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Trail Mix

Fit To Live


Published November 22, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Forget Turkey Trots, long walks in the woods and praying for an early opening day at Killington. One of the best ways to torch the excesses of Thanksgiving dinner is cross-country skiing, which burns up to 1200 calories per hour. Sure, the snow has to fly first. But cross-country ski trail designer John Morton of Thetford Center is finding new ways around fickle Mother Nature, planning paths that hold the white stuff when it falls and providing other recreational options when it doesn't.

A former competitive Nordic skier, biathlete and coach who's participated in seven Olympic Winter Games, Morton, 60, travels around Vermont and the nation charting new courses. A classic and skate skier himself, he's helped configure trails everywhere from Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska to the Kingdom Trails near East Burke, Vermont, along with playgrounds for dozens of private landowners.

Morton is also the author of A Medal of Honor, a cross-country skiing novel whose sequel he's writing in between tramping new trails. (Though he admits that global warming makes the long-term future of Nordic skiing "anybody's guess," Morton assures us that his primary livelihood is intact.) Just before speaking at the annual meeting of the Catamount Trail Association in Bolton, Morton shared with Seven Days his thoughts on Nordic networks.

SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into cross-country skiing?

JOHN MORTON: I grew up in southern New Hampshire, and I skied a little bit in the back yard, but I never had any kind of instruction until high school. My junior year, the Eastern championships were at Middlebury, and one of our cross-country skiers got injured and the coach needed a warm body to replace him. He said, "Morton, why don't you take his place?" Basically, it was because I had the same shoe size. And I actually did OK. Then I went to Middlebury for college, and Bobo Sheehan, who was this legendary coach, said: "Hot-shot Alpine skiers are a dime a dozen. If you want to ski for Middlebury, you gotta learn how to ski cross-country."

SD: What about the trail design?

JM: The fellow that hired me as a coach at Dartmouth later became a Nordic consultant, and [he] had a project out in Minnesota and said, "I want to pick your brain about this biathlon range." When he passed away, there was a little bit of void - Nordic trail design is a tiny niche - and I was able to fill it.

SD: What are some of the most memorable courses you've designed?

JM: Probably the one in [South] Korea, for the winter World University Games in 1997. The Koreans took us around and showed us about 10 different possible locations, and one of the places had beautiful terrain, but there was a village of a couple hundred houses. We said, "What about all these houses?" And they said, "Oh, we'll move them!" Luckily, they ultimately picked a different location. I've also had several really rewarding projects up in Maine, one in Fort Kent and one in Presque Isle, that have since hosted major international events.

SD: How about here in Vermont? I know you designed Morse Farm.

JM: Yeah, that was a lot of fun; I really enjoyed that. Burr Morse is this classic Vermont character, very savvy, and he'll joke about the fact that he used to milk cows and now he milks tourists. He is a very hard worker, and as soon as I got the trails designed, he was out there cutting them and building them himself. I spent some time last summer working out at Trapp Family Lodge; they have some wonderful plans for enhancing and expanding their Nordic capabilities, very exciting plans. I also did a nice trail for Lamoille Union High School in Hyde Park.

SD: What's the minimum amount of land one would need to build a cross-country ski trail?

JM: There's almost no minimum - there have been really nifty trails that people have on 4 or 5 acres. It depends on the terrain. I have 65 acres, and a trail that's probably 3-and-a-half kilometers, but much of the property is a bog or wetland, and that's problematic in terms of trail design. You don't want to disrupt the environment. You have to think about usable acreage - some people have such steep land that, in reality, it's not practical.

SD: What's the largest project you've done?

JM: I did a trail for a fellow in northern New Hampshire who had leased the recreation rights from International Paper for 25,000 acres, and he wanted to do a series of hut-to-hut trails and was putting up yurts.

SD: Was that daunting?

JM: Yeah. Oftentimes I'll look at a map and say, "We've got a couple of logging roads here and the boundaries are marked." I don't bother bringing a compass or GPS or anything like that. On that project, there were days when I thought, "Where the heck am I? I'm a long way from my truck."

SD: What's the toughest trail, in terms of skiing it, that you've designed?

JM: I was asked to design the descent from the top of Oak Hill, the cross-country ski course Dartmouth uses in Hanover. The available space for the descent was very limited, so the trail is quite challenging. With ideal snow conditions the descent is a blast, but with marginal snow, hard-pack or ice, it can be a white-knuckle experience.

SD: And I read that you like to fool skiers when they're going uphill on a trail?

JM: Yeah, I think one of the goals is to try to make the uphills manageable, so people don't have this sense of dread and drudgery about the climb, and then to make the downhill worth it.

SD: How much do you get to ski the trails you've designed?

JM: That's the really fun part of my job. I try to incorporate that into my winter activities. But lately it's been a matter of trying to keep aware of what trails have decent skiing conditions - it's a little tricky.

SD: So how has the weather, like last season's lack of snow, affected you as a trail designer?

JM: I often tell potential clients that if a trail is well designed for cross-country skiing, you can get by with a lot less snow. If it's well designed and well built, you can groom it and ski on it with 8 or 10 inches of snow.

SD: What are some of the design factors that would help to hold snow?

JM: Designing the trails wider, so the snow that falls actually reaches the ground - it's not held up in the canopy of the trees. I also try to avoid slopes that face the southern sunshine, and I'm mindful of open fields and pastures that are going to be windblown.

SD: Are there any telltale signs for this winter's snow?

JM: Oh, boy. I just attended a conference of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, and the final speaker was a scientist who does core samples in glaciers, and it didn't sound like good news. All of the evidence points toward more warming and less snow.

SD: But luckily your trails can be used for other sports, too? Like mountain biking and trail running?

JM: Yeah, exactly.