Snow sports equals big bucks for North Carolina mountains

The rest of the economy might have suffered, but a couple of snowy winters are adding up to big bucks and good times for North Carolina’s ski industry.

Last year, the total economic impact of this segment of the state’s economic pie amounted to $146 million. That number is courtesy of the N.C. Ski Areas Association, which crunched and computed the figures for the 2009-2010 season and recently released its findings.

That good news doesn’t come as a surprise for ski industry workers such as Brittany Heatherly of Skis and Tees in Maggie Valley, who said the store was running out of rental equipment by 10 a.m. each day during the Christmas break.

“It’s been awesome,” Heatherly said. “Everybody is making a lot of money, and having fun. There have been a lot of people because it has been such good weather.”

(Clarification to readers: “Good weather” to the skiing industry would be the snow and cold many people have a difficult time dealing with.)

Heatherly, an avid snowboarder, said skiers and other winter-weather lovers didn’t let road conditions prevent them from getting to the slopes at resorts such as Cataloochee in Haywood County. Folks used four-wheel drive vehicles or put chains on their car tires.

N.C. Ski Areas Association defines “economic value” as the total value to the economy from the existence of ski areas. Winter value, employment value, capital improvements and economic multipliers were considered. The study looked from November to March as the “ski season” when compiling this report.

North Carolina has six ski areas: Cataloochee Ski Area, Sapphire Valley Ski Area, Ski Beech, Appalachian Ski Mountain, Wolf Ridge Ski Resort and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort.

Collectively, these ski areas provided 96 year-round jobs and 1,557 seasonal jobs during last year’s ski season. The industry generated over $32 million in gross revenue from ski area operations, including lift tickets, lessons, equipment rental, retail stores and food and beverages.

David Huskins, who heads the regional tourism group Smoky Mountain Host that is headquartered outside Franklin, said the rockslide and subsequent closure of Interstate 40 in the Pigeon Gorge section of Haywood County “obviously … impacted our region’s ski economy.”

“But, generally, reports are that it was offset by the continued natural snowfall through December-March 2010,” he added. “Good news for our region.”


Money breakdown on individuals at ski areas

(Per person spending, and percent of total)

Lift tickets/tubing/ice skating: $44.78; 33.5%

Ski/snowboard lessons: $5.75; 4.8%

Equipment rental/demo at ski area: $13.81; 10.7%

Equipment rental/demo at other N.C. locations: $1.97; 1.4%

Food/beverage/restaurants on mountain/base: $16.88; 13.2%

Food/beverage/restaurants in other N.C. cities: $14.22; 9.8%

Lodging accommodations (nightly rate): $18.88;14.4%

Shopping/gifts/souvenirs/retail stores: $9.04; 6.6%

Entertainment/activities: $3.85; 3.0%

Local transportation/rental car: $1.54; 1.6%

Other spending: $0.98; 0.9%

Total per person spending: $131.70  

Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association


09-10 statistics at N.C. ski areas

Total Visits: 671,554

Total Revenue: $32,526,608

Year-Round Employees: 96

Seasonal Employees: 1,557

Capital Expenditures: $3,341,237

Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association

Cataloochee collects coats, food for the needy

Cataloochee Ski Area continued a long tradition of holiday giving to the local community recently with its 9th Annual Can-U-Ski Food and Coat Drive.  

Cataloochee skiers and riders turned out in record numbers to participate in the area’s annual event benefiting Haywood Christian Ministries.

Thousands of cans of food and hundreds of coats were donated to the area during the event. All donations will be given to the local non-profit organization in order to stock its pantry for the Christmas holiday season.

Skiers and boarders from across the Southeast came to Maggie Valley to take part where ten cans of food or a winter coat could be redeemed for a free lift ticket for the day.

“What better way to start the season of giving than by giving back to your local community to folks in need.” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee Ski Area general manager. “We appreciate all of our guests who participated in this worthwhile event and thank them for their support.”

Many customers showed up at the ticket window on Sunday with more than the minimum required to be able to ski for free.

Cataloochee’s 50th season off to a great white start

Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley is off to another strong start to its season.

“We’ve been open since Nov. 6,” said Cataloochee General Manager Chris Bates. “We have a base of anywhere between 18 to 80 inches. And the weather for snowmaking looks great for the next couple of weeks.”

Currently there are 11 trails and three lifts operating over a groomed surface.

Despite a lot of equipment upgrades during this offseason, Cataloochee ticket prices will remain the same for this season and all of the ski area’s great programs like Family Day, which starts Jan. 12, will be in place.

