My good buddy, BNoe, used to have a message on his answering machine when he lived in Damascus, Virginia. I always thought he was talking about the "weary months" of "Janu-weary" and "Febru-weary". BNoe says that is just my Yankee ear that can't understand good Southern talking - he was talking about the "worry months". He picked it up from Hiden DeBusk, an older gentleman that he used to see at a local store near him. BNoe remembers that when the cold and grey months of January and February came around, Mr. Busk and his buddies would just settle in around the stove in the store, awaiting March and the first signs of springtime. Hiden used to go on about "Those ole 'worry months'. You just sit around and worry about what to do next..."
Anyway, that's BNoe's story. I still think my Yankee hearing was right, however, and he was really talking about the "weary months". In a lot of places that I've lived, January and February were raw, gloomy "weary" months. In gray and rainy Germany, we had Fasching to bring a little merriment to pre-Lent February, and in New Orleans there is Mardi Gras. It sure is a long time from Christmas till spring in parts of the world. I can understand how folks could get a little cabin fever during this time. After all, isn't that when most of the "snowbirds" head south to get a little sun?
However, January and February for me are some of the best of months. They are far too full of winter excitement and are too short to be "weary" - if you have snow, that is. I've always thought that if you were going to have winter, you ought to have snow to go with it (see Snow? Get used to it!). And, we've been blessed this winter with lots of snow. Our winter skies are usually blue, and the snow sparkles under the sun. Sitting in my office looking out over the snowy fields and woods, they just call to you to come out and play!
I've spent a fair amount of time this year exploring winter on skis and snowshoes. Over the years I have accumulated a barn full of Nordic (cross-country) skis in both the waxable and no-wax varieties, a pair or two of alpine (down-hill) skis, and three pairs of snowshoes. They get used.
I was about 10 or 11 years old when I discovered the old wooden skis in the barn. They were longer than I was tall, with a little tip sticking out of the front - I guess to cut through the snow better, or something. The bindings were a leather strap that went through a slot in the ski and buckled around the toes of your boots. I had a pair of "Sears and Sawbucks" green rubber boots, and if I tightened up the leather strap so much that the toes of the boots started to fold in on themselves, the skis would more-or-less stay on. With the skis was a pair of bamboo ski poles that came to my waist, with baskets about the size of a saucer.
My schoolmate Stan and I wandered all around the winter woods where we lived in Hudson, NH looking for hills to ski. He had a pair of skis like mine. We found a great hill in a nearby pasture with not too many trees. A good run began at the top of the hill, pointing the skis to miss the trees at the bottom. The first one down cut a new set of tracks and tried to stay upright. We then took turns running in the same set of tracks, each time going a little further down the hill. There was no way to turn the skis to avoid trees or rocks - you just fell down. We felt that it was a good run if the skis stayed on to the bottom of the hill! And the uphill trip was better if you took the skis off and just trudged along.
One day Stan was looking at a magazine with an article on skiing. "See, these guys have skis with some sort of a cable around the back of their boots, and look, they're turning back and forth down the hill!"
It was like the clouds had parted and a great truth had been revealed to us! "I bet with those things we could dodge the trees!" I said.
"And, the skis wouldn't come off when we try to go uphill. We could climb up and ski down without taking our skis off!" he said.
I looked in our Sears catalog and found that they carried a ski binding kit for $6.50. I badgered my father until he took me to the Sears store in Nashua and added a couple of bucks to my snowshoveling money so I could buy one. This was the top of the line in ski equipment as far as I was concerned.
The Sears ski kit contained a set of cable bindings, with front bindings for your toes and a set of hooks to secure the heel of your boot to the ski. The kit also had a booklet that described how to ski! I learned about the snowplow and the stem Christy turn. Climbing hills with a herringbone, putting your weight on the uphill ski, and traversing a hill were all spelled out, with diagrams. A whole new world had opened up for me! All through elementary and high school those old skis and I tried out most every hill near the house.
