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Downhill from Here: Cross country ski for free

  • Breaking Trail: It’s a lot of work to break trail through deep snow, but once you have tracks you can ski them easily until the next snowstorm. (Tim Jones photo)

    Breaking Trail: It’s a lot of work to break trail through deep snow, but once you have tracks you can ski them easily until the next snowstorm. (Tim Jones photo)

  • Upward: Who needs a ski lift? These Telemark skiers are climbing lift free on Cardigan Mountain. (Tim Jones photo)

    Upward: Who needs a ski lift? These Telemark skiers are climbing lift free on Cardigan Mountain. (Tim Jones photo)

  • Doggone Skiing: Dogs aren’t welcome at most ski areas, but if you head out on your own they can help you break trail. (Tim Jones photo)

    Doggone Skiing: Dogs aren’t welcome at most ski areas, but if you head out on your own they can help you break trail. (Tim Jones photo)

  • Breaking Trail: It’s a lot of work to break trail through deep snow, but once you have tracks you can ski them easily until the next snowstorm. (Tim Jones photo)
  • Upward: Who needs a ski lift? These Telemark skiers are climbing lift free on Cardigan Mountain. (Tim Jones photo)
  • Doggone Skiing: Dogs aren’t welcome at most ski areas, but if you head out on your own they can help you break trail. (Tim Jones photo)

Sometimes, readers write with seemingly simple questions that can lead to unexpected ideas for outdoor adventures. That’s what happened recently when John wrote:

“I am a novice cross-country skier, retired on a fixed income. Instead of paying to ski, I have been going to parks whenever there’s enough snow. This season, maybe I’ll graduate to golf courses. I find it very difficult to ski on unpacked, deep snow. Do you have any suggestions?”

Of course I have suggestions!

Personally, I think John deserves a big round of applause. Here’s a retiree who has found a way to get outdoors and keep fit close to home and on a limited budget. The world needs more people like him. By the way, cross-country ski gear is cheap. I see older but still perfectly functional skis, boots and poles in the swap shop at our local recycling center all the time, and the for-sale ads online and in the local newspaper are a treasure-trove of cheap cross-country gear.

But I digress. ... I wrote back to John immediately and told him that deep, untracked snow is a challenge for most cross-country skiers. That’s why Nordic resorts with groomed and tracked trails are so popular. And untracked snow is especially tough on inexperienced skiers, so a lot of his issues will probably disappear as he gets more experience.

I then suggested that he go out right after a storm and lay down a set of tracks in his favorite place to ski. That way, he’ll have an easy set of tracks to ski in (and add to) in coming days.

With a little effort, you can, essentially, create your own private Nordic ski area.

This particular task of breaking out tracks after a storm is easier and more fun if it’s shared. I suggested John make contact with some like-minded folks in his area and they could all take turns leading as they break new trails after a storm. A group can cover more ground and create a larger network of tracks than a solo skier. Two couples Marilyn and I are close with have networks of cross-country ski tracks near their homes. It’s not uncommon for a group to gather after a storm to break out the trails together. Sometimes, though, the individual trail breakers will never see each other – the only evidence that someone else is enjoying “your” ski neighborhood is tracks that connect with the tracks you laid down.

By the way, it’s not fair to always let someone else do the trail breaking chores. If someone else laid down tracks ahead of you, either add a loop of your own or make a special effort to get there first after the next storm. Do your share and everyone wins.

If you have permission to use a large tract of land, it may even be possible to organize a club to share the effort of keeping the trails cleared of debris and tracked for easier skiing. If you know someone who has a snowmobile, that’s a great way to open a network of XC trails and keep them groomed all season long.

My final suggestion to John was that he contact any of the Nordic ski areas near his house and see if he could perhaps exchange a few days of labor before the season in return for trail passes and, perhaps, a lesson to help him become a better Nordic skier so he can ski stronger and savor that deep snow when it comes.

Enjoying winter doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Just get yourself some cross-country gear (or snowshoes) and get out the door when it snows.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Telemark, Alpine Touring, Randonee, Splitboarding

Cross-country skiing isn’t the only type of skiing you can do without paying for lift tickets or trail access. There’s a lot of gear available these days that lets you climb up any snow-covered hill and slide down as many times as your legs can stand.

One warning: Good gear that lets you do this generally isn’t cheap. But once you are past the steep initial investment, the fun is essentially free.

If you aren’t already a skier or snowboarder, I’d recommend you start with Telemark skiing (Wikipedia has a good description with a video). Telemark boots and bindings keep your heel free so you can put skins on your skis and climb up hills. At the top, you take the skins off and ski down using Telemark turns that are both effective and elegant, especially in soft snow. I’m probably the world’s worst Telemark skier, but I love it.

If you are already an Alpine skier, Alpne Touring or Randonee gear uses lighter boots and bindings that allow your heel to lift as you climb, but which lock down so you can make regular ski turns on the way down. Snowboarders can use a split board, which comes apart into two skis for climbing, then locks together for riding down.

As long as the snow is deep enough, Telemark, A-T or Splitboard gear will let you get out and enjoy the best of winter in New England. We’ve got all these hills, and (hopefully) a lot of snow ... might as well make the most of it.

Permit update

It’s taken a lot of digging, but I think I’ve sorted out the Christmas tree permit problem I reported on last week.

First of all, if you are headed for the Green Mountain National Forest on a weekend or holiday, you’re out of luck. The Grinches in charge have decreed there’s no place to buy a permit, no way to get it online. You have to go midweek.

The White Mountain National Forest is a bit better. Right after my last column appeared, reader Rick Wilson, who had been up hiking Hedgehog Mountain off the Kancamagus Highway, told me they’d found a permit at the visitor’s center just off Interstate 93’s Exit 32 in Lincoln.

Since then, I’ve learned that the Saco District Office on the Kancamagus Highway in Conway (447-5448) is open on weekends and the Androscoggin District Office in Gorham ( 466-2713) in Gorham is open on Saturdays after Thanksgiving specifically to sell Christmas tree permits.

So there are options, and going out and finding your own wild Christmas tree is an adventure the whole family can enjoy.

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

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