Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pretend, for just a minute, that you are not dressed in lightweight clothes on a spring-like day, dodging mud puddles during one of the balmiest Januarys in Washington’s recorded meteorological history.

Imagine instead that you’re gliding down a snow-glazed C&O Canal towpath on two long, thin skis, poles in hand, bundled up against the 30-degree temperature as evergreens laden with snow bend low to greet you in a fantasy of white.

Impossible? No, say area meteorologists, who predict a quick — well, an eventual — return of true winter.

Absolutely not impossible, say Washington’s cross-country skiing enthusiasts, who stand ready to lay down tracks at local parks at the first sign of a flake and even now may have their boards waxed.

At the moment, of course, they have nothing to go on but memories — such as those of Rob Swennes of Arlington, who once skied down the Lincoln Memorial steps, or of Colleen Leyrer of Columbia Heights, who remembers one snowfall when she lived near Washington National Cathedral and had to ski down Massachusetts Avenue to work.

“It snowed enough that the city shut down and there were few if any cars on the road,” Ms. Leyrer says wistfully.

“I was a relatively newly minted lawyer, so I didn’t want to miss a day of billables and litigation work, but having that time before and after work, skiing past the snow-covered embassies, made the day special anyway.”

The in-town skier

That’s the beauty of cross-country or Nordic skiing, an overland sport so called because it evolved in Scandinavia as opposed to the Alps, the home of the Alpine or downhill variety: Downhill skiers must rely on mountains, chairlifts and sometimes manmade snow, but cross-country skiers cover hill and dale under their own power.

That means they can use any park, trail, meadow or golf course with just enough snow to keep their skis from scraping the ground.

And that means they can ski at home — so long as they’re willing to wait.

Just ask Mr. Swennes, 61, the Lincoln Memorial skier, who is treasurer of the ski touring section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

Mr. Swennes says that as soon as snow hits the Virginia suburbs, he puts on his cross-country skis and heads straight for the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Bike Trail.

“I can start on the trail near the East Falls Church Metro and ski all the way out to Vienna,” he says.

The only parts of the W&OD Trail that break his cross-country stride are the eastern sections with snowless highway underpasses, where he has to remove his skis and walk for a few feet.

After that kind of strenuous cross-country workout, he says, he likes to slip off his boards on Park Street in Vienna and head to a restaurant there for a meal, surprising other diners with his apres-ski outfit and cross-country gear.

“When you get over six inches of snow in this city it’s a totally different world, and you feel like you own the place,” he says.

Virginia cross-country skiers also ski around Theodore Roosevelt Island, adjacent to Rosslyn; along the Four-Mile Run Trail, between Del Ray in Alexandria and Crystal City in Arlington; or on the Mount Vernon bike trail when it is covered with snow.

Maryland residents, given a decent snowfall, ski cross-country on the Northwest Branch and Northeast Branch trail system. The Northwest Branch extends from Hyattsville to Hillandale, Md. It also links to the Sligo Creek Trail, which extends from Riggs Road in Hyattsville to University Boulevard in Silver Spring. The Northeast Branch Trail extends from Hyattsville to College Park.

Other popular cross-country ski destinations in Maryland are the six-mile trail around Greenbelt Park in Greenbelt; around Lake Artemesia in College Park; or on the Burma Falls Road trail, near the C&O canal towpath in Potomac.

The snowfall lottery

It’s the waiting that’s the problem, and the fact that the weather in these parts can’t be counted on.

Downtown Washington has averaged 17 inches of snow each winter over the last 137 years of official snowfall tallies, says NBC 4 morning meteorologist Tom Kierein. The area around Dulles International Airport averages 18 inches, according to hydro-meteorological technician Calvin Meadows of the National Weather Service.

But for cross-country skiers, the crucial question is how often Washington gets snow that’s deep enough — 4 to 6 inches — to ski on.

