Cross-country conditions good for skiers

Posted Feb. 12, 2011, at 3:46 p.m.

Ski resort personnel will tell you that when potential skiers see snow in their own front yards, they’re more apt to head for the mountains.

But Scott Dolan, the manager of the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center in Carrabassett Valley, says businesses that cater to cross-country skiers often see the opposite take place.

When there’s snow in your backyard, you might just choose to ski there, or someplace nearby.

“There are other places people can go when the snow’s good down south,” Dolan admitted on Thursday. “They don’t have to travel all the way up here.”

For those who choose to make the trip into Maine’s western mountains, however, Dolan has a simple message: Cross-country ski conditions are fantastic.

“Things are going good. We’ve got an ample amount of snow, that’s for sure,” Dolan said.

Dolan said that the Outdoor Center has about 80 kilometers (49.7 miles) of cross-country ski trails open to the public. He said the trails have been packed down and groomed, turning four feet of powder into a two-foot-deep base layer.

The Outdoor Center base lodge was revamped four years ago. Return visitors this winter will notice a substantial change out on the trails.

“This summer we built a race trail,” Dolan said. “It’s built to certain World Cup and FIS standards, so it can have high-level races. And it’s one of only a handful in the east.”

That new 2.5-kilometer race trail isn’t for everybody — Dolan said beginners should avoid it — but it’s open every day for folks to try out.

Improvements were made to the stadium area, including the start and finish areas. And out on the course, Dolan said skiers will know they’re on a trail built for racing.

“They try to make certain degree climbs and on the climbs the trail is wide so people can pass during a race,” Dolan said. “It’s nine meters wide in places.”

If cross-country skiing’s not your thing, that doesn’t mean a stop at the Outdoor Center isn’t in order.

There’s an outdoor skating rink on the property, and snowshoe hikers are welcome.

“We have about 25 miles of snowshoe trails that wind all through the woods,” Dolan said. “And they’re separate from the ski trails.”

The number of people interested in snowshoeing continues to grow, and Dolan said the folks at the Outdoor Center have seen the boom, firsthand.

“I would say just between this year and last year we’re having 30 to 40 percent more [snowshoers] this year,” he said. “It’s been unreal.”

Brackett Basin booming

Several months ago, Sugarloaf announced that it was embarking on an ambitious plan to double the skiable acreage at the resort by opening up rugged terrain on adjacent Burnt Mountain.

In January, the first phase of that plan went operational when Brackett Basin was opened to the public.

Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s communications manager, says the new terrain has proven to be a big hit with skiers.

“The feedback that we’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive so far, both from locals who have skied over in that area for years and people who are just now sort of finding out about it,” Austin said on Thursday.

As Austin points out, though Brackett Basin has been officially opened to adventurous skiers with expert-level skills, die-hard backcountry skiers have been exploring the area for years.

Now, however, the resort is sanctioning such excursions, and spent the summer and fall thinning trees and making Brackett Basin more skiable, while striving to maintain the character that makes it special.

According to Austin, skiers say the resort has succeeded in that goal.

“The consensus is that the crew that did the cutting up there did a really good job and really maintained the character of the terrain,” Austin said. “The people who are just discovering it, I think, are just kind of blown away by the size of it because there’s just so much area in there.”

At peak conditions, Brackett Basin adds 270 acres of skiable terrain to Sugarloaf.

Brackett Basin is dependent on natural snow — no snow-making is done there — and Austin said the resort has been fortunate in that regard: Sugarloaf received enough snow to open Brackett Basin on Jan. 19 and more than two feet of snow has fallen since the beginning of February.

Austin, who has skied Brackett Basin, is among its biggest supporters.

“I personally think it’s awesome,” he said. “I’m into that kind of skiing. Anyone who’s into glade skiing or tree skiing or even backcountry skiing will really enjoy it. There’s so much new terrain in there and there’s such a variety of terrain that it’s really cool.”

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