Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Ski the New England Back Country

Trails? Where we're going we don't need trails!

Good thing, too, because there sure aren't any.
Looking for an alternate route to the higher or farther slopes that have not been logged, I slithered through sapling hell along a contour that used to offer easy passage to beech glades and a drainage system full of short but interesting lines. I am in no shape to ski them, especially on such thin snow that sudden stops are likely, but I wanted to see what people had been up to over there. People are the major destructive force obliterating natural playgrounds.

You can't let your heart be broken by what happens on land other people control. Human destructiveness races against human enlightenment to see what sort of future our species will have. Timber harvesting is a temporary inconvenience that can shut down a fun zone for months, reopen it in a new form for a couple of years, and then really shut it down for more than a decade. Some of the thickets I was pushing through today are almost 20 years old. So much was cut that the new growth is all the same age and all vigorously competing for sunlight.

The oldest cuts offer a few looser passageways. I don't know how much has to do with sapling attrition and how much is because the soil and slope did not favor the kind of dense growth that makes bushwhacking laughable. I crossed the stream at a lower point than I did yesterday, nearly face-planting into a pool as I did so. It would not have been worth it without someone to take video of me doing it, so y'all didn't miss anything. I was just as happy to stay dry.

The new growth favors small animals. I saw lots of snowshoe bunny tracks, as well as small rodents -- field mice, squirrels. Deer have made their paths as well. These are not always passable by humans or aimed where humans feel like going at the moment.
At this junction we see the tracks of deer, snowshoe bunny and some cat named Bob. Farther up I saw Bob's tracks and the bunny's accelerating on converging courses. No sign indicated that Bob had scored.

There was also this beech tree with a clump of grass growing out of it about 10 feet up.

With the leaves off, I could see the islands of old growth above the tops of the small stuff blocking me. Thus I could connect the gaps and thinner bits to wend my way to where surviving tall trees retained the open understory we used to enjoy across the entire mountain.

These islands are very small. But eventually I made it to uncut beech.
I have a lot of patience with trivia. This mountain used to reward me with so many lines that I would have trouble picking one when I went out for a quickie. Now it draws on my other interest, bushwhacking uphill and finding a way down that won't dislocate my knee when I snag the undergrowth.

Approaching the drainage I remembered from years back, I crossed a skidder road aiming pretty straight up the hill. I scanned anxiously for signs that there had been more than just logging. The snow was undisturbed. Good. No ATVs or snow machines. No truck tracks. No new structures.

We called the drainage The Bowl, but it wasn't really a bowl. It is a system of converging ravines. You can cut shallow lines down the sides of them or aim deeper and steeper. Today I did not even go to the edge. I still had to make my way back through the defenses to get back to my own woods.

The skidder road invited a few turns. I traversed out into the open woods to keep the speed down. I can't afford to get injured, even if I did call for help. Still, I can't resist a little twisting where there's room.

Yesterday I had established a route down. Today I wanted to get back over to it, so I had stayed close to that contour as I explored. Reversing course, I got back to the escape route and worked my way down along a similar route as yesterday's. I skipped the slash patch where I'd gone down abruptly. It was only funny once.

Now on with the day's routine chores before the work week resumes.

Monday, January 25, 2016

'Shwackin' out back

While the Middle Atlantic region tunnels its way out after the weekend's blizzard, up here in New Hampshire we're subsisting on a thin benediction preserved by cold -- but hardly frigid -- temperatures.

The sun rises higher every day, making beautiful, clear days an increasing threat to our livelihoods. Today I felt my skis clump and drag in sunny areas even though the sun has to reach from the southern hemisphere to do it. Our little layer of sufficiency won't stand up to much of that.

New England teaches you to live in the moment and grab whatever chance you get. With a day off and no new snow in the forecast, today was my first and best chance to go ski around the mountainside out back.

Deer winter in my yard. My yard is their yard. I laid my tracks over theirs.

Beyond my property line, saplings have grown into an impenetrable mass where loggers cleared the old growth beginning at the end of the 1990s. All the clearings are choked now, even the later ones. The route I used to follow is blocked. This forces me to swing over onto a neighbor's land, which has been a lot less fun since they built a big house on a plateau, replacing a small cabin in a hollow. They never minded letting locals play on their land, but I felt better when I knew no one would see my tracks, let alone catch sight of me from the windows of their chateau.

