Big, broad, sweeping changes are in store for cross-country skiers heading to Mount Spokane State Park this season.
Existing nordic skiing trails have been widened to accommodate a new, more powerful snowcat groomer and about seven miles of new trails have been added, bringing the groomed trail system this year to about 26 miles.
That’s 42 kilometers in the metric system nordic skiers prefer, a network that was unthinkable to skiers around when the first short nordic trail – about 1K– was cut out by volunteers Brian Troth and Tim Ray in 1981.
The cross-country trail system has been expanding over logging roads that lead out of the state park onto adjoining Inland Empire Paper Company land. Until a few years ago, those roads had been open to snowmobilers. The company began closing them to motorized use in 2007 because of damage to young tree stands.
Signs prohibiting snowmobiles on the company’s land were posted last week at main access points, company officials said.
Snowmobilers lured off the groomed trails by the white expanses of clearcut slopes were riding over the tops of young trees just above or just under the snow’s surface, said Paul Buckland, the company’s forest resource manager.
“Break the top off of a young tree and its commercial value is lost,” he said. “They can cause significant damage.
“There are a lot of young stands 2 to 12 years old that are vulnerable, but we don’t have the manpower to patrol the trails and keep snowmobiles on the roads and off of the slopes,” he said.
Snowmobile clubs have looked into helping patrol the area but no agreements have worked out, he said.
“Snowmobiling on those roads remains a possibility for the future,” Buckland said. “We assess that on a year-to-year basis.”
Since 2007, the snowmobile trail system at Mount Spokane has decreased from 54 miles that included paper company lands to 17 miles mostly within the state park, said Angela Simmons of Spokane County Parks. County officials managed the snowmobile grooming at Mount Spokane, but Washington State Parks is handling it starting this year, she said.
“We had more than 30 miles of snowmobile trails on our ground,” Buckland said. “Inland Paper supports public recreation that’s consistent with our stewardship without interfering with our business operations.”
The company is not against motorized recreation, he said. Although motorized use has been curtailed in recent years, the company continues to issue special permits for a few specific purposes, such as moose hunters getting out their game.
“That’s worked fine,” Buckland said. “It’s something we can enforce. It’s a lot different than having another group of snowmobiles out there high-marking and running through our plantations.”
Meanwhile, Mount Spokane State Park rangers are looking at the expanded nordic ski trail system on a trial basis.
“We’ll have to see how much we can groom in a night with the new machine and whether enough skiers use the expanded area to make it worthwhile,” said Steve Christensen, park manager.
Skiers heading out to Tripp’s Knob on the newly added trails will have to ski a 6.5-mile loop off the former trail system.
“Skiers who are in good shape will love it, but average skiers may find it’s a bit far out there, especially since you have to ski up out of the drainage,” Christensen said.
One of the new routes will be named Panorama because of the great views, said George Momany, a member of Selkirk Nordic ski club and a skiing representative on the state Winter Recreation Program’s non-motorized committee.
“Long-distance skiers will enjoy these trails and it will open 60 percent more routes for people to go skijoring with their dogs,” he said.
The State Parks Winter Recreation Program purchased a new $270,000 Prinoth BR 350 groomer that’s on the mountain being readied for use. A new operator is being trained.
While Mount Spokane is one of the largest of the state’s 120 Sno-Park areas, the busiest of the winter recreation areas are in the North Cascades along the Interstate 90 corridor. But this year, Mount Spokane reeled in a big chunk of the Winter Recreation Program’s $1.3 million budget for non-motorized Sno-Park areas.
Mount Spokane’s older snowcat groomer, purchased 10 years ago, is still on the mountain to be used as a backup. Christensen said it’s underpowered for the length of the trail system and the heavy snow that must be handled on Mount Spokane.
“The bigger groomer should save us time, money and downtime on breakdowns because it’s better suited for our system,” he said.
The new snowcat will be able to groom wider trail areas with one pass where the old groomer required two or three passes. That eliminates the ridge in the skating lane and should enable the operator to arch the new tiller to create a state-of-the art convex skating lane.
The undesirable tradeoff for some cross-country skiers is that most of the trails had to be widened and many trees had to be removed during an $11,000 summer project involving heavy equipment to accommodate the bigger groomer.
The intimacy of skiing through the woods will be a little harder to find on the park’s groomed trails this winter. The main trails will be more like freeways rather than rural roads.
“We didn’t get all the trails widened enough, so we plan to use the old groomer in some places,” Christensen said.
The trails were covered by more than a foot of snow on Monday before snowfall turned to rain.
Depending on conditions, the new groomer and operator could be out for training this week even though the grooming season doesn’t officially start until Dec. 1.
“We don’t even know how much we can groom in a night with the new machine,” Christensen said. “We’re on a new learning curve.”