The Man and the Method: John Morton, Morton Trails

March 4, 20101
Aerial of the trails at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, ME
John Morton

John Morton received this year’s EISA Service Award for the work he has done in trail design which has so positively affected many communities and nordic skiers; racers and recreational tourists alike.  Many of the EISA college races are run on trails that he has designed or modified, including the new homologated race courses at Trapps Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, and The Jackson Touring Center in New Hampshire.

Morton is a two-time Olympian who grew up in Walpole, New Hampshire competing in slalom, downhill and jumping, as well as cross country. His aptitude for cross country skiing emerged when he attended Middlebury College, where he was EISA champion twice and a runner-up at the NCAA’s.  He coached at Dartmouth for 11 years (“I have mixed loyalties!” he admits) before starting Morton Trails.

In the last 18 years he has designed trails not only for private landowners,  schools, and resorts, but for major international events such as the World University Games and Biathlon World Cups – and  in locations ranging from Alaska and Wisconsin to South Korea and the Scottish Highlands.

One of the many world-class race venues designed by Morton Trails is the site of the upcoming Junior Olympics: the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, Maine, a venue run by the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC).  Here is the story of the how this venue came to be, and Morton’s design philosophy.

Nordic Heritage Center: A world-class facility

“The goal from the beginning was to create a facility that could bid for and host major national and international events.” – John Morton, on the Presque Isle course design.

Striking a Balance:

One of the toughest balancing points of trail design – specifically competition centers such as the Nordic Heritage Center –  is to meet the needs of a wide range of trail users. Often, sites get funding for trail construction with an elite level competition in mind.

But Morton considers the whole ski community when he begins creating course composition.

“In reality,” Morton says, “most of the use of the facility is going to be local residents or high school kids, or college teams, or recreational skiers, and to me, it’s a terrible waste of resources if a trail is built for a specific event but then it isn’t suitable for any other uses after that.”

“My general philosophy is to try to make the climbs manageable,” continues Morton, “in other words, I’m not afraid to put tough climbs in, because that’s part of the sport, but I’m not into making them crippling.”

There are, Morton concedes, several “relatively” challenging downhills and corners on the Heritage Center courses – an average skier might find them technically demanding, but not dangerous, whereas a talented racer will find them “really exciting and invigorating.”

“They’re fun,” says Morton, “they make the uphills worth it. . .that’s one of the goals. . . to make the descents worth the climb!”

Morton concludes, “The goal is to make a trail that is challenging for the elite racers but still be manageable for everybody else and I think that the Presque Isle site fulfills that goal.”

On course: Racers at a 2009 Eastern Cup competition

The Vision:

Though John Morton was the heavy hand behind trail design, the vision of such a nordic center came from Andy Shepard, who partnered with Max Cobb to work on the plan.  Shepard, president and chief executive of Maine Winter Sports Center, grew up skiing in Yarmouth, Maine, and studied engineering at the University of Maine. Working at the Freeport L.L. Bean Center for 16 years, Shepard has been a life-long advocate of healthy living, with an emphasis on outdoor sport.

Also growing up on the east coast, Cobb loved the sport of biathlon (he says he was first motivated to try the sport after an inspirational talk by then-Dartmouth coach, John Morton).  Cobb has worked with the U.S. Biathlon team since 1989 and is now the Executive Director.  Cobb is a well respected and often requested TD and referee for major international biathlon events, including his recent role as manager of biathlon at the Vancouver Olympics.

Shepard brought vision and enthusiasm, and Cobb had international experience and biathlon expertise.  John Morton, with his own racing experience, knowledge of the east coast, and design expertise, was just the man they needed to help them find a location and plan an optimal venue.

Shepard and Cobb already had in mind a general area where they wanted to build the center: Aroostook County.  The northern most county in Maine, Aroostook first saw its nordic introduction in the 1870’s, when several Swedish families brought their native activity to their new home in America.