The house is admirably concealed, but awkwardly placed. It guards part of a stand of hemlock and hardwood that offered numerous descent lines.

I nipped a little clandestine path along the banks of the stream that enters my property, so I could ascend in cover. I did not want to hack it out wide enough to use for descending on skis, because I would not welcome anyone doing such a thing on the land under my protection. Part of my unwritten pact has been that I would only ever use existing natural lines when trespassing. I do my best to leave no trace, because I don't like finding other people's traces on my land. I don't close it off, but I do feel protective. Nipping the narrow trail allows me to climb relatively invisibly to get above the regrowth and into the mature forest at higher elevations. It is so minimally enhanced that I had trouble finding it as I got into the upper end of it.

Ascending takes a lot longer than it used to. Before the logging began, a skier had only to find a good climbing angle and then work it among fairly well grown trees. Sections of sapling growth were small and mostly avoidable. I could traverse shallowly up and left to a drainage offering many runs of turns. From the top of that drainage it was a fairly short zigzag to the summit of the ridge. From that summit I could come down so many different ways that it was hard to choose one. Now it's such a hassle to get past the regrowth that I hardly ever go to the summit anymore. And that's if I bother to go up very far at all.

Today I needed the exercise and the conditions were excellent, at least until the sun put the brakes on things in a few spots.

The nice thing about dense sapling growth like this is that only a weirdo would be out there trying to bushwhack through it. My chances of having of to share the playground are slim to none.
I have never broken the habit of using long, narrow skis. They can do a lot of tricks if you have the patience for it.
Leather boots, too. I got one of the last resole jobs Carl Limmer did before he had to quit. Maybe if I was a real hard-driving thrasher I would have destroyed my equipment long ago and gotten thrown onto the endless conveyor belt of modernization. The gear I have gets me where I want to go. My pleasure is exploring, not shopping.

After about 45 minutes of route-finding in the pecker poles, including crossing a small stream without getting my skis wet,  I looked across an old-growth section of glade, thinking about descent lines.
Old growth is a relative term. Around here, if the trees are more than four feet apart it's a spacious glade.

Little things enticed me higher in that glade. I came within sight of the neighbors' chateau and skinnied along the edge of the passable area to look up and decide whether I felt like going farther.

I don't go for summits, although I have nothing against them. Looking up at the blue-black sky, altitude enhanced by my polarized sunglasses, I listened to the wind, and two ravens croaking to each other. That seemed like enough for an old fart on his first ski outing of the season. I still had to get myself down on thin snow over rough ground. That did prove amusing.

Snow conditions ranged from crusty and fast under the hemlocks to powdery and swift, to sun-warmed and grabby. The best way to control speed is not to get it in the first place. But you can't steer a turn if you aren't moving fast enough to bend your skis.

I had one hilarious digger in an area with slash and stumps under the snow. I'd come around fine in the turn, but shanked some branch stub and got thrown into a somersault. These things are funny as long as you get up and everything still works. I actually lay there for a minute or two, enjoying the sun and the repose.

I was solidly on the neighbors' land, which made me a little uncomfortable, but on the other side of the rock wall -- a different neighbor's land -- saplings choked the passage. As soon as I got to my own property corner I zigged through a gap in the wall.

Back on home turf I skied the perimeter, down one property line and up along the stream just inside the other line.
The waterfall is glassed over.
The obligatory up-tree shot on a sunny winter day.

The sun hops over to the south and west a lot more slowly than it did in late December, but still pretty quickly. Winter seems long. Life seems short.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A farewell to arms

Fast conditions on Sunday morning invited a last blast on skating skis before we surrendered the trails to the post-holing dog walkers who have already been trying to reclaim them.

As I charged along I thought about the way fast cross-country skiing demands the use of arm power more than recreational touring or exploratory trudging do. All of them, of course use more arm power than cycling. But skate skiing gets almost a third of its power from proper poling.

In a skate lesson, the student is taught to skate without poles. You need to have that fundamental skill on which to build the rest of your technique. But that technique is not complete. Poling adds rapid, repeated surges of power. In a fast sprint, the poling is quick, each thrust following the previous one instantly. In faster gliding conditions, the pole timing may slow to every other stride, with longer glides in between, but a skater only stops poling when the descent is steep enough to eliminate any boost from pushing with the poles.

