The Once and Future Kingdom

Burke has seen its ups and downs. But this year, with no crowds, a swank new hotel, new mountain bike trails and the ski mountain operating pretty much as normal, this tiny town is poised to rule. 

It’s late on a cool fall afternoon as the fading sun casts a golden glow across the Northeast Kingdom. The light is different here, bathing vast farm fields, red barns and rolling hills in b urnt amber and setting fire to the cinnamon maples on Burke Mountain.

On singletrack trails that crisscross the crest of Darling Hill, small pods of locals weave their mountain bikes through the open fields, waving to each other and talking quietly as they head home, tired from after-work rides.

Gone are summer’s throngs of down-country adrenaline junkies who have made Kingdom Trails one of the most popular mountain bike destinations in the country, drawing 160,000 rider visits in 2019.

Gone are the caravans of Canadians who have made up 30 to 50 percent of the mountain bike traffic. The border is still closed.

Gone are the crowds of muddy, happy, slightly drunk riders into their third brew at Mike’s Tiki Bar, the outdoor patio that spills across a parking lot in the center of the one-gas-station village of East Burke.

Of the town’s handful of restaurants, only one is open on this Wednesday night. At The Orange Rind, small groups huddle around outdoor tables and firepits as the smoky scent of fall fills the air.

Soon, the snowguns will be blowing on the Burke Mountain trails. The ski racers will be back at Burke Mountain Academy, ricochetting between slalom gates – the next Mikaela Shiffrins. Snowboarders will be blasting through the woods, arcing powder turns off East Bowl. Fatbikers and Nordic ski racers will be gliding across the snow-packed, groomed Kingdom Trails.

But for now, for this hour of day, for this time of year, for this strange time of Covid-19, for this interlude in a remote ski/bike town’s evolving history, everything seems to have paused.

Except for this: as the sky darkens over Darling Hill the lights  twinkle on, one by one at Burklyn Hall, the ornate mansion that sat empty for many years.

The Mansion

Burklyn Hall is an outsized symbol of what once was and could still be. At one time, it was the manor house presiding over Burke Mountain, Mountain View Farm and the 8,000 acres that Elmer Darling carved out of the wilderness in this remote northeast corner of Vermont.

Darling was born and raised in the shadow of Burke Mountain. He went to MIT to study architecture and then, in 1872, to New York City, where he helped his uncle run the Fifth Avenue Hotel. It was, at the time, one of the most lavish hotels in the country: the place where guests such as the Prince of Wales stayed.

Darling made his fortune in New York, then came home and in 1904 began constructing an opulent Palladian mansion on the ridgeline that straddles the towns of Burke and Lyndonville.

Burklyn Hall was built with 12 miles (300,000 board feet) of timber harvested from Darling’s land.  Marble was imported from Africa and Italy for the fireplace mantel facings. The balusters on the three-story main staircase were all hand-turned. Ornate moldings and hand-painted frescoes decorated the ceilings and walls. The manor was state of the art for its time with central vacuuming and both gas and electric lighting. Darling, who never married, died in 1931. Burklyn went through several owners and its glory faded.

“Burklyn Hall now stands as a mute witness, representative of a way of life now fast-disappearing from American society, its basic concept undermined, its prospective future questionable,” wrote architectural historian Alfred Dewey Hogdon in 1970. In the five decades since, the Hall saw more owners, and more ups and downs.

But three years ago, two mountain bikers, Bob and Sharon Ross,  snapped a photo of Burklyn Hall and sent it to their cousins in San Diego, Jim and Marci Crone. “We loved riding Kingdom Trails and knew Marci wanted to come back east,” says Sharon.  “I think we sent the photo as a joke while at a Kid Rock concert.”

Except that Jim Crone took them seriously: he and his wife Marci bought Burklyn and two years ago and set about bringing it back to life  as an inn and installed Sharon and Bob as the innkeepers.

“At each juncture, we asked, ‘What would Elmer have done?’” says Jim as he walks across the gleaming wood floors and through rooms lit by sparkling chandeliers, t-shirt loose and hitching up his jeans as he goes. Crone, a Vietnam vet who worked his way up from builder and contractor to commercial real estate developer, fingers the railings on the staircase. “There were three different types of balusters, so to replace them I had to have a router made and hand-turned them myself,”  he says.

While Jim went about rebuilding the house, Marci worked with a designer to reinterpret the opulence of the time for a contemporary esthetic. “We figured Elmer would have nothing but the best, so we spent the money where we needed to,” she said. Schumacher fabrics with matching wallpaper are used throughout. On this day, a cascade of orange and white pumpkins tumbles artfully down the entry steps. A wedding photo shoot is going on in the formal gardens.

The Inn at Burklyn Hall opened its 14 rooms to guests in August, with Sharon and Bob acting as innkeepers and Marci serving up mouth-watering breakfasts, such as  homemade blackberry muffins and a tomato-spinach frittata. On that fall day, they were also interviewing chefs, in the hopes of offering dinners to guests as well.

