Monday, January 23, 2017

Mediocre winter good for spring

In the winter of our dreams, the cold weather comes and stays, not brutally cold, but cold enough to keep our plentiful storms of powder snow firm on the groomed tails and fluffy in the back country. New England terrain and weather have trained us to want a little heavier, denser snow right at first, but if we have to settle for nothing but powder, we'll manage to live with it.

This has not been the winter of our dreams. After a little 6-inch tuneup and a solid 14-plus inches in a storm of moderately powdery snow, we've had repeated thaws, some rain, and only wet snow when we got snow at all.

Density is the key. The warm cold, just below freezing, and the high moisture content of the snow, have put down a dense layer that has consolidated a lot under the cycles of freezing and thawing. When powder melts, it vanishes like cotton candy. You need a ton of it to give you any spring skiing at all. But this stuff we're getting this winter handles thawing beautifully.

I've only been out on the groomed trails about three times, but I've done a lot of skiing around my own woods, just checking out the scenery and wildlife, or gathering dead pine limbs for kindling. When the temperature has been just above freezing, the top layer of the dense base has softened up perfectly for maneuverability.

The National Weather Service tells us that the storm that is moving in this afternoon will bring mostly snow and sleet in a temperature range from the mid 20s to the low 30s. An accumulation of 4-7 inches total, largely made up of high-moisture snow and sleet, will fill in the ungroomed areas with a very durable surface to enjoy when winter fades. Things being as they are these days, winter could start to fade in a couple of weeks, or hang on to the verge of April. Unless we get a disastrous thaw and deluges of rain, the ground cover should provide hours of fun in the longer daylight and milder temperatures of late winter and early spring.

A blockbuster storm would only push the closing date farther. Even without that, with a couple or a few additions of several inches here and there, a lot of terrain at low to moderate angles will be a fun house. In suitably open woods, it might be a great year to take the skating skis off the reservation and go wild.

New England teaches us to let go of our hopes and expectations. I'm just pointing out technical observations, not making a rock-solid prediction. If this then that. If we keep this high-density frozen product, which is actually not great for skiing among trees when it is frozen hard, our reward will be some quick and challenging skiing in the warmth of lengthening days.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On and Off Winter

Here in central New Hampshire, the winter seemed to get a good start with a 14-inch snowfall on December 29. But the temperature has lurched between the warmth of early spring and appropriately bitter January cold, as if April and January had been broken into chunks, shaken up in a box and dumped out to make this jumble of a winter.

Recognizing the power of exercise to help maintain health as well as fitness, I have explored the possibilities for a person with a low income to pursue a healthy lifestyle by using muscle power for practical purposes. It started with bike commuting, which led to non-motorized outdoor recreation. That was a bit of a cheat, because I could work in the field and take advantage of opportunities the average retail drone would have more trouble pursuing.

Start with this idea: Wherever you live, find the natural environments in which you can explore. I happened to end up here in New England, in the bike and ski business. But when I lived in Maryland, I biked more, hiked where I could, used the bike and my feet for transportation, and went boating with a borrowed kayak in the disregarded margins of the nearby tributaries of Chesapeake Bay.

An ex-wife once said of me that she thought I didn't want money. I answered that I would not mind money, but I care where it comes from. Most of the quick money, the big money, is in destructive activities. The wealth is seductive. It has blinded many people to the underlying demolition of the very supports of life itself. Future generations are going to have to sort that one out, starting with figuring out what to breathe and what to drink.

For myself, I continue to be reminded of how restorative exercise is. Even tedious sweating indoors with weights or machines can administer a tonic, while a nice fast blast on cross country skis is the ultimate one-stop-shop for an afterglow of gratifying well-being.

At slower tempos, cross-country skiing offers perhaps a slightly lower level of metabolic turbo charging, but in return becomes a meditative glide through a winter landscape. It still activates every system in the body. It's good to go slow sometimes, as well as fast. Indeed, if you want to go really fast, you have to go slowly some of the time, and make sure you rest, so the body can build from the destructive phase of training. And if you just want to enjoy a broad spectrum of the ski experience, and benefit from a lower intensity version of the training wave, mix it up as much as you can between sporty outings on prepared surfaces and mellower sessions to enjoy the scenery.

Coming off of a respiratory virus that dogged me coming out of the Christmas Week tourist onslaught, I did a few chore skis in my woods, gathering kindling, and made one slushy plod on the groomed trails on a warm Wednesday. On Friday night of that week, I spent the night in wall-pounding agony, passing a kidney stone that came from who knows where. I was back at work on Saturday and Sunday, because wage slaves gotta keep that paycheck coming. That was going into the Martin Luther King Day holiday, so I went in on Monday morning, too, in case the rental shop was busy. As it worked out, I was able to punch out after a couple of hours. I took advantage of the surviving machine groomed granular snow on the hillier half of our trail network. It was great for skate skiing. The aftermath, as always, was a deep feeling of warmth and energy.

Wherever you live, keep moving if you are moving, and start moving if you aren't. We have to prove that there's a demand for infrastructure to encourage people to move themselves. It's not a chore or a penalty. It's a gift. It makes you sleep better and be more awake when you're awake. It reminds your body that there's a reason to be ready. You don't even have to know what to be ready for. You just know you're ready.

We've rapidly evolved a social system and civilization that shoves us into motorized cans and sedentary environments. That feeds itself, making us feel more tired, more pressed for time. It was easy to decide not to join it in the late 1970s, when I was becoming legally an adult. It's harder and harder to escape from when you've accepted it as normal from early in life. But escape is vital not only to your own survival, but the survival of our species.

Cross country skiing may live or die in many parts of the world, as climate change destroys the conditions that support it. The activity itself is great, but the mindset that you bring to any self-propelled activity is what really matters. Refuse to be stopped. By sheer numbers, we become something the bean counters can't ignore. When destruction no longer has customers, the market will shift. But it takes informed consumers to demand it.

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.