I t’s 6:30 p.m., a half-hour before the start of the New Haven Ski Club’s yearly open house, and the Harugari Singing Society in West Haven is absolutely buzzing. Old friends greet each other with bear hugs. A few vendors set up tables for hawking poles, helmets and skis. Smells of sauerkraut and kielbasa waft through the air.
A group of giddy men and women inflate blue and white balloons with a growling air compressor. One balloon pops and the blast echoes through the high-ceilinged, cavernous banquet room. Everyone cheers. It’s the kickoff to the ski season, and this crowd is anxious to get back to snow-covered mountains.
In wintertime, the New Haven Ski Club’s primary functions are pretty much what you’d guess: the arrangement and coordination of group ski trips. Originally called the Quinnipiac Club of New Haven, the NHSC was founded in 1941 by Kriste Hille, with yearly membership dues totaling one dollar. Hille was the club’s first president, a remarkable position for a woman to hold at the time. One of the club’s first members was Hille’s friend Walter Schoenknecht, who had encouraged her to start the club in the first place. Schoenknecht (pronounced Shawn-connect) isn’t a household name, but he’s notable just the same, one of the forefathers of artificial snow-making.
In 1947, Schoenknecht leased a sizable tract of land within Mohawk State Forest in Cornwall, CT, and opened up slopes to the public. During the cold but dry winter of 1949, ski season was slow going, so Schoenknecht, ever a creative thinker, hauled about 700 tons of ice from Torrington to the mountain and ran big blocks of it through an industrial ice chipper, spreading the newly crushed ice across the mountain. Later, Larchmont Engineering out of Chelmsford, MA, was enlisted to develop a more efficient method using compressed air and water, leading to the creation of the modern snow gun, an invention that has kept many ski lodges afloat during fairer winters.
Schoenknecht passed away in 1987, but his spirit lives on in the NHSC’s 325 members. Current club president Sean Quinn says, “We’re a cult without the religion.” For Quinn, the ski club is about promoting the sport, and about finding the peace and joy in it. “When you’re out there,” he says, “you just think about the mountain, you think about the snow underneath you. It’s really freeing.”
The palpable social side of the NHSC is a big draw, too. As I sit and chat with both Quinn and Cathie Reese, the club’s PR coordinator, nearly everyone who enters the room comes over to exchange hugs and handshakes. Reese tells me she’s found some of her best friends through this club. And while the NHSC is not a singles group, it’s apparently produced a few marriages.
Members don’t just ski together: in the off-season, they get together for tennis and golf leagues, hiking excursions and cycling trips to Block and Shelter Islands. For the near future, though, it’s all about hitting the slopes. Membership is open to anyone over the age of 21, at any experience level. Dues are $50 a year, and perks include voting on the season’s trips and off-season events, as well as half-priced lift tickets and transportation for day-trips to mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire. There are also weekend and weeklong trips, with the latter involving far-off locales like Park City, Utah, and Mt. Bachelor, Oregon, where some members are headed in February 2014. For competitive thrill-seekers, the NHSC has a racing team that skis weekly in Southington, CT.
Ultimately, though, the New Haven Ski Club is about having fun. On the night of the club’s open house, it’s now 7:30, a half-hour in, and the room is already jam-packed with fleece-clad revelers. Plates of hearty German food are passed around. A few people dance together in front of a small stage. Winter is coming, and these folks couldn’t be happier about it.
New Haven Ski Club
meeting Thursdays at 8pm at the Harugari Singing Society – 66 Highland St, West Haven (map)
Written by Jake Goldman. Image (of NHSC members in Stowe, VT) photographed by Bob Cifaldi.