A brush of cold: Columbus County Park discovers cross country skiing

Caiden Delor, 10, of St. Clair, can’t help but smile as he slides down the sledding hill at Columbus County Park. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

Caiden Delor, 10, of St. Clair, can’t help but smile as he slides down the sledding hill at Columbus County Park. (Andrew Jowett | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

The Columbus County Park is a hotbed for cold-weather enthusiasts.

The 385-acre park at 1670 Bauman Road has hiking, sledding, snowshoeing and — coming soon — cross country skiing, in addition to fishing and hunting.

A lighted sledding hill is one of the most popular attractions at the park, operations supervisor Brad Brenske said.

“The majority flock to the sledding hill in the winter. The lights come on at dusk and go out at 7:45 p.m.,” he said. “We usually have a bigger crowd after school and on weekends. It can get pretty hectic out here.”

The sledding hill has two runs, one for beginners and one for more experienced sledders. It drops 25 to 30 feet from the top to the base and is about 300 yards long.

The park recently bought a tracked John Deere vehicle to groom the hiking trails for cross country skiing.

Brenske said he and and his sons were talking about cross country skiing at the park — and the conversation snowballed.

“People have been limited up until now on how much they can walk on the trails because we normally don’t maintain them,” Brenske said. “With the Gator, we can get out and go across the snow to maintain them and move anything that is blocking the trails.”

The park also purchased a rear-mounted snow groomer so the Gator can set tracks for cross country skiers.

“We are going to experiment with that a little bit this winter to try to develop some trails,” Brenske said. “The track setter will allow us to groom it for skiing. Then we can map out some trails this winter, put it out on our website and offer that for a full-time thing next winter.”

The trails are open, but not fully maintained, Brenske said. He expects them to be ready soon.

Kelli Gusumano, who has been a park ranger for six months at Columbus County Park, said attracting skiers would be easy because of the quality of the trails.

“When we get that ready to go, maybe we’ll see some cross country skiing right away,” Gusumano said. “We’ve never offered it before because we don’t plow the trails. We just plow the driveways and parking areas.”

Brenske has been brainstorming with his staff for ways to bring more people to the park since he joined the staff in May.

The park is trying to produce more annual events that are similar to its Shoe Year’s Day event — more than 50 people snowshoed on Jan. 1.

Staff members are discussing a mid-winter blitz with professional mushers and dogsled teams.

The park is a great escape for the people who have grown accustomed to city life, Brenske said.

“There’s lots of things that are in the downtown area, but I want to get more people out in nature where they’ll get a chance to see some of these events,” Brenske said. “People get a little tired of the city and want to get out and enjoy nature. That’s one of the reasons county parks are here, so we can provide that environment.”

Columbus resident JC Reilly has been taking his nieces and nephews to the park since before the lodge was built at its front entrance.

While he is not a cross country skier, Reilly thinks it’s good the park is introducing new activities.

“We’ve been there for the sledding hill when the snow really comes down,” he said. “I think it’s great they’re trying to bring skiing to the park.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 2, 2015)

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