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cross country skiing northwest Wisconsin

Winter 2019-20 started early.

10+ inches of heavy snow November 27, 7+ inches of heavy snow November 30, 4+ inches of dense snow December 9, 2.5 inches of light snow December 12. Groomers had their hands full throughout December. This made for very good skiing over the Christmas and New Year Holidays. January added 14" of snow in generally light snow falls. February was dry, only 5" of snow. We had only one major rain event (1.5" of rain December 28), and the rain was absorbed into the abundant base. Trails were in great shape at Birkie time. Then warm weather moved in a week after the Birkie. The last grooming was March 13, but we were able to enjoy decent skiing into the beginning of April. All thanks to the big snows in late November.

We groomed a total of 57 times this past winter. Here’s the breakdown: once in November, 18 times in December, 19 times in January, 16 times in February, and 3 times in March.

Our head groomer and his crew were very willing to use our rollers - both of our rollers were used more this past winter than at any time in the past. As a result, this past winter the trails were groomed wider, and the edges were more firm. Groomers were very willing to try different techniques, and performed far more evening grooming than at any time in the past. This allowed the grooming to set up by the time skiers arrived in the morning. The classic track was in generally good shape most of the winter - the groomers were responsive to input from some of our most enthusiastic classic skiers. Thank you groomers!

The ABR compaction drag (we call it the 'Blue Thing') also was used more frequently this past winter. It was especially helpful removing high spots in the center of the trail, and when the trails needed a quick light touch-up of the skate lane.

Logging along Rut Road kept us from grooming that part of the East Side Core Loop the entire winter. Toward the end of that logging operation, it also disrupted our access to the West Side using the usual East-West crossover trail. However, one of the real pluses this past winter was the newly permitted use of Excelsior Road on the West Side for grooming and skiing. In the middle of December, after the gun deer hunts were done, a berm was plowed to block off traffic at the east end of Excelsior Road. We then groomed the entire 3 km length of Excelsior Road, and skiers were uniformly thrilled with the results.

Overall, it was a fairly long winter with very good skiing and snowshoeing in the Blue Hills. We hope the following photos trigger some good memories.

skate skiing on the Blue Hills Trail
December 6, 2019 - Excelsior Road on the West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
grooming the Blue Hills Trail cross country ski trail
Grooming the 'Gravel Road' on December 11, 2019
map highlighting Excelsior Road as part of the Blue Hills Trail
The blue line shows Excelsior Road - grooming and skiing it for the first time during winter 2019-20
hoar frost on the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
December 21, 2019 on the East Side ridge line
beautifully groomed cross country ski trail
December 21, 2019 - Roundabout Trail
cross country skiing January 2020 on the Blue Hills Trail
January 1, 2020 near intersection #5 on the East Side Core Loop
women skate skiing
January 7, 2020 - the 'Gravel Road'
skijoring on the Blue Hills Trail in northwest Wisconsin
January 9, 2020 - dogs are welcome on the West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
men skate skiing
January 11, 2020 - East Side ridge line on the Grouse Trail
Blue Hills Trail cross country ski trail
January 20, 2020 - late afternoon near the 'Roundabout' intersection on the East Side of the Blue Hills Trail
snowman viewed through warming house window
January 27, 2020 - view from the warming house
unusual snow conditions created a snow roller
January 29, 2020 - perfect conditions for mother nature to create a snow roller
beautifully groomed trail on the Blue Hills Trail ridge line
February 4, 2020 - near intersection #9 on the Core Loop of the Blue Hills Trail
skate skiing on Excelsior Road as part of the Blue Hills Trail
February 8, 2020 - fast and fun skiing on Excelsior Road
Blue Hills Trail snowshoe trail in northern Wisconsin
February 19, 2020 - snowshoeing the Nordic Pines loop of the Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin
great cross country ski conditions at the Blue Hills Trail
February 21, 2020 - great conditions on the East Side 'Gravel Road'
great cross country ski conditions at the Blue Hills Trail
February 26, 2020 - approaching the wide open Roundabout intersection
volunteers helped move equipment into storage
March 17, 2020 - volunteers socially distancing as they help move equipment into storage
still skiing on the Blue Hills Trail in late March 2020
March 27, 2020 - winter is hanging on near intersection #25 of the Core Loop
winter is coming to an end as snow disappears March 31
March 31, 2020 - time to say goodbye to a great winter

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We performed some long anticipated trail work today. Read on...

