“So, you want to go for a ride in this rickety old thing?”
Meet Dean Bergstrom, the Snow Valley Nordic’s chief groomer of the 35 kilometres of ski trails at Onion Lake. He’s spent countless volunteer hours over the last four years bumping around in the PB200D – a bright red and in spots rusty 30-year-old snow grooming machine the club acquired in the ‘90s and that has roughly 10,000 hours amassed on it. His job is to make sure the snowy trails halfway between Terrace and Kitimat are at their best for the cross-country ski season, a season that’s almost over for the year.
But next year, if all goes as planned, and fundraising efforts are successful, Bergstrom and the club will be sitting with a new-to-them groomer, one with a hydraulic tiller that will make it easier – and hopefully, more fuel efficient – to groom the intricate web of trails in a way that will make both cross-country skiers, skate-skiers, and the kids and families who frequent the club, happy.
“It’s a lot of work to satisfy those skiers,” he said. Traditional skiers like a track with two impressions for the skis to lock into, whereas skate-skiers like as much room as possible. Bergstrom tries to keep one track for each type of skier all the way down the run, but that sometimes proves difficult on the more narrow trails.
Ultimately, “we all have to share the track,” he said.
While he averages between eight and 20 hours a week grooming, some weeks – like after the huge snowfall last month that was “gangbusters” and took down a lot of trees – Bergstrom, and a couple of other volunteers he can call “in a clutch” can be out 40 hours a week. That’s often at night because that’s when there are less skiers. But the five kilometres of lit trails means he still meets people latenight – he said he’s come across skiers and their dogs at 2 a.m.
The grooming machine is slow moving – about three kilometres an hour – and feels like one of those massage chairs at the airport, kind of nice for a rookie, but probably tiring after four years. “Hard on the back, for sure,” said Bergstrom, without a whiff of complaint.
Each trail needs to be covered about four times around with the machine to pack the usually heavy, wet snow down properly. The new groomer should do the job even better – right now, little lumpy snowballs can sometimes be left in the middle of the track because of the way the snow is pushed out from the rigged up tiller. But the new groomer should give a smoother finish, hopes Bergstrom.
While the club needs to invest in a new groomer – a necessary purchase they’ve been planning for years – it’s important to them to keep costs low and the trails accessible for everyone, and so they are continuously seeking out efficiencies. The club has benefitted from a partnership with the welding students at the college who do a “very good job” working the high-tension steel that makes up the groomer’s crawler tracks, explained Bergstrom.
Once the club gets its new machine, they’ll save costs on maintenance for some time but “we’re not going to get away from that forever,” he said. The new machine, purchased from a downhill ski hill, still has 3,000 hours on it, but the assumption is that the cross country club isn’t going to run it as hard as a ski hill, so it should get a fair number of years from the $294,000 investment.
Paying a groomer to run the machine would most certainly mean an increase in membership fees and drop-in prices, which is why volunteers like Bergstrom as so crucial.
It’s also crucial that people who use the trails pay. The fact that the club works on an honour system is part of the charm, but people coming to the trail and not putting money in the drop box is a continuous problem. While it may not seem like a big deal to the one person who doesn’t pay the $10 drop-in fee, those lost costs add up, especially when one considers the huge amount of money the club spends on fuel and fixing the machine.
Consider this: one hour of travel time for a mechanic to come and work on the machine’s “finicky” tiller is $100 – that’s 10 day passes – and Bergstrom estimates it costs about $60 in diesel to groom the Doggy Trail, the short trail that “gets abused the most” by people not paying. Yikes.