Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association revives activities as snow accumulates

In the fall of 2014, after about five years’ worth of discussions among local cross-country skiers about the need to formulate a unified voice, the Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association (SNSA) came into official existence as a not-for-profit organization. Brimming with exciting plans, its directors and members began meeting regularly — on and off the trails, depending on the weather — to conduct ski clinics and organize group events.

That was the winter of ’14-’15, when residents were reminded of what “normal” winters used to be like in the mid-Hudson before global warming, with ample opportunities to get out on the trails at Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve. But in ’15-’16, a freakishly warm and almost entirely snowless winter temporarily took the wind out of SNSA’s sails. Long-cherished plans were put on hold and ambitious fundraising activities postponed for snowier times.

Yet behind the scenes, preparations were underway to recruit new participants and position SNSA to hit the track running, so to speak, once the snow started to fly once more. The organization’s vice president, Eric Weigeshoff, tinkered with the new SNSA website, www.skithegunks.com, which now features some very useful maps of Shawangunk trails, specifying which ones are designated for hiking, snowshoeing, skate-skiing, telemarking and traditional Nordic-style in-track skiing. Meanwhile, “secretary of skate” Veronica O’Keefe worked on raising the group’s visibility on social media by developing the SNSA Facebook page, www.facebook.com/skithegunks. “We actively started posting this year,” O’Keefe reports. “About 75 new people signed up within two weeks, as soon as it started snowing. Posting photos and videos, it’s so easy to have outreach.”

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In case you hadn’t noticed, those snowier times seem to be upon us once again. Passionate Nordic skiers were beginning to emerge from their dens and test out ski conditions before it was even officially winter. Since the December 30 snowstorm, trail-grooming equipment has been busy in the Gunks. “We already have spectacular skiing. Right now it’s like February, and both Mohonk and Minnewaska have been doing a great job of maintaining the trails,” says Weigeshoff enthusiastically.

With the group’s higher social media profile, increasing numbers of skiers are turning to SNSA for the lowdown on where conditions are best, which can vary from trail to trail even within the same park. Although the Ski the Gunks website features a link to the Mid-Hudson Cross-Country Skiers’ Yahoo Group for daily ski conditions reports, “A lot still happens by word-of-mouth. We’d like, for the future, for more people to post to the Facebook page,” Weigeshoff says, noting that up-to-date photographs convey a sense of how inviting the trails are that can be more accurate than the rather conservative “official” conditions reports issued by Minnewaska and Mohonk.

Active group members emphasize that weather conditions down in the valleys can be misleading. Noting that temperatures on the Ridge average five to eight degrees cooler than in the Town of New Paltz, SNSA president Mark Ruoff says, “The simple fact of the elevation of Mohonk and Minnewaska has a lot to do with why we’re able to ski here…. Minnewaska is in its own league, in terms of getting snow when other places don’t.” And even when things begin warming up again in the valley, shady spots and hollows in the mountains retain their snow cover much longer. The group’s consistent message is: Don’t assume that you can’t ski today. Get out and explore, and check in with us to share updates.

In the long term, SNSA hopes to be in a financial position to acquire its own trail grooming equipment to supplement that used by Mohonk and Minnewaska. “This whole group started out of the hope for better and more consistent grooming,” notes Ruoff. But right now, there’s more emphasis on cultivating a more extensive and committed community of Nordic skiers and “branding” New Paltz as a cross-county ski Mecca like Boulder, Colorado or Bozeman, Montana. “To create a skiing culture here is where we’d like to go,” Ruoff says.

Education is an important component of that effort. Ruoff volunteers as an assistant coach to New Paltz High School’s cross-country ski team, and his colleague there, coach Ann Gregory, has been working with SNSA to organize clinics geared toward younger wannabe skiers. They are scheduled for February 5 and 12, and a race with two-, five- and ten-kilometer courses is also planned for February 4 at Minnewaska.

But anytime that conditions are good, SNSA folks are generally available to provide informal clinics for those who meet them on the trails, according to Weigeshoff. “Sometimes 25 or 30 people will show up. We’ll split them into groups — between experts and beginners, or skaters and traditional skiers. That’s the real meat and potatoes of what we are now: to get people out there, get them excited about it. We’re always willing to give pointers or mini-lessons.”

Another area where education is needed, they say, is among winter hikers, snowshoers and dog-walkers, who can often be found “walking plonk in the middle of the trail,” breaking up the painstakingly groomed track, says Weigeshoff. The group has been trying to recruit new members for the Mohonk Preserve’s volunteer ski patrol, part of whose job is to intercept heedless hikers and steer them away from trails groomed for skiers’ use.Future endeavors by SNSA are likely to include, in the short term, organized moonlight ski expeditions, with snacks provided by the group. In the long term, Ruoff dreams of improved connectivity for skiers among the Mohonk, Minnewaska and Sam’s Point trail systems, and O’Keefe sees potential for installing snowmaking machinery at the Field of Dreams to provide a fairly flat loop for novice skiers to hone their cross-country skills. To get involved or find out more about the Shawangunk Nordic Ski Association, visit the website or the Facebook group, or e-mail skithegunks@gmail.com.