View From Thevalley

With great skiing and beautiful, wide-open spaces, one might easily mistake West Virginia's Canaan Valley for New England.


Cover Story

December 21, 2003|By Bert Fox | Bert Fox,Special to the Sun

December has already given us a taste of snow, but do you remember the Big Snow last Valentine's Day? Shoveling 28 inches from the driveway left me exhausted.

Don't get me wrong, I love snow and have traveled the world to ski in it. But this storm was too much of a good thing. I was certain it would postpone our family vacation to Canaan Valley in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.

We had planned to return to our favorite chalet-style rental home, nestled in the woods near Timberline Four Seasons Resort, one of two downhill ski areas in the valley. We were due the next day -- a 200-mile drive west from our Baltimore-area home.

A phone call that evening from a cheery rental agent made us feel better about making the trip: "Hi, this is Canaan Realty, and your home is ready. We plowed the 50 inches of new snow that fell, so you can get to the cabin, and the lifts are running at both Timberline and Canaan Valley ski resorts. But do bring your tire chains -- the last little bit up the driveway is mighty slick."

Why did we choose Canaan Valley?

It's closer to home than New England or the West, making travel with our 3-year-old son Charlie a lot more bearable. It's a wild, wide-open place where 13 feet of snow falls annually and the year-round residents are outnumbered by the variety of wild birds.

The valley is said to be the highest east of the Rocky Mountains (3,200 feet above sea level at the valley floor). There are no stoplights in the valley, and the only grocery store is part gas station, part liquor store and part sporting goods store.

We also enjoy the area's variety of things to do. We could hike along wooded trails in the morning, sled at midday and ski in the afternoon. And the prices for a week of skiing, dining and renting a home are about the same as the family's airfare to Western ski resorts would be.

With gear packed for a half-dozen winter sports, we began our four-hour drive. In Davis, W.Va., nine miles from our destination, we stopped to buy groceries for the week.

My wife, Nanine, slipped away for a stroll through the Art Company, steps away from the grocery store. The shop is an eclectic collection of crafts and artwork by regional artisans. We ate lunch at Sirianni's. The restaurant's high-ceiling interior is festooned with historic pictures, posters and news clippings.

The last few miles from Davis to Canaan Valley follow a serpentine road cut through thick, second-growth forest. As we descended into the valley, we caught glimpses of its 15-mile expanse. This place is an oasis in the wild and was designated the nation's 500th National Wildlife Refuge in 1994. Portions of the valley are a National Natural Landmark as well as two state parks.

After a coal mining boom in the late 1800s and heavy lumbering into the 1920s, the region lay fallow for years. In the 1950s, the ski club of Washington built its first rope tow in the valley, on Cabin Mountain. In 1955, Weiss Knob opened at what is now White Grass Touring Center, becoming the first commercial ski area in the state. Today's touring center lodge is an original 1950s building and home to the best natural-food dining in the valley.

Variety of trails

After trudging our bags, food and ski gear into the rental house, I climbed into the hot tub on the deck. A light snow was falling, and deer meandered through the nearby woods.

We awoke the next morning to gray skies and 6 inches of new snow. Timberline resort's mountain summit was peeking through the trees from an elevation of more than 4,200 feet, exuding an atmosphere more like New England than the Mid- Atlantic. Our first day of skiing would be at Timberline.

Thirty-five ski trails with one double and two triple chairlifts cover the ski area. The longest trail, Salamander, meanders for two miles down the hill -- an excellent warm-up for the day. Other trails, like expert-rated Upper Thunder Struck and Upper Silver Streak, have challenging descents cut through thick woods.

Last year, when Charlie was still 3, he wasn't old enough to join the children's program, which includes all-day ski instruction. So he enjoyed the on-site day care facilities while my wife and I skied.

On our first ride to the top of the mountain, the lift unloaded us into a howling whiteout, blowing snow so hard it burned our faces. We skied off the summit into the more protected wooded trails.

As we descended along groomed runs, the wind dissi-pated, leaving us surrounded in stillness. The slopes were nearly deserted.

After a handful of runs down intermediate slopes, we were ready for an expert run. Our confidence from previous runs helped us descend without a fall. But the cold -- it was in the 20s -- finally got the better of us. We headed for the lodge and huddled next to the fireplace.

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