Even though it takes up to three hours to groom the trails at the Mendenhall Lake Campground, it only takes a matter of minutes to reduce that fine corduroy to powdery pits and the predictable tracks to a pothole-ridden mess.
“It takes about four skiers and eight dogs,” Scott Fischer said.
He smiled as he slipped on his gloves and fastened the strap on his ski pole. One day a week Fischer helps groom these trails. He is one of eight volunteers with the Juneau Nordic Ski Club, a local nonprofit aimed at supporting the Nordic skiing community in Juneau, that sets tracks for both classic and skate cross country skiing at the popular ski trails near Mendenhall Glacier. But he wasn’t there to work that day; he was there just to ski.
A little further down the trail, Gastineau Elementary Teacher Dirk Miller was surrounded by a horde of first graders. These young skiers were sprawled like sea lions on the side of the trail.
At the intersection, a dog galloped by as it chased its owner who had rounded the corner only a few moments before.
It was barely 10 a.m. on Wednesday.
After only one ski, it’s easy to see why these trails, which consist of only 3.3 kilometers, are so popular. Not only do they cater to a wide range of users, but the centrally-located, public use area is also completely free. However, frequent trail users are encouraged to become members of the Nordic Ski Club for a small fee.
Another member of the grooming team is Del Carnes. He’s lived in Juneau since 1961 and his local skiing roots run deep, to the days when skiers trekked up to the Dan Moller Bowl on Douglas Island. He admits he’s seen a lot change in the years he’s lived here, like a road to the ski area, for instance. For the past six years, Carnes has helped to keep the trails groomed at the campground. His postings on trail conditions can be seen frequently on the Juneau Nordic Ski Club website.
“There’s eight of us,” Carnes said. “We do (the grooming) every day. There’s not a set time to start, but most people start around 8 or 8:30. If we’re just doing the campground, it takes a couple hours. If there’s new snow, sometimes we’ll use two machines and someone will break trail.”
Sometimes, the groomed trails extend beyond the campground. When conditions are right, skiers are able to glide onto the snow-covered lake. Other times, Carnes said, the volunteer groomers will borrow the U.S. Forest Service equipment and groom the narrow trails in the Dredge Lakes area. And last year, after a good dump of snow, Jack Kreinheder, also a JNSC member, groomed portions of the Under Thunder Trail.
Other volunteer groomers besides Carnes and Fischer include Mary Ann Park, Don Thomas, Steve Gilbertson, Kerry Lear, Paul Swanson, Ray Imel, and sometimes said Carnes, Tim and Maureen Hall.
Each day, a different volunteer grooms the trails. And so far, costs are covered pretty easily by membership dues. The club is even looking at purchasing a third snow machine to fullfill some of the requests by local schools for groomed trails.
But it's not easy to turn out perfectly groomed ski trails every day. There are a multitude of variables, Carnes said. There’s the type of snow — whether old, new or dirty — the temperature and, of course, the weather. They groom even when it’s raining, he said.
But with the right tools, any job is doable.
“We have two main tools,” he said. “There’s a roller which is a commercially-made plastic culvert, which packs the snow down, and a compaction bar on the rear makes the corduroy pattern on the snow. We can pull a track-setter behind that. The other tool used quite often is the Ginzu, made by a company in West Yellowstone, called Yellowstone Track Systems.”
Mounted on the bottom of the gear are a series of L-shaped blades which can be adjusted up or down. As the machine works, the blades shear off the top layer of snow, grind it up and then groom the trail into a clean surface for cross country skiing.
It can’t be easy, however, to spend hours grooming the trails just to see it tracked up in a matter of minutes. But, for those who work to groom the trails daily, Carnes said, it’s just part of the gig.
“You go out and groom, and you have this perfect pattern, and some skier comes by and tracks it up,” Carnes said. “That’s a problem we have. It would be better if we could groom at night, but when you have volunteers it’s kind of hard to get people to go out at 8 or 9 o’clock at night and groom for a few hours.”
Because, Carnes said, the tracks need time to set up. He said it’s the classic track that takes a beating first.
And then of course you have the dogs. And then the walkers, and the snowshoers.
“It’s pretty discouraging when you set the track and you see a couple skiers come, but they’ve got five dogs with them, and I have just quit and waited until they left. But it’s a multiple use area and that’s just the way it is,” he said.
For those that work the trails at the campground, it’s a labor of love. Carnes said everyone that grooms is a skier, and they do it purely because they enjoy the sport and want to make it possible for others to do the same.
“The only person that is not a cross country skier is Paul Swanson, who, of course, used to be the manager of Eaglecrest,” Carnes said. “So, he has a lot of experience on big machines (and) he’s always available. Why, if someone can’t make it, he’s wiling to jump in and do it.”
Leaving the trails that Wednesday, Miller could be heard chatting with his students.
“Are we having fun yet?” he said.
A resounding “Yes!” blasted back.
Miller said the trails near the school are not nearly as fun as those at the campground. As the students pulled out mugs of hot chocolate and packages filled with snacks, it was clear to see that was absolutely accurate.
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.