According to Bates, last Sunday’s partnership with Haywood Christian Ministries drew its largest crowd ever.

“And we are happy to be able to partner with them to make a difference in the community,” he said.

Additions to enhance skiing at Cataloochee this year include 30 new snowmakers and two new grooming tractors. Bates said the advance in equipment and computerization since Cataloochee revamped in 2004 has been amazing. “It’s like going from a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon to one that gets 35 miles to the gallon.”

The new equipment and dip in temperatures are really aiding Cataloochee’s snowmaking abilities. “We can make snow at 28 degrees,” Bates said, “but with the new equipment and technology, when the temperature falls to 7 degrees, like now, our capacity increases 25 fold.”

Cataloochee also boasts over 4,000 sets of snow sports equipment. According to Bates that includes 700 new pairs of rental skis.

Cataloochee Ski Patrol: Keeping you safe on the slope

The Cataloochee Ski Patrol began in 1961 as a group of friends who enjoyed skiing at the new Cataloochee Ski Hill, the first ski area to open south of Pennsylvania. As Cataloochee Ski Area grew and became more popular, it’s Ski Patrol grew and became more professional.

Today’s Cataloochee Ski Patrol is still a group of friends who love skiing on the local mountain, but their numbers have grown to more than 100 counting paid staffers and volunteers. And they are all highly trained professionals with a minimum of 80 hours of Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) training.

According to Wayne Morgan, director of Cataloochee’s Ski Patrol for the past seven years, OEC is a worldwide standard established and regulated by the National Ski Patrol. The National Ski Patrol system is composed of more than 625 patrols with more than 26,000 members across the U.S., Asia and Europe.

“That standard is the same across the board,” Morgan said.

Dan Greene, the representative for Cataloochee Ski Patrol volunteers, said the OEC program is designed “to prepare individuals from all walks of life and all backgrounds from the high school graduate to the PhD to work side by side providing the same level of care.”

ALSO READ: Cataloochee’s 50th season off to a great white start


Slope safety

“The focus of Ski Patrol is safety on the slope,” Morgan said. And that begins with the slope itself.

“We survey the slope for any kind of hazards that might be a danger to skiers,” he said. That could be anything from holes to ridges that develop that could bump skiers into a different flow of traffic to snowmaking equipment.

“North Carolina law mandates that all snowmaking equipment be marked, so we flag all the equipment plus any other hazards we see,” Morgan said.

“We are most visible in that we provide rescue and first aid,” said Greene. “That’s what Ski Patrol is known for. But the overarching principle is safety on the course, whether it’s the slope itself or skiers on the slope.”

“We don’t like being policemen, but it’s part of the job,” Morgan said. “We try to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said, but still it’s a tough job.

“Face it,” Greene said, “we’re dealing with a public that doesn’t necessarily show a lot of common sense all the time.”

Morgan said that how Ski Patrol is perceived on the slope usually has to do with the attitude of the skier. “If we see people doing unsafe things and have to intervene, they may not be happy to see us.

“I’ve been on the slope slowing people down, and I’ll have some people cussing me and some will stop and pat me on the back and say thanks — good job — we’re glad you’re out here,” Morgan said.


The job

The basic training to become a patroller begins with OEC training.

“That course is usually between 80 and 110 hours and begins in the summer,” Morgan said. “OEC test are given the first or second week in November.”

Morgan said that one of obstacles the National Ski Patrol’s Southern Division has is finding competent skiers. The Southern Division runs from West Virginia to Alabama and includes Cataloochee, Beech Mountain, Ober Gatlinburg, Wolf Ridge, Wintergreen, Massanutten, Appalachian, Sugar Mountain and other southern ski areas.

“Here in the Southern Division we have smaller mountains and we don’t have that real skier mentality. Great skiers don’t flock here, like they do at Vail or Whistler to join the Ski Patrol. So we’ve created a ski school in our division and each slope has at least one PSIA [Professional Ski Instructors of America] certified instructor. We’re really fortunate here at Cataloochee. Our guys are really enthused and we have about 10 PSIA instructors on our patrol.”

After a Ski Patrol candidate has successfully completed OEC training, they must pass a basic ski and toboggan course (S&T) to become a basic patroller.

“The toboggan is basically a stretcher or litter on a sled, designed to transport an injured person off the hill,” said Greene. “There are very specific skills required to handle them.”

Morgan said Cataloochee has about a dozen toboggans that ski patrol stashes at strategic points along the slopes so that they will be accessible in an emergency.

