One of the beauties of cross-country skiing is its low cost, especially when compared to Alpine or lift-serviced skiing. For less than the price of a pair of Alpine boots you can buy cross-country skis, poles, bindings and boots. And you never have to buy a lift ticket on the weekends to go. Essentially, you can ski for free anywhere there’s snow on cross-country, also known as Nordic, skis.
There are hundreds of miles of freely accessible public trails in areas such as Acadia National Park, Baxter State Park and other Maine public lands and state parks. Except for Acadia which has groomed trails, most public lands don’t groom them. With all that free access available, you might wonder why anyone would pay money to ski on skinny skis at a commercial Nordic ski center. As it turns out there are several advantages to ski center skiing.
Nordic centers know what paying customers expect. They want to ski on professionally groomed trails. So, some areas groom their trails for both skate skiing, a kind of skinnier, skinny ski, and track skiing.
Next, their visitors want clearly marked trails. Ski centers know the importance of keeping trails signed and accurate, unlike at some public trail networks where signs may or may not be there, misleading or unclear. Nordic areas know it’s not good for business to have people lost on their trails.
The fees vary from center to center for equipment rentals and daily tickets, but unlike at Alpine lift-serviced areas, it’s usually at a fraction of the cost. Instead of paying for a $35, midweek lift ticket at a major downhill area, Nordic ski centers charge somewhere between $10 and $20, any day of the week.
Trails at cross-country areas are designed specifically to keep skiers interested with a variety of terrain for different skill levels. Usually a Nordic area will allow snowshoeing on dedicated trails so the snowshoers don’t trample across groomed ski tracks.
On a publicly accessed free trail network you won’t find a warming hut, with a wood stove and snack bar. But in some areas that’s exactly what you can expect. Nordic areas vary across the state from simple areas with a warming hut and snack bar with a few kilometers of trails, to luxury accommodations with private overnight rooms, cabins or backcountry yurts and over 90 kilometers of trails. Some areas have trained safety patrollers.
Nordic centers have popped up all over Maine and are found from Alfred to Fort Kent. In Levant, just outside Bangor, last weekend I attended a free ski event held at Treworgy Family Orchards, the site for a planned cross-country ski center to be constructed next year.
When I arrived at the parking lot I was directed to a space by the agricultural manager of the farm, Matt Pellerin. He told me about the plans for the ski center to be opened next year. The event that day was designed to bring people out to ski the already constructed trails for free as a sort of open house. As yet their lodge hasn’t been built, but that’s in the plans for next year.
“We will have a lodge where you can come in, sit down and warm up. We’ll have food and some comfy chairs, so you can go out and ski for a couple of hours, and then come in and take a relaxing break. Because people don’t usually want to ski for six hours without a break,” he said.
There were about 20 people gathered around the picnic table at the event, partaking in the hot cocoa and cookies. After handing me a trail map of their 4 kilometers of trails, Pellerin and I took off for a quick loop around the network.
We skied across a broad field and then turned into the woods, passing trail intersections marked with signs with names like Strawberry Loop and Wintry Orchard Trail. But I wanted to try the advanced trail, which headed down a hill.
We arrived at the top of the hill and the trail, called Rock Maple Run, wound down through a couple of turns to a long run out at the end. I descended soon after Matt down the turny run, managed to stay upright, and had a blast. I wanted to run it again, but decided to take another trail back.
If you’re a committed skier of wild, untracked or poorly groomed trails, you could be surprised at how much more you’ll enjoy skiing at a Nordic center. I know I was at Treworgy’s. And I never wore a pack. Didn’t need it. The cookies were all in a tub on the picnic table.
For more information on Maine Nordic ski areas, go to www.visitmaine.com/seasons/winter/activities/nordic. There’s a list of the Nordic areas in Maine with contact information.
A few areas to try are:
Birches Ski Touring Center, Rockwood, 800-825-WILD. Among the amenities found at the resort are wood stove-fired hot tubs, backcountry heated yurts and 50 kilometers of groomed trails.
Bigrock Skiway, Mars Hill, 328-0991. Long known as a downhill, lift-serviced area, they now have 40 kilometers of groomed ski trails, a snack bar and lodge.
Katahdin Nordic Center, Millinocket, 723-6305. They have 10 kilometers of groomed trails and ski or snowshoe rentals for kids.