Grand Avenue Nordic Center: Breaking Ground and Looking Forward

Aerial photo of the newly built Grand Avenue Nordic Center trails. (Photo Credit: Spirit Mountain)

Soon, cross-country skiers of all abilities will enjoy the newly built Grand Avenue Nordic Center (GANC), the first cross-country trail system in Duluth with snowmaking capability. Phase I of this project consists of 2.5 kilometers of new trail, built by Stack Brothers. 1.5K of that trail will be equipped for snowmaking. The waterlines for snowmaking on that section will be operational in mid-November. Wiring and infrastructure for electricity are also under construction, but are slightly delayed while waiting for some equipment. When both plumbing and electrical are complete, snowmaking will begin on that 1.5K trail for the 2018-2019 winter season.  Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club (DXC) volunteers cleared an additional 0.8K of narrower trail in the summer of 2018 for ungroomed classic skiing. This provides a total of up to 3.3K of skiable terrain for the upcoming winter season of 2018-19. The entire loop is on City of Duluth land that is part of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area. Gary Larson (DXC member and GANC Planning Committee member) said, “Spirit Mountain staff will be responsible for all the snowmaking and grooming, in addition to the long term maintenance of the trail, grooming equipment, snow guns, and infrastructure.”

Kari Hedin, DXC President, also pointed to the important role of Spirit Mountain in the operation of the trails once they are fully built. “Trail passes are on sale now (Click here for trail pass information: Spirit Mountain trail passes) and we will be skiing on the trail by early December. Spirit is prioritizing snowmaking on the trail to encourage Nordic skiers to come out,” Hedin said. “We anticipate a lot of excitement for local and regional skiers to try out the trail.”

There are no new buildings associated with the trail but the existing Grand Avenue Chalet is immediately next to the trailhead of the new system. The chalet won’t change, but Hedin said, “Nordic ski rentals will be available at the chalet. Otherwise, it’s a full-service chalet with a fireplace, restrooms, bar, and food service.”

Grand Avenue Nordic Center Trails System. (Image Credit: Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club)

According to DXC Capital Campaign fundraising literature, this first phase of construction is a $2.3 million effort. The City of Duluth “Half and Half” tourism sales tax revenue accounts for $1,250,000 of the cost. Additional grants helped by contributing $300,000. DXC’s commitment is $750,000. In May 2018, DXC paid the city its initial commitment of $500,000. Around that same time, initial bids for the trail project came in higher than original estimates. The City agreed to match another $250,000 from DXC. DXC is now faced with meeting this additional fundraising goal by March of 2019 to support the higher overall project cost.

Hedin took over as DXC President from Annalisa Peterson in May 2018. They both talked about the highs and lows of the club’s efforts. Regarding the GANC trail construction itself, Hedin said, “It’s the first public step of all the background work. It’s happening. It’s out there. It’s a huge step and a huge positive.” Peterson and Hedin both remarked that it was a great feeling when the club gave the City of Duluth a check for $500,000 in Spring 2018. But when they learned the cost would require another $250,000 from the club, Peterson said the club took a “big gulp” at the “sticker shock.” But they’re optimistic it can be done. Hedin and Peterson were both quick to point out the club’s crucial partnership with the City of Duluth and Spirit Mountain. Peterson said, “This wouldn’t have moved forward without them. It took total commitment from all sides. Mayor Larson came in when we were already in the initial stages and she threw her support behind it.”

Emily Larson, Mayor of Duluth, speaks at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center groundbreaking ceremony. October 2, 2018. (Photo Credit: Gary Larson)

Part of that optimism is because of a unique day planned for Sunday, November 4th, 2018 in Duluth. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the first ever Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing for the United States during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Diggins, from Afton, MN will be visiting Duluth for two events on that Sunday.

At the base of Spirit Mountain at the Grand Avenue Chalet from 2 – 4 PM, Diggins will give a free clinic where she’ll speak about the importance of the Grand Avenue Nordic Center. Events are planned for people of all ages. Diggins will lead a youth outdoor workout that day and young people who want to learn skills from a gold medalist can learn more details here: duluthxc.com/diggins

Later that day, at the Pier B Resort Hotel from 7 – 9 PM, there will be a ticketed fundraising event called “Going for Gold in Duluth” with Diggins as the guest of honor. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson will attend along with Kara Salmela, local two-time Olympic biathlete. Chad Salmela, College of St. Scholastica cross-country running coach, will emcee the event. He famously delivered the animated “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” quote as Olympic ski commentator for NBC Sports as Diggins won her gold medal. Bent Paddle Brewing and Bernick’s will be donating all proceeds from the event to the DXC Capital Campaign in support of GANC.

Gary Black, Cirrus Aircraft Regional Sales Director is giving Diggins a ride to and from these Duluth events in a Cirrus SR22 aircraft on Nov 4thand 5th. DXC is even auctioning off seats in those airplane rides so people can bid to fly with the gold medalist. Details for all the events on November 4thcan be found here: duluthxc.com/diggins

“We are so excited to have such a top-name in skiing who is from Minnesota that’s willing to support our efforts,” Hedin said. “We are lucky and honored that she put us on her calendar.”

