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

Mother Nature
Keeping In Touch

As I walk out the front door my three year old daughter, Hannah, sticks her head into the chilly morning air and pro-claims, “It smells like snow, Daddy.” She is in much closer touch with the universe than I. Hannah raises my hopes of witnessing the first snowfall of the season which is always a magical encounter. I eagerly await, with a spring-like and child-like anticipation, the mystery which crystallizes plain drops of water into jewels of infinite variety.

My skis are not yet waxed or even taken down from the rafters but it is time to grab a pair of poles and visit to the trails. Cross-country skiing requires a degree of fitness to efficiently flow along the tracks. A good dose of pole walking helps to get my body back in touch with the rhythms of cross-country skiing. An added treat of snow flurries may also revive my faith that winter will indeed return. Some slow long-distance training, such as walking with ski poles, prepares both the mind and body for the season when flakes finally fly into deep piles of drifted bliss.

The tell-tale signs of autumn in the Midwest are brisk mornings and ponds outlined in ice. As I hug my daughter goodbye clouds of steam burst from our words. The gray overcast ski carries just a hint of precipitation. Maybe she is correct that the first flakes will fly today.

I retreat to a refuge in the midst of the city. Tamarack Nature Center is tucked between a freeway, factories, and homes in the suburban Twin Cities. Five kilometers of ski trails wind through the woods and along wetlands and ponds. The insects which control this piece of real estate in the humid summer months are gone and the crisp air is refreshing. Maybe the force of my will can bring on the snow flurries, if I can only think the right thoughts. Positive thoughts about snow to encourage the clouds to precipitate.

As I begin the walk my mind wanders back to ski tracks which were stolen from under the nose of Mother Nature. The times where I have searched out those elusive trails or patches of snow where few think to investigate, and no one expects to find great skiing. However, stolen adventures are risky endeavors, where the miles spent driving, or carrying skis might result in an empty-handed return home. But every so often a jewel is unturned and I steal a really great ski. Memories surface of carving telemark turns down the Muir snowfield on majestic Mount Rainier at the tail end of July. We carried our skis up to Camp Muir following the climbers bound for the summit. Tarrying at Camp Muir to take in the views at over ten thousand feet, we anticipated the five thousand foot descent on skinny skis back to the Paradise Visitors Center. Pushing off, our skis float past mountaineers as they plod for home, shouldering heavy burdens. Our goal was not the summit but the feeling akin to a soaring hawk as we swooped down the July corn snow in the warm summer sun, encumbered only by a day pack.

I urge the heavens to open with more memories. In the Midwest there is the fall hunting season, hunting for skiable snow that is. The cognoscenti search out the environs of Lake Superior where a sudden lake effect snow squall can leave two feet on the ground in the inland highlands. Don't expect groomed tracks right away even though there are a few places that seem to start grooming with a heavy frost. But tucked in the corners near Duluth, or Ishpeming, or Thunder Bay are those secret places where a wide pair of touring skis will give you a day full of memories. Where are these spots? I can’t tell you, but most local shops will let you in on their own early season hideaways. Nothing like heading home to the Twin Cities on a fifty degree day with tales of a brief visit to winter.

Returning to the present, I realize that pole walking imitates ski-ing except for one important ingredient, there is no glide.

Friction still rules but it will soon be banished by a lubricating layer of white. In the mean time, the walking is pleasant and there are enough distractions either on the ground, or in the depth of memories, to keep my mind occupied. The kilometers fly by.

My mind wanders back to last season when I often classic skied at Tamarack on newly groomed tracks. Silky smooth ribbons in a world of brilliance. Close to work, but a world away. Exercise, which seems the wrong word to use when referring of skiing, invigorates the body and calms the mind. I revel in the sound of a hawk screaming - hey wait a minute - hawks migrate out of here in winter. I realize that the hawk is not a memory, but is invading my senses in the present. I stop and scan the sky for what sounds like a majestic bird. My olfactory is not as well tuned as my daughter’s, but I take pride in the ability to spot most anything in the wild. Nothing in sight, it must be hidden by a tree branch on a lofty perch. I move on.