After that last rip around on fast granular it's probably time to put the storage wax on the old skating skis. I still have a few chores to do in the woods on wide skis, but for the most part it's time to tone down the arms and build up the legs.

A bicyclist who is accustomed to going kind of fast and taking the corners in a bit of a sporty way will tend to gravitate toward the sportier techniques of cross-country skiing. The faster you try to ski, in skate or classical, the more you use the poles. So a winter-training cyclist would actually do better to plod methodically on touring skis, than to thrust along aggressively on racing skis, striving for a semblance of cycling's flight through space. But winter training has to serve the mental as well as physical needs.

For a rider living in areas with unreliable snow, or getting by on a limited budget, basic touring skis open up more country than performance skis that need groomed trails. For that matter, any skier on a budget will get more use out of skis that can be used on almost any snow. Groomed-trail skiing is an addiction. It's a fairly benign addiction, but a dependency nonetheless.

In a broader sense, all sport is an addiction, a dependency of industrialized societies. To me, the ideal is to find utilitarian applications of sporting activities, and to find the most economical forms of the ones that stray further from the utilitarian. Ask yourself how the activity might fit into a subsistence lifestyle. Inspect it for harmful side effects, not only to the user, but to others.

I know, that's a heavy bag of bullshit to tote along on your recreational and fitness outings. But you know what? It's not. You need to imagine yourself as part of a much wider world to keep from falling into narrower and narrower views.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In winter's claws

Some people hate to let go of winter.

Sometimes winter hates to let go.

This year, the cold keeps coming, and with it the wind. Here we are, two days into spring -- by the calendar -- with a high temperature of 18 degrees and a frigid wind blasting from the west at 10-20 miles per hour with gusts to 40. It swoops on the landscape like a great bird of prey, ready to snatch up any warm body that dares to scamper across its path. It pounces on the timid. The only way to deal with it is to meet it with your own ferocity. For an hour or so, anyway. Then get the hell inside and have something warm to drink.

As a bike commuter, I am more than ready to put away my car and get back to pedaling. But as a skier and a practical person, I'll keep using the ski conditions we have. Who knows when they'll be back? Winters seem to be all or nothing anymore. So maybe the next one will be another epic or maybe a muddy slog. Gather ye ski days while ye may.

I would have no worries at all if I wasn't running out of firewood. Fortunately, as daylight gets longer the sun helps take the edge off during the day. Just don't sit still for long. The house that felt warm when you walked in from the frigid gale feels less like a nest when your metabolism slows down.

Can't complain about the skiing. The ridiculously bitter cold has kept our snow from sizzling away completely in the strengthening sunshine. Because business has slowed way down at the shop, as it does at the end of every winter, our groomer can put in plenty of time to till up and smooth out the trails. We have basically full coverage. The skating is particularly fast. Like, "holy crap, that's fast!"

The rare thaw days are slow. They probably seem even slower in contrast to the days on either side of them.

Rain in the forecast for mid-week may spell the end of all skiing. It has to come eventually. The snow won't hold up to several days of wetness and warmth.

I'm really glad I got to feel this good before we have to put away the skis for a few months. It had been too long.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Rogue snowmobilers vandalize cross-country ski trails

Last weekend,  a small group of snowmobilers was observed ripping up the grooming on part of the Wolfeboro Cross Country Ski Association trail network.

Approximately five individuals traversed part of the network around the Abenaki Ski Area. They proceeded up to an open area, where an artificial pond caught their attention. They careened up and down its banks and across the ice where it was frozen. They also skimmed the open water near what resembles a dock.

They probably did not know the pond contains treated sewage effluent.

The rest of us are laughing our asses off.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dependent Users on Snow

Fumbling to find that perfect classical stride I pondered how perfect classical skiing and all skate skiing depend completely on a prepared trail.

Thousands of years ago, when skiing was transportation, regularly used trails would develop a firm surface from the passage of many skiers. Natural changes to snow can also provide firmer footing at times. But a skier had to be ready to break trail if they took a route less traveled or they happened to go out first after a snowfall. Skis provided a way to travel independently.

