WATERVILLE — With the first major snowfall having come and gone in the central Maine area, the staff at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville is prepping for the winter season.

With plenty of COVID-19 precautions in place, snow-making diligence and an upbeat attitude, the staff and volunteers of the recreation area have provided Waterville-area residents with substantial opportunities for a break from the pandemic and a breath of fresh air and exercise on the 13 kilometers of Nordic ski trails.

“We’re looking forward to a good winter,” said Justin Fereshetian, program director and Nordic ski coach for the city of Waterville and Quarry Road Trails. “We’re still going to try to hold on to whatever sense of normalcy we can, but obviously this is a different year, and we’re going to have to be a bit more diligent in making sure that we keep everybody safe.”

Quarry Road Trails is completely outdoors and open. The park does not need to follow 100-person gathering limits during daily operations. Trail managers follow the guidelines for outdoor parks and trails, according to a Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention spokesperson. Individuals can come and ski wherever they want, but are required to stay distanced and wear masks at all times.

The organization acquired trailside QR codes for contactless trail pass purchases. The welcome center is not yet open, but when it does, the public will not be allowed inside. It will operate on a one-way, curbside model that the public has become familiar with during the pandemic.

Walking, snowshoeing and biking trails are available during the winter.

“We’re going to keep the public entirely outside, essentially meaning that your vehicle is like your mini lodge,” Fereshetian said. “That’s the safest thing that we can do. Being outside is way better COVID-wise than being in our tiny little welcome center.”

Dave MacLeay adjusts the pressure of a snow gun Tuesday at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

KEEPING THE COMMUNITY ENGAGED 

As the pandemic looms large, the Quarry Road Trails staff are doing their best to keep programs alive. The Central Maine Ski Club, which includes a youth program and middle and high school teams, is still running. Participants are required to be masked at all times, even while skiing, and complete health screenings are required before every practice.

The number of participants on the middle and high school teams has risen, the former having begun this week and the latter in mid-November. The high school team trains year-round. Officials expect the youth program to also see a rise in participation.

“The fact that we’re outdoors and on skis helps us out in terms of being able to have fresh air, and the skis themselves kind of lend themselves to keeping us a little bit distanced,” Fereshetian said. “We’re just trying to be more mindful of it with the pandemic.” 

Caroline Mathes, the youth program head coach since the club’s inception over a dozen years ago, said there were more than 80 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade involved last year and there are 42 now with three weeks left to sign up.

With Colby College students not volunteering to coach this year, parents are encouraged to learn and practice with their children.

Patrick Cote, who has coached the middle school team since the program’s start, capped the roster at just over 30 participants, a half-dozen or so more than previous years. All of the Central Maine Ski Club coaches are volunteers.

“I think it’s really important for people to get outside, and it’s one of the safer group activities,” Mathes said. “For myself it’s important to share the learning experiences. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’ll still be fun and create fun stuff to do.”

The high school team practices six days per week, the middle school team three days per week with weekend races.

Cote said the Central Maine Ski Club has strict masking requirements, and most skiers on colder days wear buffs close to the face. Being on skis generally encourages physical distancing.

“There’s a lot of stuff there like, ‘oh, kids can’t breathe if they have a mask on, etc.,'” Cote said. “We’re just saying, if you have to slow down because you can’t get enough oxygen, then just slow down.”

There is no indoor space available during practices this year. Cote anticipates having to cancel practices this winter if it’s too cold. Practices used to be canceled when temperatures reached below 5 degrees. That number that will trigger a halt, which Cote hasn’t pinpointed yet, will be higher.

A family finishes an evening of Nordic skiing Tuesday as snowmaking operations are underway at Quarry Road Trails in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“If it’s 10 or 12 degrees and we’ve got no space for the kid with the frozen toes, we might have to think otherwise,” Cote said. “It’s those types of days.”

The Friends of Quarry Road, an independent nonprofit group that raises money for the park and provides volunteers for programming, started the Central Maine Ski Club before the Waterville Parks and Recreation Department took it over.

For this winter, the Friends raised grant money for improvements to the 1,942-meter Wally’s Way trail.

“We’ve been super happy to support the development of the park, and at the Friends, we’ve always thought outdoor recreation is really important,” said Joe Reisert, president of the Friends board of directors and a political science professor at Colby College. “It sure looks like cross-country skiing out in the woods, out in the air, out in the sunshine is going to be safer this winter. I’m a skier. I’m really eager to get out there.”

Fereshetian and a slew of workers and volunteers finished a 64-hour snow making run on Wednesday, the longest such run during his 14 months on the job by more than 20 hours. Previously with the Outdoor Sport Institute in Caribou as the Nordic development director/head coach and initiative coordinator, Fereshetian recognizes the importance of giving individuals an outlet for exercise and outdoors experiences during the pandemic.

Skiers of all levels are encouraged to go to Quarry Road Trails, and the staff looks to make the most out of a unique winter.

“I think we’re excited this could potentially bring people into the sport,” Fereshetian said. “Obviously, we’re not excited about the pandemic, but if one effect of it is that it gets more people outside on skis during the winter, then that in and of itself is a positive thing.”

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