Spreading the Nordic Dream
Right place, right time, right guy, right philosophy: Chip Chase’s White Grass Ski Touring Center and Cafe has hit its stride.
Photographed by Nikki Bowman
It’s fair to guess that a lot of Tucker Countians show a distinctive flair on the cross country trail.
“I learned to ski from Chip Chase,” says local resident Susan Haywood. “Trying to keep up with him on these night skis—we call them ‘Chippy Carefree Adventure Tours.’” Chase is a compact man, and he bushwhacks, going under brush, and he’s fast. “He’s got a special ability and a unique style. He hops up and down a lot and he’s real animated, like, quick-footed, always going through the trees like a chipmunk.” There’s often a little moonshine involved in these night tours, which Haywood says can steady the nerves or lend courage—though beginners might not sip quite as much as Chase. “I think a lot of people have learned to ski this way,” Haywood says.
It’s a common observation that anyone who spends more than a few days in Tucker County runs across Chip Chase, owner of White Grass Ski Touring Center and Cafe in Canaan Valley. “I first met Chip within probably a week of moving here in 1994,” says Haywood. Same for Anne Jones. “The first human I talked to in West Virginia was Chip Chase,” says Jones, executive director of the Tucker County Development Authority. She came to West Virginia to ski in 2007, and she liked it so much she moved here in 2010. “You see him everywhere. You’re at a party and there’s Chip floating by in the background. Or The Black Lillies come to play, and there’s Chip up onstage, doing guest harmonica.”
But during ski season, if Chase isn’t skiing at White Grass, he’s greeting skiers.
Tucker County can’t be fully appreciated independent of the exuberance of Chip Chase. “He makes this place what it is,” says local entrepreneur Ryan Gaujot, who met Chase at White Grass’s annual Jack Frost season kick-off party in 1999. “He sets the tone and the enthusiasm for the positive atmosphere that folks strive for here. It’s all about getting outside, coming in from the cold, recharging with good food, and doing it again.” Now in its 35th season, White Grass, a quirky reflection of its owner, has become a Tucker County and West Virginia institution.
Spoiling and Being Spoiled
Chase lived in Virginia as a young adult in the late ’70s. He’d grown up skiing all over and had learned cross country in Vermont a couple years earlier. “I felt I could help spread the Nordic dream,” he says—meaning cross country skiing, as opposed to Alpine, or downhill.
Chase and a friend, Winslow Ayer, set up trails on Shenandoah Mountain not far from Harrisonburg, Virginia, for the winter of 1979-80. “We were back-to-the-landers, not from the country as kids but fascinated by the fact that you could grow all your own food and your own orchards,” he recalls. “The ski trails augmented income that we had at other seasonal work. We set it up near a place called White Grass Knob, so I named it White Grass. We thought it was a neat little double entendre—lots of people think it means snow.
That Virginia ski season proved too short for their liking, so Chase and Ayer checked out Canaan Valley in West Virginia—the highest valley east of the Mississippi. They leased the former Weiss Knob downhill resort area on a farm that lay up against Cabin Mountain on the valley’s east side, and they opened White Grass Ski Touring Center in December 1981.
The Nordic dream was a bit of a hard sell, early on. “It was really mellow and slow. People would say, ‘I’ve done regular skiing,’ or ‘real skiing,’ and I’d say, ‘Real skiing?’” Chase mocks with mischief in his voice. “People even to this day think cross country skiing is racing around and being exhausted and flopping onto the finish line with a gun on your back—the biathlon thing. They’ll say, ‘Isn’t it a lot of work?’ I tell them exercise is terrible for you, that the way to live a long life is to just sit in a chair and don’t move, and they say, ‘I asked the wrong person the wrong question.’”
But once people tried cross country skiing, he says, they realized it’s beautiful, it’s challenging but invigorating, and they could enjoy it with their children and their grandparents. “The people who liked it liked it a lot, and they’d bring friends, wives, neighbors, and it grew like that.”
In plain ski resort terms, Canaan Valley gets more than 13 feet of snow a year, among the very highest snow totals south of New England. White Grass has about 40 miles of trails, around half of that groomed, with a dozen warming huts. And for Nords who like serious terrain, White Grass isn’t so different from the two downhill resorts it lies between, with more than 1,200 feet of rise from 3,220 feet of elevation, some of it above the treeline with wide views of the valley.
