Jericho: a small Vermont town made famous by “Snowflake” Bentley, the first man to photograph snowflakes back in 1885 and discover that no two are ever alike. Over 125 years later, Jericho’s winter heritage is still going strong, even in the summer. Every August, I travel to Jericho to join a crowd of snow-loving biathletes. We train at the biathlon facilities of the Ethan Allen Firing Range (a military base) and we stay in the barracks. When are not busy training, we explore the surrounding community, from the ridges of Mt. Mansfield to the shops and restaurants of nearby Burlington. Over the course of a week or so, we catch up with friends that we haven’t seen since last season’s snowflakes melted.
The Ethan Allen Firing Range is named after Vermont’s well-loved hero and independent-minded leader of the Green Mountain Boys during the Revolutionary era. It houses the Vermont National Guard and is famous throughout the US for its Mountain Warfare School. The base encompasses 11,000 acres along the western slopes of Mt. Mansfield and Bolton, and the frequent percussion of artillery training can be heard echoing off ridgelines for miles.
One of the most memorable parts of Jericho training camps is barracks life. During the recent camp, I was lucky enough to be assigned to the spacious officer’s quarters with the rest of the National Team, but most of the younger athletes were housed in the more traditional barracks. Over the years, we have all put in our time there. The experience gives us a glimpse of what army life must be like.
Imagine a big open bay with two long rows of bunk beds. There is no privacy and space to store the contents of your duffel bag and all your training gear. At night, the bathroom lights and exit signs spill light into the sleeping bays. Athletes in the bottom bunks sometimes experiment with draping extra blankets around their sleeping space to form a dark cave. Every time someone crawls out of bed to go pee or talks in their sleep, the entire room can hear. Industrial-sized fans buzz all night long, circulating hot, humid, stifling air from the open window, which is barely better than having no fans. For those of us unadapted to such conditions, it is very difficult to sleep well and recover from hard training.
During my handful of visits to Jericho, I’ve learned to fall back asleep after I hear drill sergeants bellowing outside my window at 5:00 A.M. I prefer to wake up a little closer to 7 and head to the dining hall (wearing closed-toed shoes of course, it’s a military rule). After breakfast, I join my teammates in our van and we drive a ½ mile straight uphill from the barracks to the biathlon range. The van chatters over washboards, struggling to maintain enough momentum to make it to the top of the hill going the speed limit (20 mph). Our van’s dust cloud settles over clusters of junior athletes whose coaches make them run up the steep hill for a warm-up before practice. I’m glad my coaches don’t make me do that routinely.
The Jericho biathlon range and ski trails rank among the finest facilities in the country. In the past, Jericho has hosted large international competitions and the club still frequently hosts important events such as junior world team trials. Jericho’s range is one of a handful in the country with paved trails for summer rollerski training.
Training at Jericho provides a great opportunity to practice the transition from skiing to shooting and vice versa. Transitions are a complicated process requiring lots of practice to perfect. For example, while approaching the range you need to slow down, glance at the wind flags, take some deep breathes, remove poles, look for an open point and check its corresponding target downrange, and open the sight covers and bolt, and then set-up on the shooting mat.
The venue also features superb rollerskiing. Its trails that flow naturally over challenging terrain. They snake through the woods dipping, climbing, and twisting around corners. I feel much safer rollerskiing on isolated trails like these than trying to avoid traffic out on the roads. The only obstacles we run into are camouflaged soldiers who randomly pop out of the woods during their land navigation training and woodland critters. Recently wildlife highlights: a mother doe and two spotted fawns frozen in the middle of the trail and a daring turkey that strutted under the targets during a shooting clinic for beginner biathletes.
One common complaint about Jericho is the weather. Even a perfect summer day always feels hotter and more humid than seems reasonable, despite the base’s mountain setting. The local landscape creates its own weather patterns, and they tend to be more extreme than the rest of the state. For example, incoming clouds from the west get caught on Mt. Mansfield and create violent thunderstorms and hail. The weather, combined with the relentless biting flies can make some workouts feel absolutely miserable. Luckily, the base has a saving grace for mugginess: a couple swimming holes in the Lee River. We just have to remember army rules: never walk anywhere alone and never walk through the base wearing only a swimsuit. Luckily, they haven’t outlawed swimming itself. After practice we cool off in freezing stream water and hope we won’t climb out with any leeches attached.
