Above photo: From left, Paul Kafka-Gibbons, Julian Kafka, and Richard Wood at the top of Cannon Mountain.
Story and photos by Alexander C. Kafka
Alex is a journalist, photographer and composer in Bethesda, Maryland.
Generations connect on the ski slopes of the White Mountains.
My father, John, was born Hans in Linz, Austria. Hansel, actually. And his older half-sister was named — yes, you guessed it — Gretel. Their fathers died young. My dad was only six.
Soon after, Hans went on his first ski trip — to Innsbruck — bonding with the fatherly instructor there. This was in the 1920s when skiing meant ascending a mountain not by chairlift or tram, but on foot, snowshoes or wooden skis with seal skins strapped to the bottoms. Then a descent not on Caterpillar-groomed slopes but through sometimes high powder or trees. If you hurt yourself, there was no ski patrol to rush you down the mountain. When he was 11 and broke his leg, my dad was carried down atop a sled loaded with logs.
This Hansel and Gretel were Jewish. They were pursued not by a witch but by Nazis. Gretel and her husband, Charles, eventually made it to the States with their young daughter. My dad, at 19, fled with my grandmother in 1940 on the second-to-last boat allowed to leave France, where he’d been in boarding school.
In America, he worked painting bathrooms, pulling shifts in a lamp-shade factory and once selling his blood to get cash to go on a date. He served in the army and worked his way through medical school, becoming a prominent psychoanalyst.
After he and my mom, a neuroscientist, started a family and settled in Washington, D.C. in the late 1950s, they put us kids on skis when we were between 2 and 4 years old. They took us to New England and to the Swiss Alps, where we have cousins.
Among those cousins was Michel, a sound engineer with a pronounced wine-and-cheese belly. Whooping and singing and chortling, he led my brother Paul and me down the 2,000 vertical meters from the sunny heights of Attelas, above Verbier, to the cool shadowy medieval valley town of Le Chable. The latter part of the journey entailed jumping over the walls of snowy terraced vineyards. That was something we hadn’t learned in ski school!
When my dad was 85, he skied with me and my then 8-year-old-son Julian in Steamboat, Colorado. I was worried about Dad, who’d not only broken that leg as a kid but also, while skiing, torn his Achilles and injured a shoulder and a knee. On our first morning, however, he’s the one who gracefully traversed over to help me and Julian up after we’d fallen on the slopes.
A decade ago, my vineyard-jumping brother Paul, now a writer and dancer who lives in Boston, discovered with his entrepreneur friend Doran an affordable getaway called Indian Head Resort near Lincoln, New Hampshire. The resort has a motel and much more. There’s a restaurant and bar with a pretty mountain view, outdoor and indoor pools with hot tubs, a fitness room and game room, a pond that freezes into an ice rink in winter, and, across the road, tennis courts for summer.
Indian Head Resort started as 10 campsites in 1913. The resort’s name comes from the rock face that viewers thought resembled a Native American warrior. (If you squint, you can sort of see it.) Indian Head has grown to 98 rooms, including the motel, 40 cabins and four bungalows.
Indian Head is close to three wonderful ski destinations — Loon Mountain, Bretton Woods and Cannon Mountain. The resort’s staff will help you decide which mountain will have the best skiing that day, but all are within a scenic 30-minute drive.
Paul’s and Doran’s families started going to Indian Head together each Martin Luther King Day weekend. Several other Boston families joined them, as did Julian and I, flying from D.C. to Manchester, renting a car, and then making the scenic drive up to Lincoln, where you’ll find many gear and winter wear shops, as well as a little guide-book store for your adventures year-round.
When the Indian Head trips began, Julian and my nephew Gabriel and niece Charlotte were in elementary school. They skied in snowplow. They and their friends ate from the kids’ menu; played pinball; enjoyed bingo games, clown shows, and ice cream socials in the Greenery Room; and screamed and splashed each other in the pool.
This year on our annual trip, I looked down the table at those handsome and beautiful “kids” and felt like I was tumbling down that sentimental “Landslide” Stevie Nicks sings about. Julian is a college freshman majoring in psychology. He’s on the tennis team and plays percussion in three ensembles. Gabriel is a high-school senior. He towers a half foot over me, rows crew, and is applying to engineering programs. Charlotte, a high-school junior, rows too and places in regional science and cooking competitions. Trevor and Elise, the son and daughter of Doran and his consultant wife Karen, are members of their high school’s sailing team.
The little snow-plowing elves with the cute high voices? Gone. They’ve been replaced by hearty-voiced demons shooting down black-diamond slopes in tight parallel form. “Exactly one day in your life your kid will ski as good as you do,” said the late ski filmmaker Warren Miller. “The next day he'll ski better than you.”
Our most recent trip ranged from wind chills below zero to 40s and raining. Some years, the snow cover has been so thin that we’ve found ourselves skiing a bit on grass, dirt, and rock. Even in the best seasons, skied-off New England slopes are infamously icy, helping Bode Miller and other Northeast-toughened greats become fearless competitors.
Still, after an exhilarating run, you and your friends happily and tunelessly bellow a pop song from the chairlift, never mind that you can’t feel your extremities and the horizontal ice winds are giving your tear-crystaled face a free exfoliation. It’s a twisted New England cult you’re part of, fueled by freeze-dried endorphins.
My dad is 96. He skied until he was 89. I know I won’t be on the slopes at anywhere near that age. But Paul and I do wonder if, in 15, 20, or 25 years, we might be skiing with our kids and grandchildren. If we’re very lucky, when they fall, maybe we’ll even still be able to glide over and help them up.
Each resort has its strengths and its own vibe.
Lincoln, New Hampshire, features great lodges and shops.