Are the canaries OK?

Last season, the owner of Osceola Tug Hill XC announced his intention to close. While it’s a longish drive to get there, the area is a go-to for downstaters during bad winters. Lacking any viable offers for it as an operating ski center, and in accordance with his plan to retire, he’ll sell off assets starting March 15. Everything you need to open a touring center is up for sale, from Fischer racing skis to groomers. And if you want to create your own private little ski course, he’ll sell parcels of land. See the update on the sale.

Is the lack of interest a sign about the state of recreational XC skiing? Or was there something about the existing trail system that caused the new Osceola Ski & Sport Resort to start anew and quite literally next door? Still, the locale is within a couple hours drive from four upstate population centers totaling over 3 million people. Seems like there’s potential to support both. And after all, capitalism is about competition.

Unfortunately, participation in the sport generally is, well… not growing. It tends to be around 1.5% of the population, fluctuating with the amount of snow seen in the lower 48.

SIA snow sports participation in the US (graphic via Cross Country Ski Areas Association)

While many well-known touring centers are doing alright, the ones without a comprehensive business model or community backing seem to be under some stress. Hoping magic happens organically like ‘Field of Dreams’ is no longer a substitute for a plan. From Duluth Minnesota comes an example: “Fewer skiers or more freeloaders? Minnesota cross country ski fund going broke”

We’re seeing some people age out of the sport. And there have been some low-snow winters, especially in the Twin Cities

John Waters, trail grants coordinator for the DNR in St. Paul

Waters also muses about a general reduction in people going outdoors, as seen in declining hunting and fishing license sales. From the same article, Minnesota Conservation Officer Jylan Hill of Tofte noted that “ski pass compliance was very poor and multiple tickets and verbal warnings were issued.”

That’s a midwest-nice way to talk about it. To put it another way, trust a cranky Yankee from New Hampshire not to mince words:

The cross-country crowd are a bunch of cheapskates, historically

Sam Evans-Brown, Concord HS Nordic ski coach

I’ve previously made the point that cross-country ski centers operate in an economic and social system that’s like a reef of mutual dependency. The family operating Osceola may have lacked something that the developer of the new area has. Being in a rural area, it is also likely that the community wanted to place development bets elsewhere besides skiing.

Tourism aside, cross-country skiers, hikers, snowshoers and the like might also have to grapple with the fact that in some states, significant support for forestry and wilderness management has come from hunters and fishers who pay fees and have a political voice in the locality. Some of these people are likely aging out of the sport without replacement, as asserted by a recent article from MiBiz. If we want wilderness sports, we might have to open up our wallets or pay the taxes enabling the state to do it for us.

Whatever the reasons (and there are many), success in the ski touring business is starting to condense to fewer places, reducing the catchment area of population and participation. This in turn increases economic stress such that winners have to have cleverness, popularity, and luck to succeed. Which leaves individuals and organizations alike with these options:

  1. Reinvest if you can get others to help (funding, community outreach, political action). One example is the journey of Prospect Mountain from privately-owned to non-profit. For a description read these posts and articles from Vermont Land Trust, Bennington Banner, and Brattleboro Reformer. A case that’s still work-in-progress is Shawangunk Nordic Ski Ass’n partnering with OSI to groom the River-to-Ridge trail.
  2. Change your habits and practices (modify priorities or pick a different winter activity). Long ago, Royal Gorge+skate skiing shifted the mindset about XC as a destination resort experience, and the industry never looked back. Today’s response of business+consumer interest has been snowshoeing, cyclocross and fat-tire bicycling. For a salty take on the latter, read the following dyspeptic but informed post from a New Hampshire sports shop worker about fat-tire bikers on cross-country ski trails. (what is it about New Hampshire that attracts adjectives like ‘cranky’, ‘crusty’, or ‘curmudgeonly’?)
  3. Migrate to an ecosystem where cross-country skiing is better supported. How many NYC-area Nordic skiers have mused about living in Ottowa, Minneapolis, Oslo(!), or at least Boston, where ski trails are close to or even within the metro area? OTOH you can run from climate change but you can’t hide, not even in Norway.

Sustaining the sport presumes existing skiers and groups can be mobilized. But because it starts with the same population as before, it looks less like opportunity than hanging on to what we’ve got. And still there’s no guarantee of success. But there’s another option: investigate populations whose motivations and mindsets about winter and the outdoors merit new approaches in the rationale for cross-country skiing.

We can already see changes on the horizon- there’s going to be more manmade snow trails in the future. It will also mean ways to organize and collectivize effort and interest. Because anything you believe is good for the body and soul has to acquire new adherents.

This would imply an openness for change that might not suit all the current participants. Many ideas might not work the first few times. Any successful implementation would certainly alter the sport, just as pisten-bully grooming and skate technique altered the way the sport is currently practiced. Describing today any new and viable set of practices for the future is highly speculative, and I suspect the recipe will need to be a vary by locality.

Thoughts? Drop a comment or do a pingback. As a start, try the questions below. (tip: if you’re using Firefox with maximum privacy settings, you’ll have to allow third-party cookies and tracking)

Saturday Feb. 8 conditions + forecast for the week

Update 2/9: SNSA has cancelled the XC ski clinic at Mohonk for lack of adequate snowfall. Not a surprise. ‘State of the Touring Centers’ is slightly updated with reports from Lapland Lake and Waterville Valley. Timber Creek and Northfield Mountain still no report since the storm.

