WATERVILLE — Wendy St. Pierre looked at a pair of Nordic skis sitting in her home for 13 years. The year after her husband bought them for her, they had their first child, and then the skis sat idle.

But having less time was only one reason St. Pierre never used those skis. She also wasn’t confident she knew how. Finally this winter, she decided to take them out to the trails and learn.

An evening adult program in Waterville offered by the Maine Winter Sports Center statewide helps adults like St. Pierre learn about and excel in cross-country skiing.

Two weeks ago on a moon-lit night with temperatures in the single digits, St. Pierre and eight others ran through drills with instructor Lauren Jacobs and then hit the dark trails. St. Pierre fell to the back of the pack, while the others clad in head lamps skied ahead. But with Jacobs skiing alongside her, St. Pierre didn’t mind. Even when Jacobs left her, St. Pierre skied on happily in the darkness along the groomed trail.

“This is further than I was the last time. I had to turn around then,” St. Pierre said. “This is what I wanted to learn. Just because I went out skiing before didn’t mean I knew what I was doing. I said to myself, if I can be comfortable going out by myself on trails, then I’ll go out all the time. If I can ski at night here, I can ski by myself during the day.”

The individual success enjoyed by St. Pierre is one example of the programs offered by the Maine Winter Sports Center, best known as the group behind the Olympic-development facilities in Aroostook County. But it’s so much more, offering youth development outdoor programs, young adult leadership wilderness trips, adult ski lessons, and rental equipment (such as mountain bikes, canoes and kayaks) to 140 communities across the state.

But all that hung in the balance when the Maine Winter Sports Center lost its funding from the Libra Foundation in 2014. Over 15 years, Libra poured nearly $34 million into the center. The funding paid for world-class Nordic ski venues in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, as well as eight full-time staff members and trailers full of sporting equipment. After Libra announced it would no longer offer funding, the center had three months to ensure it could meet its budget for the next fiscal year.

With the help of Presque Isle native Mary Barton Smith, the center was able to raise $1.4 million. Smith, a philanthropist who now lives in California, stepped up again last week – this time with a gift of $5 million to the center as it embarks on a $20 million endowment campaign.

“It’s funny, even in northern Maine, people still think the Maine Winter Sports Center is a place where World Cup events happen and that’s it,” said program director Mike Smith. “Thankfully, that is beginning to change. Folks in other parts of the state know that’s part of our history, but now they know we have equipment and rental programs, and an outdoor adventure program for kids and a master’s program for adults, which is excellent.”

Maine Winter Sports Center President Andy Shepard said the center has remained true to its mission since its inception in 1999: An organization working to make healthy outdoor lifestyles accessible to all Mainers.

“If programs in the community help people feel more proficient, that they know what they’re doing, they are more likely to participate in outdoor sports,” Shepard said. “What that means is that they’ll live a more active outdoor lifestyle. And that means they’ll value the land, and become better stewards of it.”

Last year, between Jacobs’ Bangor class and the one she leads in Waterville, she had 65 adults learning to ski or ski better. Two years ago she rolled out a similar program at the outer islands of Maine, teaching island youth through telecommunication calls in which she showed them how to cross-country ski and do drills. But teaching Mainers outdoor skills has to happen at all levels, Jacobs said.

“After 15 years of doing this we’ve learned a lot, and one thing we’ve learned is that if this is going to become a way of life for children, then we have to invest in adults, whether grandparents, parents, volunteers or teachers,” Jacobs said.

Forester Ken Laustsen joined Jacobs’ class in Waterville this month for the second year. He’s been Nordic skiing for decades, but Jacobs’ class taught him to ski better and, best of all, to ski at night.

“I’ve been cross-country skiing for 30 years and I’m still learning. The major thing it showed me is whether it’s at night, or 0 degrees or colder, we still ski,” Laustsen said.


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