Great day for shredding some brand new trails at Thunder Mountain Bike Park, aka Berkshire East.
Jon Schaefer has been around Berkshire East/Thunder Mountain his whole life. His father, Roy Schaefer, a legend in the ski industry, took over Charlemont’s Berkshire East in 1976 and had Jon and his 3 brothers racing and working (hard) at the mountain from the time they could walk.
I don’t have to mention running a small ski area in the east is no picnic. But the senior Schaefer grew up in rural Michigan from tough beginnings (rumor has it, without electricity) and fought through the recessions of the '70s and the snow droughts of the '80s to keep the area going against corporate expansion and the plusher Vermont areas to the north.
The mountain sits in a great spot in the Berkshires.
He found equipment bargains at belly-up areas around the country and stayed open with smart management and hard work.
Being a local W-masshole from the 413, I remember Roy and his sons fixing everything: snowmaking, food services, lifts, race timing, parking, etc. And they were all amazing skiers. Crazy fast. All 4 brothers skied in the Junior Olympics, US Nationals, were college standouts and two were All-Americans. Tom and Bill made the US Development team.
Jon, now 34, has been general manager of the resort since he was 29. He and his brothers have been improving, modernizing and positioning the area for the next era since they began running it. The family has significantly invested, allowing them to "Put the hammer down. We're all in; doubled down" according to his brother, Jim.
Thunder Mountain in the distance as seen from the Warfield House Inn.
In recent years they’ve added whitewater rafting, a zipline tour, America’s longest mountain coaster, revived the nearby Warfield House bed and breakfast, and taken the whole mountain off the grid with a wind turbine and solar arrays. Now, as part of the family’s plans for the future, Jon’s opened the ambitious Thunder Mountain Bike Park – using Gravity Logic, the guys who build the trails at Whistler, as their design partner. All 100% family owned and community integrated.
To get to Thunder, drive the scenic Route 2 Mohawk trail through the Berkshire foothills, past maple sugar houses, Mohawk ‘trading’ stores and historic revolutionary war spots.
Stop in at one of these 'trading posts' on your way home for some moccasins, I guess.
Shelburne Falls, with its glacial potholes and bridge of flowers and various farm stands, is a popular spot along the way.
Shelburne Falls' glacial potholes.
The road ambles peacefully along the Deerfield river for about 10 miles until you get to Charlemont. Despite its potential as an up and coming action sports hotspot, Charlemont is the very definition of a sleepy town. The website states "At this time, there is no cell phone coverage in Charlemont. Please plan accordingly."
Turn left after what I think is the center of town, cross over the Deerfield River, take a sharp left at some railroad tracks and arrive at Thunder Mountain. It all makes an incredibly bucolic first impression.
I arrived the bluebird morning of July 3rd, a day after opening. The parking lot was already filling up. I changed into my shorts next to the car right as a whitewater rafting trip was leaving from the area. Sorry. Took my bike off the car and rolled up to the lodge on a newly paved path through rows of large, beautiful pines.
It’s got nice curb appeal. The lift on your left is brand new, as are all the lodges and fixtures.
It had rained a bit so the dirt looked tacky and there was some water runoffs neatly trickling through channels. Got my ticket, took my bag into the airy and spacious older lodge with its long wooden tables to gear up.
This pic is in the new lodge, I snuck in for some pics; the old one is also nice and had a ton of people.
Everything for the park was already in place: a fleet of Specialized demo bikes, merchandise, customer service, food, beer garden, instructors and, of course, bike patrol.
It's inviting. After every lap you have to resist the temptation to stop and chill.
There were zipline tours in the lodge getting ready to head out. And a very helpful Mt. Holyoke student working the gift shop. Yeah, I bought a t-shirt.
Got onto the lift and headed up. Everyone was comparing notes on the first few runs. The lifties at the top were loving life (maybe still figuring out how to offload three bikes at a time). Everyone seemed totally happy. Getting a new bike park is a lot like Christmas.
The lift guys were in a great mood, though still figuring out the best way to get three bikes off the racks quick.
I got off the platform and rolled toward the trailheads. I randomly decided to start with the blue Sleeping Jake trail that leads to the Gronk (hey, it’s Massachusetts), which is fast, berm-y fun.
Gronk is the definition of a flow trail - Gravity Logic all over it. Photo courtesy of North Atlantic Dirt
Teams of Gravity Logic t-shirted builders in quads were tweaking and mitigating water from rain over the previous few days. I turned the cranks and headed into lips, jumps and berms all leading seamlessly into one another. Great confidence builder and bike check... and a ton of fun. You could session this thing the way people do A-Line.
Good trail to get your wheels under you and feeling good.
I went up and did Gronk a second time, sectioning in on a new approach: the black Thunder Cliffs trail. Thunder Cliffs is a more traditional line that cuts sideways across the hill along some roll-y schist features. It's so new that some folks zig when they should zag and there are already a few variations on it.
Next I took the short, black, Back of the Shack trail, which is a more traditional, narrow, through the woods loam, roots and rocks trail. It begins right off the lift where the medical hut is.
Back of the Shack. Where the patrol hangs.
Shack junctions out at a hub - you can then take it up a notch by going to the black Billy Badger, do the Gronk some more, or jaunt through the woods on either blue Tackleberry or connect with the long, flow-y, green Sugarline.
I did a couple different routes top to bottom. A lot seems to come together on the Gronk's fantastic flow lines around the bottom.
As you can see, there's a temptation to stay on this all day.
