RANGELEY, Maine -- Moose hoofprints in the cross-country ski tracks aren't all that unusual to a guy like Jeff Foltz.
''When we were flagging the trails a day didn't go by that we didn't see two or three moose," said Foltz, a longtime member of the Rangeley Lakes
In the land where snowmobiling is king, a resilient club of Nordic skiers has opened a new network of trails near the base of Saddleback Mountain in western Maine.
It is in wild country where the Saddleback Range beckons as backdrop, frost heaves rule the roads, and massive Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic lakes are locked frozen in winter's grip.
The Rangeley Lakes Trails Center opened in December on the access road to Saddleback ski area and has 40 kilometers of largely forested trails that cruise through the woods for skate and classical skiers.
The 250 member nonprofit club runs the operation on land leased from the family owners of Saddleback Mountain, led by retired college professor Bill Berry. The Berrys purchased the mountain in 2003 and have embarked on an expansion program -- more trails, a renovated base lodge, new quad lift, paved access road, and slopeside townhouses. But missing was a cross-country area, something the Berrys wanted to round out the mountain's attraction. The club's lease is for 15 years.
''This is a perfect fit with what Saddleback is doing now," Saddleback general manager Tom McAllister said. ''The Alpine area is undergoing major improvements and having a good cross-country ski center is good for the project."
Timing is everything. As it turns out, the club, which has been around for 15 years, was looking for a new home for its trails.
In the beginning, according to Foltz, a handful of skiers convinced the town of Rangeley to allow them to use a snowmobile trail groomer to sweep a 2-kilometer ski loop built by volunteers. Skier interest grew and over the years the trail network expanded to become the Rangeley Municipal Trails. Several landowners, including the town, gave permission for the club to build a larger system that eventually grew to 75 kilometers along Route 4. The club began more grooming and fund-raising. The members put up donation boxes as skiers from outside Rangeley used the system. They eventually put up a ticket shack, maintained parking, purchased a grooming machine, and even had the use of a vacation home to serve as a base lodge.
But over time, some of the land was subdivided and sold.
''We saw the handwriting on the wall," Foltz said. ''We figured the land was going to get chopped up sooner or later and along came Bill Berry and his family. They wanted a cross-country ski area and one thing led to another."
Aided by grant money, volunteers, and private donations, Foltz and forester Burnham Martin surveyed and mapped the land with GPS. Foltz got some insights from Marty Hall, the Bowdoin College Nordic coach and former US Ski Team coach. On the acreage were old skidder roads and abandoned Nordic trails from a long dormant cross-country network. The land sloped to Saddleback Lake, the Alpine area's snowmaking pond. The trails cross the frozen lake with an incredible vista of Saddleback's downhill trails. One trail follows the pipeline, another goes along a ridge. There are several stream crossings over bridges. Trails twist and turn, others are flat and straight. Junctions are handily marked. Considering the winter, the snow cover has been decent, but doesn't blanket the rocks, branches, and cut trees along the lanes.
Rangeley resident Heidi Sorenson uses the trails a few times a week and has skied in the area for several years.
''These trails are easier in some ways," she said. ''I find it easier in terms of terrain and being able to stay oriented."
A tent-like yurt serves as a temporary base lodge until a permanent one is built. There are rentals, light snacks, a groomer, waxing shed, and portable toilets.
''We are very grateful to the Berry family," center manager Pete Christensen said. ''We can't thank them enough for this opportunity."
The idea, according to Christensen, is to make the center a year-round destination with mountain biking, hiking, and other activities during the non-snow months. Snowshoers are welcome on the trails and the center is hosting the TD Banknorth Rangeley Lakes Loppet March 4, which last year attracted 360 skiers at the network's former location.
''Some skiers do miss the other trails," Christensen said. ''I wouldn't say they are better or worse, just different."
Though the trail system is not complete, Foltz said he would like to see a system capable of holding World Cup competitions and sustaining an outreach program to area-school children.
''We built about 60 percent of what it took us almost 15 years to build somewhere else and we did it in one summer," Foltz said. ''We gained some experience I suppose."