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The World's Premiere Nordic Skiing Publication Volume 21, Issues 1



Near the end of summer, we first start thinking about it. As fall comes, and the leaves turn and swirl in colorful whirlwinds, we eagerly look forward to it. Then it happens. Snow. A cause for celebration . . .

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow. --Ralph Waldo Emerson

It's all about snow, isn't it? Snow and all its marvelous variations. It makes cross country skiing possible, of course, but snow also adds a rich aesthetic element that makes cross country skiing much more than simply a sport; rather it is something more akin to art.

I think that, deep down, most cross country skiers love and appreciate art, particularly the art of the natural world. What is more beautiful than snow? It's an element that many in contemporary society miss, for unless you ski or snowshoe, or really spend time at some other pursuit in the snow, you rarely have the opportunity to truly see it.

We all have had times, burned into our memory, when we truly have experienced beauty -- those glorious times when we were out on skis, and the sun came out, and the snow-draped world suddenly became magical, with everything is so bright and beautiful we wanted it to last and last. That is a part of understanding art: of seeking it, finding it, appreciating it, and wanting to hold onto to it as long as we can.

The first time I can recall such an experience was on a multi-day ski journey. I had only skied a few times prior to the trip. At the time I was mostly a climber, and some college friends had invited me along to do a winter climb during Christmas break. To get to the base of the climb meant a two-day trip, and it meant using cross country skis.

It was one of those trips that teaches by immersion. I don't know how many times I fell that first day--forward, backward and sideways. I learned plenty: I learned that you don't step across your skis when you change directions; that with a pack on your back, you don't do a lot of extraneous back and forth motions with the upper body; and that when you get up after a fall, the only way to do it is to remove the pack first.

The first night we found a flat place, packed the snow with skis, and set up the tent. It was late December. Nightfall came quickly, and shortly thereafter came a nearly full moon. After we got settled, we wrapped ourselves in our bags for warmth and ate while propped on our elbows.. Then someone suggested a moonlight ski. A moonlight ski. What a novel idea! I eagerly joined them, and that's when the beauty of snow really hit me. Stepping out of the tent was like stepping into a vast art gallery with one grand painting.

That night I skied through a world of broad brush strokes and blue light and glitter and shadows. What is there about snow at night that is so mysterious? It's unreal, makes where you are like no other place on earth, more like a dream than anything familiar or tangible.

We kept mostly to the open areas, taking advantage of the moonlight, skiing up gentle inclines and around mounds where small trees had been drifted over. I stayed out longer than the others, thoroughly enjoying the silence and the snow, which was perfect that night, light and fluffy and forgiving--even when, yet again, I crossed a ski and tumbled forward.

It takes special moments like that to remind us that the beauty of snow goes deep. That's particularly so when you live in snow country, for it's easy to take the white stuff for granted. Snow has been a constant in my life. I grew up in Minnesota, where snow and cold are the norms. Most people who live in the snow belt only tolerate winter, and sometime after Christmas, most start looking forward to spring. Early in my life, I have to admit, that that's how I felt. For recreation, I shot basketball, played volleyball and otherwise hung out in a gym. I did do a little ice skating since there were five lakes within a mile of my home, but in the winter, I spent a good part of my free time indoors.

That was true until I discovered skiing. That happened when I went to college in the West, and Sigmund, a Norwegian classmate, took me on my first cross-country outing. From that day forward, everything changed.

When you ski or snowshoe, you look forward to snow. When you see flakes coming down, you hope that they will keep coming all day. You secretly relish it when the really big storms come in and autorities close highways and all kinds of havoc occurs. Yes! Snow falls are something to be celebrated. Arrives the snow! On such days you can't wait to get out and wander about on your skis, enjoying the snow and searching out what new scenes have been created..

I find it amusing that the literate world has such a dim outlook on snow.. Alas, there must be few skiers among the poets.

Unlike Emerson, most poets and writers portray snow and winter as a time of gloom, not as a time to celebrate beauty. Snow often is symbol of desperation and depression. "Now is the winter of our discontent" wrote Shakespeare in Richard III. And then in Henry VI, he raged "Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold." Wrote Emily Dickinson,

"There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes."

Rudyard Kipling was anything but mournful in his writing; nevertheless, he wasn't enamored with the idea of winter: "Never again will I spend another winter in this accursed bucketshop of a refrigerator called England." What a clever parting quip to impress friends! "Never again," you might say with great flourish, throwing a heavy woolen scarf around your neck, "will I spend another winter in this accursed bucketshop of a refrigerator called (insert the name of your state here)." I admit there were were times when I could have inserted the word "Minnesota" in the blank.

While winter weather and snow seem to depress writers, snow, interestingly enough, also is a symbol of purity. In the bible, Isaiah says: "Come now, and let us reason together though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." Shakespeare, who was no snow lover, uses it when he speaks of chastity: "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow." It seems strange that a symbol for depression also is used as a symbol for purity and chastity. For the sake of argument, if one was to merge the two symbols, you might then say that being a virgin and righteous is depressing. But I don't think I'll go there. I'll let philosophers and theologians tackle that one.

Fortunately, we snow lovers have our literary champions, such as the aptly named Robert Frost. In one of his best known poems, "Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening," he pauses and watches the woods "fill up with snow." The wood's beauty, nature's work of art, has drawn him and he seems to be lost in quiet contemplation, but then home and the responsibilities of life tug at him and eventually pull him away:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep."

Those promises seem always to take us away. We've been out skiing and have become entranced by the winter scenery and suddenly realize that the time has gotten beyond us and we must go. We return to or daily lives, of course, but the beauty of the snowy experience stays, tucked away in our memory, and we are the better for it.

I believe that's true of my first moonlight ski. Although I wanted to wander for hours, it was cold that night, and, admittedly, my body was tired from the long, hard day. The demands of life--of rest and warmth--in the end can't be denied, and I turned around and headed back to camp. Nearing camp, I couldn't resist a quick run down a small hill. As I flew down it--without falling this time!--powder flew from my skis in two plumes of silver confetti.

Moments like that make it all worthwhile. Let the poets whine and stew in their melancholy. We skiers would rather celebrate:

Arrives the snow!

Ron Watters is the author of seven books on the outdoors including Ski Camping and Winter Tales and Trails, a compendium of historical ski stories and a comprehensive guide to cross country ski trails in Idaho, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.

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