Ten years ago, Sue Foster was a self-described “cellar rat.”
She had left a long career in the ski industry for a fresh start in the wine industry, moving from Maine to Walla Walla, Washington, to study winemaking and grape farming at Walla Walla Community College. She worked for minimum wage at a winery, and she recalls how she was “sticky and wet all the time from working inside tanks.”
“I had different chores I had to do every day, and I didn’t know a lot,” Foster says. “It’s a different feeling knowing a lot about something and feeling like you’re doing an effective job, and all the satisfactions that come with that.”
After three years in and out of cellars, Foster was perusing the Mt. Bachelor website when she came across a job opening for nordic center manager. Six weeks later, she was at the mountain and on the job.
“I love to ski, and I love the industry,” Foster says. “It’s addictive. I tried to get away from it, but it kept calling me back.”
In nearly eight years at Bachelor, Foster, 59, has worked relentlessly to create a unified and informed nordic ski community and culture in Central Oregon, and she has helped to expand the sport locally. Her daily report on nordic trail conditions has become a trusted must-read for local skiers before they drive up to the mountain. She works daily to meet the expectations of both local and out-of-town skiers, as well as those of elite athletes on clubs or teams.
“She’s got this great ability to see the needs of club and high school coaches and athletes but also keep an eye on the general customer,” says J.D. Downing, coach of XC Oregon, a Bend-based development program for nordic skiers. “She has this great ability to blend all those different worlds. It’s a really tricky task. In the same morning you’ll have people wanting completely opposite things. One person will want you to groom in the morning, and the other person will want you to groom in the afternoon.”
Foster is now a recognizable face among local skiers, who can often find her in the nordic center or out on the trails skiing. When she moved to Bend, the only person she knew was Downing. But Foster immediately discovered the passion that Central Oregon nordic skiers have for their sport.
“The first day at work 800 people knew me,” Foster says. “All the season (pass) holders were like, ‘Who’s the new manager?’ They love the place, and they want to make sure the person is doing the right things — because they’ll let you know.”
Foster says the biggest challenge was coming into an atmosphere of what she remembers as “simmering disappointment” among locals with the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center, including issues with the grooming of the trails and usage of them.
“My goal was to create a unified community to nurture the culture,” Foster says. “It took a long time to get the trust of the community and to get the message out there, that, ‘Hey, I’m on your side, and I want this to be the best it can be.’ I touched on a lot of snow-science concepts, helping people understand how the machinery actually works.”
This year, Foster helped to develop an arrangement that for the first time will allow youth skiers with the Bend Endurance Academy to use the trails at the nordic center. For years, BEA skiers had to use Meissner Sno-park, but often, as has been the case for much of this winter, the lack of snow there made skiing impossible. The Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation had an exclusive relationship with Mt. Bachelor to operate its nordic programs at the resort, and that created resentment between the local ski clubs, Foster notes.
The new arrangement ends an issue that “has divided the community for several years,” she says.
Foster — who sports the slim, fit body type of a lifelong nordic skier — starts her days at the nordic center before 7 a.m., checking with the night groomer to gather information about the status of the trails and the snow surface. She also takes the snow temperature. Armed with that information, she provides the daily report, posting on the nordic center’s Facebook page and on Mt. Bachelor’s website.
She says her goal with the report is transparency and honesty.
“You can make it sound fun, but it’s real,” Foster says with a laugh. “Yeah, it’s raining. Bring your raincoat. Bring your towel.”
Many nordic skiers, Downing notes, base their decisions on whether to ski that day on those reports.
“She’s hilarious,” Downing says of Foster’s daily reports. “Sometimes you have to really put the lipstick on the pig. Humor always helps. At the end of the day, somebody is making the decision to ski based on those reports. So those reports really matter. The knowledgeable skier is tied to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) forecast and the mountain report. It helps when she’s calling her straight shot, but she also puts a smile on it.”
After posting the report, Foster usually meets with a trail steward to discuss the day’s conditions, tasks and projects. Then, after preparing the lodge for daily business and reviewing the daily trail offerings, she will head out to ski the trails for no more than an hour.
“Aside from being the best part of my day, this allows me to make observations and communicate more effectively with my ops (operations) crew,” she says. “It is also a great way to mingle with customers.”
Despite the dearth of snow this season, Bachelor — which reported a modest 35-inch snowpack Wednesday — is enjoying a successful nordic season, according to Foster. That is partly due to the fact that it is one of the few places in Oregon with enough snow for grooming trails.
Groomers at the nordic center have been farming snow — using machinery to move snow to where the trails need it — to preserve the paltry snowpack.
“It’s challenging, but at the same time a pretty successful time for us,” Foster says.
Foster has been a skier for most of her life. She grew up in central Maine with two ski hills within 20 miles of her home. She competed in nordic and alpine ski racing in high school, then went on to ski for the cross-country team at the University of Maine.
She pursued a career in alpine ski instruction at Sugarloaf, Maine, and Beaver Creek, Colorado. At age 30, she got back into nordic racing when skate skiing became popular, and she competed throughout the country as a masters racer for 15 years. Foster was the manager of the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center when she decided to delve into the wine industry.
After finding a home at Bachelor, she likely will not be returning to the cellar.
“I love to cross-country ski,” Foster says. “It’s my favorite thing. And the fact that I get to do it every day …”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,