By late evening, the heat finally relents a little bit. If you were to walk out the front door of our barracks at dusk, you’d see soft spots of LCD lights dotting the facing hillside. They could almost be mistaken for fireflies except for the accompanying murmur of conversations. A closer inspection would reveal about 20 soldiers (and a bunch of athletes) sitting in the dewy grass and talking/texting on their cell phones. One corner of that hillside boasts up to three bars of cell service despite the rest of the base having none. With no internet on base, “cell phone hill” is in very high demand.
To get our daily internet fix, we drive into Jericho Corners in the mid-afternoon. Across from the historic Old Red Mill and Snowflake Bentley museum, sits a cafe and bakery called The Village Cup, or “Athlete’s Cup” as we fondly refer to it. We visit so frequently that by the end of our training camp we start to feel like regulars. Instead of napping all afternoon to recover from training, we eat generous slices of raspberry pie or chocolate torte and cruise Facebook. We compose blog entries to a background of classic tunes, such as Cat Steven’s Wild World. It’s a pretty quiet place, but one day, a teammate (who himself is a multi-time Olympian) returned all excited because he had spotted a celebrity on the back porch: a member of the band Phish.
Another favorite off-base escape is the Jericho Country Store, located in Jericho Center. Our most common objectives are fresh sandwiches and soft-serve maple ice cream. However, as the oldest continuously running country store in VT, this small establishment boosts many curiosities. Every nook and corner is filled with something interesting, such as old-fashioned glass jars full of candy, a checker game set up on a barrel table, specialty soaps, greeting cards by community artists, local beef, all sorts of historic signs and pictures, and antique post office boxes. (The store still functions as a post office). After finding some sort of yummy treat, we wander across the street to sit under a tree on the town green to savor it.
The culmination of the annual Jericho training camp is a couple of rollerski biathlon races, hosted by the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club. These races are technically “Rollerski Biathlon Nationals” but they often feel more low-key than that. Many athletes view them as a way to get some practice racing in during the summer months. However, this year the races were important. They served as part of the trials process to determine who will represent the US in European competitions in November/December.
How did the races go for me this year? Not as well as I had hoped, but they certainly weren’t a disaster. I was able to ski hard despite the heat and had some of the top rollerski times both days, but I struggled in the shooting range. Results from the two races can be found on host Ethan Allen Biathlon Club’s website:
One reason I enjoy racing in Jericho is that I consider it my home course. I first ski raced in Jericho trails at the young age of eleven for the New England Bill Koch Championships and I also competed there for high school state championships. The Ethan Allen Biathlon Club is the parent club to my home biathlon program in Craftsbury. The Craftsbury Outdoor Center often sends a crew of volunteers for the races. It’s been wonderful the last couple years to see so many GRP teammates and coworkers help out and bring home more enthusiasm for the sport. I often have an additional fan club of family and friends cheering me on, which is a rare experience when we spend most of the winter racing in Europe. Dear fan club, next time I’ll make sure I let you know if the race start time changes to something earlier than posted- sorry about that. This year was special because my cousin, Jesse, who is in the Guard and happened to be training on base, stopped by unexpectedly.
Hands down, my favorite thing about spending time in Jericho is the community. The August races and training camps are the only time during summer months when the majority of the US biathlon racing community assembles together in one spot. There are very few people in the United States who understand biathlon and can relate to the experience of being a biathlete. When we come together it is an empowering experience for everyone involved. The entire US National Team competes alongside juniors, beginners, the National Guard teams, and older masters groups. On a given year, racers and coaches might hail from New England, New York, Pennsylvania , Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington state, and Alaska. We often see representation from the eastern Canadian providences as well, such as Quebec, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
Once the racing crowd dissipates, the locals remain. The National Guard’s biathlon team and the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club (civilians) use the range year round. These groups are made up of amazing people who are passionate about the sport and never fail to be friendly and helpful. I always enjoy sharing the range with the Guard athletes and the club team. Many thanks to Major Parsons and his crew from the Guard who create a welcoming environment on the base and maintain top notch facilities. Thanks also to the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club and their numerous volunteers for both hosting high quality races and for promoting the sport to people in the local community.