A few things are clear after last winter’s Nordic ski season: Cross-country skiing is surging in popularity and skiing midweek has become the new normal.

Across Maine, Nordic ski centers last winter saw record levels of season-pass sales, and the traditional quiet days became the new peak times as people working remotely from home were able to exercise during the day early in the week.

“We were up 100 percent in season passes and day tickets were up 20 percent,” said Gabe Perkins at Inland Woods + Trails in Bethel. “We were blown away. There was so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. But people came out in droves. And it wasn’t the greatest winter, either.”

Matt Sabasteanski at Pineland Farms, who sits on the board of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, said the word across the country is that Nordic skiing is growing.

“This is a national trend. I think last winter anyone who was open and had a reasonable offering saw an uptick in activity and users,” Sabasteanski said.

Last winter, Pineland Farms Outdoor Center had the biggest season in the ski area’s 19-year history and that was during a ski season that lasted just 47 days with natural snow. Season pass sales went from about 900 to 1,300, Sabasteanski said. 

“One of the things I wondered is if the season pass increase would kill the day tickets. But the day tickets were up as well. People are hungry to be outside,” Sabasteanski said.

Like many Nordic centers across Maine, the extra accommodations Pineland Farms put in place last year to provide a safer experience during the pandemic will continue. Globe huts can be rented for $20 for an hour to allow a group or family to eat in a self-contained heated area, and this winter there will be four heated huts. The two warming cabins where snacks were sold out on the trails along fire pits will return again this winter.

High school skiers take part in a Nordic race at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester in January. Season pass sales at the ski area went from about 900 in 2019-20 to 1,300 last winter, making it the best season in  Pineland’s 19-year history. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Quarry Road Trails in Waterville last winter also saw the busiest season in the community ski area’s 14-year history – with season pass sales up 30 percent to 828. And sales this year are even better compared to the same time last year, said Justin Fereshetian, the program director and head Nordic coach. 

The only glitch at the community ski area last year was the lack of volunteers working the welcome yurt. Fereshetian said staffing will be much improved for the 2021-22 season.

The nonprofit Inland Woods + Trails in Bethel (formerly named Bethel Village Trails) had its best winter since taking over the Nordic center five years ago. After adding another 5 kilometers of trails to the now 25-kilometer system last year, Inland Woods + Trails added a connecting trail this summer that makes a 10- or 15-kilometer loop possible. It was something skiers asked for, Perkins said.

With the addition of a second groomer, Perkins said they’re planning on an even bigger year this winter.

Also in the far reaches of Maine, a kind of Nordic mania has taken hold.

At The Birches in Rockwood, owner John Willard said use of his 38-mile cross-country ski system was already increasing in recent years – but the pandemic “throttled things up around Moosehead Lake.”  Based on current season pass sales, he expects another banner year at the Nordic resort he’s owned for more than 50 years.

A member of the Quarry Road Ski Club offers a skiing lesson while snow is made Jan. 31 at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We saw a lot of people from the coast of Maine who typically go overseas or someplace on an airline or a cruise stay in Maine,” Willard said. “It will keep trending up as long as people have income. I’ve been here long enough to know. I think the trend will continue.”

According to the Cross Country Ski Areas Association in Vermont, which represents 200 Nordic ski areas across the country, the historically quiet days on the trails – typically Monday through Wednesday – became busy last winter and should again.

A survey conducted by the association this fall showed an even split between Nordic skiers who plan to ski midweek and those who plan to ski on the weekend – with 48 percent of 1,500 respondents saying their intention is to ski Monday to Friday and 48 percent saying they plan to ski on the weekends, (another 4 percent did not respond).

Many trail centers in Maine saw early week crowds for the first time last winter.

“People were coming out of the woodwork. We had more people than usual. And midweek it was very busy – probably three times busier than normal,” said Dixie Harris of Harris Farm in Dayton, a Nordic center run by the family for 35 years.

At Rangeley Lakes Trail Center, weekdays were suddenly busy last winter, according to manager Beth Flynn. Season pass sales were up 25 percent last year and are on pace for the same bump this winter, she said.

Another indication of people getting into the sport or returning to it showed up in an increase in Nordic equipment sales.

At Harris Farm everything in the ski shop was sold by January for the first time in 25 years, Harris said. She even had to stop selling off her rental fleet so she had enough to rent to people.

And at Carter’s XC Ski center in Bethel, where there also was a spike in season passes sales last year, equipment sales have been brisk this fall.

Manager Jes Carter ordered a lot of inventory in March in anticipation of a big year. Because of the demand last winter and this fall, Carter now sells equipment online and over the phone, with orders coming in from as far away as California and Alaska.

“In March when we put in our orders, everyone told us this year was going to be just as busy, so when I ordered last spring, I ordered as much as I could. We still have a lot left,” Carter said. “But we will run out, for sure – because the company told us we can’t get any more equipment this year (because of supply shortages).”

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