community.  But, back in the 70s, when I was in college, it was a bustling little resort where I learned with my brother and buddies how to make it down the hill on skis.   

Just under two hours from Athens, Sky Valley was great for a quick day out on the slopes, such as they were.  My roommates and I would sometimes skip classes to enjoy some less-crowded weekday skiing.  One of my best memories from those trips was inspired, as so many other things in college life are, by a beer commercial. 

Miller Beer used to run TV ads with the tagline “It’s Miller Time”.  Maybe they still do.  The storyline went like this:  in the evening, after a day well spent doing something satisfying, and manly, like building barns or racing dirt bikes, blue-collar, outdoorsy dudes would get together and throw back a few, well-deserved cold ones because, well, “It’s Miller Time.” 

When we skied at Sky Valley, we had a habit of trying to get as much skiing in as we could, especially as closing time approached.  We’d try to squeeze a few more runs in before the chair lift shut down, sometimes racing to the bottom of the hill just before they stopped letting people on.  If, on the way back up the hill, we saw that the chairs behind us were empty, we knew that was going to be the last run of the day. 

Once at the top of the hill, we’d wait while the other skiers headed back down.  We’d stand there, savoring the scenery, the camaraderie, all the fun we’d had that day.  Finally, when everyone else had cleared off the hill, we’d head down one last time ourselves, making the most of that one last run, the run we naturally dubbed “The Miller Run”.  

On the slopes at Peuramaa.

1 comment:

  1. Nice memories there, Kent. It wasn't just the property changing hands that killed off the little ski was also the fact that it just isn't cold enough anymore this far south to even MAKE snow, let alone depend on natural snow enough to open the runs. That's one reason it was sold off. All of my pals who went to UGA loved to go to Sky Valley for skiing, and most of them learned to ski there.