Diehard downhill skiers and snowboarders aren't alone in their search for the Northeast's early-season snow. Spirited cross-country skiers and racers from high school through masters can be found on a combination of natural and man-made snow
However, it's been a long drive. Last weekend saw a contingent of New England racers at Foret Montmorency outside Quebec City for two days of competitions at a network known to open in November with natural snow sometimes augmented by man-made. In northern Maine, cross-country skiers glided on a 1.5-kilometer natural/man-made combo circuit at Big Rock Ski Area in Mars Hill
For natural snow seekers, it's not unusual to see them in clandestine mountain pass caches from Vermont's Mount Mansfield to Maine's Grafton Notch following freakish storms
"This time of year there are two options - one is to go to a place with snowmaking, and the other is what I like to say are secret spots," said New England Nordic Ski Association executive director Patrick Cote
But even with snowmaking at a few New England cross-country areas, there are no guarantees. Yesterday, organizers of Saturday's sprint race at Great Glen Trails at the base of Mountain Washington in Pinkham Notch, N.H., saw rain
"If it doesn't happen this weekend, we'll get the snowmaking going as soon as we can to hold the race next weekend," said spokesman Ryan Triffitt
While at Vermont's Grafton Pond Outdoor Center, plans for a Saturday opening were pushed to Dec. 11, though a free trail-running biathlon on a new year-round course using laser guns is on
"When Mother Nature calls for temperatures in the 30s, there's nothing we can do about it," says communications director Melissa Gullotti. "The minute we can start making snow, we'll be making snow."
Snowmaking's been at Grafton since 1995. With four fan guns supplied with water drawn from two ponds on the rural Vermont property, snowmaking can cover about 5 kilometers of the 30-kilometer network
But a small man-made loop is an early December treasure. "This time of year a 1-kilometer course looks like heaven," said Bowdoin College Nordic coach Nathan Alsobrook.
Though the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association's winter carnival season doesn't begin until mid-January, he says it's a "tremendous mental boost" to get his Division 3 Polar Bears on snow after a preseason of dry land training that includes roller skiing
"There is such a long build-up for a short racing season and you have to find a way to keep the motivation going," Alsobrook said. "You really need a taste of the real thing to remind you of what this is all about."
Weston Ski Track outside Boston, Vermont's Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, and Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden near Killington are also among a handful of regional cross-country ski centers utilizing snowmaking
Snowmaking came to the Trapp Family Lodge in the hills above Stowe during the winter of 2007-08 to "provide credibility for our snow conditions," said director of operations Sam von Trapp. It's also a first aid connector to problem areas like windswept fields and south-facing terrain on the 65-kilometer groomed network
The "humble system" is fueled by a spring-fed reservoir and uses trailers containing an air compressor, water pump, and snow gun transported by pick-up truck when there's no snow, and Pisten Bully when there is
In ideal conditions of low wind, low humidity, and low temperatures of around 20 degrees, it takes about a week to get a kilometer course covered and tracked for early-season skiing. Trapp is scheduled to host a race clinic Dec. 11-12 but skiing could start sooner depending on the weather. The resort hosts the NCAA championships in March
But there's always a duel with Mother Nature. That first winter at Trapp they were learning the system during a time of abundant snow. The next season, cold weather and a late November storm resulted in 10 kilometers open by Thanksgiving. But warm temperatures last season put snowmaking on hold until early December
"Racers and those passionate cross-country skiers are itching to get out on the snow," said von Trapp. "Snowmaking makes a massive difference."
On Monday, the transformation began at Weston Ski Track in turning the Leo J. Martin Golf Course into a cross-country ski center that could open by mid-December
"We have an amazing snowmaking system that can turn a golf course into a ski center in one week in the right conditions," said manager Mark Jacobson
Though this week wasn't ideal for making snow, all it takes is three days of snowmaking with low humidity and temperatures 28 degrees and under for Weston to open a wide, compact loop that attracts season pass holders and high school teams like Dover-Sherborn, Newton North, Newton South, and Concord-Carlisle
Another snowmaking benefit are those giant deposits of snow that become a Nordic playground for kids to ski and jump, unwittingly learning about balance and weight transfer as their parents do laps
"We can create our own terrain, not just cover it," said Jacobson.
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