“To become a basic patroller, a candidate must pass an S&T test on the hardest slope at his area,” said Morgan. “To progress to a senior patroller, the basic patroller must pass an S&T test on the toughest slope in their region. Our senior patrollers have to pass their test on Mogul Ridge at Ober Gatlinburg.”

And the rigors only get tougher to become certified in S&T. According to Morgan, of the more than 26,000 members of the National Ski Patrol there are only about 7,000 who are certified in S&T.

But that doesn’t mean your care is compromised. The ski patrol candidate has the same OEC skills as the certified patroller.

“As your level increases from candidate, to basic, to senior patroller you acquire more and better management skills regarding multiple traumas and managing an accident scene but OEC is OEC,” Morgan said.

“We’re somewhere between a wilderness responder and a paramedic. We have victims in a hostile environment and we have to stabilize them and get them out of that environment, then assess the injury and decide the proper course of action.”

And every patroller is trained to do that whether he is a candidate or certified said Morgan.

All National Ski Patrol members have to renew their certification every three years. Their continuing education is done once a year and the course topics and structure is mandated by the National Ski Patrol so that any patroller could walk into a course anywhere and get the credit needed for that year.

Morgan said that during the week he generally had five or six patrollers on the slope. On the weekends ski patrol duties generally fall to Greene’s volunteers and because of the extended hours they run two shifts and generally have between eight and 10 patrollers on the slope.


The volunteers

This is Dan Greene’s first year as patrol representative, but he has more than 20 years experience as a patroller. Volunteers have to pass the same tests and meet the same requirements as paid patrollers, they are just rewarded in a different way — free skiing. According to Greene all volunteers have a set rotation that they are required to fill, but other than that they ski at any time.

“They can also patrol at any time and there are added benefits to putting in more hours. The management here is very generous and we get rewarded with complimentary tickets,” Greene said.

For Greene, who lives in Atlanta, it’s the love of the sport.

“I do a lot of volunteering in other areas as well, but I love to ski. I love the sport. It’s something my family and I have enjoyed for years, and I see this as a way of giving back to the sport. And, selfishly, it gives me a reason to come up here and play in the snow.”


Got what it takes?

If you are interested in becoming a ski patroller you can visit Cataloochee’s website at or contact Wayne Morgan by phone at 828.926.0285, ext. 316 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Morgan notes that there are other benefits to becoming OEC certified.

“I was able to use my OEC certification to work the Olympics in Atlanta,” he said. He also noted that many rafting companies were adopting OEC as their standard of care and venues like Asheville’s mountain sports festival and area mountain bike races welcomed volunteers with OEC certification.

Cataloochee opens for the season

Cataloochee Ski Area opened for the season on Saturday, Nov. 6, making it one of the first resorts in the east to start skiing for the fifth year in a row.

The resort will open on Saturday and Sundays only for now, with skiing from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (check the resort’s website at for the most up-to-date information on hours and conditions)

Cataloochee — North Carolina’s first ski area which is now in its 49th season — spent more than $1.2 million in capital improvements this summer, including the purchase of two new Pisten Bully snow groomers and the installation of 13,000 feet of snowmaking pipeline.  The area has also replaced 24 snowmaking guns with new, more efficient, automatic fanguns and installed a new efficient six-stick automatic snowgun system on the Alley Cat Racing Trail.  

Additional improvements have been made to the area’s rental fleet with the replacement of all adult boots and 700 adult skis in their main rental shop. Cataloochee has also added a second terrain park on the mountain with four new snow guns.  

“We continue to expand our snowmaking system which allows us to utilize these early colder temperatures and allow us to open as early as we can,” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee’s vice president and general manager. “We remain committed to our customers in providing the most skiing and riding time we can each season and will continue to make snow and open early each year.”

Cataloochee Elk deemed a success

Fans of the elk herd in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be surprised to learn that until now, the elk’s existence here was merely an experiment — they theoretically could be rounded up and hauled away at any time.

But a decade after the first elk hoof hit the soil of Cataloochee Valley, the National Park  Service is ready to declare the elk project a success and designate the species as an “official” reintroduction.

The elk have grown from an initial 50 to an estimated 134 animals. Aside from the logistical nightmare of trying to find and remove them all, the park service would have been the target of public firestorm if it decided to do away with the elk at this point.

“I have never seen the ownership that people have shown toward these species,” said Kim Delozier, the Smokies’ lead wildlife biologist. “They are a large animal, a majestic animal and symbol of wilderness, and we tend to gravitate toward those things.”

The official designation as a reintroduced species means the elk, which were hunted to extinction in the Southern Appalachians in the 1800s, are back for good.

