By Cathy Brown
Tom Romeo drove an hour from Massena on a snowy Sunday to cross-country ski at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center.
An avid outdoorsman, he had spent the previous day breaking his own trail elsewhere. That, he said, “was quite a slog.” So it was a pleasant change to glide along a quiet groomed path in the woods, and to picnic at a VIC lean-to.
“It’s a nice little trail system,” he said.
Craig Arquette of Akwesasne also appreciates the VIC’s smooth skiing enough to drive about an hour south. He comes for the area’s better snow and groomed classic skiing.
“At home it’s just snowmobile trails,” he said.
They were happy to pay the $10 day pass to ski their pick of the 25 miles of skate, cross-country and snowshoe trails as they currently exist. But college officials are hoping to offer visitors and students an even better experience over the next few years.
The school plans a two-stage trail improvement project that would turn the center’s cross-country ski trails into a competition-class venue that college officials hope can attract would-be Olympians to enroll. They hope to widen and smooth some of the skate-ski trails and possibly add a trail with competition-grade slopes, among other changes. For the casual user these improvements could make hills and curves easier to manage, without affecting the area’s narrower classic Nordic paths in the woods.
The small private college, about 12 miles northwest of the village of Saranac Lake, took over the VIC and its trail system after budget cuts prompted the state to quit operating it and another center in Newcomb in 2010.
Paul Smith’s has been making small, incremental upgrades to the trails since then, VIC General Manager Andy Testo said. But now the college is planning a much larger push to bring the trails up to competition standards in time for the International University Sports Federation’s 2023 Winter Universiade in Lake Placid. The VIC may provide a location for one of the events—ski orienteering.
The trails upgrade is also part of the college’s effort to attract students pursuing a sports management degree, Olympic dreams, or both. The improvements would mean Paul Smith’s could host college-level cross-country ski competitions and give serious athletes a place to conveniently train and get their education at the same time, Testo said.
Morton Trails, a Thetford Center, Vt., firm headed by former Olympian and Dartmouth College ski team coach John Morton, is drafting an initial design.
Morton said VIC features including the welcome center, parking and maintenance facilities are impressive, among “the nicest I’ve seen anywhere for a recreational trail network.” As an added bonus, the VIC is widely recognized as a place that still gets an abundance of natural snow at a time when many traditional Nordic ski centers are struggling.
Still, as is often the case with trail networks, Morton said, popular uses change over time, and trail configurations and widths don’t always keep up with those changes. The biggest change has been the growth in popularity of skate skiing, which requires wider trails.
While the VIC trail system may seem fine to a casual user on classic skis, it can frustrate competitive skate skiers.
“There’s not a lot of trails groomed wide enough for skate skiing,” said Audrey Emerson, a Paul Smith’s Nordic ski team member from Lyons Falls.
The skating movement on skis requires a trail about 8 feet wide, at a minimum, Testo said. Trails sanctioned for international events need to be even wider; they must accommodate up to three skate skiers moving side by side, which means a trail almost 30 feet wide on climbs, Morton said.
In some places the VIC skating trails are also too steep, Testo said, and in other spots, the turns are too sharp, nearly right angles.
In a quick January ski on a section of Loggers Loop, Nordic ski team coach Matt Dougherty also pointed out small undulations on the trail that can hamper skate skiers as well as a large tree right next to the trail near the bottom of a hill. It could pose a safety hazard for a beginning—or even experienced—skier descending at high speed.
Plus, sections of trail are “off camber,” meaning one side of the trail is higher than the other, forcing a skier to clunk along with one leg higher than the other.
In those sections, “it’s really hard to keep your momentum going,” said ski team member Jack Fogarty, of Moultonborough, N.H.
Then there are drainage problems, which become obvious during warming periods when skiers have to ford a stream or turn around.
Fixing those issues will not only make skiing and hiking more pleasant for all users, but should make it easier and less costly to maintain the trails year-round, Testo said.
The project will probably take place in two stages: improvements on existing trails and an entirely new section of trail for skate competitions.
The college wants to be careful to balance the effort to improve the trails for competitive skiing with making sure other users can still enjoy activities like bird-watching, photography, and simply walking in the woods.
Indeed, although the college’s Nordic ski team members have some problems with the trails, they still see much to like about the system.
“It’s beautiful scenery,” Nordic ski team member Damon Emerson said. It’s also convenient to the college.
The 14 VIC trails are idyllic for winter nature lovers and offer lots of variety. Energetic users can snowshoe up to the 2,500-foot Jenkins Summit or skate past tall white pines on the 4.5-mile Loggers Loop. Those up for a more mellow outing can classic ski or snowshoe a snow-covered boardwalk through a scraggly black spruce bog on the mile-long Boreal Life Trail. Or classic skiers can glide through forests and across a marsh on the three-mile Woods and Waters Trail.
Dougherty said the inner core trails in the VIC system—the interpretive nature trails—will probably see few if any changes. Those narrower trails will still be groomed for classic skiing or snowshoeing in the winter.
Most of the improvement work will be concentrated on the outer trails, such as Loggers Loop, which is an old logging road.
In the second phase of work, an entirely new skate-skiing trail may be built, possibly in an area where skid trails and logging roads still exist from a logging operation a few years ago, Testo said.
This new section would include the grades required for college-level competition, which would help the school’s ski and snowshoe teams.
“It will allow them to train at a facility with the standards that they can expect in other competition venues,” Testo said. “So they’ll know what a 15-meter hill climb feels like before they get to a different event.”
There is also talk of adding a small biathlon range, possibly at the area labeled Log Landing on the current VIC maps.
But Testo adds the college is still in the early planning stages.
Various interest groups at the college will weigh in on the plans, including VIC staff, athletics staff, and academic staff who use the property in research. Once the scope of work is decided, the college will start pursuing funding, which Testo said will probably include a mix of state grants and private fundraising efforts.
The VIC received $180,000 in state funding this year and expects to receive about the same amount in the fiscal year that starts in July, but that money is used for operating costs, not the kind of construction effort envisioned.
The Nordic trails work is part of the college’s ongoing Olympic sports initiative. Five former Olympic athletes are part of a steering committee that is helping advance the college’s athletics program. The initiative has included starting a women’s hockey team.
Although the improvements may bring more visitors, Testo said the VIC has plenty of room to grow without spoiling the experience for current users.
The number of winter trail users has slowly grown in the years since the college took over the VIC and started grooming the trails, he said. The VIC sold just over 100 season passes this year, which cost $50 for kids 6 and older, $100 for adults, or $250 for a family.
Last year, it sold about 1,600 day passes at $10 per adult and $5 for kids 6 and older. This snowy winter has been “significantly better” so far, Testo said.
But skiers may still go out on a cold weekday afternoon and find they have the entire 25 miles of trail to themselves.
“We’re definitely not at our carrying capacity by any stretch of the imagination in the winter,” Testo said.