SPOKANE -- It’s the skinny skier’s version of venturing off-piste at Mount Spokane’s Cross-Country Ski Park. Unannounced by signs, a discreet series of orange diamonds leads into the forest off the groomed Nordic trails. A mountain man’s eye for a blaze is required to spot the first marker on the downhill side of the teaching area beyond Selkirk Lodge.
Special nails fix it to a tree near the start of the groomed trail called Brian’s Hill.
The route instantly departs from the wide, roadlike packed swath and perfect parallel grooves set by a snowcat. Tracks along the forest route, informally known as Art’s Boogie, are made by squirrels, grouse, snowshoe hares and skiers breaking trail through the trees.
“This makes me giggle,” Art Bookstrom said with a laugh, unleashing childlike joy as his touring skis skimmed through the snow, dropped down and immediately sprang up from a small depression.
“All of these little fun spots in the terrain are smoothed out of the groomed trails.”
A recent Tuesday was the perfect opportunity to follow the orange markers back into the early days of cross-country skiing. The main trails in Mount Spokane State Park’s Nordic system are not groomed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the alpine skiing concession is closed. The mountain was smothered with four inches of new, unblemished powder snow from a storm that had packed its bags, departed and left the mountain sparkling and surrounded by an imperial blue sky.
Just a few dozen skiers had the wonderland to themselves.
“Every once in a while somebody else finds this trail and takes off on it wondering where it leads,” Bookstrom said.
Other than the green dotted line added to the big map in Selkirk Lodge, skiers learn about Art’s Boogie by word of mouth.
“This trail doesn’t just remind me of what cross-country skiing was like when I was little; it makes me feel like a kid again,” Bookstrom said.
That’s no small feat for an inconspicuous 3-kilometer route -- the semi-retired Spokane geologist is 75 years old.
He remembers a childhood friend converting military wood skis to Nordic skis with door hinges that served as bindings by screwing one side to the skis and the other to the boot soles.
Bookstrom is like a feisty grandpa bridging the gaps at Mount Spokane between tradition and progress as well as between young and mature skiers. He’s organized the autumn volunteer work days to clear the Nordic trails of trees and brush. He provides accordion background music during the annual Langlauf 10K race -- before and after he competes.
On Saturdays in January and February, about 100 youngsters in the Nordic Kids program fly gleefully off small jumps that are handmade by Bookstrom, a service he’s provided for almost three decades.
Bookstrom’s offspring were grown and leaving the nest when he ended a stint in Saudi Arabia in 1992 for a U.S. Geological Survey position in Spokane.
“I missed skiing a lot and I love working with kids,” he noted. It was natural for him to join the local ski club, now called Spokane Nordic, and volunteer to help kids every week through winter.
He’s among a handful of regular volunteers who don’t have children enrolled in the program.
Bookstrom appreciates help from kids while building the jumps, but most would rather be skiing until the little ramps are constructed.
“When I was a kid, we had to break trail before we could have a race,” he said. “Now we have machines that do the prep work. Maybe that’s why they’re so much faster than I was.”
He’d prefer that the Eastern Washington University survival instructors didn’t build a snow cave in the Nordic Kids jumping slope every year, but he quietly demolishes it each season and fills in the giant mote to make the slope safe again for the kids.
The jumps have evolved. “They were landing too flat so I’m making them with a down-slope landing,” he said, pointing out the considerations for approach, height, angle and run out.
“I didn’t really like to ski cross-country as a kid, but I’d play on skis all day and get a heck of a workout if I could go into the woods and make jumps over logs and stumps.”
Bookstrom grew up near Denver. His father was a ski patroller. He had plenty of opportunity to be a kid on skis.
Indeed, he advanced to make the Dartmouth College Ski Team in alpine events and Nordic Combined, which combines cross-country racing and ski jumping.
In 1961, he was the NCAA champion in the now defunct Skimeister Four Event, which included Nordic Combined as well as alpine slalom and downhill.
“I still have nightmares about that era,” he said. “I dream that I show up at the start of the downhill course wearing my jumping skis.”
Ski jumping was phased out of NCAA competition when it evolved into a competition among the colleges that could recruit the most Norwegians, he said.
He phased out of alpine racing after a collision with a stump smashed his leg and rattled him from head to toe, but not before he’d stood on the podium a step below the likes of Jimmie Heuga, one of the first members of the U.S. Men’s Alpine Ski Team to win an Olympic medal.
Bookstrom later helped coach a Winter Park, Colo., Nordic jumping club that produced two Olympians and one U.S. Nordic Combined team member.
“There were jumps at Leavenworth and even Mount Spokane and other areas, but they simply got too expensive to maintain and the liability was too high,” he said. “I think Steamboat in Colorado and the Olympic jumps in Utah are about all that’s left in the West.”
That is, except for the 2-foot-high jumps he makes for the kids at Mount Spokane, and the bumps kids all over the snowbelt make to keep their spirits high during winter.
This do-it-yourself foundation of cross-country skiing is what led Bookstrom to post orange diamonds on what he prefers to call the “Forest Trail.”
Last year, a skier who opts for wool clothing instead of stretch Lycra asked him if there were any old-fashioned trails through the woods at Mount Spokane.
“I just go skiing in the woods when I get the urge, but I understood what he was looking for,” Bookstrom said. The hiking trails are often too steep. Having a marked trail that contours the mountain slopes would be ideal.
He started scoping out routes and found an eager partner in Leonard Seville, who has grandkids in the Nordic Kids program.
“We got permission from the park rangers and flagged a route,” Bookstrom said. “The idea was to make a trail that required no trees to be cut or blowdowns to be cleared. There’s been a lot of experimentation, changing the lines, but we have it down pretty well now. We trimmed off branches and cleared a little brush here and there, but the route is mostly natural.”
It curves and undulates with the terrain. It angles through the bottom of open glades and through tree stands ranging from scattered to dense.
“The route is always between two of the groomed Nordic trails because we don’t want anyone to get disoriented and lost,” he said. “Most of the skiers using the trail are little kids.”
Or old kids like Bookstrom.
“Ski up or downhill from the orange marker and you’ll hit one of the groomed trails. You can’t get lost.”
Art’s Boogie merges into the groomed areas of Junction 1 and Junction 2, but it quickly escapes back into the woods.
“Today is the perfect day to be on this forest trail,” he said Tuesday as he made first tracks through the new powder from one marker to the next. Sometimes he had to pause and look around tree trunks and through dangling green flags of old man’s beard lichen to see the next orange diamond.
“There it is,” he said at one point. “Another diamond in the rough.”