Nordic skiers making do, minus the snow
Teams must travel to find manmade snow options
December 22, 2023
The third weekend of December saw green grass and puddles at Pine Valley, where pine trees loom above a network of trails. There was no sign of the usual ski jumping and Nordic skiing that keep the city's woodland park hopping in the winter months.
To find the skiers, one had to travel 12 miles to Duluth's Spirit Mountain, where they can make snow. More than 200 high school skiers from area schools were skiing quarter-mile loops next to the Grand Avenue Nordic Center on Thursday, Dec. 14. They were hamsters on a Nordic skiing merry-go-round.
"We're just skiing lap after lap after lap," said Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Nordic ski coach Tim Stark.
Considering that day's weather, sunny with highs in the low 50s, ski conditions were tolerable.
"I'm pleased that there aren't too many dirt spots out there, and we can ski on it," Stark said. "The way things have been going this year, if we're skiing, you really can't complain, I guess."
CEC had competed in its first meet at the Spirit Mountain Nordic Center two days before.
It took three laps to complete a 5K race.
They did fairly well, Stark said.
"I could tell our skiers needed a little bit more long ski days that we haven't had the opportunity to do," he said. "I told them at the start of practice today that your only job is to get as many laps in as you can. Just ski, and don't stop."
Coaches have had to get creative with practices with no snow on the home course. They've tried to avoid just running, as many of the skiers were coming off the cross country season. They play speedball - which Stark described as a mix of soccer and football that involves a lot of running. The CEC team has also had a few practices at the Mont du Lac resort, he said, where they didn't have to vie for space with the various Duluth teams.
"It obviously takes a lot of endurance to cross country ski, but the balance and agility factor is really big too," he said. "So if we can mix other activities that the kids don't do as much - where they're doing a lot of speed change and direction change - into the workout, it definitely helps them once we get on skis."
There are a number of skiers returning that Stark is excited to see perform this year, including junior William Bauer, who raced in the relays at State last year. "He's come back really motivated and has been training pretty hard," Stark said.
There are other junior and sophomore boys that put in a lot of work on the offseason.
"Bodyn Gunderson is a sophomore for us and had a really good first race," he said. "Freshman Isaiah Langer (also a ski jumper) put in a ton of effort over the summer. I think we're going to see some pretty impressive results from him in the coming years."
On the girls side he named returning varsity skiers Shealee Gunderson, Aspen Berg and Ellynor Barta, who all participated in a North XC summer program in Duluth for Nordic skiing.
"They're showing some good improvement from what they were doing last year," he said.
Still, it's a challenge. A meet Saturday, Dec. 16, in Mora was canceled due to lack of snow. However, Stark was looking forward to taking the team - which numbers about 50 skiers this year in grades 7-12 - to a meet at Mt. Itasca in Coleraine on Tuesday, where they have snow-making capabilities.
At the Grand Rapids meet, Duluth East and Brainerd dominated the leaderboard for the boys, with Bauer the top CEC finisher in 26th place, followed by Emmet Prosen (32nd), Michael Kruse (33rd) and Ayden Chopski (34th). The boys team placed fifth.
On the girls side, Gunderson was the top Lumberjacks skier in 27th place, followed by Barta in 35th and Berg in 44th.
It's early days yet, said Stark. A cross country ski coach since 2014, the head coach said this season is a first for him in northern Minnesota, with the utter lack of snow and warm temperatures.
And he's got one request for Santa Claus.
"A white Christmas is what I want," he said with a laugh.