Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: email@example.com.
Welp, you knew it was coming. Sooner or later, we had to publish something about the venerable and inimitable icon of cross-country skiing, Chip Chase. Best known as the Supreme Commander of the White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley, Chase has been effortlessly gliding up and down the slopes of Cabin Mountain with a peaceful panache for decades.
Chip and his wife, Laurie Little, have nurtured a wonderful family at their home in Canaan. But Chip’s family extends far beyond its biological bounds. The Chases also nurture a passion for human-powered recreation and embrace the granola lifestyle, sharing that love with everyone they encounter. As such, there are likely thousands of folks who consider Chip and Laurie kinfolk—myself included.
If you know ‘Chipper,’ and you likely do, then I hope this profile reminds you of one of those times you followed him on a bushwhack on Cabin Mountain, a true journey into the unknown. And if you don’t know him, I hope this profile can provide a brief flash of his character and encourage you to take a trip to White Grass to find out what all the buzz is about. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your coming to West Virginia story?
I was born in Europe in an Air Force family, we lived in Colorado and Alaska before ending up in northern Virginia, where I graduated from high school. After a few years of college, I lived a self-reliant, back-to-the-lander lifestyle in Crider in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. I had always wanted to move to West Virginia during those days. I started coming over to Petersburg for whitewater races in the ‘70s. I was also at an early Rainbow Gathering in 1980; those were the two things that kind of sealed my moving here. And, of course, I moved to Canaan Valley for the snow and started White Grass in 1981. The amount of snow that fell up here was the thing that really convinced me.
What’s the story behind the name of White Grass?
I started the original White Grass in 1979 in a one-room schoolhouse on top of Shenandoah Mountain in Virginia, on the WV-VA border. It was near a place called White Grass Knob; you can still see that point from Dolly Sods. I started it to make a little bit of a living in the winter, and I was really in love with cross-country skiing and wanted to share it. It was wooden skis and kick-wax. We thought White Grass was a kind of a double entendre—a cool name but also a physical location. I kept the name when we moved to start our touring center in Canaan Valley.
Why Cross-Country Skiing?
I learned how to cross-country ski while spending a couple of winters in Vermont, and my downhill skiing got converted to Nordic skiing. To me, it made perfect sense. It was kind of like ice skating and skiing at the same time, all while cruising through the woods. I was already becoming a real a lover of nature and rural living, so it just made sense that I would open up this Nordic center.
Describe the vibe of White Grass today.
It’s all about that specialness. We’re an authentic place and we have a lifestyle that we believe in. Our attitudes about the environment, friendship, and treating people and the planet well are all over everything we do. I’m fortunate to be involved in everything. I love doing it all: trail work, rentals, teaching lessons. I like the people that come in and I want to make sure that everyone here is treated very special. Cross-country skiing is a real ephemeral, here-today-gone-tomorrow sport. We’re in an area where the snow is just on the borderline of happening or not, so when it does happen, it’s magic. It’s something that you can’t ever become burned out on or take for granted. You’ve gotta grasp it and get a little piece of it whenever you can.
I have an amazing family that supports me. My wife, Laurie, we’ve got a perfect marriage in more ways than one. She’s just amazingly wonderful with the food. I think the atmosphere is really enhanced by the café. White Grass is as much of a café as a ski center. You have a good mountain and good ski area, but you also have wonderful food. Because of the location and terrain we have, it’s a whole complete package. A lot of Nordic ski centers are not as varied. There aren’t many Nordic centers in this world, especially in this part of the country, but White Grass is fairly complete and I think that’s got a lot to do with the clientele, the staff, and the owners. We keep trying to put more into it every year.
What is snow farming, and how does it work?
Through the years we’ve built up a series of moveable fences that catch drifting snow behind them in a storm. Once we catch the snow, we can put it wherever it’s wind-blown or the ground is wet. We’ve really got it down to a science and have extended our season with the fencing. We’ve learned what type of materials and height and length work best. If it’s windy, five or six inches of snow can form to 30 inches behind the fence. Snow farming is something that we discovered and figured out the hard way. In the early days, we didn’t have any snow fencing. It was just windy everywhere and there wasn’t this love for the cold that we have now. People hated the wind; we didn’t like the wind either. We were always trying to fight it, thinking about planting trees as a wind break. But we learned through the school of hard knocks and we love the wind now that we’ve learned to harness it. Every flake is being farmed and accounted for.
“We’re an authentic place and we have a lifestyle that we believe in. Our attitudes about the environment, friendship, and treating people and the planet well are all over everything we do.”
