While we are more or less self-directed here on “Skiing In Maine,” it’s inevitable that we get comments from readers requesting we pay more (or less) attention to certain topics. Of all the pleas I’ve heard for coverage, the one I hear most often is for more coverage of cross-country, or Nordic, skiing in Maine.
It’s true that my father and I both devote our columns mostly to Alpine skiing, and that is a disservice to the other half of our sport. So this week I’m appending “cross-country” to this column’s title. And with a solid stretch of weather that’s covered the Maine landscape with snow, there’s no better time than now to get out and strap on those long, skinny skis.
In a broad sense, cross-country skiing is the oldest type of skiing, predating Alpine skiing by millenia. The earliest skis were found in Sweden, and date back to around 4000 BC. These skis were used for transportation,rather than recreation – skiing as a sport wasn’t born until the 18th century, when Alpine skiing also took root. Today, both sports are mostly recreational, though that’s not strictly the case. There are those who ski for transportation, be it between the lodges of the Maine Huts and Trails network or around Portland’s slick streets after a blizzard.
Looking at the numbers, the popularity of cross-country skiing in the U.S. is dwarfed by Alpine. Last season saw about 4.3 million people participating in Nordic skiing, opposed to over 9 million Alpine skiers (and 7.3 million snowboarders). However, the sport does seem to be holding on to its audience – while the number of Alpine skiers dropped by about 10 percent over the last five seasons, cross-country has actually seen a modest gain. Cross-country is also a touch more equitable in terms of gender than either Alpine skiing or snowboarding, with a 55/45 male-female split.
Given the topic of my last “Skiing in Maine” column (the high cost of lift tickets and equipment), it’s worth noting that Nordic skiing is radically less expensive than Alpine skiing. The average cost of cross-country skis and boots at a specialty shop (per Snowsports Industries America statistics) is less than $300, while Alpine equipment is more than double that. Once you’ve spent that cash, it’s also less expensive to participate in the sport – usually less than $20 for a day pass at one of Maine’s private trail networks, and free if you’re going on most public trails.
(If you’re into winter sports purely for fitness, cross-country has you covered there as well – per the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, cross-country skiing burns more calories per hour than any other sport, Alpine included.)
So once you’ve decided to devote time to this growing, coed, cheap, healthy sport, where to start? Per the Ski Maine Association, our state has 18 Nordic Ski Centers, offering over 400 miles of trails in total. A number of these are located at or near the bases of Maine’s Alpine ski areas, including Sunday River, Sugarloaf, Saddleback, Titcomb, Lost Valley, Spruce and Titcomb. There are options within an hour of Portland, like Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Carter’s Ski Center in Oxford and Five Fields Farm in Bridgton.
Along with these pay-to-play areas, there are untold miles of trails on public land. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry recommends eight state parks for cross-country skiing; Aroostook, Bradbury Mountain, Camden Hills, Cobscook Bay, Mount Blue, Sebago Lake State Park, Vaughan Woods and Wolfe’s Neck Woods. Some of these parks even groom their trails, and all can be called for up-to-date information on conditions. There’s also the classic tours of Acadia National Park, where 32 miles of carriage roads are groomed for skiers and snowshoers.
Once you decide to actually hit the trails, there are a few tips that should keep you moving. The first is, as with Alpine skiing and snowboarding, take a lesson if you’ve never gone before. It costs a bit extra and can cut into your pride if you’re an adult, but a lesson beats whatever you can cobble together from intuition and YouTube. Once you’ve got the fundamentals down, it’s much easier to take off on your own. In terms of gear, don’t overdress. Remember that statistic about calories? Cross-country is highly aerobic, and with less idle time than downhill skiing, it’s easy to get overheated. Dress in layers to make it easier to cool off. Finally, if you’re at a Nordic Center, know the rules of the trail. There are often different tracks for “classic” and “skate” skiers, and you want to stay in your own lane.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be contacted at: