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Walter Tries Cross-Country Skiing

snowy hill with dark woods in background and two people on nordic skis in foreground.
Skiers on the West Wind Trail maintained this winter by the Onion River Nordic Club. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel
By Walter Carpenter

This pandemic winter was the first in 58 years where my skiing consisted entirely of cross-country. I started skiing in 1963, the year that President John Kennedy was shot, tragically ending America’s brief attempt at Camelot. For all the winters that have gone underneath me since then, it was mostly alpine, or, more recently, in the free-the-heel mode of Telemark skiing (which I took up in 2000 when I was 45 years old), with cross-country skiing little more than an afterthought.

I started out on the old wooden skis. I skied my way from those precarious wooden skis through the first Head metal skis, the first step-in bindings, the happy transition from tie to buckle boots, and into this modern revolution of parabolic skis.

Much of my working life has also been in the downhill ski business. I started in 1980, back before ski areas started to be homogenized by corporate monopolies. This spread out for 40 years and through five ski areas — two in New Hampshire and three in Vermont. My fifth and current one is Mad River Glen of “ski it if you can” (there is truth to that statement) fame.

I turned 65 in this pandemic year. Because of this, with me becoming an official senior citizen as it were, Mad River was concerned about the dangerous vulnerability of someone my age working in the crowds with many from out-of-state who might or might not have abided by the quarantine laws. They more-or-less preferred me to sit out the season or at least until I could get properly shot up with the vaccine. This did not happen until mid-March.

Mad River has many elders in the ranks of its staff, and it was the same with them. They were right. We stayed away this year to stay alive and return next season. It was a nerve-wracking situation for all. For me this was exceedingly difficult and heartbreaking. How could I feed my ski addiction? It was almost traumatic, like a forced withdrawal.

Now, my only recourse was what had more or less always been a sideshow for me. Years ago, when the Morse Farm ski touring center was still open, I went for a spin with a friend, and a woman aficionado of Nordic skiing inquired whether I was a “classic or a skate skier.” I wondered if she was talking about musicianship or hockey. My answer must have shown off my ignorance remarkably well: “I’m a survivor.”

Now, for the first time in my skiing life, Nordic was all I had to feed my ski addiction while still staying “socially distant.” Thanks to the collective efforts and humanity of the Onion River Nordic Club and all who are associated with it, such as property owners and the Montpelier Parks Department, I turned into more than “a “survivor.” I became that aficionado, although age and a hip and a knee that eventually needed new parts did not allow me to try skating. I studied YouTube videos and practiced the techniques I gleaned from them going round and round in the North Branch or the North Street-Cummings Road loops.

I delighted in the kick and glide through powder as if I had been floating through it on the Telemark skis. I went rambling through the wilderness. I relished a special delight, one almost superior to the alpine, in the profound accomplishment of ascending those forbidding inclines in the Sparrow Farm field under my own steam (and sweat) rather than with the luxury of a ski lift. 

I went into the season with equipment that belongs to antiquity. I emerged from it with upgrades to the modern era, learning the difference between such things as fish scales and mohair and NNN versus SNS, although I did not sever my allegiance to the timeless virtue of metal edges because so much of Vermont powder is a substance called ice. In all, I logged 80 miles on the Nordic Club’s trails before the snow dissolved into mud in late March. All of it was without day tickets or season passes. For this, one newly minted Nordic skier (classic) is profoundly grateful for all their selfless work that saved my sanity, and that of many others, in this era of lockdowns and “social distancing.”