Small Town Seeley Lake Working to Create a Big Nordic Ski Vision

Publisher’s Note: This article was orignally published on


Seeley Lake Rocks Warming Yurt

Inside the Seeley Lake ROCKS new warming yurt in Seeley Lake, Mont.

Inspired by the birth of the Maine Winter Sports Center, a group of Seeley Lake (population 1,659) residents formed the Seeley Lake Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS).

That was in 2010.

In the spring of 2015, ROCKS will file an application for a Special Use Permit with the United States Forest Service (USFS) to build a new Seeley Lake nordic-ski venue, which is “intentionally being designed to international race-ready specs, fully homologated, with both the skier and spectator in mind,” according to ROCKS President Chris Lorentz.


Swan Range forms the backdrop for the Seeley Lake ski trails. (Photo: Seeley Lake Nordic)

Lorentz said the Forest Service will review the permit application, perform an environmental analysis (including a mandatory 90 day public input period) and provide a decision by October 1, 2016.

“We believe the (process) will result in a positive decision notice,”  Lorenz said.

ROCKS hired John Morton, owner of Morton Trails, to provide both a feasibility study (2011) and course design (2012) for the new Seeley Lake venue. According to a report issued by Morton Trails to the USFS, Morton states that efforts have “resulted in a workable concept for what offers to be a nationally, and even internationally, recognized cross country skiing venue … suitable for hosting Continental Cup races such as US Junior Olympics, US Nationals, North American races [i.e. Super Tour], as well as regional races where participants can be awarded FIS points for international ranking.”

Morton’s design would meet specifications for D-category homologation, making Seeley Lake one of six venues certified to this level in the United States. A D-certification allows a venue to host all events, including mass-start freestyle races. The only event requiring a designation beyond a D category is the skiathlon, which requires two separate courses (used concurrently).  Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, is the only course in the US which currently has this designation.

To provide Seeley Lake with an advantage in bidding for major events and training camps, and to keep the door open for a possible World Cup event bid, Morton designed the course to “comply to a World Cup standard – which will make this venue truly representative of courses hosting the most elite competitions.”  The most recent FIS Homologation Manual would have allowed for certification with a 25-meter climb; however, Morton chose to exceed this standard and comply with the World Cup’s 30-meter requirement.


In January, Seeley Lake hosted its 8th annual biathlon, with 115 racers participating in three events. (Photo: Seeley Lake Nordic)

Morton’s design includes a 15-point biathlon range and identifies a location for a 30-point range (meeting the IBU World Cup requirements) that could be installed with some additional construction. The course design for the five-kilometer loop is “spectator friendly” allowing  spectators to view competitors five to seven total times, or 10 to 14 times for a 10 k race.

While USFS permit approval, new venue construction, and hosting of events at the new venue are years in the future, Seeley Lake, is not waiting for course completion to continue taking steps forward.  Recent ROCKS activities have clearly energized the town which has a long standing nordic ski racing tradition.

The town’s existing nordic ski trails at Seeley Creek have seen an upsurge in use following the installation of a new yurt (installed by Seeley Lake ROCKS) at the trailhead.

“The yurt is way more popular than we expected,” Lynn Carey of the Seeley Lake Nordic Ski Club said. “Our metal ranger now takes in more money than any other ranger in the state.”


Seeley Lake, Montana, has a long history of ski racing. This is a photo of the start 1983 OSCR race. (Courtesy Seeley Lake Pathfinder)

ROCKS founder Karen Pratt notes, “The idea is that you need a culture shift to bring in an elite race [to Seeley Lake] and get enough interest in town to support it.  An international race is a lot of work!”

The ROCKS plan seems to be working.

“There has already been a big culture shift in Seeley,” Pratt said. The Seeley school system started a ski program where any student above the 3rd grade can access free skis, transportation and ski instruction. Twenty students have caught the ski bug and joined the school’s newly formed nordic ski racing team.

According to Pratt, many local parents are learning to ski as a result of the new youth programs.  She is convinced that the increased activity is improving community health.  “It’s not a good thing when the people in Seeley don’t get out of the house in the winter,” she said.


Seeley Lake’s existing ski trails at Seeley Creek. (Photo: Mark Vosburgh)

Grooming the 23-kilometer Seeley Creek trail system is now conducted daily, and several trails that had been abandoned or rarely groomed have been re-opened.  The rolling trail system, designed by Olympian Jon Elliott, is seeing a resurgence in use and the trails are receiving rave reviews from regional skiers.  The eighth-annual Seeley Lake biathlon had 115 entrants this year, nearly double last year’s count, according to race director Cheri Thompson.

Once the new trails at Fawn Creek are open, ROCKS organizers hope that overnight visits and resulting economic benefits to Seeley Lake will increase with skiers spending two days in the  Seeley Lake area in order to ski both trail networks.

Pratt credits generous donations from the late Peter Hale and his estate for supporting the Seeley Lake ski program with skis, waxing supplies and equipment. Hale’s connection to Seeley and his passion for skiing is in part responsible for at least one concrete example of increased economic activity sought by ROCKS.


Elevation profiles for Seeley Lake’s signature nordic ski races, the Peter Hale Memorial and OSCR.

In 2012, Mike and Cathy Kahnle opened Seeley’s first bike-and-ski shop, Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear. Describing how he came to a decision to start the business, Mike said, “ROCKS was happening … Peter Hale contacted me prior to putting this business together and just filled my ear… It was pretty evident his love for skiing was overwhelming.

“Peter basically talked me into running Madshus skis in a shop that didn’t exist,” he continued. “You couldn’t have a conversation with him without feeling better about yourself and life in general.”

A passionate endurance athlete, Kahnle was also attracted to Seeley by its reputation for challenging endurance events like the Over Seeley’s Creeks and Ridges (OSCR, pronounced “Oscar”) 50 k ski race.

Describing the race, Kahnle said, “No matter what level athlete you are, you are going to have the opportunity to push yourself to find the limits of what you’ve got.” Referring to the nearly 800 meters of elevation gain in OSCR, he added, “If you want an easy race, go somewhere flat because we are not going to have it for you here.”

Carey, OSCR race director since 1991, agreed: “OSCR [founded in 1981] is a damn-tough race. It always has been, and we are proud of it … really it’s an adventure more than a race.”

ROCKS will hold the Second Annual Peter Hale Memorial 22 k Ski Race on February 21, 2015.  With an elevation gain of nearly 400 meters, the race is not easy.  In honor of Hale’s love of classic skiing, both classic and freestyle races are offered.  Inaugural race feedback (in spite of frigid temperatures) was positive with about half of the participants choosing the classic event.  Pratt anticipates that the race entry will need to be capped after this year’s event due to capacity limitation of the venue.

With momentum building in Seeley Lake, the ROCKS vision for a national and international caliber ski venue is moving forward.  “The focus is on the new course right now because it has to be,” Pratt said.

While not everyone in Seeley Lake is optimistic about the outcome of the ROCKS effort, Pratt stated, “If we did have a venue that brought in a week’s worth of high-end racers, it would mean us [in Seeley Lake] having a larger number of people who would have a larger vision about what is possible.”