Abundant snow plus groomed trails equals great cross-country skiing in Eastern Iowa

Skis, snowshoes in demand as Iowans get outdoors during pandemic

Todd Gillihan of the Iowa City Nordic Club leads a group of cross-country skiers Jan. 17 at Kent Park in Oxford. (Andy A
Todd Gillihan of the Iowa City Nordic Club leads a group of cross-country skiers Jan. 17 at Kent Park in Oxford. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

OXFORD — There’s that old phrase “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Winter and its friends, snow and ice, blow into town every year, so why not bundle up, clip into some cross-country skis and join them for an outdoor adventure?

“Instead of hating winter, I’m going to enjoy it,” Deanna Mumm, 60, of Williamsburg, said earlier this month as she prepared to ski with her daughter, Kendra Knopf, 38, of Williamsburg, at Kent Park near Oxford.

Cross-country skiing is a full-body workout that can burn up to 700 calories per hour while strengthening muscles, including your heart. Many Eastern Iowans are discovering — or rediscovering — the sport as a way to get exercise and maintain social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But skis, boots and snowshoes have become the kayaks of last summer: they have sold out at many stores and fewer places are doing rentals.

One of the only Corridor stores where you can rent cross-country skis is Fin & Feather in Iowa City.

“We have rented cross-country skis for as long as I can remember, back to the ’70s for sure,” said owner Brian Mildenstein, whose parents, Roger and Linda, opened the outdoor store in 1967.


Fin & Feather does first-come, first-serve rentals of skis and poles for $15 a day or $60 for a week. The store also rents snowshoes and ice skates. But it can be tricky having all the sizes customers might need, especially because there are different sizes for skis, boots and poles, Mildenstein said.

“We’ve done some rental over the phone when people know what they need, but for the most part this is something people come in and try them on,” he said.

Mildenstein loves skiing because it’s a silent sport, where the swish of the skis on the snow is quiet enough that you can come upon deer, turkeys or eagles without scaring them away. It’s also a good cardio replacement for running, he said.

While skiers can strike out in fresh powder, many prefer to ski on groomed trails. This is especially true for skate skiers, who use a side-to-side skating motion rather than the parallel glide of classic cross-country skiing.

The Iowa City Nordic Club has volunteered to groom the 10 miles of cross-country trails at Kent Park. This involves using a snowmobile to pull a metal plow that compacts and smooths a path.

“It takes six hours to groom,” said Todd Gillihan, 56, of Coralville, who is a Nordic Club volunteer. “It’s not a glamorous job. Most of the time you have to wait until the temp gets below zero, so that’s usually at night or super early.”

A fresh-groomed trail looks like corduroy, with fine lines knifing through icy spots to get to the soft snow underneath. Gillihan and fellow Nordic Club members used the trail on a recent Sunday, skate-skiing for a couple of hours before enjoying an outdoor tailgate of brats and beer.

The University of Iowa’s Outdoor Rental Center usually rents skis, snowshoes and other outdoor equipment, but this year, because of COVID-19, is restricted from doing rentals, said David Patton, assistant director of climbing, outdoor rental and adventure trips.


But volunteers still are grooming cross-country skiing trails at the UI’s Ashton Cross Country course, on the west side of Iowa City.

“Part of the groomed trails have the two tracks and part of it is wide, packed and groomed for skate skiing,” Patton said. “Normally we also groom trails at Macbride nature area, but that area is closed this year due to the derecho.”

If you can’t find cross-country skis to buy or rent, you might try snowshoes or trekking skis, which are a cross between a cross-country ski and a snowshoe, explained Cortney Wolter, manager of Soko Outfitters in Cedar Rapids.

“They are shaped like a wide cross-country ski,” she said. “They have a skin on them, so they allow you to go up hills.”

Soko rents Snow Trekkers for $25 a day and snowshoes for $20 a day, taking reservations a day or two in advance. With Trekkers, users wear their own boots, which makes rental easier because stores don’t have to keep all boot sizes on hand, Wolter said.

People in Trekkers and snow shoes — as well as hikers in regular old boots — shouldn’t use groomed cross-country trails because they punch through the crust and make holes that can hang up skiers. But there are more ungroomed trails and nature areas than there are groomed paths, Wolter said.

“Anywhere you want to hike and explore, you can take these out,” she said. Wolter recommends the Sac and Fox Trail, which has a 7.1-mile crushed limestone path, or Morgan Creek Park near Palo.

The Indian Creek Nature Center also has snowshoe rentals for use on their grounds where there is at least five inches of snow. A half-day rental costs $8 for members and $12 for non-members.

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