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Sure, put me in the cross-country skiing nut-job category, but I’m absolutely giddy over Madison’s first public winter sports venue with artificial snow.
Take a drive along McKenna Boulevard past Elver Park on the city’s southwest side and suddenly you see big mounds of snow and a white ribbon of trail heading up into the woods.
For committed cross-country skiers in southern Wisconsin it’s a true game changer: guaranteed, consistent conditions for kids programs, lessons, racing or simply enjoying that glorious feeling you get gliding.
No longer do hungry Nordic skiers in the Madison area need to drive two hours to Wausau or four hours to Ironwood, Michigan, in search of a snow fix. The Elver Park man-made snow loop, open since December 15, is long enough to keep skiers' interest. It features a major climb that could put anybody in shape for the American Birkebeiner, too. The 1.5-kilometer course is open to anyone holding a valid Madison/Dane County parks ski pass, which costs adults $7 a day or $30 a year.
Moreover, the snowmaking at Elver is made possible largely with private dollars from several groups, including the Madison Nordic Ski Club, the Central Cross-Country Ski Association (CXC) and the Madison Winter Festival along with the city of Madison Parks, which covers 50 percent of the water and electricity costs.
“Here in southern Wisconsin, sometimes Mother Nature needs a helping hand,” says Madison Nordic Ski Club co-president Jennifer Sereno. “Thanks to the hard work of many dedicated volunteers from our club along with CXC in collaboration with city of Madison Parks, we’ve been able to make it happen.”
Snowmaking for cross-country skiing has been a long time coming to Madison, which is somewhat hard to understand considering this is such a fitness-minded town with a large ski community.
Aside from the Twin Cities, the Madison area provides the largest number of participants for the annual Birkebeiner ski marathon, the largest cross-country ski event in the U.S. Over 2,000 local skiers and their families make the trek north each year for the Birkie and its sister race, the Kortelopet.
In Minnesota, they’ve been making snow for cross-country skiing at a half-dozen trails for well over a decade. Lapham Peak off Interstate 94 in Waukesha County has also developed a 1.2-kilometer snowmaking loop through a combination of private fundraising and DNR support.
But Madison has been slow to the game. I can remember back in the 1990s—long before global warming made the front pages—that people here started talking about making snow at Elver Park. The Madison Nordic Ski Club and city were fresh off a successful joint effort installing lights on a 5-kilometer section of wooded trail there for night skiing and anything seemed possible.
At one point, the Madison Community Foundation even invested $150,000 toward new grooming equipment and a water well at Elver Park, with the idea of providing winter sledding and skiing for kids in the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the park. The city and Madison Nordic Ski Club chipped in over $100,000 more, including purchase of two large snow-making fans. Unfortunately, the city soon discovered it didn’t have the staffing resources or expertise to make it happen and the snowmaking effort stalled.
Enter Yuriy Gusev, the tireless ski advocate and director of CXC who first came up with the idea to spread snow around the Capitol Square for the annual Madison Winter Festival, which has been held each year since 2005. But instead of making snow for just one weekend in February, Gusev eventually decided it might be smarter to make snow at Elver in December and let the public enjoy it all winter long.
So last year, the Madison Winter Festival was relocated to Elver Park as Gusev worked with the ski club and city to create a short loop of man-made snow. And despite some incredible weather challenges, organizers were able to keep enough snow around to hold the Winter Festival last winter amid 50-degree temperatures in early February.
Now, thanks to some new state-of-the-art equipment and private donations both large and small, the Elver course is much improved for the 2017-2018 season. It features a long climb up a wooded trail and a twisty downhill featuring a bump for “catching some air” if one is so inclined.
Charlie Romines, Madison Parks assistant superintendent, said the joint snow-making and grooming efforts are just one way the city is working to provide year-round recreational opportunities at Elver.
“We have a very strong community of cross-country skiers in the Madison area and through these types of public-private partnership with organizations such as MadNorSki and CXC, we are able to better meet the interests of these enthusiasts in the most cost-effective way,” says Romines.
This year’s snow-making efforts are aided by two new “stick” snow guns that allow for greater precision when blowing snow in the woods. Most of the snow-making equipment (five snow guns, high pressure water hoses, air hoses, booster pump, air compressor, an ATV and a Pisten Bully groomer) is being provided by CXC and the Madison Winter Festival. CXC and the festival also cover most of the maintenance, storage and transportation of the equipment. The Madison Nordic Ski Club has budgeted nearly $12,000 this year winter for the effort.
“The snow we’ve created now will help our local youth team members gain the fitness they need to compete at the national level and it will also generate opportunities for the broader community, including Madison Winter Festival participants later in the season,” Gusev said.
Snowmaking at Elver Park is the latest positive development for cross-country skiing in Madison, which in 2016 saw the opening of the University Ridge Golf Course as a 20-kilometer groomed trail system. The city also grooms a half-dozen trails when and if enough natural snow falls.
Natural snow or not, MadNorSki co-president Sereno says discussions are continuing over innovative ways to fund grooming and snow-making efforts including asking the public to support the work through a new Trailblazer Fund.
“We’re hoping skiers of all abilities can get out and enjoy a great winter,” she says. “You don’t need to be a club member to use the man-made loop but we certainly encourage everyone to join us.”
Mike Ivey is a Madison writer.