Imagine a perfect cross-country ski trail. The snow underfoot is firm but not icy, forming a wide, clear, white path. It takes you over frozen creeks and under tall pines. There are no branches in your way, no potholes to hinder your progress. You can glide, swiftly and surely, through the winter woods.
These trail conditions do exist, but they don’t happen naturally. It takes hard work to build, maintain, clear, and groom the 90 miles of trails snaking through AMC’s 75,000-acre Maine Woods in the 100-Mile Wilderness. And with more visitors coming to AMC’s three Maine wilderness lodges every year, it’s increasingly important to have staff on the trails nearly every day, starting in early summer, when a snowy forecast is still a long way off.
“Cross-country ski trail maintenance starts by taking a look at the surface of the trail and figuring out how we can get more snow on them,” explains Steve Tatko, AMC’s director of Maine conservation and land management. Long before snow falls, staff harden the trails by installing drainage surfaces and gravel, creating a solid foundation for snow to collect on. “With a flat surface, we can groom the trails with only 6 inches of snow,” Tatko says. “Before, we had to wait until we had 18 inches of snow as a base.”
Trail building and maintenance isn’t cheap, Tatko says. He points out it’s just as expensive to build a mile of groomable cross-country ski trail as it is to build a mile of logging road. But in a state that generates a sizable portion of its income from visitors—roughly 16 percent of Mainers are employed in the tourism sector—investing in year-round attractions, like well-maintained trails, makes sense.
“We put a lot of thought into designing ski trails that are permanent and can be easily maintained,” he explains. As part of this goal, Tatko’s team is moving away from installing simple log bridges, as they did in the past, instead building bridges of concrete, steel, and treated wood. “The log bridges only lasted about eight to ten years,” he says. “These will last 40 to 60 years.”
Once trails are built and hardened, a two-person team spends the summer fixing drainage issues, laying gravel, building retaining walls and ditches, and clearing windfall. There are typically two big periods of blowdowns, one in spring and one in fall, when trees lose sizable branches, which means there’s no off-season for the trail crew. “There’s always more work to do,” Tatko says.
By the time winter comes, the trails are ready for snow—and for grooming snowmobiles. “Grooming is really a fine cross between an art and a science,” Tatko says. For the Maine Woods, AMC employs a staff of four who can service about 50 miles of trail in one day. With skiers traveling backwoods trails between AMC’s three lodges (Gorman Chairback, Little Lyford, and Medawisla), plus the privately owned Wilson Pond Camps, regularly servicing the trails is crucial. Larger snowcats (a truck-sized vehicle commonly used by alpine ski resorts) can manage the wider trails, but deep-woods trails must be groomed by smaller and more nimble snowmobiles.
“For the first few weeks of snowfall, we focus on building and packing the base,” Tatko explains. “We want to take that first snow of the season and drive the air out, get it to freeze solid.” This provides a flat surface and establishes the width of the trail. “That way, later in the season when the machines pass over it, they won’t fall off the edge,” Tatko says. This frozen base also helps cool the center of the trail, keeping the route usable long into the spring.
Throughout the season, as snow continues to fall, groomers return time and again, pulling tillers (which aerate the snow’s top layer) and leveling drags (which compact fresh snowfall). “We make the top inch of snow fluffy enough so that skiers can bite in and make turns,” Tatko says. “It allows the fish scales on their skis, or the wax on the bottom, to have some purchase.” Light, aerated snow also prevents ice from forming on the trail—useful for the changing conditions of recent years. “We’re seeing more winter rains in the past few seasons,” Tatko says. “We’ve had to adapt our grooming around those events.”