A Nordic Holiday

Elite racing members of the Glacier Nordic Club will have an early-season racing and training opportunity this holiday season as the Flathead Valley remains one snowstorm shy of prime conditions

By Micah Drew
Conner Gray skis at the Glacier Nordic Center in Whitefish on Dec. 28, 2017. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

For a decade-and-a-half, Jennie Bender has not been at home during the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, she spends the last weekend in November somewhere snowy for a Nordic skiing training camp. This year, she’ll chaperone several members of the Glacier Nordic Club to West Yellowstone to take part in the Yellowstone Ski Festival. 

“The West is known for getting early-season snow, so it’s common for skiers to head west in November no matter where they live,” Bender said. “It’s a great time to get good on-snow training in with the team, get in an early season race and have a team Thanksgiving down there. It’s our tradition.”

Bender is executive director of the Glacier Nordic Club, a position she took after spending a year as the assistant director and head coach for the competition team. Under her direction, two high school members of the comp team competed at the Junior National Championships, finishing among the top skiers in the nation. 

While the top competitions aren’t until March and April, Bender says the early-season opportunities to train and race on the snow are important to the development of the top athletes as they transition from fall sports to their skis. 

“It’s a good kind of shakeout race,” Bender said. “It lets everyone remember what it’s like to go hard on skis.”

The Yellowstone Ski Festival will include several days of training clinics and culminate with freestyle (skate skiing) races on Saturday. Bender said there will be a half-dozen racers on hand from the club to take part in the training camp.

Among the top skiers in the program this winter are high school seniors Nate Ingelfinger and Ruedi Steiner. Bender says both are looking to close out their high school careers on a high note after developing their technique and strength through summer training while spending the fall season competing on the Whitefish High School cross-country team. 

Another top competitor is Whitefish junior Maeve Ingelfinger, who rose to the occasion in the spring as one of the Junior Nationals qualifiers. Ingelfinger, who also runs cross country and plays soccer for the high school, finished second place for the U16 girls in the sprint race, and third place in the classic mass start. 

With Bender taking over as the Glacier Nordic Club’s executive director this year, a new head coach is taking over the competition squads. Logan Mowry joins the club after a collegiate career skiing for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks that saw him finish 32nd at the NCAA championships as a sophomore.  He skied for the program while Bender coached at UAF, so his addition to the program will bring continuity to the training. 

“Logan just brings so much energy to the competitive team,” Bender said. “The history we have together is really great and makes for a seamless coaching dynamic. It always helps when you have those bonds with someone you spend a lot of time working with and knowing his training and coaching style lets me focus a lot of time on my position as executive director.”

Outside of the competition squads, the Glacier Nordic Club has a youth league for kids ages 4-10, the Junior Jets for ages 8-11, teen recreational programs and adult ski programs. 

Bender said most of the programs are already filling up, but she’s eager to continue expanding the adult demographic. 

“There’s been a real uptick in excitement just in the late fall,” she said. “We’re looking to expand more offerings into Columbia Falls and will need more volunteer coaches to meet to interest levels.”

A skier looks towards Flathead Lake from the Blacktail Nordic Trails on Jan. 7, 2018. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

One unique offering from Glacier Nordic Club is its robust rental fleet. Bender said the club can outfit dozens of skiers for the entire winter by offering full-season rentals — an affordable entry into a sport with a hefty startup cost, especially for younger skiers who rapidly outgrow equipment. 

“This is a highly used and amazing resource that I don’t think people realize is special,” Bender said, adding the club continues fundraising efforts to increase their rental offerings. 

In addition to programming, the club is responsible for grooming the trails at the Whitefish Lake Golf Course, as well as at Meadow Lake Golf Course in Columbia Falls and the Big Mountain Nordic Trail Network.

“This last month has been busy with getting the venue set up and clearing the debris off the trail system after the recent wind and snowstorms,” Bender said. 

So far, the best snow in the valley is south at Blacktail Mountain, where cross-country ski trails are groomed by the North Shore Nordic Club. They began grooming the second week of November and post trail and grooming reports at northshorenordic.org/blacktail-mountain-nordic-trails. 

Once Glacier Nordic begins fulltime grooming, daily reports will be shared online at glaciernordicclub.org/grooming-reports and on the club’s social media sites. 

“All nordic systems are a go,” Bender said. “We’re just waiting for a few more snowstorms.”

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