At midnight, Tim Norton switched on his headlamp to navigate over patches of crusty snow and dead grass. The temperature had plummeted to the teens, as the weatherman had predicted. It was time to transform Waterville’s Quarry Road Recreation Area into a winter wonderland, to fire up the area’s new snowmaking system for the first time.
The pumps thrummed, sucking water from Messalonskee Stream and sending it through a system of underground and aboveground pipes to towers topped with snow guns. Mist shot out with a hiss, hit the frigid air, and fell to the ground as snow.
By morning, the area’s large meadow and 3.3 kilometers of cross-country ski trails was carpeted with dazzling white powder.
“There’s nothing like it in Maine,” said Matt Skehan, director of Waterville Department of Parks and Recreation. “It’s a very unique system for a Nordic area. The equipment we’re using is the same you see at Sugarloaf and some of the big alpine ski areas.”
The new system, which spews snow out of 19 snow guns, was made possible by a $385,000 donation by the Harold Alfond Foundation. The network of pipes and towers makes it possible for the city to essentially create a snowstorm with minimal manpower — Norton and a volunteer or two.
“It’s really a huge asset for Waterville,” said city Mayor Karen Heck when she visited the recreation area to observe the snowmaking on Monday.
Norton, the newly hired snowmaker and trail groomer, kept the man-made blizzard going all day, turning towers and relocating snow guns until a foot of snow covered the recreation area.
Everything had gone according to plan, ensuring ideal snow conditions for two upcoming carnivals:
• The Colby Nordic ski team will host the Colby Carnival, Jan. 26-27, at the recreation area, which is now the Mules’ primary training and racing venue. The college anticipates 150-200 skiers to compete in the first ever FIS (International Ski Federation) races held on the Quarry Road’s trails. For information about the big event, visit 2013colbycarnival.snappages.com.
• The fourth annual Waterville Winter Carnival is planned for 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on following Saturday, Feb. 2, at the snowy recreation area. The free community event will be a mixture of local food, outdoor activities and family-friendly games. Waterville predicts as many as 1,000 people to attend, said Skehan.
“It’s so fun to see this after so many months of hard work,” Heck said. “I can’t be more proud than I am.”
The Quarry Road Recreation Area, five minutes from downtown Waterville, has been in the making since 2007, when the City of Waterville purchased 100 acres of land from Colby College. Since then, the recreation area has expanded to about 200 acres and 10 kilometers, or about 6 miles, of trails have been built for cross-country skiing, biking, running, hiking and snowshoeing, thanks to hundreds of volunteers and substantial grants.
Over the past six years, Colby College has contributed a total of $225,000; the federal Recreational Trails Program, $30,000; Inland Hospital, $25,00; Kennebec Savings Bank, $10,000; John Koons, $10,000; and MaineGeneral Health, $5,000.
This isn’t the first time people have recognized the area as a place for outdoor activity.
With 300 vertical feet, the hill adjacent to Quarry Road has long attracted downhill skiers. According to the Friends of Quarry Road website, people skied the hill in the 1930s with a rope tow. The hill was closed during World War II, but veterans of the war, working with the Colby Outing Club, reopened the hill and used it for several years in the late ’40s. And it became a popular spot again in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when operated by Colby College as a lighted ski area with a T-bar and limited snowmaking.
John Koons, president of Friends of Quarry Road, attended Colby College at that time and managed the ski area part time.
“I came back to Waterville to work [as a dentist],” Koons said. “And a bunch of us always thought, ‘Gee. Wouldn’t it be nice sometime to have something like this again?’ And finally, the opportunity presented itself.”
He spearheaded efforts to revive the area for recreationists.
“[Snowmaking] has been in the plans since day one,” Koons said. “I insisted, basically, if we don’t have snowmaking, then I didn’t want to be involved. With the climate here, why waste your time and money building a nice trail when it might be ice or dirt or something and you wouldn’t be able to ski?… But if you have a good system, then you can have a predictable product.”
In years to come, they plan to make snow and open the ski trails as early as Thanksgiving, said Skehan.
“This will help get people out,” Koons said. “The goal of this place is to encourage people to have a more active lifestyle.”
Last winter’s scant snowfall only bolstered the city’s resolve to complete the snow system. In fact, the city’s annual Winter Carnival had to be canceled because of unsafe ice and lack of snow in February.
This year, that won’t be a problem.
A variety of new activities have been added to the 2013 carnival program, including a ski wax and race demonstration, snow golf and a winter story walk. Winter biking demonstrations, sledding and hands-on paintball biathlon demonstrations are also planned. And families can once again enjoy navigating a maze of hundreds of used Christmas trees.
Fueled by trailside food and beverages donated by a dozen local restaurants, carnival-goers will have the opportunity to join a ski, snowshoe or walking tour to learn about the recently expanded trails. Ski and snowshoe equipment and instruction for children and adults will be available for a limited time for free.
“Even now, people in town maybe heard of Quarry Road but have never been here,” Skehan said. “Our ultimate goal, really, is healthy activities for people to do in winter time. So many people just hole up. But we’ll be able to guarantee certain conditions, almost no matter what.”
The carnival is hosted by Friends of Quarry Road and the City of Waterville, in collaboration with several local organizations. Admission is free, though stickers to show support of the area’s trails will be available for donations of $20, $50 or $100.
Due to the expected large crowd, Quarry Road officials are requesting that dogs stay at home. Limited parking will be available along Quarry Road, and a free shuttle service provided by the Kennebec Explorer and Central Maine Motors will transport carnivalgoers to and from Maine General’s parking lot on North Street.
Anyone interested in getting involved in the carnival can call Skehan at 680-4744.
For information about the Quarry Road Recreation Area, visit www.quarryroadrecarea.org.