An experienced downhill skier didn’t quite know what he was doing when he stepped into a pair of classic cross-country skis for the first time this week in the Quad-Cities.
“I came close to toppling over a couple of times,” said Brian Hickey, maintenance manager of Palmer Hills Golf Course, 2999 Middle Road, Bettendorf.
Earlier, he boarded a snowmobile with a groomer in tow and primed the 3 miles of trails he oversees on the 150-acre municipal course.
By the time he hit the trail, a mix of sunshine and above-freezing temperatures had turned a lot of the solid snow into slick slush. He subsequently shut down the course to the public, citing a snow shortage across the grounds.
“It’s frustrating,” said Hickey, who introduced his two young sons to the recreational activity. “I wouldn’t mind having a real winter.”
Veteran Nordic skiers in the region couldn't agree more. In recent years, Brett Griggs of Iowa City, for example, has resorted to roller skiing — an off-snow equivalent to cross-country skiing — due to lack of the white stuff.
And he’s tired of it.
"I haven't skied much the past three years," said Griggs, who runs iowaski.blogspot.com, a cross-country skiing forum. "We're not having the winters we used to have."
Stride and glide
Despite the current conditions, Palmer Hills already has served more skiers at this point in the season than they did all of last winter.
In late 2016, the city of Bettendorf bought a utility snowmobile and trail groomer while the Friends of Bettendorf Parks Foundation purchased rental gear, including skis, boots and poles. The investment totaled nearly $17,000.
But less than one inch of snow dusted the Quad-Cities between Dec. 17, 2016, and Feb. 8, 2017, preventing the city from rolling out their equipment.
Hickey groomed trails for the first time about two weeks ago, following a 6-plus-inch snowfall. Cross-country skiers in the Quad-Cities immediately embraced the new seasonal attraction at Palmer Hills, even during the bitter cold stretch around the New Year.
“I’m one to get out anytime there’s snow,” said Kirby Winn, who manages Quad-City Nordic on Facebook, where cross-country skiers in the area post trail condition updates, similar to the statewide blog site. “Around here, if you’re waiting for perfect conditions, you’re not going to ski a whole lot.”
This marks the sixth season a volunteer group of skiers has groomed trails with professional equipment at Crow Creek Park in Bettendorf.
Steve Beck, the city’s unofficial cross-country skiing consultant, has groomed twice and skied more than 10 times so far this season at Crow Creek.
The engineer and software developer at the Rock Island Arsenal touted the physical benefits of the “low-impact” cardio workout, which works his arms, legs and core, too.
Although it takes time to develop balance and technique, Beck said, beginners may start simply by walking in their skis across a flat surface. He recommended the groomed trail for newbies on the soccer field at Crow Creek. Once they find their footing, he said, they should try to stride and glide on the skis, swinging their arms and legs in opposition.
“It doesn’t have to be a real vigorous activity,” Beck said. "It helps break up the winter a little bit when you've got something to do outside."
Cross-country skiing originally appeared as a means of traveling over snow-covered terrain in Scandinavia. It later became a sport in the mid-19th century and debuted at the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924.
'Easier than ice skating'
Palmer Hills offers a family-friendly green trail for beginners and a bumpier blue trail for intermediate skiers.
Hickey tried out the flatter of the two.
“I don’t think it’s nearly as difficult as what people might anticipate, especially if you stay on the groomed trails,” he said, contrasting it with his family’s favorite winter pastime of late. “It's a heck of a lot easier than ice skating.”
Jeff Bradley, the owner of Trek Bicycle Store in Davenport, also helps maintain the trails at Crow Creek Park. Next month in northern Wisconsin, Beck and Bradley plan to compete in the American Birkebeiner, North America's largest cross-country ski race, which was canceled in 2017 due to lack of snow. The duo will participate in the 50K Skate race.
Beck began blazing his own trails on classic skis in the early 1990s, but he later switched to skate, or freestyle skiing, which he called more dynamic than the traditional style.
"For whatever reason, a lot of people have migrated to that," he said.
Griggs of Iowa City said classic is easier for beginners to learn than skate.
Both styles will be represented at the Winter Iowa Games this month at Prairie's Edge Nature Center in Cresco, Iowa, and next month at the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
When there's snow, Palmer Hills rents both classic and skate skis.
Hickey is hoping for a 10-inch snowstorm in the coming weeks.
"The city invested a decent amount of money," he said, "so hopefully people can come out and enjoy it."