I ran into the first group of skiers down on the edge of the lake, now a shallow, five-acre plate covered in porcelain snow. (On calm summer days, from up the hill by the old Girl Scout camp, the lake mirrors a Rorschach ridgeline from White House Mountain to North Pole Peak.)
Skating the circumference counterclockwise, I met the family of four just out of the tall pines. They were from Grand Junction – Dad, Mom, a boy and a girl about 10 and 7 – striding purposefully in the classic grooves. They were hot; they had on their alpine parkas and pants. But they were having an adventure. “We’re staying in a yurt tonight at Ridgway State Park!” Dad told me. “Can we get back to the car going this way?” And off they marched past the rabbit tracks and the coyote scat and the occasional ponderosa cone dropped on the groomed track.
The little girl was perhaps not quite old enough for Girl Scouts. Brownies, maybe. My older daughter, Cloe, had spent time up here as a member of the Chipeta Council back in the 1980s. She came home once brimming with tales from a weekend camping trip. Monsoon lightning had crashed very close by. Rains turned the lake into a marvelous mud hole. One girl burned her leg on the hot exhaust of a four-wheeler. They had slept in tents and earned a couple of badges for camping out and cooking over an open fire (eggs in orange peels, she remembers, and s’mores).
My wax felt fast, so I took another spin around the lake before heading into the trees and the steeper loops. The Girl Scouts, who had acquired the 175-acre parcel from the BLM, ran out of steam for some reason in the 1990s, and bequeathed the property to the county, provided it remain open to the public. A few years ago, the newly-formed nonprofit, Top of the Pines, Inc. (www.topofthepines.org), signed a long-term agreement to manage the place for recreational and educational uses.
TOP has plans (and a Great Outdoors Colorado grant) to renovate the old pavilion and otherwise upgrade the infrastructure. One of the things they have accomplished already, to the delight of skiers and snowshoers, is the creation of eight kilometers of groomed Nordic track. Ridgway engineer and mountaineer Chris Haaland does the summer trail cutting and winter grooming.
“I love it,” Haaland says of the volunteer work. He uses his own snowmobile and vintage grooming implements handed down from Keith Meinert and the crew who set track in Ironton Park up on Red Mountain Pass. “The money in the box pays for my gas. I love just being up there. Like at 4 p.m. when the snow’s turning pink in the sunset…skating around…it’s a meditation.”
When there is fresh snow, Haaland makes three passes with the snowmobile, dragging his implements, to press in the classic (diagonal stride) grooves and a skate lane that is just barely wide enough as the trail wends through the oak brush and sweet auburn trunks of the big pines.
Past the buried picnic tables and composting toilet, I headed off into the “North Forty,” where the trail dips and climbs through sunny, open-canopy hollows, cuts back on itself, snakes around and hairpins finally at a surprise view to the north: 80 miles distant to the silhouette point of the Grand Mesa, and closer in, the timberline finbacks of the Cimarron and Horsefly ridges.
I ran into a couple of people out there. Or rather, looked up in time to keep from running into a couple of local folks: Linda and Heather Adams, of Mountain Medical and Ridgway Outdoor Experience fame, and a snowshoeing couple new to the area who had stopped to refuel from a baggie of gorp. I’m afraid I interrupted their solitude. “That looks like fun on the downhills,” the man said of my slick skate-ski rig. “But some of these climbs – that must be hard.”
“Not too bad,” I tried not to pant. “As long as you keep gliding.” Like a shark, I thought, poling away.
Like a shark, a slow-swimming shark, I glided up the last hill to the parking lot convinced that Chris Haaland was right. “It’s a beautiful amenity,” he had said of this free, public park not five miles and a thousand vertical feet above Ridgway (off County Road 5).
Aspen it ain’t. Nor is it the snowcat-smoothed boulevards of the Telluride Valley Floor. But it’s ours, and it is beautiful. I took off my skis, rolled all the bills I had into a cinnamon stick and dropped them in the sun-baked tackle box that accepts donations. There would be no pink snow this evening. The clouds scuttled lower, wind murmuring in the long needles. More snow coming.