Reporter's Notebook

Unsung Heroes

Like Zen masters tending a rock garden, the Flathead Valley’s dedicated fleet of groomers possesses a rarefied skillset that is equal parts artisanal and artistic

By Tristan Scott

In the third decade of this third millennium, the ho-hum rhythms of workaday life have been reframed as fraught excursions into the labyrinth, where a minotaur lurks around every corner and the hero’s journey might begin with a trip down the cereal aisle. 

The mental gymnastics required to navigate a previously mundane outing to the grocery store, for example, are now dizzying in their complexity. Likewise, the daily logistics of whether to host a game night with friends or send the kids to school have, for many Americans, transformed from nettling micro-irritations into epic dramas laying siege to our virus-weary senses (or what’s left of them).

To combat the fatigue and reinvigorate my spirits, I’ve sought respite in sacred spaces, cherishing the quiet corners of the world in which all debts have been repaid, the ledgers are wiped clean and my brain can breathe. Lately, I have reliably found those spaces along the forested cross-country ski trails of Northwest Montana, and specifically on the network of groomed tracks maintained by the Glacier Nordic Club in Whitefish, the North Shore Nordic Club in Lakeside and Bigfork, the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, and the Dog Creek Lodge Nordic Center in Olney.

Although the grooming is impeccable on all the above-mentioned ski trails, due to the proximity of my home in Whitefish to the nearly 30 kilometers of manicured corduroy between Big Mountain and Haskill Basin, they have become my de facto “local trails.”

For me, there are few things as mesmerizing as clicking into my bindings with an undulating river of snow-white corduroy stretching from my ski tips to the horizon and beyond, the raised wales of snow evenly spaced by mechanically rilled channels, the gleaming parallel bars of classic tracks banked to one side of the trail, the herring-boned symmetry of skate-skis inscribed down the center.

Like Zen masters tending a rock garden, the Flathead Valley’s dedicated fleet of groomers possesses a rarefied skillset that is equal parts artisanal and artistic. They conduct their wizardry in the frigid pre-dawn darkness, performing small mechanical miracles amid the intoxicating fragrance of two-stroke engine exhaust, alone with the forest elves, all in the name of creating the best cross-country skiing conditions possible. So imagine my dismay when that unblemished carpet of corduroy is interrupted by a pock-marked path that can only have been made by a troupe of hob-nailed tap dancers performing an al fresco adaptation of “Riverdance.” My skis begin to chatter, the equilibrium of my vertical axis disintegrates and my emotional orbit spins off into hyperspace.

At the risk of writing an “old man shouts at clouds” column, I won’t belabor the point any more than this: Local Nordic ski clubs pour a tremendous amount of time and member-supported resources into their daily grooming, and while many of the trails are designated multi-use and are free to access, including for hikers and snow-shoers and dog walkers, they are not free of etiquette. So please, out of respect for the unsung heroes that fastidiously sculpt our trails, and in deference to my sanity, “stay in your lane” — skate skiers in the middle, classic skiers in the tracks and all other users to the side of the trail opposite the classic tracks.

Walkers, please stick to the margins and don’t traipse down the middle of the track. Or, better yet, take a hike on one of the countless ungroomed trails available on the Flathead Valley’s million-acre expanse of public lands.

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