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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Puppy stabbing

One of the instructors at Jackson Ski Touring used metaphors masterfully to convey the basics of classical technique. He would talk about kicking a ball down the track or sliding in socks on a hardwood floor to describe kicking and gliding in a way that would actually make the student's muscles start to engage in the way they should, rather than using abstract theory and anatomical terminology.

He instructed students when poling to think of pulling a little puppy forward with a leash rather than stabbing forcefully downward at the snow with the vicious metal spikes on the ends of their poles. "Pull the puppy, don't stab the puppy," he would say. Emphasizing the hand coming forward rather than the pole jabbing down helps create a fluid stride that relies on timing rather than force.

The snow hasn't been so good this winter, so I haven't put any time in on the trails. Yesterday I got out for my first quasi-groomed skiing on the Super Loop section of Sewall Woods. Three inches of fresh on top of the pocked and trampled remnants on which the die-hards had been subsisting allowed for a semi-refined slither over the irregular surface.

I noticed right away that I was doing a lot of puppy stabbing. Because the snow did not provide consistent support I was only able to connect two or three fluid strides before some jolt would break the rhythm. I would spear the snow abruptly as I put the the kickstand down on one side and the other. It occurred to me that puppy stabbing is the norm in bushwhacking and trudging along hiking trails and logging roads. Wherever conditions don't favor the beauty stride the rhythmic plant, plant, plant of puppy stabbing suits the abbreviated glide and lateral surprises found in that kind of terrain.

Another thing I noticed after I got home. My house was the temperature it always is at the end of a work day in winter: mid 50s. The fires had burned down. The gas heater maintains a baseline so the pipes don't freeze, but I need to get the woodstoves going to get back up into the 60s. Usually the house feels chilly when I come in after eight or nine hours of incarceration at the shop with a half-hour drive on either end. But after a mere half hour of puppy stabbing and determined trudging I felt warm when I walked in and was warm for the rest of the evening. I lit the fires, but without the usual sense of urgency.

A bigger storm seems to be on its way to open up the rest of the trails to a depth that will permit more technically precise skiing. In cross-country skiing, a little bit does a lot. Smoother trails just mean you cover more ground for your effort. It becomes more like flying than walking. Kick the ball. Pull the puppy. Slide.