11 January 2008

The Moulton Journal: Cognitive Development & Cross Country Skiing

Skiing up and around the unpacked Buzzy Trail the other morning, and then on the closely enfolded, packed but ungroomed Yankee Boy Trail (which is, as I write this, beautifully groomed), it was all very comfortable. Not so many years ago, I found skiing these trails a contact sport.

Winter can last from November to April here in the northern Rockies. Anyone who likes the outdoors should NOT let winter keep them inside. For many years, I did a lot of snowshoeing. It's still the best way to get around steep, icy slopes and thick timber. But I gradually transitioned to cross country skiing more and snowshoeing less. There's something about the grace, speed, and sheer physicality of cross country skiing that is very compelling.

Like any activity that requires focal engagement & patient vigor* -- i.e. putting in the time to gain experience and competency -- it takes most of us awhile to become comfortable on cross country skis. Many people just cannot (or do not) put in the time. It's that way for the Christmas-New Years skiers, and similar to the opening day trout anglers, or the July 4th backpackers. For many activities such as these, the IDEA is much more appealing (and easier) than the REALITY.

We live in a society that thrives on fantasy. People read the catalogs and maybe even buy the gear. They imagine wonderful adventures and learn all the lingo. In some sad vicarious way, that seems to be enough. And many others simply become so sucked into "work" and related activities that they do not clear the space & time in their lives for meaningful exercise and knowing nature. Again, for such folks, watching a wildlife movie on TV seems to be enough.

Cross country skiing and touring can be a little scary (especially for folks who come to it in middle age and who are not natural athletes) until they develop their fine-motor balance muscles. After that, it's not so bad. I had a lot of inner ear problems as a kid and have terrible balance (I can't balance on one foot without visual clues), but figured out the skinny ski thing OK. I'll never be a racer or a master of graceful tele turns with light skis on steep slopes, and that's OK too. As Clint Eastwood's character, Harry Callahan, says, "A man's got to know his limitations."

Most skiers, as they develop skill and confidence, will learn to wax for various conditions and will probably end up owning several pairs of skis. For the beginner, it need not be so complicated. A good quality pair of "fish scale" or no-wax skis and boots will suffice. Increasingly, new skiers begin with relatively short, wide skis. Although slow and a bit heavy, these wider skis help with balance and stability, especially on areas that are not groomed to perfection.

If you are lucky, you will have friends that ski, and who are willing to encourage you. In my own case, there was Mark Goebel back in Bradford, Pennsylvania. As my Assistant Scoutmaster, he was kindly insistent that the troop include some cross country ski outings in our "camp every month of the year" program. And, upon moving to Butte, my new friend Dave Carter introduced me to the local trails and helped get me past the psychological impasse of waxing. Thanks guys!

Cross country skiing takes a little practice. For many people, the best advice is (as the Nike slogan says), "Just do it." Most areas have lots of flat areas (such as parks or golf courses) to practice on, and soon the hills will seem easy. Come winter, what's a hiker and backpacker to do? You can't just sit inside and molder in front of the TV. So take up cross country skiing, or at least its slow cousin, snowshoeing (there are even hybrid snow shoe-skis, made by Karhu I think). These winter activities are the closest winter thing to hiking, with all the attendant exercise (it's good for everybody), communing with nature, and being part of an active, outdoor community.

* Focal engagement and patient vigor are terms developed by the philosopher of technology & modern life, Al Borgmann, in his book, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (University of Chicago Press, 1992). I highly recommend this book.

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