If their numbers keep growing, elk may one day roam widely across the mountains again. Kentucky and Tennessee have reintroduced elk as well, and Virginia announced just last month that it will follow suit.

“I would like to see elk throughout the Appalachian chain,” said Joe Treadway, a founding member of the Smokies chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and an early advocate for the reintroduction. “Will I see it in my lifetime? Maybe not, but I certainly hope my son and grandson will.”

The change in the elk’s status from an “experimental release” to an “official reintroduction” is rewarding, Treadway said. And it’s more than just semantics.

“It allows us to get together and develop a serious long-term management plan that to this point we have not had,” Treadway said.

Treadway, along with many in the Elk Foundation who supported the reintroduction, hope to hunt elk one day. Elk can never be hunted in the park, but Treadway hopes they will disperse into the national forests and state gamelands and that the population will grow enough to make hunting viable.

Under the new designation, elk that wander out of the park will be free to go their own way.

Before, the park would round elk up and bring them back if they roamed too far afield, into areas the park had declared early on as “no elk” zones. One elk was retrieved from Hot Springs. Another even made it to Glenville, a community near Cashiers, where it had taken up residence on a Christmas tree farm alongside a couple of domesticated reindeer.

Under the new plan, those elk would be left alone to make their home where they pleased.

Elk that wandered only a little bit outside the park had always been given a free pass unless the landowner complained. Delozier said the park rarely got complaints from neighboring property owners.

“Most people loved them. They think they are the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Delozier said.

Some wouldn’t let the park come on their property to retrieve an elk even if the park wanted to.

If a park neighbor did complain about a stray elk, however, park rangers would go get it. Under the new designation, the park will no longer do so as a matter of course.

“The change is now we will not take the lead. The state will take the lead on dealing with elk calls,” said Delozier.

Delozier said the park service will help the state Wildlife Commission with calls about nuisance elk if requested.

Exactly how the state will deal with the new species isn’t known. It has not yet developed a management plan for elk.

In anticipation of the park service backing away from oversight of the elk, the Wildlife Commission proposed a status change earlier this year that would make it legal for landowners to shoot an elk if it was causing property damage.

The Wildlife Commission said it didn’t have the time or resources to police elk run-ins once the park stopped doing so. But public outcry led the Wildlife Commission to drop the proposed change in status.

When elk were released in 2000, there were a few naysayers. Some feared they would bring diseases with them that could spread to deer or even cattle. Farmers worried elk would get into their crops. Some worried they would overpopulate. Others simply doubted the elk would make it.

So far, none of the fears have come to fruition, Delozier said.

Still others claimed the elk would be easy targets for poachers. But only two elk have been shot.

One was maliciously targeted inside the park by a poacher, who was ultimately caught. The other was killed at the hands of a dairy farmer in Jonathan Creek, a community bordering Cataloochee Valley. An elk had repeatedly come onto his farm and eaten the cattle’s food. He called the park and told them he would be shooting the elk.

One elk prediction that hasn’t come true, at least not yet, has proved disappointing. Park rangers hoped that elk would migrate to some of the high grassy balds where continual grazing would help keep them open. The Southern Appalachians were once home to numerous high grassy balds, but most have been overtaken by trees and bushes in recent decades. The park has lost several of its former grassy balds. Two that are still left — Andrews and Gregory balds — are mowed to keep the forest from encroaching.

Delozier said if the elk stumbled upon the balds, they would likely take up residence there and keep them maintained. But the elk population has not grown enough yet to disperse throughout the park.

Hunting elk

Right now, elk are designated a non-game animal by the state, so it is illegal to shoot one even outside the national park boundary.

In Kentucky — where 1,500 elk were released between 1997 and 2002 — the population now numbers close to 10,000. A limited number of elk hunting permits are given out each year through a lottery system. This year, 40,000 applied for one of only 850 elk tags. Each person who applies forks over a $10 fee that goes to the state wildlife agency.

In Tennessee, an auction for one of its elk hunting tags in 2009 went for $17,000 on eBay.

Tennessee released 200 elk between 2000 and 2008, and now has a population of around 400. It held a lottery for just five hunting tags last year — a token number given the still small population.

Virginia plans to release several hundred elk in three mountain counties in the southwest corner of the state next year.

Tennessee and Kentucky — and soon Virginia — all have larger herds than North Carolina since they brought in more animals to start with. Unlike the other three states, however, North Carolina has indefinitely halted the release of any more elk.

The rule was put in place by the N.C. Wildlife Commission because it feared an elk could be carrying chronic wasting disease, a deadly and contagious illness that can infect any hoofed animal, including deer or cattle.

