Have you travelled those parallel winter trails, some broken by foot and ragged like two scissor cuts through the snow, others groomed by machine to perfect corduroy?
Are you among those silent figures floating through forests or bounding across local golf courses and city parks?
Do you know mornings so frigid that each breath freezes the nostrils? And early-spring days so warm that a T-shirt and shorts suffice as you slosh on skis through corn, listening as chickadees and newly awakened chipmunks serenade your passing?
If this all sounds foreign to you, let's start with the simple reassurance that cross-country is not the exclusive realm of the uber-fit or technically perfect. It has nothing to do with speed or flashy suits. The spirit of cross-country skiing lives in that fraction of a second when you let go of everything and simply glide across the snow. A moment with arms swung outward, as you stand tall, muscles paused, when you magically and effortlessly float onward. In the enduring words of cross-country skiing's greatest ambassador, Jackrabbit Johannsen (a man who lived and skied past his 111th birthday): “Running is an act of will; skiing an act of spirit.”
For those who haven't stood on skinny skis, slipped and fumbled with frustration, and had snow glop underfoot, this column – a love letter to the sport that has woven itself throughout my life – is my entreaty to you: Try it. This winter.
You have probably heard all the classic endorsements for cross-country skiing: the extraordinary exercise it provides (never jarring the joints, yet straining the heart and every other muscle in the body), the ability for all ages to enjoy the sport together, the relatively economic nature of the activity (compared with other winter sports), the camaraderie and easy ways of its adherents. But rationalization never gets to the heart of the matter. We need a human story.
My father arrived in Canada on a steamer from England at the age of 17. As a young university student, he never took to the North American pursuits of hockey or football. He didn't enjoy swimming (no swimming lessons for British wartime children) and ran only occasionally. But somehow – and no one can remember how – the physics professor fell in love with Nordic skiing.
Dad, who never joined any teams or participated in any organized sports, burst through the front door to announce that he had enrolled in a Nordic ski coaching clinic. By the end of the weekend, his three children were lined up in the back garden, skiing back and forth, from end to end, sometimes with no poles, other times trying to take the fewest strides possible.
Cross-country skiing seemed so mundane to us kids; so boring, so darn pedestrian. We pined instead for the glitz and speed and neon of downhill. Perhaps it was simply a case of wanting the things we could not have, but by comparison, cross-country skiing felt like a geezer's pastime, and we unanimously considered it unworthy.
One year, Dad enrolled both himself and me in a loppet – a family-friendly ski race. We drove north from Toronto, into a wonderland where snow plastered the trees and buried the stop signs. School buses ferried us to the start. A cow bell rang, and the crowd rushed forward. Caught up in the excitement, I raced along too, keeping up with some seriously old folks – I'm talking 20 and even older. It was thrilling. Of course, Dad and I stopped at the feed stations, guzzling paper cupfuls of warm Gatorade and stuffing our cheeks with chunks of Turkish delight chocolate. Then we raced on.
Adolescence marked a short retreat from Nordic skiing, as homework (or rather, laziness) took priority over family weekend outings. But a few years later, when life felt like it was starting to unravel at the start of university, Nordic skiing stitched it back together. Because so few people participated in the sport, it seemed the only varsity team I had even a faint hope of making. So at Christmas I begged for (and received) a pair of fancy fibreglass skating skis and a book on how to use them. After tripping over my tips for weeks, I got the hang of skating, and somehow secured the sixth spot on a six-man team.
The next three years I spent bouncing around Ontario with the gregarious Nordic racers. Always keen on dancing late into the night, even before races, and always promoting beer as a recovery drink, they never let the stress of racing take away from having fun. A similar focus on inclusive fun marks Nordic skiers and clubs across the country.
Today, I live in the mountains of British Columbia, where entire lives (and plenty of them) are built around the pursuit of powder. I, too, have prayed at that church. But recently I realized my addiction to powder does not run as deep as my friends'. I suspect my daily forays on the cross-country trails takes an the edge off the obsession. And if given the choice between powder or skinny skis, I would choose a few laps at the Nordic centre. Blasphemous, I know. Perhaps it is the familiarity that has me hooked. The meditative regularity of trails I know off by heart, or the efficiency of gliding myself to exhaustion in less than an hour. But I suspect there is more.
In the final pages of Tim Winton's novel Breath, the protagonist, a scarred and sombre 51-year-old paramedic reflects on his beloved sport of surfing. The act of jumping on his board and paddling out reminds him of a youth he thought he had lost, “the sweet momentum, the turning force underfoot, and those brief rare moments of grace.”
It is those moments of gliding grace, so fleeting yet so glorious, that keep me coming back to Nordic skiing; moments that can make the old feel young and the young feel fast. I wonder if it was a similar feeling my father glimpsed, all those years ago.
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