An optimistic Mr. Meadows reminds us that in 1996 the area got 3 feet of snow. And in the Dulles area, he says, we’ve seen 4-to-6-inch accumulations 49 times in January and 50 times in February — wait for it — since 1870.

But what about now, in the midst of what Mr. Kierein calls an “El Nino winter,” whose winds from the Pacific “have locked up all the cold air in Canada” and pushed Washington temperatures higher than usual?

The NBC 4 meteorologist says that while the outlook for significant snowfall in this area doesn’t look very promising for the rest of January, “the atmosphere is always trying to achieve a balance, and we could still get hit pretty badly” in late February or March.

Watchful waiting

The trick for Washington residents in catching a good snowfall, says Cabin John resident Kenneth Eng, 58, “is to check weather forecasts frequently for north and west of the city” when a snowfall is predicted, then check a free database of skiable public parks and areas within driving distance he designed for the cross-country skiers of the Ski Club of Washington, D.C.

And always be ready to ski, says Mr. Eng, who works at the National Weather Service and serves as the cross-country liaison on SCWDC’s board of directors.

Skiers can access his database by signing up for the SCWDC’s cross-country skiing mailing list server. It lists suitable locations for skiing at distances that range from a half-hour to a three-hour drive from the city.

Four to six inches of the white stuff is more than enough snow to start cross-country skiing downtown, or on the Mall, or around the University of Maryland’s College Park Golf Course.

“That’s the first place I head to for cross-country skiing when it snows here,” says College Park resident Fred Huemmrich, a fortysomething University of Maryland geography professor who works out of the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Mr. Huemmrich says that the gently rolling hills of the golf course provide the perfect terrain for cross-country skiing.

On cold days when local cross-country skiers can’t find their weekend fix of flakes in their own back yards, they will quite willingly travel a little farther west or north to get it — to the snowfields of Canaan Valley, W.Va. (averaging 150 inches of snowfall a year), to the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania (100 inches), or to western Maryland’s New Germany State Park (90 inches).

And through Washington’s two local cross-country ski clubs — the SCWDC’s cross-country section or the ski touring section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) — they can plan trips to cross-country-skiing hot spots and trade tips via e-mail on the best places to go in town when Washington gets a big snow, as well as where to find gear at area shops or online catalogs.

The clubs also take excursions to such popular cross-country destinations as White Grass Nordic ski facility or Blackwater Falls State Park in Canaan Valley, or up to Camp Sequanota in Jennerstown, Pa.

Remembering snow

For now, though, it’s memory time. Mr. Swennes is still reminiscing about the huge local snowstorm several years ago that gave him his dash down the Lincoln Memorial steps.

With more than a foot of snow on the ground, he says, he and a friend decided to take the Metro from the East Falls Church station to Rosslyn, then ski around Roosevelt Island.

“It was so cold, we had to keep skiing back and forth on the Metro platform to stay warm” while awaiting the train, he says. But after the pair left the train at Rosslyn and finished circling the island, they decided to ski across Memorial Bridge over to the Lincoln Memorial.

“There was so much snow,” he remembers — but the rush down the steps was only the beginning of a personal tour.

He went on to visit the Korean War Memorial alone, and there the bronze statues of soldiers, newly covered with snow, “evoked the real battlefield scene, in my imagination,” he says.

He finally finished his tour of monuments “exhausted by the exercise and out of gas, physically,” by skiing up Capitol Hill, arriving just in time to hear the Navy Memorial carillon bells playing “Anchors Aweigh.”

Ah, snowtime in Washington. Watch — and wait — for it.

If you want to join the Nordic skiing crowd in Washington, the best way to get started is to investigate the area’s two large ski clubs, the cross-country section of the Ski Club of Washington and the ski touring section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

They make it easy to join group tours of cross-country ski resorts in western Maryland, Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Most are within a four-hour drive.

You can go on your own, of course, and such resorts routinely offer beginner’s lessons and a chance to “demo” cross-country skis for rent or purchase.

