Deep in the woods of Brandon Gap, Angus McCusker skis the backcountry and feels right at home.
McCusker, a co-founder and executive director of the Rochester & Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA), skis over 100 days a year. Many of those days are spent in the quiet woods of Brandon, Rochester, Goshen, and Braintree.
“I love the aerobic capacity of backcountry skiing, the challenge of moving through the woods, and going downhill,” he says. “Skiing is a lifeline for me.”
McCusker spent his early years alpine skiing and racing, then switched to competitive cross-country skiing. In the backcountry, he finds the best of both worlds—the peacefulness of cross-country combined with the thrill of downhill.
“It’s like a hybrid, and that’s why I love it,” he says. “I also like the solitude.”
McCusker grew up in Buckland, Massachusetts, and spent his childhood skiing at Berkshire East. He attended Vermont’s Stratton Mountain School for his high school senior year and went on to study at St. Lawrence University. After moving to Vermont in 2005, he and his wife eventually planted roots in Rochester in 2013—the same year he helped launch RASTA.
The Backcountry Trail Network of RASTA
For skiers who are weary of ticket prices and long lift lines, backcountry skiing alternatives—like RASTA—can be found around Vermont.
RASTA wasthe first backcountry chapter of the Catamount Trail Association, an organization dedicated to developing recreational opportunities off the 300-mile Catamount Trail, which runs the length of the state.
Now there are six backcountry chapters of the Catamount Trail Association: RASTA, the Dutch Hill Association Of Skiers & Hikers (DHASH), the Grateful Shreds, the Mad River Valley Backcountry Coalition (MRVBC), the Northeast Kingdom Backcountry Coalition (NEKBC), and the Southern Vermont Trails Association (SoVTA).
The advantage to skiing these newly created areas is that the trails are well-planned and maintained with backcountry skiing—as well as the environment—in mind. The trails are easy to navigate because the routes are well defined, and maps of the terrain are available.
Still, a backcountry excursion requires planning, McCusker explains. He suggests that first-timers and beginners tag along with an experienced skier.
“When you ski at a resort and you go into the woods or the side-country (out of bounds), you might not be prepared. But the nice thing about backcountry is that you know you’re setting out to go up the mountain. You’re know you’re going to have to hike, to snowshoe, or put skins on,” he says. “You’re going to have the essentials in your backpack, you’re planning where to go, and you have a map.”
Making RASTA Become A Reality
The first several years of RASTA were mostly devoted to planning as the organization collaborated with foresters, private landowners, state officials, and the U.S. Forest Service to determine how best to create a trail network.
To start, RASTA was looking for solid skiing terrain while the U.S. Forest Service was addressing ecological and infrastructure concerns. RASTA soon found additional local interest in creating a sustainable trail and glade network for hiking, running, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and summer mountain biking (RASTA is a member of the Vermont Mountain Biking Association).
For McCusker, the community effort to make RASTA come to fruition is the most rewarding part of all.
“I love the thrill of powder turns and tree skiing is pretty fun,” he says. “But what’s really exciting is that we have a very proactive community that wants to do this responsibly. The community aspect—living in a small town and being able to work with neighbors on this project—is what I love most. It’s been a really fun journey.”
-Happy Vermonters is a series about life in Vermont.
Special thanks to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund/Vermont Forest Network for first introducing me to Angus McCusker last year during a photo assignment for its Ski the Trees, Save the Forests story.