Maury Z. Levy

Ski Trek: New York Magazine’s Guide to Cross-Country Skiing

In New York magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:30 pm

newyork_mag-webBy Maury Z. Levy

There is nobody out here. You can hear the noise of rabbits running and you can smell the silent snow falling, but there is nobody out here.

There is snow in our faces, there are tiny little needles that whip with the wind and stick to our eyebrows and our eyelashes and tingle the powder on our cheeks. And the flakes lie light on our backpacks and stick to the skinny skis that shish along breaking the crust of the day-old snow.

There is a light and airy kind of wet freshness to that snow. It’s not the damp freshness of a spring rain; it’s crisper than that. It’s like liquid crystal. All around us there’s this clean, sharp smell that picks up the pines and the beeches and the grass that’s hiding under the blanket.

And silence. Occasionally, the scrambling sound of the squirrels and rabbits rushing to get out of the way.

We’re the ones who are making the animal noises—out of work and ex­hilaration and feeling free, with no falling trees to hear us.

Go out on cross-country skis and that’s how you’ll feel. It’s the joy of crossing uncharted country and putting your own imprint on land that’s been made pure again by a fresh snowfall. It’s why explorers violate the wilderness. It’s making a virgin, yours.    

Cross-country skiing—the kind where you break new ground instead of your ankle—is a very tactile thing. You really feel. Your muscles feel and your skis feel and your senses become more acute because they’re all being assaulted. It’s exhilarating and exciting, but it’s not very dangerous. It’s great exercise—the kind that strengthens almost every muscle you’ve got. You can do it in any field, any forest, on any country road.

You’ll hear this ultra-glide in white called a lot of different things: Nordic skiing, ski touring, ski jogging, ski running. Some purists might make a big deal about small differences in technique, but they’re all basically the same thing. And the sport has as many options as it has names. You can do it in the middle of nowhere or, at a growing number of resorts and lodges, you can do it on a preplanned track, a ski-grooved, pregrooved path that’s already been cut for you (see page 78) .

And you don’t have to be very coordinated or very young or have any ski experience. All you have to do is be ready and willing to get into shape. After all, this is how Norwegians of all ages have been getting from one place to another for 4,000 years, well before God created radial tires.

You want to learn how to do it fast? Take your left pole, stick it into the snow, and simultaneously slide your right foot ahead. Now dig the right pole in, shift your weight to the left foot, and push yourself ahead until you get into a sliding walk. Want to go uphill? Just point the tips of your skis out with the inner edges dug in. Or you can side­step up the slope. To stop, point your skis in as though you were pigeon-toed, again digging the inner edges into the snow. Obviously, this won’t ready you for the Olympics. You’ll learn a little more by taking a beginner’s lesson; it will teach you the balance posi­tion, the basic stride, and the varied turns and maneuvers. Primers like the Ski Touring Guide, $3 from the Ski Touring Council, 5101 39th Avenue, Long Island City, New York 11104, also give pointers on the basic gait, how to turn, and how to go downhill.

Soon everybody’s going to be doing cross-country. For fun. None of the boredom and pretense of downhill, no maddening lift lines, no snow bunnies or hot toddies or fancy pants or guys who broke their legs in Switzerland.

What’s important in this sport is to be warm and dry and comfortable. Wear a pair of silk socks and a pair of wool knee-length stockings, and knickers. (Your prefaded jeans might get you prefrozen if you’re going to be out for a while. And it’s important not to have wet cloth flapping about your ankles.) Make sure you’ve got a pair of long johns on underneath. Women will be a lot more comfortable not wearing a bra. A cotton turtleneck, a wool shirt or sweater, and a light parka will do fine up top. Wear mittens, not gloves. And don’t forget a hat. Almost 90 percent of your body heat can be lost from your head unless you put a cap on it.

Your clothes must be comfortable, flexible, and not too heavy, because you’ll be working up a good sweat. Take the top layer off when you’re perspiring. You won’t feel the real cold until you stop. That’s when you’ll want to pull a down vest from your pack.

Cross-country skis are much skinnier, lighter, and more flexible than downhill skis. Up until three or four years ago, all of them were made out of wood. But people started getting tired of broken tips, so the ski companies went to Fiberglas skis. This year, it’s estimated, three out of every four pairs bought will be Fiberglas.

You can get a pretty decent pair of skis for about $70. Top-of-the-lines run up to $125. Some big sellers are Trak, Fischer, Skilom, and Bonna. Of them all, Trak probably has the widest selection of skinny skis.

As to cross-country boots, you can get them fleece-lined, leather-lined, or unlined. They should be comfortable, warm, and durable, and will probably cost between $25 and $60.

Bindings, the ones that grip only the toe of the boot, run between $5 and $11. For $8, you can get a Trak binding that will hold hiking boots to the skis. Poles, from bamboo to Fiberglas to metal to graphite, cost between $7 and $120.

But you don’t need all the fancy stuff. You can put a very decent skis­boots-poles outfit together for around $120. (See page 82.) And really, if you’re just starting out, you’re probably better off renting at first.

Care and maintenance have been made a lot easier too. Most companies are into no-wax skis now—no need to rub in a different wax for every snow condition. Buying or renting, ask for skis that don’t need wax—get fur or “step” or “star” surfaces, good for climbing. Unless you’re into long-distance cross-country skiing, they’ll suit you fine. Experienced skiers think waxing’s worth the trouble because it lets the ski “grab” the snow when downward pressure is applied, and lets it slide over snow when the pressure’s off.

Cross-country, like tennis doubles, is a comfortable sport for people no longer eighteen. But that shouldn’t take the sense of adventure out of it. Over varied terrain, it’s pleasantly strenuous —and to add to the adventure, the skier can carry a backpack and camp out.

