Thursday, October 24, 2013

The coming ski season

Cold winds and shortening days used to signal the approach of the winter fun season in New England. Whatever was lost of warmth and light was a positive step toward freezing the world to receive and retain the snow.

Into the steadily colder world we would go, training steadily to acclimate to winter conditions. You don't want wait until the snow arrives to start getting yourself in shape to get around on it.

Snow would accumulate all winter. The snowpack would consolidate. Thaws might reduce it, but almost never destroyed it completely.

Some people do an amazing job of maintaining their faith that this winter will be a good one. No matter how many times we get little or nothing, the true believers never falter. If it depended on belief alone we would never have a muddy winter. The Red Sox would always be in the World Series,  too.

I have always recommended versatility. If you have several winter activities that take advantage of different conditions you can shift among them as conditions require. But I have to say that raw, damp weather and mud provide the fewest opportunities.

When people try  to talk to me about the coming winter I change the subject or get out of the conversation as quickly as I can. That can be hard when I'm supposed to be selling skis. Since I no longer get to eat the steak it's hard enough already to sell the sizzle.

When I lived in Maryland,  I would watch a usable snowfall melt away in hours before I ever got to ski on it. Now the changing climate has brought the same kind of challenge to this place that seemed so far north when I arrived here. This picks off more potential time slots as more of them are icy or slushy. And that's if they're not open mud.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chore skiing

Before the next storm brings rain and snow I slithered around the woods to gather pine cones. They're great for starting the woodstove with less than enthusiastic firewood.

I slung a 5-gallon plastic bucket for the cones over my shoulder with an old piece of climbing webbing so I could have my hands free to hold my poles. A job like this is much easier than when I skied out with a bow saw and an axe to cut dead pine because I had run out of any kind of firewood. But it's far from the groomed trail experience.

I'm  bushwhacker at heart. Just as I used lift-served skiing to get concentrated turn practice so did I use groomed trail skiing to stay in shape for trudging forays on obscure trails or no trail at all. In both cases I spent as much time as possible in the woods, although I had to be forcibly weaned from groomed-trail cross-country skiing. I could get back into that habit. But even at the height of my addiction I would never spend the money and time to travel to a ski center on my day off.

Skiing around the woods looking for something stupid like pine cones or dry sticks gets to the roots of skiing much more than recreational sliding on machine-prepared surfaces does. Skiing was part of practical daily life. It was enjoyable even as it was utilitarian.

A friend of mine living in Seattle, who dated a Norwegian woman living there, noted that she had a very unadorned style of skiing that casually covered a lot of ground very efficiently. It was well practiced from childhood in its native environment rather than consciously studied in a place to which it had been transplanted centuries after its invention.

The skis I used today are at least 15 years old. They're very similar to the ones on which I started skiing almost 30 years ago. All the waves of innovation that have created products targeted at very specific types of skiing can't change the fact that a relatively traditional touring ski can go almost anywhere. Maybe I can't keep up with the gear addicts on their exquisitely designed perfect tools for the back country or the immaculately prepared track, but those aren't always the most comfortable people to hang out with anyway.

On old skis, with old boots and old poles on a sunny afternoon I wanted nothing I did not have right there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I am an alcoholic bartender

Write what you know. Sell what you're into. Share your buzz. People look for an informed perspective when they shop for a product.

Bicycling got me into the bike business. Cross-country skiing got me into the ski business. Like many participants, I fell into the commerce side in search of some deals on gear. And here we are.

My current shop job financed and equipped my descent into full-on addiction. I sold the gear, I taught lessons. I went on trips, though nothing worthy of bragging. No one needs to hear about my private tree-dodging exploits on frumpy little mountains no one's heard of. No one cares about my daily training runs on classic or skating skis on groomed trails I had the opportunity to use frequently enough to count as a regular program. Every one of those doses fed my need.

I reached my high or low point, depending on your view, when I operated the retail concession at Jackson Ski Touring. It was one shot after another of the pure stuff. It surged through me, impaired my judgment, lured me into a variety of social blunders, but I didn't care, as long as I could get onto the trails and feed the beast within me.

My addiction definitely affected my job performance, but not entirely badly. Since our target demographic was addicts and the addictable, looking like a happy participant made me a better host. Like any partyer, I had some people who liked to party with me or at least felt neutral, and others who found me offensive.

I tried to conceal the extent of my addiction by downplaying the amount I was using, sometimes using secretly. I was absent or tardy because of it. It was the most important part of my day, for sure.

Here in Wolfe City I have no hope of skiing as much as I did in Jackson, or even as much as I used to in Wolfeboro before 2000. I have almost no chance to go at all. Forced to detox, I don't want to use again at all, lest I awaken the longing. I'll talk it up and change the subject if anyone asks how much I get out.

"Been skiing today?"


The word lies there, a cold brick. I say nothing more. The conversation moves on.

Two students have signed up for a group lesson on Saturday morning. Neither of our two casual part-time instructors are available. The last time this happened, only one staff member here had ski gear. He lives in town, on the other end of the trail system, so he skis to work and home again. We scraped the lesson off on him. I told The Management that was my plan again.

"What about you? Why don't you do it?" he asked.

