It was too cold for downhill skiing — about 20 below zero — and the other members of the ski house looked at us with pity and bewilderment as we put on our cross-country ski boots — strange, light things more like jogging shoes than the heavy buckle boots they owned.
“You’ll freeze out there.” one of them said, as we strapped our rucksacks over our ratty 10-year-old ski jackets. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
Our goggled faces swathed in scarves, we pushed off from the front door. Sure, it was cold. But it was one of those mag-
nificent cobalt-sky dazzling-sun days you see in the National Film Board's Man In The Arctic films. As long as we kept moving, we were warm — so warm, in fact, that eventually we both unzipped the jackets we had worn over heavy sweaters.
That morning it was too cold to drive to a ski trail — our car might freeze if it wasn’t plugged in — so we had decided to ski across the nearby lake instead. We started off down the small hill, about a half-mile long, that led to the lake.
It’s been a while since I switched from downhill skiing, but I still haven’t become used to that sensation of total non-control one has on a slight incline with cross-country skis. The mild, delicious terror I used to feel on a steep slope like Banff’s Mount Norquay is now mine on an ordinary bunnysized hill. Zippy parallel turns are impossible with cross-country bear-trap harnesses and Adidas-type boots; the best I can do is a prayerful snowplow turn which merely keeps me from hitting the trees.
We came to the lake. It was easy to slip into our crosscountry roles; Radisson and Groseilliers, exploring James Bay. From the iced-over lake, the snow-locked summer cot-
tages were nearly invisible; the motorboats that had plagued us in summer were stored away; and except for the chattering birds and the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of our skis — silence. Just the two of us, in an empty crystal expanse of snow and sky, light-years from Vietnam. Trudeau-versus-Stanfield, labor unions, inflation, recession and future shock.
We whisked across the lake. “But isn’t it hard work?” our friends at the ski house had asked, and we had tried to explain that cross-country skiing (also known as ski touring or Nordic skiing) can be one of the easiest sports in the world or one of the most exhausting, depending on your temperament. At any rate, cross-country skis and boots, together, weigh less than one downhill buckle boot; climbing a hill on touring skis is almost as easy as climbing on foot.
Flying along the frozen, powder-covered lake, we were overcome by exultant, suspended credibility — like scuba divers suffering rapture of the deep. For some insane reason, it seemed like a good idea to run on our skis, so we jogged along in a gliding trot, until the burning-cold, evergreen-scented air reminded us that frostbitten lungs are not amusing.
We noticed a marked trail, leading up and away from the shore. We were adventurers. We decided to explore it, climbing to the top of the large hill which overlooked the lake, and trying to decipher the hieroglyphic animal and bird tracks which scooted in and out of the thickets.
At the top of the hill, we decided we had reached the halfway mark — time for lunch. One good rationalization for cross-country skiing is that you burn up enough calories to justify a great outdoorsy rucksack lunch. Brillat-Savarin could not begin to describe the delight of a bologna-and-cheese sandwich with hot sweet coffee after two hours of cross-country skiing in subzero weather. He could, however, find a word to describe our apples: frozen. We left them for the birds, ate our raisins and cookies and started back, crashing down the trail in our modified snowplow turns, short-cutting across a frozen creek, while the water gurgled below the ice.
When we gave up downhill skiing for cross-country a few years ago, our friends thought it was just another madness, like riding bikes to work and saving old newspapers, neither of which was done at the time. But over the past two years, cycling and recycling have become In, and cross-country is getting there: last winter, some ski shops had difficulty keeping up with the demand for ski-touring equipment.
One good reason for the new popularity of cross-country skiing is its relative cheapness: you can buy skis and boots together for as little as $75, and there’s a kind of inverse snobbery about cross-country ski clothes — the shabbier the better.
Another reason is that you can ski-tour nearly anywhere: official cross-country trails are fine but a city park, farmyard or logging trail works just as well. And, of course, there’s none of the hassle of driving to the ski hill, buying tickets and waiting in line for lifts.
But there’s something more to cross-country skiing, and I think it’s the same sort of appeal that sends an underwater diver into a reef: the feeling of connection with the elements — not of battling against them. The human technologist becomes subservient to the human animal; the importance of bank accounts, bosses, politics and machines diminishes and is replaced by wonder at the way a giant icicle hangs from a cliff.
Cross-country skiers don’t like to proselytize. We’re terrified that the whole of Canada will discover our sport and that one day the solitude, stillness and wonder will be lost amid hordes of fellow enthusiasts. So when we arrived back at the ski house, feeling somewhat as Balboa did when he reached the Pacific, and our friends said. “It must have been cold out there,” we replied: “Freezing.” ■
How to join
You can try cross-country skiing anywhere in Canada; all you need is ground and snow. If you're curious about cross-country clubs and trails in your area, write to the Canadian Ski Association, 333 River Road, Vanier, Ottawa.
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