The first snow of the season makes its appearance in a wide array of forms, most of them surreal. In the Pacific Northwest the drive from Seattle to Mount Rainier, is usually begun in typical winter rains. Low cloud layers obscured any view of the famous mountain through the splattered windshield. A sign at the bottom of the hill to Paradise called for chains to be worn “beyond this point.” Being a native and a naive Minnesotan I did not take this precaution seriously and drove on. Suddenly, we passed the snow line, that mysterious elevation and temperature dependent point, where the moisture magically turns from rain to snow. The world was transformed to a flocked winter won-derland, the beauty of which was lost on the park ranger who stopped me to inquire why there were no tire chains on my wheels. Lying in the slop, attaching chains and trying to avoid a hefty fine, I noticed the tree branches were wearing a new jacket of heavy, wet snow. Soon I was skiing along, avoiding rocks, and melting flakes on my teeth, bared by my wide grin.

My memories are intruded by that hawk again, sounding angry as it stalks an unseen prey. Scanning a large corporate lawn across a road from the park I have unlimited sight lines but see no bird.

In the Midwest, the first snowfall is usually the kind that sneaks up on you. One minute everything is gray, the next, the air is filled with shimmering white diamonds which lightly land on your sleeve and show off an infinite variety of design. This type of snow flurry causes a spontaneous trip to the basement and a flurry in the wax box to prep a pair of skis, just in case there is accumulation. You have to be prepared to sneak out a few kilometers of bliss at the local golf course.

Back at the nature center, the pole walk is not a strenuous endeavor. Internal warmth heats the body and the breathing is not overly taxing so the pleasure rating is high. There is plenty to notice. The last seasonally transit birds are undertaking their journey south. Even the Canada geese, are packing their bags for the sojourn to warm places.

The sound from my shoes is a combination of a crunch on the frozen ground with the swish of of dried leaves. I pass under a large oak tree which will hold its leaves deep into winter. Strong northerly winds will drop them onto the groomed track, which my klister waxed skis will harvest with rake-like efficiency. Maybe someday the Pisten Bully folks will come up with an attachment to rake the snow while putting down tracks through oak groves.

Still no sign of flakes as I begin lap number two. I challenge the skies to open with memories of other times and other places. Of storms which surprise and challenge, but do not deter. The Midwest blizzards with deep light snow, whipped by gale force winds can reduce visibility and make driving impossible.

They are usually followed by arctic blasts which homebound even the most dedicated Nord. A Lake Superior breeze will lack in moisture until it crosses the relatively warm waters of this inland sea. Bursting with lake added humidity the “breeze” will bury towns like Calumet or Ironwood, Michigan with twenty quick inches. Storms whipping in off the Pacific leave snowfalls measuring in feet not inches which plaster the Cascades and the Sierra, pleasing skiers but causing thunderous avalanches through-out the ranges. Last but not least, who can forget the 2001 North American Birkebeiner.

Six thousand skiers plowed fifty-one kilometers through six inches of heavy snow which fell the morning of the race. This was the first time I could have used gaiters in a ski race.

My memories are intruded by that hawk again, sounding angry as it stalks an unseen prey. Scanning a large corporate lawn across a road from the park I have unlimited sight lines but see no bird. It sounds like this ruler of the heavens is flying around but there is nothing in sight, not even the ubiquitous geese which seem to occupy any open space in the park.

Strain as I might no winged raptor comes into sight. In frustration, I wipe away large drops of moisture from my glasses and it comes almost as a shock as I peer into the newly cleansed world. Snow, large puffy flakes, are drifting in the breeze. I never consciously noticed the first flakes but their presence envelops my soul and I yearn for all places wild and white. Like a sign from the heavens, the signal is given and the season turns the corner toward winter.

A few weeks later I read about a company which successfully keeps geese from grazing and defecating on their grounds by playing a recording of a screeching hawk. It would not have fooled Hannah for a second.

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