Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Life's Little Ironies

After its initial popularity in the 1970s cross-country skiing got the reputation of being hard work on skis that were difficult to control. This was the result of so many people actually trying it. Skis were long. Boots were floppy. Grooming was sketchy at best.

Downhill had all the advantages. You could ride up the hills. The snow was groomed. The boots were stiff. Skis were wide. You could spend a whole day within sight of a huge, heated building full of food.

By the late 1980s, the cross-country ski industry was working hard to create an image of fun. Engineers tried to improve bindings and skis. Grooming got better, because even the dedicated Nordic skiers appreciated a nice trail. By the mid 1990s, trail conditions and equipment had become far more accommodating to all levels of cross-country skier.

Coincidentally, as Nordic skis and trail preparation improved, winter deteriorated. Right now we could lay down a twelve-foot swath of immaculate corduroy in one pass with the big machine and launch a regiment of skiers of all abilities on equipment perfectly matched to their tastes. All we need is snow.

Winter used to dominate the year here. The weather would turn cold by November, after the stronger and stronger frosts that followed Labor Day. September was solidly part of fall, even though the first 20 days of it officially belong to summer. We worried about having the wood stacked and the chimney clean by late October at the latest.

Snow might not actually get deep until the end of December, or even early January, but ponds and lakes froze. Snowpack built up in the higher mountains. Ice climbs came in. It was winter. Except for a January thaw, it remained winter through the end of March. Snow receded from all but the heights through April, but one might find a patch in early May in a shaded hollow after a snowy winter.

A warm day was a gift, when winter ruled. Warmth was relative. After days of single-digit cold, the teens feel pleasant, the twenties tropical. Strong sun after mid January invites the cold, itchy hut-dweller to strip off a few layers and bask on a windless day.

As the climate warms, not only do we miss the fun that winter precipitation used to bring, we also look around uneasily, not trusting this change. We know it can snap back in short order, though only briefly. In that time all pleasure and all danger rise to their former levels. But we lack the period of adaptation we used to get, and the steady strain of what had been a normal winter. It's like jumping into a hard weight-lifting workout with no chance to warm up, then sitting down again, unable to warm down.

Meanwhile, people come in because they've heard that cross-country equipment is a lot better than it used to be.

"We're downhill skiers. We want to try some of this new equipment."

Cocooned in their world of manufactured snow, with just enough white spray paint on the ground beside the trail to make it look like a real winter, they've overlooked the fact that great gear is no help on an inch of rime over snaggly rocks and dirt. We, unfortunately, have to tell them.

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