Joe Ramey is ready for snow to fly and bury the past five months under layers of pristine white.
Last week, the president of the Grand Mesa Nordic Council and retired meteorologist was hopeful a weekend storm would send at least a few more inches of the fluff down on Grand Mesa.
Today is the start of the council’s Nordic ski season, meaning the trail systems at Skyway, County Line and Ward Lake just off Colorado Highway 65 will be groomed by the nonprofit group for cross country skiers and snowshoers to enjoy fee-free.
For Ramey and others with the Nordic Council, today means waxing up skis and finally, finally having some fun, because as far as summers and autumns go with trail prep, 2020 has been a doozy.
The Nordic Council grooms and maintains the trails under a special use permit with the U.S. Forest Service, so when a June 6 derecho windstorm blew down thousands of trees in Colorado’s high country, including on Grand Mesa, it was a big deal for them, Ramey said.
Members of the council began walking the 31 miles of Nordic trails on Grand Mesa in mid- to late June and counted more than 200 trees down, blocking access. “So we panicked,” Ramey said.
Overwhelmed at the amount of work it would take to deal those trees, the nonprofit sought quotes from forestry professionals to clear the trails, and “they were all $7,000 plus, plus, plus,” he said.
It was far more than the nonprofit could pay, so one of the board members volunteered to organize crews of Nordic Council members to go out with muscle and chainsaws.
Over at least 14 work days, crews cleared the trails and made other improvements such as dealing with stumps and overgrown shrubs and moving large rocks. “It was a huge project,” Ramey said.
And then a winter snowstorm that moved through just recently put more trees down.
“I was up two days ago and we cut four trees out,” Ramey said on Thursday.
Members still had a few more to trees to clear before the season opened today.
However, if the ski season turns out the way the Nordic Council expects, all the work will have been worth it.
“Everybody thinks that this is going to be a huge year for cross country skiing,” Ramey said.
Just as bikes were snapped up over the summer, Ramey said he has heard reports of Nordic skis and gear going fast and earlier than expected.
“I think there are families saying, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to downhill (ski) this winter,” so they’re getting cross country skis because they don’t want to hang out inside, he said.
Internationally, inventory is getting low and it’s only November, said Ramey, who was going to buy a new pair of skis this year but now may not be able to find what he wants.
People locally are getting excited about the season as well, he said, citing an uptick in activity and messages on the Nordic Council’s social media accounts and website, gmnc.org
Fortunately, upgrading the website was another project the group tackled this summer.
“We had this monster old thing that would crash once or twice a week,” Ramey said. “It was 44 gig and so it was verbose and cumbersome.”
Now the website is sleek with plenty of information about cross country skiing, the Nordic trails on Grand Mesa, the races and lessons the Nordic Council offers and more.
Nordic skiing “is a pretty simple sport, but you can definitely have more fun and feel more confident if you take a lesson, especially if you’re just starting,” said Tom Ela, one of the Nordic Council’s founders. He was the nonprofit’s race director for years, known for having a pot of hot soup ready at the finish line.
“You can trudge around and have a pretty good time picking it up by instinct,” he said, but there are some tricks, such as how to go uphill and down, “that will save some frustration and make life easier.”
He has skied for years, and “I have taken instruction,” he said. “It helps to have someone look at you and say, ‘oh, man you’re wasting a lot of energy.’ … There’s room for improvement for everybody.”
The Nordic Council offers lessons — arrangements can be made through the website — and instructors will be abiding by safety guidelines for COVID-19, Ramey said.
“We understand and believe that things like cross country skiing provide people something to do in the wintertime that is naturally socially distanced and healthy,” he said.
Along with being an endurance sport, “it can be quite magical. Quiet and fresh air and great scenery,” Ela said.
And the model the Nordic Council follows of charging no fees for using the trails is ideal for people to give it a try, he said.
The cost of grooming and maintaining the trails is covered by council memberships, donations by those who use the trails and some grants from companies and Mesa and Delta counties, Ramey said.
Given the number of cars in the parking lots at the Skyway and County Line ski trails on certain days of the week as compared to the council’s membership rolls, “our membership really lags behind our usage,” he said.
Despite this, the Nordic Council plans to increase its grooming days during the 2020-21 season and is hopeful more people will decide to support the “cross country ski gym” with donations or by becoming members, Ramey said.
Volunteers are always needed. “We always need snow shoveled,” he said.
As for downed trees, the council is confident those are taking care of, for now. But “boy, are there a lot of ways to be involved,” Ramey said.