Fireside: Thom Perkins

By Scott Andrews

“We’re not spending $250,000 to hold a race,” asserts Thom Perkins, longtime executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. “We’re spending $250,000 on trails to make better skiing for recreational skiers. Ninety-five percent of the use of this trail is going to be recreational and we designed these trails first and foremost to be fun to ski. We’re building a recreational trail that we can race on. This is a world-class recreational trail and it is one of only six of these facilities in the whole U.S.”

When Cross Country Skier caught upwith Thom Perkins this past summer, he was tramping through soft, fragrant, freshly bulldozed soil on a rocky hillside with a million-dollar vista of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Periodically he stopped to chat with his construction crew and check out the progress of a project that will widen and lengthen The Wave ─ one of Jackson’s most famous and most popular trails ─ and bring it up to current FIS homologation standards.

Jackson has scheduled two major competitions on the trail this winter. The one with the broadest appeal is the January 24 TD Banknorth White Mountain Classic 30K, the opening event in the New England Nordic Ski Association’s 2009 Marathon Series.

Perkins is one of cross country skiing’s most forceful and influential figures. He has been the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation’s executive director since 1976, overseeing a sprawling 154-kilomter trail network that interconnects a dozen-plus restaurants and hostelries in Jackson Village, crosses two golf courses, climbs three mountain ridges and radiates into three river valleys. Jackson has repeatedly been voted the best ski touring center in the East and, in 2005, Cross Country Skier cited Perkins among the 25 most important “Nordic Heroes.”

During the one-third century he’s been head honcho, Perkins has overseen about a dozen major construction projects plus many high-level races. This year’s undertaking, which combines both recreation and racing, is emblematic of Jackson’s status as an 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, as well as the foundation’s role in the U.S. cross country community.

“Building trails like this is way above and beyond what normal cross country ski areas are able to do,” Perkins states, noting that funding for this summer’s construction comes entirely from grants and donations. “Our non-profit status is critical to this operation. The fact that we are non-profit gives us a larger social responsibility within the sport. We accept that responsibility to the extent we can because we have the money.”

Although serving the recreational enthusiast comes first at Jackson, hosting races is also part of the foundation’s mantle of social responsibility to skiing. “I believe that races are good for the long-term health of the sport,” Perkins avers. “Racing is part of the culture of the sport.”

Hosting races and cheering the competitors is also part of the culture of Jackson. “Every time we have a race, we involve the grammar school kids,” Perkins explains. “It’s a cultural thing, where they get to see other nations, and it’s good for them to see role models skiing around. Physical fitness and childhood obesity issues are really big things in our minds.”

Perkins is especially proud of the foundation’s extensive youth programs. “We make a great effort to make sure that kids get a chance to get outside skiing,” he says. “Our grammar school program is a shining example. We provide free rentals, free lessons, free skiing. And we have a very big volunteer-parental base for that.”

Perkins himself started skiing before he was three years-old and his first position in the snowsports industry was teaching cross country skiing as a PSIA-certified instructor and examiner.

Some people are surprised to learn that Perkins’ formal education ─ and his first adult job ─ was in art: drawing, photography and sculpture. Others are surprised to hear him singing at the trailside Wildcat Tavern, where he often performs at the weekly open mic night, guitar in hand and poetry in his heart.

But art is central to Perkins view of his job, including this summer’s reconstruction of The Wave. “What we’re building is a 15,000-foot earth sculpture,” he chuckles. “That’s the way I think of it. And my background in visual arts is very well-suited to running something like Jackson Ski Touring. It’s all the same concept. We go on the basis of quality first. If you have a sense of vision and quality based on art education, you can succeed at this.”

Relating to others has always been the focus of his professional skiing life, including a two-year stint as president of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, where he still serves as board member emeritus.

“I ski quite often and I enjoy skiing as a life sport,” explains Perkins. “It is one of my great passions, but I spend more time providing skiing than skiing.”

Providing and promoting are Perkins’s chief roles at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Since the organization’s 1972 launch ─ when several tiny inn-centered trail networks were united into a single entity ─ ski touring has been the linchpin of Jackson’s winter economy and a mainstay of its social life and culture.

Perkins is acutely aware of that responsibility, particularly with respect to maintaining the trails throughout the year and grooming the snow in the winter. “If we fall down on the job, everybody gets hurt,” observes Perkins. “This entire village’s economy in the wintertime is based upon what this staff does. It all falls on this organization to attract skiers and fulfill what they want.”

Although Jackson is Perkins’s bailiwick, his philosophy transcends boundaries and he is often consulted on land and trail issues. The foundation uses property belonging to 68 private owners. Although some key routes are protected by deeded easements, most trails ─ including the newly reconstructed FIS race course ─ are covered only by year-to-year agreements. Landowner relations always rate a top priority. “Skiing is not all about snow; it’s all about land,” Perkins maintains. “You can have all the snow in the world, but if you’re not allowed to go on the land, it’s useless. So we treat our landowners’ land with great respect.”

This summer’s construction illustrates two key objectives.

First is respect for the land. “While we’re working on it right now, it looks awful, because that’s the way construction projects happen,” admits Perkins. “But when it’s finished, we want to make sure that it looks real nice. And a year from now, that trail will look like it’s been there for a hundred years. And that’s important, because we’re dealing with somebody else’s land.”

Second is to excavate, backfill and grade The Wave so smoothly that it can be groomed and skied with absolute minimal snowfall. That is very costly ─ about $50,000 per kilometer ─ but it provides a measure of insurance against low-snow winters and protects Jackson’s myriad stakeholders. “We’ll be able to open this trail with only a few inches of snow,” promises Perkins. “If we can ski on the golf course, we can ski on this trail.”

Scott Andrews, a writer from of Portland, Maine, learned to kick-and-glide at Jackson Ski Touring during the 1970s.

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