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A group of cross country skiers including Mike Miller, from left, Tim Daniels and Claudia Miller follow behind the trail groomer being operated by Forrest Peterson of the Willmar Nordic Ski Club Jan. 10 at Robbins Island. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Local winter courses getting more attention with recent snows

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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Get out and ski! Get out and snowmobile!

There are trails out there!

In one of the few times this decade, west central Minnesota has plenty of snow from the Christmas snow storms. It has opened numerous possibilities for outdoors activities.

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Take cross country skiing. Years of below-normal snowfall have been hard on trails around Willmar and Foot Lakes, at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and at Sibley State Park. If there were any trails at all, they were hard to maintain or get people to use.

"Right now, I think the trails are the best we've had in 10 years," said Gary Buellemer, assistant park manager at Sibley State Park. "It's become unusual to have snow like this."

Sibley has 12 miles of cross country ski trails and another six for snowmobiles.

"The trails are in good shape right now," he added. "We could use a good dusting. We could use a few inches just to freshen up the surface."

A little under the recreation radar has been the ski trails in Willmar. Eagle Creek Golf Course is the start of a five-kilometer system known as the Swan Lake Nordic Ski Trail, which runs along the southern and eastern edges of Swan Lake.

These trails are under the care of the Willmar Nordic Ski Club, which also supports the high school's Nordic Skiing program.

For years, the trails were groomed by the Club's older equipment. For a time, these trails weren't groomed with any consistency.

"Volunteers have groomed a trail at the Eagle Creek Golf Course and 60 acres of state land to the north. This was necessary because trail grooming needs to be done when timely, such as right after a snowfall," said Forrest Peterson from the Willmar Nordic Ski Club. "The city (of Willmar) also has similar grooming equipment, but it was not used for several years. When there's snow, the city's first priority is to plow streets, not groom ski trails. This year, the city agreed to allow authorized volunteers to use the city equipment to groom a trail at Robbins Island. Many years ago the city groomed trails there, but not in recent years. Now, club volunteers groom trails at both Robbins Island and the golf course."

Keeping the trails in good condition takes plenty of resources. Peterson said it took six volunteers 30 hours to groom trails last year, a year with below-average snowfall.

"It changes every year depending on snow conditions," he said. "With all the snow this year we expect to do more grooming."

And though the City of Willmar is allowing the Club to use grooming equipment, someone has to pay for fuel. The Club picks up the bill for fuel and maintenance, but Peterson hopes to get a trail grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for next year.

There is a lot of grooming left to be done. The popularity of the sport is increasing, especially with the temperatures venturing out of the below-zero readings earlier this month.

"Although we haven't been able to track the amount of public use, we often see people out on the golf course trails," Peterson said. "People are not aware of the Robbins Island trails yet. It's a smaller system but very nice, and also has lights suitable for night skiing on some portions."

For those who like a little more noise and power in their winter pursuits, Buellemer said the snowmobile trails at Sibley are in as good of shape as the ski trails.

Hopefully, that will improve the traffic to the park.

"Skiing seems to be a steady sport where the numbers haven't gone up a whole lot. There seems to be new skiers, like the high school team, which has increased the popularity of the sport," he said. "It's been good for us to have the young people out here.

"With snowmobiling, we've been seeing a decline, with the cost of it. But there seems to be a few more people out this winter, too."

For ski and snowmobile trail conditions, visit the Minnesota DNR website at www.mndnr.gov. For more information on Nordic Skiing and the Willmar High School Nordic Ski team, visit the Willmar High School web site at www.willmar.k12.mn.us/srhigh/content/nordic-skiing

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