My downhill skiing education made a big leap when I went off to college at the University of New Hampshire. All freshman were required to take physical education for two years. I was dismayed to learn that PE was mainly basketball up at the gym. I am not a fan of basketball, nor am I particularly adept at it. I was dreading the next two years.
Gary, my roommate in the dorm, asked one day right after freshman orientation "Would you do a favor for me?"
"Sure, I guess. What is it?"
"Go to my first fencing class and make sure I'm signed up OK - I've got a conflict and can't make it."
"Fencing? You're taking fencing? I asked. "That's not in the course catalog."
"Not in the boys phys ed - but the girls phys ed program has lots of neat courses - and boys can sign up for them. You get the same credit as if you were up in the smelly old field house playing basketball!"
Not only did I go to Gary's first fencing class to sign him up but I signed myself up for the downhill skiing course. I was in heaven - the only guy in a class of a dozen girls and learning about skiing too!
The first class or two the instructor talked about equipment. I saw my first pair of real ski boots, and decided I needed to get a pair. One of the guys on the ski team in the dorm sold me a pair of used leather boots for $15.00. They were a wonder to look at - an inner boot that laced up, and an outer boot that also laced up on top of that.
The instructor had cable bindings as well as metal edges on her skis. She could turn even on "blue snow" (a.k.a. the "ice" that we often have in New England). Sears sold an edge kit for skis, but it was more than I could afford. In the trash behind the chemistry building I found some metal strapping from a packing crate that sort of looked like edging. One weekend while I was home I cut it to the length of my skis and made my own metal edges with wood screws and a drill. They looked a little strange, but they worked great! No matter how icy our practice hills were, my edges bit into the ice and I could turn just like on powder!
The instructor also said that my bamboo ski poles were too short. I extended them a foot with a couple of pieces of 1/2" copper pipe so that they reached to my arm pits - the "correct" length at the time.
New boots, modified skis and poles, and my red-and-black checked woolen hunting coat, pants, and hat - I was a real fashion statement. It didn't get me any dates with the girls, but I was learning how to ski!
All semester the class and I trooped out to local hills and side-stepped up and down the hills to make a "groomed" ski slope. We took turns practicing traverses, stem Christies, snowplows, and something called the Alberg technique. This had been developed by an Austrian named Hannes Schneider who used to teach at Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, NH.
One weekend, it was time to try my new skis and my new knowledge at a real ski area. My Effingham buddy Bobby and I drove north to Mt. Cranmore in my 1948 Chevrolet for a day's skiing. Mt. Cranmore has the world's first (and only) skimobile. Bobby and I ignored the stares of people at our equipment as we waited in line. Once we got to the top, it was just like the little practice hills at UNH, except bigger and longer! We had a great time, riding up and skiing down. I noticed, however, that as the morning went along I was having more and more trouble turning. Bobby was behind me when he hollered "Hey, look at this!" He had stopped up slope from me and was holding up a big strip of my metal edging in his hand.
We stopped at the bottom of the run and I looked at the bottom of my skis - nearly all of the metal screws had pulled out and most of the metal edges were gone. We figured that every trip down the mountain I had been shedding bits and pieces, and the slopes were littered with them. Bobby looked at me, I looked at him, and we could almost hear the ski patrol coming after us. I thought for a minute about climbing back up the slope to pick up the pieces of edging, and dismissed it as a bad idea. Without another word we loaded our stuff in the Chevy and got out of there before our crime was discovered.
I later bought a pair of used downhill skis that had edges, and retired the wooden ones back to the barn. Over the years I've had several different downhill outfits, but the first one will always be special. I've even gone back to Mt. Cranmore to ski - but I still look over my shoulder expecting the ski patrol to pull me over for littering, or causing a hazard, or something illegal!
It was 1970, and oldest son Allen and I had set out early from our home in Cheverly, MD to Lewisberry, PA for a day of downhill skiing at Mt. Roundtop. We arrived as the ski lifts opened at 10:00 am, and bought our tickets for a full day on the slopes. Allen was five at the time and had been skiing for about a year. He had absolutely no fear, and if allowed he would tackle the steepest trails the mountain offered.
