Bruce's Trail was made with a year like this in mind

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— Sunday afternoon on Rabbit Ears Pass produced one of those moments when you thank goodness you have the fortune to live in the Yampa Valley.

Then, in the very next moment you pause to say a little prayer for those poor souls who for some cruel reason were destined to live out their lives in godforsaken places like Gary, Ind., or Flint, Mich.

On Sunday afternoon, the sky over the Park Range was cloudless and that surreal tint of blue that one encounters only in Colorado.

The trees were frosted white and there was 18 inches of snow covering the ground on the third day of November.

It was a perfect day to visit Bruce's Trail, the very kind of day that Bruce's Trail was built for.

Oh sure, there were at least 50 cars at the West Summit, and I'm certain those folks had a grand time skiing and snowshoeing while avoiding the logs and boulders that lurked under the snow.

But the main attraction was just a few miles down the highway where another 25 cars had squeezed in between the snowdrifts that guarded the parking lot at Bruce's Trail.

There were a handful of kids tubing down the little access trail and a couple of families had a serious picnic going with foam pads to sit on and Thermoses full of hot drinks.

Most people came for the several kilometers of groomed trails that roll through the giant fir trees, offering some of the best cross country skiing to be found anywhere in this hemisphere during the narrow window of time from late October to mid-November.

Many of the people swooping through the trees on Sunday probably didn't have a good grasp on how Bruce's Trail got its name.

The trail is a memorial to an outdoorsman named Bruce Ablin who died in 1992, after his bicycle was struck by a truck near the intersection of Mount Werner Road and Steamboat Boulevard.

Ablin was a big lanky blonde guy who was as good with his carpentry tools as he was with a pair of Nordic skis.

One of Ablin's friends, Greg Burkholder, has a favorite memory of a day spent with Bruce that unfolded just a few weeks before his death.

As Burkholder recalls it, then U.S. Nordic combined coach Tom Steitz was hosting a pair of Norwegian Olympians, and asked one of Bruce's best friends, Dave Mark, to take Fred Lundberg and Bard Elden out skiing.

Mark is as stout a backcountry skier as you'll ever meet, and had a destination in mind. Ablin had been up late the night before, but couldn't resist the invitation to go along.

The men left Steamboat and headed south on Colorado 131 to Yampa, then headed up the road to Yamcolo Reservoir, parking where the Forest Service gate still blocked the road in May.

"We ran until we came to snow, then we skied into the Devil's Causeway and skied the crust in some of those high bowls and flat places up on top," Burkholder said of that memorable day.

Lundberg would win an Olympic gold medal two years hence in Lillehammer, and Elden was destined to succeed Steitz as the U.S. coach in the summer of 2002.

Burkholder recalled Steitz was always intent on creating opportunities for athletes to ski the autumn snow that sometimes falls on Rabbit Ears, but had grown mildly frustrated in his efforts.

After Ablin's untimely death, Mark saw an opportunity to memorialize his friend, and it was his vision that led to the construction of Bruce's Trail.

Working with Ed Patalik of the U.S. Forest Service, he conceived a carefully situated trail, wide enough to skate ski on, and free of obstructions so that it could be skied on with minimal snow.

A considerable number of people volunteered on building the trail, but Bear Ackerman's surveying was essential.

Over the years, guys like Ben Barbier, Greg Rawlings and Travis Jones have groomed the trail in autumn, when it represented the only skiing of its kind within a couple hundred miles.

Currently, Pat Arnone and Hugh Newton are handling the grooming chores.

There are years when "Bruce's time" never arrives. Sometimes it's because we don't get any October snow.

Other years it's because the snow comes so suddenly in the valley, that Bruce's trail becomes an afterthought.

This year isn't one of those years. This is prime time on Bruce's Trail.

You don't have to be a hotshot skier to enjoy the trail. Grab an old pair of fish scale skis, swing by the forest Service for a map on your way out of town, and get it while it's good.

There has never been a better memorial to a skier than Bruce's Trail.

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