The room where skiers wax their skis and bundle up to face the cold will fill with Nordic ski enthusiasts at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 3 in Brother Leopold Hall to honor a man that put Saint Mary’s University on the map as having one of the best cross-country ski trails in southeastern Minnesota.
Brother Jerome Rademacher, an SMU physics professor, made the trails in the 1970s. However when his health declined in 2006, Rademacher put the Winona Nordic Ski Club in charge of maintenance, said Bruce Johnson, WNSC member. Since then, he said, the club’s volunteer trail maintenance has groomed the trails nearly every day during winter.
“We’ve created a monster. We groom the trails so well that people expect them to be perfect all the time,” Johnson said with a proud smile.
The SMU ski trails, located in SMU’s backyard Yonn Valley, are groomed and maintained through the joint effort of SMU staff and WNSC volunteers. Cross-country skiers travel from neighboring states to train and ski on these trails, Johnson said. The trails are also open every day for public use.
The trails are groomed for two purposes: skate skiing and classical cross-country skiing.
Similar to ice skating, skate skiing is done by alternating skis away from each other at an angle. Classical skiing is done by putting skis in two parallel tracks cut into the snow and shuffling the legs in a striding motion.
Rademacher, the trail’s first solo caretaker, used a machine known as a piston boy to groom the snow, said Johnson. Luckily, when Rademacher gave up this passion, Johnson said he was able to continue that legacy.
“When I retired, I said ‘I can help. I can volunteer’,” Johnson said. “He said ‘here’s the key to the piston boy.’”
Since then, the community has shown massive enthusiasm to help make the trails what they are today, Johnson said.
“All hell broke loose—in a positive way,” said Johnson of Winona’s ski community grabbing this chance to maintain and improve the SMU trails. “There’s a hardcore group here.”
WNSC raised funds for two specialized snowmobiles called ginzus and state of the art equipment for trail grooming to replace Rademacher’s “stone age” equipment, Johnson said.
Today the WNSC and SMU staff maintains the trails using three primary pieces of equipment, said SMU Associate Vice President of Student Services, Chris Kendall.
“It’s not just like cutting the grass with a lawn mower,” Kendall said. “There’s more of an art to it.”
The trails need maintenance for a variety of reasons: fresh snow or change in temperatures, humidity or sun, Kendall said. Weather depending, the WNSC members may work every day or not for a week, he said.
After a fresh snowfall, Kendall said WNSC groomers renew the trail’s solid surface by knocking air out of fluffy snow with the Snowcat. Next they’ll use the ginzus to soften icy snow and further pack it, making a consistent base. Kendall said proper timing is critical in this process.
If Mother Nature decides snow isn’t in the forecast, then their two snowmaking machines come in handy, Kendall said. Furthermore, parts of the trail that get more sunlight are prone to melting, so maintenance makes snow and moves it to those spots.
“That’s kind of the art of it—managing what you have to make it as nice as possible,” said Kendall.
According to Kendall, cross-country ski enthusiasts travel from Northern edges of Minnesota for SMU’s advanced trails. Although these trails are unnamed, regulars give them names of affection, such as “rattlesnake,” a name given to an advanced trail.
“I think we’re a god on the map,” he said, due to the WNSC’s ability to fine-tune the trails, make them versatile and do the proper upkeep.
Since they’re well-maintained, the trails are used by a variety of local groups including physical education classes at SMU, the WNSC, the Minnesota Youth Ski League and the Winona Senior High School Ski team, who use the trails as their home court.
Jason Mork, WSHS Ski team coach, said his team practices six days per week on the trails. They’re maintained really well, he said. In particular, the ability to practice after dusk gives his team an edge.
“With the lit trails, we don’t have to rush,” Mork said, while other teams may hurry to cram practice in before nightfall.
Although they’re well maintained, Mork said the SMU trails could improve their outreach of adult programs, since there are several nights each week devoted to Nordic ski programs for children. Mork also wishes pedestrians would be more conscientious of skiers as well as keeping off the ski trails.
“We want them to shy away from walking,” on the trails Mork said. As these trails are used for hiking in the summer, pedestrians walk them in the winter as well. However, sometimes they walk directly down the middle, he said. “We just want to say, come on, you know, get a pair of skis and go fast.”
Pedestrians aside, Mork credits the growth of WSHS’s Nordic ski team to the trail’s youth programs. Since area children begin skiing earlier, more experienced skiers join the WSHS team each year.
As for Johnson, the SMU cross-country ski trails are not only a continuation of Rademacher’s work, but also an asset that encourages community health, he said.
“This is a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s the whole idea of get off your butt and go do something. Do you really want to stare at a computer screen your whole life?”