Wednesday, March 23, 2005


In March, the light looks like morning until evening. Then the twilight lingers forever, as if the sun did not want to go to bed.

This is the season for multi-sport days. If you have the time and the conditions, you could ski, bike and paddle, in whatever order suits your fancy.

If you just want to ski, touring centers will probably groom for the diehards into April. Some may even do it on the sly later than that. And spring brings settled conditions to the many delightful places that fall under the confusing catch-all heading “back-country.”

If the snow consolidates enough, and then thaws just the right amount at a time, you can use skate skis in a lot of unlikely places. I wouldn’t tend to use them on steep, wooded slopes, but my local river has some very nice sections of flood plain for wild skating. You can really fly around a rolling, open hardwood forest, as well. You don’t need no stinkin’ trail. All you need is firm snow.

On wider boards, with beefier boots, more rugged terrain beckons. With a heavier setup like that you can charge through some deeper glop, but at some point you can usually find corn snow perfection for a little while.

Wear sun screen.

Skiers of all levels are still coming to the touring centers. Warm days bring out the people who want to slide but hate the cold. So people are even taking their first lessons as the season is winding down. The sun invites them outdoors. If skiing captivates them, they may follow it toward the colder months.

Sunny, warm days make me think of driving a convertible with the top down. It’s still a little chilly for that, but the hardwood forest puts the top down in the winter and puts it up in the summer. There’s more light in some places from now until the snow melts than at any other time of year. The snow reflects the light upward, and carries it into ravines and hideaways that will be shaded grottoes in summer.

At this moment, the snow outside my house looks like it should be lapping at the windowsills. The way the land rises, two feet of snow pack reaches eye level well before the end of my yard and the beginning of the woods. It’s horribly sticky stuff. The more it thaws and freezes, though, the more it will turn to rounded ball bearings.

The last slush holds up better than the first flakes. Even when the ground looks mostly bare, go connect the dots, skiing from patch to patch on ribbons of snow hanging on in shaded lines. Why walk when you can ski? It may seem trivial, but you might actually stumble on a sizable little stash. And there’s always the rest of the day to do something else.

The snow is just water, after all. During the storm March 9, the howling winds outside the Jackson Ski Touring lodge blew one part of the golf course into foot-high waves that looked exactly like small surf rolling down onto a beach. The phenomenon didn’t last. By the end of the storm, the wind had flattened out the waves.

I like to ski where the snow interacts with streams and rivers in this season when the streams and rivers are claiming the water that winter has held back in a frozen savings account. I also like to paddle where the water meets the snow and ice. Watch the water make its journey. Snow and ice coat the trees when a storm is fresh. Then the sun comes out and the water starts to move again.

On the flood plain across the road, before some people whose hobby is killing birds moved in and made it too dangerous to explore over there whether you have feathers or not, it used to be fun to imagine the end of the ice age. On foggy, dank days, I could stand on the bog, barely making out the forms of stunted spruce and tamarack in the gloom, and pretend that a rotting cliff of ice hundreds of feet high was melting away a few miles to the north. I could step out of my own puny schedule and be on geological time.

Of course the illusion does not hold up, and aren’t we glad? But it’s important to have it, to make what we do have all the sweeter. A little of this, a little of that. A buffet. Breakfast all day, in the morning of the year.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Consolidated spring snow turns the local logged area into a terrain park.
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Monday, March 07, 2005

Skiing Sick

I wasn’t really fighting a cold, but I wasn’t cooperating with it, either. Symptoms were mild, just a little stuffy nose and a general lack of energy. Until anything more definite came along, I would just keep skiing.

Because of the lack of energy, I skied slowly. Because of the excellent conditions, I skied classical.

Continuing to study technique and timing as I had recently observed them, I waxed only slightly heavily, and focused on complete weight shift, loading up for the most effective kick with the least effort.

Each time I have gone out to ski the busy Ellis River Trail in Jackson on a weekend or vacation week day, I have caught and passed everyone in front of me and been passed by no one. The point is not how great I am, because I’m not. It’s just the accumulated benefit of the little things. Even sick, and getting sicker, my slow pace was faster than anyone else’s.

Kick timing makes a huge difference. Fully shifting weight through the hip as the gliding foot shoots forward sets up the next stride. Drive the knee and flex the ankle as you throw the hip forward. Don’t step onto a stiff, nearly straight leg and expect to have any power in the next stride. But cross-country skiing is a whole made up of important parts.

Most people I see on the trail are not holding their poles correctly. Not only do they lose the power the strap would provide, the incorrect grip means they plant the poles at inefficient angles and can’t swing their arms in the proper rhythm to keep momentum going.

Classical skiing uses pendulums swinging in alternate rhythm. The legs have their timing and the arms have opposite timing. If the arms can’t swing freely and the poles can’t deliver power at the right time and strength, the whole machine slows down.

The problem may start with the beginner lesson. In a well-intended attempt to get people thinking about their footwork, instructors have them set the poles aside. Skiers are encouraged to stride without poles, to work on timing and weight shift, but it gives the impression the poles are an unimportant afterthought. This is wrong.

Skiers from alpine backgrounds are accustomed to holding orthopedic grips in their fist, which also does not translate well to cross-country poling.

Holding the poles wrong is worse than not holding them at all. If that pole strap doesn’t cross the palm and support the hand, allowing for a smooth release and follow-through, it blocks all the other movements a skier could do with the poles held right or not at all.

A really fit, technically proficient skier could have run me down and flitted past me easily. But that skier would only have been doing, at full strength, what I was doing on half power or less. At a faster tempo with more power in the kick, the speed range moves up dramatically.

Despite the fact that my cold was getting worse and my muscles felt like melting clay, I was not breathless and could enjoy the scenery. A couple of other skiers stopped me to point out a large beaver foraging along the partially-open river. It was a leisurely tour.

Skiers who started very young often have trouble describing what they do, because they learned it naturally, gradually, by doing it more than by thinking about it. Skiers who start as adults have to learn differently, because the human mind automatically tries to correlate new experience to old experience.

As I was describing the lift of the obliques to an instructor, she cautioned against curling sideways, which risks causing the shoulders to sway back and forth. She also mentioned driving the knee forward and flexing the ankle. When I focused on those elements, I found they reinforced the hip lift. I’d already made sure I was lifting my hip rather than dropping my shoulder to engage the abdominal muscles and lower back. Consciously placing the knee and ankle under everything completed the solid platform from which to kick onto the other ski. It even works amazingly well up hill.

Only by skiing sick and tired did I really discover how little effort I needed to get good glide. I couldn’t pole hard to make up for sloppy kick. I couldn’t speed up my cadence to make up for weak kick. I had to make each kick count, and really ride the gliding ski.