Berkshire East Positions Itself as Outdoor Adventure CenterIn the fall of 1976, Roy Schaefer drove his family from Michigan to Charlemont to look at Thunder Mountain Ski Resort, which was about to go bankrupt.
Although it was failing, Schaefer was optimistic that he could bring it back to life, and he and a partner purchased it from Greenfield Savings Bank for $1, plus a debt of several hundred thousand dollars.
Schaefer renamed the resort Berkshire East, and although his hard work and dedication paid off, he dedicated only the fall and winter months to the operation.
“My father and his partner operated a ferryboat company in the summer on Mackinaw Island in Michigan, and when the ski area ended, all of their energy shifted there,” said Roy’s son, Jonathan Schafer, who co-owns Berkshire East Mountain Resort with his family.
However, Roy and his partner kept the area alive, and it became a place where generations of families learned to ski. But, because it was a seasonal operation dependent on weather, he battled Mother Nature for decades. However, his commitment and belief that outdoor recreation is a sustainable model for economic growth not only helped area businesses and provided seasonal employment, but was passed on to his four children.
Today, the resort is undergoing a $5 million transformation and is ushering in a bevy of recreational activities designed to transform it into a year-round destination that offers not only alpine skiing, but snow tubing, ziplining, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and the opportunity to ride North America’s longest mountain coaster.
The family also added overnight accommodations to the resort last September by purchasing the nearby, 530-acre Warfield House Inn and Farm, a bed and breakfast located just over a mile from Berkshire East that operates as a working farm complete with llamas, cattle, chickens, and gardens.
Jonathan has worked alongside his father for years, and says he and his brothers developed their own vision for expanding the family ski resort into a year-round retreat years ago.
“We were all ski racers who traveled the world, and due to our racing, we got to see a lot of things: bungee jumping in New Zealand, mountain biking, and other amazing activities,” he said. “We knew that we wanted to bring them to Charlemont and also realized that the Berkshires compare to any mountain range anywhere.
“We never had a written master plan, but we knew where we wanted to go with the resort due to our shared experience,” he went on, “and our goal now is to become the number-one family, four-season resort in Southern New England.”
The vision morphed into reality in 2008, when Jonathan’s brother, James, who lives in New York City, bought out his father’s business partner in Michigan.
Change began almost immediately, and in 2009, Berkshire East installed its first new recreational venue, Zipline Canopy Tours, that would change its status from a winter resort into one that offered year-round activities.
For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest looks at the many changes and additions at Berkshire East, and how the resort is now at the top of its game — in more ways than one.
Reaching New Heights
The expanded venue has been a success, and people can choose three different zipline options that begin with a ride up the mountain on a chair lift that offers panoramic views of the Deerfield Valley. The descent is exciting, moving from platform to platform through mountainous terrain, and Zipline Canopy Tours was named by USA Today as one of the top 10 ziplines in the nation.
“The tours are guided and were built to fit in with the landscape. It’s a great adventure that lasts two to two and a half hours,” Jonathan said.
The Schaefer family has always strived to be in tune with nature, and in 2011 they installed a wind turbine, followed by a 10-acre solar field in 2012.
“We were the first ski area to produce all of our own electricity, and we remain the only ski area in the world to produce renewable energy on site,” Jonathan told BusinessWest.The wind turbine powers the pumps that transform water into snow, and from 2009 to 2013, Berkshire East made dramatic upgrades to its snowmaking operation. “We also added a mountaintop pond, which allowed us to double our snow guns and open earlier each season,” Jonathan said, adding that the resort contains 160 skiable acres. “We opened the last weekend in November, and this year is our longest season ever.”
Another new attraction has increased business and added to the operation’s year-round status. It’s a 5,400-foot, all-season mountain coaster that opened last October on Columbus Day weekend.
“It was built as a diversification against the weather; ski weekends can be wiped out due to cold and snow, so we needed a way to drive business and give people a great experience,” said Jonathan. “The things we have done allow us to be open 365 days a year, and we built a 12,000-square-foot addition onto our lodge last year. It’s beautiful, as it’s made from hand cut timber.”
He noted that the lodge has two floors, two restaurants, and a bar, and has been a tremendous boost to the property. “Many couples book their weddings here, and now their guests will be able to enjoy the activities we offer year-round.”
The mountain coaster is one of them, and it’s a noteworthy attraction. “It is the longest mountain coaster in the nation and the third-longest in the world. It’s powered by our wind turbine and solar panels, and is an inviting way for people to enjoy the outdoors, as there are no fitness or skill requirements,” Jonathan said.
