Cross Country Skier
Subscribe | Columns | Features | Home
The World's Premiere Nordic Skiing Publication Volume 21, Issues 1





Mother Nature
By JIM SMITH
Ghosts of the Past

Diamonds sparkle in the radiance of my headlamp as snow sifts from an ebony sky. Skiing alone in the lighted tunnel of the night, my mind, body, and soul revel in the winter silence. I am enveloped within the solitude of the trail. Solitude is the experience that I seek on this chilly winter night. I want to be alone on the trail to ease my mind— to retreat from the the world and take a time out from the forces which shape and move the earth. As my mind clears, I realize that the trail itself has its own history of being shaped and sculpted by many diverse forces. These powers haunt my mind as I ski the trail.

Time and history are my trailside companions as I ski in isolation. While alone, for this relative instant known as the present, I cannot escape the past. The trail lies in the valley of the St. Croix River, snaking the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Like the sea-bound waters, surging beneath the ice, the history of the trail flows and ebbs.

Rising in northern Wisconsin, the St. Croix was one of the first designated Wild and Scenic rivers in America. Its stained waters resemble a weak tea, not from pollution, but from the staining roots of tamarack trees which inhabit the swampy headwaters of this flowing masterpiece. Many fine smaller tributaries contribute to its volume; the Togatac, Yellow, Clam, Sand, Snake, Apple, Willow, Kettle and the finest, the Namekagon drain a land which has not yet lost its wildness.

The present river valley was formed by the scouring meltwaters from the last ice age. Cliffs were gouged and glacially transported rock was deposited, laying the base for what was to come. Foundations for the future towns of Taylors Falls and Stillwater were sculpted beneath the icy torrent. The ice retreated and the waters receded. Now the calm river flows between the backwaters and wooded bluffs in an oversized valley.

Walking the land, the first inhabitants traveled trails formed by need. Mounds appeared on the landscape, honoring the dead, long before the overwhelming tidal wave of settlers approached from the east.

Settlers near the trail found the land bountiful. The foot trail became a horse trail, followed by wagons, and soon tractors, as the farmer toiled, growing crops, raising children, and storing memories. The land yielded its bounty as the trail became a fixture on the landscape. Mounds and trails - the land was altered by the impact of human endeavor.

The world changed. The insanity of war swept over the country as brothers killed brothers in a fractured nation. Presidents ascended to power and greatness - and passed on. The trail took little notice, and changed not. The motor car, a late arrival on the scene, had a greater impact as highways and bridges hemmed in and spanned the valley. Some trails were covered with asphalt and concrete while others stayed tucked away from “progress.” Sheltered from the highway, on this trail, the footprint of a doe could still be seen, as when the locals pursued their quarry a thousand years ago.

Times changed - cities prospered. “Parks,” cried the populace, “we need a place of green, a place of peace”. The government heard the will of the people and some special places were saved and opened for all. This working trail was transformed to a footpath again. Walkers and skiers found peace in quiet bliss.

Briefly, the story of the trail intertwined with my own journey. Walking through the woods hand-in-hand with my new bride, planning and dreaming, our feet barely touched the earth. Only the birds witnessed a stolen kiss. Years later, we embraced, sharing our grief, as part of our future miscarried away. The flowing river and gentle rain offered solace. Tears of joy returned with the arrival of our newly adopted son. As I pushed the stroller down the rough trail, like the plow that broke this land, our son’s journey began. We shared much, this trail and I, and it has given much in return.

As I ski the trail in the quiet evening I realize that I share this trail with many others. Even now, on a cold winter night, others come to the trail. A small society forms. With a nod and a brief word of greeting, we acknowledge each other as a part of the night skiing club. Faces are hidden behind masks and by the inkiness of the night so identity is uncertain. During a busy weekend day I pass many fellow travelers and I look and wonder if any of these souls are a part of the after dark fellowship. I will never know. It is best to keep the mysterious identities unknown.

Nighttime surprises are usually few and benign, the major worry being an accident. Skiing off the track, into the trees, and breaking a leg could be lethal in these cold and lonely woods.

The most frequent, and startling encounter is when the shadowy form of a deer flits across the trail, on the very edge of headlamp range, resulting in a heart stopping snowplow, but never a collision.

Fresh ski tracks in the newly fallen snow speak of an unseen companion. I make a game of trying to overtake my fellow traveler, which can be an unsettling experience for the person ahead. The nighttime crowd is a contemplative lot and a yell of “on your left” is not the most gentle way making my presence known.

Once, on a cold winter solstice, with a full moon ruling the heavens, I arrived at an surprisingly empty parking lot. The snow was perfect as I skied though a fairyland of crystals. The full moon and solstice combination was enough to get my imagination honed and put my senses on alert. Suddenly, sparks scattered to the heavens as a large fire illuminated the night. Flames leapt to the sky from a large and well stacked campfire. No living soul was in sight. With a good set of the creeps, and a chill down my spine, I continued on down the trail, pausing often to peer over my shoulder.

