— by Beatrice Burack

When Gorham’s Great Glen Trails first opened in December of 1994, a low-snow winter almost stopped the cross-country center in its tracks. “We barely got off the ground,” says Nate Harvey, the nordic area’s retail manager and program director. Great Glen installed a snowmaking system in the winter of ‘95, and has been making snow ever since.

Harvey thinks Great Glen’s trails are located at a high enough elevation to stay viable as winters warm, but he points to numerous changes he and his colleagues are making to stay ahead of the climate curve.

One change that’s underfoot—literally—has to do with how the trails are constructed. To build Great Glen’s 14-foot-wide trails, construction crews dug up dirt, replacing it with a mixture of stone and gravel. These trails are resistant to erosion (though mid-December flooding put them to the test this year), and have fewer sticks and roots that need to be covered by snow.

“Because we’ve got so much invested in how the trails are built, it doesn’t take a lot of snow to open us,” Harvey says. “With six to eight inches of the right snow, we can groom that out and be open with almost 90 percent of our trails.”

In addition to engineering the trails for low-snow conditions, Harvey and his crew practice what he calls “snow farming.” Picture employees harvesting snow from unsalted parking lots, shoveling it into sleds and trucks, and spreading it out on the trails.

At Great Glen Trails, there have also been changes to the snowmaking process. They still need 24 hours of the right conditions—below 24 degrees, preferably with low humidity and low wind—to efficiently make snow. But while the center used to look at multi-day weather forecasts before deciding if it was worth it to blow snow in those 24-hour windows, Harvey says that nowadays, they’ll blow snow no matter what: “Now we have to take every opportunity when we’ve got that 24-hour-plus window of cold to do it, because you don’t know when the next one is.”

Great Glen Program Director Nate Harvey walks along a trail that was washed out by the December 18th floods. Its rocky base was carefully engineered to allow for more consistent skiing in low-snow conditions. All photos by Beatrice Burack except where noted.

Great Glen Program Director Nate Harvey walks along a trail that was washed out by the December 18th floods. Its rocky base was carefully engineered to allow for more consistent skiing in low-snow conditions. All photos by Beatrice Burack except where noted.

Great Glen’s increased reliance on snowmaking was on full display this season. Their trails were open during the snowy stretch in the first week of December, Harvey says, with help from “a tiny bit of man-made snow.” But by mid-December rain had taken away much of the snow, and the center had just a short, half-kilometer loop of entirely man-made snow open for weekend ski lessons.

“It’s not really what most people are after when they think of skiing in New England,” Harvey says. “They want to feel the stroll through the woods, but it’s just little bits and pieces of skiing here and there.”

The center has 45 kilometers of skiable trails. According to their website, only a quarter-kilometer of terrain was open the Thursday after Christmas—usually a prime time for visitors. “[W]e still have .25km of skiing—a nice ‘white ribbon’ for you to enjoy for $10,” the snow report read that day.

Christmas week, along with Martin Luther King Day weekend and February vacation, is one of three high-revenue periods that Harvey says “can really make the whole season, or break ‘em.”

After the Flood in Jackson

On December 18th, Jackson, New Hampshire made national news when the Ellis River, swollen with rainwater, brought massive floods to the village. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, whose trails criss-cross the river, was hit hard by the storm.

Looking out at a bridge that had been snapped off its foundation uphill of Jackson Falls, Touring Foundation board Vice President Ken Kimball managed to look on the bright side.

“This couldn’t have happened better if it was going to happen,” he said. “I’m dead serious.” If the water had been moving in a different direction, the bridge “would’ve gone right down through Jackson Falls, and that would have been catastrophic.” Board President Debony Diehl, who owns a salon down the hill, was glad it didn’t end up in her basement.

For Kimball, this flood exemplified the changes to come with climate change. “We started off with the philosophy of snowmaking and getting our trails so that they’re skiable at low snow.” But after witnessing major rain events like this one, he said, “There’s no question that we’re now going to have to start dealing with, ‘How do you prevent erosion from major runoff events?’”

As the floods came, the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation was in the last month of a $1.5 million capital campaign to mark its 50-year anniversary, and had raised about $1.4 million to date. When the campaign began, Kimball said, a large portion of the funds were intended to pay for a snowmaking system. “Well, that ratio may have to change,” he said after the storm.

Kimball and Diehl were talking about increasing the funding that will go to trail and bridge repair. Kimball estimated that repairs from the storm could run as high as $100,000, which is roughly an eighth of the foundation’s typical annual budget.

The timing of the flooding was especially poor, coming right before Christmas week, one of the foundation’s biggest weeks for revenue.