Walking, Skiing, and Controlling Great Brook Farm State Park

Can cross-country skiers and walkers be friends? Or at least co-exist? That’s the dilemma facing users of Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle. According to the Boston Globe, the private concessionaire who runs the popular Great Brook Ski Touring Center in the park got a surprise from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) in his latest contract: a “parallel use’’ requirement mandating that trails groomed for skiers must also accommodate walkers and dogs alongside the ski tracks. Or, rather, on top of the ski tracks, transforming them into dog and people tracks which aren’t parallel at all. At issue: should a private concessionaire which serves a minority of users be able to take over the majority of a public park’s trails?

Local skiers are furious about “parallel use.” I realize that the majority of Bostonians do not own XC skis, much less use them here in Slushland, so let me explain why suburban skiers are so upset about this idea. Groomed trails with ski tracks on them are highway-smooth places where you can go fast. Dog tracks and footprints are potholes. Once you get enough tracks on a ski trail, skiing becomes an experience more akin to trying to drive through Purgatory Chasm than gliding on clean white air.

My personal experience from skiing on the Minuteman Bikeway in past years concurs with a Medford resident’s comment in the Globe piece: “In the Middlesex Fells, walkers and their dogs seem strangely drawn to walk on ski tracks, which can be irritating to skiers because it takes time to lay down nice tracks and a walker can destroy them in a few minutes.’’

In short, insisting on a “parallel use” of ski trails destroys the skiing. The question is, does the benefit of giving the trails over to walkers—who generally live near the park—outweigh the misery of the skiiers who come from around the region to ski at Great Brook? In short, does a state park serve the local community, or the region?

There are only two sites devoted to cross-country skiing inside Route 128: Great Brook and the Weston Ski Track. Since Great Brook doesn’t have snow-making machines, the trails are only usable for skiing a few weeks each year. In those weeks, though, the concessionaire sold 9,500 ski tickets in 2009-2010; that’s a lot of people, and an argument for devoting the trails to skiers. During skiing season, walkers still have access to trails on the west side of Lowell Road. However, that’s rather slim pickings compared to what the skiiers get, as you can see on this map. If you look at this map, though, it’s clear that there are several other parks in down where dog walkers can trample ski tracks with impunity. Must every trail be accessible to everyone at all times?

Fortunately, it appears some compromise has been reached. Carlisle’s state rep Cory Atkins posted this letter from the DCR on her web site. There will be a trail set aside for walkers, more signs and maps, and walkers will be encouraged to drink hot chocolate at Hart Barn. Perhaps sweet beverages will fortify the walkers to brave the frigid snowdrifts instead of canoodling in the ski tracks; who knows?

Curiously, skiers aren’t the only group that occasionally takes over Great Brook Farm State Park.  in 2003, a seven-month-old Sheltie puppy was caught and ravaged by dogs participating in an Old North Bridge Hounds fox hunt. After undergoing surgery the puppy survived…and so did the fox hunt, which ran hounds at Great Brook Farm State Park just this last fall. Frankly, I think I’d rather deal with angry skiers.

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