Tom Ross: Granular snow is ripe for the pickin'

Steamboat corn harvest swings into high gear and can prove great if you know when to go 'pick'

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St Patrick's Day is near, and already it's time to get out on the hill and begin the corn harvest.

No, I'm not dislocated in space and time. I'm perfectly aware that one has to be a masochist to even attempt to grow sweet corn in Steamboat Springs. But I'm not talking about the kind of corn that grows on stalks. I'm talking about skiing so good, it melts butter.

I'm talking about corn snow, a descriptive term used to describe the granular snow conditions that occur in the spring. That's when the top two inches of the snowpack soften in the March sun, freeze up into a solid crust at night, and then yield to the sun again the next morning. Before we delve into the art of skiing corn, let's contemplate the wonders of the other kind of corn. Even for a suburban kid growing up in Southern Wisconsin, the phrase "knee high by the Fourth of July," spelled out words to live by. If we had the right amount of rain, the young corn plants were on schedule when they'd reached the kneecap of an adult male by Independence Day.

We didn't farm, but that didn't keep us from cultivating a nice-sized patch of sweet corn.

In mid-summer, there was enough corn to allow me to chomp my way through three ears every night at dinner. Lord, how I loved corn on the cob. There was enough corn for me to peddle several dozen ears a week in the neighborhood.

I can vividly recall filling my red wagon with big, fat ears and pulling it through the neighborhood. I went from door to door and offered my produce at 50 cents a dozen. There were many takers.

As I remember, I wasn't really trying to raise pin money for the household, but simply attempting to unload the abundance that resulted from my father's green thumb.

Shifting back to the topic at hand -- now is the time for skiers to seek out the corn, and when it comes to skiing corn, timing is everything. The idea is to hit the snow when it is in transition, somewhere between crust and slush. When you time it just right, the sensation of skiing on corn is something like skiing on ball bearings lubricated with vegetable oil (Why not? Make it corn oil).

Arrive on the mountain too late and the corn will have vanished -- yielding to snow the consistency of pineapple sherbet.

Steamboat skiers face a choice between skiing corn on the lift-served slopes of Mount Werner or the gentle pitches of Rabbit Ears Pass. The decision could be likened to a grocery shopper stopping in the produce section faced with the choice of whether to pick up a few ears or organically grown corn or opting for the perfection of genetically engineered corn. The corn you will ski on the mountain this spring will be the result of grooming -- the best corn will be harvested where a big tractor in the form of a Bombardier snowcat has laid down perfectly groomed corduroy. This is wonderful corn that will put a smile on the face of any spring skier. But it's not quite the same as the naturally occurring stuff. Purists may opt for the natural corn on the pass, where the angle of the slope and the angle of the sun will determine the best place to ski. Be forewarned, any fresh snow on the heavy, wet snowpack that prevails this week could be prone to sliding.

My favorite memory of skiing corn isn't tied to Steamboat, and it certainly doesn't have roots in March or even in April. Instead, my corny memory was produced in the month of July, when the rows back in Wisconsin were already knee high or higher. I was driving an old Buick back from Portland, Ore., to Steamboat and ultimately Wisconsin, for my grandfather. Before leaving the state of Oregon, I stopped at Timberline Lodge, high on the slopes of Mount Hood, and rented a pair of giant slalom skis just for the sheer novelty of skiing in July.

All of the skiing on Hood in July is high above timberline on the slopes of the dormant volcano. More than 20 years ago, it was legal to duck under the boundary ropes of the ski runs on Mount Hood. I was aware that to ski out of the eastern boundary brought the danger of summer crevasses, but that the western boundary was far safer. And that's where I found corn -- miles of corn.

It was an experience I've never been able to match since -- swooping down a vast expanse of granular snow on the shoulders of an immense mountain. Go get some corn. Accept no canned corn. Accept no creamed corn. Accept no substitutes.

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