December 15, 2013

John Christie: Recreational revival in Waterville

A new era for Colby College’s defunct ski area.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, throngs of Colby College students and thousands of mid-Maine residents were introduced to, and enjoyed, the pleasures of Alpine skiing on a 265-vertical foot ski area, complete with a 1,280-foot T-bar lift, a rope tow and even a 32-meter jump, all only two miles from the campus in Waterville.

Built by the college in 1960, the one trail and two slopes descended from a parking area and day lodge complete with a snack bar at the top to the east bank of Messalonskee Stream, and featured not only night skiing but a rudimentary snowmaking system installed in 1968.

The parking area could accommodate 200 cars, and it was often filled to capacity on the limited number of days and nights when natural snow provided complete cover and dependable conditions.

Adults and juniors could ski on weekends for $2.50 a day, and during the week the price dropped to a $1.50, thanks to the generosity of Colby.

The Colby Ski Area provided a wonderful training venue for the college ski teams, and during its operating years helped to produce many high- quality competitors.

Early Colby Alpine Skiing Coach Mark Godomsky remarked that the demise of the area resulted from, in his words, “the increase in insurance costs and the lack of snowmaking technology.”

The area lay fallow and overgrown until an enlightened and enthusiastic group of local residents began discussing the idea of a year-round recreation place at the base of the closed ski area, with a focus on providing a world-class Nordic skiing facility within easy geographic and economic reach of enthusiasts – and would-be enthusiasts – in central Maine and beyond.

Conceived seven years ago in the collective mind of a small group of volunteers, the vision was of an outdoor recreation revival utilizing some enticing terrain a few minutes from downtown Waterville.

There’s now a vibrant year-round hub of outdoor activity and a catalyst for enjoying nature in an urban setting.

Some 200 acres has been purchased, and more than seven miles of trails have been designed and constructed offering opportunities for a wide range of year-round activities including walking, running, biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

Dog walkers are also welcomed. The trail network offers not only some exceptional natural beauty and variety, but a world-class cross country competition loop. Ski competitions and winter carnivals have been held with more planned for this year, as well as mountain bike festivals and biathlon races. You should also be able to rent ski and snowshoeing equipment this season for the first time.

All of this is thanks to the tireless efforts of a group of volunteers that comprise the nonprofit Friends of Quarry Road and a few other major players, all on land owned by Waterville. The Friends, a 501c3 corporation, advises the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and has charged itself with the responsibility to raise the necessary capital for construction, equipment purchases and operating costs.

Not only has the trail network been established, but a sledding hill has seen many happy sliders. A warming yurt has been completed, to be hopefully manned by volunteers, and long-range plans call for a multipurpose community building. A maintenance building is already nearing completion. Boating access to Messalonskee Stream is envisioned, along with a lighting system for the trails, and construction of single- and double-track mountain biking trails.

Harking back to, and learning from, the demise of the old Alpine ski area, due in great part to the absence of adequate snowmaking, the system now in place is nothing short of state-of-the-art. The facility is either up and operating now, or will be very shortly, thanks to a system capable of providing a predictable surface for the full range of winter activities.

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