That stopped the Smokies from bringing in additional elk, and the park’s herd has been hamstrung as a result. For a few years, the numbers seemed touch and go. Black bears were eating so many elk calves that the herd was barely reproducing enough to replace those that died from natural causes.

But the herd finally got over that hump, thanks to a little help from park rangers who took to moving the black bears out of Cataloochee Valley during calving season.

This year, no bears were moved, and the herd still saw roughly 25 calves survive.

It bothers advocates of the herd that additional releases can’t take place.

“You have to worry about the long-term genetic pool, with the lack of genetic diversity can they grow and prosper like they need to?” Treadway said.


Give your two-cents

The National Park Service is seeking public comment on the long-range plan for managing the elk herd in the Smokies. To comment, go to Deadline is Sept. 27.

To read a copy of the environmental report on how elk have adapted to the Smokies and their long-term outlook, go to the outdoors page at and click on this story.


Species comebacks in the Smokies

There have been several successful reintroductions in the Smokies, including river otter and peregrine falcons.

Only one has ever failed. A pack of red wolves released in Cades Cove were unable to make it, mostly due to competition from coyotes, which had filled the top predator niche once dominated by the wolves. Seven years after their release, the few wolves that had managed to hang on were removed and the project terminated.

Elk will now join the list of successful reintroductions in the park’s book.

“The reintroduction of the elk is another success story of increasing biodiversity in the park, like the peregrine falcon, as well as the continuing efforts to restore the brook trout,” said Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of Friends of the Smokies. “The viability of the coalescing elk herd shows that the park is a great refuge for wildlife.”

A requiem for Cataloochee

Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2009. 335 pages

Dear readers, if you have some slight respect for my opinions about Appalachian literature, I hope you will believe me when I say that Wayne Caldwell has written a remarkable novel — one that we will be talking about for many years. Requiem by Fire, Caldwell’s second work in what may well be a series of novels, is rooted in the history, folkways and culture of a vanquished place: Cataloochee. Whereas the first novel gave breath, blood and passion to the early settlers of that place, this sequel attempts to capture the lives of those same settlers and their descendants (some 1,100 in all) when they are faced with eviction.

If you have ever wondered how the federal government and the U.S. Park Service orchestrated the removal the households in Big and Little Cataloochee, here is a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking account. At its worst, the “presence of the Park” in Cataloochee and elsewhere sometimes resembled occupation by a conquering army, since uniformed and armed officials took up residence in the designated area and began issuing mandates — regulations that stipulated everything from reimbursement for land to deadlines for final departure. From the beginning, the Park stressed a singular dismal fact: This land now belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You must leave.

For many of the aged residents such as Silas Wright, the coming of the Park was a death notice. In response to petitions from landowners who refused governmental reimbursement and requested permission to stay, the Park relented but issued restrictions that were so rigorous most landowners felt that they could not comply. No hunting, no cutting of trees (firewood was restricted to deadfalls) and severe limits on gardens and fishing. Although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Park and its dictates, the majority of the people finally loaded their belongings and left. Silas Wright, the oldest member of the community, chose to stay.

Many of the elderly “exiles” did not survive for long. Like some of the plants many of the families attempted to transplant to their new homes in Saunook, Maggie Valley or Waynesville, these displaced souls faded and died — as though they had been deprived of some vital nutrient that could only be found in the soil of Cataloochee. There were suicides and many suffered psychological damage. There were exceptions, like the family that moved to Saunook, bought an old garage and converted it into a mercantile store that specialized in “mountain crafts.”

Noting that their customers were fascinated by such antiquated items as sun bonnets, quilts, corncob pipes and rustic chairs, they quickly became “real mountaineers” (or at least what the visiting public perceived them to be), and in the process provided an income for other Cataloochans who could whittle, sew, hew and weave.

Much of Requiem by Fire deals with the trials and tribulations of Jim Hawkins, a young native of Cataloochee who readily accepts the job of warden for the Park. In essence, Jim must enforce the unpopular rules and regulations devised by the Park. Hawkins accepts his job with a sort of religious fervor. His love for Cataloochee and its people motivates him to see if he can ease the pains of their transition. Since the Park authorities have quickly developed a reputation for insensitivity and arrogance, the local residents accept Hawkins who is “one of their own” and who has a talent for acting as a buffer between the Park and the disenfranchised residents.

Certainly, he has a knack for defusing explosive situations. He also knows when to look the other way.