Several years ago, about 1 km of East Side ski trail was heavily damaged when a truck was driven on soft trails. The perp cut through a heavy chain securing a cable barrier, then drove 2/3 the distance from #2 to A1 before turning around at a muddy water crossing. What a mess! (Refer to map image below to get your bearings.)

Since that damage occurred, we've added more signage reminding visitors that the trails are non-motorized. Ever since that trail damage, we've been planning on replacing two cable barriers with more substantial gate barriers. Other trail maintenance issues received higher priority until we found the time today to install these gates.

The Rusk County Forestry department donated the gate materials -- in exchange for our volunteers supplying the concrete and labor.

A group of five of us set aside Sunday (November 17) as our gate work day. The weather forecast called for 1" of fresh snow and temps in the 30s.

We awakened to 2+ inches of wet snow. Not to be discouraged, we met at the warming house at 11 a.m and collectively identified spots for the gates, then went to work. This included:

  • Measuring 16'4" between post centers.
  • SB started melting snow to prepare hot water to mix with the quick set concrete.
  • JW used his tractor and power auger to start the holes.
  • When the auger was stymied by rocks, we took turns using long pry bars and post hole diggers to approach our target depth of 4 feet (that's a pretty deep hole when considering the glacial rocks in the way).
  • SB set up his transom to make sure the depth of the holes would result in a level gate.
  • We placed the gate posts in the holes, made sure they were plumb, added hot water in the bottom of the holes, then added 4 bags of quick set concrete in each hole.
  • After allowing the concrete a few minutes to start setting up, we were able to place the gate on the poles and fine tune the position of the posts.
  • Fitment was very good!
  • After completing the gate at #1, we moved down the 'Gravel Road' and repeated the process at #2.

Fun day sharing the work, we finished in about 3 hours. Glad we didn't let the weather get in the way. Relieved to find the grassy surface had prevented deep frost. Pleased to see the concrete set up so quickly - it should be solid before it has a chance to freeze.

We realize that barriers tend to keep out only the honest folks. The chosen gate locations will hopefully discourage trail damage, these new gates are more obvious and much safer than cables, and the gates visually are a nice addition.

Many thanks to our work crew of 5: Sam Behrends, Lori Larsen, Kent Meng, Tom Paulsen, and John Waldron. Special thanks to Sam for rounding up the concrete and many of the tools; and to John for braving slippery roads to trailer his tractor and power auger to/from the trailhead.

Picture(s) with this message were taken November 17, 2019.

volunteers digging post holes while installing gates
Taking turns digging a post hole
new gate for limiting access to the non motorized trails on the Blue Hills Trail
Completed gate at intersection #1
the volunteer crew that installed two gates in November 2019
Gate crew at intersection #2
new gate for limiting access to the non motorized trails on the Blue Hills Trail
Completed gate at intersection #2
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This is it! This is what we work for during summer trail maintenance, and wait for as we watch the weather forecasts in November and December. The weather changed in late November, colder temps finally arrived and the very wet trails began freezing as we began grooming in early December. We started skiing December 10th after grooming some of the trails closest to the warming house. By mid December, cold weather allowed more grooming and we've enjoyed surprisingly good skiing for this early in the season.The weekend of December 23-26 (and the following week) became a groomer's challenge. We were all set to groom late the evening of December 23rd. That evening the Hills received 2" of very sticky snow, and the forecast called for lots of rain on December 25th. By group consensus, we decided to avoid grooming the December 23rd snowfall, let it sit and hope it would absorb the forecast rain. Mild temps all that weekend culminated in 0.7" rain the evening of Christmas Day, followed by falling temps and A MAJOR WINDSTORM on December 26th. We're glad we allowed the December 23rd snowfall to rest without grooming. It magically absorbed the December 25th rainfall. After the December 26th windstorm, temps fell the week of December 26th, and our groomers spent loads of hours clearing tree-falls and branches. And skiers helped by flicking and flicking and flicking the sticks. As the New Years weekend approached the trails were in good shape, and skiers from near and far marveled at the quality of the skiing in the Hills.

