ON THE MORNING AFTER A DECEMBER 15, 2021, WINDSTORM, Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area co-owners Ellen Miller Goins and Geoff Goins decided to hike up Powderpuff, one of the trails climbing away from the lodge, where people rent equipment and purchase tickets to use the trails. Geoff and Mike Ritterhouse, the ski area’s mountain manager, began chainsawing through the first few trees that had blown over the trail. Ellen and her sister Mary, who’d joined the group, went on ahead. When they crested the first hill, Ellen turned back. “You’ve got to come see this,” she called down.
“It was just a wall of trees,” Geoff recalls. “We put the saws down and said, ‘Let’s go see how bad this is.’ ”
The devastation at the ski area near Red River was vast and absolute. A route Geoff usually skis in 45 minutes took them more than five hours to climb and crawl through. The storm, with sustained winds estimated at over 100 miles per hour, had toppled most of the area’s 640-acre forest. The 33 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails and 15 kilometers of snowshoe trails had vanished under tangled trunks.
“Ellen was in tears,” Geoff says. “Mike and I were very emotional—I think we both were in tears at some point. It’s like, ‘We can’t open. There’s no way we can fix this.’ ”
For a few rough weeks over the holidays, he wondered if the ski area would ever recover. But in January, Ritterhouse and Bob Blair, a ski patroller and instructor, headed out again and began problem-solving and recruiting volunteers. By early February, half the trails were clear enough to ski. This winter, they expect almost everything to be open, although transformed. Nearly a year after the damage—thanks to their determined efforts and those of the community—they’re even starting to see a bright side in the changes.
This past November, as Ellen drives a side-by-side vehicle through the section of trail they hiked that first morning, Geoff points out the sawn-through logs, one big enough to make a tabletop, and trees that have been pulled out of the way. Sunlight stretches through the forest. Patches of snow collect in the shade.
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The wind left a visible mark, felling trees in the direction it blew as it gusted up a gully and across the trail. We roll to a hilltop, and Ellen looks ahead to a frosted ridgeline. “That’s a new view,” she says. “There didn’t used to be a view of Gold Hill.”
“If we want to say anything nice about a giant windstorm that destroys all the trees in your forest, it’s that we now have great views,” Geoff says. “I can see Wheeler Peak the whole time I’m skiing. It’s wonderful.”
ELLEN’S PARENTS, JOHN AND JUDY MILLER, ran the diminutive Red River downhill ski area called Powder Puff Mountain when she was a child; they put her on skis by the time she was three. Then they fell in love with cross-country skiing and sold Powder Puff, which later closed. John began leading backcountry tours on wooden cross-country skis. He loved it, but guests often told him, “That was fun, but it’s too much work.” They almost never came back.
When the family attended a Cross Country Ski Areas Association conference in California, they discovered the magic of groomed trails. John knew a perfect set of rolling knolls, with a couple of ancient logging roads winding through them, on Bobcat Pass, outside of Red River. They opened Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area there in 1985.
At first, people rented skis and bought tickets in town, then drove up and parked on the highway. (If you had four-wheel drive, you might make it into the parking lot.) As her parents were establishing the ski area, Ellen met Geoff, when both were working at Mount Rainier National Park. He followed her back to New Mexico in 1990. That year, Enchanted Forest started renting skis and selling tickets at the trailhead.
Ellen and Geoff bought Enchanted Forest in 2010. Now the base lodge hosts a full rental fleet and a shop with mugs, neck warmers, T-shirts, and skiers’ necessities like sunscreen, wax, and water bottles. Things have grown in stages, Geoff explains, which is why the main lodge looks a bit like a patchwork quilt.
The ski area isn’t as much a moneymaker as it is a break-even operation. That it’s a labor of love as well might be evinced by Geoff and Ellen, who are no longer a couple but still amicably run the business together. After working a full-time job during the week at Capulin Volcano National Monument, Geoff comes down on weekends to drive the snowmobile that tows the grooming rollers.
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“It’s a passion thing,” he says. “There’s not many people that go to work and get to ski every day and see their friends.”
After the pandemic cut the 2019–20 season short and the 2020–21 winter saw guests having lunch in their cars and staff passing rental skis out a window, Geoff was looking forward to a more normal season last year. Then the storm hit.
AT FIRST, THE LANDSCAPE SEEMED UNFAMILIAR. Without a forest, without visible trails, and without trail signs, Geoff, Ellen, and Ritterhouse struggled to know where they were in the ski area. Geoff flew a drone overhead to try to trace the trails. Ritterhouse estimated the storm had flattened almost every tree in about 200 acres of the ski area, and more than half of them in another 200 acres. The total count for downed trees has since been estimated in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. Ritterhouse’s previous record high for storm damage at Enchanted Forest was 80 trees, which he cleared in four days.