But in human terms, the country one crosses at White Grass is as charmingly personality-driven as everything else about the resort. The ski trails cross five public and private properties, most of it the Reed family farm. “When we first knew Randall Reed—he’s going on 96 and I met him when he was 59 and I was 27—he said, ‘I don’t know much about skiing, but I know I need some help,’” says Chase, whose original partner has moved on. Most of the year, the Reeds keep black Angus cattle on their 500-plus acres. “We said, ‘Give us a try.’ So we work on the farm year-round. In the winter we take the fences down and do the ski thing, and we put them back up in the spring. We help with haymaking, cows, horses, buildings and roads and weeds and mowing. We’re always willing to do work and extra work and make sure they feel spoiled, because we are spoiled.”
It’s a conscious and energetic cultivation of goodwill that ripples out into the community.
“You’ll see Chip in the middle of night doing a moonlight ski, but you’ll also see him at 8 in the morning sweeping the floor, getting the skis tuned, making sure the parking lot is safe for people,” Jones says. “That work ethic, you can’t discount that as a secret to his success.”
Running on Good Times
It’s a big deal for a family with two young ones to be able to drop in at a resort with no equipment and ski the day for $100. That’s part of White Grass’s good-natured business model: Stay true to the fun, and give people really good value.
The fun starts with the first-Saturday-in-December Jack Frost “pray for snow” potluck. “Pretty much everybody in the surrounding area shows up—even the downhillers,” says Laurie Little, Chase’s wife. “We serve local brews, and it’s a really good time. Everyone gets psyched about the season.”
Jack Frost celebrations have been known to drift well into the next day. Morgantown resident and longtime White Grass skier Adam Polinski remembers hanging around a crackling bonfire some time past midnight with a few dozen others after Jack Frost one year. He was just starting to think about his sleeping bag when Chase suggested a hike a few hundred feet up Weiss Knob Slope to the old lift shack, which everyone decided to join. They all enjoyed the view from 3,600 feet. “Then Chip pointed out that we were around halfway up to Round Top, and how great would it be if we just all walked on up there?” Polinski remembers. That’s at 4,000 feet. In they end, instigated by Chase, the group hiked up for the view of the stars and valley from Bald Knob, at 4,300 feet. After the long walk back down, Chase led a 4 a.m. raid on the refrigerator at White Grass Cafe. “Even though White Grass is his business, he still made it seem mischievous and hilarious that we were raiding the fridge, as if it were someone else’s and we were getting away with it,” Polinski laughs.
Through the season, skiing itself is daily fun. And then there are races. “We have these hash hound events where people chase around and some of them have a head start, not super-competitive,” Chase says. There are Special Olympics and a 25-kilometer ski marathon. “People come from North Carolina, some from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia for that,” he says. A Groundhog Day ski seeks clues to the rest of winter, and each month finds night-skiers marveling under the full moon.
A deeper kind of fun at White Grass involves taking time to appreciate the land. A story Chase likes to tell on his free weekly Natural History Snowshoe Discovery Tours is about the Davis Power Project that aimed to flood Canaan Valley for hydropower. “It was one of the longest environmental battles of its day,” he recounts. “They were issued a permit in the ’70s. They just needed permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do dredge-and-fill here in Canaan Valley, the largest wetland in the state. It was going to be flooded and ruined forever—but the Clean Water Act came through and saved it.” Meanwhile, the National Park Service noticed wetland plants more typical of New England and Canada and designated the valley a National Natural Landmark. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then created the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, from a start of 90 acres in 1994 to nearly 17,000 today. “We’re really lucky—it nearly went the other way.”
Fun usually involves food, and White Grass Cafe’s reputation for gourmet, vegetarian-friendly fare sometimes lines skiers up out the door. “When you’re out skiing and it’s really cold and then there’s hot food, it tastes better than ever,” jokes Little, who runs the cafe. “But people do love it, because we make everything pretty much from scratch.” The daily lunch menu includes four or five soups, several paninis, and a nacho platter with White Grass’s vegetarian chili that’s said to rival any meat-based version. “We also make our own salad dressings, and in recent years we’ve been able to get local, fresh greens in winter,” she says. Friday and Saturday night dinners feature an ever-changing menu of appetizers and entrees. “We have a lot of good cooks, and we let people create. That’s probably what makes it so good,” Little says. In the 2016-17 season, the cafe will sell its fresh hummus, salsa, and some soups to go for the first time. And in summers, it offers catering.
