A good friend of mine recently decided to take up cross country skiing, and the experience was so moving for her (tears even), that I asked if she was willing to share her experience with you. She agreed, and below is the result. If you’ve ever thought about trying cross country skiing—or taking on any outdoor endeavor that intrigues you—read this. Yes, I know, you’re very busy, but you’ll never know what you’ve been missing until you carve out some time to give it try.
by Deborah Passin
Unlike many of my Bay Area friends, I didn’t grow up downhill skiing. I’ve never been comfortable with sports that require balancing on something other than my own two feet. Even my feet aren’t that reliable.
For me, skiing has always been one of the most intimidating sports of them all. Not only am I expected to stay upright, I’m supposed to do it while gravity is pulling me down a mountain. And don’t even get me started on the chairlifts.
But I’m tired of feeling left out when all my friends are heading off to Tahoe for the weekend and I’m stuck home wishing I could ski. So I’ve recently decided it’s time I find a winter sport of my own.
Before I even set a foot on cross country skis, I knew there were three things I liked about the sport: 1) it’s great exercise, 2) there are no chairlifts, and 3) there are no crowds. Cross country skiing is far less popular than downhill skiing, so there are very few people on the trails. It’s also a sport you can do anywhere.
Cross country skiers aren’t reliant on lifts to get up the mountain so they can avoid some of the busier resort areas. I recently spent a whole day skiing at Northstar during a holiday weekend at Lake Tahoe and saw less than ten other people on the trails.
Speaking of Northstar, that’s where I took my first cross country skiing lesson and had an unforgettable experience—my first time cross country skiing ever!
Day 1: I Learned My LessonAlthough cross country skiing looked pretty straightforward, I decided to take a lesson. And boy, was I glad I did! When I first put the skis on they felt even less stable than downhill skis. These skis are lighter, skinnier, and more likely to slide out from under you if you don’t put pressure on the correct part of your foot. Also, knowing the correct form makes you much more efficient, and that conserves your energy.
My ski instructor Aaron put me at ease immediately. He said, “The first thing I’m going to tell you today—and it’s the most important—is to have fun. If you’re not enjoying the sport, don’t do it.” I realized this is really true of any sport. Certainly, you have to give yourself time to get comfortable, but it’s important to not lose sight of why you are there: to have fun.
The more I could relax, the better I was able to get in the groove and feel more natural. Aaron had a good teaching technique. He had me repeat each new move five times, and the fifth time he would tell me to relax, look around, and appreciate my beautiful surroundings. I had no choice but to enjoy myself.
After my cross country skiing lesson, I went out on my own. There are more than 20 miles of forested trails at Northstar to explore and I was anxious to get started. I still felt clumsy for a while and couldn’t quite get the rhythm of the “diagonal stride” that Aaron taught me.
But then something miraculous happened. As I put one foot forward and pushed back off the pole with my other arm, I glided. I switched feet and glided again. I did this a few more times and it felt like I was floating. It was amazing! Then I lost my mojo. But the more I practiced, the more it happened again.
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Day 2: Snowy SerenityOn my second day, I was able to relax more and really appreciate my surroundings. The fresh snow was still clinging to the branches of the trees, creating a magical forest feel. The air was crisp and clear, the skies blue. It was quiet. Really quiet.
At one point, I put on my headphones and listened to Eddie Vedder’s “Into the Wild” (if you don’t have this album, get it, and listen to it when you’re in nature). I hit one of those gliding moments during the song “Big Hard Sun” and I actually got tears in my eyes. I felt really free being out there on my own, just nature and me. And I couldn’t believe what I had accomplished in just two days. I was a cross country skier!
I found cross country skiing to be very rewarding. A lot of the time you work pretty hard, but sometimes you get to coast. It’s a mental challenge as well as physical. I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can accomplish. I also loved the serenity.
For those of you who don’t like solitude and don’t have a ski partner, this might not be the sport for you. You can potentially ski for miles without encountering a soul. I find it therapeutic to do this on my own, but I’m sure it’s also fun to do with others.
A few tips to keep in mind:
Wear layers. No matter how cold it is, you will get warm. And when you’re not working as hard, you will get cold again. Wear multiple layers and make sure you have a place to put them when you take them off. (Note: Don’t bring a Camelback—the water in the tube will often freeze, making it useless. A small backpack and a wide-mouthed water bottle is ideal.)
Challenge yourself. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t rush it and freak yourself out on something that’s beyond your capability. It’s okay to even take your skis off and walk down the steeper hills. The harder stuff will still be there when you are ready.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. With any new sport, it takes time. I was told that a fit person gets proficient at cross-country skiing in about ten days if they focus on one aspect of form each day. Also keep in mind you’re dependent on the conditions of nature. One day the snow will be soft and powdery, another day it will be icy, and you’ll feel like you’re back to square one (but you’re not!). Cross country skiing in a variety of conditions will make you a stronger, more skilled skier. Just be realistic about what to expect.
The Top Cross Country Skiing Spots in Greater Lake Tahoe
Northstar California Cross Country, Telemark + Snowshoe Center More than 35 kilometers of carefully groomed, scenic cross country skiing trails, rental shop, and excellent instructors. 530/562-3270
Squaw Creek Cross-Country Ski Center Resort at Squaw Creek offers 18 groomed kilometers on more than 400 acres of cross country skiing terrain, as well as rentals and instruction. 530/583-6300
Kirkwood Cross Country & Snowshoe Center Located in Alpine Valley, southwest of Lake Tahoe. Machine-groomed trails, spectacular scenery, and trailside warming huts—even dogs are welcome. 209/258-7248
Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort At Soda Springs, near Sugar Bowl, it’s one of the largest and best cross country skiing resorts anywhere, with 90 trails, including 28 novice trails and four ski lifts. 530/426-3871
Guest Guru Deborah Passin is an expert on California wines and the owner & host of BackCountryWines.com.