early December 2016 grooming challenges at the Blue Hills Trail
Early December 2016 grooming of the Blue Hills Trail
kids skiing at the Blue Hills Trail in Wisconsin
Nice conditions near the warming house in late December 2016
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The annual fall banquet for the Blue Hills Trail Association, Inc. (BHTA) was held Saturday, November 7th at Lehman's Supper Club in Rice Lake. While bidding on the numerous silent auction items, this group of silent sports enthusiasts enjoyed camaraderie, libations, great food, and Dr. Bob Inman's dynamic slide show presentation ("Wolverine Biology and Conservation") describing ground-breaking work applying GPS tracking in the study of wolverines. The GPS technology that Dr. Inman and his wife applied for the first time to wolverines revealed the amazing capacity of the species to move through rugged terrain and the vast multi-state scale over which conservation of wolverines must occur. After a delicious buffet meal, master of ceremonies (Patty McGown) turned the floor over to BHTA vice president Ron Jasperson who summarized the many significant events impacting the Blue Hills Trail this past year, including: the huge number of volunteers helping throughout the year; the tremendous all-season usefulness of the 2014 John Deere Gator with Camoplast tracks purchased spring of 2014; and a very good ski season during the winter of 2014-15 that attracted more 'out-of-the-area' skiers than ever. Ron reported the trails are in good shape as we head toward winter, and noted that fundraising this fall has been very successful. He was pleased to note that the Blue Hills Trail Association, Inc. remains financially solid. To honor a few of our many volunteers, two special awards were presented: Patty McGown and Nels Curnow accepted the "2 Busy 2 Pee" traveling trophy (a porcelain urinal) honoring their numerous contributions of time and energy. Then Dave Olsen was honored for his many years maintaining the pit toilets - he received the golden clothespin award. Following Dr. Inman's presentation, prizes valued at more than $5000 were distributed to the attendees -- including Mark Bittner winning the raffle for the Spring Street Sports $250 gift card, and Erik Ostenso winning the raffle for the New Moon $250 gift card. Our many donors graciously give back to their communities -- when the opportunity arises, be sure to offer them a sincere thank you. Colder weather's overdue, get your skis ready!

Golden Chlothespin award
Dave Olsen displaying his 'Golden Clothespin' award
Patty McGown eagerly accepts the '2Busy2Pee' award
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A cold month of February is forgotten, pushed aside by an early March warm-up. However the great cross country skiing conditions the past couple months are well etched in skiers' memories. The Blue Hills microclimate was fortunate to receive adequate snowfall while nearby areas were snow starved. Temps skyrocketed beginning March 8, we looked at the weather forecast and then groomed one last time on March 11. Grooming equipment went to summer storage on March 13, and our skis did likewise. Here’s a bit of a recap:

  • Fundraising in April 2014 allowed the purchase of a John Deere Gator with Camoplast tracks for use pulling our mowing and grooming implements. This past winter, groomers thoroughly enjoyed the Gator's ability to navigate the various challenges offered by the trail terrain and weather. And no one complained about operating in a heated cab.
  • With an early heavy snowstorm followed by a cold month of November, we started grooming earlier than ever on November 11th, & skied in the Hills fairly regularly since then (120 consecutive days with groomed trails available). The summer and autumn of 2014 were very wet, many of the trails couldn't be groomed in November and December due to underlying unfrozen ground and/or eroded sections - but we did have 14 km of nicely groomed trails for mid-winter skiing in mid-November!
  • We groomed a total of 58 times (probably a record for us).
  • We survived a prolonged spell of warm, damp weather in mid December that melted much of the accumulated base. When wintry weather suddenly returned in late December, our groomers eagerly put our new John Deere Gator through its tracks and we were skiing on very good conditions by the New Year Holiday.
  • After January 1, we received only 14 additional inches of snow prior to the season ending warm-up that began March 8. The snowfalls came in small amounts, just often enough to freshen the trails and help level the base. Despite a fairly dry winter, we had just enough base to maintain great conditions while pleasing the many visitors from snow starved areas to the northwest, west and south.
  • The limited snowfall actually worked to the advantage of skate skiers. The skate lane was solid and fast most of the winter.
  • February was persistently cold and both classic and skate skiing were consistently good.
  • This year's "Blue Hills Trail Fun Day" was perfectly timed: a potluck moonlight ski event on Friday March 6 was very well attended. The previous day saw temps of -25 degrees F that morning; the evening of the moonlight ski we enjoyed temps in the 20s, a roaring campfire, great food, camaraderie, and perfect skiing conditions under the stars and a full moon.
  • Despite the frequent grooming, we stayed well within budget, and had fun sharing the Blue Hills Trail with a record number of visitors.  Thanks to everybody that helps spread the word regarding the beauty of this trail system.

