Warmth, rain bad for Western Maine sled trails, but spring skiing a boon for ski areas

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RUMFORD — Small Maine ski areas including Black Mountain in Rumford, Titcomb Mountain in Farmington and Shawnee Peak in Bridgton featured something unseasonable Friday and Saturday: spring skiing conditions.

Warm weather this month and rain has slammed the brakes on what looked this fall to be a promising season. But officials at the ski areas said crowds are still coming out, the skiing is great and they’re looking forward to colder temperatures for snow-making.

Skiing on Saturday at Black Mountain was “awesome! Just like it was March 25,” said Roger Arsenault, president of Black Mountain’s board of directors. Eight of 34 trails and two of three lifts were open.

The downside, however, is being felt by snowmobile clubs from Dixfield to Newry and north to Rangeley. Officials with several clubs were warning sledders that few trails are open and those that are likely have water holes, bare ground and tree debris from high winds on Christmas Day and Friday.

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Snowmobile land trails in Rangeley are open, but lake trails are closed. There isn’t any ice yet. “Trails are open, but riding is discouraged until conditions improve,” Rangeley club treasurer Nick Pathiakis said Friday evening via Facebook.

“For outdoor activities, this is a slow, slow start,” Dennis Daniel, owner of Ellis Pond Variety in Roxbury, said Saturday. “We need snow. If we had got that last storm where they were talking 14 to 18 inches and up to two feet of it, we’d probably be riding. Instead, we got 5 inches and a couple inches of rain on top of that.”

Ice anglers were out in groups Saturday along the eastern shore of Roxbury Pond, basking in the sun on 8-inch-thick ice when overcast skies parted. Getting out to those spots took a bit of work as rain and temperatures in the 40s had opened up the ice in several places along the shore.

Daniel said the unusual weather is also hampering his bait sales.

“Last year at this time I had my second order in (for 2,000 bait fish), but today I’m still on my first order,” Daniel said. “I’ve sold 105 dozen so far. Last year, the pond was frozen by the middle of November and never attempted to thaw out. Some areas had ice from 48 to 52 inches thick.”

Megan Roberts, general manager of Titcomb Mountain Ski Area, said Saturday afternoon that the skiing was great on Alpine trails. Five of 17 trails were open with a base depth of 12 to 15 inches. Their Nordic trails are open, too, but there are some bare spots that are easy to get around, she said.

“We have a lot of people here today having fun,” Roberts said. “We’re very happy and we would love some natural snow, but we have snow to ski on.”

Dave Scanlon, general manager of Mount Abram Ski Resort in Greenwood said Saturday that 28 of 49 Alpine trails were open, and 10 were groomed. “Things are going well,” he said. “Today we had a fairly decent crowd, but it’s been down a bit, which I blame on what we call the ‘Backyard Syndrome.’ If people don’t have snow in their yards, they think we don’t either, but that’s not true.”

Scanlon said the resort just got its new snow-making system up and ready to run. They just need colder weather, which is anticipated for Sunday night into Monday. “If we can’t have natural snow, at least give us the cold temps so we can make it,” he said.

At Shawnee Peak, Josh Harrington, the marketing and sales manager, said 18 of 40 trails and four of five lifts were open Saturday. Of the trails, 15 of 19 are ready for night skiing. “The warm and wet weather hasn’t really affected us,” he said.

“Today it was blue-bird sky and 38 degrees,” Harrington said. “It was a perfect ski day with no wind. We had gorgeous skiing in spring conditions. It was weird to see that the deck behind the pub was packed in December. People were sitting back with their sunglasses on and holding their beers and it looked like a nice day in March.”

On Friday at Black Mountain, employee Kathy Carey said 10 of 35 Alpine trails and two of three lifts were open. The snow-tubing park opened this weekend, too. However, Nordic trails, which need natural snow, have yet to open.

“Conditions are like spring skiing, on frozen granular with a base depth of 10 to 15 inches,” she said. “We lost some snow (because of warm weather and rain), but the trails aren’t bad. There are no bare spots.”

Many snowmobile trails, however, had open terrain.

Mexico Trail Blazers Snowmobile Club President Nick Brown said Friday that trails “are really not very good. There are a lot of washouts now with the rain. Clubs were filling them in, but everything is definitely at a standstill now. With the rain, they’re very icy so you need studs on the tracks just to get around. So we’re just waiting for snow.”

A message on the Rumford Polar Bears Snowmobile Club website said that despite receiving 25½ inches of snow this fall and winter, the base depth is down to 9 inches because of too much rain and warm weather.

“Our trail system remains closed,” according to a Dec. 25 message. “We have way too many bare spots where running water has crossed the trails. We need some cold weather for the water to stop running and for the ground to harden up.”

Wendy Hutchins of the Snow Valley Sno-Goers Snowmobile Club in Andover said that club had no trails open. “After a promising start, Mother Nature sent too much rain, and then sent warm temperatures, which have combined and melted away most of the snow,” she said.

Ed Powers of the Windy Valleys Snowmobile Club of Newry, painted a similar picture. “Nothing is open yet until we get more snow or a freeze-up,” Powers said Friday. “We did some limited grooming a week ago, but now with this warm weather, we’ve got water holes on the trails and we’re already thawed out. With warm temperatures forecast for tomorrow, it’s going to open up even more. We’ve got a foot of snow on the ground, but because of the meltdown, it’s opened up and there are wet spots and streams open. And it was looking good.”

Jon Holmes, president of the Poodunck Snowmobile Club in Dixfield, said some trails were open.The club maintains about 40 miles of trail and has to get permission annually from 130 landowners.

“Most of the ground isn’t frozen and there’s definitely not enough snow,” Holmes said. “You can go out (riding), but you’ll do more harm to your sleds, so it’s better to wait. There’s not much we can do about it.”

Due to the lack of snow, some landowners haven’t opened their land to sledding yet, he said.

“The season looked promising early this fall, but we usually open our trails after the first of the year, usually not until January,” Holmes said. “We have to have more snow for the groomers to get out so we don’t damage them. Last night with the high winds, we’ll have trees down that we’ll have to go out and clear from trails. Every year, every storm, trees are down somewhere. It’s constant battles.”

He said he couldn’t believe people were out ice-fishing.

“The lakes are not frozen yet and I saw people out ice-fishing off Route 108 on that pond just before Turner,” Holmes said. “I said to myself, ‘Boy, I wouldn’t be out there.’ It’s pretty scary out there.”

But on Saturday morning at Roxbury Pond, once anglers managed to get past the open water along shore, ice thicknesses ranged from 4 to 8 inches. Unsafe areas were around the island where the ice was up to 2 inches thick and the Garland Brook inlet, angler Jeff Patneaude said.

He said Roxbury Pond is one of the safest ponds on which to ice-fish, because it makes so much ice.

One man fishing about 40 yards off the east shore said the ice was 8 inches thick, but “not the best ice I’ve ever seen. You have to kind of pick your way out from shore.”

Two Hammal brothers and Mike Touchette, all of Roxbury, told Daniel they caught four 5-inch brookies, a larger brook trout and a 22-inch pickerel before noon on Saturday.

“I heard someone got a huge yellow perch, 15 inches long,” Daniel told them.

Daniel said Roxbury Pond began making ice on Nov. 8 and within six days, anglers started venturing out on it, but they couldn’t keep trout or salmon until after Dec. 1. He and employee Doreen Stinson of Roxbury said they’d like to see colder weather before more snow arrives.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

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