Little Hill, Big Heart
Beartown’s Mission to Keep Skiing Accessible to All
Around a wide bend on a quiet country road, in an unassuming community of farms and farmhouses, stands a little ski hill beloved by many as an accessible sanctuary of winter fun.
Beartown Ski Area is a North Country staple. The 27-acre Plattsburgh parcel was bought for $50 from the Reyel family down the road and opened for skiing in late 1957 by Thelma Douglas and Malcom Collin. More than 60 years later, Beartown exists as a refuge for skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers alike.
“Our goal is to bring in new families,” said Tim Howly, president of the board of directors. “Kids learn how to ski here; families learn how to ski here.”
What started as a small operation with a rope tow and a tiny warming hut has blossomed into a full-scale winter park. Howly has loved the hill since he was a child.
“I grew up here and learned how to ski back in the `60s,” Howly said.
As Howly grew older and moved on to marriage and starting a family, he never let go of the little hill. Here he taught his children to ski and remained involved on the board of directors. Now, as president, Howly holds tight to his passion for keeping Beartown running.
In a place like Clinton County, enjoying winter sports is nearly essential for making it through the harsh snowy season.
“If you live here in the North Country, it’s going to be a long winter if you don’t take up a winter sport,” said Mike Collin, member of the board and son of founder Malcom Collin.
But winter sports are not always accessible. As of 2019, about one in 10 people in Clinton County live in poverty, with a median income of about $56,000.
Skiing has become highly inaccessible to many working people as prices have soared. A season pass at much larger Whiteface Mountain, one of the most popular in the Adirondacks, is $819. A one-day adult lift ticket is $115. That doesn’t factor in the rental of equipment, which is $40 for a one-day rental of skis, boots, poles and helmet.
Although Beartown is a nonprofit, it still needs to take in money to keep everything running. However, the board of directors has kept prices as low as possible, because that’s Beartown’s mission.
“Our mission is to provide low-cost winter activities for the Clinton County area,” Howly said.
A single-day adult lift ticket at Beartown is $22, a season pass just $260. For working families in Clinton County, that could be the difference between skiing and being stuck inside all winter. Beartown also relies on the backing of the locals, which never seems to run out. The more people who use Beartown, the longer Beartown can serve the people.
“Without that community support that we’ve gotten for the last 50 to 60 years, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Howly said.
Beartown’s efforts to serve the community are tireless. Board member Amy Kretser recently worked with Beekmantown school to secure a $50,000 Extended Learning Opportunities grant to fund a summer outdoor education program at Beartown.
The Beartown Olympics, a family-friendly competition, features a super-G race, slalom and giant slalom, ski jumping and a toboggan relay for the little ones. Beartown has also produced an Olympic athlete. Andrew Weibrecht, bronze medalist in 2010 and a silver medalist in 2014 for the super-G Olympic ski race, won his first race at Beartown as a member of the ski team.
“One of the amazing things is there’s been a tremendous amount of really good skiers who’ve come out of here,” Collin said.
The Beartown ski team is a fantastic way for kids to hone their skills in friendly competition. For $130, kids can compete in a number of races around the county. Paid coaches teach a team of youngsters, currently about 60 strong, to alpine ski race. Warren Tire, Viking Ski Shop and other area businesses sponsor some races. Parents can enjoy the warmth of a fire at the bottom of the hill while they watch their children practice.
No one actually owns Beartown. The board of directors runs things, but the overall operation is member-owned. This is yet another part of Beartown that sets it apart from the more mainstream mountains.
No matter what Beartown has going on, the community is its main focus. Even people who haven’t been to Beartown in ages continue to donate money, knowing how important it is. Over the past 60 years, Beartown has become an irreplaceable part of the North Country.
“Anybody in the North Country who skis and is from here learned to ski here,” Howly said.
— Story by Oliver Reil
Photos provided by Beartown Skiing