Creating, maintaining trails is a full-time job

Posted March 20, 2009, at 11:08 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — There’s an old saying that people should be very careful what they ask for in case they get it.

For years athletes competing in Nordic events at the 10th Mountain Lodge in Fort Kent have said the course should present more challenges.

Last year the international committee in charge of biathlon World Cup events agreed and indicated to 10th Mountain officials if they ever want to be considered for another World Cup race, they needed to increase the difficulty of the course.

This week participants in the U.S. National Biathlon Championships and North American Cup races got their first look at how the center implemented those recommendations.

“The International Biathlon Union made two requests before they’d schedule us to host another World Cup race,” Jeff Dubis, 10th Mountain chief of competition, said. “Extend the straightaway into the finish to 100 meters and make more of a climb coming into the stadium.”

Fort Kent hosted a World Cup race in 2004 and was poised to welcome it back this year before international scheduling conflicts took the town out of consideration.

With eyes focused on 2011 — the next time a World Cup is slated to hold a race in northern Maine — Dubis and his crew went to work on the trails last fall with donated help and equipment from Soderberg Construction out of Caribou.

By diverting the trail bringing skiers into the stadium, it now follows a steep downgrade into a sharp turn before immediately climbing back up behind the bleacher stands.

“It’s really steep and the athletes definitely generate a lot of speed,” Jeff Spencer, chief of trails, said. “Three people fell or went off the trail there the first day of competition this week.”

As a safety precaution trail crews added a crash-fence to that section Thursday afternoon.

When the skiers pull out of the hill, they face what Spencer called “the wall” behind the timer’s hut.

“No matter how fast you are going when you get to that hill, you are not going to glide to the top [and] you need to really work it to get up,” he said.

Once the new finish and hill leading into the stadium were complete, Dubis said it changed the overall length of the competition trails necessitating further modifications.

“When we added those extensions last year it made the trail too long,” he said. “So we took out the maps and tried to figure out where we could bring it back in line.”

Dubis and his crew decided to cut a trail up and over a major hill not far from where the athletes leave the start line.

“We wanted to put in another climb,” he said. “That pretty much changed the character of the whole course.”

That new hill pitches up at a 28 percent grade — the IBU allows a maximum 30 percent for climbs.

“It’s definitely made it a more challenging course,” Dubis said.

The athletes in Fort Kent this week agree.

“Those new hills were definitely a test and separated the men from the boys,” Newt Rogers of Fort Kent said following his 10-kilometer sprint race on Thursday.

Tracy Barnes, a member of the 2006 U.S. Winter Olympics biathlon team agreed.

“The new hills are tough [but] they needed the new terrain to compare with the other World Cup venues,” she said. “I think when the Europeans come back here, they will find it tough.”

While the hills were put in place for elite athletes, Dubis stressed there remain plenty of trail for novice skiers to enjoy that take them around what everyone is now calling “the monster hills.”

Creating a new and challenging course is one thing. Maintaining it at World Cup competitive standards is another.

That’s where the 10th Mountain Lodge’s chief groomer, Mike Paradis, comes in.

Every night during the season, long after the last skier has left the course, Paradis is at the helm of a Bombardier Sno-Cat grooming and sculpting up to 25-km of trails to his exacting standards.

Before he even heads out on the Sno-Cat, Paradis spends several hours pregrooming the course using a drag pulled by a snowmobile.

This week he’s concentrating on the 7-km of trails and range areas used by the competitors at the NorAm Cup and U.S. Championships.

Moving at a rate of 3- to 4-km per hour, it’s a solitary job that often takes him nonstop from sunset to sunrise.

“Most people judge a trail by how it looks,” Paradis said late Thursday night as he guided the Sno-Cat along the 10th Mountain’s course. “But not skiers. They judge by how it feels.”

In more than a decade of Nordic trail grooming — he honed his skills on the trails in Crested Butte, Colo. — Paradis has learned to “read” every contour, slope and pitch of the trail and translate that into what the skiers feel.

“I have a pretty good imagination,” he said. “I can ‘ski’ the course as I drive it.”

A day of heavy use takes its toll on the ski trails. Factor in the dynamics of weather — this week Paradis contended with rising temperatures and rain — and every evening he’s re-setting the trails from scratch.

“Part of my goal is to have the whole course look and feel the same the whole way,” he said. “I adjust my technique to match each race and the conditions.”

His fingers dancing over the ’Cat’s innumerable joy sticks, toggle switches, levers and knobs, Paradis controls a plow blade attached to the front of the machine and the giant “tiller” mounted to the back.

While the plow scoops away collected snow, the 12½-foot-wide tiller smoothes the trail and creates shallow, parallel grooves for a skier’s ideal corduroy effect.

“Oh man, they are going to love this tomorrow,” Paradis said, pointing to the smooth lines appearing in the Sno-Cat’s wake and disappearing into the darkness.

Paradis makes a minimum of two passes over the course, often taking a third lap to give special attention to the route favored by the athletes — the so-called “best line.”

Trouble spots — areas with minor gouges or bumps — are not abandoned until they are smoothed and properly shaped, even if that means Paradis passes over those spots a half-dozen or more times.

“If you don’t have a good groomer, the athletes aren’t happy,” Dubis said. “The athletes here are very happy.”

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