In search of a winter outdoors activity this year? You don’t have to look far to find one. In the northern part of the county, not far from downtown Pentwater, you’ll find the Pentwater Pathways, or a bit further east lies the Crystal Valley Ski Trail, which is part of the Manistee National Forest.

The pathways are available year-round for outdoor enjoyment, but in the winter they most notably become host to cross-country skiing. The Oceana Cross Country Ski Association, a volunteer group led by Ellen Lightle, works throughout the year to keep the trails available to adventurers, and particularly so in the winter. The area is a designated hunting area in the state, and the association is permitted by the state to keep the trails usable.

“We’ve been doing a dozen sessions before firearm deer season starts, doing trail maintenance for the trails,” Lightle said earlier this month. “That’s a big undertaking...Trees want to hang over the trail, making it difficult to ski. With windstorms in the summer, trees come down over the course of the summer and fall. We have a really great core group of volunteers.”

One volunteer, Marijo Bakker, is, Lightle said, probably the busiest of them all. Lightle said Bakker is out on the Pentwater trails 30 hours per week helping keep trees in check and doing other maintenance to keep them passable. Local men Mike Sorensen and Dennis Gale are key in the winter, using their snowmobiles to make the pathways usable to skiers.

“We have other volunteers who live adjacent to the Pentwater Pathways,” Lightle said. “The ones who live adjacent to the pathways walk it every day, picking up brush and letting us know if a tree is down. We couldn’t do it without everyone pulling together.”

Visitors can bring their own ski equipment and partake of the trails whenever there’s enough snow, of course, but the association is especially proud of its occasional public events and advocacy on the part of the sport of cross-country skiing. Last year, those events were on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re back on this year, including one Feb. 12 that will be in conjunction with Pentwater Winterfest. Lightle said that event will be held from 12 to 3 p.m. (A similar event will take place Jan. 22, also from noon to 3 p.m., at the Crystal Valley trails.)

At those events, volunteers are on hand with complimentary ski equipment that is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. True novices can get some pointers from experienced skiers, too. The trails are around five and a half miles long, but the association recently built out a shorter one-mile loop that young children or newcomers can try out for a less strenuous introduction.

“We have quite a few children’s skis and poles that we got through a grant from the Oceana Community Foundation,” Lightle said. “Anymore, some of these kids are bigger than I am, and they need equipment too. We have a good supply of equipment that we’ve retrofitted with new bindings and purchased new shoes over the past few years.”

The association also works with the four school districts located in Oceana County — Hart, Pentwater, Shelby and Walkerville — to introduce third and fourth-grade students to the sport. Lightle said about 300 students per year participate in that program.

It’s all part of advocating for a sport Lightle believes is a good lifetime sport.

“You can do it at any age, pace yourself and do it with relatively low cost for equipment, and do it your whole life, if you have snow, which is getting to be my big gripe,” Lightle said with a laugh. “We’re all pretty avid enthusiasts about winter, and if you’re going to live in this area you might as well embrace it.”

The association is always seeking new members, Lightle said, and it’s cheap to join: $15 per year per person, or $35 per year for a family membership.

“We’re always looking for extra interest from younger folks, mentoring them to take on some of these responsibilities as we feel a bit of the pressure of advancing years,” Lightle said. “We welcome any interest.”

Of course, you don’t need to join the OCCSA to enjoy the sport. If you have the equipment available and find yourself without a pastime amid a snowy winter day in the next few months, maybe the Pentwater Pathways — or the Crystal Valley trails — are the place for you.