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Prep Nordic skiing: New Grand Avenue Center is a winter wonderland

Clint Austin / Proctor-Hermantown junior Megan Bettendorf skate skis at the Grand Avenue Nordic Ski Center in Duluth on Thursday.

When Olympic gold medalist Jessie Diggins visited Duluth in early November, she had a blunt assessment for the new Grand Avenue Nordic Center she was there to promote.

"This is long overdue," she said.

Better late than never.

The Grand Avenue Nordic Center has proven to be a boon for local cross-country skiers. Located at the base of Spirit Mountain, with a chalet and ample parking nearby, the Grand Avenue Nordic Center relies on man-made snow.

Proctor-Hermantown Nordic coach Jim Vos recalled how he and program founder Glen Sorenson used to go searching for snow during years where the white stuff was hard to find. This year, they were able to hit the ground skiing.

"We practiced up at the top of Spirit Mountain for years and years with mixed success in terms of grooming and care and stuff like that," Vos said. "Then we'd use Proctor Golf Course and Mogie Lake, anywhere we could, so this ... this is crazy."

Just the beginning

Phase I of the Grand Avenue Nordic Ski Center includes 2.5 kilometers of new trail that runs almost all the way to Grand Avenue before turning and looping back up into the pines. The design's architect was Gary Larson, a trails consultant for the city and an avid skier. It's one of those places you go to and ask, "Why didn't I come out here earlier?"

"It's gorgeous. Oh my God, where has this been?" Vos said Thursday, standing atop a four-foot snowpack at the base of the trail, which serves as the "stadium" for the facility. "The Twin Cities has been training on fake snow for years and years. Now, we have one of our own. A lot of people donated their own money to make this happen, and what a benefit for the kids and community members."

With Spirit Mountain's heavy equipment located at the bottom of the hill, getting perfectly groomed trails is a snap.

The Grand Avenue Nordic Center was able to accomodate 375 skiers for the first race on Jan. 2.

"This facility down here has it all," Vos said.

While it appears to be mostly uphill, then downhill coming back, Proctor-Hermantown junior Megan Bettendorf said there's enough undulation so that it's not too taxing.

"There's enough variety," Bettendorf said. "There are parts that give you rest. I like all the corners. It's consistent. It's been a nice addition to our training."

Phase I of the project included an initial $500,000 contribution from the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club along with $1 million from the city and $150,000 from a federal grant. The club remains responsible for another $250,000, with the Diggins event covering more than half that.

Phase II is expected to include more lighting and a 1.7K connector trail linking the new trails to the more than 20 kilometers of existing trails at the top of Spirit Mountain. Hosting more meets, and perhaps even a section or state meet, are future possibilities.

In the meantime, Duluth Denfeld skiers, who get a later start on practice due to school, use headlamps.

Vos called parts of the trail "Birkie-wide," in reference to the American Birkebeiner, North America's largest cross-country ski race held each February from Cable to Hayward.

"I've never been out here when the trail hasn't looked perfect," Vos said. "It's always beautiful."

Instant impact

While Proctor-Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld consider the Grand Avenue Nordic Center their home base, the facility received lots of traffic in November, when snow was hard to find.

"Every night it was Proctor-Hermantown, Denfeld, Marshall, East, St. Scholastica, every day," Vos said. "It was the only place to be, and that was before they even had it done. You can get 100 kids down here, and you can work with everybody. There's so much room."

Just then, former Proctor-Hermantown standout Nate Bich, came cruising by, still rocking his Proctor ski jacket. Bich, home for winter break, skis for Minnesota's club team.

Another skier using the trail on Thursday was longtime Cloquet skiing enthusiast and former coach Brent Smith, who said he likes the facility for the consistently good conditions it can provide.

"This was a really tough week snow-wise with that rain that we had, but they have a machine here that will till that snow up just like you'd till your garden," Smith said.

Smith added the venue was overdue.

"There used to be time we'd be on snow before the Twin Cities, but lately, we just don't get it," he said. "There were years I was coaching where we spent half the season doing dry land and now you're pretty much guaranteed skiing by Thanksgiving. It's great."

The cost is $10 per day. The student skier rate is only $59 for the season, something Vos said skiers are more than willing to hand over just for November and December.

"For a coach, it was no-brainer," Vos said.

Bettendorf said most years, you don't know what the snow conditions are going to be like in November, if at all. Not this year.

"In early November, we were on skis, we were on snow," she said. "It was just a half-kilometer, but it did its job. It gave us a jump on the season. It got a little crowded at times, but it was fun."

And skiing is more fun than running, especially for athletes who just got done with a grueling cross-country running season.

Vos keeps track of every day of winter in his coaching journal and said he's never had a season like this one, all because of the Grand Avenue Nordic Center.

And the best part is it should only get better.

"It was crazy the number times of times we were a month and a half in and hadn't skied yet, the times we'd show up at our first meet and nobody had even put on skies yet," Vos said. "This year, we had maybe eight or nine days of dryland training and then we were on snow.

"There are people who show up here at the crack of dawn to ski. This place doesn't just help us. It helps everybody."