A huge 'shout out' to our groomers. Once again, equipment break downs and mechanical problems were handled efficiently and never compromised the grooming.  Thank you to our primary grooming team of Steve Gest, Jesse Wimer, & Adam Brockman for giving us great memories this winter of 2014-15! A sincere thank you to our diverse group of members, volunteers and supporters - your help this past year has been extremely rewarding.

early January 2015 cross country ski trail at Blue Hills Trail
9 January 2015
early March 2015 great cross country skiing at Blue Hills Trail
4 March 2015
skier ran into a tree
6 March 2015
happy young skier at the Blue Hills Trail
7 March 2015
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Unbelievable!  It keeps snowing, & snowing, & snowing!  Accompanied by persistent cold temps (it hasn't been above freezing for 37 days; 28 of the past 31 days have been below zero), every snowfall adds to the last.  Remember those mountainous snowbanks from your childhood winters?  Don't let your kids forget this one. Once again, tip your hat to our groomers when you see them out working their magic. Conditions have been uniformly wonderful, our groomers have met this winter's challenges head on. And if you notice a huge divot next to the trail, that's one of our groomers working hard to push the margins. Even the most experienced groomer gets stuck periodically - then it's time to unhitch the grooming implement, extricate the snowmobile, back up to reconnect to the grooming implement, then off to create more corduroy and set more track. It requires continuous concentration, and lots of muscle - not as easy as it looks. The Birkie is just a few days away, invite your friends to ski the Hills while visiting the area. The beauty is contagious.

fabulous conditions 18 January 2014 on the West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
18 January 2014 West Side of the Blue Hills Trail
enthusiastic group of skiers at the Blue Hills Trail
East Side of the Blue Hills Trail 16 February 2014
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It looked like March would go out as a lamb, but Mother Nature sure fooled us!  It kept snowing and snowing and snowing - topped off by a record setting May 2nd snowstorm that dropped 18 inches in the Hills!

Recent comments from the logbook in the warming house

  • 3/25: Great night for a ski.  Love how late the sun is out.  Thanks for such great trails.  The skate lane was fast fast fast.  --Bruce, WI
  • 3/28: Wow!  Skate trail is amazing.  Thank you to BHTA for a wonderful ski season.  March 28 & the sky is blue, the sun is shining & the skiing is fast. --Rice Lake, WI
  • 3/29: Snowshoeing - Awesome. --Australia
  • 4/1: Fantastic crust skiing on Westside & over & onto Audie Flowage, & also on Florida Loop.  Early morning skiing is fast & almost effortless.  Edge control is borderline in some places & the steeper donwhills are exhiliratingly fast.  No fooling!  --Ladysmith, WI
  • 4/10: The snow cover extends unbroken at least 2 km from the warming house, & undoubtedly beyond.   --Ladysmith, WI
  • 4/12: With the new snow one can ski anywhere! --Ladysmith, WI
  • 4/13: Another day's pilgrammage to the Blue Hills.  Today I skied the entire Westside with side trips to Audie Lake & from Letter K north.  I recommend it to anyone that wants to leave the beaten track. --Ladysmith, WI
  • 4/17: The heavy wet snow that fell 3 days ago provided a new surface which this morning's colder temperatures transformed into a firm crust.  Skating over it was fantastic, so much better than what I expected to find. --Ladysmith, WI
  • 4/19: Getting Out There for a classic ski.  AMAZING. --Rice Lake, WI
  • 4/24: Eastside crust ski was wonderfully fast on the ski over to the Westside & to Audie Lake.  Saw very large paw prints in the snow (wolf?).  The return ski was slower in the soft snow in the sun.  All in all a wonderful spring ski. --Eau Claire, WI
  • 4/25: It ain't over 'til it's over!  Skied much of the Eastside on an unbroken crust covered with a centimeter of new snow, which decorated the twigs & branches of all the hilltop trees - until the sun melted it. --Ladysmith, WI
deep snow 17 March 2013 at the Blue Hills Trail in northwest Wisconsin
March 17, 2013
kids skiing in early March 2013 at the Blue Hills Trail in northwest Wisconsin
early March 2013
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We were able to enjoy a few more hours of  fun skiing in the Blue Hills this morning. The weather forecast suggests we are done grooming for the winter of 2011-12.Here's a bit of a recap:

