Snow bridge to help salvage Chester Bowl skiing in Duluth

Published 6:50 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

By Duluth News Tribune

 A snow bridge will make it possible for another season of downhill skiing at Chester Bowl this winter.

The historic June flood that decimated parts of Chester Park left a huge mark on the bowl area. Most notable was the breaching of the dams that held water from Chester Creek, once forming a pond that froze over in the winters and provided a run-out for skiers at the bottom of the ski hill. The frozen pond also provided access from the chalet to the ski hill.

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The pond disappeared in the flood, filling in with a field of river stones as the creek was diverted into a tiny channel passing just in front of the chalet.

Repairing the dams and creating a pond again was not an option because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has said water from the pond was heating up in warmer months and damaging the trout habitat in the creek.

The most obvious fix for skiing looked to be a bridge from the rock fill to the bank in front of the chalet. But the city of Duluth did not receive affordable bids for a structure and simply ran out of time.

The result will be a professionally created snow bridge across the creek.

“It’ll be like the ones on logging roads,” Chester Bowl Improvement Club President Curt Leitz said. “It’s less expensive and safer.”

That’s because there won’t be any hard structure surfaces to worry about, he said.

“We needed to do something,” Duluth Parks and Recreation Manager Kathy Bergen said.

City engineers will work with a rough plan from bridge examples in Alaska and use volunteers for some of the labor, Bergen said. The key is to position ice and snow so the creek still flows, she said.

Adding insult to the challenges in Chester, the chair lift was struck by lightning this summer, forcing the city to make several electrical repairs. The lift also was repainted using grant money, said the executive director of the club, Thom Storm. There also is new lighting.

Snowmaking will be improved with better water intakes. Testing on the snow guns began this week, and Storm, expecting colder weather by this weekend, said snowmaking will be going in full by next week. The ski run is expected to open Dec. 15.

Speed skating also will be a go this winter on the oval in the back of the bowl.

Because two trail bridges remain unfixed, there will be no full-trail cross-country skiing in Chester this year.

The bridges are at access points to the trails, so even partial use of the trails on top of the bowl would be a challenge, Storm said.

Bergen said the city is looking into creating an access point on Kenwood Avenue across from the College of St. Scholastica if it can be safe for parking.

“I suppose you could take the chair lift up the hill,” Storm said with a laugh.

Like many aspects of the damage at Chester, organizers figured it was best to get the trail bridges done right rather than slapping something together.

“It just got to be way too much,” Storm said. “We just thought, why try to push this.”

Storm said the loss of the ski trails is easier considering the many cross-country skiing venues available in and around Duluth.

The current configuration of the pond area remains in limbo as the city and DNR work out a solution. Most volunteers were resigned shortly after the flood to accept the loss of the pond as a permanent legacy.

The loss of the cherished downhill ski program would have been a blow, Storm said.

The improvement club rents 730 pairs of skis to children each winter, providing ski training to 400 families.

There’s a passion for Chester Bowl that has been well-documented over the years by volunteer efforts. That didn’t change after the flood created so much damage and heartbreak in the park.

“We’ve gotten an incredible effort,” Leitz said of the volunteers who came out to shore up parts of the bowl, including the ski hill.

Bergen also praised the volunteer work done in Chester, mostly visible on the creekside trails that were strewn with trees and slumping hillsides after the flood.

Leitz said volunteers will now experience a “crash course” in running a ski hill with a creek running through it but expects the snow bridge idea to work.

There was never any doubt that Chester Bowl would be open for downhill skiing, he said. But rumors started just after the flood that the program would be in jeopardy. Leitz said there was a big word-of-mouth effort to stop the rumor mill. Mass e-mails to volunteers and a table at the annual fall fest in Chester Park reassured people there would be skiing.

“The word is out,” he said.