Unfamiliar gear makes cross-country skiing a challenge

The author takes in the view on the Ellis River Trail, the most popular cross-country route for novices in Jackson, N.H.
The author takes in the view on the Ellis River Trail, the most popular cross-country route for novices in Jackson, N.H. (Courtesy of Susan Morse)
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By Susan Morse
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Clumsy I was prepared for. A beginner has no claim on grace or vanity. (Though I'd succumbed at the L.L. Bean Outlet in North Conway, N.H., the day before and traded my puffy Gore-Tex pants for a pair of ski tights. "You have to get them, Mom," Laura had said. At 26, grace was more her province -- though she would spit at the notion.)

But I hadn't banked on immobile.

Laura and I were standing, splay-footed, on the golf course loop that in winter converts to home base for the Jackson Ski Touring Center in Jackson village (population 900). The problem was the strange gear on our feet: shorter and skinnier than classic cross-country skis. We'd signed up to learn how to use them as skates, for more power and speed than you get slogging along in parallel tracks, as most Nordic skiers do. Since the 1980s, when Vermonter Bill Koch invented the method, skate skiing has taken off in the North and West, fueled by images of lycra-clad Olympians. But this aerobic balancing act is still little known outside those areas.

Stick your feet out and lean forward like a gorilla, our instructor Marianne Borowski directed after she had us ditch our poles. Feel your body's posture move your skis. Laura slid forward.

Good, said Marianne. Do it again.

I leaned, and -- nothing.

Marianne moved on. Now shift your weight from one foot (pause for glide) to the other (ditto), she instructed, demonstrating. As you push forward with your left foot, lean forward and reach out over that foot with your right arm -- or both arms. Stay there as long as you can. Then switch to your right foot and reach forward over that foot with your left arm.

Laura moved down the track. That's it, called Marianne. Don't lift your feet so high.

My turn. I leaned over one ski and lifted the other, switched sides -- and managed to tromp a few inches. Hmmmm, said Marianne. The trail goes uphill a little here. Let's try it again in a few feet when it heads back down.

Live free

If you go north to sample the Jackson snow scene -- and its 100 miles of cross-country ski trails -- don't be surprised to find yourself occasionally at a standstill. As the Democratic primary taught Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, New Hampshire's all about challenge and how you deal with it.

Rugged independence is famously enshrined in the state motto, "Live Free or Die," and the ask-for-no-pity, get-none ethos gets into the blood early. How else to explain the crazies careening down Tuckerman Ravine or tempting hypothermia on Wildcat Mountain?

When a tyke of 3 or 4 struggles to ski up a hill, sliding back with each step, there's no wailing -- and no rescue. Her mother calls to her, "Remember how to do the duck walk, Sarah?" -- kidspeak for pointing your skis out and herringboning up a hill to gain traction. "That's it. Do the duck walk."

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