The Nordic boom
Skinny skiing hits stride with series of events

SideStory: Nordic at a glance

A skier takes advantage of prime conditions at Hillcrest on Tuesday. The Durango Nordic Center and Vallecito are also open for skiing, both boasting some new terrain. Vallecitor will be holding its annual demo day this Sunday, and Hillcrest will be the site of the Junior Olympic Qualifier sprint race on Sat., Jan.  16./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Whether you’re into three pins or hairpins, there’s no shortage of options this winter for local skinny skiers. With a generous early season dump, the area’s Nordic ski areas are open for business with more terrain, events and races this season than mere mortal quadriceps can handle.

“It’s absolutely beautiful up here right now because it’s been so cold,” said Durango Nordic Center Director Helen Low. “And I’ll probably regret saying this, but all my machinery is working really well.”

The Durango Nordic Center, which operates on land leased from Durango Mountain Resort, is 100 percent open, with 19 kilometers of meticulously groomed trails. In addition to the old lung-busting favorites, the Durango Nordic Center is boasting three new trails this year: the Lynx Loop, near Boyce Lake; and the North Pole and North Star extensions, both off the North Loop.

“We have three new trails, it’s exciting,” said Low.

The Nordic Center will have a chance to show off the new terrain in a few weeks when Durango hosts the Rocky Mountain Division Junior Olympics qualifiers Jan. 16-17. It is the first time Durango has hosted a J.O. qualifier in two years. “Our racers are glad to have a race at home since they are always having to drive so far to race,” said Low.

New for this year, the sprint races will be held Jan. 16 in town, at Hillcrest. “It will be a great spectator event,” said Low. The following day, the Durango Nordic Center will host the longer skate and classic events.

Low said although the race has been a long time coming, the new Lynx Loop has been an even longer time coming. Located on Forest Service land, it was part of DMR’s 25-year master plan, and culminated in years of planning, including an environmental impact statement.

“We finally got the initial permit this October, and we got the trail cut this fall,” said Low. All trail cutting was done by volunteers, mostly Durango Nordic Ski Club racers and parents. Low said the long wait and hard work were all worth the effort.

“I think it’s the prettiest trail we have,” she said. “It goes through an old growth aspen, and you can look out through the trees to the mountains.”

In addition to the efforts of the volunteers, Low credited the Forest Service for its help in making the trail a reality and said she hopes the relationship will continue. “I would love to keep expanding and working with the Forest Service in the future,” she said.

Diane Legner, of the Vallecito Nordic Club, said the Forest Service has been a great partner for her group as well. “We continue to work with the Forest Service and anticipate it will continue to be a positive relationship,” she said.

Skiers take off from the start of last year’s Tour de Ski amid 7 inches of fresh snow. More than 100 racers took part in the event, which features a 42k marathon as well as shorter courses that go through Hermosa Park and behind Durango Mountian Resort. This year’s race take place Jan. 23./Courtesy photo

The 501(c)3 nonprofit group formed last year, taking over operations and maintenance from the Pine River Valley Nordic Ski Club. Since then, Vallecito Nordic has formed a Board of Directors and trained dozens of volunteer groomers. Unlike in years past, where skiers dropped donations in a box at the trailhead, Legner said people are being asked to buy “memberships” for the season (although the drop box option is also still available). The suggested fee is $75 for individuals, $100 for families and $5 for dogs, or $5 to $10 for day use. However, Legner said the volunteer-run organization welcomes any amount. “It’s extremely challenging keeping up with the maintenance and fuel for the snowmobiles,” she said. The track is groomed a few times during the week and both days on weekends, she said.

In addition to regular grooming, Vallecito is also boasting an extension of the East Creek Trail (formerly a steep 1.4k out and back) to make a complete loop. Legner also said a volunteer “poop patrol” is working to rid the first 1k or so of what cross country skiers call the dreaded “brown klister.” As the only system to allow dogs on all trails, Legner is asking dog owners to “flick” their dog’s business off the trail into the adjoining woods. She said she carries a trowel for such instances and there are several small shovels available for use at the trailhead. Legner also reminds trail users to carry out trash since there is no service at the trailhead. “Overall, the system seems to be working. People are using the trails more and respecting them more,” she said.

Although it’s hard to get a concrete4 number of visitors, Legner estimates last season’s numbers between 2,000-4,000 skiers. Judging by memberships and impromptu counts of cars at the trailhead, this season seems to be on track to surpass that. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in use,” she said. “Last season, we had 40 members, and so far this year, we’re already up to 50, plus about 10 dogs.”

In addition to holding its second annual Demo Day this Sunday, Legner said there is also talk of a “fun, competitive type of race with costumes” in February, but details are still forming. “We have to get past this weekend first,” she said.

Looking ahead, Legner said there will be permanent signage in place by next season, and the group is working on grants for better grooming equipment. “We would love a snowcat if we had the money, but that’s still a few years away.”

The Vallecito trail system isn’t the only thing gaining the attention of local Nordic skiers. Later this month, the Tour de Ski will be returning to Hermosa Park, behind DMR. This is the third year for the race, which is a fund-raiser for Trails 2000 and Durango Nordic. Several new divisions are being added to the 42k and 22k events this year, including a 6k and 12k race and more casual 32k “tour.”

“We decided to add the tour because a lot of people want to come and do the big loop, but because of the elevation gain, they aren’t able to make the cut-off times,” said Mary Monroe, director of Trails 2000 and event organizer.

The 32k and 42k routes gain a beastly 3,000 feet in elevation. “We believe it’s the highest-elevation race in the country,” she said. “No one’s corrected us thus far, so we’re going with it.”

This year’s Tour de Ski, on Jan. 23, is part of the Colorado Cup series, and in addition to bragging rights, racers will also earn preferential starting position at the venerable American Birkebeiner. The country’s largest Nordic marathon takes place Feb. 27 in northern Wisconsin.

The first year’s race, which was more of a pilot run, drew 28 competitors with last year’s bringing just more than 100. Monroe said she expects 150 racers this year and would like to see 250 for 2011.

“We’re really excited and looking forward to being recognized as a legitimate race,” said Monroe.

Like most local Nordic endeavors, she said the race would not be possible without the work of several entities, including the Forest Service, DMR, Durango Nordic and Bob Rule, of San Juan Snowcats, who sets the course. “What’s really interesting and cool is the collaboration needed to figure this thing out,” said Monroe.

Of course, the ultimate collaborator is Mother Nature, who last year dumped 7 inches of fresh snow on the course last year making for a harrowing if not slow-going day. And in case she doesn’t cooperate this year, not to worry, Monroe said. “We have a back-up plan for a groomer to be up there at 5 a.m.” •



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