However, Hawkins has made one serious mistake that causes him considerable suffering. He has married a “town girl.” Born in West Asheville, Nell comes with Jim to Cataloochee and is immediately distressed. No telephone. No movie theater. No restaurants or social life. Although she endures several years of discomfort and boredom, she does not adjust but becomes increasingly resentful. Where Jim sees beauty and solitude, Nell sees discomfort and isolation. Nell’s departure is inevitable and comes at a time when Hawkins is beset with serious problems ... one of which is a pyromaniac.

Willie McPeters is an unforgettable character. Although he has much in common with other mentally deranged characters in southern fiction, such as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes or Faulkner’s degenerate Snopes family, McPeters is more elemental, a kind of embodiment of mindless and bestial destruction. McPeters begins to burn abandoned buildings in a sexual frenzy and as his destruction in Cataloochee increases, Jim Hawkins finds evidence of Willie’s presence near his home (McPeters leaves an acrid stench where ever he goes).

Ironically, as Hawkins struggles to save his marriage and track down the elusive firebug, the Park announces its new edict. All of the vacated buildings in Cataloochee are to be burned. Nothing is to be left that would detract from the Park’s mission: to return Cattaloochee to a wilderness state. Consequently, this sets the scene for the most heartrending section of Requiem by Fire — Hawkins is ordered to officiate at the burning of the place where he was born:

Destroying the place where as a baby he had padded in knitted booties. The place he’d learned fire burns and ice is cold, and that nothing is better for the sniffles than a mother’s love and warm VapoRub.The place he’d broken windows with homemade baseballs.The place that had kept him dry during storms and wet in the tub on Saturday night. The place where his father had read the Bible out loud every night and where Jim had learned about alcohol when he was caught sneaking from Mack’s jug and where his punishment had been to keep drinking until he retched. His place.

As Hawkins stands watching the inferno destroy even the boxwoods and the maple tree in the front yard, he is joined by the lonely and stubborn Silas Wright, who now believes that Cataloochee is truly gone. Silas also encounters a group of campers from the flatlands and their behavior and opinions presage the coming of vast hordes who will perceive Cataloochee as a “vast outdoor playground.” Silas senses that it is time for him to go as well.

Requiem by Fire begins and ends with dreams — Silas Wright’s dreams. The first fire is one that Silas and his friends deliberately set when Silas was a young man. They had burned the old Cataloochee school because they believed that the only way they would get an adequate school for their children was to burn the old one. Now, at the end of his life, Silas dreams of fire again. However, this time the fire is multi-faceted. It both cleanses and obliterates, destroys and renews. In Cataloochee, a way of life has perished, but a new world is approaching by a paved road. The tourists are coming.

Cataloochee grows racing tradition

No one expected Franco Rossi.

The Italian, raised in Milan in the shadows of the mighty Dolomites, stepped off the lift, unzipped his snowsuit, and mounted the start platform in bright yellow racing tights.

He had driven just under three hours from his home in a north Atlanta suburb to make the Thursday night slalom race at Cataloochee Mountain.

“Why do I do it? I don’t know? Maybe I’m crazy,” Rossi said. “How do you explain passion?”

Eleven seconds later it was over. That’s the thrill of ski racing. Focus, strategy, preparation, and then speed. Sure, it wasn’t the Olympics. It wasn’t the Alps. It was only a local race league on a Southern ski hill, but tell that to the people involved.

Pat Keller, one of the world’s greatest whitewater paddlers, laid out the course that night, lovingly tamping down the starting block with the back of his snow shovel as the racers took their start positions.

“You gotta love it,” Keller said. “In whitewater you’re generally using the same features on a given run. With this, you can play with it. Tweak it to where it’s most fun.”

The course was fast on Thursday. Cold temperatures had created a slick surface on the hill and the gates were set up in a giant slalom pattern.

Most of the racers competing in the Cataloochee Challenger Cup Series are locals, focused on winning grudge battles with their friends.

Judy Sutton and Richard Coker have been racing each other in one form or another on the Cataloochee hill since they were kids. Their grandfather started the ski mountain, and Richard and Judy perfected their telemark turns on the surrounding backcountry terrain.

“I think I get faster as I got older,” Judy said after Thursday’s race.

“That’s cause your skis are more expensive,” Coker said.

School age athletes have been racing at Cataloochee Mountain for 20 years. The Tuesday night middle school races draw as many as 150 participants on a given night. But the adult races started in 2005-06 as a way to keep skiers involved in the sport.

“We’re trying to create lifelong skiers,” said Paul Yaeger, race director.

