On a winter morning in Whitefish, snow falls gently as packs of bundled up humans shuffle through a crowded ski shop, peppering staffers with questions, trying on boots, sizing skis, and prepping for a day on the freshly fallen powder.
It’s a familiar sight at the top of Big Mountain, but today the bustling ski shop is closer to sea level, at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, where the Glacier Nordic Center’s winter headquarters is humming with business. The din is music to the ears of the longstanding cross-country skiing nonprofit that has seen record growth in recent years.
Outside, the group’s executive director, Cameron Blake, stands on the humble shop’s small porch and looks out on miles of carefully groomed trails. Blake will later say that this shop itself is largely responsible for the group’s recent expansion, at least in the membership department. Club members receive season-long access to the trails at the golf course and last year’s 745 memberships were a record, surpassing the previous single-year high by more than 63 percent. There are already more than 500 members signed up for this winter.
The 2017-18 Nordic ski season — Nordic and cross-country skiing are used interchangeably — is in full swing, and the Glacier Nordic Club’s growth this season goes beyond memberships. The club was also heavily involved in the creation of the new Big Mountain Trailhead at 3315 Big Mountain Road that connects to 23 kilometers of groomed trails on Big Mountain, the Iron Horse Golf Club and all the way into the Haskill Basin.
All of this is to say that these are heady times for the Glacier Nordic Club and its members, some of whom have been involved for generations in order to guarantee Nordic skiing remains an outlet for accessible and affordable winter entertainment.
Blake herself was not a cross-country skier growing up but took up the sport after moving to Whitefish in 2000, both to stay active in the winter months and give her rambunctious young son an outlet for his energy.
“I told (Gray) that I got him involved to keep my sanity,” Blake said with a laugh. “In winter it’s not easy to get kids outside so this is a great way, during the week, to go out and burn off some energy.”
Gray joined the Glacier Nordic Center’s Chet Hope Youth Ski League (for beginner skiers from 4 to 12 years old) and continued to advance in the sport. He joined the GNC’s Junior Jets, a competition team for young skiers, remained an active competitor through high school and eventually all the way into college. Today, he is a member of the Nordic ski team at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, on course to graduate this spring with a degree in environmental economics.
Others have also blossomed from the youth ski league, which began in 1976 as the Bill Koch Youth Ski League and was renamed in 2003. Stella Holt — a former junior national champion and collegiate skier — has returned to coach the club’s high school programs and an up-and-coming young Whitefish skier, 13-year-old Jacob Henson, is coming off a pair of top-five finishes at a major event in Bozeman and is aiming to qualify for the 2019 junior championships.
The competitive teams travel around the country and for those who do pursue the sport at a high level, the relationships made within the small Nordic skiing community are lasting.
“A lot of team road trips, that was definitely a memory I had,” Gray said of his time with Glacier Nordic Club. “Hopping in the van, driving to all these sweet Western locations where we had all the national qualifiers and the races at.”
One of those races took Gray and his teammates to Salt Lake City, nearly 650 miles away.
“You’ve got to enjoy your team if you’re going to spend 12 hours, one way, in a van with them, then another two days at the race and then driving 12 hours back,” he said. “The team camaraderie aspect was such a large part of the sport for me growing up.”
But for all of the success stories in competition, Glacier Nordic Club’s primary purpose is much more modest. The club’s stated mission is to “promote and inspire a lifelong love of cross-country skiing” and Blake has refocused youth classes on fun this year while also taking seven high-school age skiers who did not want to continue to pursue the sport competitively and turning them into certified coaches at the program’s younger levels.
“Our youth programs, it’s really instilling a love of skiing so it’s not about training with the younger kids at all,” Blake said. “It’s games and they’re learning through doing and moving and having fun.”
Blake estimates there will be around 150 participants in the Chet Hope League this year and 80 more young skiers on one of the club’s teams — the Junior Jets (ages 8 to 11), Prep team (ages 11-13) and Competition team (ages 13 and above). As recently as five years ago there were just 85 combined participants between all of the programs.
Evelyn Sheehan, 14, has been on cross-country skis since she was 2 years old, and this year decided to become one of the teenagers helping to teach younger skiers.
She began her Nordic skiing days as part of the Chet Hope League, which is named after her grandfather. Kendra Hope, Chet’s daughter and Sheehan’s mother, grew up in Whitefish and she too was on Nordic skis with her parents, avid Nordic skiers and supporters of the sport, from her earliest days.
Hope has stayed involved for the reasons most Nordic skiers point to — it’s fun, it’s convenient, it’s affordable and, especially in Northwest Montana, the scenery can be staggering.
“It’s not as much of a production,” Hope said, comparing cross-country to downhill skiing. “It’s easy to just hop in the car and 10 minutes alter you can be on your skis. It can be a group activity or a solitary activity … and it’s quieter, I guess. That’s nice, too.”
Advanced Nordic skiers like Hope take advantage of not just groomed trails like the ones at Big Mountain and Whitefish Lake Golf Club, but also find their own trails by, as Hope said, “puttering around” in the woods.
Memberships, single-day passes, rentals, Nordic skiing lessons and more are coordinated through the club’s ski shop that sits semi-permanently at Whitefish Lake Golf Club. The wood building has a small counter in front of racks of rentable skis and a pair of benches to help skiers get suited up. It’s nothing extraordinary to look at but Blake insists this shop is critically important.
Three years ago, thanks to a major fundraising effort as part of Whitefish’s annual Great Fish Challenge, the Nordic Club purchased the building and a rental fleet. Having the shop physically on the golf course has allowed the club to offer a number of adult programs, enhance its private and group lessons, and handle any other questions or problems that may arise. In previous years, passes and rentals were sold off-site, at Glacier Cyclery in downtown Whitefish.
The Glacier Nordic Club grooms and maintains the trails that weave through the golf course, about 14 kilometers in total, and that cost is subsidized through memberships, day passes and rentals. Individual season memberships are $65, day passes are $10 and group lessons are $35 per person for one hour. Half-day rentals start at $10 per hour. Access to the Big Mountain Trailhead and the connected trails is free.
For more information on the Glacier Nordic Club, visit www.glaciernordicclub.com.