Dustin Williamson has never seen a high school Nordic ski season like this in Maine.
Every Maine high school Nordic ski race south of Caribou has been either moved, postponed or canceled this winter due to the lack of snow, according to Williamson, the head Nordic ski coach at Leavitt Area High School in Turner who is in his 20th year of coaching.
“There have been seasons where we did some runs in the middle of the season of no snow but nothing like this,” said Williamson, who also runs Maine High School Skiing, where he catalogs every race, postponement, cancellation, location change and result. “I can’t remember coming back from Christmas vacation and having no snow to use. I have been doing this for 20 years and this is the most unusual season.”
While the lack of snow throughout the state has hindered a variety of traditional outdoor activities, including snowmobiling and ice fishing, it’s proving especially difficult for high school athletes who have a limited opportunity to practice and compete. The weather is forcing coaches to change how the teams train and adjust their schedules to accommodate the limited racing opportunities.
“I think we had one year in the ’90s that was almost like this,” said Orono’s Nordic ski coach, Cid Dyjak. “Historically the state meet is in the February break week and I think one year we probably were able to classic ski once or twice before states and that was it. It happens, but this year is really challenging.”
In Turner, Leavitt has no snow to use. In Orono, Dyjak has a small area on a field that the Red Riots can ski on in circles but it has a lot of ice. None of Orono’s wooded trails are usable. Dyjak, like many coaches across the state, has had to adjust the team’s training routines.
“We don’t have a complete set of roller skis but we have some, so some kids do that,” Dyjak said. “A couple weeks ago we had a skier and their dad make some ramps for us and so some kids were on the ramps. We play a lot of games, as you can imagine, that involve fitness and running. We try to mix it up.”
The Bangor International Airport has tallied 13 inches of snow this winter, according to the National Weather Service. While there are still a couple months left of snowfall, last year’s total in Bangor was 65 inches. In December alone, the Portland International Jetport accumulated just 4.7 inches, compared with 12.1 the previous year.
The lack of snow has totally changed what teams can do to practice and compete. Now practices have become focused on specific drills, while skiing has been few and far between.
“We’ve had a couple weeks of good skiing but a lot of time not on snow. That’s really hard for people who are learning,” Mt. Blue Nordic coach Emmy Held said. “It’s frustrating as a coach because I want to work on technique and starts and the nitty-gritty stuff, and we haven’t been able to work on it.”
While athletes haven’t had a lot of practice time, coaches say that morale around the teams has stayed high. They have pivoted to focusing on strength and technique, while others have created games to keep practices high-spirited.
“The kids have a game called ‘skister,’ which is like soccer with skis and it is a complete riot,” Dyjak said. “They don’t use their poles, it’s a lot of laughing, turning, falling but it’s a lot of fun and they get comfortable on their skis. It’s a decade-old game that has just kept going and it’s become ingrained in our program.”
The conditions have forced schools to adjust on the fly to find new racing locations and dates.
On Wednesday, some teams were able to travel to Sugarloaf for the Billy Chenard Memorial Scholarship Race that was originally scheduled for Dec. 19. The Roy Varney Hornet Classic that was scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 14, at Leavitt will now be held Monday, Jan. 16 at Quarry Road in Waterville, one of the only locations in the area with usable Nordic trails thanks to its snow-making capabilities.
Races including the Telstar Relays and the Marlee Race at Kents Hill have been canceled this winter, and even Caribou High School hasn’t been able to host races, according to the school’s athletic director, Evan Graves.
“I don’t feel comfortable holding races here but Fort Kent and Madawaska have bigger bases and they’ve been able to host a few races,” Graves said. “We’ve had to get creative and shift venues around to get our kids racing in preparation for the state meet in February.”
Graves, who used to coach Nordic skiing, said that the school’s Nordic team is able to practice but there are parts of the trail where the athletes have to walk over ice, making it unsafe for races.
The National Weather Service predicted Caribou would receive 8 to 12 inches of snow on Thursday night, while in Bangor it’s predicted the area will receive less than an inch. High temperatures will then cover much of central and southern Maine on Friday — including a predicted high of 52 degrees Fahrenheit in Bangor — that will likely ruin Nordic trails even more.
Coaches all over Maine agree that there’s never been a Nordic season like this year’s.
“We’ve had snow late before but nothing to this capacity where we’re chomping at the bit to get a race in,” Graves said. “It’s never been this bad. We have the best venues around and we aren’t able to use them for our kids.”