When people ask me why I cross-country ski, which to date nobody actually has, my ready answer is “It’s complicated”.
The complications start with my Dad who spent a few magical winters of his youth living in Norway after WWII. He and the kids his age would head out to the mountains on cross-country skis as soon as there was snow and make jumps, forts, hold races, etc. These ski-clad adventures are among his fondest childhood memories and he wanted to create similar experiences for my sister and me when we were growing up.
The problem is that we grew up in Wisconsin and Virginia and there weren’t mountains or gangs of ski-clad kids to join. Cross-country skiing for us usually meant plodding along behind my Dad overdressed and overheated with a couple of inches of snow sticking to the bottoms of our wooden skis. We would slowly trudge up hills and then awkwardly slide down the other side with many wobbly wipeouts occurring on the descent. Getting up after a fall on cross-country skis is kind of like a newborn baby giraffe trying to stand for the first time. It takes a few attempts and you’re not really sure if it is a good idea.
Still every year when it snowed my Dad would get that for off look in his eye and excitedly ask, “Who wants to go skiing with me?” My sister and I would pretend that we didn’t hear and try to avoid making eye contact, but I wasn’t as quick as my sister at coming up with an exit strategy so before I knew it I was once again scraping snow off of the bottoms of my skis and/or dusting myself off after a low-speed wipeout.
This continued more or less until I was 18 and went to Norway as an exchange student. There I did get a glimpse of what my Dad was seeing in his far off looks. Still I preferred downhill skiing and when I had a choice that is what I would do.
But upon my return my Dad believed I was then a card carrying member of the Norse cross-country ski club and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I still didn’t like it that much. He kept asking and because he looked hopelessly disappointed if he couldn’t get anyone to go skiing with him I said yes more often than not.
But then something happened that changed everything. My Mom called me up at college one day and said with concern, “You’ve got to help me. I am really worried about your Dad. He is about to do something really crazy and I need you to go with him to make sure he is okay.”
I said, “Sure of course, whatever you need”, and she went on to tell me my Dad had signed up for the Birkebeiner in Hayward Wisconsin. I asked her what that was and she said, “I don’t know, but it involves cross-country skiing and has a Norwegian name so there is no stopping your Dad.”
The Birkebeiner (a.k.a. The Birkie) is a 35-mile cross-country ski race named after the Norwegian race of the same distance. The race was started by Tony Wise who brilliantly invented ways to get people to head up to Northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter to spend money at his resort.
Our first Birkie could best be described as a boondoggle. We got a late start on the trip up, drove through a white out snowstorm, barely picked up our race numbers in time, struggled to find any place still serving food, and got lost and stuck in a snow bank in the middle of nowhere while attempting a U-turn. A little after midnight we dug ourselves out and finally made it to the private house where we had reserved a room. We knocked on the door of the then dark house and were led to our room by a young girl who told us her mother was sleeping at a neighbor’s house. Our “room” consisted of two cot-looking beds on a concrete floor in the basement with a hanging sheet dividing the room. We realized quickly it was probably her and/or her stuffed animal’s beds as they were very short (we are 6+ feet) and full of stuffed animals. Nonetheless my Dad was asleep and snoring loudly within minutes. I put two stuffed animals over my ears and tried to make the best of it.
But my Dad’s snoring woke up a person who, unbeknownst to us, was sleeping on the other side of the sheet. He shook my Dad awake and asked him to quit snoring, which he did but was back at it in about 5 minutes. The person complained again, so consequently my Dad gave me the job of hitting him whenever he started snoring, which he did approximately every 5 minutes or so. So I hit my Dad about 12 times an hour for the next 5 hours until the person on the other side of the sheets turned the room lights on and proceeded to wax his skis. There turned out to be about 10 other skiers in this tiny house, which we realized when we got in line for the only bathroom/shower.
We splashed some frigid water on our faces, got dressed and headed out the door to go ski 35 miles. The race was certainly tough. We were undertrained, undernourished, sleep deprived, lacked the gear and specialized clothing that most had, but nonetheless we made it to the finish line! And we were hooked, at least my Dad was, and by extensions I was as my Mom was still worried and wanted me to keep going with him.
25 years later we are still doing Birkies together, and I have to admit that over the years I have actually grown to enjoy cross-country skiing and the Birkie. Signing up for the Birkie motivates you to get outside and keep moving in the dead of winter. The best part is that you typically get at least a few magical moments each year where it is pretty much just you moving gracefully (yes the giraffe does eventually grow up) through a beautiful and peaceful snowy woods, and these moments make it all worthwhile.
Where cross-country skiing and my kids are concerned I took a different route than my Dad did with me. Where he had fond memories of skiing in his youth, my memories were at best mixed so I didn’t push them to go out cross-country skiing with me. They both seemed to enjoy downhill skiing more so I would do that with them instead.
However, as they near the age where I started skiing Birkies I am wondering if I ultimately did them a disservice by not dragging them up and down hills like my Dad did when my sister and I were young. Perhaps when they have kids I will show up at their homes and ask hopefully “Who want’s to go cross-country skiing with Grandpa?” If I sound desperate enough perhaps one of them will join me out of pity and the chain that was broken will be mended and continue another generation.