Exploring the lesser known wonders of cross-country skiing

Freya Wasteneys // Contributor
Illustrations by Wolfgang Thomo

As cross-country skiing fanatics will attest, there are few feelings comparable to careening down a hill on skinny skis in tight-fitting Lycra. In fact, a weird pleasure can be gained from climbing to the top of a gruelling hill, only to push over it with speed. It provides a sense of fulfilment and pride that can last the rest of the day. For those who are wary of spandex and speed, they’ll find that there is more than one way to enjoy the sport, and that just as much satisfaction can be gained from a slow morning ski through a mountain meadow.

Unfortunately, in Canada, cross-country skiing will likely never hold the rock-star reverence it claims in Scandinavian countries. While cross-country skiing is seen as almost a rite of passage in places such as Norway and Sweden, here it is classified as a fringe sport. To quote an unnamed high school classmate from 2009, “it’s a sport for nerds and old people.”

Generally, when a person without a cross-country skiing background is asked to describe their impression of the sport, they tend to come up with one of two stereotypes — a senior wearing wool knickers, suspenders, knee-high socks and toting vintage gear, or an elite racer sporting a heart rate monitor, clad in a spandex suit and the latest carbon-fibre equipment. That is, if they’ve heard of cross-country skiing at all. These images may be accurate, but they by no means encompass the whole picture. Really, part of the beauty of cross-country skiing is that it is so multi-faceted. There’s a wonderful diversity and a freedom within the sport, which allows you to shape your experience according to your own desires.

“One of the great things about cross-country skiing is that it is a lifelong pursuit,” said Anders Bjorklund, owner of Sigge’s Sport Villa. “I know people who have been cross-country skiing since they were toddlers, and continue to do so well into their nineties, so that’s a pretty diverse range. There aren’t many sports where you can say that.”

Leading the way

Founded in 1971 by Sigge Bjorklund, Sigge’s Sport Villa is a specialty cross-country ski shop located in the heart of Kitsilano. After immigrating to Canada from Finland in 1956, Sigge played a major role in promoting the sport locally. In 1962, he founded the Vancouver Skiers Club, which later gave way to the Nordic Racers in 1980 — both clubs continue to thrive today.

Now in his 90s, Sigge has passed the baton to his son, Anders. Alongside his wife, Jodie, Anders has developed an intimate knowledge of the ski community, and strives to share his on-going passion for the sport. For him, the joy of the sport is not just in the ability to be on the mountains in the winter, but also in the spirit of the community and the camaraderie within it.

Illustration by Wolfgang Thomo

“It’s hard to define exactly, but there’s a kindred spirit amongst skiers,” said Anders, “one of the most common things I hear people asking when they come back from their first time cross-country skiing is ‘how common is it that everyone says hello when they’re skiing by you on the trail?’ – so I think cross-country skiers are generally pretty friendly folks.”

Capilano University Human Kinetics student and accomplished cross-country skier Katie Weaver has made the same observation, “It’s a very welcoming community, and within the clubs there are big ranges in ability, but there’s always a lot of encouragement,” she said.

A lifetime pursuit

Weaver, now 20 years old, has been skiing since she could walk, and has many fond memories of tagging along with her older brothers to ski races. As a member of the 2016 Junior National Ski Team, Weaver now has her sights set on the World Cup circuit.

Weaver may be an elite racer, but she still loves to ski at her home mountain, Cypress. “I know some people get sick of it,” she said. “But it’s definitely one of my favourite places to ski.” Weaver, who still trains with Hollyburn Ski Club, loves that she continues to feel like part of the community. “It’s great that there can be people with different ages and abilities and goals, who can still compete for themselves in an individual sport, but also get together and ski as a team,” she said, “I think it’s really special that that can happen.”

Vancouver winters are well known to be wet and dark, and for many people it is hard to maintain the same level of outdoor activity and fitness enjoyed during the summer months. “It can get really sad and gloomy when it’s getting dark at 5 p.m. and it’s raining,” said Weaver, “but it’s such an escape and a relief to just drive 20 minutes and be in the snow.” For her, cross-country skiing is a long-term passion, and a lifestyle that she hopes to maintain throughout her life. “In skiing, there’s a level for everyone, even competitively,” she said, “You can do loppets [community ski races] at any age, and ability, and it’s purely a celebration of skiing, fitness and winter.”

Learning the basics

Part of the diversity of the sport comes from the choice of two disciplines — skate and classic. Classic skiing provides more versatility in terrain, and is the traditional style of cross-country skiing. It is possible to classic ski in gentle, untracked terrain, or in tracked ski areas by using a parallel gliding motion in the two grooves that run along the side of the trail. Classic skiing is more akin to running or walking in its motion, and is often the first choice for beginners who want to use skiing as a way to get outside and enjoy the scenery.

Skate skiing, on the other hand, is a more recent addition to the sport, and requires a set trail or a hard-packed surface. This discipline mimics the motion of, well – skating. For people who desire speed and fitness, this is often the first choice. Skate skiing is also a common cross-training activity for summer endurance athletes.

