It has been a cruel month for car batteries, golfers and Chesapeake Bay watermen. Sixteen inches of snow and ice have frozen over a $3 million harvest of oysters; fly fishermen are casting at goldfish bowls.
But cold weather enthusiasts such as Anne Brockmeier couldn't be happier.
"I think it's been wonderful," says Brockmeier, a perpetually peppy woman who has just finished skating a few hundred circles around a frozen lake in Fairfax County. "It doesn't feel very cold to me."
While warm weather sports aficionados are crowding boat shows and complaining about the wind chill factor, a winter crew has taken to the snow-white hills. Bird watchers are trekking through the woods in search of owls. Ice skaters and hockey players have staked out a hundred frozen ponds. And cross-country skiers are sliding over fairways where even the most intrepid winter golfers fear to tread.
"This has been a tremendous January," says Doug Grey, who works at Appalachian Outfitters in Oakton. "This is one of the few years that we've gotten snow on the ground and it has stayed there."
Grey has more than a sporting interest in the snow. Appalachian has about 90 pairs of cross-country skis for rent, at $7.50 a day. At Appalachian, and the half dozen other stores in the Washington area that rent cross-country skis, waiting lists have been the rule most weekends.
The snow itself bears evidence of increased interest in the sport. A profusion of narrow, parallel tracks line the C&O Canal, jogging trails in Rock Creek Park and golf courses.
"You can do it anyplace . . . You don't need to get a lift ticket or wait in line, and it's peaceful," explains Sheila Rogan, an aide to Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski. Rogan's regular ski path is the jogging trail below the Calvert Street Bridge in Rock Creek Park. Rogan says the runners who still risk that snow-covered trail have been accommodating, even a bit envious as she glides by.
Ten years ago, all the cross-country skiers from the Washington area could have fit into a Volkswagen bus. And if you tossed out the embassy attache's from Finland and Norway, there would have been room for an Olympic bobsled team.
Graybeards in the sport say its recent popularity has resulted from two factors.
First, a waxless, plastic ski was developed in the mid-1970s. Until then, a person practically needed an advanced degree to properly undercoat the thin, wooden skis.
Second, it began to snow. After almost a decade of cement-gray winters, Washington in the last five years periodically has been buried by winter storms.
"When I started in Boston about 10 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a place to rent skis," says Lance Antrim, a policy analyst for the Department of Commerce and an officer in the ski touring section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). "People no longer look at me strangely when I go around in knickers and knee socks."
The PATC has weekend cross-country excursions and instruction for members. Most trips are to New Germany State Park or Herrington Manor State Park. Both are in Garrett County, Md., about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Washington.
Trails East, a private outdoor organization, rents cross-country skis and offers instruction at both parks.
Because they sit on the ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, these parks usually have considerable snow when the rest of the Washington area has little more than a powder cover.
But when the snow is heavy in D.C., there is no need to travel that far for cross-country skiing. If you avoid the water hazards, golf courses are ideal. If you like the aesthetics of a tree-lined trail, recreation departments in suburban Maryland and Virginia have a number of winter hiking and bike paths that can be used.
The most popular place for cross country in the Washington area is the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. Thirty miles from downtown Washington, the battlefield has 25 miles of snow-covered trails open to skiers, who can rest beside cannon or eat lunch under a statue of Stonewall Jackson.
"The first day the snow was on the ground we probably had 200 people use the battlefield," says Rolland Swain, the superintendent of the park where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee defeated a Yankee army during his first invasion northward.
The crowds come at the first sight of snow and on weekends. But even last Thursday, when a crust of ice had formed over the snow, skiers were gliding across the battlefield in a slow-motion step and glide.
"It's exhilarating to be out in the cold," said Becky Keith, a United Airlines flight attendant, who took her dog Cajun for an 80-minute trip through the snow. "You can't do anything about winter, so you might as well enjoy it."