Only the whoosh of cross-country skis gliding over powdery snow could be heard as we traversed the frozen lake and headed into the rolling hills. Of the group of 20 or so, only the three instructors knew what they were doing. The only previous exposure the rest of us had to cross-country skiing was in sporting goods stores.
At first, coordinating the movement of our feet, legs and arms seemed awkward, not to mention how cumbersome our bodies felt when we tried to lift them up after falling. But once we understood that movement on cross-country skis is basically an exaggerated walk and getting up is a matter of rolling forward, we were home free, and for the rest of the day we enjoyed fresh air and virgin woods.
We were looking for a new, inexpensive way to enjoy the winter snow. So for $119 per person, we pampered ourselves with two full days of lessons at the 300-acre New Germany State Park, 35 miles west of Cumberland, Md. The package included lodging at the Casselman Hotel, a 158-year-old country inn in Grantsville, Md., and five meals at the inn's restaurant which specializes in homemade breads and large country-style meals. Our hosts were River and Trail Outfitters' Mark Kovach, Dave Gilbert and Terry Lynch.
"Keep looking for that inner rhythm," Kovach kept repeating to the group. "Don't be afraid to fall, everybody falls."
For an hour that Saturday morning we circled the frozen lake, hopping from one ski to another perfecting our strides--first without poles; then with, using them as an aid to move faster. "Think of it as walking into a heavy wind, a pendulum effect," Kovack said. "First move your legs, then follow through with the opposite arm."
Rabbit tracks leading into the forest were the only other sign of life under the sunny, 30-degree skies. By noon we had learned a little about technique: we could herringbone up hills, do a wobbly snow plow back down those same hills, make step turns, fall and get back up.
With the basics loosely implanted in mind we followed a mile-long trail through the woods, passing snow-covered summer campsites and park benches. We had lunch in the park's "warming hut," a large lime-green building heated only by a roaring fire. Hot corn chowder, freshly-baked banana muffins, fresh fruit and chocolate chip cookies gave nearly everyone the energy to perfect downhill techniques later that afternoon.
But cross-country skiing, our group had discovered early on, is not for everyone. The strenuous exercise can leave those used to enjoying winter weather from the inside with sore legs and aching backs, so we lost a few after lunch.
Kovach, 32, who sports shoulder-length black hair and a large handlebar mustache, designed the course three years ago with the help of his wife, Izzy, and an EPSTI (Eastern Professional Ski Touring Instruction) program which certifies cross-country ski instructors. "The esthetics of the weekend is our baby," Kovach said proudly. River and Trail runs another cross-country ski weekend to Blackwater Falls, W. Va., where for an extra $10 there are swimming pools and a Jacuzzi. "But ours," he said, "is a training weekend."
That evening, after a filling dinner of fried chicken and homemade mashed potatoes, exhaustion set in and by 8 p.m. many of the group were asleep in rooms furnished with firm double beds and antique rocking chairs. Others, undoubtedly equally comfortable, were settling into a rowdy evening two blocks away at the National Hotel's Cavern Tavern (formerly the Blue Moon Saloon). Pitchers of $2.85 beer flowed while the guests sang along to the bluegrass-country-rock-'n'-roll-blues-'60s sounds of local guitarist and songwriter Robert Smith.
Breakfast Sunday morning was followed by a lecture on equipment, clothing and the importance of a well-planned backpack. "Dress in layers," Kovach said, stressing that the body warms up quickly while out on the trail. "You want to be able to shed the layers and put them back on easily as you cool off." Down jackets are too warm. Start with polypropylene thermal underwear, which pushes perspiration out to your next layer of clothing. Cotton, he warned, takes body heat away. Follow that with a wool shirt and a wool vest.
Kovach's well-stocked backpack, he explained, turns many a disaster into a minor delay. It includes a mountain parka, a scarf and extra gloves and socks for additional protection from the cold. A wool hat, he said, is critical. "When skiing in below-freezing weather, 50 percent of your body heat goes out through your head. Keep your head covered, you'll stay warm." Liquid, he said, is also critical because the body loses a lot of fluid when perspiring.
He carries a screwdriver to fix loose bindings, pliers to bend bindings back into place and a plastic ski tip and duct tape for quick repair jobs on broken poles and skis. A knife, first-aid kit, blister pads, safety pins and needle and thread (for quick clothing repairs) are also included. The pack weighs about 10 pounds. "Some people say I overkill, but when I'm out with a large group, I like to be prepared," he said. "Five miles out on the trail if something goes wrong, you'll want to ski out if at all possible."
Saturday night the temperature dropped and the powdery snow turned to ice. Half of the group never even put their skis on for the Sunday lesson; the remainder went out and practiced downhill step turns, stem christies and telemark turns (the true sign of an accomplished cross-country skier). By early afternoon, though, even the die-hards gave up and skiers and instructors parted ways.
For more information on River and Trail Outfitters call them in Knoxville, Md.: (301) 834-9950.
Other Ski Options
While it's nice to have a full weekend of instructions, perhaps $119 is more than your pocketbook can handle. Here are some other ways to spend the weekend skiing at New Germany State Park.
Rita D ubansky, pick up skis in Grantsville. $10 per day for boots, poles and skis; $18 for the weekend. Call (301) 689-8515.
Trails East, $11 per day for boots, poles and skis; $19 for the weekend. Reservations can be made by calling their Rockville (Md.) office at 251-0131, or phone park directly at (301) 895-3156. Skis can be picked up at park or in Rockville.
B&N Ski Rentals, in LaValle, Md., 30 minutes from park, $12 per day; $20 for weekend. Call for reservations (301) 729-0692.
Rita Dubansky (above). Lessons in field behind private home, 4 miles from park. Skill level according to what students need, $5 for 1 to 2 hours.
Trails East (above). Lessons in park. Basic, intermediate, hills and proficiency, $9.50 for 1 1/2 hours; $18 for half day.
The Casselman, Main Street, Grantsville, Md. (on U.S. 40). Rates: $20 for 1 double bed; $25 for 2 double beds; $25 for 1 queen bed. Accommodations also available in historic part of hotel but rates are higher. Restaurant open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with good, hearty, inexpensive meals. Call (301) 895-5055 for reservations.
The National Hotel, Main Street, Grantsville, Md. (on U.S. 40). Rates: $7 per night with sleeping bags, $10 per night without. Call (301) 895-5051. No restaurant; snacks available. Home of the Cavern Tavern.
Holiday Inn, Rtes. 219 North and 48 in Grantsville. Rates: $36 per night for two. Restaurant open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call (301) 895-5993 for reservations.