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Middlebury Trailrunner: The Skater's Waltz

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Posted on February 17, 2010 | Blog Category:
By Jeff Byers



With the dearth of fresh snow and thinning cover, I usually head for higher altitude terrain. While pleasantly surprised by the conditions at the Rikert Ski Touring area last weekend, I had a hunch that the cover would be even better on Forest Service 59, which has the advantage of being just a little higher up the mountainside. Skate skis are usually the best call in these conditions – it is hard to set the good deep tracks for optimal classic skiing when the cover is light.

Forest Service 59 is the dirt road which passes behind the Breadloaf Campus before climbing into the mountains and eventually looping into backroads Ripton. While the road is fully accessible to 2WD vehicles in the summer, it is plowed for only the first mile or so, and never sanded during the winter. Nonetheless, the lower segment makes for poor skiing due to the modest vehicular traffic it receives. One can reach the well-covered upper reaches through the Rikert trail system, however. On this day, I warmed up with an easy partial loop on the Batell Trail. After the short descent on this well-travelled trail, take a hard right up the short climb onto Fletcher, and another right turn shortly thereafter onto Gilman. After crossing FS 59 at this point, follow Gilman for a kilometer or so, until it rejoins FS 59 higher up. Here, take a left turn onto 59, but if the cover is thin, don’t worry about it, as this only lasts for a hundred yards or so. You will immediately reach a sign indicating the end of winter maintenance for motorized vehicles (other than snowmobiles), and this is where the skating gets great.

This road is maintained for snowmobile travel for many miles, and I have found that the groomer which they use for these machines makes for a near perfect ski skating surface. Thanks once again to VAST and the snowmobilers who support it! You can also ski here on classic skis, or course, but the wide road, lack of tracks, and frankly, lack of snowmobiles, makes a long easy skate most appealing.

At this point, you can pretty much go as far as you want. The road climbs gradually, but relentlessly for about 10-15 min until you reach the height of land. From this point on, the skiing is very easy, with a few short descents and climbs, and is a great place to really stretch out your stride and go for great gliding. I found this trail very reminiscent of much of the course for the Gatineau 55, a ski marathon on the Worldloppet tour which I sort of competed in many years ago. No time for a marathon today, so for my much shorter ski I arbitrarily chose to turn around after a few miles at the Sawmill Clearing, which also serves as the trailhead for the easy climb up to Breadloaf Mountain. Perhaps I will carry my snowshoes on my back another day to add this climb to the short ski tour.

While you know you are going uphill most of the way out, you don’t realize how much you have climbed until your return – I was amazed to see that my return took barely half the time of my trip out. Cruising back to the touring center by pretty much the same route made this a 13 km (8 mile) trip – just right for a busy Saturday when I had other family needs to attend to.

profile of fs 59

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Altitude Proflie

Jeff Byers is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Middlebury College. He also writes the Middlebury Trailrunner blog. We'll be periodically highlighting posts from his blog, but for more recommendations for trailrunning and cross country skiing in the county, head to his Web site.

This entry was originally posted on Feb. 8, 2010.

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