Hit the Slopes with an Airboard

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Where: Canaan Valley, W.Va.

Why: Middle Eastern food, West Virginia art, caves, cliffs and an extreme take on sledding.

How Far: About 200 miles from Washington, or 4 hours.

Like a rocket, you sled down the snow-covered hill. But unlike the short hills of your childhood, this one keeps going and going. At one point you wonder, "Am I going too fast?" You make a few turns to slow down and then skid to a stop at the bottom, a spray of snow buffeting your face. Time for another run. But instead of walking up, you hop on a chairlift. For this isn't any old hill or any old sled. Better known to skiers, this is Canaan Valley, and you're riding a high-tech Airboard.

An Airboard is essentially an inflatable sled -- an extremely fast inflatable sled. And Canaan Valley is the only ski resort in the mid-Atlantic and one of six in the country to offer this new sport.

Lying facedown on your stomach, you grip handles on either side of the board, which has a triangular, truncated nose. Airboards are designed to carve turns through the snow like skis and snowboards, but steering isn't intuitive. You have to press hard with the sides of your chest to engage plastic rails on the bottom of the board to initiate a turn. (No amount of leaning will help you here.) To stop, you push your weight off the board and spin it 90 degrees so the rails grab the snow like a skate in a hockey stop. This isn't so easy, either. In fact, Canaan requires newbies to take a lesson and become certified before hitting the slopes alone.

While Canaan Valley caters to skiers and snowboarders as well, airboarders have their own terrain park: 600 feet that goes two-thirds of the way up the mountain (as long as there's lots o' snow). Think plenty of jumps to catch big air -- and the boards are yee-haw fast! Speeds have topped 80 mph, although the average is about 30. That's still plenty fast for extreme fun when your face is a few inches from the snow.

At the beginning of the long drive to West Virginia, stop at Glascock Grocery & Nick's Deli in Marshall. The small store sells everything from groceries to car audio supplies to wine at bargain prices. There are even warm blankets and jackets and large bags of carrots to give to your horse -- for those traveling via horseback or horse-drawn carriage. The carrots are huge! The real treat is the New York-style deli with Mexican food, barbecue, fried chicken and Middle Eastern delights such as tabbouleh.

Once in West Virginia, you'll see numerous signs of construction for Corridor H. When done, the four-lane highway will cut an hour off the drive to this ski resort country. In Baker, W.Va., however, you can get a taste of the new road on a 13-mile completed section. After passing views of the amazing Seneca Rocks, the road climbs upward to Canaan Valley, a valley high in the mountains. This winter playground has three ski resorts: Timberline (well known by skiers for its steep double-diamond expert trails), White Grass Touring Center (a snowshoeing and cross-country skiing mecca with miles and miles of back-country terrain) and Canaan Valley, a resort frequented more by beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders -- and now the destination for latest extreme sport, where snow meets sky.

Matthew Graham

Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center, Route 32, Davis, W.Va., 304-866-4121, http://www.canaanresort.com/ . Airboard sessions, including rentals and lessons, begin daily at 9 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The cost is $35. If the terrain park isn't open due to a lack or snow, airboarding is available on a bunny hill. The terrain park is scheduled to reopen in the middle of this week.

Road Trip maps are available online at www.washingtonpost.com/roadtrip, as are addresses and hours of operation (be sure to check before you go). Have an idea for a trip? E-mail roadtrip@washpost.com.

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