Nordic trail with snowmaking on track to open this winter in Hanover

Tom Wells, owner of Royal Trail Works, looks over a portion of a three-kilometer cross country ski trail built by his crew at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Oak Hill will be used by Dartmouth’s Nordic ski program and will be home to the NCAA Skiing Championships in 2025, but it will also be open for use by community members. “We want the community to be able to use this asset,” said Peter Milliken, Friends of Oak Hill board chair. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Tom Wells, owner of Royal Trail Works, looks over a portion of a three-kilometer cross country ski trail built by his crew at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Oak Hill will be used by Dartmouth’s Nordic ski program and will be home to the NCAA Skiing Championships in 2025, but it will also be open for use by community members. “We want the community to be able to use this asset,” said Peter Milliken, Friends of Oak Hill board chair. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Nick Ross, of Holderness, N.H., welds two sections of steel pipe together at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. A crew from Royalton Trail Works is placing about 22,000 feet of steel and high density polyethylene pipe to use in snowmaking operations along the cross country ski trail. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Nick Ross, of Holderness, N.H., welds two sections of steel pipe together at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. A crew from Royalton Trail Works is placing about 22,000 feet of steel and high density polyethylene pipe to use in snowmaking operations along the cross country ski trail. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Snowmaking hydrants are placed every hundred feet along a cross country ski trail at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Friends of Oak Hill board chair Peter Milliken, who has also worked as a coach at Ford Sayre Ski Club, said a major barrier to getting youth involved in cross country skiing has been a lack of consistent natural snow and unpredictable winter weather. “Now we won’t have to cancel practice,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Snowmaking hydrants are placed every hundred feet along a cross country ski trail at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. Friends of Oak Hill board chair Peter Milliken, who has also worked as a coach at Ford Sayre Ski Club, said a major barrier to getting youth involved in cross country skiing has been a lack of consistent natural snow and unpredictable winter weather. “Now we won’t have to cancel practice,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

A cross country ski trail designed by John Morton winds through the woods at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. The trail runs through land owned by Dartmouth and the Hanover Improvement Society, and will draw water from Storrs Pond for snowmaking. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A cross country ski trail designed by John Morton winds through the woods at Oak Hill Outdoor Center in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. The trail runs through land owned by Dartmouth and the Hanover Improvement Society, and will draw water from Storrs Pond for snowmaking. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-31-2023 10:40 AM

HANOVER — There are a couple words that come up repeatedly when people describe what they’re looking forward to the most about the completion of Oak Hill Outdoor Center: consistency and predictability.

That’s because when the cross country ski center reopens this season, there will be a new three-kilometer trail with snowmaking capabilities. That will be a boon to the Upper Valley’s Nordic skiers, including children who participate in Ford Sayre Ski Council programs, community members who love to ski but struggle to find good snow, and Dartmouth College’s Nordic team.

“If you want to be viable, you’ve got to have snowmaking,” said Peter Milliken, chairman of the Friends of Oak Hill, a nonprofit organization that formed to raise funds and manage the renovation of the center, which is owned by Dartmouth and leased by the nonprofit.

The projected cost of the renovation is $5.5 million, which is jointly funded by Dartmouth and funds raised by Friends of Oak Hill. Construction is expected to be completed by mid-November, with trails opening in December. Season passes went on sale earlier this month. Oak Hill will tentatively be open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through March, weather permitting.

Tom Wells, owner of Royal Trail Works, who has spent decades building snowmaking systems for skiing spots all over the country, has been hard at work on the project all year. While the majority of his work has been at Alpine ski centers, in the last few years he has taken on more Nordic projects. The one at Oak Hill is Wells’ third.

“It’s just developing now,” Wells said during an interview at Oak Hill last week. “With climate change, it is the future.”

The Nordic snowmaking projects also are more complex. In Alpine courses, water drains down much steeper slopes. But Nordic courses have more ups and downs, which means there are more drains and retention ponds needed.

“This takes much longer,” Wells said. “You have to have low-point drains; otherwise, the pipes will freeze.”

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The work on the pipes themselves also is more time-intensive because cross country ski courses tend to have more curves and turns.

“There’s twice as much welding on the Nordic side,” Wells said.

“I think these guys are artists,” Milliken added during an interview at Oak Hill. “You can really see the attention to detail.”

The renovation started last winter, when logging was done on Oak Hill to make room for the trail improvements. Construction was more or less going as planned until the wet summer — particularly July’s floods — caused delays. Now, the project is about three weeks to a month behind schedule, and workers have been at Oak Hill every day to get it ready for the upcoming season. As a result of the heavy rains, Wells and others involved rethought part of the original plans and added more retention ponds.

“It allowed us to adapt the design to allow us to be even more aware of the environmental impact,” Friends of Oak Hill board member Matt Rightmire said during a tour of Oak Hill along with Milliken. Next summer, they plan on installing lights to allow for night skiing and redo the parking lot. There also is talk of adding solar panels so that they can offset the energy they use for snowmaking.

In addition to adding snowmaking, the renovation includes changing a portion of the three-kilometer trails to lessen the steep grade and make parts of it more beginner-friendly.

“We’re trying to get people who maybe haven’t done a lot of skiing,” Milliken said. “Accessibility is a big mission.”

Accessibility also is important to members of Ford Sayre, an Upper Valley nonprofit organization that provides ski lessons to children and trains teams that compete, in addition to other programs in both Alpine and Nordic skiing. Previously, athletes would have to travel to places like Middlebury, Vt., and Craftsbury, Vt., to find Nordic ski centers with snowmaking. The NCAA is planning on hosting the Nordic half of its collegiate skiing championships at Oak Hill in 2025.

That applies to both college and high school athletes, in addition to new skiers. Hilary McNamee, who started coaching in the Ford Sayre program around 2011, while she was a undergraduate student at Dartmouth, and has been the Nordic head coach since 2018, said reliable snow conditions have become more scarce in recent years.

“It would be like if you’re a soccer player and you don’t know when you show up for practice or a game if the field is going to be there and if it is, is the grass going to be 12 inches long? Are there going to be holes in the ground?” McNamee said in a phone interview.

In addition to cutting down on travel time, Ford Sayre will be able to hold events of their own at Oak Hill.

“We were reluctant to host races because we couldn’t assure that we would have snow to race in,” McNamee said. “That predictability of our gathering spot … we can host a race, we can host an event, knowing there’s a darn good chance we’ll have snow.”

The roughly 300 students involved in Ford Sayre’s K-8 program do not travel beyond Hanover and either go to Oak Hill, Garipay Field, the former Hanover Country Club golf course or Fullington Farm.

“It’s not practical, and we only have them for an hour when we do have practices,” McNamee said.

While coaches can work on techniques and play games that teach youngsters ski-specific skills, it doesn’t come close to replacing snow skills.

“It’s hard to motivate a kid to participate in a ski team if we don’t actually get to ski,” McNamee said. “The joy of our sport is going fast on snow on skis. If we’re not on skis, it’s not as fun.”

Part of Oak Hill’s trails go onto land owned by the Hanover Improvement Society, a nonprofit organization that runs Storrs Pond Recreation Area. Members of the Hanover Improvement Society are excited about Oak Hill’s new trails, said Aricca Van Citters, who is chair of the board. There is hope that by having consistently good conditions close by, more people will take up skiing — especially those who might not have been interested in doing so before.

“It’s really enhancing what has existed, making it more accessible to families, to the community,” Van Citters, who is also a Friends of Oak Hill board member and a coach through Ford Sayre, said in a phone interview last week. “It’s a lot easier to participate in or try out if it’s in your own backyard.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.