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The Trails

“The Crones have done a beautiful job on the Inn,” says Lilias Ide, who grew up in the Kingdom and is the communications director for Kingdom Trails. “But what’s great is that they also helped build some important trails.”

Thanks to the generosity of more than 90 private landowners, Kingdom Trails has expanded over the past three decades to encompass more than 100 miles of trails. Classics such as the flowy, banked-turn Kitchel spiral down from Darling Hill toward town and new networks now connect the Kingdom Trails to Burke Mountain’s network.

Banking on a berm on Kitchel, one of Kingdom Trails’ crown jewels. Photo by Brooks Curran

As the trail system grew, throngs of mountain bikers came from around the country. In 2019, the New England Mountain Bike Festival drew close to 4,500 riders to a town that, as of the 2010 census, counted a population of just under 1,800. One March, more than 400 riders showed up with fatbikes to attend Winterfest.

As Kingdom Trails grew, so did the traffic and the locals began to grumble. Accounts differ as to what prompted this (the common response: an altercation between  mountain bikers and a couple of horseback riders – who happened to own the land) but in early 2020 three landowners pulled key parcels from the Darling Hill network, tearing the heart out of the interconnected trail system.

One of the first things that Sharon and Bob Ross did as Burklyn innkeepers was to work with Kingdom Trails to build out new trails on the inn’s  86-acre property, helping to fill in for some of the connecting trails that had been lost. “We wanted to get folks off the road and help find a way to ride from here to the trails at Mountain View Inn,” Sharon explained. A sweet new singletrack, Burklyn, now weaves across the open meadows and woods of the property with broad views. “It’s a perfect, family-friendly beginner trail,” says Sharon.

Even before the landowner revolt, Kingdom Trails had already started to address its growth as ridership increased by 132% between 2013 and 2018.

In 2019, the organization won a grant to work with the SE Group to do a network capacity and visioning study.  The study, which has been rolling out this past summer, recommended adding parking capacity and a new welcome center, creating new trail hubs to disperse riders and providing better connecting trails to downtown. “The good news is that the study found the trails themselves are not over capacity, we just need to do a better job of dispersing crowds,” says Ide.

In response, Kingdom Trails built out more than 13.5 miles of new trails this past summer. “It’s the most we’ve ever done in a year,” says Ide.

The Mountain

As Kingdom Trails built out its cross-country network,  Burke Mountain Resort focused on downhill, lift-served riding with bike trails ranging from a beginner pump track and easy Roly Grail to the expert dual-slalom tracks and runs with built-in wooden banked turns and jumps. With limited hotels in town, the Burke Mountain Resort hotel and base lodge, set midway up the mountain at the base of the ski trails, became base camp for mountain bikers—and even busier in summer than in winter.

It’s 9 am and yes, there’s still powder on the mountain at Burke. Photo by Jeb Walllace-Brodeur

In 2016, the Burke Mountain Hotel and Conference Center had opened with 116 rooms at the base of the 3,267-foot Burke Mountain, giving ski-on access to the 6 lifts and the 270 acres of trails. It was a tasteful and much-needed addition to a town that had few properties with more than 20 rooms. Built by developer Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger, the former owners of both Jay Peak and Burke, the hotel was funded by foreign investment through the EB-5 program.

And, as the SEC and courts have determined, fraudulently funded.

Quiros was convicted of channeling the EB-5 funds into such things as a luxury apartment in Manhattan. Indicted on fraud, he plead guilty on Aug. 14, 2020 and could face 8 years in jail; Stenger is awaiting trial. Both resorts are still in receivership.

Yet even in the early limbo of receivership, not knowing who the next owner would be, Burke Mountain seemed ready to move ahead, installing new snowmaking in 2017, widening trails and replacing an old Poma on the race training hill with a T-bar.

Burke Mountain Academy. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Burke Mountain Academy’s snowy campus rests on the flanks of Burke Mountain, the training grounds for the student athletes.

That Poma was what carried many U.S. Ski Teamers up the hill each day. “Just having your skis on snow for the uphill as well as the downhill helps give you a feel for the snow —you can’t underestimate the value of a surface lift,” said Tiger Shaw, the president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard.  The T-bar would accomplish the same goal.

Helping fund the new lift was Burke Mountain Academy. The ski academy, now in its 50th year, might be best known as the place that launched Mikaela Shiffrin into a World Cup career at age 15. It has also turned out 36 Olympians, including six who competed at PyeongChang in 2018.

In December 2016, Burke Mountain Academy opened the $2.8 million, 15,000-square foot Ronnie Berlack Training Center, named for the Burke student and U.S. Ski Teamer who was killed in an avalanche while freeskiing in the Alps. The center was quickly designated a U.S. Ski Team High Performance Center, with the goal of not only serving Ski Team members but, as US Ski and Snowboarding’s Shaw said at the time, “bringing U.S. Ski Team knowledge and programming to the region, with the goal of building the best athletic development pipeline in the world.”

