CANAAN VALLEY, W.Va. -- The seemingly endless winter that lingered in the highlands of West Virginia through last weekend left plenty of late-season snow on the ground for those who like to play in it.
Skiers and snowboarders had an abundance of trails to choose from at Winterplace, which closed on April 3, and at Snowshoe Mountain, which pulled the plug on its chairlifts on April 7. In Canaan Valley last Saturday, a few dedicated cross-country skiers could be seen gliding the shadier trails at White Grass, while at nearby Timberline, a faster, louder form of recreation -- the snowmobile race -- was making its West Virginia debut.
Nearly 50 snowmobile racers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia took part in the East Coast Cross-Country Snowmobile Championship on a 5.5-mile course on Timberline's ski slopes, all of which, despite the late date, were still knee-deep in snow.
For most of the racers, it was their first cross-country speed event.
"Most of the racing we do in our part of the country is drag racing on 500- to 700-foot-long stretches of grass or snow," said Brian Statler of Chambersburg, Pa., a snowmobile racer and dealer. You have to get into upstate New York or even farther north to find cross-country races, Statler said.
"On the grass tracks, you just hold on and go," Statler said. "On a course like this, you have to worry about other people, trees and making the next turn."
"I'd say at least 90 percent of the people here are trying this kind of race for the first time," said race organizer Bart Shaffer of Oakland, Md. "They're used to riding in this kind of country, but not racing in it."
Shaffer and other race organizers spent most of the week preceding the race laying out a course that included long uphill and downhill straight-aways (where speeds of up to 90 miles per hour were clocked), hairpin turns, cross-slope connecting routes, and a series of bumps that sent racers airborne.
With races lasting between 45 minutes and an hour, "You've got to prove your endurance on a course like this," said Brian Statler's 16-year-old son, Conner, after taking a pre-race lap around the course with other competitors to get familiar with the route.
"It's a good course," said Statler, who has been riding snowmobiles since he was 6. "It goes to the top of the mountain and then straight down. I'm ready to go."
The younger Statler finished seventh in each of Saturday's races. In the first race, novice and women riders were among the competitors, and riders of high-horsepower sleds powered by 800 cc or larger motors were not. The final-lap white flag dropped at 45 minutes in the first race, and at 60 minutes in the second pro-open event, in which the high-horsepower snowmobiles competed.
"Getting to ride on snow like this, at this time of the year, is incredible," said Doug Smith of Oakland, Md., who won the first race, completing one of his five 5.5-mile laps in seven minutes, 45 seconds.
Like most racers here on Saturday, it was Smith's first cross-country event.