BETHEL — Six weeks ago, it looked like the Bethel Village Trails would not open for the season.
The Nordic skiing organization, which operates out of the Bethel Inn Resort in one of Maine’s busiest ski towns, appeared in jeopardy when the inn’s management learned the Bethel Village Trails operator would not be returning this winter. The inn was left with the task of running the Nordic center itself after outsourcing it for 14 years.
But Brad Jerome, the Bethel Inn’s marketing director, said he had a better idea. He called the group that champions Nordic skiing in the region: the Bethel Outing Club, which has been teaching people to cross-country ski since 1986. And the club called the local trail organization, Mahoosuc Pathways.
Together, the two nonprofits took over the center amid the flurry of the Christmas holiday.
“We said, ‘We have to do this,'” said Gabe Perkins, Mahoosuc Pathways’ executive director. “We don’t know what it will take. But we never saw this as a crisis. It was an opportunity.”
The Outing Club and Mahoosuc Pathways already had been working together to expand the trail network and use of trails in the Bethel region. Mahoosuc Pathways is working to connect 250 miles of trails in the region.
“A trail from Sunday River to Mt. Abram, that’s the dream,” Perkins said.
The inn provides the rental space for the Bethel Village Trails center, as well as the grooming equipment and fuel to sculpt 25 miles of Nordic trails.
The two nonprofits provide management of the ski shop, instruction, and rental gear for skiing and snowshoeing. Barker Mountain Bikes in Bethel provides fat bikes to rent.
Two trail groomers, a ski shop manager and Perkins, the center’s director, are the only paid staff. Some 50 volunteers help to run the ski center and instruct beginners.
In its first week, the center sold $10,000 in season passes, as well as another $10,000 in day passes, Perkins said.
Previously, the center took in an average of about $7,000 for season passes.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Jerome said. “Right out of the gate they had skiers here on Dec. 23. I feel fortunate. They are connected to all the channels in the skiing community. They bring a new energy. They bring a knowledge and ability to tap into the network of Maine Nordic skiing.”
The fast start did not surprise the dozens of volunteers, many of them members of both nonprofits. The volunteers said the enthusiasm at the ski center has as much to do with the outdoor ethic in Bethel, where skiing is a way of life.
“I’ve seen all kinds of different ski clubs in different places around the world, but I haven’t found any with the willingness to jump in like the Bethel Outing Club,” said Carlie Casey of Bethel, an internationally certified ski official who has worked at races in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The western Maine town at the foothills of the Mahoosuc Range has been home to cross-country skiing for more than a century. Nordic skiing took place at the Bethel Inn as early as 1915, said Randy Bennett, the Bethel Historical Society executive director. And cross-country skiing on groomed trails has been a robust part of the Bethel Inn for the past 40 years, said ski historian Scott Andrews.
Set on 200 acres with mountain views, the inn sits at the top of the town center, across the village green.
“It’s a community ski center. You can literally walk up Main Street in your boots and out onto the trails and go skiing,” Jerome said.
The week after Christmas, the tradition continued.
“For a person who just learned to ski and has no idea what they’re doing, this is absolutely wonderful,” said Karen Anderson of Bryant Pond, who was enjoying the beginner trails.
“Anybody can ski here. It would have been terrible for me when I just started to ski if this closed.”
Garret Bonnema of Bethel is another regular. A week ago, he enjoyed the mountain air and relative solitude he could find in the woods. He has skied the trails that run across the golf course and into the forest for 42 years.
“It would have been awful if they didn’t open,” Bonnema said. “It’s part of winter in Bethel.”
Even those visiting the region from out of state were happy to have the gentle trails right near the village center.
“I grew up in Madawaska so I prefer to cross-country ski,” said Sue Levine of Freemont, New Hampshire.
“The rest of my family went downhill skiing today. We came here to get the 20 inches of fresh snow. But I wanted to be here in the woods. I prefer the quiet there.”
The Outing Club president, Norm Greenberg, wondered aloud if volunteers can keep the ski center going. Bonnie Pooley answered that question for him as she made her way along the center’s “Dog Days” trail.
“When all those volunteers on vacation go back to work, the retirees will pick it up,” said Pooley, 72, of Albany Township. “I’ve skied here for 43 years. The way the volunteers here have stepped up is just amazing. They will keep it going. They’ve breathed new life into the center.”