Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area's Dave Brautigam Brings the Good, the Bad and the Corn Snow to Your Inbox | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area's Dave Brautigam Brings the Good, the Bad and the Corn Snow to Your Inbox

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Published November 8, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Dave Brautigam doing trail maintenance - COURTESY OF CHRIS NORRIS
  • Courtesy Of Chris Norris
  • Dave Brautigam doing trail maintenance

If the Inuits have 50 or more words for snow, then Dave Brautigam is a close second. Nominally, Brautigam, 76, is president of the Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area in Huntington, but he's also cofounder of the facility, chief trail groomer, coordinator of the two dozen or more volunteers who keep the place running, and evangelist for the sport of free-heel skiing.

Perhaps his most vital job — and the one for which he's best known — is delivering a daily report of snow conditions at the Nordic center to more than 1,100 subscribers, most of whom won't touch their skis until the word has come down from the mount.

"I just get a kick out of sharing my excitement for the coming day of skiing and for the unique combination of spectacular but very skiable terrain," Brautigam explained.

Melding weather accounts with reports on trail conditions and adding a dash of wry humor, Brautigam composes missives such as this one, from March 21: "Hello Skiers, The cover is great ... it was cool (sub-32) last night, and the weather will be a mixed bag today, as the temps climb into the 40s, with a little sun predicted and maybe a little r—n in the afternoon...In sum, I'd say today includes a little of 'the good, the bad, and the ugly.'"

To Brautigam, "rain" is a four-letter word.

Brett Lindemuth, a friend and volunteer, scrutinizes the reports as if they were written in the language of a lost civilization. Not only are they reliable, he said, but he enjoys "the entertainment value and encouragement one gets from it." He's urged Brautigam to compile these pithy and sometimes poetic meteorological observations in a book. "I'm worried that it's like a lost art ... and I don't know anyone who feels the same way about skiing there," Lindemuth said. "Dave once told me: 'There are trees out in those woods that I know by name.'"

When the first flakes fly, showing stick season the door, Brautigam awakens by 6:30 a.m., settles on his living room couch and boots up a Lenovo laptop. For the next 30 to 45 minutes, he makes calls to the volunteers who are out maintaining the Camel's Hump Nordic center's more than 40 miles of groomed and backcountry trails. The spotters provide temperature data and observations of snow texture in different locations on the trail network. If it's been precipitating, they report on the type — drizzle, granular snow or light powder.

Brautigam, his face and voice both evidence of a life lived mainly outside and often in the cold, is fiercely passionate about the Nordic center and the sport itself, which has helped him through various hardships, financial and personal, according to friends and volunteers. He's proud of the good relationships he's maintained with the 30 or so landowners who have agreed to let the trails crisscross their property. Best of all is when he introduces himself to someone who has skied at the center.

"I frequently get a response like: 'Oh, boy. I love reading your ski reports,'" he said. "Or, 'Even if I'm having a lousy day, your ski reports brighten it up.' That's always been gratifying."

As the steward of the Nordic ski area, Brautigam feels a tension between accurately reporting the conditions versus crafting seductive descriptions that might send skiers hurtling out of their homes. Brautigam opts for the former — occasionally, to some people's minds, sounding excessively objective.

"Ironically," he said, "some of the guys that live on the hill who provide me with information sometimes tell me, 'Dave, you're being a little too gloomy and negative.' Well, if there's an icy spot, I might say, 'Watch out for this icy patch on such and such trail.' That can stick with people as opposed to giving them a more positive note. I'm comfortable with the balance I strike."

Dave Brautigam - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Dave Brautigam

For the past nine years, his Brauti-grams have been showing skiers the way like blazes on a trail. If weather and snow conditions are stable, Brautigam will email his subscribers by 8:30 a.m. "On the other hand, if the forecast is for snow, I am usually excited as a little kid and up early to touch base with my contacts," he said. When that happens, skiers will get a message such as this one, from December 20, 2022:

"Today will be a really nice day to ski. The temps will remain below freezing (but not too much) and the snow has set up and dried out, so no sticky snow to scrape off your skis. There are occasional wet spots, but who is complaining??"

Brautigam has nearly half a century of history in the Camel's Hump foothills. The onetime professional tennis instructor and his former wife, Myra Handy, developed the Nordic trail network in 1979 on a Huntington hill farm owned by Handy's parents. The pair ran a commercial operation until they divorced in 1996. Brautigam almost sold his PistenBully grooming machine, but with the help of friends, skiers and volunteers, the nonprofit Camel's Hump Skiers' Association was created to keep the facility open and running.

Noah, the younger of Brautigam's two sons, said that growing up he was deeply impressed by his father's dedication — not only to the activity of skiing but also to introducing the sport to newcomers.

"To see him put in the effort year after year, despite many setbacks that would turn most people to other pursuits, with little to no financial incentive, is a model of patience and of finding joy in a dedicated and long-term mission," he said.

No setback was greater, nor was the community response stronger, than when, in February 2015, Brautigam fell awkwardly rounding a corner and sustained a spinal cord injury to his neck that left him partially paralyzed. A long rehab enabled him to walk again — though he no longer skis. Absent their shepherd, the Nordic ski area flock had to find their own way.

"The fact that he basically couldn't walk for a while was very scary for him," said John Hadden, who moved to Huntington in 1986 and quickly became a ski buddy and volunteer for Brautigam. "As soon as he could, he was back up on his feet and doing things like parking cars, with the aid of a couple of ski poles to keep him upright."

Volunteers helped keep the Nordic center running as Brautigam recuperated. When the pandemic struck, the desire to get outdoors practically doubled season memberships, to 170. As of this year, the pandemic-boosted number is nearing 250.

For most of his friends and volunteers, Brautigam is the Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area. He's been a constant presence at the ski facility, and the center has been the bedrock of his life. "It's risen from the ashes so many times, and he's the reason it's still there," neighbor and volunteer Bill Hegman said, adding, "In fact, I'm surprised it is."

Forty-five years ago, Brautigam and his then-wife went backcountry skiing with his in-laws in the hills below Camel's Hump. It was a lovely day, he recalled, and an experience that stirred his soul. "That, coupled with the back-to-the-land ethic that was prevailing at the time, suggested to us that starting a cross-country ski area might be a viable thing to do," Brautigam said. "Yeah, and it was."

Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area day passes are $15. Individual season passes are $100; family season passes are $175. camelshumpskiers.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Snow Man | Camel's Hump Nordic Ski Area's Dave Brautigam brings the good, the bad and the corn snow to your inbox"

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