By: Alice Johnston, Volunteer Trip Leader and current Board Chair
For most of my life cross-country (or “Nordic”) skiing was something I wanted to try but just never got around to. The delay was partly due to the need for natural snow on a weekend I was not already busy, but there was also a healthy dose of intimidation. I wasn’t sure how to dress, how the equipment worked, or how I would find anyone to teach me. And – perhaps most significantly – I had the impression that one needed to be an Olympic-quality athlete in order to handle the physical rigors of this sport. Thus, convinced that I would be cold, miserable and embarrassed, I wistfully avoided the sport and stuck to the downhill ski slopes in the winter.
Fortunately, though, as I became more and more involved with Venture Outdoors, I reconsidered my preconceived ideas and worries. Eventually, as a Venture Outdoors volunteer, I had an opportunity to learn how to cross-country from two wonderful long-time volunteers. I immediately fell in love with this way to be outside in the snow. Having overcome my own artificial barriers to cross-country skiing, I am now passionate about introducing others to the sport.
The first thing I want folks to know is how accessible cross-country skiing is. You don’t need to “get fit” before you give it a try. You don’t need to spend a small fortune on new clothes and gear because you probably already have the essentials. Once you learn a few basic concepts, the moves are surprisingly intuitive for most people. And, to cut straight to the biggest draw for any outdoor enthusiast, there is no better way to enjoy the natural beauty of western Pennsylvania in the snow. This is one of the best and most important reasons to master the basics of cross-country skiing.
Consistent with the Venture Outdoors mission we offer “classroom-style” workshops to help people understand what to expect and how to prepare for their first cross-country ski experience; beginner classes where we teach the basic, entry-level skills; and then more challenging outings for people who have learned the basics and want to spend more time practicing in the camaraderie of a Venture Outdoors group.
We in western Pennsylvania are lucky to be situated in a region that is only a short drive from some beautiful natural areas that are blessed with high average snowfalls. Some people enjoy a nice, warm, indoor winter hibernation, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But others long to be outside and active in the winter. Cross-country skiing is a way to move through beautiful natural areas and get to that “flow” state you might also achieve on a long bike ride on a rail trail or a brisk long distance hike. And as long as you keep moving, your internally-generated heat keeps you warmer than you might think! Even on a cold winter day, you can cross-country ski for hours without “needing” to get inside to warm up.
My own journey with cross-country skiing began as a participant in a Venture Outdoors Level 1 cross-country ski class at Kooser State Park – which is the perfect picturesque, mostly flat, place to learn. After that, I made a couple of return trips to Kooser where I just spent time on the skis, practiced basic skills, and circled the park’s trails. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to stop renting the equipment. I bought a reasonably priced package of basic, entry-level, boots, skis and poles and began to look for opportunities to cross-country ski on other trails. But I was still worried about whether or not I was “ready” for more advanced trails and continued to log most of my time on skis at Kooser.
I knew I was hooked for good when, at the end of my second winter of cross-country skiing, we had a beautiful late season snowfall on a weekday when I was able to take the day off from work and sneak up to the Laurel Highlands. My dear friend Sara, who had many years of cross-country skiing experience, agreed to join me on the forested trails of Laurel Summit where I had hiked many times in warm weather. I was intimidated and nervous – the trails have twists and tight turns, hills, boulders, bridges. These were not going to be simple, straightforward routes like the ones I had been practicing on at Kooser.
All of my worries about embarrassing myself or not being a good enough skier were almost instantly lost. The forest was magnificent. Even though I knew the area well, it was different – magical! – under the snow. We spent hours sailing along the trails. It didn’t matter if I was skiing “perfectly” – I had my share of falls and accidental snow angels – but I was good enough to enjoy the ride. I felt like a kid, set free to play and explore a strange new place for the day. Before long the “flow” state gave way to plain old joy. If it had been possible to skip on skis, I would have been skipping.
Each time I meet a new group of Venture Outdoors Level 1 cross-country skiiers at Kooser, I try to make sure that our day finishes on the prettiest trail there – with a long, “flowy” run of just skiing through the woods, and not too much talking or instruction. Because once you’ve learned the basic skills, the next most important thing to learn is where it can take you!