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From the February 2006 Conservationist

Cross Country Convergence

By Rebecca Dayton

cross-country skiiers on trail

When people think about cross-country skiers-and that thought is a rare one for most Americans-the thought probably goes one of two ways: recreational cross-country skiers are granola-loving types who enjoy layering themselves with itchy wool clothing and slogging through the snow, communing with nature. Or, cross-country skiers are racers, the minds-eye version of winter fitness fanatics enjoying pain and relishing the opportunity to wear form-fitting, garish-colored lycra suits on brutally cold days.

Although these might be stereotypical assumptions, there are bits of truth to "what people think." But rarely do the "two sides" meet and co-exist on the same trail system as is the case on the 50 kilometers (31 miles) of state-operated cross-country trails at the Verizon Sports Complex at Mt. Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid.

Volunteers Make It Work

The divergent approaches to the sport have not always been smooth, but the link between recreational skiers and ski racers has always been a love of the sport. That affinity most clearly shows itself in the volunteers that have been such an important part of the racing scene since the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area was first created for the 1969 John F. Kennedy Games.

The trails were upgraded and improved for the 1980 Winter Games, and many prestigious events have been held on the trail system. Two commemorative plaques on site honor a pair of the most dedicated volunteers and avid recreational skiers the venue has ever known. Longtime volunteer Harry Eldridge is remembered at his spot atop Harry's Hill, one of the steepest climbs at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, where many say his cheers still echo. Gloria Chadwick's tireless dedication to the sport is honored by the cross-country stadium being re-named in her memory.

Professional skiers race

Historic Training Ground

The Mt. Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area was originally managed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), but control was transferred to the newly-formed New York Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) in 1982. Since that time, Mt. Van Hoevenberg has operated as a day-use facility for residents and visiting guests as well as a world-class training and competition venue for athletes in the sports of cross- country skiing and biathlon.

According to ski area manager Greg Stratford, the cross-country center receives more than 120 inches of snowfall in an average year, and takes in more than 20,000 ski and snowshoe visitors during its five-month operating season. It has been host to three World Cup biathlon events and several U.S. National Championships and Olympic Trials in the sports of biathlon and cross-country. It is also the home of the cross-country, biathlon, snowshoe and ski orienteering events at the Empire State Winter Games.

Citizens' Race

Ask the staff to name their favorite event of the year, and the one that comes up repeatedly caters to all skill levels. For 23 years, the Verizon Sports Complex has been home to the Lake Placid Loppet, a 25- and 50-kilometer citizens' race.

It is an event more about personal challenge then public glory and it epitomizes the dichotomy that is Mt. Van Hoevenberg. At the front of the Loppet pack are fast moving, bright colored, go-for-broke competitors. But as you move back through the field, you find those wool-wearing, nature-loving skiers who just want to enjoy the beauty of a day in the woods. At the end of it all, everyone sits down to a plate of pasta and to swap stories of the day.

Public Programs

Recreation does not suffer in the face of a strong racing program. In fact, Mt. Van Hoevenberg offers programs for just about every type of skier, young and old, fast and slow, and even those that are not skiers at all but who want to enjoy one of our new snowshoe-only trails.

Trailmarkers-offers free skiing and lessons to area third grades and has been recognized as an innovative way to develop new cross-country skiers.

The Loppet Ladies-female skiers get an opportunity to get their competitive fires burning. The Sunday Series gives everyone a chance to show off their skiing skills in a weekly "race" series where simply participating is as important as skiing fast.

Days in the Woods

Few cross-country ski areas offer a different experience for every mood. One day you can climb the famous "Russian Complaint" and ask yourself, "It is challenging, but if I could do it, why couldn't they?" The moniker refers to a small section of trail removed just prior to the 1980 games after the Russian team complained that the total climb was outside accepted parameters. It is still a point of pride for many locals to ski the entire trail completely, without the "complaint."

The next day ski that same trail and marvel at the complicated system of piping running through the sugar bush and take a detour to South Meadow Farm Sugar Shack for some fresh maple syrup drizzled over snow-the perfect energy food for the climb ahead.

Follow North Brook as it meanders along the trail, watch the beaver dams for signs of life, and wonder if the rumor of the bobcat that frequents the trails is true (it is!). Stop for a picnic and listen to the quiet stillness of a snow-covered evergreen glade.

As the trail returns to the lodge, feel competitive fires ignite as you realize you are skiing behind a group of world-class biathletes, and they are not leaving you in the dust. It helps that they are cooling down and you are skiing at race pace, but that won't change the story you'll tell over dinner that night.

Responsible Development

It's a delicate process that allows ORDA to simultaneously operate the trail network as a for-profit ski center and world-class competition venue on state land in the Adirondack Park.

"It is a constant challenge to improve the trail system and offer a better skiing surface for the public while meeting the demands of the international skiing community," continued Stratford. "We also strive to preserve the natural beauty of the area. One of the most significant changes...has been a move away from large alpine-type groomers and a return to more labor-intensive snowmobile grooming.

"We have also spent a lot of time in the off season working on erosion control and drainage on the trails which means we are able to open with less snow," said Stratford.

The Verizon Sports Complex at Mt. Van Hoevenberg will always be unique among cross-country ski sites. The area is proud of its rich racing heritage and its place as a world-class competition venue. Nevertheless, it is equally focused on its natural surroundings and those guests who visit looking for a meticulously groomed jaunt through the idyllic Adirondacks.

Visit whitefacelakeplacid.com for more information on the Verizon Sports Complex and all of its trails and programs.

Photo: Mark Kurtz/ORDA