Juck Macilster is accustomed to working alone and in the dark.
Four times a week, Macilster (not his real name, more on that later) fires up his Bombardier BR400 snowcat, pulls it out of an oversized garage at Virginia Meissner Sno Park and begins a typical eight hour grooming shift, just as he did on Saturday night.
He was gracious enough to let me ride along for a bit and interrupt his otherwise peaceful evening.
As we rumble away from the shed, I watch him lift and lower the enormous winged blade on the front of his mid-1980s-model snowcat as I shower him with newbie questions. Macilster explains to me in simple terms the complex controls that look more like a flight deck and less like a car or tractor.
"This is mellow," Macilster says of the current conditions. "Here, I'm doing maybe five things at once," he says, as he shoots a quick look out the back window to check his work. "On the hill, I'm probably doing 15 things at once," adds Macilster, referring to his time as a groomer on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor and Hoodoo. Macilster is one of the few paid employees of Meissner Nordic (formerly called Tumalo Langlauf Club), a local non-profit that operates primarily on community donations.
"When you're in the snowcat, you learn every night," he says. "There's a certain focus that comes from working alone at night," Macilster adds. Thanks to the solitude, the young groomer is able to take it all in as he labors away.
"When there's sh-tty snow like last night, you're only grooming the top couple inches. You're not processing enough snow to make it look good," Macilster told me by phone the following day.
And therein lies the problem for groomers: They're a highly skilled and passionate community of snow lovers and, paradoxically, the first to come under fire from those who benefit most from their labors - namely, skiers. The amount of heat groomers are often subject to is the reason for Macilster's alias.
"It's a very tight-knit community. No one really understands or respects what we do until they see it first hand," Macilster says.
"You got two different kinds of skiers: the ones that always love it and the ones that bitch no matter what," Macilster explains of his grooming efforts.
Bend's Ollie Burruss, one of the fastest nordic ski racers in the area, is one of the former. According to Burruss, who races for XC Oregon, the grooming on Sunday was just fine given the conditions, just as it is most days at the community trails located just minutes from town.
Macilster has less patience for the other kind of skier.
"They don't understand. If it's snowing six inches every two hours how's there supposed to be fresh corduroy? That's impossible," he says.
Back in the snowcat, Macilster completes a larger loop on Meissner's lower trails and circles back to the parking area to drop me off.
"You just make the best possible product with what you have to deal with," he says, before driving away into the night.
I left him alone with his thoughts, the falling snow and the hum of the snowcat's engine - just the way he likes it.
Great Nordeen looks to be a battle of attrition
The Great Nordeen is taking place at Mt. Bachelor on Saturday and if the forecast holds true, the 30 kilometer point-to-point race could have a few inches of fresh on course.
New snow will make the mostly downhill race slower and tougher said Ollie Burruss, a race favorite who's predicting a pack race and a close conclusion at the Wanoga SnoPark finish line.
"It's going to be a tough-guy race, the toughest dude out there will win if it's slow and sloppy," Burruss said.
Eric Martin, last year's champ (finishing in 1 hour, 6 seconds) and Bend's fittest dad, is a favorite as well and has shown that he's on good form again this year. Martin, 46, won the Crescent Lake Challenge less than two weeks ago after he edged out Burruss, 25, by two seconds.
For Burruss, an elite XC Oregon athlete, this Nordeen will be his first. The recent New England transplant expects his long-time training partner and XC Oregon teammate, Matt Briggs to also be in the mix for the win.
The women's race is less certain, as it will hinge on who shows up.
According to other area racers, Evelyn Dong, now back in Bend after a sabbatical in Utah, should be the woman to beat if she makes it to the starting line. Dong has been racing in Europe and is expected back this week. Stephanie Howe, last year's second place finisher and two-time PPP champ, is certainly a contender and plans to make the drive over from Corvallis. Multi-time PPP winner and XC Oregon racer, Sarah Max, is also considering toeing the line. Its is uncertain if Utah's Laura McCabe, who won in 2011, will again make the trek to Oregon for this year's race.
One thing that is certain, however, is this year's Great Nordeen, so named for Central Oregon hard-man Emil Nordeen, should fittingly honor the early Central Oregon ski pioneer.