For my 13th birthday, my mother handed me a long, thin envelope. Inside was a brochure for Sugarloafer’s Ski Camp, a weeklong program offering recreational instruction for kids at the Maine ski area Sugarloaf.
Nearly a month later, two days after Christmas, I was scooped up by a trio of buses filled with 150 or so campers and counselors on their way to Kingfield, Maine, where the camp–with its sleeping fort and dining dome–awaited. Most of the kids were from the Main Line of Philadelphia or Essex County, New Jersey. To speak in broad terms, they were preppy and good looking.
Okay, they weren’t all preppy and they weren’t all model-material, but that’s how I remember it. What I most strongly remember, as I sat in my bus seat observing, was how these ‘tweens and teens exuded a confidence that was completely foreign to me.
And the way they dressed!
Ski camp was where I saw my first fair isle sweater and my first pair of LL Bean blucher mocs. The campers had distinguished names like Churchill and Ferdinand, while others had cute nicknames, like Kit, Buff and Woods. Where I came from, no one had a nickname, much less a unique one. If anything, it might be shortened to Tony or Mike, Lynn or Beth. No offense to any of those names, but back in the Seventies, the notion of being named after a city or a grandmother’s maiden name was decades from taking fruition.
The only other time I’d caught a glimpse of this world was during the occasional visit to Greenwich, CT. where my mother sold the hostess skirts she made for a local clothing store. As she presented her inventory to the owner, I’d wander among the racks, observing pretty blonde moms in Icelandic sweaters with Dorothy Hamill haircuts, as they selected winter coats or boots for their adorable kids, who all seemed to be named Chip, Kip, Lele. Why had my parents bestowed me with the plainest name in the entire world? I wanted a nickname.
On the first morning of ski camp, our skills were assessed on the bunny hill. “E!” Gardner Defoe, the director yelled to me, directing which instructor to ski over to join, as I swooshed down, turning more with my hips than my legs. “Group E!”
E was just below F Troop, the hot doggers. Not bad. Socially, though, I was a fish out of water, and remained so all week. Was it because I felt insecure in the suspicion that everyone came from wealthy families except me? (not true) Or because they were, by and large, genetically predisposed to clear complexions and shiny hair? (Also, not true. Funny how memories make everyone’s skin great except your own. Or at least, a beauty editor’s memory…) Or was it simply because they were fundamentally cool while I was not?
Man, I was so not cool. I was kind of a mess, actually. Thirteen and pustule faced, my Dorothy Hamill haircut made me look like an unattractive River Phoenix. I had no idea who I was and no confidence to try finding out. Despite all that, I returned the following year. Groundhog Week. More improved skiing, but no new friends. By the last day, I decided, never again.
Sugarloaf lingered within the forefront of my mind through high school. I mostly remember looking up to the counselors, who seemed to be having the time of their lives. In the Fall of my senior year, the hair had grown out, the skin had cleared up (marginally) and the confidence was sprouting. I wrote to Gardner about becoming a counselor. He offered a counselor-in-training spot. I was going back.
The third time was, indeed, a charm. I made friends, I taught the girls who slept in my bunk how to french braid, I met a cute boy (and made out with said cute boy). I fit in.
We were there to ski, but my most cherished memories of camp were when the entire group was together at meals. As we downed our soup and sandwiches at lunch, Gardner would call for quiet, take attendance, then go down the pertinent list on his clipboard: what the night’s event would be, which counselor was with which ski group that afternoon, any lost and found issues. Being a counselor was my first taste of responsibility. When you’re 17, you don’t realize the impact that this opportunity has, and how it will reverberate; how that sense of purpose will stay with you and influence your actions throughout the rest of your life. But it does.
I relished being a part of a staff for the first time in my life, and navigating the responsibility of overseeing kids not that much younger than myself. I loved making friends with the counselors– joking with some, flirting with others, trying to think of something smart or witty to say with my newfound sarcasm. Sugarloafer’s got me out of my shell, and yet, at the same time, slightly nudged me back into it. You might be making out with David, but you don’t go to boarding school. Sure, that sweater T.D. loaned you is perfection, but you’re going to have to give it back, then return to the land of Member’s Only jackets in a few days. I still felt like an outsider.
A recent ski trip rushed a flood of ski camp elements back to me. A small group of us flew to Baldface Lodge in Nelson, British Columbia for three days of backcountry skiing with the chic activewear brand Aether. Our posse of editors and Aether folks was a good mix. It was one of those trips where we all got along–which is important, given that you’re together nearly 24/7, piled into a snow cat or relying on each other should the (frequent) need to pull a fellow skier out of a tree well arise.
I knew I was the oldest editor, by far. Heck, I was the oldest of the entire group. As we headed north from Spokane in our cozy coach, trading ski stories, I became overcome by a foreboding feeling, which reminded of what my friend Cian said when I told him about this trip.
“Baldface?” he practically spat at me from his desk. “Dude, do you know how incredible this place is?”
Furiously googling the lodge’s site, he turned his screen for me to see. “Do you have any idea how hard it’s going to be? You’d better start doing lunges, girl. 25 minutes, every day.”