Part of the dinner scene is free live music, usually string bands. “People who are up-and-coming and really want to get gigs, they’re the type that play here. Some of them travel a ways,” Little says of the bluegrass-centered but eclectic mix that can include, in a given season, West Virginia favorites like the Ginsangers, Jesse Milnes, and Scott Prouty. “Some are just good friends that like to play here because it’s a great little place and has a good vibe.”
And all of that fun—skiing, learning, eating, and toe-tapping—goes farther if people can afford to join in. “We stay super affordable, maybe to kind of rub it in the nose of the Alpine industry,” Chase says. “Not around here, but internationally, it’s super expensive, and we wanted to be super cheap.” Day-use at White Grass is the best bargain around, at $20 for adults and $5 for kids under 12. Rentals and season passes are similarly reasonable. The best deal of all is a “free trade” program for kids: Buy one pair of skis for $250 and trade up for free every year, then pay no more than $150 to get into an adult pair.
White Grass’s agreement with the Reeds—work for rent and don’t expand the built footprint—keeps costs way down. But low-key is also a management style and a lifestyle choice. “I spent 10 years homesteading before White Grass, so I was into making a lot of things happen without a lot of cash,” Chase says. “We put the money into staff and into machinery that runs well, and we try to improve things for our employees and definitely for our customers. I probably could have made more doing this whole thing, looking back, but I keep my lifestyle mellow and I’m doing fine.”
Today’s White Grass lodge is the original Weiss downhill lodge from the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s notably cozy. From time to time, Jones at the development authority says, a skier pulls Chase aside and suggests he could really make the place great by adding condos or a snowmaker. “Some people don’t want that sense of authenticity,” she says. “He gently tells them, ‘Maybe there’s another place you’d rather be.’”
A Magic Winter Kingdom
White Grass is still a best-kept secret, at 5,000 to 10,000 visits a year depending on the snow.
“It’s such a small slice of winter up here in the valley. I’m trying to rewrite the history of the town of Davis to where it was settled by the Andersens and the Larsens instead of the DiBaccos and the Colabrese brothers,” Chase dreams out loud. “If it had been Scandinavians, you’d have a ski jump at every house and everybody would be five generations of skiers, and winter would be everybody’s favorite season.”
But some days it’s obvious the Nordic dream has taken hold in Canaan Valley. “We don’t advertise much, but we kind of have a monopoly for many miles and we’re super, super serious into it and we’re full-service—you can get really good telemark gear, fantastic snowshoes, kids’ things, we have it all,” Chase says. The small lodge gets busy in recent years, but service is fast, because people waiting in line is one of his pet peeves. “We actually greet you in the parking lot, and before you even get in the door we have things prepared for you. Even on the busiest day we’re pretty quick getting you out skiing if that’s what you want.”
And there’s always peace out on the trails. “Everybody braids out into the mountain in different ways,” he says. “You might be behind somebody, but if they’re a few curves ahead of you you might never see them. And if you stay off the most popular trails, you’re likely not going to see anybody.”
Chase urges people to ski the cross country resorts all over the region—Pennsylvania, Maryland—but he makes the case for White Grass. “A lot of those ski areas are really great, and sometimes the weather up there is better,” he says. “But most don’t have the coffee house–lodge thing we have, with music and wood stoves and really good food. Hanging out, talking to each other is a whole part of the experience. A lot of people say, ‘I’ve never been to a ski lodge like this, where I didn’t even want to go skiing.’” Avid skiers from other regions who move to D.C. for part of their careers use White Grass for their fixes, Chase says. “When they move back home, they write and say, ‘We miss you—there’s nothing like White Grass here,’ and everybody keeps in touch.”
Cross country skiing changes one’s life, in Chase’s view. “When people say, ‘We’ve got some bad weather coming in, you say, ‘You mean good weather?’ All your favorite places are transformed into this magic winter kingdom—your farm, where you hunt. It’s ethereal. It might be for just a week, a weekend, a day, but it’s aesthetic and spiritual, an inward thing. It can just be one ski that’s so special the way the snowflakes fell on your sleeve, the ice, the cracking of the woods, the way the wind sounded. It’s a memory.
“I’m not a very smart person but you’re going to have winter every year, I think—you may as well get into it.” www.whitegrass.com/