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Worth the Drive: Iola Winter Sports Club

BY WILL STAHL

iolaPeople are familiar with the idea of downhill skiing as a destination sport, and it’s not unusual to hear them say they are going to Brule, Granite Peak, Indianhead or even Colorado. When the subject of cross-country skiing comes up, and I ask where they go, it is most often the city park, the golf course or even their backyards. Here in the Fox Valley, we have any number of options for nearby skiing, Bubolz Nature Preserve, Appleton’s Reid Golf Course and Plamann County Park, to name just a few.

But cross-country skiing has for many years been developing destinations of its own and some very good ones are located just a short drive from the Valley and many of the other communities reached by the SCENE.

What is the appeal of driving an hour or two to cross country ski? Simply it comes down to an experience the local places can’t quite match: consistently good grooming, great scenery and miles of varied trail. Eight or ten such places are within two hours of the Fox Valley and particular ones are even closer to Green Bay, Fond du Lac and Stevens Point.

One of the best is the trail system maintained by the Iola Winter Sports Club, a about seven miles north of the Norwegian-flavored village of Iola. For full disclosure, most years I have a membership in the club, but I had decided it was a favorite long before I joined.

To get some background I sat down with club President and chief groomer Phil Johnsrud during a snowless slack time.

The Iola Winter Sports Club is nearly 110 years old. “We have meeting minutes back to 1904,” Johnsrud told me. Previously, it had a couple of other locations, but it has been in its present one since the 1950s. It began as a ski jumping club––one of a number started by Norwegian immigrants to the Midwest––and remained so until the early 1970s.

The increasing popularity of cross-country skiing prompted the club to add that activity, mostly at first to provide funding for the jumping program.

Johnsrud moved to the Iola area in 1976 and took up cross-country skiing. At first the trails were just “skied in,” users making tracks that those coming after could follow. Then club members began grooming using light-duty snowmobiles not meant for the purpose with improvised equipment for rolling and tracking.

“We had an old trailer out of which we sold the trail passes and a wooden clubhouse where equipment was stored.” After the clubhouse burned down, taking all the existing grooming gear with it, the club began a slow upgrade to equipment made for the purpose.

Today the club owns about 230 acres of land with access to another 100 acres. The trails include an inside mile and a half “green loop,” suitable for beginners, a three-mile intermediate “blue loop,” and a six-mile “black loop” with some screamingly fast descents and some heart-pounding climbs. These loops overlap in places and are joined by connectors and cut-offs, so exact trail length is hard to calculate, but Johnsrud estimates it’s around 12-14 kilometers. A loop was added in 2013 on some newly purchased land, and this past summer Johnsrud supervised the construction of about another mile of trail. “And we have expansion possibilities,” he added. “We’ve purchased 72 acres in the last seven years.”

When I asked him to what he attributed his success as a groomer, Johnsrud said, “The first rule is like the Hippocratic Oath, ‘First do no harm.’ You have to watch what’s coming out the back end of the groomer. If you’re bringing up dirt, leaves or rocks, it’s not the right time to groom.”

“People expect good conditions now, and they complain if it’s a little slow.” Fresh snow is always slow, as the crystals are sharp. He keeps working the snow every couple of days and it becomes very fast.

Currently, the club has about three hundred members, and it is slowly growing. An important factor in club growth was putting up lights. “That tripled our membership,” Johnsrud said. Four miles of trail are lit by 110 very efficient high-pressure sodium vapor lights. Any club member is entitled to turn them on.

On a typical winter weekend, the club may have up to 150 sign-ins for day use, not including the members. Many come from some distance, the Fox Valley and Stevens Point, or from even farther. Long experience has taught me that Iola often has skiable snow when the Fox Valley has only bare ground.

Johnsrud is proud of the IWSC’s Youth League. It begins with activities for kids aged 2-9. They meet on Saturday morning from 10 AM to noon to ski cross country. At noon ski jumping practice begins for those interested. When they reach fifth grade, kids can join the team, which competes with other teams from across the state.

The ski team draws from a fairly large area; most of the kids are currently from Stevens Point. They usually have a meet a week, maybe a dozen or more over the course of the winter.

The ski jumping program is a low point now, but they are hoping to build it up.

“In the past we’ve had kids reach the Junior Olympics,” Johnsrud said, “but its not a sport in which Americans are world class.”

The club has five jumps, ranging from five meters to 60 meters, the designations representing the distance a trained jumper might be expected to travel in the air.

The ski jumping events of the Badger State Winter Games are held at Iola the first weekend in February.

The Iola Winter Sports Club is completely private––they receive no funding from any level of government. It operates entirely on money received from memberships, trail passes, donations, and various events. A spring mountain bike race draws over 600 participants (mountain biking is not otherwise permitted) and they are sponsors of the Iola Old Car show.

“It’s been a lot of fun here,” Johnsrud said. “I like solving problems and looking after the mechanicals.” Long may he groom those trails.

For directions and further information about Iola, go to iolawintersportsclub.org.

For information about other cross-country ski destinations in the upper Midwest go to skinnyski.com and click on “Trails.”

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