Roundtop doesn't have the greatest vertical of any mountain I've skied, but it is close to Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD, and is very popular. Snow conditions were fine, as was the weather. The crowds of skiers, however, were overwhelming. We spent most of our day in lift lines and very little in skiing. In 6 hours of trying, we were only able to make four runs - all the rest of the time was spent waiting in the lift lines.
On the ride back home, I resolved that enough was enough! I'd been a enthusiastic downhill skier for years, and had skied all over the east coast and Colorado. But, it was time to change. The next day I went to a ski shop that specialized in cross country skiing and bought my first pair of wooden Bonna touring skiis, boots and poles. I was never again going to have to contend with the crowded lift lines.
Finding cross country ski trails in the Blue Ridge turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Often I ended up skiing (or trying to ski) the trails that I hiked and backpacked in the summer - with only an inch or two of snow. That first year I devoured John Caldwell's bible on Nordic skiing techniques. I also learned how to refinish the bottoms on the skis after I've torn them up skiing on rocks and too little snow.
I still do a little downhill skiing and have come to enjoy Mt Pleasant (Shawnee Peak) just up the road near Bridgton. However, most of my winter skiing is cross country. I get to explore the back country, get a good workout, it is free - and there are never any lift lines.
This fall I marked out a ski trail down back of the Farmhouse, in preparation for what I hoped would be a long, snowy winter ski season. The weather hasn't disappointed me. About 1/2 mile east of the Farmhouse there is an old two-track road that runs north and south from Folly Road on the west side of the Northwest River. An old woods road connects with this and comes out in the back fields of our neighbors up the road, Tim and Carol.
All I had to do was to find a fairly straight route from the fields behind the Farmhouse down to the two-track, and I would have a nice loop trail about two miles long to ski. Without cutting any trees (I didn't think the neighbors who owned most of the land would appreciate it) I located and linked a series of skidder trails and woods roads from old logging operations into a winding, gently up-and-down ski trail. I marked it with plastic flagging and spent several days during the fall hauling old tree tops, brush, rocks, and stumps out of the way, and clipping back some of the thick beech coppice growth. One brook had to be crossed, and I laboriously hauled three oak pallets down to make a temporary bridge.
The skis and snowshoes sit next to the porch, and three or four times a week I do the loop. It is just enough to clear the head and get some good exercise in the open air. Sometimes the "call of the woods" comes at noon for a break in my day. Sometimes the day gets away from me and I don't get out until the sun is going down. However, with the help of the full moon or my headlamp it works just as well.
I've also started branching out and skiing the snowmobile trails that I can reach from the Farmhouse loop trail. Nancy, a journal reader and seasonal neighbor from Peabody Pond, recommended skiing the snowmobile trails that start at the Peabody Pond dam and follow the east side of the Northwest River and then return via Tiger Hill. Both these are fun to ski, and provide an easy link with the trails behind the Farmhouse. The snowmobile trail network really extends my snowy world.
Every ski trip, no matter how short, reveals a different face to the woods. Animal tracks in the snow show where rabbits and squirrels have travelled from their burrows. When the snow gets deeper, I find that the deer start using the ski trail as a travel corridor. The occasional coyote crosses the trail as well, as he hunts for small rodents. Allen and I were out on the trail one night and he gave me an astronomy lesson as the planets appeared, and then the stars, in the clear night sky.
For pure exploring of the winter woods, nothing beats a good pair of snowshoes. I have a pair of aluminum frame Sherpa bearpaw shoes that I am fond of. They have a nylon strap binding that is quick and secure, and a metal cleat on the bottom for climbing or ice. They take me anywhere in the snow.
