With the hubbub of the holidays just a memory and the cold, snowy days of winter firmly upon us, it’s high time for winter enthusiasts to grab their skinny skis, boots and poles and head for the woods in pursuit of some fun and healthy cross-country skiing. From Bethel to Bangor, Acadia to Aroostook County, there’s skiing aplenty on hundreds of kilometers of trails over a wide range of scenic locales.
“Maine has an incredible variety of Nordic skiing opportunities,” says Dirk Gouwens, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, the nonprofit trade group that represents the state’s Alpine and Nordic skiing industry. “We’ve got everything from small community areas, land trust lands and state parks to the formal Nordic ski centers for people to enjoy.”
There are the world-class Nordic facilities of the Fort Kent Outdoor Center in Fort Kent, the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle and at Black Mountain of Maine in Rumford. The alpine ski towns of Carrabassett Valley, Bethel and Rangeley are home to classic cross-country ski centers, while family farms and orchards like Harris Farm in Dayton or Five Fields Farm in Bridgton provide quaint ski settings. With many local areas available it is easy to ski close to home.
If you choose to travel farther from home, pack up your sleeping gear and food and ski into a cozy yurt or cabin for a night at The Birches Resort on Moosehead Lake in Rockwood, Carter’s XC Ski Center in Bethel or Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson. Or raise the backcountry overnight comfort level with hearty meals, hot showers, and soft beds on the Maine Huts & Trails system near the Bigelows or at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s wilderness lodges in the 100-Mile Wilderness.
Maine has a long tradition of Nordic skiing, dating back to the 1870s, when the first skiers emigrated from Scandinavia to New Sweden in Aroostook County. Skiing started as a way of getting from point A to point B and developed into a way of life in the region. A century later, the real growth of Nordic skiing was fueled by outdoor retailers like L.L. Bean in the 1970’s and ’80’s, which put a lot of cross-country ski equipment on the market.
All that Nordic gear in turn got a lot of skiers outdoors, many of them skiing in their backyards and the local woods. Times have changed, of course, and you can now pursue the sport on many hundreds of kilometers of groomed tracks and trails around the state. And not only is cross-country skiing a fun recreational activity, it’s also incredibly healthy to boot.
“The exercise for your entire body is fantastic,” notes Gouwens. “Cross-country skiing gets you outdoors where you’re moving and keeping warm. It’s like a Nordic Track indoors only better.”
Nordic ski centers usually have a welcoming place to gather, be it a shed or barn with hay bales for sitting and a wood stove or a lodge with comfy couches and chairs and a crackling fireplace. Refreshments like hot soup or chili, fresh bread and cocoa are often available. Additionally, most centers offer equipment rentals and oftentimes, ski lessons.
The social part of the sport makes Nordic skiing just that much more fun. Together with friends and family, you can go out and ski some loops and meet and talk with other skiers on the trails. Then ski back to the base for a break to warm up and enjoy some food and drink before heading outside again for more.
Snowshoeing is another enjoyable and healthy way to enjoy the winter outdoors. It’s easy to do, too—just strap them on and start walking. Many of Maine’s Nordic ski centers offer dedicated snowshoe trails, rentals and maps for your own self-guided adventure through the snowy quiet of the forests and fields. A recent addition to the rental lineup is fat tire bikes, which add a fun new dimension to winter enjoyment and are worth a try if you haven’t already.
You’ll pay a fee to use the trails at Maine’s Nordic ski centers, but that money supports the local economy and helps retain the open spaces and the sustainability of these small farms and ski operations.
“The grooming, the equipment involved, making snow, the taxes on the land, it’s all expensive,” Gouwens says. “Your trail pass goes to maintain this great experience.”
In addition to the twenty Nordic ski centers listed as members of the Ski Maine Association at skimaine.com, there are that many and more places to cross-country ski around Maine, like Penobscot River Trails, Acadia National Park, Carrabassett Valley Trails and Caribou Bog Conservation Area, to name a few. Ask around at any ski shop, check Maine Trail Finder or do some online sleuthing on your own and you’re sure to come up with plenty of options.