WINTHROP – The 10 men who tend to one of the Methow Valley’s most important resources have reputations like Santa Claus.
They’re rarely seen, people leave them cookies and on winter nights, the 10 men leave gifts with which people can’t wait to play.
“Our groomers are almost mythical,” said James DeSalvo, director of the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association. “People go to sleep and the trails are thrashed, but when they wake up the trails are perfect.
“You don’t see them (groomers) because they sleep during the day after working most of the night. And you rarely see the machines because we keep them inside. So sometimes, it just seems like the groomers must be magic people.”
North Central Washington’s Methow Valley is a cross-country skiing mecca, not just because it has the nation’s largest Nordic trail system, but because it has a reputation for immaculately manicured trails.
“Great grooming is vital for us,” said DeSalvo, who also works as an alternate groomer. “Being the largest is something to talk about, but people come here because they know it’s the best groomed.”
During a recent trip, I tried to catch up with one of these elusive groomers to see just what goes into maintaining the trails.
Lucky for me it was a Thursday. This meant there would be light trail use and the groomers would scale back operations a bit allowing them to sleep in.
I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m.
The art of grooming
When I met lead groomer Rob Seckinger at Winthrop’s Town Trailhead shortly after 4 a.m., he was backing a red PistenBully groomer out of its garage.
His shift would last about three hours. On busier days, it wouldn’t be uncommon for him to start before midnight and finish at 8:30 a.m.
I hopped on board the rumbling machine and we set out to groom about 12 miles of trail.
Sitting shotgun, the first thing I noticed was that the groomer was as slow as it was impressive.
“Yeah, we’re going about 6 mph,” Seckinger said. “It’s definitely the slow boat to China.”
But, as Seckinger cuts through the snow and the darkness, it’s never about how fast he goes, it’s about what he leaves behind.
“It’s about the corduroy,” he said, referring to the pattern left in the groomer’s wake. “That’s what the skiers want.”
Before even hitting the trails, Seckinger made a few laps on the .43-mile town loop. With flood lights illuminating the way in front and behind the groomer, he could see what kind of tracks he was laying.
After dialing in the groomer, he turned off the loop and onto the Methow Community Trail.
Along the way, he explained how the groomer works.
The renovator, a contraption on the front of the groomer, “takes off a layer of snow like a cheese slicer.”
A tiller and comb pulled behind the groomer chops up this sliced snow and smooths it, leaving the coveted corduroy path for skate skiers.
A device Seckinger refers to as “the pan” is lowered behind the tiller to set tracks for classic skiers.
Using this machine to make an ideal Nordic trail, he said, “is not a lot of science. It’s a lot of art.”
An appreciated effort
About an hour into his shift, Seckinger wasn’t ready to declare this morning’s work a masterpiece.
Overnight temperatures in the 20s preceded by afternoon temperatures in the 40s left a crusty layer on the snow, making it less than ideal. But Seckinger, in his eighth year as a groomer, takes too much pride in his work to let that bother him.
“I don’t like what we’re leaving,” he said as he stepped on the brake.
He put the machine in reverse and we headed backward for about a quarter mile. Just like that, he’d erased his work and could start again.
DeSalvo says it’s perfectionists like Seckinger who’ve earned the association its reputation for superior grooming.
“They are experienced, they have autonomy and they have good equipment and that’s all key to the quality,” DeSalvo said. The association’s crew even works during the summers mowing grass and removing rocks from the trails.
Grooming was the biggest expense in the association’s $784,000 budget in 2011-12, DeSalvo said. He says it costs about $175 per hour to operate a groomer. About two-thirds of the nonprofit club’s budget is covered by the sale of passes and the rest is covered by donations and grants, DeSalvo said.
While the groomers, most of whom work second jobs, might go unnoticed by visitors, the local skiers love them.
“People might not know who all the groomers are,” DeSalvo said, “but they usually take the time to figure out who grooms their favorite trails.”
Seckinger said people approach him at the grocery store and other places around town to say thanks (and, on rare occasion, offer less favorable critiques).
“And sometimes, you open the door on the groomer at the start of your shift and you find a plate of cookies on your seat,” Seckinger said.
Some have even set up mailboxes along the trail. When the flag is up, groomers know to stop. Inside, they’ll find cookies, notes and other creative ways of saying thanks.
Working in comfort
As we slowly left tracks west of Winthrop, the moon occasionally making an appearance, I couldn’t help but appreciate how peaceful this work seemed.
“It really is,” Seckinger said. “You get into a good head space out here.”
He usually listens to the radio or plays one of the CDs left behind by another groomer while he works.
But not every night is as idyllic as this one.
There are times when the light is flat or there is nearly two feet of snow on the ground and workers can barely see where they are going.
“You can feel yourself going off the trail,” Seckinger said. “But if you get stuck, you are really stuck.”
The groomers have heated cabins and windows but if they breakdown or get stuck, crew members have to walk out. Sometimes they might have to radio for a ride, then trudge six miles to the nearest road.
While the association has four comfy PistenBully groomers, it also has seven snowmobiles.
It can get so cold on the snowmobile groomers, Seckinger said, that on occasion he’s pinned the throttle and jogged alongside the machine just to stay warm.
About 6 a.m., we noticed something moving just at the outer reach of the headlights.
The grumble of the snow-cats typically scares off wildlife before workers even know it’s there, but they do have occasionally encounters.
Seckinger has seen rabbits and deer, but more frequently sees only their tracks. Some groomers have seen cougars.
What was directly in front of us was a terrified field mouse.
The little guy looked like the rodent version of Indiana Jones trapped between the walls of a cross-country ski track. His only option is to run and hope he can reach the end of the track before us.
Seckinger slowed the groomer to give the mouse a sporting chance, but the track went on for at least another mile.
“Usually they jump out of the track by now,” Seckinger said.
Seckinger pressed some buttons and the renovator, tiller and pan lifted off the snow. Then he accelerated and the five-ton machine passed over the tiny creature.
We both looked over our shoulders.
At first, we saw nothing. Then we laughed as the mouse popped out of the track and scurried off the trail.
At 6:45 a.m., Seckinger’s radio squawked for the first time all shift.
It was DeSalvo checking in for a report. One by one, crew members around the valley outlined what portions of the trail they’d groomed and the shape of the skiing surface.
From here, DeSalvo quickly analyzed the data and posted a report for skiers on the association’s website.
About 7 a.m., still half an hour until sunrise, we returned to the garage at the Winthrop skating rink. Seckinger refueled and stowed the machine, then we headed downtown to the Rocking Horse Bakery for breakfast.
It seemed most people at the bustling bakery recognized Seckinger, but it was hard to tell if this was because, as DeSalvo said, “groomers are like mini-celebrities here” or because it seems like everybody knows everybody in this tight-knit community.
Either way, Seckinger shook hands and answered questions about trail conditions as we made our way to an open table.
Here, eating egg-and-sausage sandwiches, he told me one of the best things about grooming the Methow.
“It is important to us to create a good product. People come here to have a great time with their friends and family and it’s nice to know we helped make that experience a little more enjoyable.”