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Fifteen years ago my wife, Hilde, and I decided we needed a vigorous winter sport. So we took up cross-country skiing. We were able to outfit ourselves with adequate skis, boots, bindings and poles for about $40 apiece—a fraction of the cost of a downhill outfit of similar quality. But even if money hadn't been a consideration, we would have chosen cross-country skiing over downhill. I'd skied downhill, in my amateurish fashion, from Colorado (while in college) to Germany (while in the U.S. Army), and though the sport itself was enjoyable, I didn't like a lot of what went with it—traffic jams, mobbed slopes, long lift lines, fashion-conscious prima donnas and the apr�s-ski social scene.
Hilde and I have spent hundreds of happy days and moonlit nights on our cross-country skis. Not long ago we enjoyed a fairly typical afternoon. At an elevation of about 6,000 feet in Oregon's Siskiyous, we skied a logging road back into the timber, crossed a frozen creek, then cut up into the trees. The snow was ideal—about half a foot of fresh, un-tracked powder over a solid base—as we climbed among huge old Douglas firs. Luke, our golden retriever, hopelessly chased a snowshoe rabbit. Half a mile farther on, he spooked a lovely, winter-coated coyote out of some willows but had enough sense not to chase it.
Next we ran into a small flock of gray jays, seven or eight birds roosting on a low limb of a fir tree. After I made Luke sit and stay, we scattered small bits of dried peaches and apples over the snow, and, whistling, the birds swooped down to get them. Within a few minutes they were so tame they hopped up to our boots to take the fruit, while Luke, staring at them and quivering with bird dog excitement, sat a few feet away.
We left a handful of apples and peaches scattered over the snow, then climbed for half an hour to a ridge that gave us a view more than 100 miles south across the California border to Mount Shasta, huge and white in the afternoon sun. When the air began to chill us, we skied back to the car, a downhill run of several miles.
It was that view of Mount Shasta that reminded me of how much cross-country skiing has changed in America since we took it up. Last season, our final cross-country outing of the year was to the Castle Lake Nordic Center, just west of Shasta. Some friends who had already been there recommended it highly and invited us along.
At Castle Lake, it costs $5 for a pass (no dogs allowed, though) that entitles one to ski all day over several kilometers of machine-groomed runs, suitably designated for beginning, intermediate or advanced skiers. There is a small, comfortable lodge at Castle Lake, too, where skiers may rest or trade stories.
Perhaps it's because I'm not pleased by crowds, or because I'm not a particularly well-dressed or skillful skier, but I didn't enjoy the day much.
It was something of a shock to realize that along with the increased popularity of cross-country skiing have come many of the things that caused me and others to turn away from downhill skiing. At least half the patrons at Castle Lake—and there were hundreds—wore shiny ski suits of space-age material. As for skis, nearly everyone was using racing models, fragile-looking little things about as wide as pencils and not much good except on groomed runs. (But they are fast—I happened to get in the way of a few speedsters on the advanced slopes, and they yelled warnings at me just before they whizzed by.)
While clothing and speed were two obvious measures of prestige at Castle Lake, technique was another. On a hillside near the lodge, where a lot of people couldn't help but watch, skiers performed telemark turns all day long.
Inside the lodge the talk sounded like Aspen and the Alps: