Mad River Valley | Vermont's Snow Globe
But the local passion for winter goes well beyond the downhill runs, whether at retro Mad River Glen or with-it Sugarbush. “As soon as it snows here, you can’t reach anybody,” says Karen Nevin, director of the Valley Arts Foundation, which promotes cultural participation year-round and hosts the monthlong Vermont Festival of the Arts each August. “Everyone snowshoes, or cross-country skis, out their back doors.” For those whose back doors don’t open onto trails, or for visitors, there’s XC at Ole’s and Blueberry Lake in Warren and snowshoe excursions offered by Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield.
And then there are the Icelandic horses. Off Route 100, in Fayston, Karen Winhold’s Icelandic Horse Farm has been home for more than 25 years to the shaggy, diminutive equines first brought to Iceland from mainland Scandinavia around 1100 AD. Odinn, Freyja, Frigg, Loki, and the rest of Karen’s herd of more than 30 horses are all masters of the breed’s singular lateral four-beat gait called the “tölt.”
“People giggle when they feel the rhythm of that gait,” Karen says—and they can enjoy the ride for up to two hours, all winter long. “The horses really do like the snow,” Karen adds. “The powder is fun for them to go through.”
As I was petting Freyja’s nose, I heard “Hi.” I hadn’t seen anyone in her stall, until farm worker Alice Peal, who was grooming Freyja, emerged from behind her flank. I must have looked startled, because Alice asked, “Did you think it was the horse?” Well, they are named after gods, after all, and they hail from a land where elfin magic still has its believers.
If the Mad River Valley has drawn its share of enthusiasts for the winter outdoors, it has exerted no less of a pull on artists and craftspeople. I’d been told by a local that “ski areas aren’t the key to the valley—it’s the creative people here.” Without agreeing that one element of the region’s attractiveness should be set against another, I did find a remarkable store of artistic vitality in the Mad River Valley. The “Waitsfield Art Walk” is a 1.3-mile stretch of Route 100 that takes in some 19 shops and galleries—places such as Waitsfield Pottery, Artisans Gallery, and Mad River Glass, where Melanie and David Leppla blow and shape exquisite wares while visitors look down from the shop into their workroom. “The sense of community here is really conducive to creativity,” Melanie says.
It seemed that almost everywhere I turned in Waitsfield, I found someone making something, or selling an item someone close by had made. At the village’s 4orty Bridge Boutique, the proprietor brewed me an espresso while I admired a display of handcrafted gold jewelry. “Those pieces are all made by Sheri DeFlavio, here in town,” she told me, nodding in the artisan’s direction as if she were in the next room.
Standing at the intersection of Mad River Valley creativity and the local passion for winter sports is Dave Sellers, inventor of the Mad River Rocket. Dave, an architect, has designed homes and public buildings all over the world, and has taught at Yale—but his local notoriety derives from what has been described as his “sled on steroids.”
“I tried to design an alternative to skiing,” Dave told me as we sat in his happily cluttered office at the edge of Warren village. “Skiing is expensive, and energy intensive. With the Mad River Rocket, you get a lifetime pass for $100—the cost of the sled—and you have 50,000 acres of sledding terrain in Vermont alone.”
The sturdy plastic Rocket differs from traditional sleds in two important ways. First, you ride it while kneeling, with a knee strap securing you to the sled. And second, it has what Dave calls a “negative keel”: Instead of digging down, the square-shaped channel of the inverted “keel” creates its own monorail out of snow as it makes its descent.
“It’s the only wilderness sled in the world,” Dave says. “You can take it to the top of any mountain in Vermont and ride down. There’ll never be an instructor, because it’s so easy to learn. We’ll take any conditions that nature provides, except ice, and we want to challenge skiing.”