Shane Clampitt helped start the Tuscola High School ski team in 1993. Now, Clampitt’s son races at Cataloochee and is a regular in the adult races. For Clampitt, the races are a way to stay in touch with something he’s loved his whole life and to pass the competitive spirit on to his child.

Hank Millar has been skiing at Cataloochee for 40 years. He races in the Challenger series and takes particular pride in beating Judy Sutton.

“He used to beat me all the time, and now I beat him most of the time,” Judy said.

Millar said he races because he’s still trying to get better.

“Everybody who’s passionate about skiing has a passion for getting better,” Millar said.

Richard Coker, still a part owner of the ski hill, sees the races as a way of teaching people that to ski well, you have to constantly get better.

“It’s easy to go downhill and turn, but the gates force you to do it in specific places and that helps your skiing,” Coker said. “I don’t think the racing will ever make us any money. We do it to create lifelong skiers and instill that idea in the kids.”

But Coker, Millar and Judy will all tell you that part of the reason they race is because they like to win. That’s where Rossi comes in.

Three weeks ago, he showed up on the mountain for the first time, an unknown quantity. Rossi moved to the Atlanta area from Milan 10 years ago to run an Italian-owned carpet fiber company. He grew up racing competitively at Madonna di Campiglio in the Dolomites, beginning his career at the age of 6 and racing in all of the alpine disciplines.

“It became a big passion for me and I raced at some good levels,” Rossi said. “I’ve never been a champion, but I was decent at the regional level.”

When Rossi agreed to move to Atlanta with his family, he thought it was the end of his career as a ski racer. But the itch never went away. He found a listing for Cataloochee’s Challenger Cup Series online and decided it was worth the drive.

“I thought I had to forget about it and ski a few times a year going back to Italy,” Rossi said. “It’s like a half a miracle being here.”

Half a miracle, maybe, and half attention to detail. Part of the reason the racing series at Cataloochee Mountain is so successful is the crew of people who work it care deeply about how the race turns out.

Paul Yaeger is a transplant who fell in love with the mountain during a vacation and has been working on it ever since he moved to the area. Yaeger directs a team of younger folks, teaching them how to organize an event, set up a race course, and encourage friendly competition.

Then there’s Keller. A junior world champion kayaker, he grew up on skis at Cataloochee where both his parents taught skiing. In fact, the sport was his first love.

He’s best-known now for riding his kayak over 120-foot waterfalls, but he credits his success in that sport in part to a knee injury he sustained as a 9-year-old at the Cataloochee ski hill when he mislanded a jump and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.

“From that point on, I had to focus everything on paddling, and that’s gotten me to the point I’m at now,” Keller said.

Keller spends his years chasing whitewater from North Carolina, to Colorado, to Oregon to British Columbia. In the off-season he trains, but this year a shoulder injury has kept him from training hard. So he’s working on the mountain, sharing a little of his competitive edge with the local ski crowd.

Every time a racer steps to the starting gate, Keller offers advice and encouragement.

“Keep your hands forward,” and “Set up your turns early,” and “Think you can beat 15 seconds tonight?”

A handful of people skied fast on Thursday. But Rossi taught the group the difference between really good skiers racing and a real ski racer. The course was slick and fast, but the Italian was slicker and faster, driving through the turns with his skis shoulder-width apart, never edging, always powering the perfect line.

Rossi doesn’t care too much about the times anymore. He’s tapping into a lifetime of memories.

“I’ve done it for so many years and there are so many good feelings and emotions associated with skiing and racing that I want to come here and feel it again,” said Rossi.

After the race, he drives home, arriving between 1 and 2 a.m., a schedule his wife tolerates.

“She’s a very good woman,” Rossi said.

As the competitors gathered in the lodge to hear Yaeger read out the results with proper enthusiasm, the skiers were still thinking about racing –– about Team USA’s chances at Whistler Olympics.

“We’re kind of upset (Lindsey) Vonn has a bruised shin, but we know she’ll ski through it,” Millard said.

Ski through it. Never quit. If there’s one ski value the South can claim as its own, it is a deep commitment to ski at any costs, rain or shine, at night, with or without snow. That’s a value Rossi has become a part of.

“My friends in Atlanta think I’m crazy,” Rossi said. “Some people like to go to Vegas. I like to ski.”

Cataloochee reaches out to women

Ski instructor Kathy New can truly empathize with the nervous beginners she teaches at the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley each winter.

More than 30 years ago, New took her first turns on the very same slopes as her students.

After years of watching skiing on television and hearing stories from her father and uncle of legendary ski trips to Colorado, New finally got the chance to try the sport out as a freshman at Western Carolina University.

