Mount Mansfield/Stowe backcountry - Green Mountains, VT - Skier: Ian Forgays
Mount Mansfield/Stowe backcountry - Green Mountains, VT - Skier: Ian Forgays

Up A Creek

Following the natural contours of the Northeast

WORDS/PHOTOS: Brian Mohr

I was 10 years old when I figured out that skiing creeks, the natural pathways of our Northeastern mountains, was a lot more fun than ski racing. It must have been a big snow year, too, as we were in terrain—down low off sunny Bear Mountain—near Vermont's Killington Peak that rarely holds much snow. A few friends and I had dodged off the ski trail and were exploring unfamiliar woods when we came across a moderately steep creek flooded with snowmelt. We skied alongside the creek, which was mostly open and free of snow, and too swift to cross, forcing us to weave turns while funneling into a drainage running parallel to the ski trail. The line was riddled with ice flows, fallen trees, and large boulders, but it offered room for our crew to spread out and play. The rush of cascading snowmelt and waterfalls filled the air. We had the place to ourselves. Creek skiing was born.

Little did I know that our encounter with the creek would spark a lifelong passion for exploring the Northeast's backcountry, including its endless variety of drainages, stream gulleys, and creek beds. Often sheltered by the canopy of the forest and prone to catching wind-driven snow, these hydrologic features offer some of the best natural ski lines in the Northeast. In addition to their beauty, many creeks comprise easy-to-follow pathways through moderately pitched forests—a fun, technical twist on skiing in the trees. However, many higher elevation drainages can be steep, narrow, and incredibly challenging, with frozen waterfalls, hidden caverns, and avalanche-susceptible slopes demanding the utmost respect.

Creek pursuits require on-slope analysis

"You really never know what to expect," says Tom Hite, who was born and raised skiing in the hinterlands of Maine, and has also developed a taste for creeks. "At first, you might be just laying fresh tracks, under towering trees, pushing into the unknown. Then you reach a 10-foot waterfall, watch the walls of the mountain close in, and you begin to wonder if skiing this creek is such a good idea."

While much of the ski world actively avoids creeks for just these reasons, in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, they can be prized ski lines, even inbounds. Ski areas like Vermont's Sugarbush, Stowe, Mad River Glen, Cannon in New Hampshire, and even Maine's Saddleback are home to a handful of fun creeks. Hell Brook, near Stowe, is a classic example of a Northeastern creek line—complete with open water hazards, steep ice flows, avalanche risks, and a dangerous waterfall drop requiring a detour into the adjacent forest. Dropping 2,600 vertical feet and accessible by a 30-minute traverse into the backcountry near Stowe, Hell Brook, like many creek lines, is not to be taken lightly.

Introducing freecreeking, the progressive revolution. Forgays demonstrates here in Vermont.

A solid winter of snowfall acts as a requisite for creek skiing to really come alive in the Northeast. If not sufficiently covered, giant boulders, downed trees, and open water will threaten to swallow you. Thus, it's often not until mid- to late-winter when we head for our favorite creeks in the Green and White Mountains, or while exploring uncharted terrain on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. The Gaspé is likely home to the greatest concentration of good creek lines in the Northeast, a handful of which are world-class ski descents by any measure. Grab a map, seek out any blue lines running across the contours in the region's Parc National de la Gaspésie, and go for it.

Ski areas like Vermont’s Sugarbush, Stowe, Mad River Glen, Cannon in New Hampshire, and even Maine’s Saddleback are home to a handful of fun creeks.

"I felt like I was back in British Columbia all of a sudden," recalls Vermonter Brennan Severance, while reminiscing about his last trip to the Gaspé. "But then everyone started talking to me in French again. Bon neige, eh?"

Inside the border in the High Peaks of New York's Adirondacks, soils are thin, and heavy rains periodically trigger landslides that strip creek beds and mountainsides down to bedrock. Slides, as they are referred to locally, come in all shapes and sizes in the 'Dacks, and many funnel into fun skiable creek beds. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene left more than a dozen new slides in her wake, and she singlehandedly changed the face of skiing here for decades to come.

Last March, closer to home in the Green Mountains of Vermont, an elusive line near Smugglers' Notch that we often refer to as "Far Northern Maine," beckoned me and friends Quinn Keating and Ian Forgays. We finally had the snowpack we needed down low, and a forecast of clearing skies gave us confidence that we'd locate its misty treeline entrance.

Emily Johnson finds the pow and avoids a sinkhole.

Turns were tight getting into its source, where another foot of base would always be nice. But after more than two hours of skinning, it simply felt great to be skiing. Still, survival skiing was the rule until the drainage opened up several hundred feet below. Concerned that we were following the wrong branch of the creek, we spotted an opening that was a dead giveaway. In the main body of the line, the creek's steep and cascading trajectory meant we were soon flanked by walls of metamorphic rock and pillars of ice. We made careful turns over a few ice flows and among giant clusters of rock harboring deep, dark, and watery voids below us.

As we descended into the heart of a classic Vermont hardwood forest, the pitch of the creek relaxed and the line transitioned into a playful run alongside a couple of small but increasingly open channels of water beneath the snowpack. Linking solid turns in the actual creek bed meant hopping these channels, laying fresh tracks on islands between them, and dropping an occasional boulder.

"What a place!" shouted Quinn.

Gathered at the bottom of the line, we felt like we were 10 years old again, discovering the fun and wonder of creek skiing anew. Only this time, there were no parents to come fetch us at the bottom. Rather, we had a few more hours of climbing and skiing to savor, and cold beer at the trailhead.

Jagged icicles, one of many hazards in creek zones.

Details, Details

Access Info: Hundreds of skiable creeks stripe the mountainscape of the Northeast U.S. and Canada, including several fun creeks inbounds at ski areas. Most creeks start on state or national forest lands, but many spill onto private lands, so be sure to respect land postings. Locals have names for a handful of creeks in the region, but most are relatively unexplored by skiers. Most creeks are best accessed by an adjacent forest, ski trail, or alpine zone, and then explored during the descent.

Season: Late January through March. Creeks are best beneath a deep snowpack, or frozen over. Some years, creeks become skiable for only a few days.

Tools: For steeper creeks, especially, skiers need solid avalanche awareness and equipment. Rescue and safe route-finding skills are essential. Each skier should also carry a short rope in case another skier falls into a hole. When navigating unfamiliar creeks, a longer rope and gear for rapelling can come in handy, too.

This story was originally published in the October, 2013 (42.2) issue of POWDER.