There are two ways to deal with a New England winter:
Fight it, try to avoid it, stay indoors as much as possible and complain about it incessantly until it is over.
Or give the season a big hug, and play in the snow every minute you can.
I had chosen the latter philosophy. I would spend two full days romping in snowshoes on the Catamount Trail, a 300-mile-long path for cross-country skiers and snowshoers that runs the length of Vermont, north-south.
And as long as the trail happens to pass by many of Vermont's country inns, we -- staff photographer Patrick Raycraft joined me -- would snowshoe from one inn to another, immersing ourselves in the trail night and day for more than two days.
My fear was that we might literally immerse ourselves in the trail. The forecast as I left for Northern New England was iffy, possibly rain, possibly snow. Rain would be most unwelcome and turn the trail into a soggy mess. Snow would be wonderful.
As we arrived in Stowe in late afternoon, it began to snow. We checked in to our rooms at the Fiddler's Green Inn, a bed-and-breakfast built as a residence in 1820 that is but a few hundred yards from the trail. A fire was burning in the parlor hearth. Our rooms overlooked the West Branch of the Little River.
In the morning, innkeeper Bud McKeon made us a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes, juice and coffee. Meanwhile, it was still snowing -- 5 or 6 inches overnight, as if to freshen the trail just for us.
We grabbed our gear and headed out, connecting with the Catamount via a couple of local ski trails. If my reading of the maps was correct, we would trudge about 5 miles on the trail to reach Edson Hill Manor, our next country inn.
The moment we hit the Catamount, we knew it. The snow was knee-deep and unbroken. We would be the first to tromp through it this day. This was real exercise.
Most people on the Catamount Trail are cross-country skiing, but snowshoers are welcome. The Catamount Trail Association, which manages the trail, asks only that snowshoers avoid walking in the ski tracks so as not to disturb them. That wasn't something we even had to give a thought to on this day; there were no tracks. We were grooming the trail ourselves, paving the way for the skiers.
It would have been tiring enough walking 5 miles through deep snow without adding any distance to the outing, but we did. Somehow I missed a trail marker. Here we were, minutes later, off the trail, trailblazing through the woods. Up hills, down hills, crossing brooks, not only burning up calories but burning up those hamstrings. It was still snowing lightly with the temperature about 30 degrees, but we were sweating.
We were not lost. Of course not. I knew exactly where we were. We were just east of the trail, somewhere, following the West Branch of the Little River, which was to our left. On this day, the stream was more than scenic; it was a comfort. No, we really weren't lost; the river was right there. We just needed to work our way west gradually, and we would rejoin the trail.
We did, but we had made our adventure a little more of an adventure, made it a little more tiring than it had to be. By then, Bud's hearty breakfast was nothing more than an empty feeling in the stomach. Snack time. From my daypack, I pulled out raisins, dried cherries, peanuts and cheese.
The trail food was fine, but, truth be told, we were already fantasizing about dinner. As rugged as our day was, we knew it wouldn't be all exertion. There was the prospect of the hot shower, the dinner, reading quietly before bed, a fire crackling in the fireplace.
A slice of Vermont
In places, the trail is groomed; in other places, it is not. In places it is more remote; in others, it is easily accessible. Along some popular parts of the trail, near Camel's Hump, for example, hundreds of people may be out on a sunny weekend day in winter. In other sections, you have the trail to yourself.
The Catamount Trail was the idea of three young Vermont men, Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris and Ben Rose. Bushey, a student at the University of Vermont, researched the route and obtained access permissions from landowners as a thesis project. The three of them skied the entire trail in 1984, when it came into existence. It actually was only fully completed last fall, when a section of about 4.5 miles in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont was cleared and marked.
The trail is pieced together from remote wilderness paths, groomed cross-country ski trails, snowmobile trails and old logging roads. The scenery varies widely. We walked through forests at times, along the edges of farm fields, past old farmhouses, along split-rail fences and through resort properties. Parts of the trail can be steep and difficult; parts of it can be flat, groomed and easygoing. It is woodsy; it is pastoral; it is the essence of Vermont.
On this day, a thick mantle of snow covered everything, every fence rail, every bough of every tree. Any imperfections in the landscape were masked.
We arrived at our inn late in the afternoon, tired. It was still snowing lightly. Edson Hill Manor couldn't be more convenient -- the trail runs through the property. In fact, as it turned out, the trail came within about 30 feet of the rooms we were given in a cottage beside the main lodge.
We needed comfort; we got comfort. My room, spacious, with a wood floor, had a big canopy bed and a fireplace with kindling and logs ready to be lit. One match and I had a fire blazing.
I chose Edson Hill in part because it has a dining room and serves both breakfast and dinner. I figured that by the time we had finished a day on the trail, we wouldn't much feel like driving to a restaurant. Everything we needed was here; namely a warm bed and hot food.
We had had deli sandwiches for our lunch on the trail. We were ready for something a good deal fancier for dinner. I had salmon served two ways, as a grilled fillet and in a croquette, served with a lobster remoulade, sauteed zucchini and couscous. Patrick had pepper-crusted pork tenderloin with an apricot demi glace, roasted potatoes and apples and glazed carrots.
Naturally, we had dessert, too. Patrick had the maple cheesecake, I had the bananas Foster sandwich, which was warm rum, caramel and bananas over grilled banana bread, topped with ice cream.
We left not a speck of food on our plates. I would need another day of snowshoeing.
Snow and silence
It was still snowing lightly as we returned to our rooms. I had the sense the storm was coming to an end. I was wrong.
I awoke in the morning, made a fire in the fireplace, and poked my head outside the room to check the weather. The snow had picked up overnight. There was another 8 or 10 inches of new snow covering everything. Another day, another layer of fresh snow just for us.
Having gorged ourselves on breakfast the day before, we saw no reason not to do so again. I loaded up on fruit, juice, eggs, bacon, sausage and even a small pancake at the breakfast buffet. Hey, the snow was deep.
Skiers and snowshoers with plenty of time could easily create a trip of several days or more on the Catamount. The trail association sells a guidebook and offers several pamphlets that identify country inns close to the trail. Using the book, pamphlets and a map, inn-to-inn trips of various length, difficulty and terrain can be put together.
Our trip was a two-day sampler. I was driving home at the end of the day.
But first there was the trail waiting outside my room. I grabbed my snowshoes, which were leaning against the front of the cottage, and strapped them on. Off I went, up a hill, huffing and puffing in no time as I tromped through the deep, fresh snow.
Patrick was photographing another section of the trail, so I was alone, the only sound the almost imperceptible murmur of snowflakes glancing off my parka. That was the embrace of winter.
Catamount Trail Association, catamounttrail.org. The site includes a map, background on the trail and lodging on or near the trail. The Catamount Trail Guidebook, with detailed information on the entire trail, is $18.95. The guidebook is available through the website or by calling the association at 802-864-5794.
Fiddler's Green Inn, Stowe, Vt., 800-882-5346, fiddlersgreeninn.com.
Edson Hill Manor, Stowe, Vt. 800-621-0284; edsonhillmanor.com.