Alberta Cancer Foundation

Nordic skiing making tracks with enthusiasts of all ages

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Photo courtesy of Travel Alberta

Erinn Watson waxes poetic about cross-country skiing, and so she should, since it’s been a lifelong passion for her. “Before I could walk, I was strapped to my dad’s back,” the 27-year-old says. “And when I could walk, they strapped skis to my feet.”

For her, cross-country skiing is about family, fresh air and heart-warming traditions forged in winter’s cold – chilly adventures often rewarded with hot chocolate and turkey sandwiches. And every Christmas, provided snow conditions cooperate, her family hits the trails together.

“Anybody can do it,” says Watson, who grew up in Grande Cache and honed her abilities with practice and tips from her father, who coaches biathlon and cross-country. “We’ve skied everywhere from golf courses to random back-country trails to anywhere where the snow is thick and deep enough. For me, it’s always about family time. It’s peaceful, you are out in the middle of the snow, and quite often the only things you are hearing is snow falling from trees and angry squirrels.”

Cochrane resident Evan Londry lives in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and is a short drive from world-renowned slopes but he, too, is content to take his ski outings cross-country. “Mostly, it was just being outside and being active,” says Londry, who went through Jackrabbit lessons (which teach kids the fundamentals) as a boy in Ontario, where a cross-country trail was always nearby and well-travelled. “It was the lifestyle,” he adds.

When he and his family moved to Alberta about six years ago, it was a lifestyle he was happy to continue, strapping his baby daughter, Madelyn, into a chariot and hitting the trails. While he intends to introduce both of his children to cross-country skiing – like anything, the sport isn’t for everyone – and his wife has opted out. “Nicole tried it a couple of times and wanted nothing to do with it,” Londry says.

Still, he encourages those looking for an ideal winter outing, suitable for all athletic levels and for outdoor enthusiasts young and old, to give it a try. Getting started won’t break the bank compared to, say, downhill skiing, and the majority of trails in the province are free to travel. And while there is a common misconception cross-country skiing isn’t an overly exacting workout, many say it is what you make of it. “It’s kind of like any endurance sport. Once you get good at it, it becomes easier and easier and much more enjoyable,” says Londry, who is a triathlete. “It’s a great way to get out.”

Jamie Carpenter, events and marketing supervisor at Canmore Nordic Centre, says the time to get out is now as most trails are open from November to March, with 65 kilometres of groomed trails at the facility west of Calgary, alone. While the centre is no stranger to high-level athletics, it is also a mecca for regulars drawn to the sport. “Anyone can get into it, no matter what their fitness level,” Carpenter says. “Generally, any trails have easy, intermediate and more difficult routes.”

While it does the body good, the sport is gentler than others physically, Carpenter says. “It’s pretty easy on the body, in fact, the basic motion of cross-country skiing. And the classic style, the one you might imagine shuffling along in snow – engages the upper body, the lower body and the heart is engaged.

“Although there are times when you might pick up speed and every now and then you might crash, the speeds are not high and you are not falling on the snow or the hard pavement. It’s not a high-impact sport – it’s a nice, flowing motion.” Sprained thumbs, he adds, are a probably the most common injury anyone sustains.

But make no mistake, say enthusiasts, countering claims by some downhill aficionados – it is not boring. “It’s different; you don’t get the exhilaration,” says Alasdair Fergusson, former president of the Calgary Ski Club. “But you do get the scenery that you miss blasting down runs at top speeds.”

And after more than four decades of doing the sport, he says the scenic beauty typical of most cross-country ski outings never gets old. “I think there is a magic to snow, to see the sun glinting off all the snow,” he says. “My wife says we are so rich, we are skiing in a field of diamonds.”

Calgary has some nice ski trails at Confederation Park and Shaganappi golf course and Edmonton has its river valley and trails on golf courses. “I think a lot of people look at it as walking on snow; the fun of cross country is when you can do the sliding and gliding,” Fergusson says.

Joining a club has several advantages – learning from more experienced skiers, carpooling, finding new trails and meeting people. There are numerous clubs throughout the province, including some specifically for seniors.

“Cross-country is a very social activity,” Carpenter says. “You can go as hard as you want and talk after or shuffle along and chat. It’s kind of fun to stay fit together.”

And youngsters like it, too. On Wednesday evenings, for instance, almost every kid in Canmore is at the Nordic Centre for night skiing, “giggling, laughing and shuffling along,” he says. “It’s really cute and inspiring to see … they are not really co-ordinated, but they are picking it up pretty quickly.”