During the snowstorms that frequently come through our area all winter, most of us hunker down in our warm and dry homes. However, several Sheridan residents head into the snow and the mountains to prepare local ski trails for users.
For more than a decade, members of the Black Mountain Nordic Club have sponsored maintenance of the cross-country ski trails in the Bighorn National Forest around Sibley Lake and Cutler Hill. The trails are open to both cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
The club was formally organized and achieved nonprofit status in 2001, but the founders and other volunteers had actually been grooming trails since the late 1970s.
“Jim Goodwin and myself and a couple other people started plodding around Sibley and thought there was some potential for ski trails there and it kind of got started from there,” Curt Schwamb said. “We formed the club and it has sort of grown from that point. We’ve accumulated equipment little by little.”
The group now has a handful of snowmobiles and six implements used for grooming trails. Six members of the club are trained to do the trail grooming.
“We try to groom once a week, depending on snow conditions,” Schwamb explained. “If you get a lot of snow, it is a lot of work. For an average weekend, if you got 6 inches of snow that week you are probably looking at 10 man-hours to get everything in good condition. It is a second job.”
“When we groom we usually try to go up at least two people at a time so one person isn’t up there alone,” he continued. “The grooming machines aren’t like snow machines, they are bigger and heavier. When you get one buried, it gets to be a lot of work to get one unstuck. There have been times I’ve been stuck and not sure I could get it out. Even if you aren’t right together, if you get stuck and don’t show up at a certain time, the other guy will go look for you and help get you out.”
The trails at Sibley Lake and Cutler are nine and four miles respectively, but each trail needs repeated passes to properly pack the snow. Therefore, it often takes 70 miles of travel over the trails to get them in usable condition.
Schwamb estimated that there are 125 members of the club who pay $15 per year in dues. However, some members pay extra and all the money raised is funneled back into maintenance activities.
The group operates under a volunteer agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the trails. The group volunteers member time and equipment, while the Forest Service pays for fuel expenses for the equipment. The Forest Service also pays for and installs the trailhead signs.
“Our responsibility is to acquire and maintain the equipment to maintain the trails,” Schwamb said. “Last year we spent close to $8,000 between maintenance and another machine. This year it has been pretty good, nothing too major has gone wrong!”
Cheri Jones, a Forest Service recreation staff member, said the service the club provides is hugely beneficial to the Forest Service and the skiing public.
“I am amazed at what they do for us,” Jones said. “It is incredible to have that energy level and involvement and commitment. The forest I came from before this, we paid big bucks to have just 8 miles of trails groomed.”
“They just keep going and seem to be successful in getting new members and the more members they get the more they can spread that work out,” she added. “They are always coming up with ideas to make things better and new projects.”
One of the group’s ideas was to create separate trails for dogs to accompany their owners. Dogs are not allowed on the trails around Sibley Lake during the winter until maintenance ceases in the spring.
However, the group came up with the idea for the ski trails near Cutler Hill, which do allow dogs. In fact, the trails carry names such as the Canine Climb, Mutt Meadows and Fido’s Fairway. While the trails at Sibley are packed and then have tracks set in them, the Cutler trails are just packed with no tracks set.
The volunteer nature of the club ensures that access to the trails is free to the public. Schwamb noted that many other ski areas are often operated by government entities or businesses that charge a daily or season pass fee to cover maintenance costs.
Schwamb said the group has seen some recent increases in membership, particularly after Antelope Butte Ski Area closed, but noted that he thinks the increased interest is mainly related to new converts to the sport.
“It is a good way to get out and you aren’t slogging through the deep snow like you would going through the trees,” he said. “You have nice packed trails to go on that makes it easier and the weather in the Sibley and Cutler area can be really good. It lies in a pocket and is kind of protected. A lot of times it is nicer up there than it is down here.”
Members of the club receive weekly email notifications of trail conditions and weather reports. Schwamb encourages anyone interested in joining or supporting the group to contact them through their website at www.blackmountainnordic.com.
“They are an amazing source of expertise and assistance and support,” Jones said. “I don’t know if the public appreciates it enough. There is a lot of work that goes into that.
“It is hard to even quantify the value that they provide to us. We appreciate it tremendously, more than words can express.”