To Ski or Not to Ski

Recent warm rainy weather has dramatically worsened ski conditions along the Maine coastal plain. Most of the quality snow is gone and ski areas like Pineland and Harris Farms have struggled to stay open. Enthusiastic about the Nordic ski workout and reluctant to let winter go, a dilemma for me has become to ski or not to ski. To ski, I need to drive about two hours inland to the White Mountains or western Maine, further for northern alternatives.

Mountain ski areas usually hold snow long after it has melted or evaporated locally. Some of the commercial venues that have historically retained prolonged snow are the Nordic Heritage Trails in Presque Isle, Rangeley Lakes Trails in Rangeley, Sugarloaf Outdoor Center in Carrabassett Valley and Jackson Ski Touring in Jackson, New Hampshire.

I haven’t completed exhaustive research but for my money Jackson Ski Touring offers the preeminent commercial cross country ski experience south of the Canadian border. Jackson maintains 150 kilometers of trails some of them on the very top end of the difficulty scale. An aging conservative skier, I require prime snow conditions to challenge their more demanding trails.

Some of my most stimulating exacting cross country ski adventures occurred within a ten mile radius of Jackson. Climbing Mount Washington on the Lion’s Head Trail with my longtime friends Ken Gordon and Gary Cole a couple of decades ago, we cross country skied down the Auto Road. Lots of fresh powder provided manageable very exciting skiing on the top half. No so below the midway point. Warmer temperatures at lower elevations had resulted in melting and refreezing leaving an icy hard-packed surface. After several falls, we walked most of the remainder.

Jackson Ski Touring offers a package that includes a gondola ride to the summit of Wildcat Mountain followed by a circuitous cross country trek to groomed Jackson trails connecting with the Lodge. My friends and I have descended from Wildcat twice but the upper section is very steep and technical. Another nearby trail that we did on one occasion is the equally challenging Avalanche Brook Trail. Beginning near Pinkham Notch, it connects with the Jackson trail system at the north end of the Ellis River and North Hall Trails. Unless I miraculously acquire someone else’s hips and knees, I don’t anticipate returning to either.

Jackson does have a combination of interconnected normally groomed trails that offer some formidable scenic higher elevation skiing. Now both retired, Ken Gordon and I recently returned to Jackson the day after a snowfall for a run on our favorite Jackson traverse. Beginning on North Hall Trail, climbing to and around Maple Mountain Loop followed by a steady downward slope to Jackson Lodge, it’s about a twelve mile mountainous excursion.

Arriving at the lodge, we learned North Hall Trail hadn’t been groomed for several days. A discussion with Jackson employees on the potential conditions was inconclusive. Gambling that the new snow would provide cushion for a quality ski event on the difficult trail, we left one vehicle in the parking lot and drove north to Rocky Branch Trailhead.

We made the right choice encountering about three inches of soft snow at the trailhead. After climbing steadily on North Hall for more than an hour, I had my first controlled descent on the most difficult drop in this section. Sporting a hairpin turn at the bottom, some of my previous attempts would be fodder for a bloopers video. A better skier, Ken always seems to be in control.

Reaching groomed Maple Mountain Loop, we had thin but adequate snow for our circumnavigation. Stopping for a snack at a scenic location near the highpoint, an exceedingly exhilarating long downhill ride to South Hall Trail followed. Continuing for a short distance, we arrived at a junction with the relatively new Keeney Trail.

Rated most difficult, neither of us had skied Keeney but it was on both of our bucket lists. Given the exceptional snow, it seemed like the ideal day to test our skills.

Down, down, down for two and half miles would be my description. Agreeing that we would forego this unique entertaining trail if icy conditions prevailed, Keeney was simply superb. Connecting with the Ellis River Trail, we savored even more downhill on a long intermediate decline.

Skiing along the river to Jackson, we were reminded that it would only be a few more weeks before we’d be back to kayak the Class IV Ellis River whitewater run. In the interim, there is more skiing to be had. At our ages, we don’t want to hurry time along, it moves fast enough. Carpe diem!

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.