The coaster’s construction proved to be an extraordinary engineering feat, because each section had to be designed to adapt to the contour of the mountain with minimal impact to the landscape. The sections were installed in 10-foot lengths, and each car is towed up the mountain by a stainless-steel cable and strategically released when it reaches the top.
“Each car is independent of the others and has its own braking system, which allows people to slow down or speed up by pulling on the handles,” Jonathan said. “However, if one car gets within 80 feet of another going down the mountain, the brakes automatically stop it.
“The track twists and turns down a mountainside of cliffs and trees, so it’s a wild ride on a dynamic hillside,” he added. “Anticipation builds in riders who are going up, as they can see others coming down because the course crosses uphill four times.”
The new attraction has attracted coaster enthusiasts from across the nation, and groups have already booked trips there this summer.
Berkshire East enjoyed a cooperative partnership with Moxie Outdoor Adventures for years, and recently acquired its Deerfield River rafting operation. It has been renamed Berkshire Whitewater, and although it kept most of Moxie’s river guides, Berkshire East purchased 10 new rafts designed exclusively for the river, along with other state-of-the art equipment.
“We have 60 spots on the river, plan to open in May, and will continue the rafting trips until it gets too cold to run them in the fall,” said Jonathan. “We can’t add 1,000 vertical feet to the ski area, so we are adding world-class activities to show off what a beautiful spot we have here.”
Trips will be available five days a week and will begin when the hydroelectric Bear Swamp Generating Station releases water, which is done on a regular, scheduled basis. Since it stores approximately 1.7 billion gallons of water almost 800 feet above the river, when it is released, it turns the river into an ideal spot for rafters, kayakers, and downriver canoeists.
A variety of adventures along different sections of the river are planned for different age groups and abilities, but all rafters will receive a 20-minute safety lecture before they leave. A picnic lunch is provided for people who opt for one of the easier excursions, while another, more advanced course ends with a barbecue.
Each trip lasts four or five hours, and there are options to satisfy everyone, including a leisurely, half-day float trip that families with children ages 5 and up can enjoy.
“They float along in a whitewater raft, and there are places for them to get out, splash around, and swim,” Jonathan noted.
In addition, guided kayaking trips will be offered daily, and children ages 5 and up can accompany an adult in a boat on the four-hour adventures.
Since some people have already rafted on the Deerfield River, Jonathan said, Berkshire Whitewater is offering trips on the Millers River, east of Greenfield, and the West River in Jamaica, Vermont. “But they all start here, and people are taken to those sites in vans,” he told BusinessWest.The Schaefer family is also building a new mountain-biking park and commissioned a group from Whistler Mountain, whose track record includes building the largest and most dynamic bike trail in the world, to construct 10 miles of trails down the mountain. “We plan to open the park in early July and will have a major focus on beginners, with a learn-to-ride program,” Jonathan said.
Meanwhile, because the Schaefers know that many people want to enjoy their resort for more than a day, the purchase of the mountaintop complex that contains the Warfield House Inn will allow them to offer overnight lodging.
“It was a logical move because there was no housing at the ski area and this was a beautiful facility that needed new life. We thought it would be a great complement to our business,” he said.
The bed and breakfast, which was recently renovated, contains a meeting facility, restaurant, and pavilion with mountaintop views. “It’s a gorgeous place to get married,” Jonathan said, adding that the farm is also known for its maple-sugaring operation, producing about 1,000 gallons of the sweet treat each year.
Over the past few years, Berkshire East also installed a new Sky Trac Quad chair lift, with the help of a helicopter and an army of loyal employees, that can deliver 2,400 people an hour to the top of the mountain to ski, mountain bike, hike, and enjoy other outdoor activities.
“For many years, we were just a ski area, and we have continued to expand the skiing and offer a lot of learn-to-ski programs for children,” Jonathan said. “But it’s a sport that takes skill. There is a learning curve, and it requires equipment, so we wanted to add other year-round activities that would give families the experience of a lifetime.”
He added that his brother Bill, who lives in Iowa, is part-owner of the whitewater-rafting business and has purchased rental properties in the area; his brother Tom, who lives in California, has also purchased rental properties; and he, his brother James, and their father run the day-to-day operation of the resort and remain committed to providing healthy, recreational outdoor activities.
Today, the family is excited about the expansion, and their goal is for Berkshire East to become known as “New England’s Outdoor Adventure Center,” Jonathan said.
“We think it is possible,” he noted, “because we have added attractions that will drive business and give people a great experience here 365 days a year.”