Then it was time to have fun a bit more aggressively. I dove into Thunder's signature double black “The Schist”, which is also going to be September's Eastern States Cup race course.
It's the Schist.
Gnarly, loamy, steep, techy, narrow. It felt old school though I know it’s very carefully designed to be sustainable. No berms except one or two where absolutely necessary. Fantastic butt-off-the-back mountain bike riding.
A really nice jump near the bottom to gets you ready for the lodge and lift ride back up.
Then went to the black Billy Badger a couple times via different entrances.
Billy Badger trail.
Man, another signature east coast tight, technical, fun, pay-attention-or-else run. I love those. It’s a bit easier than Schist, so you can let it fly a bit more.
I was having so much fun I just kept grabbing free powerbar samples and gels from the tent, rather than get lunch, on my way back to the lift. I wanted to try the lodge food, but I didn't. Every lift ride was some group of folks from around the MA area, CT, VT or NH coming to check it out.
Everyone had a smile on their face.
Ran into a few folks I know. Patrol were all really talented wilderness EMTs who seemed to know their stuff cold.
Patrol dudes, doing laps. Nothing to see here, move along.
I brought a 6.5" Santa Cruz Nomad to the hill and it felt fine for pretty much everything. There were a lot of double-crown DH and park bikes there, of course. And while those bikes make you able to plow through everything faster, you don't have to have one to enjoy everything on the hill. So far.
I ended with a last run on Gronk before finding Jon and some of his team from Gravity Logic outside the new lodge for a beer and chat about the area. Meeting Jon, you immediately understand how precious little of his time probably has anything to do with a desk.
Co-owner and general manager Jon Schaefer taking me through the start of Mountain Bike activities.
He’s a long-time mountain biker and, with the area’s NEMBA chapter, helped build a 35-mile network of single-track that integrates with the park (you can ride it out of the parking lot, if you like).
Berkshire East has been the family business for over 35 years and building a bike park has been on Jon’s mind for some time. He’d been doing homework and was waiting for the right time to pull the trigger. As he tells it, it went down something like this:
In August of last year other factors like amenities, capital improvements, infrastructure and power were finally in a solid place where he could make the decision to go. He called his insurance company to write a policy and feel out any landmines. They informed him that the smartest, easiest way to build a great insurable park was to call the best partner: Gravity Logic. So, after the insurance company gave Jon the number, he hooked up with Dave Kelly, one of the owners of GL.
Beergarden area. Live music, cold beer.
Dave had a couple projects on the burners, but Jon asked, “Is there anybody other than us that wants to start right now. I mean, RIGHT NOW? TODAY? I want to make a category-killer park and I’ll give you a clean slate.” A week or two later they started digging. That was August 25th, 2014. Dave and Jon got as far as they could before the winter, then kept at it as soon as spring came. Between the Schaefer's decades of experience running a ski hill and Gravity Logic's mountain bike specific pro-formas, revenue projections, food and beverage knowledge, ticketing schematics etc., it all feels like it's on rails.
A few minutes with Dave looking over a map pulls back the curtain on the right way to do all this. He's passionate about building trails and spent about 20 minutes taking me through how you should start with 6% grade trails that will end up being 15% of your park and then work inwards from blue to black to double black.
This is just the right half of the entire hill, soon a similar system will be mirrored on the left.
Truthfully, I was a couple beers in on a nice sunny day after a good day of riding so a lot of it just went sailing blissfully over my head. Suffice it to say there are top pros building the area, there’s a really solid development theory, in about a year they’ll have double the trails (they’ve only developed one side of the hill and Dave says the other side is ‘even better’) and it’s going to be freaking fantastic.
I asked Jon about expanding - sounds like this whole area is set up to be huge - is that what he had in mind? He replied the town and it's variety of action-sports amenities is in the “awkward teen years” - grown into its adult-sized parts, but still figuring out how everything works together. Because of dam releases, there are 100 guaranteed days of awesome kayaking per season. There's XC riding, zip lines etc. etc.
"For sure, we’re not going to be some development freakshow" he said. "We’re gong to be doing everything the right way. The mountain has always been about families, community, racing – that’s never going to change. Kids will be riding alongside Olympic pros like it's no big deal."
One of the things that pleasantly surprised me was how many women riders there were.
It’s a community mountain; it never really sought to attract destination vacationers with garish condos and chain restaurants. It will be sustainable and non polluting. Not only that, because Thunder generates it's own energy from wind* and solar, it will never go under having to pay wildly fluctuating market rates for power.
Berkshire/Thunder Mountain's class II wind turbine.
Every bit of lumber and every log that built the new lodge was dragged down off the hill, not trucked in. I ran into the guy that built it, he was sitting under the shade of the wooden structure enjoying his handiwork and felt super proud I was geeking out taking pictures of it.
All lumber came off the hill. All of it.
Thunder and Berkshire hires and buys local. The mountain is Charlemont's biggest taxpayer and one of its (if not the) biggest employers.
So, riding at Thunder Mountain is about being on some of the most well designed trails around, at a spot with great atmosphere, supporting one of the last independently owned family resorts, serving thousands of student athletes and thousands of local skiers and riders, being good stewards of land and environment and perpetuating Roy Schaefer's life's work.
And damn, it's a nice hard day on the bike. Go get after it.
*The windmill provides a reduction in pollution equivalent to burning 94,672 fewer gallons of gasoline and eliminating 2.3 million miles of driving each year.