  1. We started grooming on December 4th, & have skied in the Hills regularly since then (a total of 98 days on groomed snow).
  2. We groomed a total of 39 times.
  3. December was dry, allowing only 5 opportunities to groom - but we kept skiing on our rock skis.
  4. January snowfall picked up, groomers worked on 17 days that month.
  5. February was drier again, requiring 11 days of grooming.
  6. March produced our only decent snowstorm - & another 6 days of grooming.

We owe a big thank you to our groomers. Equipment break downs and mechanical problems were handled efficiently & never compromised the grooming. Thank you to Dan Bartels, Steve Gest, & Jesse Wimer for capturing every available snowflake & saving the winter of 2011-12! It certainly was an unusual winter (warm & dry). Fortunately, we were lucky to receive just enough snow to enjoy fun conditions for most of 3 months. Welcoming the many happy skiers that traveled to find snow in the Blue Hills was very rewarding.

Recent comments from the logbook in the warming house

  • 3/8: Great ski today all alone!  Thanks to the groomers for all the great work this winter.  Hate to see it end. --Ladysmith, WI
  • 3/9: Awesome! --author's location unknown
  • 3/10: Got going 7:30 a.m. when "the window" was still closed & locked.  Thanks to yesterday's grooming (by Dan the man) we threw the window open 'til it started to get slow ~9:30.  What fun! --Ladysmith, WI
  • 3/10: Another fabulous year in the Hills.  Thank you to the crew! --Barron, WI
  • 3/10: Great spring skiing.  Thanks. --Minneapolis, MN
  • 3/11: Great hike thru woods.  Stayed off trails.  This is what makes real outdoors men & women. --author's location unknown
  • 3/13: Just checkin' out old playground. --author's location unknown
  • 3/13: I was able to ski out the 'gravel road' about 2.5 km, crossing two short bare sections. to a wide melted out area then returned. --Ladysmith, WI
  • 3/23: Snow completely gone - can you believe it! --Rice Lake, WI
Snowshoe trails were developed this past winter
cross country ski trail at Blue Hills Trail
Blue Hills Trail in northern Wisconsin - East Side trails February 27, 2012
skiers enjoying the classic track February 2012 at the Blue Hills Trail
East Side trails February 25, 2012
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Blue Hills Trail

instagram updates
Every other year our volunteers replace all the intersection maps. That’s 60 maps, but who’s counting? Combined with excellent signage, it makes it easy to get your bearings on the Blue Hills Trail. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #trailvolunteers #xcskitrails #foresttherapy #findyourselfoutside
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Good hiking in early December. Frost is entering the ground, the ski trails are ready for snow. Photos show the biggest oak tree in the County Forest; hiking on the ‘Far East’ trail; and our Gator doing some trail work on the West Side trails. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #trailwork #hikingwisconsin #weneedsnow
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Big News! Wisconsin's Blue Hills Trail has revised its website, its maps, its blog - and added an Instagram account. Spread the word. VISIT THE BLOG for details – link in bio ⬆️ #bluehillstrailwisconsin #crosscountryskiing #skinnyski #ruskcountywi #ricelakewi #travelwisconsin #tomterrifik
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1.5” big fluffy parachute snowflakes today. Might actually be able to ski on some of our trails — even though the underlying ground isn’t yet frozen. #bluehillstrailwisconsin #winterinwisconsin #crosscountryskiing #xcskiing
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Tight corner. Placed orange driveway markers at the edge. Gotta keep our groomers on track. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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After unseasonably warm weather in the first week of November, more wintry weather will start to freeze the trails. Hopefully x-country skiing is just around the corner. This photo was taken on the East Side trails - it shows one of our most important bridges. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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Bridge building in October successfully spanned a small creek that was always a challenge to summertime mowing & wintertime grooming of our ski trails. #bluehillstrailwisconsin
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