As skiing spread around the world in the 20th Century and became more of a game than a necessity, increasing numbers of recreational users had decreasing patience for a surface that wasn't ready for them. In powder country, downhill skiers love the freshies, but cross-country skiers and skiers who have to make do with something less than champagne powder seek out improved surfaces. These are usually provided by expensive equipment driven by  -- hopefully -- skilled operators.

In many places, the snow itself is manufactured using expensive equipment under challenging conditions. While this happens mostly on downhill ski areas, unreliable winters have forced cross-country areas to take it up as well. The cross-country loops with man-made snow are usually short because of the cost in money and effort. Cross-country skiers will pay for a groomed trail, but they won't pay a lot.

Groomed-trail techniques on groomed-trail skis are fantastic fun. And in a pinch you might be able to trudge around on a skinny classical ski to tromp out a track in ungroomed snow. But to get a surface that will support the laboratory-perfect beauty stride you need more than just a couple of wobbly parallel ruts with pole-marks next to them.

Skis and snowshoes, once tools of the intrepid wanderer, are now toys of the vacationer who goes where many have gone before, and who gets nervous when skis or snowshoes sink from sight in soft snow.

New to the list of dependent users are the riders of fat bikes.  Originally conceived as an "expedition bike" that could go over terrain that would stop even a conventional mountain bike, they've seen a surge of popularity as toys for people who don't want to ski in the winter. They also provide an alternative for winters with little snow or such weirdly variable conditions that cross-country skiing becomes impossible, or at least so unreliable that it hardly counts. But a fat bike is an expensive item, even at $800, to keep around "just in case." So the fat bike user is more commonly not a skier. They look for any consolidated surface that will support their wheels, because even a four-inch-wide bike tire can't break trail in deep snow.

The real go-anywhere ski is the archaic, disrespected and discarded traditional-length touring ski about 55 to 60 millimeters wide, even up to 65 or 68. Your hip, modern skiers use short, wide skis  -- 100 to 120 mm -- that require wide bindings and wide boots, but those are so adapted to ungroomed snow that they can't take much advantage of firmer tracks and faster striding when those are available.

Perfect tools for specific conditions make you dependent on those conditions. Buy all that equipment if you like. Just understand the tradeoff.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Five Stages of Vacation Week

Massachusetts Vacation Week approaches. When snow conditions are good, this brings a herd of city and suburb dwellers to cram a winter's worth of recreation into a single week. In recent years most of them don't even seem to get the full week anymore. They hammer the weekends, particularly the three-day President's Day weekend at the start.

The fatigue that comes on during any sustained period of serving the public occurs in distinct stages. While these can occur at any time during a tourist season, they're inescapable during the high-pressure concentration of Vacation Week, with its accompanying overtime.

The Stages:

Stage 1: tired but hyper efficient. This generally lasts a day or less. Soon degenerates into going through the motions, doing the absolute minimum necessary to get the latest goon out of your face.

Stage 2: increasing impatience with idiots and their bullshit.

Stage 3: Temporal detachment: You don't know what day it is and it doesn't matter anyway. You've been at work forever and will be there for all eternity.

Stage 4: Short term memory loss.Whole sections of your day, particularly driving, will disappear from your mind as you do them. Combines nicely with Stage 3 to create a drifty feeling drugs only wish they could match. In Stage 4 you could kill an idiot and go back to eating your lunch as if nothing had happened. You would be able to deny it while hooked to a polygraph without showing the slightest distress. Not only wouldn't you remember doing it, you wouldn't be sorry when you found out you had.

Stage 5: Staring. In Stage 5 you'll find yourself enjoying the diamond-like fire of morning sunlight hitting the scratches in the glass counter top. You'll stare into it until the sun moves far enough to cast a shadow over it or the next dripping vulgarian lurches into the counter and drops a puddle of mucus on it while firing questions at you. After dispensing with the idiot in ways you will never remember, you will shift your gaze to the far windows of the lodge. This helps you in two ways: you get snow blindness and avoid eye contact with customers.

Caffeine or a good night's sleep will fool you into thinking you're back up to full strength. You'll start to act like you're in stage one until you lurch off the rails because you're going way too fast for your condition.