Who is Üllr, and why do you worship him?
When I first came to fix up the White Grass building, Bob Barton and his wife, Nita, who started the original Weiss Knob Ski Area in 1959, were fascinated to see that we were gonna bring this phoenix up from the ashes and restore this ski area. Bob was also a bit of a partier, and I think we might have been too, so we had some good times chit-chatting together. He always talked about Üllr (pronounced “Ooh-Lah”), the Norse god of snow. I’d never heard of Üllr in my days skiing out west or in Vermont or even my time in Virginia, so I started using that at White Grass right off the bat. It’s our mantra, the lord of ski and snowfall. You know everybody loves to have a god or deity for something, and Üllr is just another fun way for people to pray for snow. You get these snowy characters, and you adopt them and they become part of you and what you push your energy toward.
Somehow, skiing on one inch of snow at White Grass can be exceptionally fun. How is this possible?
I think it’s possible through people’s attitudes. It’s also our reality that you have to ski on less snow in order to get your ski days in. We’re hard at work to make it to where we can ski on less snow because of the detailed trail work we do, literally with tweezers on our hands and knees, cleaning up sticks and rocks. Year after year, we’re finding out where the problems are, we’re sticklers for detail. If you’re willing to ski on trails that are more of the Nordic kind of terrain that rolls and wanders to grandma’s house, that’s the kind of terrain you can ski on with just enough snow. You’ve always got the old skis that you want to torture, and the perfect time to use them is when there isn’t enough snow. There’s a whole other sport to low-snow skiing. We call ’em crud puppies—one who revels in marginally skiable snow. That’s something we’ve sort of nurtured through the years as a joke. You’ve gotta use everything you’ve got on every winter day. We make the most out of the least, and that’s just the spirit of the place.
What’s your favorite spot in all of White Grass?
That would probably be in front of my computer downloading all the day’s pictures and posting them on the website and getting these emails and responses from people that bring tears to my eyes. It’s really emotional. People pour it out, saying, “You’ve made a big difference to my children, and to my life and my winters.”
What’s your favorite White Grass soup?
Aw man, whichever one is up to order. It reminds me of seeing Bob Marley and The Wailers once. Throughout the whole show, I was saying, “This is my favorite Bob Marley song!” But then at the next song, I’d say it again. Then they’d play another. “No, this is my favorite Bob Marley song!” But I’ll say the Thai Chicken is probably the best. It’s so hearty and spicy, and the curry is just right.
What do you do in the summer?
I do stuff all summer to keep the winter thing going. What appears to exist just a few months of the year is obviously going to have a lot of shoulder work, both before and after winter. For everything everybody does at White Grass, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. We take care of the farm year-round; the farm is the heart of White Grass. It’s a 500-acre cattle farm, so we’re doing a lot of farming and maintenance. In spring, we’re cleaning up and getting ready for the cattle. Then we’re getting ready in October to do the winter thing again. Otherwise, I do some community volunteer work, go hear live music, and just be part of the community. My love and passion in the summer is mushroom hunting. I’m an outdoors person: hiker, mountain biker, caver, paddler, climbing, a little bit of everything. I try to get people to go hiking and caving and paddling, and share that same passion for the great outdoors year-round.
White Grass is known for having a low impact on the environment, what are the details?
We take really good care of the land and have a small footprint. If we have any impact at all, we fix it. We won an award years ago for best environmental business in West Virginia. We heat with wood, we don’t create a lot of garbage, we reuse and recycle as much stuff as we can. We pull the nails out of old boards and reuse them. We use local ingredients when we can at the cafe. We don’t bring a lot of people in from out of state. We’re a local employer, and that’s environmental. Our electric bill is super low, something like two or three dollars per day. We’re not an energy consumer; we’re heating with wood picked up off the trails that you got on your way back from trail work. It’s really neat the way it all works and that’s something we really feel good about.
What kind of impact has White Grass had on West Virginia?
I think it’s a feather in West Virginia’s cap. People come here and say, “Wow I never knew there would be something like this here!” I don’t think there’s anybody that thinks what we do has been anything but authentic. We’re real big promoters of West Virginia. There’s a wonderful state pride here that I really like. It gives you a warm, tingly feeling. We get a lot of people that come back to West Virginia to show their kids where they were raised and skied with their families. People just adore it here.
White Grass might have a slightly different vibe this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, you should absolutely go rent some skis, explore the snow farm, and get some of that famous soup to-go. Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to end up on a bushwhack ski with Chipper himself!