In search of snow: Cross-country skiers travel in pursuit of their passion

Have fun; will travel. Will travel far, if necessary.

Whatcom County cross-country skiers know the mantra. Some winters, such as last year's spring like meltdown, push them toward other parts of the state or southern British Columbia to find snow.

It's not that they uniformly avoid the trails at Salmon Ridge Sno-Park, the county's only regularly groomed site. Located east of Glacier just off Mount Baker Highway, Salmon Ridge serves up 15 miles of cross-country bliss, but at 2,200 feet, snowfall there tends to be unpredictable, at times scarce.

"On low snow years it doesn't happen," says Kae Moe of Bellingham, an avid participant and co-owner of Kulshan Cycles.

When locals desire higher elevations, they might flip flakes at Winthrop, Stevens Pass or Leavenworth, or border-hop to Cypress, Manning Park or Silver Star.

Bellingham's Steve Hindman, originator of the Salmon Ridge trails in the mid-'80s and a recognized expert in the sport, enjoys his "home" site along with trips to larger, more distant venues.

"When it's a nice day, you get beautiful views of (Mount) Shuksan and Sefirt," says Hindman, a longtime instructor for skiers and other trainers. "It's a nice beginner and intermediate area. You also can be in the parking lot in an hour."

The Nooksack Nordic Ski Club, numbering about 100 households, assumed care of Salmon Ridge in the early '90s, and members help to maintain the trails, which are free to the public. Many, like Gail Garman of Birch Point, also like to travel.

Garman and husband, Keats, ski at many B.C. locations, including Silver Star and Sovereign Lakes, adjacent areas near Vernon - a 5-hour drive that necessitates at least a long weekend.

"Silver Star is a little ski village," she says. "It offers great terrain and places to stay. It has any kind of accommodations you'd want: houses, small condos, single rooms. Sovereign Lakes is more family-oriented and has terrain for anybody."

While border lineups and Vancouver metro area traffic can make for a slow start, the benefits of going north add up appreciably. The attraction involves not only higher terrain and better snow conditions, but experiencing a different recreational environment.

Canadians embrace winter sports in a more robust way, says Kurt Duey of Bellingham, the Nooksack club's trip coordinator.

"They're more cross-country oriented," Duey says. "They have clubs that might have 600 members. There are simply more options in Canada for people into outdoor activities."

For those seeking day trips, Cypress Mountain and Stevens Pass represent good options. Cypress, just northwest of Vancouver, can be reached in 90 minutes from Bellingham, and the drive to Stevens, via U.S. Highway 2, takes about a half-hour longer.

Cypress, site of the Olympic freestyle skiing and snowboard competition earlier this year, boasts a Nordic area that draws more than 100,000 people annually. That often means more crowded trails.

Marjorie Leone, a Bellingham resident and club member, doesn't mind.

"I just expect it. It's a city park," says Leone, a casual cross-country skier for 25 years. "The feeling is very vibrant. It's kind of like the Central Park of cross-country skiing."

Steve Walker of Bellingham and his wife, Sue Blackadar, travel to Cypress frequently.

"It has some hills where you can get a good aerobic workout," says Walker, a Nordic skier for 30 years and former administrator of Western Washington University's outdoor program. "There are lots of families, a nice atmosphere. The view over the city of Howe Sound is spectacular, and you can stop in Vancouver on the way back for dinner, which makes for a nice package."

Snow, terrain, trail conditions, ease of travel, food, lodging and atmosphere all blend into decisions on where to go. A variety of options improves the odds of a good outing.

Duey, for instance, puts the Methow Valley trails near Winthrop high on his travel list.

"It has a wide range of terrain to ski in," says Duey, who has been active in the sport for 30 years. "You can ski for seven straight miles in the valley. At Rendezvous Pass, we stayed in ski-in cabins for three days. A big part of a good trip is having choices, and you have them in this area."

Methow is Moe's favorite, "simply because it has such a huge amount of trails (120 miles)."

Says Walker, who normally visits for 10 days: "Every day you can go to a different place."

One downside is the travel time - about 6 hours because the North Cascades Highway, State Route 20, closes in the winter.

A brief look at other areas:

? Hindman thinks Stevens Pass, its image hurt by crackling, overhead power lines, requires some exploration and a good fitness level to appreciate. "It has some fine trails with impeccable grooming," he says, "and it's very welcoming and friendly."

? Leavenworth has four trails, including one so close that downtown workers can ski on their lunch hour. Hindman, though, cites "very fluky snow and not very reliable weather."

? Duey loves taking people to Logan Lake, near Kamloops, B.C., because of its variety of trails and an accommodating bed-and-breakfast spot, Highland House.

? Manning Park, east of Hope, B.C., represents an easy day trip. "It's very laidback," Leone says. "You don't have cable TV or cell phone access, so it feels like a wilderness experience."

Wherever local Nordic skiers go, for one day or 10, the experience energizes them, building physical health and clearing minds.

Flying on the snow exhilarates Garman, a retired pharmacist who says, "it seems like you have wings on your heels."

Duey, a retired fireman, went on six trips last season, each for at least two nights. This winter, expected to be snowier, could mean even more.

"The beauty of it is I can improve every year," he says. "The more you do it, the better you get."

Bob Carter lives is a former editor at The Bellingham Herald. He lives in White Rock, B.C.