Q: How does a trail become this skiable? A: With your help. PHOTO BY JENNY VATER
Q: How does a trail become this skiable? A: With your help. PHOTO BY JENNY VATER

I was pretty excited a few years ago when I pulled my skis out of the car and hurried up the three steps to the Greenbush upper trailhead to put them on. There was no snow on any of the ski trails closer to my Milwaukee home, so I had skipped an afternoon meeting and driven 75 minutes to the Greenbush micro-climate in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest for my fix.

As I snapped my boots into the bindings, I reflexively asked a skier coming off the trail, “How is it out there?”

His sour mouth and narrowing eyes answered before his words: “It’s not too bad. You can ski around most of the windfall the groomer left on the trail.”

I bit my lip and skied away as I pondered this guy’s attitude. The windfall "the groomer left” on the trail?  Why was this guy “skiing around” the twigs rather than helping the groomer, and the rest of us, by throwing some of them off the trail?

The Phantom Groomer knows

“Yeah, I’ve heard that kind of crap before,” Jeff Welsch said when I told him this story. Welsch was the infamous “Phantom Groomer” of Greenbush back in the early ‘90s, earning that title because he groomed in the middle of the night, with his own snowmobile and drags he built in his garage, so most skiers didn’t know who he was. 

He burned through two Arctic Cats and three engines – all purchased with his own money – before the Northern Kettle Moraine Nordic Ski Club reached an agreement with the Department of Natural Resources to raise funds to pay for equipment and grooming if the state would allow them to store the equipment on site. It was then the Phantom came out of the closet.

A corporate pilot in his other life, Welsch is now in his third decade grooming trails at Greenbush. Why? Because he loves to ski and nobody else was doing it.

“Listen,” he said. “If groomers had to pick up every twig or small branch that blows down, we’d never get the trail flat or tracks set. I’ll bring a chain saw or loppers out to get big branches or fallen trees out of the way, but it’s skiers’ responsibility to bend over and throw small stuff off the trail.”

Welsch, who also gives technique lessons, added only half-kiddingly, “Heck, standing on one ski while flicking twigs off the trail with a ski pole is a great drill for developing balance.”

High winds early that morning had blown quite a few twigs and small branches onto the lovely corduroy that Welsch had packed down the previous evening. As I warmed up, I flicked off about every fifth twig, figuring if four other skiers did the same, the trail soon would be cleared. 

That also allowed me to eventually do my version of speed intervals (speed being a relative term) unburdened by guilt and unimpeded by too much downfall.

Snow farming

The groomer at Wisconsin’s oldest ski club agrees with Welsh’s assessment. Phil Johnsrud not only grooms at the Iola Winter Sports Club, but he fixes equipment, designs new trails, makes snow and puts up lights for night skiing, all without a dime of compensation. 

I know he’s a great groomer, but he’s also a long-time friend, so I’ll leave it to a stranger for an objective report. Over Thanksgiving in 2006 I went to a touring center in Frisco, Colorado, for early snow. A local skier saw the ski shop logo on my jacket and said, “You must be from Milwaukee.” I discovered he was retired and a recent transplant from Wausau.

He asked me where I skied in southeast Wisconsin; then he mentioned Nine Mile and Standing Rocks as his home courses. I asked him if he had ever skied Iola. He grabbed my arm, planted his face a foot from mine and said, “Iola! That guy can groom frost.”

Johnsrud prefers “snow farming” as a description of what he does. “The winters aren’t what they used to be due to global warming, so when we get a few inches, I’ve got to knock it down, pack it and preserve it. If it lasts a few weeks, that’s just like harvesting a crop,” explains the retired high school shop teacher.

Completing 30 Birkies is an amazing accomplishment for Johnsrud considering that he spends a majority of the ski season grooming rather than training. The only time people in Iola see him on skis, he carries a shovel or saw instead of poles so he can cover brown spots on the trail or take off a branch that’s been threatening to hit skiers in the face. He once told me, “I train during the first half of the Birkie, then race the second half.”

Art and science

Because I know there are people like Johnsrud and Welsch throughout the state busting their butts on their own time and own dime to groom trails that enhance my life, I’m not particularly tolerant of skiers who whine about the quality of the grooming or about having to pay a trail fee or buy a state sticker.

There are groomers who do get paid, mainly for state or county trails. From my experience, the quality of their work in southeastern Wisconsin has gone from mediocre to excellent over the past 25 years.

When I moved to the state in 1975, I started classic skiing at what’s now called Nordic in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. We broke our own trail, followed in someone else’s tracks or, intermittently, the DNR would set tracks to ski in.

Today, grooming is an art as well as a science. Paul Sandgren started grooming for the DNR in the Southern Kettles just as the cross-country ski world dramatically changed. “When I started in ’86, all we did was drag a homemade roller behind a snowmobile, then set track,” he recalled. 

“But when skating exploded,” Sandgren said, “and it became a much more time-consuming: rolling a wider trail then flattening it to get a skiable surface. Then manufacturers started coming out with more grooming equipment, but acquiring that gear was expensive.“

Now Superintendent of the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit, Sandgren has helped train all the groomers who do fantastic jobs at the Nordic, Scuppernong, McMiller and Lapham Peak trail systems. 

When asked how he responds to people complaining about the grooming, Sandgren smiled. “I try to explain to them how many factors and how much work goes into producing a well-groomed trail. Most have no idea of the work we do off-season: clearing, mowing, sometimes flattening, digging out rocks.”

Sandgren echoed what I heard from Welsch and Johnsrud: Given the paucity of snow in the southern half of Wisconsin, most grooming can’t be done with large machines but rather with snowmobiles. It takes multiple passes with sleds to age the snow, making it dense enough to set up. 

“Another challenge we’ve faced recently have been early season storms with wet, heavy snows bringing down limbs and even whole trees. We can’t even think about grooming until we get that big stuff off the trails,” Sandgren said.

“Skiers need to be patient and let us do our jobs,” he added.

Less complaining, more cooperating

All three groomers stressed two key things skiers can do to help make the trails better: volunteering and paying their fair share. 

Off-season, both public and private ski areas hold work days to clear trails and get them ready for snow. After a big storm in any season, groomers can use volunteers to help prep the trails.

And whether you stick $5 in the box every time you ski, pay dues to a club that buys grooming equipment or buy your state or county sticker with a smile, you’re making quality grooming possible. If you can afford it, do all three.

Sandgren explained the economics: “Your sticker fee goes to the segregated Forestry Account, and from there different properties get budgets. The more people we can show use our trails and buy stickers at our park, the more money we can get back to groom.”

So let’s stop the complaints and expand the cooperation. Your local “snow farmer” is, after all, your best friend.

How skiers can help

• Pay trail fees or buy a park sticker wherever and whenever you ski.

• Don’t skate on trails immediately after grooming. Take classic skis for those conditions and let the skating lanes “set up.”

• Flick or pick-up small branches, leaves, twig and rocks.

• Be aware when groomers are present. Move to the side of the trail and remain stationary.

• If trails are temporarily closed for grooming, obey the signs and stay off.

• Volunteer for cleanup or work days.

• If there’s a “friends of” organization dedicated to your favorite train system, join and contribute.

Charlie Dee is a retired professor and Central Cross-Country Ski Association Master Skier. He lives in Milwaukee.