Duluth is rapidly becoming known for its trails. That was a significant factor in being voted Outside Magazine's Best Town Ever for 2014, a contest that takes outdoor activities heavily into consideration for bestowing its title. In winter time, that means cross-country ski trails, and Duluth boasts 75 kilometers (46 miles) of such skiing pleasure.
It takes a great deal of care, maintenance and dedication to keep the trails in good shape and well groomed for skiers. In fact, it is a year-round job. But it's one that the City embraces, and strives for continual improvement in its trail system. Summer and fall find city crews working on the trails to prepare them for winter months. Doing this work up front has become a major focus for the City.
"Our trail maintenance staff is under direction to 'do things right,' " explains Dale Sellner, Building and Grounds Supervisor for the City.
Regular maintenance takes the form of clearing the trails to remove young trees and brush that tend to encroach on the trail. It's important to "brush" the trails to maintain enough width not only for skiing but to allow space for groomers to push snow to the side of the trails. Overhead branches are also trimmed, for the safety of skiers and groomers. Volunteers from the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club (DXC) supplement these efforts, along with helpers from area college ski teams.
There is a lot more to trail maintenance, however. Larger projects are aimed at establishing firm and sustainable trail beds.
"Ideally, we want the trails to be like roads and shed water so that it doesn't pool on the surface," according to Doug Rosas, Maintenance Operations Lead Worker.
In recent years, the trails have been enhanced by adding new culverts to alleviate drainage problems. This summer, the City used an excavator to work on the Piedmont, Hartley and Lester trails. Pulling out large rocks and filling in the holes and other low areas smoothed out the trail. The benefit of this is being able to groom the trails when there is less snow without damaging the grooming equipment.
At Chester Bowl and Lester-Amity, city crews worked on rerouting portions of the trails. The goal is to make grooming more efficient by reducing the number of times the groomer has to back up or retrace its path to cover all the trail loops. Those efforts pay off in the winter when skiers are anxious to see their favorite trails groomed. Being able to complete grooming a trail in less time means they can groom more kilometers in a day. Ultimately, that can equate to more frequent grooming.
Speaking of grooming, the City has also invested in a brand new, state of the art PistenBully groomer – the cadillac of grooming equipment. The improved reliability and quality of this new equipment will benefit the entire range of the City's trail system. It also boasts new features such as hydraulically adjustable track setters and side wings to groom a wider swath, which contribute to faster and safer grooming. This machine is supplemented by a snowmobile with grooming attachments that can be dispatched at the same time. In addition, DXC partners with the City of Duluth, and has assumed grooming responsibilities for portions of the Spirit Mountain ski trails. They too have purchased new grooming equipment, further expanding the resources for keeping the trails in good form throughout the winter.
It's all going according to plan. The Master Plan, that is. The City engaged expert cross-country ski resources to develop a Master Plan for the city's trails. The completed plan includes recommendations for trail improvements across the city's trails. Some features under consideration are extending the areas of lighted skiing and adding snowmaking on limited sections of trail. DXC is working closely with the city on prioritizing the recommendations and identifying what it will take to implement them. The two groups will collaborate on fundraising and bringing elements of the plan to fruition over the years.
Having attained its Outside's Best Town status, the City isn't about to let its efforts slip. It just keeps getting better. And cross-country skiers will reap the benefits.