During the spring a robin builds her nest in the peak of the eaves of my neighbor’s house, just above a large window. Beside the house, an old oak tree points a long, gnarled finger at the nest. The end of this branch is where the robin lands before hopping up to the nest. Alas for the poor robin.
Alighting on the branch tip, the bird sees its reflection in the window. A protective mother, she takes one look at the supposed intruder and gives battle. The robin pummels her reflection. Time after time, day after day, she throws herself against the invincible enemy.
Sometimes, in my quest for a lifestyle based upon Nordic adventure, I can relate to the bird.
Like the robin, I can’t seem to stop somehow. When the first heavy frost of the fall nips the local golf course I am out there trying to make ski tracks. Some winters my dedicated rock skis have way more kilometers on them than any of my good boards.
I recall one of my toughest outings during a warm January day. The only skiable patch of snow I could find was four kilometers into the woods. The paths that are usually packed and groomed were bare dirt. A stripe of snow one foot wide and four kilometers long led to a half kilometer hill, shaded by trees. It was wide enough to skate. My outing consisted of double poling on this narrow lane of snow, with many intervals of skiing up and down the hill followed by another double pole back to the car. Was it fun? Oh yes! A really bad skiing day is still better than a day spent running or sitting in front of the tube watching the pigskin wonders. The people who were out for a hike that day may have seen the same stubbornness in me that I see in the robin.
Except for glare ice, there is rarely a snow condition that I won’t try to ski. As a public school teacher in a state known for fierce winters, I know it takes a bunch of snow or serious cold to close the school. You can bet I am more excited than the kids about a school closing announcement. A few years back, when the schools closed when windchills hit minus sixty, I was able, with the right dress, including a face shield, to classic ski a slow 20 kilometers, in homage to the robin.
My friend the robin differs from me in one important way, I stay here all winter while the robin flees to a more temperate location. The migration patterns of many critters, especially birds and whales, are being better understood and offer inspiration to the Nordic skier. The arctic tern must win some sort of an award for perseverance and mileage. Spending the summer feasting in the Arctic, the tern will pack up and wing down to the Antarctic for its summer. Certainly those durable birds, whose journey makes skiing the Birkie seem like a day of rest, must pass through more hospitable climes in the course of their journey. However, they choose two of the extreme landscapes of the earth to spend their endless summer. Surely that is inspiration for the Nordic crowd.
The typical Nordic skier migration pattern is reversed from most species, including the human. Some years back, while eating lunch with other skiers after the Vasaloppet ski race, the talk fell to future adventures. The American Birkebeiner was only a few weeks away, and conversation drifted to past races, starting waves, and all the usual stories, true or not. I had been quiet during the conversation when suddenly I was asked my Birkie plans. Sheepishly, I confessed that the beaches of Mexico would be my destination while the rest of the midwestern Nordic world would be traveling to Hayward, Wisconsin. The silence was daunting. When I explained that this was a special family reunion, my comrades said such scheduling could not have happened in their families. As I left the table I received heartfelt condolences from all present. I had finally met a group who could understand my reluctance to flee the frozen north during our finest season.
The wait for the beginning of a mass start ski race like the Birkebeiner reminds me of another hearty, persevering bird -- the penguin. Standing in a racing suit, surrounded by hundreds of similarly clad people, not moving, and packed together, is similar to the life of the penguins of Antarctica which spend summer and winter at the coldest place on earth. Grouped together, caring for their young, and not eating for extended periods during the cold night of winter must rank the penguin as the truest lover of winter in the bird world. When the penguins return to the sea to feed they move with an uncommon grace and elegance which belies their somewhat rotund form and high percentage if body fat. During marathon-length races like those in the Worldloppet series I usually feel akin to the penguin, moving quickly and freely, but there are moments when I waddle and feel I have not eaten in weeks.
The Worldloppet races feature huge participation for a winter sporting event. In Sweden, 12,000 line up for the Vasaloppet, the longest Worldloppet race at 90 kilometers, and only slightly fewer ski the Birkebeiner Rennet across the border at Rena, Norway. In the Engadin Valley in Switzerland, at the Marcialonga in Italy, where over one million dollars was spent hauling in artificial snow last season, to Sapporo Japan, to Falls Creek Australia, home of the Kangaroo Hoppet, thousands of people train, travel and compete, usually against themselves, in the greatest ski events of the world. Many athletes train year round for these events and all ages are well represented. The penguin, guarding its egg through the cold Antarctic night would understand.
Another bird which stays put in the cold snowy places of the world is the ptarmigan, found mostly north of the continental United States, but also seen year round in the Cascade mountains of Washington state. Slightly smaller than a grouse, the ptarmigan can be seen at or near tree line -- that is, if you can spot it. In winter, the ptarmigan is covered by a pure white mass of feathers which blend seamlessly with snow. The birds trust their brand of camouflage so completely that they rarely fly away if you happen to stumble upon them. Ever so slowly, they will walk away from you on their natural snowshoes. I have watched as ptarmigan slowly moved away, operating under the assumption that I couldn't see them. The reason for the slow movement is obvious when a ptarmigan takes to the air. With the sun glinting off its brilliant feathers the bird resembles a flying light bulb.
Many of the nordic crowd should be able to relate to ptarmigan. We feel the joy of gliding through a silent forest during a gentle snowfall. We ski stealthily up to a herd of deer or pass a ruffed grouse on the trail while gliding along. We spend the winter near home, adapting to the environment, and thinking that this must be the grandest place on earth. There is nowhere we would rather be than here.
Skiers are both social and solitary creatures, at home in the landscape with groups of like minded souls, and longing to be alone and at peace with the earth. While our cycles may differ from those of the birds, the determination, perseverance, and physical nature of their world is connected to ours. The robin will defend the nest, the tern will make its incredible journey, while the penguin and ptarmigan stay home and adapt to the land.. The dedicated nordic adventurer will follow all these paths during the course of a season. We can see in these wild things a clear reflection of ourselves.