New tagged along with some friends from the ski club, feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness as they neared the ski resort.

Soon after hitting the slopes, though, New realized she was a natural.

“I was one of those instant learners,” said New. “I wanted to keep going back.”

New progressed so quickly that just a couple of winters later, she began instructing at Cataloochee. She has given lessons to everyone from 4-year-olds to women in their 70s ever since.

Over the years, New has seen the Cataloochee resort evolve and grow, upgrading from the simple T-bars she’d once used to chairlifts.

New has also experienced some vast improvements in equipment since the 1970s. Skis back then were longer, narrower and heavier, and boots were even more uncomfortable.

“The equipment was not as learner-friendly as it is now,” said New.

According to New, it was only about a decade ago that “real women’s equipment” became available.

“Boots specifically designed for women, not just men’s boots with pink graphics,” New said.

At the same time, ski resorts across the country began offering women’s clinics. Cataloochee was no exception, beginning its own Women on Wednesdays program about 11 years ago.

The clinics have been successful because women tend to learn faster in groups, according to New. Women who learn together are usually supportive, encouraging and nurturing.

New has noticed that the women she teaches are more interested in mastering specific techniques, unlike her male students who’d rather race down to the bottom, she said.

For New, the best way to learn a sport well is to teach it.

“Because you have to learn the mechanics of how it works,” said New. “You have to be able to put it into words.”

Smokies elk shot down in Cataloochee Valley

A man has been arrested for shooting an elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last Friday.

The elk was shot around 10:30 a.m. in Cataloochee Valley. Another park visitor who happened to be in the area got a description of the man’s vehicle and license plate number, which was used to track down the vehicle’s owner.

A Special Agent with the National Park Service who was assigned to the case drove to the man’s house, five hours away in Granville County, N.C., and confronted him. The suspect reportedly confessed to the offense, according to a press release issued by the Smokies.

The Smokies elk herd is well-loved, even revered. The news has been hard to take for many elk fans who make regular trips to Cataloochee to watch and observe the herd.

Esther Blakely, a volunteer with the Elk Bugle Corp who sees the elk every week, was shocked when she heard the news.

“It is just sad,” Blakely said. “I am still having trouble wrapping my head around someone going into the national park, in this peaceful valley, and shooting this magnificent animal. These are protected animals. This is not a hunting ground. It is a national park.”

Elk once roamed the Smokies but were hunted to extinction in the 1800s. In the eight years since, 52 elk were reintroduced in the park.

This is the first incident of an elk being shot in the park.

“The many visitors and volunteers who come to Cataloochee expressly to watch the elk constitute a very effective surveillance network, which has undoubtedly prevented elk poaching from occurring earlier,” said Steve Kloster, Acting Chief Ranger.

While Cataloochee is certainly a popular destination, it would have been far from crowded at that time of morning on a weekday outside of peak tourist season. The sound of a gunshot reverberating throughout the valley would have sent up a red flag to anyone who was in the area. It is currently illegal to have a loaded and accessible firearm in a national park.

“Having a loaded weapon in the park would have been a violation in its own right,” said Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the park.

The bull elk, which was sporting an impressive antler rack, was left lying in the field at the edge of the woodline where it had been shot. A bull elk can weigh up to 800 pounds. Rangers took the dead elk to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for a necropsy, which is still pending.

Smokies rangers, the NPS Special Agent and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission cooperated on the investigation. The Park is now working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to develop the case. The suspect’s name will be released once they figure out all the charges against him.

Those convicted of poaching in a national park can face up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000. The weapon and the vehicle used in the crime also can be seized.

The loss of the bull will not negatively affect the long-term viability of the herd, which now numbers 105, but it is an affront what national parks embody.

“We do see this as a very serious theft of the public’s enjoyment of their national park,” Kloster said. “Thousands of visitors come to see these elk each year, and many of them know each animal by sight.”

Miller said elk fans are taking the loss quite personally. The elk that was shot, known as #21, was particularly well-loved.

“He is one of the largest, most magnificent dominant bulls in the valley,” Blakely said.

Only a few bulls are considered dominant. The bulls jockey for their dominant position during the mating season, known as the rut, which occurs in early fall. Dominant bulls emerge from the rut with a harem.

The bull that was shot would have already bred with the females in his harem by now. The bull is no longer crucial to the success of his harem after mating.

Visitation is up in Cataloochee so far this year, with more than 80,000 visitors for the year so far. Last year saw only 75,000. The Bugle Corp has 82 volunteers who take turns educating visitors about the elk and ethical wildlife viewing.

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