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Nordic ski trails sprout near Sandpoint

Cross-country skiers donating time, energy and their own grooming equipment are inspiring Sandpoint – a town of alpine skiing tradition – to get active on skinny skis.

“It’s a classic example of build it and they will come,” said Coral France as she stepped into her skate-ski bindings. The parking lot was full at noon, as it had been since December, at the former University of Idaho Research and Extension Center tree farm off North Boyer Avenue.

The town trails are among three venues being groomed in the lowlands around Sandpoint this season. The trails feature novice terrain ideal for teaching – the one notable shortcoming at the established 32-kilometer cross-country trail system above town at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

France and husband Jared are members of the Sandpoint Nordic Club, which has grown about four-fold this year to about 75 members. More than double that number have been showing up on the trails.

“It’s all about some new energy and the grooming equipment,” France said.

Much of nordic swell stems from Ned Brandenberger, the club’s president and a former collegiate nordic skier from Montana.

“There’s been a learning curve,” he said, smiling. “I’ve already burned up one of my snowmobiles.”

A vital spark was added last year by Vicki and Ross Longhini, two fitness fanatics who moved from Minnesota to Sandpoint. They brought along their snowmobile and trail-grooming sled from a family farm in Wisconsin.

“We fell in love with Sandpoint,” Vicki said. “But with all the über-athletes we met around here we were surprised at how few of them were nordic skiers. People said, ‘Nobody does that around here; nordic skiers go to the Methow Valley.’

“But we love Sandpoint. We love that everybody here downhill skis or snowboards, but we also love cross-country skiing. It’s the best and most challenging full-body workout there is. With all the Ironmen, runners and mountain-biking crazies champing at the bit during winter, this place is really ripe for nordic, too.”

High school cross country running teams in Minnesota thrive on nordic skiing for winter cross-training, she said.

One of the biggest surprises for club members is the number of seniors who’ve been out on the trails this winter.

“We meet people who say they’ve had cross-country skis sitting in their garages for years,” France said. “The trails bring them out. Even if it’s half an hour at noon, fantastic.”

Tauber Angus Farms, 11 miles northeast of town in the Selle Valley, has stepped up to groom more trails and take on another angle – the lack of cross-country ski rentals, especially for kids.

Cassie Tauber, former professional snowboarder, invested – on faith and credit – in 45 complete sets of cross-country rental gear to get new skiers on the trails at her family’s farm.

“Our kids are the fifth generation on Gold Creek and we’re trying something new, for families,” she said.

When Tauber was snowboarding in Utah, her husband, Tim Reed, came along to run a snowcat groomer for area nordic trails. He worked up to grooming the Winter Olympics trails at Soldier Hollow. “He’s a farmer,” Cassie said. “Learning to operate another piece of big equipment was a small step.”

They brought their grooming expertise back to the farm’s 5 kilometers of ski trails and used their connections to buy a used snowcat groomer.

The Longhinis have organized youth and junior skiing groups at Tauber Farms, which has a rare perk: “Some kids are getting dropped off by the bus after school so they can ski,” Tauber said.

Fun-style dogsled races on Feb. 23 and a nordic skiing biathlon-style event on Feb. 24 are set as fundraisers to support the youth skiing and ski rental effort.

“My goal is to help kids be more active and fight the obesity epidemic,” Tauber said.

While looking for grants, Tauber learned little money is offered for recreation related to rural youth.

“The money is geared to urban kids because everybody assumes rural kids are naturally in the outdoors with lots of physical activity. Actually it’s the opposite, especially in winter. Rural kids tend to come home from school and stay there.”

Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, a couple miles up Gold Creek Road from Tauber Farms, has added groomed nordic trails to its already popular year-round lodge, cabins and facilities. The ranch is popular for retreats and weddings as well as for winter horse-drawn sleigh rides.

Nordic Club members have been brushing, pruning and grooming up to 14 kilometers of trails for skating and classic.

“The ranch is a little higher elevation and they have more terrain variety,” said Ross Longhini, who was setting tracks with his snowmobile last week. “They have a ton of potential here for more.”

Club member Bob Love has been charting the Sandpoint area’s nordic areas and posting maps on the club’s website.

“Skiing in town is convenient when the weather cooperates, but we want to have multiple options,” he said.