|The Pathfinder: John Morton is rapidly becoming the first name in trail design|
|Written by Sara Tuff, Middlebury Alumni Magazine|
One of the sweetest spots in Vermont is Morse Farm, an East Montpelier institution studded with more than 4,000 maple trees. Its Sugar Shack sells maple creemees, maple apple drizzle, maple pecans, maple dill dressing, maple butter, and gallon jugs of maple syrup. But even sweeter than all of this is the network of cross-country ski trails that twists through the forest and meadows, offering tantalizing views of Camel’s Hump and Hunger Mountain and whoop-de-dos of climbs and descents. Bearing names like Sugar Loop, The Drip, and Sap Run, the trails disappear into the maples and pines.
“As you get farther away from the starting point, you get more challenging terrain,” says John Morton ’68, the neon-yellow pom-pom on his vintage Fischer hat bouncing as he points back toward the Ski Touring Center on a late November day.
Morton should know. In 2001, he created this trail system at the request of Burr Morse, a seventh-generation Vermonter and proprietor of Morse Farm, who wanted to tap into the winter market of Vermont visitors. “He jokes that he used to milk cows and now he just milks the tourists,” says Morton with a laugh.
A longtime nordic racer, biathlete, and coach, Morton used to just ski the trails. Now he designs them—more than 120, at last count, of cross-country skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and running routes that are redefining the use of recreational land today. If Morton has his way, his name will one day be as recognizable as the Nicklaus name on a golf course. Only the Morton moniker promises much more.
Back before competitive skiers chose a specialty to master, John Morton skied everything—downhill, slalom, and cross-country—for New Hampshire’s Tilton School. He had messed around on skis in his Walpole backyard, and stumbled onto a scholarship for Tilton, which sent Morton in the direction of Middlebury. As a greenhorn freshman, his destiny as a cross-country standout was decided by legendary coach Robert “Bobo” Sheehan.
“On the first day of classes, Bobo gathered all the skiers, and I still remember being in awe of the upperclassmen,” recalls Morton as we begin to explore Morse Farm, our boots crunching over the frozen hay and cracking through spots of milky ice; we would ski but for the scant snow, so we walk the woods and talk the trails. “He said, ‘All you freshmen, look around; you can tell alpine skiers are a dime a dozen, so if you want to make the Middlebury Ski Team, you’d better learn how to ski cross-country.”
Morton did Bobo one better: He went on to win the Eastern Intercollegiate Championships in 1966 and 1968, and earn runner-up status at the 1968 NCAA Championships. At the same time, Morton picked up biathlon, figuring out how to steady his wildly beating heart in between cross-country sprints to fire a rifle, and split his post-Middlebury years between skiing at the U.S. Biathlon Training Center in Alaska and serving in South Vietnam. In 1972 and 1976, Morton competed in the Olympic Winter Games, and has continued to maintain Olympic and World Cup ties as a biathlon team leader, chief of course, and referee.
But golden opportunities would really arrive later, toward the end of Morton’s coaching career at Dartmouth (which spanned more than a decade, from 1978 to 1989). A cross-country acquaintance sought advice on some trail projects, and Morton discovered he had a knack for nordic networks. “It’s like a big puzzle,” says Morton, who now lives with his family at the end of a dirt road in Thetford, Vermont. “That’s the fun part of it—no two locations are the same.”
In the nearly 20 years that Morton has been designing trails, he’s tackled everything from postage-stamp pieces of property to 25,000-acre swaths of land. He’s been everywhere, from South Strafford, Vermont—consulting on the feasibility of a trail system on a Superfund site—to South Korea, where he planned out the biathlon course for the 1997 World University Games at Muju Resort. During the latter project, Morton was able to test out his diplomacy skills, as officials had originally selected a dense village as a potential competition area. “We said, ‘Well, what about all these houses?’” recalls Morton. “Luckily they ultimately picked a different location so we didn’t have to worry about it.”
At Alaska’s Denali National Park, Morton has helped create a nature trail from the North Face Lodge to Camp Denali Road. In Caribou, Maine, Morton has designed a competition cross-country ski trail adjacent to the high school. And at scores of wild, woody places in between, skinny-ski courses bear the subtle Morton trademark of carefully crafted cuts through forests and fields. “I try to make the uphills more manageable so people don’t have this sense of dread and drudgery,” he says.
Soon, such trails may bear a more visible reminder of the Morton moniker. Last year, Morton hired a partner with a Ph.D. in economic geography to help write proposals and take care of the business side of the business. The two have since talked about creating a plaque that promises a “certified Morton trail” to municipal land users. They’re also using Middlebury ties to consult on projects at the College’s Rikert Ski Touring Center and on 1,000 acres of former mining land in Breckenridge, Colorado.
The public may never see some Morton trails—more and more often, private landowners are turning to the designer to repurpose their properties with recreational routes. Morton has planted a ski trail on a 200-acre organic vegetable farm in Hartland, Vermont, and helped to raise a year-round trail behind a barn in Piermont, New Hampshire. “Families just want to get out in their woods without climbing through fallen trees and blackberries and all that,” says Morton. “Some people enjoy horseback riding in the summertime.”
Over the past couple of decades, Morton has also seen a shift from strictly ski trails to ones that can be used every season for mountain biking, trail running, and more. With global warming, it makes sense to build trails that can be used sans snow. But to maximize what Mother Nature provides, Morton designs trails to hold snow better—staying mindful of windblown fields, adjusting widths, and avoiding southern exposures. He finds that much of his work dovetails with sustainable forestry practices.
“If you were going to put in a tennis court, you’d have a real stretch saying it was going to enhance wildlife habitat in your back yard,” says Morton. “But trails can create better conditions for grouse, turkeys, deer, birds, and other woodland animals.”
Sometimes, Morton will point out the critters to landowners, who get to name the trails. Not that Morton lacks creativity—he wrote the cross-country skiing novel A Medal of Honor and has regularly contributed to nordic publications and Vermont Public Radio. He’s also still an avid racer, traveling regularly to events in North America and tapping into the sweetness of his own career: gliding while regarding trails with a discriminating eye. “A ski trail is more of an art than science,” says Morton, ducking beneath a branch at Morse Farm. “In an ideal world, it looks like it’s been there forever.”