Active Outdoors: It’s been one of ‘those’ winters again in New England

  • It doesn’t take a perfect snowstorm to make for great skiing at Sunday River in Newry, Maine. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

  • Freshly groomed snow and not another skier in sight: That’s typical of a mid-week morning at Black Mountain in Jackson. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

  • Nordic skiers head for the hills on well-groomed trails at Bear Notch Ski Touring in Bartlett. Tim Jones / EasternSlopes.com

For the Monitor
Saturday, February 04, 2017

So far it’s been one of “those” winters across much of New England. Variable doesn’t begin to describe it. Most places have had some snow – and some have had a lot. But we’ve also had too much sleet and rain.

In my last column, I sang the praises of the groomers – both the machines and the people who run them with such skill – who turn marginal snow into something wonderful. Since then, I’ve skied at several areas, and all offered excellent conditions, thanks to the groomers.

While we await the next big dump of snow (no more wintry mix, please!) click into your ski bindings and get out onto the groomed slopes and trails. Spring’s going to be here too soon. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

White on black

If you like the idea of owning your own private ski area but don’t have the resources, I have a strategy for you. Go to Black Mountain on a chilly weekday morning. My sweetheart, Em, and I both had the same reaction as we drove into the parking lot just before the lifts were scheduled to turn: “Is it open?”

Turns out it was open, everyone else was just taking their time. By the time we were booted and suited, the triple chairlift was spinning. We had the mountain pretty much to ourselves until some (not many) school kids showed up about noon.

We never had to wait for even a single person on the chairlift. No one passed us on a trail and we never passed anyone. That’s about as close to a private ski experience as you can get.

This was in the middle of a freeze-thaw cycle, and everything had frozen up overnight. Fortunately, they’d groomed enough trails to keep the crowd (that would be us ...) very happy. The light was flat – as it often is in January – and at one point, we turned onto an ungroomed trail. Classic New England hardpack. We skied it without any trouble, then went back to the softer groom.

Black Mountain doesn’t have any high-speed lifts, but that’s a good thing. Even on busy days, there are fewer people on any given trail at any time and the conditions are good all day long. Ticket prices are a bargain – an adult all day pass is $40 mid-week, non-holiday. Trust me, you can get in enough runs in a day to give your quads a great workout.

Sugar-coated Sunday River

The morning after a too-warm nor’easter had dropped everything from torrential rains to pure snow (depending on where you were). I woke up to four inches of crusted sleet in my yard. Not what I wanted. But a friend and I had planned to ski no matter what, and we met at Sunday River in Newry, Maine, which seemed to have missed the rain.

Accumulating sleet is a blessing. It’s soft and forgiving almost like spring snow. Pure joy. They’d groomed just as the storm was winding down so we had an inch or two of sugar crystals on top of smooth corduroy. Simply superb conditions, and most of the trails were open and skiable – even some of the glades.

We had one of those rare days in eastern skiing when you can make as many runs as you want at high speeds and never hear the snow scraping under your edges. We need more days like that.

Lucky at Loon

Let’s face it, Loon Mountain in Lincoln is a busy place on the weekends. Most people can only ski then and Loon has a lot of lifts and plenty of terrain to spread out a crowd.

But on a non-holiday Monday, it’s a different world. A few friendly souls and room to spare. And they’ve groomed almost every trail on the mountain to bring it back up to standards after a busy weekend. It was worth the drive over the Kanc on snow-covered roads.

We headed up the gondola – no lift line! – and the Tote Road lift to the “new” South Peak area. The six trails there are among our favorites on the mountain. We started with a warmup on Boom Run, flew down the aptly named Cruiser trail, then switched to the black diamond trails Twitcher and Jobber. The only one we didn’t do was the super-steep Ripsaw. After eight quick runs, we worked our way back across the mountain. No crowds, no lift lines, nothing but great snow.

Conditions simply couldn’t have been better – fast corduroy, soft enough for great carving, with just a dusting of fresh snow on top to let you stop and admire your tracks. See why I say “lucky at Loon”?

Bear Notch bliss

Mount Washington Valley is blessed with more cross-country ski options than any place in the east and I’ve been taking advantage, especially on weekends when the Alpine areas are packed with happy skiers and riders. Last Saturday, we decided to explore Bear Notch Ski Touring in Bartlett.

Bear Notch has a reputation for grooming snow, even moving it around as needed to keep the trails in prime condition. We’d been having melts and re-freezes for a few days, and Saturday was forecast to be cold, so my expectations weren’t really high.

Okay, so I was wrong. Bear Notch offers two distinct “areas” one mostly flat, across 302 along the Saco River and one hilly, heading toward Bear Notch along Albany Brook. We went for hilly.

Most of the trails were perfectly groomed and tracked for both skate and classic skiing, though one trail had clearly been invaded and churned up by snowmobiles despite prominent “No Motorized Vehicles” signs posted where it split off from a shared-use trail. Most snowmobilers are good citizens. Sadly, a few aren’t.

We had a great time, left with our legs humming. Bear Notch is one of the few cross country areas that welcomes dogs and we saw a few well-behaved pooches enjoying the trails as much as we were. We have some friends from down south who won’t ski without their dog along, so you can bet we’ll be back at Bear Notch again and often.

(Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com.)