Summary: Good news for people taking a cross-country ski vacation during the school break that starts in a week- conditions in the far north are looking to be set up pretty well for you. As for this weekend or early next week, think about doing an early day trip Sunday or taking a day off Monday. Best-and-closest bets: Pineridge, Notchview, Prospect Mountain.

Terrain in a 3-ish hour drive time received rain, freezing rain, and wet snow on Friday. The drop in temperature overnight solidified the fresh cover to ice, making it tough to groom or ski on. Some crust skiing might be possible later today or once the grooming machinery can get a bite into it. There’s also debris and blowdown from the winds last night.

Just enough new snow to work into the sleet and ice coating from yesterday. That puts us on a skiable powder granular mixture that should imporve as it gets skied in. Cleaning up downed branches from an ice storm as we go along.

Grooming report from Notchview, Saturday Feb. 8

In the 3-4 hr drive time, the picture looks pretty nice:

Updates for today are delayed from: Northfield Mountain, Lapland Lake, and Timber Creek, and Waterville Valley resort. I’ll update conditions once they put something up.

Areas a 4+ hr drive from NYC got more and better snow, sometimes so much it’ll take the day to pack and groom. Conditions tend to be soft today, with some blowdown. Osceola got 22″ of snow over the past three days, and the owner is letting snow settle before grooming, so I’ve listed conditions as ‘Skiable’. But it’s ideal if you want to do a bit of classical light touring in fresh snow.

Wasthington crossing Delaware in winter
“We’ll go to New Jersey and take the Turnpike north”, said George

For real envy, just look at trails and conditions in the White Mountains. As good as they’ve ever been in memory. Nor did the ‘dacks get left in the cold: BETA report from 2/7 for the Adirondack backcountry: ‘All Trails finally skiable’.

We have picked up over a foot of snow on Thursday and Friday. It’s fairly dense snow, so it will more than cover any of the rocks and other hazards we have been warning about so far this season. Saturday will be quite cold with highs only 10-15 degrees, but it warms into the 20s on Sunday. Then warm with light rain or snow on Monday and Tuesday before dropping back below freezing on Wednesday. So, the coming week and following weekend look to be great skiing most everywhere.

BETA trails report Feb. 7

On to the usual business: hit the link or nav menu for ‘State of the touring centers‘. The snow depth graphic is below:

Snow depth northeast US, 2020-0208, with touring centers marked
Snow depth northeast US, Feb. 8

Forecast: Today (Feb. 8) high temps in the far north country and mountains will be in single digits to low teens, 20s to 40s from Albany and Berkshires down to NYC area. Lingering snow showers in isolated areas of the far north.

Sunday much warmer- teens to low 30s in north country and mountains; 30s to low 40s in the Berkshires and Hudson valley/NYC metro. Light snow showers could resume across much of NY and New England, intensifying overnight, before shifting to rain during the day Monday.

Monday through Wednesday, temps range from freezing in the far north to 50s in NYC metro, before cooling off by Thursday. Sunday’s precipitation will shift to rain on Monday before ending in the afternoon. Tuesday, there could be some additional light snow/rain/freezing rain throughout the region.

Another weather front arrives Wednesday afternoon, but the cooling temperatures will allow more precipitation to fall as snow rather than shifting to rain/freezing rain, and these light snow showers could persist through Thursday- Yay! The less good news is that the NYC metro area and mid-Hudson valley will likely be too warm to get much snow out of it.

Thanks for reading.

Feb. 8 weekend forecast- pack the wax box

Summary: Skiable snow has now been transformed to ‘klister conditions’ (for those who still wax for classic skiing), and the Ginzu-groomed frozen granular composition means fast skate skiing. However, snow and wintry mix in the forecast will change the waxing conditions considerably, so hold off on prepping those skis or figure on taking the wax box with you.

Garnet Hill reports “Our conditions are the best they’ve been all season”, which just makes me feel it’s so unfair. Why does great skiing have to be a 4 hr drive away? (They do have rooms available for the weekend- just sayin’). For 25% less drive-time, Prospect Mountain looks plenty skiable, and Notchview is doing what they can with what they’ve got.

Event: In case we get really lucky, Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association (SNSA) is ready with a free XC clinic at Mohonk Mountain House scheduled for Sunday Feb. 9. For details see the Event posting on their Facebook page.

BETA report from Monday gives details on generally good conditions of Jackrabbit trail segments. A regional report to come later this week.

For full details for each touring center, go to ‘State of the touring centers‘ or find it in the nav menu. Below is the snow depth graphic as of today:

Forecast: A two-punch weather system enters the region in the latter part of the week. The first shot comes from the southwest on Thursday, bringing light to moderate snow/wintry mix to the region before shifting to ice/freezing rain and rain.

On Friday the second shot brings more precip with some heavier snowfall predicted from the Catskills northward. Accumulation is very likely on Friday and could be heavy in some spots, but once again it will be concentrated north of Albany and the MA-VT/NH border. Some parts of the far north (ie, Tug Hill, High Peaks, northern New England) could get as much as a foot of snow. There may be lingering snow/rain showers into early next week.

Daytime temperatures will trend downward until by Saturday it will actually feel wintry, with temperatures in the low teens in the far north and mountain country, while we in downstate will see temps in the mid-30s. There could be some gusty winds Friday night and early Saturday. Sunday highs will in the 20s in up north, and in the low 40s in the NYC area. The warming trend in temperatures will continue through to Monday and Tuesday.

Thanks for reading- be prepared to wax for anything.

Rode Violet Multigrade ski wax
Rode Violet Multigrade ski wax