A relatively small investment in technology made possible by Oregon's Recreational Trails Program promises to have a big impact on cross-country skiing in Southern Oregon.
Local cross-country skiers will finally have some groomed trails to play on after the Southern Oregon Nordic Club unveiled a new Polaris snow groomer and track setter this week it purchased for about $28,000. Donations by club members and the BLM completed the funding.
Back-country skiers may enjoy busting new trail at a slow pace, but Nordic enthusiasts looking for a faster, smoother run on established trails have had to make do with a jumble of tracks — often iced over — laid down in powder by previous skiers.
"At Buck Prairie, where most of the skiers start, it's a mess. It's been all skied over, tracks everywhere," says Michael Dawkins, SONC board member. "One thing this has done is provide a smooth surface. We won't be losing as many skiers who went out (only) one time."
Although established tracks are nice, providing a compacted surface is the key to an enjoyable trail outing. The new groomer may help to hold on to those first-timers who quit after experiencing difficult trail conditions.
"Groomed trails are 90 percent of what this community needs to be better skiers," says Bob Plummer, an SONC board member who manages the new grooming project for the club. "The tracks are just icing on the cake"
Grooming is the process of compacting snow, allowing skiers to propel themselves more quickly along a trail or road. The new Polaris groomer lays down a corduroy pattern about six feet wide. A track setter pulled by the groomer lays down the familiar parallel depressions that make classic cross-country skiing smooth. The groomer may be used without the track setter.
Local cross-country skiers have not been entirely without groomed tracks, because the Oregon State Snowmobile Association grooms about 60 miles of trails per year from Dead Indian Memorial Road all the way to Pelican Butte, according to Dawkins. But skiers have to share those trails with snowmobiles — not always a match made in heaven. When it comes to groomed, Nordic-only trails, skiers have been out of luck in Southern Oregon, with the closest groomed trails at the Mount Shasta Nordic Center nearly 100 miles south.
"One of the justifications for this (Nordic-specific) groomer, is that on multi-use trails, once a snowmobile spins a donut and it freezes, we can't ski through it," says Plummer.
The snowmobile association is prohibited by their funding source from grooming Nordic-only trails.
"Our number one priority is from Hyatt Lake straight to the Buck Prairie Sno-Park, and then up the hill by the restroom there," says Plummer. "Eventually we'll see how much we can expand on road-based trails only."
Days of rain last week at low elevations in the Rogue Valley finally provided enough snow in the mountains to test the new machine.
"In the seven years I've been here, we've tried a few different times with a track setter, pulling it behind a snowmobile. But with our wet snow here, it just wasn't powerful enough," says Nick Schade, Outdoor Recreation Planner for BLM, Ashland Resource Area, who serves as liaison with the SONC.
The new groomer is about 6 feet wide and tall, but don't be fooled by its small stature.
"This was the manufacturer — and a model a little bit wider (than ours) — they used in the Vancouver Olympics for their Nordic events," Schade adds.
Most cross-country skis used by Rogue Valley residents are shaped differently from those used by Olympians and other track skiers. Local skiers tend to favor wider, heavier skis designed for the back country. With no consistent tracks groomed locally, there hasn't been the need for the streamlined skis. The new groomer lays down tracks that are 21/4 inches wide at the base, the international standard.
"The wider skis will still fit in the track," says Dawkins. "What happens is that the first person through widens it."
Though the local Nordic community is relatively small, Dawkins sees the availability of tracks as the way to introduce bikers, runners and rowers to his sport. This is the group, he believes, who are more interested in skiing fast than in breaking powder.
"I think what will happen is that the aerobic community is going to have something they can really ski on," says Dawkins. "Same thing happened in Aspen in '85 when they set up their Nordic system. All the runners and bikers got into Nordic skiing."
Once that happens, says Dawkins, it's time to think big.
"I think we could be a world-class Nordic resort area, because our terrain is incredible, our snow is incredible," Dawkins says. "Last year, my girlfriend and I skied into Brown Mountain shelter on the 8th of June. The winter here may be late getting started (at the higher elevations), but it lasts a long time."
For more information on the Southern Oregon Nordic Club, see http://southernonc.tripod.com/index.html
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at email@example.com