Saturday, March 23: If you don’t hit the snow early this time of year, you may as well forget it. It’s maple tree-tapping time with overnight lows in the teens and daytime highs in the 50’s. After some French toast, I strike out at 9 am on our local Brook trails, which also serve as the lead-in to the Prince Haakon race. It is brick hard underneath with a half inch of powder revealing some snowshoe tracks probably made this morning.
After a kilometer, I come to my objective: the Birkie Trail. Turning right would take me up the 39K hill toward B Hill (The official Birkie designation these days), and I don’t want to do that so I go north and cross Mosquito Brook Rd. Here the grooming has been more recent, and while nothing like mid-season conditions, the trail has features that skater’s love: a near frictionless highway of crusty snow that makes downhills an adventure but uphills easier. Note, I didn’t say easy! I see what appear to be shorebird talon imprints on a sandy beach … no, they’re long brown pine needles lying everywhere.
Normally when my skis make noise in the snow, it’s because it’s zero degrees Fahrenheit and the sound is the snow squeaking and impeding my glide. But today there’s no squeak – rather it’s a crunch from the ice crystals that facilitate glide and yet allow each ski to gain purchase for a solid push-off on each skate. On smaller hills I can V2 up as the elites do. It’s empowering to imagine I might look like them even for a moment in these friendly conditions.
I head up a steep hill that is cut in half by a snowmobile trail and I’m pleased that I still have the energy at the top to jump in the track to rest on the gentle decline that follows. One could classic in the still decent tracks on either side of the trail but why would you waste an epic skate day striding? This is the third bluebird day in a row and the shadows of the surrounding trees are etched into the brilliant white skate deck.
That deck is punctured in places by wind-blown small white pine boughs, pine cones, and oak leaves that absorb the sun’s heat and sink an inch or so into the snow surface. They are spread out and not so numerous as to impede my skating in any way. I greet a skier heading south and almost take a tumble due to inattention to my task. I see another skier up ahead… no, it’s the shadow of two trees in just the right shape to mimic two legs.
I have on a light ski jacket and a baseball cap which seemed a bit chilly when I began but now feel perfectly comfortable. The kilometer markers have been a frustration to me because a couple of years ago the Birkie Foundation reversed the numbers to count down instead of up. That makes sense but to one who has identified each area by a given number, I now have to subtract the number on the sign from 52 to remember where I am. The old marker for the 39K hill (in addition to the new 13 K marker) was left in place for the party folks who offer shots to skiers who wish to partake… but that’s another story.
I stop at the 20K marker (32 in the old system) which is at the top of the hill that descends to gravel pit road and the feed station there. I look down and remember the many times I cursed it’s steepness during the race. It’s a good place for me to head back. I ski this section of trail numerous times each year in the eight winters we’ve lived here. Going south there are certainly several challenging uphills but overall the trail is fairly benign in this section and one can make pretty good time.
A tiny, skinny vole darts across the trail in front of me. I pass a young couple heading back north that I had previously seen going south. We talk briefly, and I tell them I am inspired to write about this perfect day we are experiencing. I think to myself of how lucky they are to have many years ahead of them to enjoy this world-class trail. When I was their age, I was an average Alpine skier and had never heard of Nordic skis.
Coming to the top of the hill cut by the snowmobile trail I hesitate to listen for the whir of engines that could ruin my day if we happened to meet on my way down. Hearing nothing, I scrape my way down in a chicken snowplow, my skis desperately digging in to slow my descent and I ski on toward home.
It’s sad to say goodbye to this familiar section of trail but I’m consoled, knowing that off-season in the Northwoods is a pleasure all its own, and I know next winter will bring back these wonderful times once more. -Scott Smith
Scott Smith moved to Hayward in 2011, and has become a core part of the silent sports community here in the northwoods. Scott is also a soccer referee, crossfitter, serial volunteer, avid gardener, traveler, and craftsman. As a PSIA certified ski instructor, Scott particularly loves to teach nordic skiing to others. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested. All abilities are welcome!