Early snow brings hope for ski season

Plans in the works for snowmaking at Elver Park.
Early snow brings hope for ski season
A record 5.7-inch snowfall for Dec. 4 has artificial snow families smiling in anticipation of a long, white winter.

Ah, that first snowfall of the winter.

Nothing like getting out for a ski, even if it means sliding around a golf course fairway or that park space down the block.Of course, hardcore cross-country ski racers have been out for weeks on roller skis, those tippy two-wheeled devices designed to imitate the real thing. The miles of paved trails in the Madison area are perfect for rolling, especially in November when most bike riders have given up the ghost, leaving the paths all but empty.

But roller skiing isn’t the same as getting out on the real stuff—and not just because falling on snow is a lot softer landing. To me, few things in life match the feeling of gliding through the woods on a pair of light-weight skinny skis.

That’s why skiers in these parts consider it a blessing any time there is skiable snow before Christmas. In fact, the 5.7-inch snowfall on Sunday was the all-time record for December 4, besting the previous mark set in 2007. Global warming notwithstanding, it’s a sign of good things to come.

Winter can prove a fickle friend for cross-county skiers in southern Wisconsin—despite that fact that we are rated the 20th snowiest major city in the U.S. by the Weather Channel. (Green Bay is ranked 16th, while Syracuse, New York is No. 1).

Despite that surprisingly lofty ranking, snowfalls in Madison are often inconsistent when snow does fall. A few days of above-freezing temperatures can quickly ruin groomed trails. But hope is on the way with snowmaking planned this winter at Elver Park. 

Snowmaking at the west-side park could begin this week if temperatures drop far enough below freezing. The plan is to create a 1.5-kilometer loop of manmade snow running from the shelter building past the sledding hill and around the soccer fields.

The manmade ski trail would be open to anyone holding a valid Madison/Dane County parks ski pass, which costs adults $7 a day or $30 a year.

The snowmaking effort is linked to plans for moving the annual Madison Winter Festival in February from the Capitol Square to Elver Park. The festival, which has been held each year since 2005, will continue to feature cross-country ski racing, ice sculptures, sledding and other events that celebrate winter.

In the past, organizers of the Winter Festival have made huge piles of snow at Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center and then trucked it downtown where it was spread onto the pavement around the Square. The snow was brought in on Friday night and then plowed away by Monday morning.

Now, instead of just using the artificial snow for just two days, skiers can take advantage of it for the entire winter, according to Yuriy Gusev, director of the Madison-based Central Cross Country Ski Association (CXC) and founder of the Madison Winter Festival.

“It’s going to be great for both the Winter Festival and skiing in general,” says Gusev.

Snowmaking duties will be handled by CXC with help from the Madison Nordic Ski Club, which will use the manmade loop to offer lessons to the public and run its various other programs.

While the Winter Festival will lose some of its luster by leaving the downtown, city officials say the Elver Park venue is well-suited to a family-friendly event.

“We are excited to see this fun, vibrant event come to Elver Park and the southwest side,” says assistant parks superintendent Charlie Romines. “Elver offers everything you could want for winter fun, from skating to serene ski trails, and, of course, the giant sledding hill. With plenty of parking and easy access right off the Beltline, we think the Winter Festival is going to enjoy its new home.”

The city will continue to provide grooming for skiing at Elver Park and its half-dozen other maintained trails when it snows. The city is also providing the water and electricity for snowmaking at Elver Park along with use of the shelter building.

Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison following a 30-year career at The Capital Times newspaper.