In 2017, Willy Booker, the former head of Marker/Dalbello/Volkl returned to Burke Mountain Academy, where he had graduated in 1996, to lead the school. Last year, he recruited two Olympians, gold medalist and World Cup GS champion Diann Roffe ’85 and Felix McGrath who finished third in the overall World Cup standings in 1988. And  in 2020 Burke Mountain Academy was named best alpine club in 2020 by U.S. Ski and Snowboarding.

And This Winter?

Ashley Davenport Sargent, a former World Cup speed skier, also coaches at Burke Mountain Academy. Sargent, and her brother, extreme skiing pioneer Chris Davenport, grew up ski racing in New Hampshire. After her ski racing career ended, Ashley settled in Stowe, near Morrisville, where her husband Nick’s family is from.

“We started coming up to Burke with the kids regularly in 2013 and it was just so different from the other big ski areas—just so laid back,” she says. In 2015, when Nick left his job at Burton to become the president of Ski Industries of America, the family moved to Burke and enrolled the kids at Burke Mountain Academy.

“I just love it up here,”  Ashley says.  “I mean where else can you roll up to the mountain at 9 a.m. on a powder day and still have fresh turns? It’s pretty much the ideal place for young families —you can set the kids loose, everyone knows everyone, the base lodge is right there. And there’s just no stress or drama here—no traffic getting to the mountain, no worrying about where you are going to park, no fighting for your line on the hill. And the skiing is plenty challenging. ”

Kevin Mack, Burke’s general manager concurs.  “On any given powder day, the level of skiing here is so high people disperse into the woods quickly and there’s rarely a wait at the lift.”

This season, that may be all the more true. “We’ll still be taking all the safety precautions, but otherwise we will be operating pretty much as normal,” says Mack. No reservations will be needed. No limitations on season pass or ticket sales.

“No one will be forced to ride a lift with someone they don’t want to, but we also don’t expect lines to be that much different from normal,” he says. The aptly named View Pub (with views to Willoughby Gap) and Tamarack Pub will have spaced seating and grab-and-go options.

And this season, with the likelihood of the Canadian border remaining closed, Burke may be even quieter.

With just 32 cases of Covid-19 reported in all of Caledonia county, this corner of Vermont may also be one of the safest places to visit in the country. n

 

Visiting East Burke

STAY

The Inn at Burklyn, the new crown jewel of the Kingdom, opened its 14 rooms in August. Rooms start at $300, full breakfast and afternoon cheese platter included. The Inn is also planning special all-inclusive weekends this fall. Just down Darling Hill Road, and also set right on Kingdom Trails, The Inn at Mountain View Farm is on the National Historic Register and has 14 rooms starting at $215 a night, with the Farmhouse also available for family rentals. The Burke Mountain Resort Hotel & Conference Center is right on the ski area’s downhill slopes with 116 suites that range from studios to three-bedrooms.  Studio suites start at $79 a night and the hotel has packages that include lift tickets and meals or Kingdom Trails day passes. On Oct. 17, the resort featured a concert with noted Vermont blues rocker Kat Wright playing outside on the patio. Right in town and just a quarter mile from the slopes, The Village Inn of East Burke has seven rooms, starting at $110 a night,  and two apartments.

PLAY

Burke Mountain Resort Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Kingdom Trails has more than 100 miles of trails that are open for mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding for much of the summer/fall and 15 miles of groomed winter trails for Nordic skiing and skating as well as 20 miles of groomed fatbike trails. A day pass is $15 for adults.

Burke Mountain Resorts’ bike park closes in mid-October but its lifts usually open in early December. Day tickets are $75 for adults and $54 for kids under 18 and seniors over 65 (Vermonters pay just $60/$51) and advance purchase discounts often apply. Burke also offers a “Judge” season pass with combined access to Jay Peak for $1019 or $629 for those 29 and under.

Some of the most scenic ice climbing in the East is on the icy crags of Mount Pisgah as it rises dramatically over Lake Willoughby. Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides offers rock and ice climbing instruction (one day intro courses start at $150 per person) as well as courses in avalanche safety and wilderness first aid.

EAT, DRINK, SHOP

With Covid-19, East Burke’s limited restaurant scene shrank even more with the temporary closure of the Wildflower Inn and its acclaimed Junipers restaurant this fall. At Burke Mountain Resort, The View  Pub and the Tamarack Pub will be operating. In town, The Orange Rind has good pub fare. The Foggy Goggle Osteria creates specials such as wild mushroom and leek soup and baked salmon with pesto. Lilias Ide raves about its Mexican Mondays. Burke Publick House and Mike’s Tiki Bar and food truck (seasonal) are in the heart of the village but the Publick House is temporarily closed this fall. In town, start the day with a pastry from Auntie Dee Dee’s bakery or an espresso at Café Lotti. Just out of town, Miss Lyndonville Diner has classic pancakes stuffed with blueberries and other specialties.

For biking or skiing gear, rentals and equipment Village Sports Shop and East Burke Sports can get you outfitted. Both shops have bike rentals as well as alpine, Nordic, backcountry and AT ski and board rentals.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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