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Parallel universe
Thanks to the Missoula Nordic Ski Club, skiers are enjoying a groomed trail at the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area this winter. The trail offers skiers a 16-mile round trip.
Photo by TIM THOMPSON/Missoulian

Rattlesnake cross-country ski trail offers a quick, peaceful escape to another world

I confess. I am a recovering downhill snob.

It was inevitable, really, coming from the third generation of a diehard Big Mountain family. Schencks ski. Downhill. And that's all there is to it.

A couple of times a year when I was a kid, I'd snap my toes into a pair of cross-country skis and head out across the lake from my grandparents' house or up the closed Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier Park. It was nice, especially under a clear night sky, but boring. The things I looked forward to on the mountain - shouting camp songs from the chairlift, greasy cafeteria burgers for lunch, doing ski ballet with my friend Wendy, that feeling of being just on the edge of losing control - none of that applied to skinny-skiing.

It hasn't been that long since Wendy and I were practicing pirouettes on Chair 3, but everything has changed.

For one thing, grown-ups skiing backward while simultaneously trying to hold one ski above their heads are generally frowned upon - or laughed at.

For another, I grew out of all my old equipment. It's too expensive to replace, and my new ski partner and I can't afford ski passes anyway.

So two years ago, we bought identical, beginner cross-country ski packages. On sale, and for about one-third the price of a new pair of downhill skis. And headed out the door.

Our lives haven't been the same since.

The beauty of cross-country skiing, especially for those of us who ski in the classic Nordic style - basically jogging with long sticks on our feet - is that it's absolutely not downhill. It's slower. It's quieter. It's more conducive to wildlife-watching. (On a trip to Lolo Pass last year, a little bird - some kind of jay, we figured - pecked the snow off my skis while I was taking a break.)

Groomed trails are all over the place, but you can head off on your own somewhere and there's no expectation that going off-trail means jumping off cliffs, something I've never much liked.

My trusty ski partner and I prefer the groomed trails. We're basically self-taught and still-learning. A nice track to keep us headed in a straight line also helps to keep us upright.

We've tried McDonald Pass outside Helena, Whitefish Lake Golf Course, Yellowstone and Glacier parks, Lolo Pass, Pattee Canyon. All excellent for different reasons.

And this year, for the first time, the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area has a groomed trail.

Every week, as part of an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, someone from the Missoula Nordic Ski Club grooms from the trailhead of the main trail all the way up to Franklin Bridge. It's about a 16-mile round trip, and one of the few groomed trails we've found that's simply too long for us.

The trail isn't wide enough for skate-skiers, so it's just our fellow traditionalists in rag-tag ski gear like ours. The hills are gentle enough for beginners; the scenery is truly beautiful (especially when the trail runs right along Rattlesnake Creek); and the proximity to town makes it a no-brainer for busy weekends, especially on the days just after a good snowfall. And for those who want to head off the beaten path, there are plenty of other, ungroomed trails.

Ray Johnson, the ski club's grooming coordinator, has done most of the Rattlesnake grooming this year, usually early on Friday mornings. Since hikers also use the trail in winter, he uses snowmobile and grooming attachments to smooth out a walking path between two sets of ski tracks for about the first three miles.

For the next two miles or so, he continues with two parallel sets of ski tracks until the snow gets too deep and heavy. Then there is usually just a single set of tracks the rest of the way to the bridge.

It's only done once a week in an effort "to keep it as low-key" as possible, he said. That means the skiing's best on Fridays and Saturdays, when the tracks are fresh.

We skied the trail for several hours last Saturday and found the tracks a little smeared for the first couple of miles, where they're most heavily used, but great the rest of our way. (No, we didn't make it to the bridge.) We also met several walkers and were pleased to see that all but two were avoiding the ski tracks.

"Some people would like to see it groomed more often, but at this point, the agreement is just once a week," Johnson said.

For those of us who skied the Rattlesnake before grooming started, even a single, packed-down track is welcome - and numerous other trails are available there if that track isn't so appealing on a Thursday afternoon.

While Johnson's out on the snowmobile, he doesn't see much wildlife, but he sees plenty of tracks - deer lower on the trail and moose up toward the bridge. Others have reported seeing mountain lion tracks, so it is advisable to keep little kids from skiing too far ahead. Last weekend, we saw deer tracks, but no deer, and dozens of chickadees.

"We've gotten some wonderful feedback, and we've been blessed with great snow," another groomer, John Weyhrich, said last week. He was hoping to hit the trail early Friday, when it would be at its best for the week.

One of the benefits of skiing in the Rattlesnake is that, except for the weekly grooming, snowmobiles are not allowed. It's very quiet, and relatively pristine.

The week before last, Weyhrich said, a moose walked through the tracks, "trashing them," and then bedded down right next to the trail. That can be a benefit or a disadvantage, depending on your perspective.

And, thanks to Rattlesnake weather patterns, snow tends to stay colder there after it falls, leaving it "skiable" longer, he said.

Reporter Ericka Schenck Smith can be reached at 523-5259 or at esmith@missoulian.com

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