By Dominic Clay
Sunday in Italy, Kikkan Randall and Jessica Diggins earned the U.S. its first-ever world championship gold medal in cross-country skiing. The pair won the women’s team sprint by almost eight seconds, crushing the Swedish defending champions.
The U.S. is developing a significant presence in a sport traditionally dominated by Northern Europeans. It is also a sport that receives little domestic coverage.
That may change, however, as more and more Americans take to the groomers. The largest cross-country ski race in the U.S., the American Birkebeiner, had more than 10,000 participants this year. For comparison, the entire city of 13,000.
Eastern Oregon is a good place for cross-country skiing, and there are plenty of opportunities for students in the La Grande area. There are 14 sno-parks in Northeast Oregon that list skiing as an activity, including Anthony Lakes, Spout Springs and Meacham Divide. Moderately long winters with consistent snow and—for EOU students—easy gear rentals also help.
Meacham Divide hosts the closest groomed trails to La Grande. It is located about 20 miles west of La Grande, off the Summit Road exit Interstate 84 and contains 25 kilometers of machine groomed trails.
The area opens every fall as soon as it has enough snow, usually in early December. It is consistently groomed for as long as there is enough snow; this is usually mid-March. Meacham sits at a moderate elevation—4,200 feet—and can experience some drastic temperature swings. The trails were in excellent shape last week due to recent snowfall.
Meacham Divide, which is built on a mixture of public and private land, is administered by the Blue Mountain Nordic Club of La Grande. The club takes on the task of operating and maintaining the ski area, grooming the trails and facilitates plowing the road to the area. It is directed by a board of five people and has about 50 local member families.
The history of the Blue Mountain Nordic Club is both colorful and slightly murky. According to David Axelrod, current EOU professor—local skier and founding member—the club was launched in the early ‘90s to administer a small ski area near Spring Creek, west of La Grande. The club owned an old grooming machine and maintained about 15 kilometers of trail in the area.
Spring Creek, however, was at fairly low elevation. During a drought one winter, the area got almost no snow. Lacking snow at their usual haunt, Axelrod and fellow founder Steve Antel decided to go for an exploratory ski higher up along the highway, at some snowmobile trails near the present day Meacham Divide. They found that Meacham experienced more consistent snowfall, and soon moved their operation there.
Over the next few years the club cleared more and more trail, bringing the area up to its current layout, and bought a modern groomer. The club is still going strong today and recently received a grant to build a storage shed for the groomer.
Local cross-country skiing opportunities are excellent for EOU students. The Outdoor Program has a fleet of more than a dozen pairs of skis and boots available for free rental to students and is applying for a grant to update their gear. According to Outdoor Program director Gerry Isaak, snowshoes and cross-country skis are one of their most popular rental items.
Cross country skiing is expanding both nationally and locally. It means different things to different people, a hobby for some, a passion for others, an adventure for most. For Axelrod, who competed in this year’s American Birkebeiner, skiing is at least “a good way to make it through a long winter.”