Trail construction has been a long time in coming. March 2015 saw the approval of the St. Louis River Corridor initiative that outlined many outdoor infrastructure improvements for the City of Duluth, including GANC. This directly followed the Half and Half Tourism Tax that was approved in 2014. In May 2015 and Oct 2016, John Morton, trail designer, worked with Gary Larson and the City of Duluth to design a proposed path for the trail. There have been many challenges along the way in trying to build this new 3.3K trail.

On October 2nd, 2018 at the base of Spirit Mountain in Duluth, dozens of people gathered for the Grand Avenue Nordic Center (GANC) Groundbreaking Ceremony. Emily Larson, Mayor of Duluth; Brandy Ream, Executive Director of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area; and Matt Ryan, of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club (DXC) all spoke about this important milestone at the trailhead.

Grand Avenue Nordic Center Groundbreaking Ceremony: (l-r) Jim Shoberg, Parks & Recreation Project Coordinator; William Roche, Parks & Recreation Department Manager; Emily Larson, Mayor of Duluth; Chad Salmela, DXC Capital Campaign; Jim Montgomery, Stack Brothers; Matt Ryan, DXC/GANC Planning Committee; Brandy Ream, Executive Director at Spirit Mountain Recreation Area; and Gary Larson, DXC/GANC Planning Committee. October 2, 2018. (Photo Credit: Nils Arvold)

Gary Larson described one difficult obstacle. “The biggest challenge was the stadium and getting the necessary trail widths,” Larson said. The “stadium” is the typical label for a start/finish area of a trailhead. At GANC, it’s the large area next to the Spirit Mountain lower parking lot. It will serve as an open snow area for lessons and group sessions for beginning skiers, but it also has to meet certain requirements in order to serve as a start/finish area for events such as a Junior Nationals Qualifying (JNQ) event. Several people interviewed mentioned GANC as a possible venue for a JNQ event due to the quality of the trail and the reliability that snowmaking will provide.

Larson talked at length about other challenges and trail design elements. 2.5K of the existing 3.3K are a robust 30 feet wide that will provide a flowing, purpose-built experience for all levels of skiing ability. The electrical infrastructure is designed to support snowmaking and lighting. The lighting system is planned to work with motion sensors and dimming capability so that lighting levels can adjust depending on use. Only three lights are currently being installed near the stadium area as a test. Larson said the snow guns being purchased are called the Silent Polecat and Kid Polecat, chosen for the fact that they are quieter than other snowmaking equipment. The lighting and snowmaking capabilities were designed to be useful but also so GANC would be a good neighbor to the community.

Snowmaking on more level ground raises other issues. “You need a longer window of cold temperatures in order to make snow for a Nordic trail, compared to the snowmaking on the downhill ski area,” said Larson. That’s because it takes more time to charge water lines and empty them so they don’t freeze on flatter ground unlike the more vertical Spirit Mountain alpine trails. Even with the unique character of snowmaking for cross-country, Larson said that “Spirit is excited about it.” The snowmaking capability is already a hit even before making its first snowflake. “People are already calling and trying to run a ski camp on the trails this year,” Peterson said. “People really want this.”

The public will get to ski on the trails this winter and DXC hopes that generates momentum to complete Phase I of the trail. Hedin said, “Support is still there to raise the $250,000 by March 2019. The physical experience is out there.”

But there is more to do. Future work involves widening the last 800 meters of trail to match the width already built. Snowmaking is then supposed to expand from the current 1.5K to support the entire 3.3K. Lighting also needs to grow to illuminate the whole loop. A new segment of trail will connect the GANC to the existing cross-country ski trail system at the top of Spirit Mountain. The full vision of the GANC Master Plan is still a good distance away.

Hedin sees the future work as an opportunity for change for local skiers. “We have skied for a long time on existing trails. We need to create a culture of giving back to the sport.” Chad Salmela, DXC Capital Campaign committee member put it this way: “It’s a gut check. I hear over and over ‘Why don’t they build a trail with snowmaking?’ Who is ‘they’? ‘They’ is us. This generation of skiers will have to give more than they will get out of it personally.” Matt Ryan echoed the sentiment: “You have to look beyond yourself to a legacy.” Salmela said the GANC project is a catalyst for being a more united ski community. Regarding the completed full vision of GANC, with help from the City of Duluth and Spirit Mountain, Salmela said, “In ten years, we’re going to look back and feel really good about it.”

As Jessie Diggins prepares to visit Duluth with her unprecedented Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing, Gary Larson shared his vision of a completed trail full of children skiing: “Someday, that gold medalist could be a kid from Duluth.”

Wide curve along the Grand Avenue Nordic Center trail. (Photo Credit: Cory Salmela)

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About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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3 Responses to Grand Avenue Nordic Center: Breaking Ground and Looking Forward

  1. Pingback: Grand Avenue Nordic Center trail opening soon - Perfect Duluth Day

  2. mariezhuikov says:

    Glad to see Nordic skiing growing in Duluth!

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