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A good year for cross-country skiing in west central Minnesota

Mark and Jann Olson of the New London area and their sons, Benjamin and Gabe, (only one is pictured here) begin their family trek Tuesday on a groomed trail at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

From staff reports

In terms of snowfall, this has been an outstanding winter for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Even though the temperatures have been below average, many people have been hitting the trails at Sibley State Park, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and Eagle Creek Golf Course in Willmar.

With proper clothing and equipment, anyone can ski or snowshoe in relative comfort in cold weather. The saying goes, "there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear." One big advantage is that the physical activity helps keep you warm. And it goes without saying that cross-country skiing and snowshoeing provide an enjoyable way to get outdoor exercise during the long winter months.

Crews at all three ski areas have been spending many hours grooming trails. Sibley offers the most extensive trail system, offering more than 10 miles. Prairie Woods offers about six miles, and the golf course about four. A shorter trail has been groomed at Robbins Island, which also has the advantage of lights for night skiing.

With its many hills, Sibley is best suited for intermediate and advanced skiers, although there is a gently rolling loop through the Oak Ridge campground. Prairie Woods offers easy and intermediate trails. The golf course is a good place for skiers looking for easier trails, with the added convenience of being closer to those living in or near Willmar.

Equipment is available at various locations. Prairie Woods rents skis and snowshoes at a reasonable cost. Sibley rents snowshoes and offers guided snowshoe hikes on some weekends. Several Willmar stores sell snowshoes, including Dunham's, Play It Again Sports and Running's. One may have to travel a bit more to purchase cross-country ski equipment.

Much of the local cross-country ski activity in recent years has centered around the Willmar High School Nordic Ski Team. It started in the 1998-99 season and now numbers more than 60 junior high and senior high athletes. They practice at the golf course, Sibley Park and also on a trail north of the senior high school.

Willmar high school's first home meet took place in 2001 at Robbins Island. In 2002, a group of area cross-country ski enthusiasts organized the Willmar Nordic Ski Club, Inc. Members raised funds to purchase equipment, including a utility snowmobile and several pieces of ski trail grooming implements. The city of Willmar also owns similar equipment, which is used by volunteers to groom trails at the golf course and Robbins Island.

Cross-country ski tips:

Clothing: Avoid wearing cotton. Dress in layers using light-weight, synthetic fabrics that retain heat, but "breathe" -- allowing moisture to wick away from the body. A good outer shell blocks wind. Face protection is recommended for wind chill conditions, and sunglasses on sunny days.

Ski equipment: For skis, the most important factor is the camber, or upward bowing or bend, of the ski in relation to body weight. The center portion of the ski base is the "kick zone." Each stride begins with the weighted ski gripping the snow, while the other ski glides forward as the camber lifts the kick zone off the snow. Standing on a flat surface with equal weight on both skis, you should be able to slide a thin paper or card beneath the kick zone. Poles generally should be about shoulder height, or slightly less for classical or track skiing. Boots must match the type of binding, and fit comfortably according to your size.

Wax or waxless skis? The kick zone of so-called waxless skis has a pattern inscribed in the base that helps grip the snow. This takes the place of a special wax for that purpose, although using a glide wax on the front and back one-third of the ski base helps improve glide. Skis without the kick zone pattern require a special wax to provide grip on the push-off. Wax types vary according to snow conditions and temperature.

While skis with waxable kick zones generally are faster, many people prefer waxless skis for convenience.

How do skis glide on snow? While friction can slow things down, when it happens as the ski is pushed across snow, it can melt the surface into a microscopic layer of water, which acts almost like a lubricant. With the right glide wax, snow condition and temperature, skis can glide fast and far. Too cold, there is less melting and less glide. Too warm, and there's too much water that acts like a suction holding the glide back. But sometimes a cross country ski track becomes icy, which can be too slick.

More information

Although heavy on competitive cross country skiing, provides extensive information, updated daily, primarily in Minnesota.

Recreational skiers are abundant and welcome at events such as the City of Lakes Loppet, Feb. 5-6 in Minneapolis,; and the Mora Vasaloppet, Feb. 12-13,

"Silent Sports" is a good all-around magazine for fitness sports including cross country skiing in the upper Midwest:

"Cross Country Skier" magazine:

"Trax" -- North America's Nordic ski magazine:

"Master Skier -- Cross Country Ski Journal:"

Ski Resorts -- a resource for recreational and travel-oriented cross country skiers: