Wallflowers dance with glitter: the sequel

This year has become different in one way- The New York Times, stodgy home of Old Media and Journalism, decided to notice that Jessie Diggins won the Tour de Ski. Considering the frankly dour and snarky article they published in 2018 before the PyongChang Olympics, this seems like quite a turnaround for the ‘Grey Lady’.

I could carp about the Times and its limited coverage of sports that I like. I could also put some words into the mouths of those who’d downplay the significance of the win, because the powerhouse Norwegians weren’t there. The truth is, without the Norwegians (and many of the Swedes), international Nordic competition becomes a bit more interesting. And regardless, Diggins earned every inch of her win.

A few years ago I had the chance to see Ms Diggins in person in Stillwater MN. A couple hundred people showed up to listen to her and some of her old coaches do a presentation. A high school coach of Jessie’s described how she analyzed herself just after a recent ski they did together. The specificity on crafting every part of her body into a Nordic race machine seemed at odds with her cheery demeanor. I thought then that underneath the glitter and perky dance moves is a stone-cold competitor.

Ten months later, Diggins and Randall won the Olympic gold medal in the freestyle team sprint.

Somewhere in a Pixar universe, there’s movie about a person with Arnold Schwarzenegger-size determination finding happiness in the body and personality of a girl in the Midwest who wears glitter and dances to pop tunes. What else could such a person do to express themselves except push their body insanely on skis one day and bake muffins the next?

(photo from jessiediggins.com)

Diggins takes home an awesome win, the notice of the New York Times (hold the snark), and a block of Gruyere cheese the size of a small boulder. Congratulations to Jessie, Rosie, the women’s team, and the many others who made it possible.

Pain cave collapse at the finish, and those funky Steger mukluks on the podium

Wallflowers at the dance

Short note on the events at the US Capitol today: a disgraceful performance by a bunch of people who have deluded themselves, and by someone who never had the capacity or temperament to be President.

And now, on to regularly-scheduled programming.

Colorado 19th century skiers

Pretty much every winter I can count on at least a couple of articles in Mainstream Media (MSM) about cross-country skiing, and possibly a photo of someone skiing along in an urban setting. It often feels perfunctory and obligatory, as if the leadership in the student government were told to start the party by getting the wallflowers out on the dance floor.

Every season, I think: maybe this year can be different. Well, 2020 certainly was a different kind of year almost from its beginning. So here’s a rundown on a few stories of the season, with an editorial coda.

From the Wall Street Journal comes the clickbait title: ‘Why Cross-Country Skiing Will Be the Winter’s Coolest Activity’ (signin required). I found out about it via the Mid-Hudson Valley Cross Country Ski Google group (a useful email group for any skiers in the lower Hudson Valley, BTW). The notable quotes:

Participation in cross-country skiing over the past few years has mostly been on the rise compared to downhill skiing, according to studies covering 2015-2019 by Snowsports Industries America, a trade group.

WSJ Magazine, Dec. 22 2020

Well, didn’t know that, but what I do know from the SIA stats I’ve seen is that XC participation fluctuates significantly year-to-year. Most likely the variation has to do with seasonal quantity and distribution of snowfall. The marginal skier will tend to think of skiing only when they see snow.

Americans tend to obsess over the fitness element more than Scandinavians, who excel in competition but also at treating cross-country as a comfortable weekend activity

WSJ Magazine, Dec. 22 2020

I’ve noticed that Americans tend to gravitate toward performative or measurable values (time, money, win/loss) over those that aren’t subject to easy comparison, like satisfaction. As if we can’t assess our lives except in comparison to others. Because ‘soft’ values are hard to equate or translate across cultural or experiential differences, it’s easier to express things as quantities.

IMHO, the fact that even positively-intended articles about Nordic skiing emphasize ‘calorie-burning workouts’, and ‘fittest athletes’, adds a mental hurdle for many would-be entrants. Not to mention issues of availability, accessibility, and representation.

Badass cross-country skier in “The Heroes of Telemark”

And it’s not like calling something tough is an incentive to excel. Former Olympians like Kikkan Randall and Noah Hoffman began high school competing in sports other than cross-country skiing. They didn’t switch because they wanted to be more badass. A Maine TV station illustrates one way opportunity can strike. In this segment, high-schoolers talk about being frustrated with Covid safety measures for indoors competition and are trying out skiing instead, with the help of a coach who also happens to be a dad of one of the teens.

