The Real Unsung Heros of Winter

Sheldon Brassor,
Wilmington Highway Department

(this article by Jeff Nugent originally appeared in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of the Catamount Trail Association newsletter)

A foot of fresh snow fell overnight. Driving to the trailhead, you might not be thinking about the one thing that could keep you from a great day of skiing... An unplowed parking lot. Trailhead plowing can be hit or miss during the winter months. In some cases, it simply happens by luck.

“I plow it out just because I see people parking there,” said A.J. Bartlett, when I asked him about a lot that provides access to Section 3 of the Catamount Trail. A.J. is the former Searsburg road foreman.

What’s a road foreman? Most every town in Vermont has someone—often but not always called a road foreman—in charge of the crew who makes sure our back roads are passable all year long. In winter, these people are on call 24/7, watching the weather with an intensity that may rival the most passionate skier. Except unlike us, you’ll never see them enjoying an après-ski beverage during the cold weather months. It’s one of the sacrifices of working under the restrictions of a Commercial Driver’s License.

Chris Liller, Stratton’s road foreman, says he is “happy to take care of the lots for the folks using the trails. It’s nice to see that area being used.” But he has more practical reasons too. As a former fire chief, he sees the parking areas as a good staging area during an emergency or Search and Rescue.

Liller’s plow route includes two busy trailheads that provide access to Sections 4 and 5 of the Catamount Trail, along with the Long Trail and snowmobile trails. Most importantly, he notes, “if I didn’t plow them out, cars and trucks and trailers would be lining the road and I couldn’t get through.”

We might think “there’s room for a car to get around me” as we squeeze along the roadside or into a turn-around. But there may not be room for a large snow plow, driven by an operator who’s finishing a 15-hour shift at the end of a storm.

Sheldon Brassor, Wilmington’s road foreman, plows the road leading to a trailhead on Section 2. Parking was restricted at his turn-around until last year he created some spots just for trail users, which he now keeps clear. Otherwise, no parking, no skiing. It’s not just town road crews that do the plowing. The Dutch Hill Backcountry Area in Readsboro sits behind the former ski area’s roadside parking lot, which is usually cleared by VTrans crews for truck parking a few days after a storm.

Now that earn-your-turns skiing has returned, people are arriving even before the snow has stopped falling, and well before VTrans plows the lot. The freshly cleared entrance to a private residential community across Route 100 is a tempting place to park. As a service to skiers, and in an effort to be a good neighbor, the Dutch Hill Alliance of Skiers and Hikers, a CTA chapter, hires a local contractor to plow a dozen spaces at the Dutch Hill lot for those grabbing first tracks.

There’s likely to be a big increase in winter recreation this year. As we start our day’s journey into the backcountry, first, please park safely and responsibly. Make room not just for other cars, but for large snow removal equipment too. Second, park legally. Make sure you’re not encroaching on private land. Third, continue to support organizations like CTA and its chapters, and VAST. Your dues help keep trailheads clear. Lastly, be grateful to the men and women who work all hours of the day and night so we have access to backcountry fun.

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