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Grooming magic in the Upper Valley

It’s a little after dusk along the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club’s Icicle River cross country ski trails, with the temperature hovering just above freezing. Groomer Eric Wulfman, an ascetic in down, buff and hat, has a deep understanding of the task ahead, saying, “It’s cloudy, so it will take two hours to freeze.”

He knows there’s time to set the perfect classic tracks, phase one of his work. If the night were clear, freezing would happen much more quickly.

The PistenBully 100, a German-made grooming machine weighing over 4 tons, is already warmed up as Eric hops inside. The groomer is his powerful partner. Inside the cab, on Eric’s right side, is a panel of lit buttons, controlling the groomer’s accoutrements: the front blade, back tiller, track setters, side paddles and each window’s heater.

It might not seem necessary to heat each window separately, but visibility is key. Once the machine starts chugging forward, stopping is a last resort.

Eric’s left hand manipulates two levers and a thumb wheel to control the speed and direction of the groomer, precisely enough that he can come within 6 inches of directional signs along the trails.

The methodical pace of 1.4 mph to 3.7 mph explains why it takes a full eight hours to groom the five miles of trails at Icicle River, as every trail receives two or three passes. On the most challenging nights, Eric might spend 10 to 12 hours driving the PistenBully.

New snow is a lovely clean slate, which takes more time. Less enjoyable challenges include blowdowns. Or the deep footprints of the uninformed who decide to take a midnight stroll down the middle of the skate lane. Eric, in such encounters, politely shoos them away, but the damage is done. He only clocks out when the well-used trails have his stamp of approval.

There’s an order to this work. First going in the skier’s direction, he sets the classic tracks while the snow is soft, giving them maximum amount of time to firm. He later grooms the skate lane, going the opposite way, staying clear of the classic tracks so they remain impeccable.

Two sets of parallel classic tracks are set for all but the narrowest spots along the trail, making for companionable gliding.

LWSC has gained 12 new side trails and shortcuts thanks to Eric’s eye for what would delight skiers young and old. He makes sure to groom those side trails first so the final pass delineates the main thoroughfare, avoiding crisscrossing corduroy.

Side trails will help extend the season, giving skiers an option to ski around bare patches. Additionally, he “feeds” spots prone to grow bare with a harvest of sidelined snow, shoveling it with the front blade into the trail surface, crushing it under the caterpillar tracks, then smoothing it with a final pass.

Eric hasn’t always groomed. He wears many hats affiliated with coaching and gear; grooming is a reliable gig while he’s between coaching seasons for the fall cross country season and spring track and field season at area schools. So, he taught himself how to optimize the lights and tiller speed and when to let the tiller float so that it follows the terrain contours.

As a skier, he sets a high standard for his grooming. “I ask myself, ‘Would I want to ski that? Would that be fun?’” he says.

LWSC members have raved about the grooming. One ski coach emailed the club, “All those new connecting trails are so fun, especially for the ski team and the coaches. They give us options and raise the fun factor!”

When it snows heavily, grooming time stretches out, and the endlessly flecked corona lends itself to hallucination. “Every shadow starts to seem alive,” Eric says, admitting he must cope with being in a fatigued state most of the time. “Being an endurance athlete, I’m used to making my body do what it might not want to do.”

The best groomers think about the needs of both ski racer and novice. On the tight downhill, he lifts the track setter; the new skier is better off with no track at all than one that sends him careening into a tree.

Last season, during the pandemic, Nordic skiing was a safe activity for many. Eric was proud of that fact. “I’m providing a valuable service, helping people get out and do something healthy,” he says.

During the day, while Eric and other groomers sleep, skiers take the pristine trails for granted. But, as the name implies, grooming takes conscientious effort in order to enhance winter’s beauty in ways much loved by skiers.

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