Aroostook County, the northern most county in Maine

Rural Areas = successful Nordic racers

In communicating with competitors and coaches in Scandinavia, Cobb learned that it was becoming harder and harder to find successful athletes who came from larger towns and cities like Stockholm and Oslo.  Instead, most of the successful racers came from rural areas – often significantly disadvantaged areas.  In these areas the children were hard workers, and without the “popular distractions” of urban areas, the young athletes were willing to fully commit themselves to the sport.

It did not escape the men’s notice that Aroostook County also saw a bountiful and reliable amount of snowfall each year.

Presenting their Mission

The three men initiated the project by making a presentation to the Libra Foundation, whose mission is to enrich the communities and enhance the quality of life of Maine citizens.  When presenting their idea their purpose was clear and simple.  “We wanted to reestablish nordic skiing as a lifestyle in Aroostook County,” says Morton.  They were subsequently awarded a large grant and the project began in earnest.

“I knew from Day 1 that the goal was to create a world class competition facility.”

Morton had already been designing courses for 10 years by the time he was contacted by Shepard, and he knew what he was looking for when searching out possible venues.  One of the proposed areas, an abandoned airstrip, was tempting as a way of recycling an abandoned site and regenerating the community around it, but because of the general nature of an airstrip – think 2 miles of very wide, flat terrain – it did not have the variety that Morton knew was needed.

The location Morton kept coming back to was a large ridge known as the Quoggy Joe Ridge, which at one time had been a small alpine area.  The ridge not only had ideal terrain, but as Morton explained, “it was desirable because it was equidistant between Caribou, Presque Isle, and Fort Fairfield – three key communities in the central part of the county.”

The downside: there were nearly ten different landowners who had stake in the area.  To the rescue: Brian Hamel, of Loring Development.  Though Hamel reportedly rolled his eyes at Morton’s proposed location, he then went about making the acquisition happen. Hamel negotiated purchase agreements and easements to secure the property, and with this major obstacle out of the way, the development began.

A racer skis through the stadium

On Site Construction – And – An Unique Feature

While Morton designed the trails, Shephard raised additional funding  and Cobb looked into the details of the biathlon area.  Another man who, according to Morton, “deserves a lot of credit” is Max Saenger.  Saenger was the MWSC program director at the time (and most recently the Vancouver Olympic sports manager for biathlon) and had the charge of overseeing all on-site construction of facilities around the Heritage Lodge.

One thing that was troubling Morton was the limited area on the ridge in which to fit the penalty loop for the biathlon range.  It was Cobb who proposed the idea of looping the penalty lane around the main lodge.  By building a bridge from the spectator areas to the lodge, it would not only make this proposition feasible, but could also make for more exciting viewing of the races.

So that is exactly how the penalty loop was designed, and as far as Morton knows it is the only penalty lap designed in this unique way.  When the 2006 Biathlon Junior World Championships was held at the Heritage Center, the feature was greeted with enthusiasm, as was every aspect of the range and trails. The facility received rave reviews from coaches, athletes, and spectators alike.

Racers ski on the lap course that circles the lodge

And now. . .

Now in its eighth year, the Nordic Heritage Center will further it’s achievements when it hosts nearly 1,000 athletes (ages 14-19), coaches, and spectators at the 2010 Junior Olympics.

With 10-15” of snow base on the recently widened trails, the Center and its race courses are ready for action.

Morton Trails

Maine Winter Sports Center

2010 Junior Olympics

5km Junior Olympic skate course at the Nordic Heritage Center, Presque Isle

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One comment

  • nordicmatt

    March 5, 2010 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for high-lighting John and his work. He has had a lot of great influence on trail work. While it has been noted in his resume on the work he did regarding the Kincaid Park biathlon stadium and range, it should be noted that he played a role in the development of Kincaid Park going back to the 70’s when the area was first surplused by the Army. Those early trail designs were incorporated into what are now the homologated 5 and 7.5 k courses which took into account trail design from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and ’00’s. It just so happens that these initial trails had the character as technical, varied, and fun courses to ski which meet the demands of today’s competitions. In addition, they get a lot of use from the general public in all seassons. Of course, I am rather biased because of the hours spent crunching numbers, but I have the Kincaid Park “pioneers” to thank for that. Thanks again, John.
    Matthew T. Pauli

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