Cross Country Skiing for Everyone

by Jules Older, is the winner of the 1998-99 Harold S. Hirsch book award. Published by Stackpole Books, the 152-page guide tells how to participate in — and enjoy — one of America’s fastest growing winter sports.

An excerpt from the first chapter:

Cross-country skiing is one of those rarest of human activities in which you have prodigious quantities of fun, clear your head of cobwebs, do your body a major favor, and experience all this the fun, the clarity, the self-improvement in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. For what else on earth looks so breathtakingly beautiful as a glistening coverlet of untracked snow? The lightly falling flakes, the transformed shapes of fir and pine, the frail white-on-white patterns of bird and squirrel tracks their combined effect is an almost dizzying beauty. Add to that the smell of balsam, the tingle of crisp air, and the sound of…nothing at all. Until you stand stock-still in winter woods, you don’t really know the sounds of silence.

When you break that silence, when you plant your poles and push off, the still, cold air isn’t rattled by the noise of engines or the clamor of lift lines. Even in full flight, the only sounds you hear are the hiss of skis, the steady in and out of your own breathing, and the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of your own heart.”

Is this just too good to be true? It must cost a fortune. Maybe you need to be a super-jock. Is it just for the young, the male, the northern-born, the something other than me?

The collective answer is no. In the 1970s someone came up with the phrase, “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski.” That isn’t quite true, but it’s not far off the mark. Cross-country skiing is the winter sport for anyone with enough balance to ride a bike, enough muscle to climb a flight of stairs. It’s for anyone as old as two, as young as 111. It’s available to anyone with occasional access to six or more inches of snow.

And that age range of two to 111 isn’t something I invented. It’s the skiing life of one Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen. Jackrabbit first donned skis at the age of two in his native Norway. He continued to ski, cut trails, and enter races in his adopted Canada until well past his hundredth birthday. He was on skis until five days before he died in his 111th year. By 1987, when he died at nearly age 112, he had spent well over a century on skis. One obituary read, “He believed in a simple, vigorous life, but he was no crabbed ascetic. He was a renowned story-teller, smoked and drank and, in his 80s as a speaker at ski banquets, would astound the audience by walking on his hands along the head table.”

While a single case does not a theory prove, Jackrabbit Johannsen’s vigor and longevity certainly point to the healthfulness of cross-country skiing.

A sport that engages upper and lower body at every step has to be good for you. Especially when it’s low impact. Since skiing has less impact than walking and much less than running, it doesn’t jar your joints at every step. On top of that, within a few minutes of getting off the level and striding uphill, you’ve entered an aerobic challenge greater and far more rewarding than any treadmill.

Unlike downhill skiing, cross-country allows you to climb hills without digging in your edges and walking like a duck. The first time you successfully ski uphill, it feels like a small miracle. You’ve been striding across a field and as you start up a long slope, you discover that if you just keep going — keep doing what youve been doing — you continue making forward progress. Up, down and on the level, cross-country skis take you where you want to go.

Here is Kate Carter, editor of Vermont Sports Today, on the pleasures of skiing uphill.

  • The feeling of gliding is what I love most about cross-country skiing. Gliding across a long, flat stretch, keeping my momentum going with long, relaxed strides and easy double-poling is sensational. Even more thrilling is gliding at high speeds downhill, mastering the forces of gravity while unleashing the flow of adrenaline. Most exhilarating, however, is the sensation of gliding uphill, actually defying gravity and skiing up hills as if they were flat.I know I am skiing well, that I have gone beyond shuffling, when I am gliding up a hill. It doesn’t happen often, but once in awhile everything comes together — a fresh dusting of powder, the right wax, proficient technique, intuitive balance — and not even gravity can hold me back.

Along with some 4 million Americans and nearly 3 million Canadians, that destination may include some 600 cross-country skiing areas from the wilds of Newfoundland to the mountains of California. Your companions may be a Connecticut family skiing together, then picnicking together on the tailgate of their Volvo station wagon. They may be a French-speaking team of Quebec racers with flat stomachs and fire in their eyes. They may be a 50ish couple from Vermont or an Alberta grandmother celebrating her 75th birthday or a social club from New Jersey who have discovered cross-country skiing is a pastime they can enjoy together. And they may be a giggling gaggle of school kids on a winter outing, determined to leave their teachers in their powdery dust. Later, as you share hot chocolate with your trailmates in the warming hut, the adults sit around the woodstove and discuss trail conditions, bemoan or exult in the amount of snow back home, and ask the kids traditional Dumb Adult Questions: “So. What grade are you in?”

On and off skis, cross-country skiing covers a multitude of pleasures. Let me tempt you with some examples.

During my first ten years on cross-country skis, I lived in New York City and spent every Christmas with family in Brownington, Vermont. I spotted a pair of Finnish-made wooden skis at Hermans, bought them for $25, figured out how to strap the things to my work boots, read a Swix pamphlet on how to wax them, and commenced skiing across the fields and through the woods of Brownington. During that decade, from 1962 to 1972, I never saw another skier, either live or on film; I guess that defines “self-taught.”

Since then, I’ve skied with happy crowds in Ottawa during the Canadian capital’s Winterlude festival, off the highest peak in Newfoundland (dropped in by chopper; rescued — after the guides got lost — by snowmobile. Details in Chapter 15), in a saddle high in the Sierras of Nevada, in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains of Colorado and with dozens of African Americans at the Black Summit in Utah. I’ve skied across Lake Louise and raced a team of huskies over a frozen lake in Maine. Once, during a rare snowfall, I skied through the streets of Dunedin, New Zealand, grinning madly at the startled citizens. I’ve skied on prepared tracks, across snow-covered golf courses, amidst rock and scrub in unsuccessful pursuit of a herd of caribou, through thorny puckerbrush on Vermont’s Catamount Trail, and along the gently curving streets of a New Hampshire condo development. I’ve also skied across a snow-covered lava field in the frozen interior of Iceland, pulled at frightening speed behind an $80,000 Nissan Patrol equipped with fat studded tires, cellular phone, CB radio, two state-of-the-art locator systems, altimeter, clinometer, inflatable jack and a power winch.

But for the most part, I ski from the back door of my home in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. My wife Effin and I don boots and jump on our skis most days of winter, usually in the early afternoon. It’s an hour-long ounce of prevention against cabin fever, RSI and computer madness.

Despite all these years on boards, I am not a gonzo skier, not a racer, not a fearless risk-taker. The truth is, I still love to silently move through snowy field and forest.

Over the years I’ve come to realize how greatly skiing has enhanced my appreciation of winter. Rather than look at snow and groan about shoveling driveways and getting the car stuck in snowbanks, I look at snow as an invitation to play. And while my snow play takes many forms — alpine skiing, snowboarding, winter hikes and building snowmen — cross-country skiing constitutes my most constant, enduring winter activity. I’m stronger, happier and almost certainly saner because of it. Skiing has given me what backcountry guide Allan Bard called, “a quiet mind and satisfied soul.”