Finding my way on skinny skis
I did my first skiing about 50 years ago on my grandparents' farm. We called it Three Mile Hill. When the developers of the future Cannonsburg Ski Area near Grand Rapids were looking for sites, this one was considered. We thought of it as our own personal ski and toboggan hill.
We used an ancient pair of trapper's skis that we'd found in the barn. Kicking the toes of our three buckle rubber boots under the single leather strap and using broom sticks for poles, we'd push off from the top. With our feet swiveling under the strap, turning was impossible as we blasted downhill, tearing through small bushes and straddling evergreens. To avoid being impaled on the barbwire fence circling the hill's mid-section, we were required to end every ride with a snowy crash. Sure, it was dangerous, but when you're 15 you believe you're indestructible.
On Christmas Day 1962, all the Foleys gathered at the farm for a holiday dinner. Afterward several of my cousins, my brother and I headed up the hill. At the top I put on the skis and had my brother Steve give me a push. I dropped into a tuck as I picked up speed. Then just as I was about to hit the barbwire, I dove sidewise. My right knee slammed into a rock buried in the snow ending my days as skier on Three Mile Hill. I spent six weeks in a cast.
It would be 12 years before I clipped on a pair of cross-country skis.
In 1974 we moved to Cadillac, Michigan. That winter my wife, Cyndy, began cross-country skiing, while I, having finally realized my dream of living on a lake, spent that first season ice fishing. The next year, however, I purchased a pair of wood Tur-Skis, former rentals that were deemed too scratched up for customer use.
In those days skis were prepped by applying a layer of pine tar on the bottom using a small propane torch. The trick was to melt the pine tar on the bottom without incinerating the wood. Then when ready to ski, kick wax was corked on. Trying to do this while holding the ski, especially with the stickier red or yellow waxes, meant I would invariably get wax globs on my Army fatigue jacket, which served as my outer ski layer.
Everyone wore lace-up ski boots with an extended rubber or leather toe perforated by holes which fit into pins on the ski. A hinged bar snapped over the toe securing the boot to the ski. Mine were cheap boots. One afternoon several miles into a ski tour, the rubber end broke off.
During our first years of skiing, trail grooming was just getting started. Most of us didn't see a groomed trail until the 1980s. For our ski outings we would drive to national or state forest land and look for two-track roads or places with enough open areas between the trees for skiing.
Following hiking trails seemed like a good idea except whoever designed those trails made no attempt to create the sweeping arcs skiers need for turning. These pathways, with right angle turns and slanting surfaces, were not a problem for walkers, but not conducive to skiing.
The lead skier got the most exercise by breaking trail for the rest of us. We rotated so everyone had a chance to knock down the untracked snow. We'd ski out-and-back routes so we could have packed trail for the return trip. Rarely did we take the same route twice. With a county map in hand, we'd strike out into the woods hoping to find long level stretches free of obstacles and perhaps a cleared slope to try some downhill runs.
When groomed trials became more common, we quit doing backcountry tours in favor of enjoying the easy ride within the grooved tracks cut by a snowmobile dragging a weighted sled with skis attached to the bottom. The sides of these narrow trails were piled with deep snow so the wide baskets on the ends of ski poles were more practical than the small ones found on today's poles.
Early days of racing, skating
It was inevitable that I would want to race, which led to the purchase of a pair of Rossignol fiberglass skis and my first clip on bindings.
In northern Michigan the White Pine Stampede and the Vasa were the premier races at that time.
I was said to have "unique" form, which was a kind way of not saying "terrible." I was a runner and skied like one. Not much glide but lots of leg movement. My wax was usually a touch sticky for conditions so I could pass dozens on the uphills. However, my lack of balance made me easy prey on the downhills as fear kept me snowplowing while my competitors sailed by.
Canoe racing helped me become a strong double-poker which enabled me to do most of a race without reverting to the diagonal stride. It seemed like I might be ready to move up in race standings.
But then after Olympian Bill Koch popularized freestyle skiing, and ski racing changed forever. In the first years, freestyle and classic skiers were combined. Not only could the freestyle skiers swoop through the course faster than the those of us doing the diagonal stride and double pole, but the skaters wiped out the diagonal tracks.
I tried to learn to skate but most ski areas initially resisted grooming their trails for skating. So to practice we'd head for the groomed snowmobile trails. This was the snowmobilers' turf and we were the interlopers. Snowmobile drivers weren't expecting to see us. With these machines hurtling along as fast as 60 miles an hour, encounters with snowmobiles were sudden and scary. If we were lucky we might have time to step off the trail. Once on a blind curve with a snow machine fast approaching, all I could do was leap into a snowbank.
Despite making earnest efforts, I never could master the basics of skating technique. After a couple years of trying, instead of having the grace and smooth rhythms of a freestyle skier, my skate moves were more akin to a limping lurch. By 1988 I was done with ski racing.
Nevertheless, the nterest in ski racing continued to grow in the Midwest. Improvements in trail grooming led to the establishment of Nordic ski areas with vast trail systems expertly packed and tracked for freestyle and classic skiers. It was in locales like Stokely Creek Lodge, Hanson Hills, the Cadillac Pathway, the Big M and the Vasa Trail that we began to do much of our Nordic skiing.
Then two years ago we joined a group for a ski tour into the Manistee National Forest. Our hi-tech skinny fiberglass skis sunk through the fluffy snow as we pushed into the untracked wilderness. It was not an easy trip for us as we floundered in the powdery snow. But we enjoyed exploring the forest and cooking lunch over an open fire. We realized that though we loved skiing on a packed groomed trail, there was a special magic in a woodland ski outing and it made us recall the fun times we had when we had done our first cross-country skiing 30 years ago.
Last year we both bought wider backcountry skis. While we will still enjoy many hours with our skinny skis pressed into crisp groomed trails, there will also be days spent making our way through the untracked snows of backcountry woods.
Dave Foley believes that spending a day skiing deep into the forest is truly one of the best things that life can offer.
- Two lame ducks & a flying goose
- Three steps to balance on Nordic skis
- Finding my way on skinny skis
- To ski beyond comfort
- The apparent dichotomy of skate skiing
- A running-only approach won't do
- ABR, the upper Midwest's Nordic bellwether
- The running guru had much to teach Nordic skiers about training: Skiing the Lydiard way
- The Lydiard connection
- Extreme skiing (1)