Monday, December 27, 2010

Falling in Love with Cross Country Skiing

I've toyed around with cross country skiing in winters prior to this one, fitting in maybe 10 cross country days per winter and 40 downhill days.  But this winter, I've become addicted to cross country skiing, with 17 cross country days under my belt so far, compared to 8 downhill days.

My parents used to tell me that cross country skiing was a great idea, that supposedly it was peaceful skiing through the beautiful woods, but in reality, it was a terrifying and difficult experience.  I will certainly attest to it being terrifying at first (how do you stop?!).  I broke a pole my first time out!  However, this year I've begun using metal-edged cross country skis on the more difficult cross country trails and off-trail through the woods.  It's made a huge difference.  I still use the regular cross country skis on easier trails, or if conditions are too bad to go off-trail, but the new metal-edged skis eliminate the terror of tough hills.  The metal-edged skis are only a little heavier so you don't lose that much speed on flat ground, but you can turn or snowplow in them when going downhill, or even do "telemark" turns if you please (where you drop your knee to turn), though I haven't tried that yet.  They're also better in sidehill areas thanks to the metal edges.

I should mention that both my pairs of cross country skis are "classic" style rather than "skate" style, and waxless (ie low maintenance, so I get out more).  I've never tried skate style skiing, but it's much faster and more of a workout than classic style, not that classic style isn't a decent workout.  However, the big downside of skate skiing in my mind is that you're stuck on-trail.  I enjoy getting off-trail when I see something that catches my eye, and don't mind the slow pace to enjoy the scenery.  Plus, going slow I have less of a chance of startling a moose, or falling and further hurting my bad back.

The Anchorage area really does have some of best cross country skiing of any major city in the world.  There are endless places to ski and you never have to repeat routes day-after-day.  The main thoroughfares are the greenways, such as the Chester Creek Trail, Coastal Trail, and Campbell Creek Trail: great for super-long distance skis, but not necessarily my cup of tea.  Then there are tons of groomed trails within "parks" around the city, though these "parks" are really more like wilderness areas.  Endless exploring is available off-trail through the woods in these "parks".  So far this winter, the snowpack in Kincaid Park on the west side of the city isn't enough for off-trail exploring (~1 foot), but in East Anchorage in Far North Bicentennial Park and on the Hillside, the snowpack is deep enough (~2 feet).  In East Anchorage and on the Hillside, there are also many singletrack mountain bike trails which are also used for skiing.  I love these trails because they are really just have to watch for the narrow curvy hills at times and not be ashamed to take off your skis if needed.

Another great thing about the Anchorage area is the abundance of multi-use trails.  I love sharing the trails with happy dogs and bikers.  I'd say the culture here is more dog friendly than most places, and off-leash dogs are generally not frowned upon even in the technically on-leash areas, as long as the dogs are fairly well behaved.  Plus, we need the dogs here to protect us from the moose and grizzlies!

Night cross country skiing is also popular around Anchorage.  There's an abundance of lit trails, but I have a great headlamp and prefer venturing off the lit trails at night for the solitude.  I am amazed at how few people use a headlamp to take advantage of the unlit trails.  I think it's because only a few of the headlamps on the market are bright enough.

I've been talking about "Anchorage", but there are tons of trails northeast of Anchorage toward Palmer/Wasilla that I have yet to be able to check out.  Girdwood (where I live) also has about 6-km of groomed trails, and a new 5-km loop coming in a month or so.  I have helped to groom these trails.  Unfortunately, skiing through the woods is kind of tough in Girdwood due to the thick canopy, so we need about a 4 ft snowpack for tree-skiing to be practical; we're only about halfway there.  Also, the frequent rain events in the winter makes the cross country skiing less reliable than colder/drier Anchorage.  We may get one of those rain events later this week.

Jenevra and Nimbo Skiing in Girdwood (last winter)

East Anchorage/Lower Hillside Skiing

Has all the talk of cross country skiing made you want to get out and hit the trails?  If so, you need a good map, as signage for trail names and travel direction is pretty poor.  Get the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club's map for $8 at their office at 203 W. 15th Ave (between A and C St.).  There are some maps on their website (, but they different and not as detailed as the official Anchorage Nordic Ski Club Map, which is waterproof by the way.  I used to always get lost before I got this map, and I am a map nerd.  Just keep in mind that there are other nice places to ski that are not on this map.  One of my favorite little-utilized areas is Ruth Arcand Park: lots of nice, ungroomed trails and paths.

Favorite Trails
I am still kind of in my infancy exploring Anchorage trails, but if I had to pick my favorite trail(s), it would be Spencer Loop on the Hillside for skate/classic, Lake Loop in Kincaid Park for classic-only, and East Anchorage east of Campbell Airstrip Rd for nice off-trail tree skiing.  The woods in this latter area are aesthetically pleasing and absolutely dreamy.  Toughest trail if you want a challenge: Lekisch Loop in Kincaid Park.

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