The details:


• Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Ski Touring Section: 118 Park St. SE, Vienna. 703/242-0693 or

• Ski Club of Washington, D.C., Cross-Country Section: 5309 Lee Highway, Arlington. The cross-country ski list server for this group contains a database with good sites for cross-country skiing near the capital. 703/532-7776 or

Ski centers

• Blackwater Falls State Park: P.O. Drawer 490, Davis, W.Va. The park’s Cross-Country Ski Center is open from mid-December through March 15. Accommodations available at nearby Blackwater Falls Lodge or Canaan Valley Lodge, both run by the state park, and accessible at 304/259-5216 or 800/CALL.WVA. See

• Meadow Mountain Trail System, New Germany State Park: 349 Headquarters Lane, Grantsville, Md. The park offers cross-country ski rentals and lessons through Allegany Expeditions (800/819-5170), located in the park’s Recreation Hall, open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday and holidays when ski conditions are acceptable. Call the park at 301/895-5453 or see

• White Grass Ski Touring Center: HC 70 Box 299, Davis, W.Va. Lessons, rentals, lunch cafe. 9 a.m.-dark daily, December-March. Dinner (with reservations) Thursday-Saturday nights. 304/866-4114 or

Cross-country skis, technique

Forget the clunky boots, the fussy skis, the lift lines and all the expense and gear that goes with downhill skiing. Cross-country or XC skiing is simplicity itself: a pair of boards with simple snap-on or pin-type bindings, specially designed hiking boots with plastic cuffs and a Thinsulate lining, and simple poles.

The standard equipment, which costs about one-third as much as downhill gear, can be bought from a reputable dealer for less than $250.

That’s not to say the sport needs no skill, even though seasoned XC skiers make it look as easy as walking. Chip Chase of Davis, W.Va., in Canaan Valley, probably the dean of cross-country skiing in the mid-Atlantic region, recommends people new to the sport of cross-country get an introductory lesson.

“There’s much more technique involved with cross-country than there is with downhill skiing,” says Mr. Chase, who runs the White Grass Ski Touring Center with co-owners Mike Sayre and Tom Preston.

After the initial lesson, he says, beginners can decide if they want to learn the classical “kick-and-glide” style, great for parks around Washington or facilities, like White Grass, that have acres of groomed trails with set tracks; telemarking, a ski touring technique useful on manmade snow at downhill resorts; or freestyle, a competitive racer’s approach that uses a modified cross-country ski over flat and packed trails.

A word on the skis: cross-country skis evolved in Sweden and Norway as a means of overland travel, hence the name “Nordic” skiing.

While downhill skiers’ boots are firmly anchored toe and heel to the ski to permit frequent turns during a quick descent, in cross-country skiing only the toe of the boot is bound to the ski. That leaves the heel free to perform the “kick-and-glide” stride that Nordic skiers use to swallow up kilometers of back-country trails.

Downhill skis are perfectly smooth on the bottom, while the bottoms of cross-country skis sport little “fish scales” in a herringbone pattern. They permit the skis to slide forward, but not backward, so that the skier can get a good grip when going uphill.

The longer design of cross-country skis, as opposed to downhill skis, helps in providing stability. But it means that on particularly steep inclines, the skier must turn his or her skis parallel to the slope, and shuffle uphill sideways, using the poles for balance.

Additionally, cross-country skis are cut with a “camber,” or arc, in the center of the ski, which permits better weight distribution during the kick-and-glide motion.

The sensation of cross-country skiing is similar to that of ice skating, except that it is more difficult in cross-country skiing than in ice skating to turn to the left or the right, because the back heel is not fixed on the ski to push the back of the ski sideways.

That’s why cross-country skiers leave behind a tell-tale trail of very straight tracks, smoothing the way for other Nordic skiers following behind.

To turn, cross-country skiers must alternately lift their left and right skis out of the snow and do so gradually, or (if the skier is sliding downhill) learn to kneel down and put their weight on one of the skis, achieving a “telemark” turn.

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