A Course of a
Different Color

Middlebury boasts a ski area unlike any other in the state

by Janet Essman Franz

snowbowl_lead_brad_2776_FL47K_2h15mcPeter Mackey is general manager of the Middlebury College Snow Bowl going on 15 years, but he’s been working and skiing there since he was 5.

Vermont is blessed with many downhill and cross-country skiing areas, but one ski place is different from others in the state and rare throughout the nation. Middlebury College Snow Bowl, with its sibling, Rikert Ski Touring Center, stands alone in its ownership by a college, and in its management by a man who, literally, has been shaping the place since he was a preschooler.

Peter Mackey, 59, will mark his 15th year as general manager of Middlebury Snow Bowl this winter. His history with the mountain began when he was 5. His family had moved from Springfield to Middlebury so his father, Stub Mackey, could work as a basketball and track coach and assistant football coach for Middlebury College.

Although the senior Mackey did not ski, he worked weekends at the Snow Bowl selling lift tickets and encouraged his three sons to earn their skiing privileges by setting racecourses and grooming the slopes.

“That was in the days of surface lifts,” Mackey muses. “Poma lifts get pretty bumpy, so we had to go up with shovels and knock down the bumps. That was devastating to us, because we like to ride the bumps.”

Growing up, Mackey witnessed many changes at the Snow Bowl. He saw construction of Starr Shelter, the base lodge named for benefactor Neil Starr, in 1962. Its construction brought inside the massive Panton stone fireplace, which remains the lodge’s showpiece. He witnessed the first chairlift installation in 1969, and he was there in 1984 when the first snowmaking equipment sprayed the slopes. As a boy, he skied frequently with his mother and brothers.

The Snow Bowl, located 13 miles east of Middlebury in Hancock, falls within Middlebury College’s department of finance and administration, business services division. It’s one of three Alpine ski areas in the East owned by a college, along with Dartmouth Skiway and West Point’s ski slope.

The Bowl features 125 skiable acres with 17 groomed trails and six glades. Although its primary function is to serve the college students, race team, faculty, and staff, the Snow Bowl is also a popular community recreational ski area with programs for children and adults. It averages 55,000 skier visits per year, Mackey affirms.

Mackey’s education was Middlebury-grown. He attended Middlebury Elementary and Junior High — where he met his future wife, Susan Reynolds — and Middlebury Union High School. At Middlebury College he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and played on the football team. He was a major player, and was recruited to try out for the New York Stars, a professional team in the former World Football League.

“It didn’t work out, but it was an interesting experience,” Mackey says, noting his uncertainty about the difficulties of playing pro football while raising a family. “I felt it was better to come home and get a real job.” He and Susan married in 1970.

The Mackeys raised four children, now grown and on their own. In 1974, he moved his family to St. Albans, where he taught world history and physical education, and coached football, skiing, and track at Bellows Free Academy.

In 1977 they returned to Addison County to take over Susan’s family’s summer business, Waterhouse’s Campground and Marina on Lake Dunmore. They bought a house nearby and eventually built a home neighboring the campground, where they still reside. Mackey enjoys the opportunity to fish, boat, hike, and hunt close to home.

The family sold Waterhouse’s in 2001. Susan became a Realtor for Century 21.

Skiing remained Mackey’s winter passion and, in 1977, he took a seasonal job managing the ski shop at the Snow Bowl. In four years he moved into mountain operations, doing, as he says, “a little bit of everything. I might be selling tickets one day, grooming on another, or loading chairs. I even judged a jumping competition one day!”

He went full time in 1987 as assistant manager under Howard Kelton, “who still skis here almost every day,” he says.

In 1996, Mackey became general manager. Like his father before him, he brought up his children on the slopes of the Snow Bowl, and they are accomplished skiers and snowboarders. None live in Vermont, but they visit and bring their children to ski with “Grandpa Pete.”

During the last 15 years, Mackey spearheaded many improvements to the Snow Bowl. He initiated the 2003 base lodge renovation, which created a larger, modern facility for dining, equipment rental, ski school, and administration. He oversaw a major re-contouring of trails in 2006, and replacement of the 1969 double chairlift with a triple in 2009.

“Peter runs a tight ship. He’s very attentive to the needs of the race program, and everything’s always in tip-top shape,” says Rep. Willem Jewett, a longtime patron of Middlebury Snow Bowl. “I’ve skied all my life throughout Vermont, and the Snow Bowl remains a real secret. It’s fun, interesting, and well maintained.”

