I don’t remember first learning to ski. It’s one of those things that I feel like I’ve always known how to do. But I do know where I learned , because it’s the same place I skied for the majority of my childhood: Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl at Johnsville.
I have never felt the same kind of intimacy in a ski hill as I did there. It was tiny, tucked away in the mountains above Johnsville, twenty minutes’ drive from Graeagle. From the parking lot there was nothing to be seen but trees and piles of snow, and we had to climb a steep hill on foot, hauling skis and poles in our arms and stumping stiffly along in heavy ski boots, in order to reach the lodge. But cresting that hill was like stumbling upon a hidden treasure, seeing the lodge and lifts cupped in a bowl of the mountainside, partially obscured by thick pines and firs. Johnsville was a place I could never imagine without snow. It was an integral part of that place—heaped in mountainous berms around the lodge deck and parking lot, coating the steep roofs of the old red outbuildings, forming deep wells around the trunks of trees that we could crouch inside when we played.
The ski hill at Johnsville had been built sometime during the previous century, and little seemed to have changed since then. There were only two “big” lifts, both Poma lifts, and a bunny hill served by a rope tow that was forever stopping as kids lost their grips and starting sliding backwards into each other, slowing shredding their gloves as they went. There were miles of backcountry with fresh powder for the telemark and cross-country skiers which must have been truly breathtaking, up in that empty, snowbound high country, undisturbed powder glittering under the clear blue California sky.
The lodge was the epitome of all that a ski lodge should be: a big one-story, one-room cabinlike structure built with timbers so massive, they must have come from trees that were hundreds of years old when loggers and miners first arrived in those forests a century ago. Inside it was always dark and crowded and warm, heated by the roaring fire in an enormous round stone hearth that stood in the center of the room surrounded by benches and stumps for sitting. It smelled of wood smoke and damp wool, and was always noisy with the clump of ski boots on the scored wooden floor and people’s voices raised over the roar of the fire. One thing that I remember best is that there were always people we knew at the ski hill—classmates with their families, friends of my parents, neighbors, teachers from school. Skiing at Johnsville was more than just hitting the slopes for a day, it was a chance to mingle with our community and catch up with friends.
Plumas Eureka Ski Bowl closed down about ten years ago, around the time when I started middle school. The ancient machinery of the lifts became too expensive to continually repair, and they couldn’t make ends meet anymore. Ever since then ski excursions for us have required a little more forethought and money, and a lot less community.
They still hold old-fashioned longboard races at the ski hill a few times every winter, when the lodge opens up again and people watch racers on twenty-foot long skis fly down the hill, often in period costume. But for the most part the Ski Bowl of my childhood has been a dormant memory.
There has been a movement in the community recently to reopen the hill, and a committee has been working on getting the funds to buy new chair lifts and equipment. Maybe it will be ready to open next winter, or the one after. If so, I will be among the first to show up, skis and poles on my shoulder, ready to stump my way up that hill and see the old lodge nestled beneath the trees again, buzzing with activity below me. I hope that what they restore is not just the ability to ski in our community again, but also the feeling of being among friends when we were there. I hope that we can keep it a place of closeness and intimacy, too small to be impersonal, with the feeling of history looming everywhere.
*Originally written by Kira Bohm.