On skis and in search of better times
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
I turned off the radio because I didn’t like the news. The news was sounding a jagged drumbeat that would not end, all day, every day. It wore on me. I turned it off, pulled up some old rock music that lifted and soared and that is what I wanted on a Sunday morning when all we took for certain was being upended. The music drowned out the static.
It had been an uneasy week with little refuge. It was as if the western sky had smudged to glowering cloud and the cloud had built, not over hours but more slowly, day by day, and by week’s end the dark clouds had risen and thickened until they covered all in a miasma of gloom. It was as though distant thunder over the horizon marched in heavy feet closer, closer, until the dark skies were animated by the steady growl of thunder.
On this morning I skied from the truck and away from the dismal world news in search of a day of my dreams when the snow is firm and the sun brings rebirth and the world comes alive to early springtime.”
We are not living in easy times. In times of unease it is sometimes best to seek out the world that lies off the pavement where any sound is pure and simple and it seems as if nothing has changed. Call it cowardly escape; call it seeking refuge; call it what you will. Words do not matter.
I drove the truck, blacktop to gravel to mud to ice and crust. I parked. I turned off the truck. I sat in the silence.
Then I stepped out, walked to the back of the pickup and pulled out a pair of skis and poles.
Does one leave the hard pack of pavement in a sense of flight from something? Or is it rather to find a welcome in another realm? I do not know. At a certain point it does not matter; what matters is movement and clear air and nature that – if all goes well – leads to a more peaceful mind, to sanctuary. I clipped boots to bindings, fit poles to my hands and started to ski.
It is a time of transition when what seemed certain goes awry, when the alabaster winter snow shifts to crust and decay, when the satin smooth track of XC trails degrades to abrasive ice. It is a time of upheaval and change when what was bedrock a week ago is now otherwise, when certainty and predictably crumble.
In the best of times late winter merges with early spring and one is never certain when the one ceases and the other rises to rule. But in the days of season shift in the woodlands the snow compresses and compacts and, given the right conditions, forms a crust that can support weight of skier. Those days are a unique sub-season, the season of crust skiing.
The time of crust skiing and the time of maple sap run overlap; the same weather drives both. Take a day of sun and thaw, temperatures in the 40s, follow it with a sub freezing night and another day that rises to warmth; crust can form, sap can rise, the season tilts, the balance scale moves.
I ski when I can. I ski on the fresh snow of December, in the cold of January, in the mishmash that February can bring. I ski on new snow and I ski on aged snow and I love it all. But most of all I live for the days of March when the crust covers the winter woods and I can ski anywhere and everywhere. I live for the time of March when remnant snow covers the landscape and the crust forms and I can ski on the old logging roads and the lakes and the slumbering river ice.
On this morning I skied from the truck and away from the dismal world news in search of a day of my dreams when the snow is firm and the sun brings rebirth and the world comes alive to early springtime. I skied for the joy I can find and I skied for the abandonment, however brief, from the world we now know.
I skied that day in search of a pristine world of unblemished snow on old logging trails that wind their serpentine way over hills and lowlands, under tall pine and skeletal popple and birch. I skied to find the purity that I needed, to find the bedrock of faith and hope that now is lacking, to find the joy that the off-trail skiing can bring. I skied out in optimism and expectation of better time. I skied to find release.
I did not find it. The old trails were worn and pockmarked, blemished by footprint and snowshoe track, by deer trails, by wolf print and wind-downed debris. The trails held uncertainty and blemish, threw me off balance and made the smooth ballet of skiing an ungainly lurching and awkward chore. It did not get better; it got worse. I had come looking for ease and comfort. Instead, I found what I’d wanted to escape.
I’m stubborn at times. I skied out farther; after all reasonable expectation was lost. I skied in hope of better times. I did not find it. I turned back. But on a whim as I neared the truck I turned on a side spur and coasted down a slope. I glided out of the shadow of the forest into sunlight. Ahead of me, the river flowed. It moved with power and purpose, dark and unyielding. On the far shore, geese. I heard their wild call of life.
I turned and ahead of me on the edge of river ice a perfect, pristine length of snow. I skied that too-short section of snow and it was silky smooth and pure and what I had yearned for all along. I skied under a springtime sun that brought warmth, yes, but more, brought promise of better times.
Out and back; five minutes. Then done. Then back to the truck and a return to reality. But for those minutes I had found all that mattered. It will sustain me.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.