Depending on your objectives, there is a wide range of terrain, and varying levels of difficulty to be found on one of the many established ski areas in and around Vancouver. Cypress is an easily accessible option, and can be a bustling hub of activity, especially on weekends. Whistler Olympic Park, the site of many official 2010 Olympic events, provides a little more variety in terrain offering 86 kilometres of groomed trails. Similarly, though sometimes overlooked, Manning Park provides 64 km of tracked, gorgeous and remote terrain. While slightly farther away from Vancouver, Manning Park has an abundance of cozy accommodations that can be rented out for the weekend. Or for people who feel like having a bit of a more daring winter adventure, there are campgrounds to enjoy.

Getting Technical

Anders Bjorklund recommends that people interested in getting into the sport rent equipment and take a few lessons with a trained instructor to develop proper technique and get a feel for their preferred discipline. “I’ve been fighting this notion for years,” he said, “the idea that if you can walk you can cross-country ski. To a certain extent that statement is true, however there is quite a bit of technique to good cross-country skiing.” Despite being accessible to all ages and abilities, there is a wide range in the needed technique between those who just want to get out in nature, and those who want to go fast.

Lou Dahl is a resident of Vancouver and has been casually skiing for the past 20 years. Like many people, skiing is a way for her to get a nature-fix while also getting some cardio in. Part of the draw for Dahl is that it’s accessible and more affordable than downhill skiing. Being naturally athletic, she sometimes feels frustrated and limited by technique. While she picked up skate skiing fairly quickly due to her rollerblading background and tree-planting fitness, Dahl admits that it has been hard to progress past the intermediate stage. “I’ve never had a lesson, other than a few unofficial tips from my brother-in-law,” she said, “I’m likely missing all sorts of [technical] advice that would help with my speed, control, and may influence my desire to go more frequently.”

To get the most out of cross-country as possible, Anders believes it is important for individuals to have as much information about the sport as they can. “We want people to have a positive experience,” he said, “I know folks who have gone out and borrowed friends’ gear that didn’t t them very well, and then been given a lesson by the same friend that was maybe sub-par. If you rent equipment and have it fit for you correctly, and if you actually take a lesson from a professional ski instructor or coach, I think that’s going to give the best opportunity to like the sport.” Renting gear can also help an individual decide which discipline will best t their aspirations, as it gives them a chance to try them both.

Making a connection

Weaver suggests that those looking to take up cross-country skiing try it with their friends, or join a club. To her, the diverse community of quirky people brought together by the sport is a part of its appeal. “I stayed in skiing because of the people. I think initially it might seem intimidating, but it’s really not,” she said. “Everyone out there is in such a good mood and happy to be out, so there’s no judgment if you’re just getting started.”

As a recreational skier hailing from Vancouver Island, Kirsty Pederson also appreciates the sense of community, and believes that cross-country skiing has a much different vibe than riding the lifts.

“It feels like there’s less pressure because you’re not waiting in lifts or more worried about getting your money’s worth,” she said. “I also find I run into a lot of friends on trails, which doesn’t happen as often when racing down hills.” Coming from a snowboarding background, Pederson appreciates the easy-going atmosphere of cross-country skiing. What started as a casual hobby 10 years ago has now become something Pederson and her partner can enjoy doing together. “Learning to slide on two planks is still a challenge,” said Pederson, “But for me, skiing is just as much about enjoying the scenery and the fresh air as it is about getting exercise.”

Illustration by Wolfgang Thomo

Gaining momentum

While still labelled as a fringe sport, cross-country has certainly gained popularity amongst particular crowds, especially with young families. Anders has seen a surge in interest from parents who want to make healthy lifestyle choices for their children, and are deterred by the incredible expense of downhill skiing. As an added bonus, it is a sport that parents are able to do with their children, rather than watching from the sidelines. “Skate skiing has also had a big boom of interest from the cardio crowd,” he said, “We are seeing a lot more interest from anyone over the age of 20, from people who are looking to replace a run or a hard bike ride.”

As touted by physiologists, cross-country skiing is possibly one of the best full-body workouts, and helps individuals stay fit for life. Alex Hutchinson, an exercise research blogger, likens cross-country skiing to natural interval training, which can be both effective and time-efficient. In the long run, research has found that lifelong skiers in their eighties tend to be 40 per cent fitter than other endurance athletes of the same age bracket, and they are placed in the lowest mortality rate category.

Unsurprisingly, the one demographic cross-country skiing struggles to attract are teenagers. “That’s historically the hard segment of the market to try and keep cross-country skiing,” Anders said, “They drift away a little bit in their teen years because cross-country skiing in North America still struggles with a bit of a negative stigma. It’s not as ‘cool’ as some kids might like it to be, so they tend to be more inclined towards alpine skiing or snowboarding.”

With or without the cool-factor, it’s hard to deny the array of benefits cross-country skiing has to offer. For many people, it is an easily accessible and a welcome escape into the mountains, and a great way to maintain both physical and mental health. While it may never quite enjoy the fame and fortune of more popular sports, most people who are drawn to cross-country skiing seem to like it that way. “It’s a pretty select group of people who walk through our door,” Anders said, “But they are all typically in a good mood. I guess that’s sort of a snapshot of the personalities we’re dealing with.” After all, sometimes being cool is overrated.

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