Embracing Winter

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There’s been a lot of grumbling around town lately about the weather. Just like some of us need a good cup of coffee to start the day, I think some people need a good, daily grumble. And weather is one of the few topics that everyone is familiar with but one can grumble about without worrying that someone within earshot will be offended.I appreciate the fact that I live in a region that experiences all four seasons. I’m probably most disappointed to see summer come to an end, but I enjoy all the seasons. And my feeling is that if we are going to have a winter, and it’s going to be cold, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Having spent the last four winters working outside on a house renovation, I can appreciate the lack of love for a cold winter among my friends in the construction business. But if we are dealt a real winter, my advice is to embrace the snow.

Winter, and cold temperatures, have some advantages. It means no ticks—a big plus for someone like me who has to spend a lot of time bushwacking in the field. I try to plan as much of my wildlife research fieldwork as possible for the winter months.

And, unlike the dog days of summer, when soaring temps can suck the energy out of you, cold weather is invigorating. Snow and ice can severely limit road and mountain biking, and can make running dangerous at times and awkward at best. But snow provides an opportunity to take up a fun fitness routine that happens to be the ultimate cardio exercise, a total body workout that utilizes every major muscle group, is the number-one calorie burner, is low impact and works on your coordination and balance: cross-country skiing.

We are fortunate in that we have an extensive network of trails on which to ski. Our main regional trail, the Paumanok Path, is at most only two miles from any house on the South Fork, and it links with many other local trails systems that can be combined to create interesting loops.

I’m fortunate in that I can ski out of my driveway, along the road shoulder for a short distance, and then into a nature preserve, where within a quarter mile I can access the Paumanok Path and the Stony Hill Preserve trail system. One shortcoming of the trail system here is the lack of designated and maintained trailheads. Other than the Hither Woods overlook trailhead, which is maintained by New York State, I don’t think there are any trailheads that are plowed and safe to access by car when the snow falls.

If you are thinking about adding cross-country skiing to your training routine, spring is a good time to get a deal on equipment and get outfitted. Good quality skis, boots, bindings and poles can be purchase for under $300.

Although Bill Kock won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics on waxless skis, waxless skis are significantly slower than waxables. That speed advantage diminishes when temperatures are above freezing, which often happens here on Long Island (and happened in Innsbruck, when Koch decided to go waxless). Waxless is the way to go here.

Downhill (alpine) skiing has its roots in cross country or Nordic skiing, and both types of skis have evolved quite dramatically since I first strapped a board onto each foot. If you look closely at the accompanying photo, you’ll see that the wooden downhill ski manufactured in the 1930s has an overall shape and size (and binding) that resembles the backcountry and telemark skis being manufactured today.

It seems that both alpine and downhill skis were designed to maximize speed at the expense of maneuverability: downhills were straight, long and wide; cross-country skis were straight, long and narrow. Neither had any sidecut, a design feature in which the tip and tail ends were significantly wider than the ski’s waist, or middle section. Sidecut is the key feature that promotes ease of carving turns.

Note that the two skis on the right side of the photo have no sidecut. The one on the extreme right is a racing ski made for speed, not turning. The ski second from right is an old backcountry ski purchased in the early 1980s. Back then, relative to one’s weight, recreational skis were simply a bit shorter and wider than a racing ski, and a backcountry ski was a bit shorter and wider than a recreational ski.

This formula was based loosely on the idea that a skier’s weight needs to be distributed evenly over the skis’ surface. Heavier skiers need wider or longer skis. Backcountry skiers carrying a backpack need a wider and/or longer ski to evenly distribute the weight of the skier and backpack load—that’s why the Bonna backcountry ski in the photograph is actually longer than my racing ski.

One pair of my old wooden skis manufactured in the 1930s by Flexible Flyer, the sled maker, actually has a fair amount of sidecut. I recently learned that sidecut was incorporated by long-forgotten ski designers sometime before 1808, so the connection between sidecut and turning has been well-known for a long time, but only recently pushed to an extreme in design.

I’m not exactly sure how radical sidecut was introduced to downhill skis, but I imagine that a frustrated ski instructor stormed into one of the major ski manufacturer’s headquarters and screamed, “Yo, we’re trying to teach people to turn on these damn things … how about making a ski that turns!”

Snowboard designers, untainted by the mindsets of their downhill counterparts, may have played a role. In any event, radical sidecut was introduced to downhill skis in the early 1990s, revolutionizing both downhill and cross-country ski design. One prominent member of the ski industry was quoted as saying, “In retrospect, everything we thought we knew for 40 years was wrong.”

To sum this up, the best ski for our ungroomed trails is a waxless touring ski with a 65-to-68-mm-wide shovel (front end). That will give you a fair bit of sidecut for turning. Widths of more than 68 mm will be a problem if you ever ski on groomed tracks off island, as the tracks set by machines are around 68 to 70 mm wide.

There are several types of bindings currently available. Pick out your boots before deciding on bindings, and take your time. Boots are the most important purchase among the lot; they need to be comfortable and give plenty of support. I recommend that people look at a lightweight backcountry boot for the support, but if you find a very comfortable touring or recreational boot, make sure its passes the “twist test”: Hold the toe box in one hand and the heel in the other, and try to twist the boot as if you are wringing out a wash cloth. It shouldn’t budge.

Good quality three-pin bindings are tried and true, and inexpensive. Look for a reputable brand name: Rottefella and Voille are two good ones. Beware, these bindings will catch the edge of groomed tracks under certain conditions. I learned this the hard way on day two of the Canadian Ski Marathon, when my three-pin bindings jammed into the icy sidewalls of the groomed track. That made for a very long and frustrating 50-mile ski!

Most recreational and light touring boots today will have a grooved sole and a metal bar under the toe box. The latter clips into one of three types of bindings (NNN, SNS Profil and SNS Pilot), and the grooved sole rests on a binding ridge, providing better overall ski control than the three-pin system.

All of these bindings work well, but they must match your boots, so get the boots first before thinking about a binding type. Bindings are relatively inexpensive compared to the boots.

Finally, you’ll need some poles. There are some tricks you can learn with your poles as an aid for descending a narrow, steep section of trail. Sturdy metal poles work fine, and a broken one is less apt to compound a bad fall than the jagged splinters of a fiberglass pole.

Bon ski!

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