Bearpen: The Beast Resurrected

In the age of global warming, what makes someone open a ski center in a remote part of the Catskills?

“Insanity, I guess,” said Bearpen Sports Center owner Howard Rennell. “Kind of a childhood dream. I fell in love with the mountain, as well. It’s been a long, arduous process.”

Growing up on the east end of Long Island, Rennell recalled, “Talk about the era of global warming, out there the chances of snow were slim and none. The sledding aspect, as a kid, you and your friends would gather together and make a kind of luge track. Pack it down and go out with watering cans and douse it with water, hoping it would freeze and last a little longer. This is a bigger scale of it.”

Many years ago, James Michaud’s Bearpen article was my first taste of the NY Ski Blog. So when I heard that someone was developing a cross-country ski center there, I waited for the opening.

Rennell owns 500 acres, going almost to Bearpen’s summit; the summit is state land.

For Bearpen’s January grand opening, the weather didn’t co-operate, but Mother Nature more than made up for that on 3d March, dumping 24-36 inches of snow in Prattsville, NY. On Sunday, I set out on dawn patrol to check Bearpen out. Driving past Phoenicia, turning north on Route 42 and passing Spruceton, the road dead-ended at Route 23A. Which way? With no cell service; my dumbphone GPS was dead. I guessed west, searching for and almost missing Country Route 2.

Five miles down a narrow road that looked like it hadn’t changed since the days of the Princeton Ski Bowl, as I started thinking I was lost, I found Bearpen. Nice. I bought a pass, klistered my kick zones, and clipped into my skis.

With approximately 7.5 km of trail, Bearpen isn’t huge. Rennell told me that he had to prioritize completing construction of the lodge over cutting more trails – they received their certificate of occupancy just a week before opening in January.

Immediately in front of the lodge is a large open field where one can go snow tubing. I set out on a trail to the right of the lodge, going straight up the fall line. It seemed like it might have been one of the old ski trails, but Rennell later told me it was a logging road. This area was last logged approximately 30 years ago. I turned left at the first intersection, continuing into the woods to a wild downhill. After a near yard-sale fall in the crux corner, I headed back up the logging road to where grooming ended. The ungroomed old road beckoned. “Come further into the woods. See what’s around the bend.” But my old Atomic race skis won’t cut it in the backcountry.

Across the road from the lodge, two loops offer mellow skiing in an open field and great views up and down the valley. But I skied over, instead of around, a wet spot and my boards iced up badly. I clomped back to the lodge and rented a pair of metal edge skis.

The verdict? It’s just my opinion, but I think your best experience is skiing classic, with touring or metal edge skis. Bearpen has a nice, backwoods vibe and Rennell intentionally wants to be more than a cross-country ski center.

Snow tubing was the big draw the day I was there. If you want to ride a fat bike, bring your own or rent one of theirs. One couple both biked and skied the day I was there. Another couple switched from touring skis to Telemark gear and set off for Bearpen’s summit. Bring your snowshoes. Bring Telemark skis, and earn your turns skinning to the summit before coming down to the lodge.

Right now, Bearpen is open weekends and holidays. As the business develops, Rennell may look at extending Bearpen’s operating hours. He told me he was looking for organic growth over a five- to 10-year horizon.

“[I want to have] an overall experience outdoors, so you’re not tied to one sport,” Rennell said. ”When you have three or four different activities, the kids can do one thing, the parents can do something else.” Future plans include an ice skating ribbon – “imagine a frozen, lazy river” – and perhaps in two years, a toboggan chute, and snowmaking on a 1.5 km loop.

He’s also looking to cut glades in the higher elevations. “The lay of the land as you get up higher is even more spectacular,” Rennell said. “It’s not rock-strewn like a lot of mountains.”

From a skier’s perspective, the biggest change will be additional trails. Last summer, renowned trail designer and former Olympian John Morton walked Rennell’s property and laid out several new trails. Morton’s CV includes FIS homologated race loops at Middlebury College’s Rikert Ski Center; Trapp Family Lodge; Fort Kent, ME; and Jackson NH as well as multiple recreational trail systems. Rennell intends to cut these trails over summer and have them ready for winter 2018-2019, extending his system to around 14 km.

If you go to Bearpen, bring your lunch and water: they sell snacks but don’t have food service. The valley is beautiful; the vibe is nice. I look forward to returning.

13 comments on “Bearpen: The Beast Resurrected

  1. This is an excellent article, Peter. Thanks for telling this story.. I really believe this kind of entrepreneurial outfit is where all the interesting things happen and it certainly honors the sports origins as well. I can’t wait to get there to check it out myself

  2. @ Brownski @ Harv. They’re talking about possibly putting in some glades in addition to new xc trails. Wonder if some kind of workday arrangement could be made, as at Plattekill.

  3. Amazing article. I’ve squeaked in 3 days at Plattekill, 1 at Belleayre, and 2 days of cross-country skiing in Fenner, NY (near Syracuse) in the last week and a half. Looking forward to a few more days after the storm tonight and tomorrow. The Bearpen article makes me realize how many hidden treasures there are in this state and how willing those who love the snow will go to find it.

  4. What a great example of following the American Dream. A chance to enjoy several different disciplines of Winter activities amidst some incredible views. I look forward to bringing a Thermos of gourmet coffee and couple of bagels in the near future!

  5. This is awesome, Peter. I’ve been wanting to check it out all winter, but have yet to make it over there. I hope he is successful and can keep Bearpen alive. Very interested in the glades.

  6. Awesome article!

    What coordinates/directions did you use? I’d like to take my little ones there for tubing while they are open for the season.

  7. @ DomB For directions, I used Google Maps. Driving north on the NY Thruway to exit 19; take Route 28 west to Route 42 north. 42 dead-ends at Route 23A. Turn left (west) and keep your eyes open for Country Route 2 on the left. Go over a steel bridge and then bear right. Go past Country Route 3 and keep going. By the intersection of 23A and 42, there was no cell or internet service.

  8. Thanks for the directions, Peter. I’m gonna need that too. I think a glade clearing day (or several) is a great idea. We should start a Bearpen conditions thread in the forum if it doesn’t already exist to help coordinate it.

  9. If you wish to assist with glade clearing, do contact Bearpen to ask if they would be interested. I was kind of thinking out loud when I wrote that.

  10. I wish the story of the original Bearpen was told, probably the only ski slope in history to close because of too much snow.

  11. James it was because of your story of Bearpen that inspired me to pursue witnessing the mountain with all the key players including Princeton Ski Bowl founder Dr Ben Lane and yourself that day in July ’15 ,it will always remain special to me.
    Nice report Peter, hope to see the original Beast again some day in full glory!

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