On a day when the wind was nonexistent, when the woods were covered by a fresh inch of snow, when the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds every now and then – in other words, a perfect day for Nordic skiing – I was on some of the best trails in Northern Michigan but nowhere near my skis.
Instead I was chugging along in a Pisten Bully groomer. Dave Forush was at the controls, preparing his trails at Forbush Corner for the weekend crowd who would begin descending on the Nordic center early Saturday morning. I was in the seat next to him, measuring them with a GPS unit for MichiganTrailMaps.com.
By the end of the day I had been on every trail of his twice, all 24 kilometers of them, and recorded my coordinates. I was also given a lesson in the art of grooming.
Laying track is definitely not just pushing snow around. The art of grooming is part science, a touch of meteorology, some old fashion crystal ball gazing and in the end a steady hand around hairpin turns.
Dave studies various weather web sites, checks the temperatures, measures the base that’s on the ground now and the shape it is in. Then he tries to anticipate what snow might arrive Friday night before the crowds do on Saturday morning, plots a strategy and we hop in the Pisten Bully, one of two groomers at Forbush Corner.
The first time around, he rolled the trails with a huge cylinder on the back of the groomer that weighed more than a ton. Powdery fluff might be an appealing image for downhill skiers but for Nordic tracks you want the base compressed and the snow consistent with as little air in it as possible.
Dave’s mission was to work a pair steering levers so he didn’t gouge the sides of the trail that would result in dirt and debris on the newly compacted base. At times he looked like he was playing a video game.
My mission was to hang on. At one point we were pitched at the edge of a bottomless hill called Screamer and it was like being in a roller coaster at Cedar Point, only we were in the middle of the woods. When we started down I instinctively grabbed the dashboard in front of me.
At 2 p.m., when we finished the first run, we went right back out again. This time we set the skater’s lane and the tracks for classic skiers.
At one point when the sun came out briefly we paused and looked at the artwork behind us. The trail was a thing of beauty with the unmarred corduroy-surface of the skater’s lane and the crisp edges and smooth sides of the classic tracks.
“That’s as pretty a track as you’ll ever see,” said Dave.
It was indeed.
We finished around 5:30 p.m. after having spent more than eight hours in the groomer. That evening three more inches fell and Dave was back out grooming at 6 a.m. on Saturday so when the first skiers arrived three hours later they found perfect tracks and lanes.
That’s why it is so stunning when occasionally somebody enters the Forbush Corner lodge, sees that there is a trail fee to ski and then says thanks but no thanks and leaves to find some place to ski for free. As if perfect tracks and $180,000 groomers, not to mention Dave’s time, weren’t worth anything.
For too many of these people the sport of Nordic skiing is synonyms with shuffling along on the crusty surface of a golf course or breaking trail for an hour in the woods. Something you do for free or for a small donation tossed in the fee pipe at the trailhead.
I have nothing against backcountry skiing and do it often, particularly on the state forest pathways. But until you have spent a day on a well-groomed trail that allows you to discover the natural rhythm that is Nordic skiing, you haven’t been Nordic skiing.
You’ve been slogging it in the woods.
This winter stride instead of shuffle with a visit to any Nordic center that puts even a third as much effort into grooming their trails as Dave does. It’s more than worth the price of the trail fee.
You may never ski a golf course again.