Chris Thomas, left, and Don Thomas, right, wait to ski Montana Creek Trail. The microclimate of the area and the openness of the trail means it stays open when other trails close. As of Wednesday morning, it was the only trail Juneau Nordic Ski Club was grooming, though that could change, especially out the road, if Juneau keeps getting snow at night this week.

Chris Thomas, left, and Don Thomas, right, wait to ski Montana Creek Trail. The microclimate of the area and the openness of the trail means it stays open when other trails close. As of Wednesday morning, it was the only trail Juneau Nordic Ski Club was grooming, though that could change, especially out the road, if Juneau keeps getting snow at night this week.

Where winter stays

This January may not have had much snowfall, but it’s still winter out Montana Creek, where volunteers with the Juneau Nordic Ski Club have been grooming every day since November.

This Wednesday, long-time groomer Del Carnes let me tag along as he groomed the trail. Snow and moss hung heavy from branches that stayed clear of the wide-open track, Montana Creek flowed alongside us, and cross country skiers — members of the ski club, some of them groomers themselves — skate- and classic-skied along in the freshly groomed snow behind us.

“You made that the sweetest part of our day,” skier Mary Ellen Arvold called out to Carnes after finishing a ski.

The Ginzu, one of the machines used in trail grooming, can shave ice off the surface, Carnes said, helping them to sometimes make a track skiable when it’s icy. And, of course, they have a classic ski track groomers set to help out classic skiers. (For those not in the know, there are two kinds of cross country skiing: classic, which is a sliding forward motion, and skate-skiing, which is faster and which skiers compare to ice skating.)

The Nordic Ski Club has been going more than 20 years as a separate club, its members estimate, but before that as well; it’s an offshoot of the Juneau Ski Club.

Members skiing out at Montana Creek Wednesday credit Tim Hall and Marc Scholten with getting things going. Hall was instrumental in getting a snow machine and starting out grooming at Mendenhall Lake more than 20 years ago, said skier Chris Thomas.

People have been Nordic skiing in Juneau for decades, maybe longer, but the attraction of groomed areas helped it really take off, Thomas said.

“Once there were consistent tracks (on the campground), the number of cross country skiers just grew. They discovered this fun way to get out in the winter and get their exercise,” she said.

Volunteer groomer Don Thomas credits a friend who lived in town for a few years with the idea to groom at Montana Creek.

“For 20 years after he left, every Christmas he’d send me a Christmas card and say ‘Have you got cross country skiing going in Montana Creek yet?’” Don Thomas said.

The club started grooming at Montana Creek just a few years ago, though people have been skiing there for a while — high school races were at Montana Creek in the 1960s, said Chris Thomas, who skied on the JDHS team growing up.

The Nordic Ski Club grooms the Mendenhall Campground, Mendenhall Lake (they’ll wait for another cold spell and some re-thickening of the ice before grooming again) Montana Creek and Eagle Beach, though Montana Creek has been the only continuously groomed trail this winter.

Dave Haas volunteers to groom Eagle Beach. “When there is (snow) it really is distinctive,” he said.

There’s a loop that runs across the highway for a mile or two, and they track it when it has enough snow. Thursday, he drove out and wrote that Eagle Beach is “back in business” for skate skiing, with four new inches of snow.

It’s also winter, of course, up at Eaglecrest Ski Area, which briefly closed after heavy rains at the end of January but has since reopened. Eaglecrest is also a big part of the Nordic ski scene, grooming and setting tracks at Upper and Lower Loop. (In case you haven’t noticed, every Friday in the Outdoors section, we run through the snow conditions on Nordic trails and on the mountain.)

Montana Creek is city land, and both Parks and Recreation and Trail Mix have helped out, groomers said; so has the Forest Service, with an agreement allowing skiers to groom at the glacier, which is Forest Service land. Eagle Beach is a state recreation area, so they work with city, state, and federally owned-land.

Most of the groomers are also skiers, so they know what kind of texture they’re going for, Carnes said — best is a hard base with a bit of soft snow on top.

“People love it, they really do,” Haas said. “You get all these people stopping and giving you applause.”

“And the retirement and benefits are great,” Carnes joked.

Arvold has been Nordic skiing in Juneau since 1979, when she and Haas moved here, and skate skiing for the last 13 or 14, she said.

“Basically, they do fabulous work,” Arvold said. “This (Montana Creek) has been a huge addition. This has been such a difference the last (few) years.”

The organization’s website is http://www.jnski.org/.

Juneau’s kids also get to take advantage of Montana Creek; physical education teacher Dirk Miller, along with others, takes his students there each year. Read more about that here: http://www.capitalcityweekly.com/stories/020514/out_1192880657.shtml.

• Contact Juneau Empire Outdoors Editor Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

Don and Chris Thomas ski the freshly groomed Montana Creek Trail.

Don and Chris Thomas ski the freshly groomed Montana Creek Trail.

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