John Caldwell, former United States Olympic skier, has been cross-country skiing for over 30 years now. And while he prefers a warm bed to camping out, it’s sometimes necessary to sleep in the snow when skiing long distances in the western wilderness.

“In the East,” he says, “the snow is harder and there’s more trail skiing. Out West, they don’t have the underbrush we have here. You just can’t get up in our White Mountains and ski anywhere you want; the terrain is too rugged. You have to follow trails.”

And on those trails are tracks. There’s a difference. A trail is a path through the woods. A track is created for the cross-country skier: A sled goes along dragging a machine that digs two ruts in the snow like trolley tracks. The ruts guide your skis and make the whole thing faster, easier, and safer.

But don’t even consider camping out, John Caldwell warns, unless you’re a good skier. You also have to be strong enough to be hauling around a good 50 pounds of equipment on your back.

“Nobody does that unless he’s an experienced camper,” Caldwell says. “It’s not like you’re going on a Fourth of July picnic. It’s serious business.”

When you have enough experience, though, camping is great. It’s waking up with the sun making prisms of falling flakes; it’s a wonderland kind of thing, like being inside the paperweight when somebody shakes it up. But you start to get the feeling that it’s not easy to be an Eskimo. Forget the Saint Bernard. You need a husky. Maybe a whole team. Cross-country camping is more than just a challenge—it’s a contest for survival. It can be great and it can be terrible. It all depends on your preparation.

Just be aware that you’re really roughing it out there. And you can’t take your Winnebago with you. There are no such luxuries in cross-country camping.

If you’ve been backpacking before, you know all that. You also probably have much of the equipment you’ll need. But if you don’t, you can get a good, insulated, over-the-top fly tent for two for about $150 to $200. It’ll weigh some ten pounds folded. And you should definitely bring a small stove with you. A gasoline-fueled Phoebus 625 will add 46 ounces to your backpack. You can rent camping equipment for the weekend: Consult the Yellow Pages.

And food. You’ll want some high-energy things, like chocolate and nuts, of course. You’ll need at least 5,000 calories. But the most practical thing you can bring for camping out are packets of prepared freeze-dried, dehydrated foods. Many supermarkets are carrying a good supply now, and you can get everything from lasagna and beef stroganoff to mexicali corn.

After dinner, you’ll want a warm place to sleep. A down-filled bag with nylon outer and inner shells will do the job, preferably in an unzippered mummy shape. That should cost you about $100. A long and narrow nylon rucksack that fits tightly on your lower back will carry your equipment; you can get one for $40 to $60 at most camp outfitters.

You’ll also want to take along some nonpolarizing sunglasses, some extra clothing, and protective cover-ups (a couple of trash bags will do) . And you’ll need the obvious things, like waterproof matches, a candle, a knife, a first-aid kit, a map, and—just in case the rabbits eat your bread crumbs—a compass.

The possibility of getting lost is just something you’re going to have to deal with. Be sensible and stay on the trail; don’t strike off into the wilderness. Get a trail map and learn how to read it; find out how you can mark your trail so you can find your way back. After all, you can’t just whip out your CB radio and call for help, unless you have a tall friend you can wrap in tinfoil and use as an antenna.

So how do you get help? Just like a real Eskimo. You start a fire, send up smoke signals, and pray. Pray that the people you left your plans with will be able to spot you. (You will, of course, never go out cross-country skiing alone, and you will, of course, always tell someone what trail you’re taking and when you’re due back.)

Now, whether you’re going camping overnight or just out for a few hours of day-tripping, you’re going to have to be in shape. Some professionals go in for elaborate exercise programs. But unless you’re aiming for Lake Placid in 1980, you don’t need all that. Biking or running or walking will do.

“You don’t need special exercises,” John Caldwell says. “A fairly athletic person should be able to get right on cross-country skis and have a good time.”

Caldwell says that if you’re just starting out, you shouldn’t wander too far. Just look at the terrain. If you were walking vigorously on it, how far would you get? Well, that’s how far you should ski. The average skier will move along at between two and three miles an hour, but the going is much slower in deep snow and around windfalls.

Caldwell, who’s skied both cross-country and downhill, says that cross-country people are usually in better shape, that they eat more and drink more and exercise more. “That’s probably why they’re sexier,” he says. “All that exercise gives them better figures. How much exercise can you get waiting for a chair lift?”

Another cross-country convert is Tony Kubek, the NBC sportscaster and former Yankee shortstop. He’s the guy you’ve seen skiing back to Wisconsin in those Employers Insurance of Wausau commercials.

“I’m really better than the film shows,” Kubek says. “They made me go slow in the film. And I felt every minute of it. It was eighteen below that day.”

Kubek has been skiing cross-country almost exclusively for six years now. “I did downhill before,” he says, “but it was just too crowded and the lines were too long. And no matter Ultra-glide: It’s exhilarating, trekking through woods on a snowy afternoon. who I went with, we always managed to get separated on the hill. There was no sense of camaraderie, unless you went drinking in the lodge afterwards.

“In cross-country, I can go with my whole family. And we can all go together at our own pace. We can get away from all those crowds. That’s what impressed me more than anything else—the solitude.”

The Kubek family, With kids aged fourteen, thirteen, twelve, and seven, do a lot of camping-out by day. They take a one-burner stove with them, or sometimes they’ll just use an open fire to cook their hamburgers and steaks.

They take light backpacks with them and they go on the trails where it’s quiet, where they can go fast or slow, where they can talk while they ski, where they can stop and look at the wildlife, where they can be back in the woods again.

“With all the people I have to deal with every day,” Kubek says, “between television and the ball parks, I just needed something to get me away from all that. And I found the way.”

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