Skiing on the darkened trail restores my spirit. My journey on the trail is a metaphor for my path in life. As others have come before, I travel in their tracks - others will pass this way in the future, and shadow the ghost of my tracks. I don’t own the land on which the trail resides, but neither do the harsh realities of economics stop me from taking possession of the trail, at least for the present, at least for this instant. My skis flow effortlessly and my burden is lightened by the journey in the night.

Tiring of unnatural light, I switch off the headlamp. Other senses respond. Like a migrant butterfly, I know every ripple and bend on the path home. Floating down hills in total darkness, it is faith that keeps me secure. Faith in the forces that created the trail. Faith in the future, as the trail continues to heal. Faith in celebration for those that traverse the trail seeking its comfort, its joy, its wisdom.

The government heard the will of place of peace.” The government heard the will of the people and some special places were saved and opened for all. This working trail was transformed to a footpath again. Walkers and skiers found peace in quiet bliss.

Briefly, the story of the trail intertwined with my own journey. Walking through the woods hand-in-hand with my new bride, planning and dreaming, our feet barely touched the earth. Only the birds witnessed a stolen kiss. Years later, we embraced, sharing our grief, as part of our future miscarried away. The flowing river and gentle rain offered solace. Tears of joy returned with the arrival of our newly adopted son. As I pushed the stroller down the rough trail, like the plow that broke this land, our son’s journey began. We shared much, this trail and I, and it has given much in return.

As I ski the trail in the quiet evening I realize that I share this trail with many others. Even now, on a cold winter night, others come to the trail. A small society forms. With a nod and a brief word of greeting, we acknowledge each other as a part of the night skiing club. Faces are hidden behind masks and by the inkiness of the night so identity is uncertain. During a busy weekend day I pass many fellow travelers and I look and wonder if any of these souls are a part of the after dark fellowship. I will never know. It is best to keep the mysterious identities unknown.

Nighttime surprises are usually few and benign, the major worry being an accident. Skiing off the track, into the trees, and breaking a leg could be lethal in these cold and lonely woods. The most frequent, and startling encounter is when the shadowy form of a deer flits across the trail, on the very edge of headlamp range, resulting in a heart stopping snowplow, but never a collision.

Fresh ski tracks in the newly fallen snow speak of an unseen companion. I make a game of trying to overtake my fellow traveler, which can be an unsettling experience for the person ahead. The nighttime crowd is a contemplative lot and a yell of “on your left” is not the most gentle way making my presence known.

Once, on a cold winter solstice, with a full moon ruling the heavens, I arrived at a surprisingly empty parking lot. The snow was perfect as I skied though a fairyland of crystals. The full moon and solstice combination was enough to get my imagination honed and put my senses on alert. Suddenly, sparks scattered to the heavens as a large fire illuminated the night. Flames leapt to the sky from a large and well stacked campfire.

No living soul was in sight. With a good set of the creeps, and a chill down my spine, I continued on down the trail, pausing often to peer over my shoulder.

Skiing on the darkened trail restores my spirit. My journey on the trail is a metaphor for my path in life. As others have come before, I travel in their tracks - others will pass this way in the future, and shadow the ghost of my tracks. I don’t own the land on which the trail resides, but neither do the harsh realities of economics stop me from taking possession of the trail, at least for the present, at least for this instant. My skis flow effortlessly and my burden is lightened by the journey in the night.

Tiring of unnatural light, I switch off the headlamp. Other senses respond. Like a migrant butterfly, I know every ripple and bend on the path home. Floating down hills in total darkness, it is faith that keeps me secure. Faith in the forces that created the trail. Faith in the future, as the trail continues to heal. Faith in celebration for those that traverse the trail seeking its comfort, its joy, its wisdom.

No living soul was in sight. With a good set of the creeps, and a chill down my spine, I continued on down the trail, pausing often to peer over my shoulder.

Skiing on the darkened trail restores my spirit.

My journey on the trail is a metaphor for my path in life. As others have come before, I travel in their tracks - others will pass this way in the future, and shadow the ghost of my tracks. I don’t own the land on which the trail resides, but neither do the harsh realities of economics stop me from taking possession of the trail, at least for the present, at least for this instant. My skis flow effortlessly and my burden is lightened by the journey in the night.

Tiring of unnatural light, I switch off the headlamp. Other senses respond. Like a migrant butterfly, I know every ripple and bend on the path home. Floating down hills in total darkness, it is faith that keeps me secure. Faith in the forces that created the trail. Faith in the future, as the trail continues to heal. Faith in celebration for those that traverse the trail seeking its comfort, its joy, its wisdom.




Cross Country Ski Destinations

Departments





Subscribe | Columns | Features | Home | Related Links | Back Issues

Subscription Questions?
715-798-5500



Writer Guidelines


Contents copyright © 2002 by Cross Country Skier, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited unless expressly authorized in writing by the publisher. Printed and website hosted in the U.S.A.

Cross Country Skier
P.O. Box 550
Cable, WI 54821