But just ten minutes away, it’s another world: barns, fields. And tucked behind it all: Beartown Ski Area. It is 99 acres in all, but the downhill skiing part is just a small fraction of that. There are two little slopes, a couple of side trails, and a trick park for snowboarders.
“You don’t see a lot of snowboarders here too much, but still fun,” says Cory Ryan from Chazy. He and his brother Brendan are waiting in line for the T-bar lift that scoots you up the hill. They’re sort of hobbling, with one foot attached to the board and the other foot on the ground.
The two brothers are some of the only snowboarders here today. Cory says that makes him feel like a rebel. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “We’re somewhat shunned sometimes but makes it more fun.”
Compared to the skiers, the Ryan brothers are riding in style, especially Brendan: he’s wearing a colorful beanie with a pom-pom and an edgy, tweed and leather jacket.
“What’s it called — Guess. I got it from a Macy’s. It was on sale like forever ago.”
They shush off to practice their board slides. That means doing a little jump and riding over a long, skinny metallic box.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the conditions are pretty close to perfect. The sun is poking through the clouds, and light flurries are floating down on the couple-dozen skiers and riders.
“It’s amazing when there are people that you talk to that don’t even know that we’re here. They’ve lived in Plattsburgh all their lives, never been here,” says Tim Howley, president of the board of directors that runs Beartown. It’s a nonprofit ski area, and there is some paid staff, but it’s mostly managed by volunteers.
When I meet Tim, he and a few of them are just downhill of a busted grooming machine. They’re hauling away snow that got saturated in red transmission fluid.
“A transmission hose blew. So the groomer will sit right there in the middle of the hill until we get it fixed because it can’t go anywhere, so. But again, that’s one of the challenges that you have when you’re doing this sort of stuff.”
Tim says Beartown got started back in 1956, when a high school gym teacher bought the property and set up a rope tow, which ran off a car engine.
“That’s what was there when we started skiing. You’d go through four, five pairs of gloves every year just because they’d wear right out on the rope tow.”
Today it’s a T-bar that takes people up the slope. When I hop on, I’m a little out of practice, but I make it without falling off.
From the top, you can see Lake Champlain. The slope isn’t steep – it’s about the same incline as a bunny hill, except the trail runs a tiny bit longer than that.
Another group of four snowboarders is getting ready to hit the park.
“Definitely it’s a good place to start learning how to do tricks and just to ride. Everybody kind of helps each other out so it makes it very friendly.”
It is Nick Baiano’s first time here. It’s only his second day of snowboarding.
“I’ve taken a lot of wipeouts today. I’m going to be sore tomorrow morning, I can tell you that.”
Then, we head over to the trick park, where I go off a jump. But Nick tries to do a board slide on one of those long boxes, and he bites it. But he’s still in good spirits. “It was all part of the sport. Falling is fun! You get right back up there and do it again.”
That’s the cool part about Beartown. It’s okay to fall down, because this is a beginner’s hill. You come here to practice and learn. And whenever you’re ready to come back and practice some more, it’s just ten minutes away from the city.
Photos by Zach Hirsch: Above, skiers ride the T-bar up Beartown’s main hill; and below, the view from the top of the hill.
A version of this story originally aired on North Country Public Radio.