Oops. On some days I did ten; others, 20, tops. And on other days, I forgot to do them, entirely. As I scanned the bus and assessed the ages, I began to seriously regret my laissez-faire (lazy-faire?) attitude.
As spectacular as Baldface is, the method of arrival is even more magical. A helicopter sweeps you from the riverbanks of Nelson, up over Kootenay Lake, then drops you into the wilderness of the Selkirk Mountains, snow-tufted evergreens as far as the eye can see. We had landed in Narnia. Only difference was, there were hot toddies and really good soup (they graciously shared a recipe, at bottom) to be had right inside.
All told, there there were about thirty guests during our stay. That first night at dinner, the owner Jeff Pensiero, gave a friendly hush, then proceeded to explain how the following morning would go: where we’d need to be and when, who to report to, what to expect, what to wear. I was right back at Sugarloaf. As he introduced each of the staff, other staff members heckled. When he thanked us for visiting, we applauded, smiling at each other across the dinner table. Even though most of us didn’t know who the rest of us were, we were all there for one reason, and every single one of us was passionate about that reason. Ski camp, the grownup years.
The next morning, outfitted in our impressively comfy Aether layers, we learned how to work our radios and beacons, and detect a snow-buried fellow skier should an avalanche occur. After we piled into the snowcat, you could smell the trepidation. Palmer, one of the Aether’s owners, turned to me, quiet in the back row. “Partner?”
I smiled and nodded. In backcountry skiing, a buddy system is necessary. I appreciated that the man in charge had offered to look after the old girl. (Palmer also happens to be from Paoli, PA, where some of my favorite Sugarloafers, the Thomson brothers, grew up. Oddly, Palmer didn’t know about ski camp. I told you he was quite younger…)
He and I made a good team–usually. An excellent daredevil, he would sometimes fly past just as I found myself sinking into yet another tree well, tangled every which way and unable to get up again.
Wipeouts aside, my skiing held up. What a relief. My music knowledge, on the other hand, fell short. Each time Kelly, our designated DJ, put a hip hop or rap song on, the entire group would raise their hands or bop their heads to the rhythm, singing along. Except me. What the hell song was this? I was showing my age. Once in a blue moon, a Wyclef Jean or Eminem number thankfully came on, to which an over-excited me would idiotically begin overzealously bobbing my head, hoping the others would take notice. I know this one! See, everybody? I know the words! I’m cool, too!
But it was more than about not being cool. I felt like the outcast again, although from no fault but my own. This was a kind and quirky group. There was no “You can’t sit with us” here. Still, as everyone sang along to DJ Never Heard Of, my gaze turned to the safety of the fluffy trees outside the window, and I was that Sugarloafer camper alone on the bus ride again.
To cut myself some slack, I was a bit off. I’d recently suffered a significant loss (my job) and it had done me in, physically and emotionally, not that I was fully aware of it yet. Aether’s invitation proved to be the exact antidote I needed. I may have been a bit fragile, but with each dive into the powder, I felt myself coming back, stronger with every turn.
Looking back, the Sugarloaf years, which spanned six or seven from camper to counselor, overlapped an even heavier monumental loss: my mother’s awful, arduous decline toward death. Both ski camp and Baldface lifted me out of my slump by plopping me down into piles of freshly fallen snow, clicking me into my bindings and pushing me down into a snowy forest. And the challenge of finding my way through the maze of trees in that mattress of powder, laughing my ass off to the point of joyful screaming, cured all woes.
Funny how doing your favorite thing in the world does that.
Baldface Lodge’s Vegan Coconut Squash Soup
- 3 lbs peeled butternut squash, cut into one-inch pieces
- 1 lemongrass stalk, outer layer peeled off
- 2 Kaffir lime leaves [I subbed with zest of one lime]
- 2 T fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 yellow onion, roughly chopped2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
- 2-3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cups coconut cream [I used one 5.4 oz can of coconut cream, plus one 13 oz can of coconut milk]
- 4 cups vegetable stock*
- salt and pepper to taste
- honey to taste
- hot sauce to taste
- juice of one lime
Heat some grapeseed oil in a large pot until shimmering. Add carrots, onions, celery and ginger. Cook until very soft, stirring often, not allowing them to caramelize. If the vegetables begin coloring, add a pinch of salt. This will help water release from the vegetables and will create some steam [WHO KNEW??].
Add squash, lemongrass, ginger and lime leaves. Cook until the squash begins to soften, stirring often. When the squash cubes can be easily pierced with a fork or a skewer, add the vegetable stock and coconut cream. Bring to a slow boil, then simmer until the vegetables are falling apart. Remove the lemongrass and lime leaves and discard.
Transfer the mixture, working in batches, to a blender. Blend until completely smooth then pass through a fine conical strainer. Season with salt and pepper and add some honey or raw sugar and hot sauce if desired to balance out the flavors. Add the lime juice last, preferably just a few minutes before serving.
*Depending on the quality of the squash, you may want to thin out your soup with a bit more vegetable stock. It is important to cook the squash before adding all the liquids as it can become very waxy if cooked from raw in the liquid.