I can't. I just can't. When a tiny bit is nowhere near enough, it's way too much.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Epic Proportions!


Winter storms have a way of growing into monsters as they make their final approach. What was going to bring an unspecified "measurable amount of snow" in the forecast of five days ago is now a behemoth named Nemo. Someone heard from someone that the Portsmouth, NH, area could get 42 inches! Buildings are already collapsing at the mere thought. Especially anxious people have already fired up the generator and started to asphyxiate the family because the power could go out by Saturday morning.

Then the temperature is predicted to bounce up to around 40 by Monday. Will we even get a week of trail operations out of this? We shall see. Meanwhile it's great to hear the rumors fly.

If we can have skiing for Massachusetts Vacation Week (Feb. 16-24) we'll have made as much money as we could. No one seems to turn out for winter after late February anymore. This could be because winter itself so seldom turns out anymore.

Local dedicated skiers will use whatever they can find for as long as they can find it. If snow falls we will groom it.

The Wolfeboro Cross-Country Ski Association is studying the feasibility of snowmaking on selected trails. The technology is improving. Is the cost prohibitive? I don't think hordes of people will show up to use manufactured snow for cross-country, but a devoted core group will. It's just the next stage in using technology to compensate for the natural systems we've disrupted beyond repair. People skate all year on indoor refrigerated rinks, ride bikes in spinning studios, climb fake rock walls in indoor gyms and ski downhill on frozen concrete splattered onto mountainsides all over the Northeast.

Once the Holodeck is perfected no one will have to care what it's doing outside.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Deinventing Cross-Country

As our little corner of New Hampshire faces the second horrible winter in a row, we have plenty of time to think about how we can go forward into an uncertain future. Undetermined it may be, but probability favors more wet and warm winters than bountifully snowy and crisply cold ones.

When cross-country skiing reached its height in the early 1980s, skis were all sized the same way, by traditional lengths. Grip patterns were becoming more popular than kick wax for traction. Materials were evolving rapidly to make skis easier to maintain than traditional wooden models had been. Trails only needed to be six or eight feet wide except perhaps on downhill turns. Many touring centers didn't even add leeway there.

Grooming was rudimentary. Because touring centers in snowy regions still expected to get at least a couple of heavy storms, grooming centered more on packing loose snow than grinding up frozen stuff. Tilling equipment for those frozen conditions represented the major investment for touring centers trying to expand their offerings.

The emergence and explosive growth of skate skiing from about the mid 1980s ushered in big changes in trail and equipment design and in grooming needs. As overhead costs for touring centers increased it was harder to run a commercially competitive center without investing in trail widening and grooming machinery. But people still had the money to spend on winter fun and winter still seemed to be delivering its part of the bargain most of the time. Cross-country could still say, "We're a lot cheaper than downhill!"

Cross-country is still cheaper than downhill, but only because downhill is ridiculously expensive. And the industry has done such a good job discrediting traditional size touring skis that consumers are more confused than ever about what to get and where to use it.

Because Fischer started the compact ski craze with the Revolution one-size-fits-all micro skating ski, the compact ski genre started with something ridiculously short. If the compact ski had developed from the other end of the spectrum, slightly shortening awkwardly long skis rather than creating a whole class of awkwardly short ones, skiers might have drifted to a new norm on downsized long skis rather than being fed the attractive but less workable notion that they could get around perfectly well on some dinky waddling board.

The short fat ski is a creature of soft ungroomed snow. It requires a substantial boot and binding to make it work to its full potential.

The short skinny ski is a creature of groomed trails. Skinny is relative. A traditional or near-traditional length touring ski at 60, 62 or 65 millimeters is wide enough to provide flotation in ungroomed snow. A compact ski of those widths is not. Also, the longer ski has more length between tip and grip in which to make the transition from a good turn-initiating front end to a properly supportive kick zone.

The more skis require groomed trails the harder they are for people to use in the casual way they liked when cross-country was popular.

We could save cross-country skiing in this country by rolling back the options to a few simple choices that will really do what the advertising says they will. Make them versatile and make them cheap. People are more likely to buy something on the off chance they get to use it if they don't have to worry about where they'll find the money.

By scaling back the skis, touring center operators can scale back on the costs. Someone could operate a center with smaller trails if they could get grooming equipment that would fit them. Smaller centers could operate on land that might have gone unused in the winter -- certain kinds of cropland, woodlots not currently being harvested, golf courses, parks. With a little imagination, anyone interested in skiing could learn to exploit short-lived snowfalls in many places.

Skating screws up the balance. It's great fun, but it needs that wide, smooth, expensively-prepared trail. There will still be a place for centers that cater to skating, as long as the climate doesn't warm so much that no one can count on operating enough days to cover the overhead.

Ironic that cross-country faces collapse because they tried to broaden their appeal. I'm saying that they just chose the wrong way to do it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Park and Ski ain't happening

My plans to try park-and-ski commuting have failed on the usual problem: When there's snow there's no place to park. Big G's failed on the fact that he would already have driven much further to get a reasonable ski distance from which to launch that phase, so it seemed kind of silly.

In any case, the places we hoped to hang cars do not get cleared because no one in the normal population uses them in the white months.

The white months themselves seem to be turning gray and brown again. We need a new plan. Probably several plans.