För framtids segrar

Photograph by Nisse Schmidt / Vasaloppet

All winter recreations owe their glory to the absence of friction

Bill McKibben

Back in February I pointed to an NPR story about Mora Minnesota and people helping to save their local Vasaloppet. This week comes an article in the New Yorker by Bill McKibben, who participated in the actual Vasaloppet in Sweden. McKibben is a lifelong cross-country skier, and he’s also an environmentalist. As we all know, cross-country skiing depends on hitting the wax, which is a lot harder when weather becomes unpredictable.

Not only is winter affected. You may have heard multiple areas in Scandinavia had a drier and hotter summer in 2018, contributing to a remarkable series of forest fires:

As temperatures warm and winters shorten, traditions like the Vasaloppet (or the Iditarod) become ever more tenuous; friction tries relentlessly to reassert its claims

Bill McKibben

McKibben writes that the Vasaloppet, “like everything to do with ice and cold, is now under existential threat.” But he sees glimmers of hope.

He points out that funds and institutions are divesting from fossil fuel companies because their primary value is projected to decline. We know the US military regards climate change as a serious threat to operations and national security. Acknowledgement, acceptance, and action by big players with economic and political clout is crucial.

As is activism at the literal ground level. Masha Gessen, writing in the New Yorker last year, described a Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg and her protest to demand stronger efforts by the Swedish government in response to climate change. Thunberg’s steadfastness has generated a groundswell of support among students globally.

Yet even progressive governments shy away from acting with urgency. The stakes of climate change are much greater than merely the risk to the status quo or a recreational activity. We are already inducing an unnaturally rapid shift in the climate that all living things have called ‘normal’ for over 100,000 years. We don’t want to think we’re pushing Mother Nature toward a cliff, but we’d be wise not to wait and see how hard she pushes back.


“30s are brisk…”

… 20s are ‘cool’, teens are ‘chilly’, single digits are ‘cold’. You can only say ‘freezing’ when it’s subzero, and wind chill doesn’t count, because it’d be dumb to go outside nude in the wintertime. It’s a mantra that’s served me well.

I’m not alone in pushing back at the way weather reporting encourages a fear of normal winter weather. Viking Nordic’s Facebook feed recently posted a link to this article in Outside magazine:

Over-Hyped Weather Forecasts Are Bad for Skiing

Weather sites and reporters on weather events maximize attention by emphasizing risk and hazards. The article contends this is harmful to winter sports and the businesses that depend on them, and possibly to endeavors that require a measure of ruggedness.

Wasthington crossing Delaware in winter

“It’s like [reporters have] all been exiled to Vermont from some tropical paradise. Lots of them really seem to hate winter.”

Eric Friedman, marketing director at Vermont’s Mad River Glen

The article goes on to talk about how skiing is about having fun in the snow, but “We are far more risk averse today than we used to be.”

Cross-country skiing (at least until it goes exclusively into ski tunnels or on man-made snow), means we take what nature gives us. The activity involves moving parts that are loosely attached. What with weather, equipment, and coordination, at any moment we can have an ‘uff-da’ realization (oy vey! for Noo Yawkas).

And with that I sugue into a second mantra that serves me well:

“je ne regrette rien”

The cross-country skier has to enjoy the totality of the experience, not just the moments we feel mastery and competence.

This YouTube video features the total opposite of that feeling. It’s an edit of crashes and pratfalls at a ski marathon in Estonia, in the middle of which a set of titles appear that seem to say: ‘can this really be happening?’

Losing your dignity is a feature, not a bug

At about the 11′ 30″ mark is a series of spills at what seems like a pretty innocuous corner, accompanied by heavy metal music. The conveyer-belt like stream of people going down brings to mind Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

As in those old comedy movies, no one is seriously hurt- this is not extreme sport. The actual risk is to composure, and it’s funny because I identify with it: there are so many times I’ve looked (and probably felt) the same way. And like the skiers in the video, I shake it off, enjoy, and come back for more.

Cross-country skiing. A recreational activity in which losing your dignity is a feature, not a bug.

Osceola at the crossroads

Last week I noted the efforts by local people to keep up a ski race tradition in Mora Minnesota. This week comes an article about what happens when commitment meets age, time and other needs:

Owners of Osceola cross country center look to get out after nearly 40 years

Hugh Quinn at Osceola-Tug Hill Cross Country Ski Center. After 39 years, he and his wife, Anna, are putting the center up for sale with plans to retire by by the end of next winter. (photo: David Hill for the Rome Sentinel)

As with reefs and the fish they attract, touring center operators and the skiers they attract have different needs but overlapping interests. I don’t expect a groundswell of crowdsourcing to save Osceola, but: “The Quinns note on their website that the highest probability for the property if it doesn’t continue as a ski center would be used by an out-of-state snowmobile club.”

It may be necessary to make more businesslike decisions about cross-country skiing areas to save the sport, but as with downhill skiing, snowboarding, and surfing, people will feel a cost that won’t be on a balance sheet.

“About half the people that ski here come from out of state. And that just boggles my mind, the distances that people travel to go play in snow.”

Hugh Quinn, owner Osceola-Tug Hill Cross Country Ski Center

Nobody runs a touring center to get rich, and families that drive hours with their kids are seeking something beyond fun. They’re looking capture an experience that’s tough to book in advance.

Taking the other side of the coin, you may wonder: What’s it like to run a ski touring center?

“It’s kind of like farming: There’s a lot of work and a lot depending on weather. But at the end of the day if you like working for yourself and you like the cold, you like snow, interaction with the people, yeah, it’s a great job.”

Coach Jeff Moore of Camden High School

In addition to the commerce, the rentals, the bookkeeping, and summertime trail maintenance, you get to engage in some real deep-geek on snow grooming:

  • The Ginzugroomer– just what every trail groomer needs to bust up those tough icy trails.
  • And then you can talk about the relative merits of Tillers vs. G2s & Ginzus with like-minded groomers.

If you read some threads you realize trail groomer-folk are serious backyard engineers, and it’s no wonder that the job fits well with people accustomed to farm equipment. If I had as much interest in shopwork and mechanics as I did my skis, I’d consider it as a way to play with big toys in a worthwhile cause.

But any single person or family can only invest so much of themselves. Now, the linchpin of the Osceola ‘reef’ is disappearing because: “The Quinns want out. They’ve scheduled a meeting for 6 p.m. March 2 at the ski center, 1486 Osceola Road, to explore options with season-pass holders, regular customers, proprietors of area food and lodging establishments and anyone else with an interest.”

A reef without enough diversity is fragile, and so far there doesn’t seem to be anyone with the resources and interest to step in for the Quinns.

Clownfish in a reef