"Connections" is mantra at cross-country conclave
Connecting Nordic ski trails and forming connections among businesses, nonprofit groups and other interested parties were parallel themes that dominated last week’s broad-based discussion of the future of cross-country skiing in the region.
Twenty-eight people, representing both business and recreational interests in the sport, gathered March 20 at the Bethel Inn to begin a “visioning process.” The two-hour meeting was facilitated by Amy Scott of the Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative.
In accord with Scott’s published agenda, no grandiose plan or announcement emerged, but broad consensus appeared to form on several key points. The only concrete result that was announced was to continue the visioning process.
Mahoosuc Pathways was designated the key organization in the effort to expand and link the region’s cross-country trail system. Several ad hoc committees were created to explore economic and recreational aspects of the issue.
The need for the visioning process underscores the changing nature of the business of cross-country skiing in the Bethel area.
A decade ago, three commercial fee-based cross-country centers served skiers: at the in-town Bethel Inn, at Carter’s Farm on the Middle Intervale Road and at the Sunday River Inn in Newry. Gould Academy also has a trail network that is connected to the Bethel Inn’s. Local skiers also use in Local skiers also use informal tracks and snowmobile trails.
Today The Outdoor Center, a non-profit entity, has taken over the skiing operations at the Bethel Inn and Sunday River Inn. TOC also maintains and grooms the Gould trails. Carter’s remains an independent commercial business. TOC and Carter’s offer the five essential elements that define cross-country ski centers: groomed trails, rental equipment, lessons, amenities and events.
Connecting these trails and integrating them into a region-wide network is the ultimate goal of many of the participants.
“Somehow we’ve got to get all these small places together,” said Suzanne Pierce, a Bethel Outing Club board member. “I want to be able to ski out my back door and go all over Oxford County.”
Steve Wight, the former operator of Sunday River Cross-Country Ski Center, and current TOC board member, suggested that a village-wide system should form the core of the future network. Several participants suggested connections to the Bethel Pathway and its future extensions.
Others anticipate a future link to the long-distance route being created by the Carrabassett Valley-based Maine Huts and Trails, which is envisioned to run 180 miles between the Sunday River Valley and Moosehead Lake.
Carlie Casey, a nationally certified cross-country competition official and member of the Bethel Outing Club cited Washington’s extensive Methow Valley Trails Association as a possible regional model. Others mentioned two New England trail systems: Jackson, New Hampshire, and Stowe, Vermont.
In addition to Casey, two other participants represented the highest levels of cross-country competition: Leslie Bancroft-Krichko, a two-time Olympian, and Kirk Siegel, a former member of the U.S. Biathlon Team.]
Dave Carter, of Carter’s Cross Country Ski Center, noted that informal links between local trails already exists, but stressed that improved marketing efforts don’t have to wait for future enhancements.
“This community already has some of the most incredible cross-country skiing anywhere in the country,” said Carter. “We have it all here in Bethel, but we need to market it better.”
Several speakers, including Landon Fake of Mahoosuc Pathways, stressed the importance of cross-country skiing to the local economy. Although it has never rivaled the economic impact of downhill skiing, cross-country represents an important draw to the region’s tourism-based economy. It was agreed that the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, represented by Julia Reuter, would have an important voice.
Other speakers emphasized other key points:
* A nonprofit business model will likely be key to future development of cross-country ski centers, according to several, including TOC’s Mike Cooper. Wight noted that this was a national trend.
* Engaging children and schools needs to be a major objective of any future plan, according to Tracyn Boys, who is involved with the Bill Koch Youth Ski League, and Brad Clarke, of Gould Academy. A full spectrum of programming for young people should be offered. It should be stressed that cross-country skiing is a very healthy lifetime activity.
* Events that attract media attention and draw people to the area should be part of any plan. In the past these have included the L.L. Bean Cross Country Ski Festivals. Currently the Flying Moose Classic, a major race on the New England competition circuit, is a magnet.