Performance measurement is great as a tool to see if you’re doing better, but if you’re not in it for competition, what is cross-country skiing for?

don’t even think of learning from a loved one

Jonathan Wiesel (Forbes, Dec. 18 2020)

Forbes’ interview of Jonathan Wiesel for ‘Cross Country Skiing Explodes During a Winter of Social Distancing’ beat the WSJ story by a few days. Wiesel is quite knowledgeable about the sport in the US, having occupied various roles and positions across a long span of time.

Regarding learning to ski, Wiesel offers some sage advice: “First, don’t even think of learning from a loved one, or even a friend – instead, learn from a ski professional.”. But in echoing the same advice people give about learning a skill like driving, Wiesel begs a question that should occur to most of us, especially in a time of climate change: what makes cross-country skiing worth learning?

Wiesel mentions skiers choosing XC as an alternative to the waiting and crowding at Alpine ski areas, which fits an image of the sport as an ‘alternative skiing activity’, not something worth learning for its own sake. He also casts some shade on the nascent Nordic ski industry of the 1970s in the US:

In a visionary but totally wrong-headed move, the fledgling Nordic ski industry declared that, “If you can walk, you can cross-country ski.”

Jonathan Wiesel (Forbes, Dec. 18 2020)

Another way the industry tried to play itself off existing recreational infrastructure was to advocate using golf courses for ski touring during the winter. As a business matter this was a smart use of fallow recreational areas. In places where the golf course is transformed with groomed trails in winter, it’s great for training and practice: Theodore Wirth park in Minneapolis and Weston ski track outside Boston are two terrific examples. But as a nature-enjoyment activity, skiing on golf courses is kind of boring.

The notion of cross-country skiing as an alternative winter activity fits into bygone days of the 1960s and ‘leisure time sports’. The appeal to fitness is just as bougie in the assumption people have time and money to choose a sport just for workout benefits. In either case it’s an appeal to people with access and time. And despite the USA’s recent successes in international competition, having athletes find an entry point to XC skiing by timely coincidence doesn’t seem like a sustainable development pipeline.

In what may be part of a one-off pandemic-driven surge in getting outdoors, via OZY comes an article about a resurgence of interest in cross-country skiing in Ohio, Indiana, and southern Pennsylvania. One passage quotes the president of the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association saying: “There are shops that are selling cross-country ski packages right now that haven’t sold cross-country skis for years. They think that people are going to be wanting to get out on the trails and golf courses and in their neighborhoods.”

According to the article, reasons for renewed interest range from parents wanting their children to go outside in a safe and socially-distanced way, to ski clubs that have had to refocus on skiing locally rather than travel across states to a resort destination.

Catherine Curley, who teaches kids ages 5 to 18 cross-country skiing through the Hilltoppers XC ski club outside Cleveland, says three times as many people have signed up this winter compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Cross-Country Skiing Finds a New Home: The Industrial Midwest”, OZY Jan. 5 2021

Seems to me there’s a mismatch between what could be done to promote Nordic skiing in various localities and the capabilities of the XC ski industry and probably some clubs for growing or sustaining their operations. The crux lies in the equation of snow+place=skiing. Our small ecosystem of activity, business, and desire relies on coincidence. If pandemic winter awakens interest in cross-country skiing, what happens when that’s over?

The old idea of ‘if you can walk you can ski’ has outlived its usefulness. But it may also be that people have to rise over a threshold in order to appreciate XC skiing as an activity. We know that reliable snowfalls are likely to become less so, and it’s expensive to make snow. For enough people to want to ski that they’ll visit manmade snow next to brown grass, cross-country skiing itself has to have inherent value, a reason for being beyond ‘the alternative winter activity’.

Along with rowing or canoeing, bike riding, and even surfing, cross-country skiing is based on simple tech and technique to leverage physics for self-propulsion. Like those other sports it has many variants. Skis are categorically as old as the earliest boats- two ways people developed to cross expanses of water. In talking about this niche sport, maybe the starting point is: why should it be any less relevant or enjoyable than rowing a canoe?

More to come? Maybe. Thanks for reading.

A ski season unlike any other?

Weather, pandemic travel restrictions, and… a bunch of newbies on the trails? Anyone skiing in the Northeastern parts of the USA and Canada knows weather can become a sort of obsessive (and frequently annoying) fascination. This season adds the Coronavirus pandemic as a factor.

The snowsports industry has been working all summer planning revised practices for safe skiing this winter. Cross-country skiing is actually lucky in that touring centers usually have fewer bottlenecks where people must gather for more than a couple of minutes, inside or out. For example, there’s no lift lines and chairlifts to stress about.

