Cannon, New Hampshire

After a visit to Cannon in 2008, I wrote the following notes. Much may have changed since then. In particular, Mittersill has been incorporated into the Cannon operations. 

Many ski areas chase after the moneyed class and the casual skier. They offer plenty of non-skiing and riding activities, such as snowshoe hikes, spas, water parks, fine dining and the like.

Cannon Mountain isn’t like that. Yes, it has lessons specifically for children, and it has some places to eat and get a drink, but that’s about it. Bretton Woods plays Billy Joel at the base area. Cannon plays … nothing that I can recall. The marketing materials for Bretton Woods and Loon show happy families, little ones in tiny skis. Cannon shows a teenager or young adult sporting a soul patch and a snowboard. Its target audience is not the harried executive family looking for some relaxation from time on the slopes mixed with off-slope luxury, but “Cannonistas” who are Type A personalities on the slopes. A few years ago its tagline was “Are you Cannon fodder?”

Cannon embodies the stereotype of traditional New Hampshire: basic, non-nonsense and rugged. The facilities are fine but basic. There’s no pampering here. As the general manager told us at lunch, “we have no McDonalds, holistic healing or strip malls.” Not, he added, that there’s anything wrong with that, but Cannon is “a vacation from the resort experience.”

Not too bad, I thought. 

One of the best powder days I've had was at Cannon.

One of the best powder days I’ve had was at Cannon.

Cannon was blessed with fresh powder that morning, perhaps 6 to 8 inches of hero snow. I suspect that these upper trails get icy pretty often, but I had more powder to poach than I have found on some trips to Colorado. (Maybe I’ve got bad luck in out there?) We took some laps on the Cannonball Quad, and I suspect the hero snow made the narrow trails so much more relaxing and enjoyable.

After taking in those upper runs we dropped further down the mountain towards the “five sisters” trails that, from nearby Interstate 93, look very steep. I can’t say that they are very steep or not, as the fabulous snow cover made them much easier than the would have been otherwise. The easiest of the five is Gary’s, and it invites ripping it up in a wide gully. Gary’s and Rocket are easily accessed by the Zoomer triple chair, but getting to the other three sisters takes some effort—at least in heavy snow. You have to traverse the mountain to get to them, and that traverse can be a difficult trip on snowboard. On two separate trips I thought it easier to take my board off and walk over—and the ride down from there wouldn’t have been worth doing except that I was exploring the mountain.

There are also some glade runs at Cannon, including some near the five sisters. We took one (the Lakeview Glade, I think) that left me thinking ‘I’m glad I did that, but I don’t need to do it again.” It was steeper than I prefer for trees.

Cannon has a tram that accommodates 70 people, which is great, but getting there from the five sisters area is a bit difficult on board. There’s a good chance that you’re going to have to walk, either in that traverse I mentioned before, or at the runout of the five sisters.

The tram is an iconic part o the experience at Cannon.

The tram is an iconic part o the experience at Cannon.

The tram was closed to the public for that day, but they opened it up for our group. We took it to the top for lunch, which was a fine buffet at which we honored an employee who died while serving in Iraq.

As a state-owned and operated facility, Cannon is different. Its mission, according to general manager JD DeVivo, is threefold: to provide revenue for the state; preserve the character of the Franconia State Park (of which the ski area is a part) and to provide philanthropy through programs offering discounted tickets. (Can government, which exists by forcibly taking money from people, really provide philanthropy?) It will be asking for a $1.5 million budget increase this year and another $2.5 million the year after that. Some of those extra funds to alleviate a deficit.

Is Cannon generating too little income and spending too much money? Perhaps. From an undated press release distributed to our group is this statement: “We have certainly had some very happy skiers/riders rediscovering Cannon this year. However, despite our successes thus far, we are still working hard to overcome last year’s nearly half million dollar deficit and a running deficit of $1.5 million.”

Why operate a deficit for a state facility when there are over a dozen privately owned and operated areas in the state? Welcome to the mystery of politics. History has a lot to do with it. though. Skiing at Cannon goes back to 1933, though it wasn’t in a state park then. Money has something to do with it, too; state residents get a 25 percent discount on season passes, and most likely would not favor turning things over to a private contractor.

For his part DeVivo says he doesn’t care whether the area is run privately or publicly—he was a private sector manager in the industry for 16 years. But he does defend his employees, saying that they’re not “leaning on the shovel” types. Instead, he said, they work to make Cannon the best ski area in the state. Perhaps  it is—though one must wonder then why it needs state protection.

But if Cannon management does get the money from the legislature, it has plans for an expansion involving the defunct Mittersill ski area, which is on one side of Cannon. With Mittersill, Cannon would expand its terrain by 78 percent. Is that a good thing? In its present condition, Mittersill offers a backcountry-like experience that some New England riders and skiers enjoy. Certainly that would change should the terrain become lift-served again. During my visit I was able to take a trip down that terrain, and enjoyed the chance to experience a more natural (that is, unmanaged and ungroomed) “trail.”

Looking back into history

My group made two visits to the New England  Ski Museum, which has three buildings, only one of which is regularly open to the public. One building is an annex where they store old skis. A second building is a small exhibition space near the tram at Cannon. It has exhibits that change throughout the year. The displays on that day featured the history of the National Ski Patrol, and included a 30 minute film on the patrol. A gift shop helps provide financial support for the museum, and a number of items are for sale, including DVDs, books and classic ski posters of skiing’s glory days. (As you might expect, snowboarding items are nowhere to be found in the catalog.) The books range from the scholarly to the popular and include a couple of children’s items, including “Curious George in the Snow.” Membership starts at $35 a year, but there is no admission fee.

We also visited the archival building, which is open by appointment only. It has a lot of old magazines and other documents, as well as gear. Some old ski poles had baskets of over a foot in diameter. If you’re a hotshot skier today, try out those hickory sticks that at 7 feet tall, straight, minimal edges and what appear to be rather insecure bindings, and then see what happens! I found “my” cross country skis, an orange pair of Trax from the 1970s.

There are also some early snowboards on display, including a thin Winterstick made of plastic, a yellow Snurfer, an early Burton board with a single strap (looking like a belt of sorts) on the back of the board and another Burton board with bindings similar to those found on water skis.

Leave a Reply