Just gliding along

The economy’s gone downhill, but local ski areas have dumped the frills and experienced nary a bump

Cross-country skiers Hamish McEwen of Weston and Neil Garrison of Boxborough tackle the Weston Ski Track, which has expanded its lighting system. Cross-country skiers Hamish McEwen of Weston and Neil Garrison of Boxborough tackle the Weston Ski Track, which has expanded its lighting system. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / January 3, 2010

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Ski season is here, but if you’re feeling the pinch from either holiday bills or the lingering recession, there are economical ways to hit the slopes or trails close to home.

And local ski areas are working hard to make sure you know about them.

The Weston Ski Track, which bills itself as the country’s first cross-country center to make its own snow (starting in 1974), is expanding its popular night operation with the help of a new lighting system.

The Wachusett Mountain Ski Area in Princeton is using everything from Facebook to Twitter to give skiers a heads-up on the latest conditions. And the Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford is offering more flexible lesson packages.

“We’re cheaper than a lot of the destination places,’’ said Al Fletcher, Nashoba’s general manager. “On top of all that, we’re an easy ride, right off 495.’’

Downhill skiing fared well in Massachusetts last winter despite the economy, according to a report from the National Ski Areas Association. Visits were up 7.6 percent over the previous season, to just under 1.5 million.

Nationwide, the recession probably caused skiers to take fewer overnight trips in favor of more-affordable day trips, the report said.

Figures are not yet available for the 2008-’09 cross-country ski season, but last month’s snowfall got this winter off to a good start, said Chris Frado, executive director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, which includes eight Massachusetts areas.

“When there is snow on the ground before Christmas, it is a huge shot in the arm for the industry,’’ she said.

One theory on why the recession hasn’t much affected local ski areas is that all were able to provide good snow the last two seasons, thanks to cold temperatures.

“Our focus is really snow-making,’’ said Mark Jacobson, the Weston Ski Track’s manager. “It’s great when it snows, but our machine-made snow really makes the difference. We don’t really count on the natural snow.’’

In an effort to create conditions that are consistent and reliable, the Weston Ski Track boasts one of the largest cross-country snowmaking systems in New England. But this year, new lights have been added as well.

Jacobson said night skiing is a favorite for commuters, with many of them driving past the track, which operates on the Leo J. Martin Memorial Golf Course near the Interstate 90-Route 128 interchange, on their way home from work.

The facility offers rentals and lessons for both skiing and snowshoeing. It’s annual Winter Trails Day, being held on Saturday, will feature free snowshoe demonstrations, guided tours, and music.

This season’s offerings will also include the first “Ski Like a Girl Day’’ on Jan. 23. The female-only program will provide feedback on skiing technique from experts, nutrition advice, and sports psychology. The $10 registration fee does not include a trail pass or ski rentals.

The snowmaking season got off to a slow start at the Wachusett ski area, according to marketing director Tom Meyers. Normally, the downhill facility opens the day after Thanksgiving, but unseasonably warm temperatures delayed the start until Dec. 8, he said.

Wachusett has been working on improving communication with customers via the Internet. This season, for the first time, daily snow reports can be viewed online, so skiers can see pictures of the conditions while they’re hearing about them from staff.

“As is the case with most things relating to the Internet and social media, they are works in progress,’’ said Meyers. “They evolve every day.’’

He said Wachusett is also trying to better use text and e-mail messaging as well as Twitter and Facebook, particularly to draw in younger skiers.

For example, customers who sign up for the text-messaging service receive special offers, he said.

Another change: Customers can buy a daily lift ticket online anytime and have it waiting for them when they arrive. In prior years, customers had to think ahead and buy the ticket by 8 p.m. the night before, he said.

“We’re working hard to establish more convenience,’’ said Meyers.

On the mountain, Wachusett has made improvements to its grooming capabilities with new equipment, he said. Wachusett grooms its trails twice a day, in the morning and at 4 p.m. for night skiers.

Some might assume snow can be made once the temperature hits 32 degrees, but actually it has to dip quite a bit below that.

“We like to have a six-hour or more window in the mid-20s to consider making snow,’’ said Al Fletcher, general manager at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area and Snow Tubing Park.

Nashoba claims the largest snow-tube park in New England and offers both night skiing and night tubing.

Nashoba has done well during the recession, said Fletcher, because it has kept people closer to home. But customers aren’t necessarily upgrading their purchases like they used to, so Nashoba has started offering more flexible lesson packages to attract people with busy schedules.

“We understand it’s been tough for people, but we want to keep our customer base,’’ he said. “You can definitely find a bargain here.’’

The biggest change for the season, said Fletcher, is a “drastically updated’’ snow-making system.

Its cost was steep up front, but the system is much more powerful and will burn less fossil fuel, he said.

“Not only was it ecologically a really good thing, it was economically a really good thing,’’ said Fletcher.

“It produces more snow.’’

For more information about the Weston Ski Track, visit; for the Wachusett ski area,; and Nashoba Valley, Lisa Kocian can be reached at