Technically speaking, the White Pass Nordic Center isn’t a club for Dick Kendall and his friends. It just seems that way.
On a recent January morning, it seemed as if everybody entering the Nordic yurt stopped to talk to Kendall and his wife, Robbie.
“Everybody here knows Dick and Robbie,” said Rich Brooks, the Nordic center’s director. “They’ve been fixtures here since the beginning.”
Kendall is 82 and is still here almost everyday teaching lessons, but he’s much more than an instructor.
He’s a local legend.
The old wood skis hanging on the wall were the ones he used around the time he helped design the White Pass trail system in 1979. The guy in the picture by the window skiing the trails before they were so neatly groomed: Dick Kendall. The skiers in the poster used to promote the facility: Dick and Robbie Kendall.
Even one of the trails is named in his honor, Kendall Konnector.
It seems almost impossible to spend any significant time here without crossing paths with Kendall.
“Everybody here is so friendly,” he said as he prepared to hit the trail. “Everybody who passes you on the trail says hello.”
It seems Kendall is making more and more friends of late, as cross-country skiing increases in popularity at White Pass and around the country.
White Pass marketing director Kathleen Goyette says Nordic skier visits have increased 5 percent to 10 percent per season over the past six years. Trevor Kostanich, director of ski operations at the Summit at Snoqualmie, reports similar growth while SnowSports Industries America reports a more modest 2 percent per year growth nationally.
As one of the first people to the party, Kendall isn’t surprised to see his sport finally drawing larger crowds.
“I think they like doing more than just going down a hill,” Kendall said. “People who like hiking and stuff like that jump into this and really like it.”
NUMBERS DON'T LIE
Nationally, the cross-country ski industry was poised for big growth last season, said Reese Brown, SIA’s Nordic director. However, while the Northwest enjoyed a snowy winter, the rest of the country endured warm weather and subpar snow conditions.
“We’d seen consistent growth for several years,” Brown said. Companies were prepared to spend more money on advertising to promote gear, he said.
Instead, the sport saw a decrease of more than 200,000 participants nationwide, according the SIA. Still, between the 2009-10 and the 2011-12 seasons, Nordic skiing participation increased from 4.16 million to 4.32 million while alpine skiing participation dropped from 18.34 million to 17.78 million.
There are several factors contributing to increased interest.
Kelly Davis, SIA’s director of research, says a lot of people are lured to cross-country skiing because of the fitness element.
A 170-pound Nordic skier burns 877 calories per hour, according to healthstatus.com.
“A lot of alpine skiers come over here to ski for part of the day because a lot of them don’t get enough of a workout,” Robbie Kendall said.
Because it’s a low-impact sport, Nordic skiing is drawing more baby boomers whose knees and backs have endured too many moguls, Brown and Davis said.
Brooks says the sport also benefits from the struggling economy. While the average lift ticket in the Washington Cascades costs $59.50, a cross-country trail pass at White Pass is $15. Gear is also less expensive.
“Everybody is looking to save money right now,” Brooks said. “This is a good way to do it.”
Also, Brooks says Nordic Centers provide a quiet escape that can be harder to find on crowded ski slopes.
A FOCUSED CROWD
At White Pass, the mellow mood is set as soon as you enter the yurt. The satellite radio is tuned to the Frank Sinatra channel and the warm rental boots distributed by Tim Lofgren, the center’s former director, are quite welcoming on chilly mornings.
“People come here hopped up on caffeine but once they come in and hear the music and spend the day on the trail they look nice and relaxed,” Brooks said.
Davis says she finds cross-country skiers to be one of the most interesting demographics in the snow sports industry.
“I live to tell people that if they want their kids to grow up to be well educated and earn six-figure salaries, introduce them to cross-country skiing and cycling,” said Davis, who says about 30 percent of cross-country skiers also ride road bikes. “Most of the people who do those sports make more than $100,000 per year and have master’s degrees.”
Sounds like a demographic that can afford the escalating price of alpine lift tickets.
“But they choose to cross-country ski because that’s what they want to do,” Brown said. “... I think it’s a sport that attracts people who are focused and like to work hard.”
EASY TO LEARN
Cross-country skiing definitely has a reputation for being hard work because there’s no way around the fact that it requires more energy than downhill skiing.
But Brooks says the sport is different things to different people.
“Some people come out here and go really, really hard and they are absolutely exhausted when they are finished,” he said. “Others pack a picnic lunch and go out with the family and have a great time.
“It’s something everybody can enjoy.”
Brooks hears some people complain that cross-country skiing doesn’t offer the thrills of a double diamond alpine run. He responds that taking on some downhill stretches of Nordic trails with skinny free-heel skis offers thrills too. “You’re going to have a rush. You’re going to have some adrenaline.”
Learning to cross-country ski can also help alpine skiers improve their form, Brooks said, because they improve their fitness level and they get comfortable maneuvering on narrower skis.
Getting started at the Nordic Center is easier than some people might think, too.
Classic cross-country skiing can be learned relatively quickly, especially for those already used to alpine skiing, Brooks and Kendall said.
“It’s not uncommon for people to take a lesson and be able to ski most of the trails here on their first day,” Brooks said.
And for those looking to master a more challenging technique, skate skiing is the center’s fastest activity. Lofgren covers the 3-kilomter (1.86 miles) White Pass Lake loop in less than 10 minutes.
“Skate skiing is really in right now,” Kendall said. “It’s really exciting and fast. Most of the younger people want to skate.”
Skate skiing requires well groomed trails, and Kendall says White Pass has a reputation for some of the best trails in the state thanks to Brooks and Lofgren.
Kendall knows trails and cross-country skiing as well as anybody. Not only did he design the White Pass trail system, but he used to layout trails around the Northwest for the U.S. Forest Service.
“I felt so bad,” Kendall said. “I got paid to do exactly what I wanted to do.”
Thirty-four years since the White Pass Nordic Center opened, Kendall still can’t imagine a place he’d rather be on winter days.
“I can see why more people are out here,” he said. “It is a great sport.”