SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The payoff for driving around the icy edge of Vallecito Dam is finding a sanctuary where people slide for fun – nine miles of groomed trails for Nordic skiing.
All skill levels seem to be accommodated, from the bundled-up plodders plugged into iPODs to the more fashionable skate skiers zipping down the middle of the trails, looking like they belong on “Wide World of Sports.”
The human-made lake makes for some great scenery. Nordic skiers are effusive in their praise of Vallecito Nordic ski trail groomers, knowing the trails don’t groom themselves.
“This has become our park,” said Mike Dietzman. “They do a great job.”
Dietzman, who wore a white cap stitched with the blue and yellow Swedish flag, recently moved to Durango with his wife, Deborah Sussex, and their border collie, Molly, from the other Nordic skiing mecca of northern Minnesota.
Molly was especially happy, perhaps appreciative that not every trail system allows canine companions. Pet owners are asked to keep their dogs on a leash or under voice command.
Dogs are charged a $5 roaming fee. Nordic groomers ask for a $100 seasonal donation from families and $75 for individuals.
“You can’t beat the value,” Sussex said.
The groomers pack down trails along the road and the reservoir beach about every other day, sooner if there’s a big snow. Sometimes they work late into the night and even shovel snow if necessary to keep trails covered, said Colin Cassidy, secretary for Vallecito Nordic Club.
As an all-volunteer nonprofit with 20 active members, the club has learned to be resourceful.
To use a “Star Wars” analogy, they are like the scrappy Rebel Alliance on the ice planet of Hoth from the “Empire Strikes Back,” making do with landspeeders because they don’t have the luxury of the Imperial Walkers to stomp down the snow.
Instead of the big snowcats or tractors used at commercial ski resorts, they mostly rely on snowmobiles to drag along rollers and grooming equipment that look like giant cheese graters.
Groomers like to make a ribbed pattern similar to corduroy pants down the middle of the trail plus parallel tracks for the classic-style skiers.
The job is not as fun as it might seem because their snowmobiles were not designed to be tractors pulling along grooming equipment, said volunteer Buck Madden. So the driving can be difficult.
The machines seem to have a mind of their own, often committing work stoppages without warning.
Recently, volunteer Ron Klatt’s snowmobile broke down on the trail, miles from the shelter where he eventually would have to return. Klatt was reading the snowmobile owner’s manual when his partner, Madden, pulled up.
The temperature was in the single digits with an unforgiving wind that made toes curl up inside their boots, not the most comfortable moment for two retirement-age men to stand around and figure out what was wrong with a snowmobile.
“Oh, I love snowmobiles,” Madden joked in a commiserating vein. “Not! They’re so cantankerous! Too bad they’re so heavy. We can’t pick it up and throw it.”
After much fretting about what to do with the broken-down snowmobile,the groomers were able to fix the problem by replacing a blown fuse, said Diane Legner, president of the club.
The club has two snowmobiles, including one shared with the U.S. Forest Service. They are replaced about every three years, Legner said.
Trying to buy a tractor, which costs around $100,000, is just way out of the group’s budget, said Legner, who declined to give specifics about the club’s budget.
The Nordic club gets an occasional boost from San Juan Sledders’ snowcat, driven by its grooming foreman, Roger Pennington.
Pennington said he has been told that the donations to Vallecito Nordic’s collection box at the trailhead pick up whenever he grooms their trails. On average, the Vallecito collection box gets $2 a car, Pennington said he was told by a longtime Vallecito volunteer.
As primarily a snowmobile club, San Juan Sledders has a steadier source of funding because it gets a share of the proceeds from the $35.25 state registration fee for snowmobiles, Pennington said.
He said he is happy to groom. On the side of the snowcat, it says grooming for all winter users.