Last year, Mackey took steps to improve the Carroll and Jane Rikert Ski Touring Center at Bread Loaf Campus, which he oversees. “We’re working on shortening that name,” he jokes.

Located a half mile west of the Snow Bowl, the touring center offers 45 kilometers of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Management of the touring center was traditionally a winter seasonal job held by a college employee who worked summers at the college golf course. Mackey proposed hiring a full-time director to supervise year-round maintenance and marketing as a way to raise the profile of the touring center and boost income for the college. He had a particular person in mind for the job.

Michael Hussey, a snowmaking equipment salesman and volunteer coach for the Frost Mountain Bill Koch League Nordic ski program at Rikert, was a frequent visitor at the ski area, professionally and personally. A former competitive racer with strong knowledge of the ski industry, Hussey was Mackey’s ideal candidate.

Hussey, 48, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, shares Mackey’s history of growing up at a Vermont ski area. A downhill and cross-country skier from toddlerhood, he hails from Windham, where he, his mother, brother, and sister moved in 1967 after his father died. Hussey’s family lived in a house adjoining the now-closed Timber Ridge ski area.

“The ski lift was a few hundred feet from our house. We had an old Land Rover, and Mom would tow us on our skis and drop us off at the lift, and we’d ski all day,” Hussey recalls. “Timber Ridge was similar to Middlebury Ski Bowl in that it was a family area,. Everybody knew everybody’s kids, and if there was a problem, help was only a phone call away.”

Hussey’s mother, Margaret, started a Nordic ski center at their house called Glebe Mountain Farm at Timber Ridge, and managed Woody’s Cracker Barrel, a ski shop in Bondville near Stratton Mountain resort. The shop’s owner, Emory “Woody” Woodall, taught local children, including Hussey, to cross-country ski long before the sport became popular.

“Woody promoted Nordic skiing when it was known very little [in the late 1960s]. There was a small group of racers in our area of Vermont,” Hussey says.

Hussey attended Flood Brook Elementary School in Londonderry and Vermont Academy in Saxtons River and raced on the ski team. He studied geology at the University of New Hampshire, where he was captain of the Nordic ski team in the 1984 and ‘85 seasons.

He skied one year with the U.S.S.A. development team before an injury forced him out. “I had to find out that there’s more to life than skiing,” he quips.

He found geology work with Omya marble company and moved to Middlebury. He met his future wife, Carrie Herzog, at the former Climb High Sports Shop in Shelburne, where she worked.

They settled in Ripton, a few miles west of the touring center and Snow Bowl. Herzog owns The Vermont Yarn Co. in Middlebury; they have two children, ages 11 and 7.

In 1994 Hussey became eastern sales manager for HKD Snowmakers, which allowed him to combine his knowledge of ice chemistry from working in the marble quarries with his zeal for skiing. Through sales to Middlebury College, he developed a professional relationship with Mackey.

Last winter, when Mackey offered him the job as director of Rikert, Hussey said yes without hesitation. “It was an amazing fit,” Hussey says. “It was something I was passionate about and right in my backyard.”

In his first summer as director, he has focused on improving trails and widening sections to bring the racecourse up to international standards so the center can host high-level competitions. He is developing a new advertising strategy to attract customers from a larger market, but he’s quick to add, “We’re also working to improve the trail system for our ski touring public.

“The message I’m taking beyond Addison County is that Rikert isn’t just a ski center but a ski region. We’re linked to Blueberry Cross-Country Center and the Catamount Trail. You can ski from Rikert to the Snow Bowl.

“Come stay at our great inns, eat at our restaurants and enjoy ski touring in our Robert Frost region,” he says, emphasizing that Middlebury is a diverse après-ski town.

This is a new approach for the ski area, says Mackey, and a fresh focus for Middlebury College.

“The college for a long time had a philosophy of not promoting its business entities outside the local area. In the past couple of years we have made a conscious effort to do that. The Snow Bowl and touring center are income-producing entities of the college,” Mackey says.

Mackey and Hussey are contemplating adding summer operations such as mountain biking and hiking, hosting weddings, and offering new ski programs for mothers and seniors. Mackey is exploring boundary-to-boundary skiing to allow patrons to freely explore the 760 acres of woods surrounding the Alpine trails.

Keeping the trails, lifts, and grooming equipment in top form continues to be Mackey’s perennial priority. “We’re always getting ready for the next season,” he says. •