Enchanted Forest wasn’t alone in taking damage. Trees fell on houses in Red River, tangled with powerlines throughout the area, and toppled onto chairlifts and ski runs at the Red River and Taos ski areas. Fallen timber made hiking trails in the surrounding Carson National Forest look like a giant game of pickup sticks. Roads were covered. Trees blocked some streams, creating small floods. Local district ranger Adam LaDell estimates that up to 7,000 acres were affected—just pockets of the far larger forest. “But where it did hit, it hit hard,” he says, “like a clear-cut.”
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That they dug out at all—that trails and off-road-vehicle roads were open by midsummer—testifies to the dedication of community volunteers, one of whom almost singlehandedly cleared 950 trees, LaDell says. “To actually get the work done, the people that really care put on their work gloves and got at it.”
At Enchanted Forest, some sections of trail were relatively clear, and work moved quickly. The trails were too narrow for a bulldozer, so every tree had to be sawed into three-foot chunks and tossed out of the way by hand. They recruited volunteers every weekend, sending out up to 12 at a time.
The crews raked and swept pine needles, bark, and sawdust off the snow-covered trails. Sometimes they shoveled snow out of the woods and packed it onto bare patches of dirt, where trees had been lifted away. A crowdfunding campaign covered expenses where insurance lapsed. (There’s no insurance policy for ski trails, they joke, and anyway, this fell into the “act of God” category.)
“I’ll be damned if by early February, we got about 50 percent of the area cleared,” Geoff says. “By the time we got that open, we were pretty optimistic. Then we started looking at the yurts.”
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Fallen conifers had split open two of the five structures and damaged a third. At the Glade Yurt, installed that July and filled with furniture, winds had ripped the roof open; snow was piled on the new mattresses. The Midway Yurt, a beloved mid-mountain warming hut for thawing fingers and toes, heating hot cocoa or soup, and resting on a couch out of the wind, had taken a tree through its middle.
They were able to fix some of the damage by adding new crossbeams and patching the roofs. For this winter, the team also shifted what’s still in working order to make most of the yurts available for overnight stays. (A few amenities might be missed: They’re still replacing the water-logged copies of Cross-Country Cat, a children’s book for bedtime reading that’s placed in every yurt.)
By summer, things were looking up. Then wildfire evacuation orders stalled the manufacturing of a new yurt roof for weeks, along with any trail work. The Forest Service crew couldn’t haul downed timber away. But once the orders were lifted, a last push with volunteers delivered victory. This season, whenever there’s a foot of snow on the ground, nearly every trail will be open.
As we tour the trails, Ellen and Geoff laugh at old signs that direct skiers to “viewpoints.” Once, trees curtained those views and skiers had to step off trail or miss seeing Wheeler and Old Mike peaks, or the craggy collection of summits in the Latir Peak Wilderness. Now the horizon fills with snow-capped crests, the ruddy cliffs lending the Red River its name, and the verdant bowl of the Moreno Valley.
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A few special trees survived. One of Ellen’s dad’s favorite Douglas firs, towering and gnarled, its trunk too big to wrap two arms around, guards a sunny slope. The more flexible aspens generally fared better. A grove Ellen’s dad called “the cathedral”—for the towering, white-barked trees’ propensity to draw your eyes up into their canopy and for how humbling it feels to be among such giants—remains devoutly at attention.
All those downed trees make space for new ones. Douglas firs no more than waist- or head-high string together in thickets of a young, rowdy forest, each one jostling for a piece of sunlight. There’s no rhythm in how they took root. The only pattern left is the shape of the wind on that winter day.
The imprint of its force tattoos the mountains. We walk by Long John Yurt, “the best in the world,” Geoff tells me as we pass its sun-soaked front porch, which overlooks the Red River Valley. The view from that high point widens the scale and shows the arbitrariness in the strike, how it smashed down one hillside of trees and left another standing, how it never seemed to drop below a certain elevation.
Ellen has cultivated delight, trying to staunch the heartbreak of so much damage to a place her parents built—and doing so at essentially the same time failing health took both her parents, too. As she passes clusters of pale greenish-blue saplings, she exclaims, “Look at the baby trees!”
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They were here all along; it’s just harder to see upstarts in a mature forest. Now those trees have a chance to shoot toward an opened sky. A spruce can grow 60 feet in 30 years, Geoff says. He knows because that’s how long he’s worked here, and the spruces near the base lodge, small when he started, soar overhead today. In another 20 years or so, those baby trees will shade the trails, too, a forest again.
As our tour nears its end, Ellen and Geoff explain how they aim to clear the last of the “dog trails” (the five kilometers where pets are permitted) and snowshoe trails, fix the one yurt still out of commission, and stock mountain bikes for summer. Ellen has two potential places in mind for new yurts. There’s other stuff, they say, just ideas, too new to share. For now, Geoff says, “All we need is snow.”
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