Some things are ‘known’: wearing masks, practice safe distancing, don’t share air for long. There are some known or knowable unknowns: As of mid-November 2020, Vermont restricts travelers from out of state to a 14-day quarantine. If this continues, it’ll hurt when Prospect Mountain eventually has the snow trail coverage and we flatlanders don’t. Might want to have an in-state alternative in mind.

But are we ready for an ‘unknown unknown’ in the form of a bunch of new skiers and snowshoers on the trail?

Media in Canada have reported on brisk early season cross-country ski sales. Those sales projections are anticipated across North America. “We’re running out of skis” said a buyer at Eb’s Source for Adventure, according to Canada’s Global News that ran in August. Eb’s subsequently boosted their ski equipment orders by a massive 50%. REI posted in PR Newswire this October that “demand for winter gear like cross-country skis and snowshoes are already up more than three and four times over last year”.

I’ve been skiing long enough (including a short career in the industry) that the notion of people buying brand-new packages three months before any reasonable expectation of snow is stunning. Ski retailers are trying to project demand for a season that could be unlike any other in recent memory.

Reese Brown, Executive Director of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association, and a resident of Vermont, said that he’s seen an influx of people who’ve moved up north over the summer, and increased use of the trails in his area. He feels it’s generally a benefit, as any time spent outdoors is a plus and people new to the region gain a direct appreciation for the environment. But as with anyone in a new setting, these newcomers haven’t been ‘seasoned’.

Which makes me think this is a good time to surrender some assumptions of mine and rethink what a current-day newbie needs to know. I may have more on that in another post or page.

More immediately, here’s some bullets on setting expectations for the season ahead:

  • Stay updated on travel restrictions affecting your home area as imposed by the destination, especially between states.
  • Touring centers are of course complying with regulations and guidance on health, and adjusting use of indoor space accordingly. The capacity to serve visitors, food, rentals, etc. will vary with each area. Check for changes before you go. 
  • Individually and overall, the advice to prevent spread of the Coronavirus is the same today as it was in April: safe distance; masks up within 6′ and always indoors; limit the amount time you share air with others; wash/sanitize hands frequently and thoroughly.
  • Many touring centers and resorts need ancillary income beyond trail fees, so they are seeking to provide services safely. This includes moving some operations outdoors or to walk-up window service. Expect that indoor spots to gather or wait will be restricted or closed, but firepits or heat lamps may be added outside the lodge. The aim is to make a good experience from circumstances that, like the weather, are not under their control.
  • Be chill (in attitude). Nobody’s done a ski season under these circumstances before. It would be wise to be reasonably self-sufficient. Think of the car as your ski lodge, locker, and changing room if need be. A friend of mine once described going skiing with her father in Germany and changing in an old VW camper van. Or experiencing ‘friluftsliv’ like a real Norwegian, hopefully with something ‘koselig’ to go back to.
  • Plan to wax your skis at home, or bring a stand with you and do it outdoors. Woof.
  • You may be called on to practice ‘defensive skiiing’ or have a chance to be an ambassador for the sport. That means newbies on the trail who don’t know what they don’t know. They might need to be clued in about adjusting layers to regulate temperature and ventilation, hydration, winter sunburn or snow blindness, snacks and first aid, and maps and wayfinding. 

There’s a familiar saying about weather in New England that might be applicable to this entire winter- “Don’t like it right now? Just wait a few minutes.”

There’s no real silver lining here, but there’s potential. If ski centers (and the people who keep the operation going) can feel they managed this winter and have a reserve of resilience for seasons ahead, that’s their best outcome. If the sport gains some new participants, everybody stands to win. As long as we get the snow and are mindful of our responsibility to keep each other safe, we can weather this winter. 

Ski conditions first post

First update of the season to ‘State of the touring centers’, with a couple of notes:

I’ve added a field to the areas for ‘Covid note’ for any info or link the area has for operational changes.

  • Osceola ski center in NY has a new owner;
  • Mountain Meadows in VT is out of the ski touring biz;
  • Windblown in NH has closed their ski center;
  • The website of Oak Hill Farms near Albany is blank and MIA

It almost goes without saying there’s not much snow out there, but here’s a pic anyway:

Snow depth northeast US, Nov. 18 2020

Bonus: updating the Rollerskiing question

Wish I’d seen this post from Craftsbury earlier but it’s nice to have some validation for all that web searching.

Rollerski-ed practice is sporadic but going OK. Scuffing those brand-new boots and trying to compensate for biomechanics weaknesses and bad habits.