On the Outside: Making tracks on the Pathway

Roger Hopkins and Jerry Nilsson have been grooming the Pathway since 2003.

The Cadillac Pathway has been the area’s most popular cross country ski destination since the 1980s when the DNR laid out the 13½ mile trail system east of town.

In an era when most skiers were still making their own trails in the backcountry, having a marked trail that even was occasionally groomed was a big deal.

But in 2003 the government was suffering through a financial crunch. That’s when, Bill Sterrett from the DNR contacted Roger Hopkins asking if he could help out.

“Jerry Nilsson and I decided we would try to do the grooming,” Hopkins said. “The DNR provided the snow mobile and the groomer which was just a box with runners on the bottom and weighted down with a cement block. It was heavy and didn’t do a great job.

“That’s when Darin Kearns at the Career Tech Center stepped in. Kearns and his welding class put together a groomer. To keep the snowmobile in good running order, Dave Mackey and the students in his power sports class, became the mechanics. They’ve done a good job,” Hopkins said. “We’re still using the snow machine we started with.’’

Grooming involves more than just dragging a sled through the woods. I can attest to that.

Years ago I volunteered to be a groomer. Riding on the back of the sled with Roger, it seemed easy enough - just follow the trail and don’t go too fast. When it came my turn to drive, I slipped off the track and promptly buried the snowmobile in the powder. From that time on, all my winter visits to the Pathway have been on skis.

Roger allowed that he and Jerry have had some tough times on the trail, trying to make headway after a big dump of snow or keeping warm when grooming on sub-zero days.

In the early years when they were setting track, skiers weren’t the only ones on the Pathway.

“Snowmobiles used to be a real problem, I’m not sure whether they didn’t know this was a ski trail or didn’t care, but we’d often had our set track obliterated after a snow machine ran over it,” Hopkins said.

“People walking in boots or snowshoes on the trail flattened the tracks as well. But I think the word has gotten out and people are more considerate now. We still have some folks who take their dogs with them while they ski. Most of the time, though, the ski track is left for the skiers,” Hopkins said.

Although Roger and Jerry are the chief groomers, in recent years Dave Grieg and Steve Pentces have joined the grooming team. They’d like to be out laying fresh track each week, but it depends on the weather. Roger noted that they’ve learned that you need at least six inches of snow, preferably with a little moisture in it, to make a good set of parallel tracks. Anything less than a half foot of snow and the groomer just digs into the ground.

“In a good winter we may start grooming in mid- December and have good skiing extend a couple weeks into March,” Hopkins said. “Those are years where we may groom a dozen times. Not recently though. We just don’t seem to be getting the snowy winters like we used to. Last year we might have been out six times and this year, through December and January, we have only been on the Pathway four times,” he said.

The snowmobile and groomer are stored in the Career Tech Center. This means the trail-setting is done on weekdays because the equipment is only available when school is in session and the CTC is open.

“If we need it during the Christmas holidays, Dave Mackey has unlocked his class area so we can get out on the trail,” Hopkins said.

Having done my first cross country skiing decades ago when we had to break our own trail, I appreciate the partnering of the DNR, the Career Tech Center and the team of volunteers that man the groomer. Gliding along the Pathway, my skis riding in a set of fresh cut grooves in the snow, that’s ideal. Cross country skiing doesn’t get any better than that.