Unfamiliar gear makes cross-country skiing a challenge

By Susan Morse
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 2009; F01

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."

At the cross-country center, its walls adorned with photos of skiing pioneers from before the sissy days of lifts and machine grooming, a middle-aged woman turns in a rental form and is asked, "What level skier are you? Beginner? Intermediate? "

"Well," she says, "I have a metal plate in my right knee and bone spurs in my left knee."

"Okay," replies the counter guy. "I'll put down beginner."

But there are limits to the prevailing libertarian instinct.

When we plotted a way to defy sub-zero temperatures on our last morning by driving ourselves past the open trail and right up to the woods, Tamsin Freeman, our friendly waitress at the Thompson House Eatery, advised against it. You can't park there, she said. That's private property.

But "Live Free or Die," protested Laura.

"Yeah," Tamsin answered. "But it's also the Granite State. And some of that granite is in people's heads. You don't want to go messing with people's property rights."

With some challenges, better gear -- or planning -- can help. Earlier in the week we'd been among the first out one snowy morning on the Ellis River Trail, Jackson's most popular novice route. We'd been excited to wake up to five inches of new snow -- not sleet, as had been forecast for lower elevations. We had the freshly groomed trail to ourselves. Our only question: How much of the 20 kilometers, or 12.4 miles, out and back could we expect to cover?

And then the snow stopped, the mercury rose and my skis went on strike, grabbing hold and refusing to let go. (Enough freeloading. Let's see you do some work, sucker.) We ditched our plans and headed back. Laura skied ahead while I trudged grimly behind, passing the first skiers we'd seen. A few others were having problems with sticking, too. One was "corking" his skis -- rubbing cork on them in an old technique he said might help. It did, a bit, or maybe the temperatures dipped again. The wax offered by the next skiers -- Laura had told them to look out for me -- helped more. I was good to go again. Lesson for next time: Get some better (less stiff) skis, or carry wax.

For such occasional frustrations, there are ample rewards: no lines (okay, very few), no locks (everything operates on the honor system), no city-style hassles. You want a break from skiing? Drive 20 minutes down the road to the vintage Majestic Theatre in Conway Village -- or, rather, to the space next door while the Majestic's owner struggles to renovate after a fire. Enter a small sandwich shop with a reproduction of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (the all-night diner) on the wall. Buy your movie ticket along with your sandwich and drink, and head down the hall to a room with 45 seats. Previews? A young woman from the cafe gets up in front, tells you that in two weeks they'll be showing "Amelia" and says she hopes you'll return. Then on to one trailer and the feature.

Back in action

Cross-country, or Nordic, skiing doesn't have a long history in this country, as the black-and-white photos in the ski center remind you. Even though one photo downstairs shows three women skiing the Jackson trail system in 1888, Thom Perkins, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, informs you that the sport didn't draw crowds until the 1940s, a decade after it first qualified as a stand-alone event in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid.

Grooming machines didn't come in till the 1960s; fiberglass didn't replace wooden skis until the '70s (and you still see a few die-hards who've refused to convert).

But the freedom of cross-country skiing had quick appeal, especially in a region so disdainful of regulation. The boots are softer, the skis lighter, the sport cheaper than its downhill cousin. There's no need for lifts or tows and the lines that come with them; trail fees ($19 a day in Jackson) cost less than lift tickets at most downhill resorts. With your own equipment, you can blaze your own trails and ski free. The fact that it takes considerably more sweat? Perversely, that's a plus here.

This year, advanced skiers have a new reason to try Jackson's cross-country trails: A favorite, named the Wave for its dips and turns, has been upgraded ("homologated," in official lingo) to meet the standards of the International Ski Federation.

I finally got moving when we retrieved our poles for the next part of the lesson. Everybody learns differently, Marianne said diplomatically. We started with the V-1 (don't ask me why it's called that, said Marianne) or 3-1 stroke. The forward ski (the one you're pushing off on) and two poles hit the ground simultaneously, propelling you forward. When you shift weight to the other ski, the poles come back up to start position. Think of it as gear two, said Marianne.

Gear one, or diagonal, is useful for powering up hills. The left ski and right pole go in together, then the right ski and left pole. Lots of people have trouble with that one, said Marianne. For a steeper hill, push two poles in with every ski stroke.

Third gear, or V-2, is for cruising: The poles go in toward the end of each ski stroke, challenging your balance further. The rhythm is ski, pole, ski . . . ski, pole, ski. . . . Just like a new dancer, I had to say the steps aloud to keep the rhythm. I don't think I'll be using that one much. But Marianne had us practice them all, just to plant them in our heads. It was exhilarating -- and exhausting.

Laura and I took the next hour to practice on our own. Then after a break for hot chocolate (also paid on the honor system) and buns we'd saved from breakfast at our nearby B&B, we headed out again, leaving the training loop (as the wind rose and temperatures plummeted) and heading for the woods.

And the long-planned pre-departure ski? We nixed it the next morning. Our muscles were too sore, and the mercury was too low. Sometimes it's nice to be a visitor and not have to live up to native standards.

Morse is a former Washington Post editor.

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