Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of skier on trail © Tim Sweet

City parks, nature centers, public forests, county lands and private properties often provide cross-crountry ski trails.
© Tim Sweet

February 2011

A lifetime of skiing

To build a new winter habit or just stay healthy and get outside as the weather gets bracing, consider strapping on a pair of cross-country skis.

Story and photos by Tim Sweet

There's an old black and white picture of my mother hanging on the wall in our living room. It shows her in a wool sweater with a snowflake pattern waxing a pair of wooden skis at Calumet County Park on the east side of Lake Winnebago in the late 1940s. Immediately above the vintage photo is an even older pair of marsh skis: really long, wide 10-foot skis that spread out your weight over a wider area to allow travel over cattails and marshy channels in a wetland. These skis date back a century or more and came from a farmer near Weyauwega who used them while duck hunting in out-of-the-way places. These reminders keep me looking forward to my favorite wintertime activity throughout the year.

I began skiing in the early '70s when my parents gave me a pair of wooden cross-country skis with lignostone edges. Three-pin bindings clamped the toe of the low-top leather boots firmly in place allowing the heel to move freely up and down. Bamboo ski poles helped to provide balance. We made many trips to Hartman Creek State Park near Waupaca where I learned to ski over the rolling hills through snow-covered woods and fields.

I still choose to use wood skis I have managed to hang on to for nearly 30 years. This year I replaced the three-pin binding system with a more up-to-date set of boots and bindings. The base of the skis is covered in pine tar to repel moisture and seal the wood. A layer of glide wax is applied to the entire base, and over that goes a kicker wax in the middle of the skis. This waxing combination allows the skis to slide easily along downhill and flat stretches, while providing grip to push off on the flats and uphill parts of the trail.

Photo of wood skis © Tim Sweet
I still choose to use wood skis I have managed to hang on to for nearly 30 years.
© Tim Sweet

Those new to the sport may want to consider renting skis before purchasing equipment. A search on the Internet will yield numerous locations throughout the state of Wisconsin providing this service. Your local ski shop or nature center might be able to get you into a workshop if you would like some preliminary instruction. Renting skis is also a great way to try different kinds of boots, skis, ski bottom designs and bindings before you buy to see what is comfortable and what works for you.

In tough economic times, cross-country skiing is a relatively inexpensive way to enjoy winter. Equipment costs are much less than what you'd pay for downhill skiing gear. Area golf courses, parks, and trails are nearby and using them is often free or a minimal cost.

Cross-country skiing is great aerobic exercise too. Arms and legs both benefit from a good cardiovascular workout and it is a fun way to burn off calories and keep in shape.

If you're planning to ski at a fairly vigorous pace and if you want to be a bit more comfortable, it's important to dress in light layers that wick perspiration away from your body. Materials like polypropylene, polar fleece and wool help to keep you dry and don't chafe. A lightweight, breathable windbreaker is a wise fashion choice topped off with a hat to cover your head and ears, and gloves or mittens to protect your hands. A fanny pack is a handy item to bring along. It straps onto your waist and can hold extra wax, a cell phone, sunglasses, a snack and a water bottle.

If you get the skiing bug and are up to some competition, many skiers enjoy taking part in local races or work their way up to the American Birkebeiner ski race held each year at the end of February. The 50K skate and 54K classic marathon is a supreme test of personal endurance running from Cable to Hayward for both elite and recreational skiers. Anyone who has participated and crossed the finish line after skiing more than 30 miles along this challenging course feels rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment.

But don't feel that cross-country skiing is only for the well-trained athlete. You can thoroughly enjoy paths in local parks, county forest roads, on bike paths, and at local golf courses. I happen to like the trails at county and state parks that are a bit hilly and take you farther away from traffic and city noises. Last winter, a group of us headed north to Peninsula State Park in Door County. The park's 3,776 acres provide a variety of terrain for beginners as well as for those seeking more of a challenge. The trails are well maintained and the forest offers plenty of quiet winter solitude.

Just to the north on the "quiet side" of the Door Peninsula is Newport State Park. All 12.5 miles of their trails are rated for beginner or intermediate skiers. A pristine route to follow after a fresh snowfall starts from Parking Lot #3 and heads north along the Europe Bay Trail. Some lovely views of Lake Michigan can be seen along here. This generally level route cuts through a majestic hemlock, beech and maple forest. A word of warning: hemlock boughs have the tendency to hold copious mounds of fluffy, white snow that can easily be dumped onto the heads and down the necks of unsuspecting friends with a nonchalant swipe of a ski pole. Leave some distance between skiers.

These days I find myself most often skiing close to home at the Navarino Wildlife Area located in southern Shawano and northeastern Waupaca counties. Volunteers help groom the 12 miles of cross-country ski trails that traverse the forested countryside. We've had some great ski trips there.

Last January a friend and I headed to Navarino for an evening of skiing by the light of a gleaming full moon. No wind was blowing on this crystal clear night, the temperature hovered in the positive single digits, and a fresh blanket of deep snow sparkled like millions of diamonds under the lunar brilliance. Perfect trail conditions allowed us to get into the rhythm of skiing on the icy fast tracks. Skiing through moon shadows forces one to rely more on feel and intuition especially when making turns on downhill sections. Never have I had a more exhilarating or memorable winter outing.

Cross-country skiing is a great lifetime sport that you can enjoy at any pace. I encourage all of you who are physically able to wax up your skis, find a friend, a neighbor, or a loved one to join you, and get out there! When the snow is beckoning through your living room window, and the trail groomer has laid down a perfect track, get out and take part in embracing Wisconsin's chilliest season. Fresh air, the invigorating feeling, rosy cheeks or a frosted mustache will do wonders for those of you who are suffering from a bad case of cabin fever. Skiing is both good for you and good for driving off any winter blues.

Tim Sweet writes and skis from his home in Clintonville.