Last season wasn't the greatest for cross-country skiers in most of New England. But there's a bright side to everything -- even a poor snow year.
Following the example of their Alpine brethren, a growing number of Nordic areas have installed snowmaking so they can guarantee at least limited cross-country skiing on racing loops and instruction areas. Most XC centers have also greatly improved their techniques for harvesting and storing snow, and all now pay a lot of attention to trail grooming so as to maximize a minimal amount of snow.
"The cross-country skiing business is really the snow-farming business now," says Chris Frado, president of the Cross-Country Ski Area Association, based in Winchester, N.H.
Among the most recent XC converts to snowmaking is the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation ( 927-6697), located in New Hampshire's usually snow-blessed Mount Washington Valley. This season the foundation has installed snowmaking on its teaching field and a half-kilometer loop trail. There are a total of 156 kilometers of trails in the Jackson system, 93 of them groomed and double-tracked.
Snowmaking is also an amenity at New England's newest and most elaborate XC day area, Great Glen Trails ( 466-9445) at Pinkham Notch, N.H., which opened last season. Located at the foot of the Mount Washington auto road, Great Glen Trails has expanded its trail system and now has 18 kilometers of tracked trail.
Great Glen Trails boasts the country's longest downhill XC run, a 6-kilometer groomed stretch of the Mount Washington auto road. A Snocat shuttle service takes skiers to the top of the wide but steep and winding trail.
Most New England XC areas have small lodges at the head of the trail system, usually offering a cozy atmosphere but limited facilities. Great Glen Trails, however, has a large timber and fieldstone building -- much like the base lodge of a major ski area -- with a huge central fireplace and both a snack bar and a full-service restaurant. And, scattered along the trails as warm-up huts are Mongolian-style yurts, equipped with wood stoves and stocked with hot chocolate.
Given the variable snow patterns of the last few years, most XC skiers have learned that it pays to keep an eye on weather maps and regularly call ski phone lines for snow condition updates. Although cross-country conditions were generally poor over most of snow country much of last season, there was almost always some snow somewhere.
For instance, conditions were generally fair to good at Trapp Family Lodge ( 253-5719) and Stowe Mountain Resort ( 253-7321) in Stowe, Vt.; the Bethel Inn Ski Center ( 824-2175) in Bethel, Maine; and the Craftsbury Nordic Center ( 729-7751) in Craftsbury, Vt.
According to Ms. Frado, of the XC Ski Area Association, most ski centers have held the line on prices while trying to expand the services they offer -- particularly to families. "The average weekend trail fee is $10, about the same as it's been for a couple of years," Ms. Frado said, "and $10 is also what most places charge for lessons and also for equipment rental."
Most areas are trying to attract more family groups, she said, and have learn-to-ski and equipment rental packages for families. Many areas also now rent "pulka" sleds, ideal for skiing with small children, she noted.
The association puts out a brochure with detailed information about some 250 XC areas around the country. To receive a copy, send $3 to Cross Country Ski Area Association, 250 Bolton Road, Winchester, N.H. 03479.
To celebrate and promote cross-country skiing, areas in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia sponsor an annual Ski Fest. The next Ski Fest is Sunday, Jan. 7. Activities usually include races (both competitive and novelty), appearances by celebrity skiers, equipment demonstrations, food and social activities, and introductory lesson and equipment packages.
However, no two Ski Fest celebrations are alike. Bethel, Maine, for instance, plans a number of events particularly for women. They include a guided ski tour for women over 50, a class in stretching exercises for women skiers and a racing clinic for women. For a Ski Fest '96 brochure and list of participating areas, call (603) 239-8888.
If you go
This season, alas, there is no cross-country skiing information number for all of New England. But there are individual information numbers for Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They are as follows:
Massachusetts: (800) 227-6277. Sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, the service provides general snow conditions but specifics only about downhill areas.
Maine: (800) 835-0232. Sponsored by the Maine Nordic Council.
New Hampshire: (800) 262-6660 outside the state; (800) 224-6363 inside New Hampshire. Sponsored by the state Department of Tourism.
Vermont: (802) 229-0531. Sponsored by the Vermont Ski Areas Association.