When the snow is over a foot deep, cross country skis don't provide enough flotation and you sink in the deep snow. When we've had that much snow, I strap on a pair of snowshoes to break out the ski trail. Several times this year Jim and Alison have been out on the trail with me, and we have found that three sets of snowshoes break a great ski trail, even in the deepest snow.
There is a rhythm that you develop on snowshoes, kind of a "snowshoe shuffle". They are not hard to learn to use, as Alison and Lin found out the first time they tried them out. Snowshoeing is good cardiovascular exercise, but it works different muscles than nordic skiing. Skis work the knees, ankles and shoulders, while you feel snowshoeing in your thighs and upper leg muscles.
Grandson Derek gave Jim and Alison new snowshoes for Christmas. These new generation models are plastic. They have cleats on the bottom to climb hills and over logs and stonewalls without slipping backwards. Bindings are quick to take on or off and fit any boot. They are a vast improvement over the traditional leather bindings that I grew up with - the leather bindings seemed to need constant adjustment.
There is a large larch, spruce and alder swamp that borders the Northwest River as it flows south from Peabody Pond to Mill Pond. I have been curious about a large embayment in the river and wanted to see whether there was any good access to it for summertime brook trout fishing. Winter is the best time of the year to check these things out - no leaves, and the snow and ice cover even the deepest marsh.
I cautiously snowshoed across the frozen marsh. The pond in the middle of the river was ice covered, but the river flowing into it was still flowing fast and there were patches of open water. I headed back out of the swamp toward high ground when I fell through. There was a pocket of snow over some alders that looked solid but was unfrozen swamp water underneath. With no warning, I fell through into black, icy water up to my waist! It was not deep enough to put me in any great danger, but it was very cold! I grabbed ahold of some bushes and rolled out of the hole onto the snow.
It was about a mile to the Farmhouse in 20o F. weather, with the sun going down. I dumped the swamp water out of my boots, and started home. It was a cold, stiff climb back up the hill through the woods to the Farmhouse, and by the time I got there it was dark. I shucked off the snowshoes when I got to the door, and stripped off the wet, frozen clothes in the kitchen. Penny alternated between concern and anger about my "swim". I ended up promising to bring along a cell phone on my future solo outings, just in case.
In California there were designated "snow play" areas where you could bring the family to slide and ski and generally play in the snow. Fun - but still you were "driving" to winter, and definitely missed the joys of "living" in winter like we do here in Maine. Anyway, there are a lot of Mainers who are as crazy about winter as I am, and who like to play in the snow. Penny and I invited folks from our church, and some neighbors, to come over for some snow play on bright, sunny Sunday afternoon in February.
Snow conditions were deep, soft powder. The day was crisp but not cold. About a dozen gathered to ski and snowshoe at the Farmhouse. I led a group on the ski trail. There are several hills on the trail, none too steep, but an interesting challenge nonetheless to the group. With not too many spills, however, everyone made the loop in fine shape. Tim and Carol were a bit suprised to see a gang of people coming up through their back field. They are used to seeing me come out of their woods on skis or snowshoes at all hours of the day or night, so I guess they weren't too startled.
Meanwhile back at the Farmhouse Dot and Karen strapped on snowshoes and headed out across the fields. Dot to chase her scarf and see how the blueberries are doing under their blanket of snow, and Karen to try out the new aluminum shoes. Later, Lin took a turn with a pair of old Tubb Maine snowshoes. Considering she'd never been on snowshoes before, she did pretty well.
Penny prepared a huge spread of hot and cold munchies, and Alison baked some cookies. The skiers got back to the Farmhouse about the time that the snowshoers had finished playing, and we had all worked up an appetite. We ate our fill, and gathered our chairs around in a circle to toss out ideas for other outings that would be fun. Other ski/snowshoe snow fun times, a progressive dinner, even a scavenger hunt were suggested. This should be a fun winter!
These two months of winter have certainly not been "weary" for me. I hope that I will always look on the face of winter through the eyes of a little child, or with the eyes of Arctic explorer Nansen, and never call these the "weary" months.
Last updated March 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree