Cross-country skis ride winter’s late bonus

With no lift fees, no license, no special clothes required, and lots of places to go, cross-country skiing may be the most user-friendly and least expensive of outdoor pursuits.

Fans of winter got a late bonus this first week of March. Sunday’s snow was no dense slurry, so standard as winter wanes. The flakes fell as cold crystals that settled over brittle crust left from Friday’s slush, which had frozen hard to receive Sunday’s powder — the ideal platform for cross-country skis.

Cross-country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, depends wholly on natural snow, so its popularity flares and wanes with the cycling weather.

I bought my skis in 1984 when we first moved back to this area. Mine are slightly wider than the typical Nordic ski, for breaking trail where nobody has skied before you. The skis and boots are incredibly well-made, and all the parts are original despite as much use as I could wedge in over 35 winters of variably good conditions. Even the laces on the Yugoslavian-made boots are original and unfrayed, which is good because, at this point, I don’t want to convert to the new, “improved,” and more complicated designs of boots and bindings. My boots’ country of origin no longer exists, but it made ski boots to last.

The appeal of cross-country skiing is that you are not confined to a prepared slope. You go where you want, at your own pace. Through all the enjoyment I’ve gotten out of my skis, I have never bought a lift ticket, never waited in a line, and never felt compelled to acquire the trendy ski clothes so conspicuous at downhill resorts. For cross-country skiing through untracked woods, most of the same duds I wear to hunt deer suffice. Judged against the many hours of quality outdoor exercise they’ve yielded, my cross-country skis must be the least expensive outdoor gear I’ve ever purchased.

The poles, no so much. They get bent or splintered (depending on the material) in falls, the grips wear out, and the baskets have a way of pulling off in crusted snow after seasons of use. I’ve gone through lots of poles.

The idea in cross-country is to propel yourself by kicking ahead with each step, then gliding on the alternate ski as far as conditions allow before kicking with that second foot. The feet “take turns” working and gliding, and it can be a surprisingly efficient way to travel over even ground. Of course, the hard reality in our terrain, especially on a loop route, is that if you want to glide effortlessly downhill, you must first climb to put yourself at gravitational advantage. It’s sometimes a bit arduous but it goes with the territory, so to speak.

This recent snow brought the best surface all winter. Push-gliding over the powder was like a greased spatula sliding, frictionless, across a hot griddle. On some of the steeper down-grades I had to drag the poles to keep my speed from exceeding my control.

Public places for Nordic skiing in this area are nearly endless. Ohiopyle State Park has miles of suitable trails, especially around Sugarloaf Knob and the scenic Mitchell Loop. The Great Allegheny Passage anywhere between Confluence and Connellsville is ideal for beginners. Its consistent grade is good to learn on but can grow monotonous. On the plus side, the GAP’s visual surroundings are unmatched. A network of trails probes the Bear Run Nature Reserve at Mill Run, and even old logging roads on State Game Lands and Forbes State Forest offer exploratory skiing. There’s a formal cross-country course at Laurel Ridge State Park, off Route 653 high above Normalville, with a warming hut and lots of like-minded winter-fans to share the experience. One of best places for a short ski workout is Fort Necessity National Battlefield. All the routes there loop back to the visitor center, and many are grass instead of rock, so you can get good skiing even after a minimal snowfall. Except for the formal cross-country course at Laurel Ridge, operated by a private concessionaire, there are no fees to explore and enjoy any of these public lands.

Because cross-country is a quiet way to cover ground, you often see wildlife. Deer, turkeys, grouse, coyotes, mink, owls, fox, all the winter songbirds, and even a bobcat have added interest to my outings. I’ve noted some shifts in the relative abundance of wildlife tracks encountered over the years. The biggest difference in tracks since 1984 is coyotes. Back when I first got skis you never saw a coyote track. Today, next to deer, coyotes’ tracks are the most common your skis will cut. Deer track abundance is about the same as ever, while turkeys seem less widespread, though still dense and frequent in certain places. Grouse and pheasant tracks are non-existent, and rabbit tracks are rare. The bounding tracks of fishers (big predators of the weasel clan) are another new one, but nowhere so common as coyote. Fox tracks are less common today, and I wonder if foxes are displaced (or preyed upon) by coyotes.

This past week reminded that winter need not be a drudge. But temperatures in the 50s are predicted by Sunday. Time then to stow the skis and think about the garden-tiller. Everything in its turn — a comfortable way to approach the outdoors.

Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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