Anxiously waiting for the next snowfall

Jan. 13—WILLMAR

— Outside magazine once described it as the "happiness effect," and cross-country skiers know it well.

Flying over the snow on your own power is exciting and fun, and comes with all the mental and physical benefits that fresh air, exercise and the opportunity to explore a winter landscape offer.

It explains why Forrest Peterson of Willmar, a long-time Nordic skier and veteran of 22

American Birkbeiner

races in Hayward, Wisconsin, confessed that cross-country skiing gets to be "kind of a lifestyle" for those who love the sport.

"Sometimes people in the winter are looking to go to Florida. We're looking for the next snowfall," he explained.

It's also why the recent snowfalls have kept Peterson and other members of the

Willmar Nordic Ski Club

very busy.

While it's not as well known as it should be, this group of volunteers maintains just over five kilometers of cross-country ski trail starting on the grounds of the

Eagle Creek Golf Course

in Willmar.

The trail takes skiers along the shores of Swan Lake and into a 60-acre area of land owned by the state of Minnesota. The property was once administered by the Willmar State Hospital. It's a mix of former farmland, prairie and woodland, a part of which includes centuries-old oak trees. "You'd think you're up at Sibley (State Park) in parts," said Peterson.

The trails are open to the public at no charge. It is one of the main reasons the club got started in the first place. Peterson said the goal was to make it easy for local residents to take up the sport, as well as provide skiing opportunities close to home.

The other big goal for the skiing enthusiasts when they started the club was to make it possible for the Willmar Schools to offer a Nordic Ski Team.

Brad Haugen is going on 19 years now of introducing young people to the sport as coach of the Willmar Schools Nordic Ski Team. This year's team includes 22 students in middle school through high school. Some years, as many as 65 students have participated.

Cross-country skiing is a sport that you can enjoy for a lifetime, Haugen pointed out. It's also a sport for students of all athletic abilities. There are no bench sitters. Everyone skis at the meets.

Last weekend, the team enjoyed two days of skiing in the north woods at Giant's Ridge. On January 21, they will host a multi-team meet on their home course.

Haugen is among the volunteers with the Nordic Ski Club, and like Peterson, has been putting in long hours on the grooming equipment. There's a core group of about six to 10 who take on the responsibilities of maintaining the trails.

It's a year-round chore. The trails are open for hiking in the warm weather months.

The ski club started in the late 1990s. The Willmar Schools have had a Nordic Ski Team every year since the club's start, including lean budget years and those years when snow was scarce.

The Willmar Nordic Ski Club was officially incorporated in 2002 to promote cross-country skiing in the Willmar area. By incorporating, the club was able to obtain grant funds that allowed for the purchase of a snowmobile and grooming equipment.

Peterson said the club relies entirely on volunteer help. It also relies on donations from the public and holds an annual fundraiser. The funds are used for the expenses involved with maintaining the trail, and for supporting activities of the school team.

The ski club members are especially thankful to the Eagle Creek Golf Club for allowing the trail on the golf course property, said Peterson. The golf course parking lot is open for trail users, and the golf club also provides a shed for the ski club to store its equipment.

The partnership involving the golf club, ski club members and Willmar school district makes it possible for many in the area to take up cross-country skiing and enjoy the winter. The trails are also open for snowshoeing.

The trail features a relatively gentle landscape, making it ideal for those new to cross-country skiing, said Peterson. He pointed out that this area is also fortunate to have groomed ski trails at the

Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center

and

Sibley State Park

.

The ski club always welcomes new members and volunteers, and appreciates donations of any size to help with the expenses. But most of all, Peterson said the club members hope the trail provides the opportunity for people to try cross country skiing.

Haugen knows what will follow for those who give it a try. While it seems harder these days to get young people outdoors, he's found that most of the students who give cross-country skiing a try find themselves hooked on the sport really fast.