Popularity Grows Despite Shrinking Season

By Beacon Staff

“A normal snow year used to be mid-December through mid-March,” says Laura Nugent, owner of the Outback Ski Shack at the Whitefish Golf Course cross-country ski trails. However, the season seems to be shrinking – especially for Nordic areas located on valley floor elevations. Glacier Nordic Ski Club once hosted a ski race in mid-March. But no longer. Snow now melts by the first week in March.

Before Christmas, most groomed skinny ski areas were still praying for enough snow to open all their trails. Yet despite shrinking winters, Nordic skiing is far from dying. In the past five years, the Flathead has added three new groomed trail systems; interest is steady and perhaps even growing. “So many new people living here want to partake in all winter opportunities,” Nugent says.

Flathead Valley has more than 138 kilometers of ski trails groomed for both skate and classic skiing. Trail systems at Izaak Walton Inn, Whitefish Mountain Resort, Glacier Nordic Center (Whitefish Golf Course), Round Meadows, and Blacktail Mountain have been valley mainstays. But, three new courses have sprung up in Stillwater State Forest, West Glacier, and Bigfork. Of the Flathead’s trails, two systems are operated as nonprofits, one is a USFS operation and the remainder are privately owned.

Last year, Glacier Outdoor Center in West Glacier installed 10 kilometers of skate and classic track. “We wanted to try something for winter,” says owner Sally Thompson. The summer raft and fishing company sought a winter recreation counterpart, starting with renting snowshoes and cross-country skis for use in Glacier Park. “Next thing, we were buying a brush hog and groomer,” says Thompson, noting that their new trails enhance winter use of their cabins, too.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in skiers,” says Tom Healy, owner of Stillwater Mountain Lodge Nordic just north of Whitefish. Of course, the numbers include skiers just discovering the three-year-old Nordic trails. Healy and his partners launched the ski area because they wanted consistently groomed trails in the woods near town. Now, part of their trail popularity comes from skiers with dogs. In response, the owners tripled the dog terrain this year to 10 kilometers. They also started a rental program aimed at families: Kids 12 and under get free rentals and trail passes when accompanied by their parents.

This year, Bigfork Nordic changed its name to North Shore Nordic Club. The club started five years ago when skiers raised $12,000 in three months. In addition to grooming Bug Creek and the Wild Mile Trail in Bigfork once a week, the nonprofit just made a formal agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and county park department to groom Blacktail Mountain’s 30 kilometers four days per week. Due to higher elevation, Blacktail’s trails opened weeks before the others this year. “There is a pent up demand for Nordic skiing,” says Dave Hadden, a NSNC club organizer, noting that one mid-December Sunday saw 100 people don cross-country skis at the Blacktail trailheads.

Vandalism of trailhead boxes has hampered fund collection to assist with grooming, so the club relies on mail-in donations. The club has also groomed trails on DNRC land near Jewel Basin Road, but not this winter while the land is under a timber sale.

Glacier Nordic Club in Whitefish – the only organization providing kids programs – also sees burgeoning numbers. “Kid participation numbers are up,” says race coach Larry Bruce, noting that the three racing programs total 45 kids. While team numbers on his competitive team hold steady, both the Junior Jets and Prep Team are bulging. Meanwhile the Chet Hope Youth Ski League teaches about 60 kids ages 4 -14 to ski every winter, but organizer Marie Shaw says, “Tough winters in town just kill it.”

Nordic ski sales seem to indicate a positive trend. Don Scharfe of Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell says, “Baby boomers my age who started cross-country skiing in the 1970s and took time out to raise kids are now coming back in to upgrade their gear.” He also sees outdoor athletes – road and mountain bikers – crossing over into winter training gear.
Nordic ski areas are also banding together to get updated info out about their conditions. Healy is working on construction of www.glaciernordicclub.com, slated for completion this winter. Healy says, “It will have one-click access to grooming and snow reports for all Flathead areas.”

Most skinny ski courses are now open, although some may see thin early season conditions for another few weeks. Despite shorter seasons, cross-country skiing seems on the rise. Nordic skiers are still going for the glide.