Dear Sundog: after they started grooming our local trails for cross-country skiing, they put up signs banning dogs. But it’s public land. Why shouldn’t I bring my dog?
Dear Doggedly: I feel your pain. Sundog takes his 19-pound long-haired Mexican mutt hiking, rafting, and skiing, unless threatened by a ticket from a tree cop. The bans at trails are annoying because often dogs were allowed before the skiers began their grooming. So why do they get priority?
To fully answer the query, we need to delve into a rarely visited vault of minutiae: the history of cross country skiing. These skinny boards are the original skis, dating back millennia, the free-heeled vehicle of choice for winter hunters in Russia and Scandinavia; they can be seen kicking and gliding in a 10,000-year- old cave painting in China. In the 20th century, with the mass popularity of downhill skiing and locked-heel bindings, XC skiers became a subculture of Baltic Olympians wrapped snug in debatably flattering onesies, and closer to home, nature bugs escaping the crowds, not buying lift tickets, and romping with dogs and children through the wilderness. These are Sundog’s people.
The sport with its graceful kick-and-glide technique remained static until the 1982 World Ski Championships in Oslo, Norway, when a lone American, Bill Koch—still the only American man to win an Olympic medal in the sport—made a breakthrough. He’d watched marathon skiers using a technique called skating: instead of sliding both skis parallel in the track, they would kick one leg out diagonally and, in a movement like ice skating, propel themselves forward. Slipping out of the track on the 30K race, Koch employed the technique with both skis, basically revving into the passing lane and blowing past rivals. He gained so much time on the leader that the officials thought the clocks were broken. He finished third, and went on to win the season-long World Cup, still the only Tom, Dick, or Harry on a list so full of Gunde, Bjorn, and Oddvar (though, to be fair, there’s now also a Jessie).
Controversy rocked Valhalla. The Norwegians who dominated the sport cried foul: the American’s technique was a corruption of form. The Federation Internationale de Ski scrambled to install gates and nets that prevented skating. Its General Secretary sniffed: “A requiem for the cross-country sport should be sung.” But the athletes loved skating—it was faster! Even as the step was technically outlawed, the long courses were not monitored: they skated when they could. An Italian racer was caught skating and tackled by a Finnish coach. Skaters were booed by trad fans. Others in the old guard were more progressive. Sweden’s Bengt Herman Nilsson, chairman of the FIS Cross-Country Committee, wrote in 1983: “The skating step has come to stay. It is even beautiful when three to four skiers in a row race with forceful skating steps—they remind me of exotic butterflies fluttering in the wind.” The Europeans embraced skating and continued their lock on the podium.
Which is all a way of explaining why the former single-track near you is now groomed. These butterflies require a 12-foot swath of fresh corduroy for their fluttering. And you may have noticed, Doggedly, this new breed of skate skier isn’t the yokel of yore with his wool knickers and tall socks and a rucksack stuffed with gouda and cognac. These skaters are huffing-puffing jocks in clear-lens blades and lycra whose ultralight planks go shwick-shwick, shwick-shwick as they stab carbon poles into the smooth hardpack, form-fitted in garb from brands that sound like Ikea futons: Swix, Madshus, and Dahlie.
Who are these people? For starters, this hobby requires a solid four months of winter to be worthwhile, so it’s most common near ski towns. Skate skiers must have the disposable income for the thousand-dollar set-up, and the disposable time to be doing it midday on a workday. Far from wilderness, skating most often occurs at the base of resorts or on frozen golf courses, where snowcats belch clouds of diesel as they groom.
An ethical case can be made for dropping an abominable turd in of their Type-A track, just for humbling.
As you may know, Sundog has a knee jerk aversion to athleticism and technology. His idea of Crossfit is stringing a hammock across two cottonwoods until it fits, then watching the cacti grow. But little known fact: his family “winters” in a far-north ski town. This is just a fancy way of saying I sleep on a mattress on the in-laws’ floor for six weeks. Yet against all odds, Sundog has become a skate skier himself, and here’s the verdict:
It’s so damn fun.
Skate skiing may be the most graceful sport. You just go so fast, gliding along the smooth track, a full-body choreography with hips burning, shoulders supple with each flick of the wrists, easy on the knees, hard on the heart. It’s a meditative rush, road biking without the road, lap swimming without staring at the bottom of a pool, but soaring between the pines at 20 miles per hour with snowy peaks shining overhead. No other life activity has connected this Los Angeles native so deeply with his 12.5 percent Swedish genetic material, and whipping through woods I hear LedZep III absolutely wailing in the ether: We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow!
Just about the only thing that can de-bliss a skate skier is the intrusion of boot prints and pawprints on our silky track. It’s possible—not certain—that such an imperfection will catch your tip and send you ass over teakettle.
So, Dogged, I’d prefer it if dogs and their walkers stayed off the course. Same for snowshoes and fat bikes. On private-land courses there is little debate: skiers pay for their passes and dogs are banned. But on public land, ski clubs have struck deals with agencies to groom the courses using their own machines and labor, paid for by member dues. The clubs have no authority to prohibit dogs, and the Forest Service is hounded (get it?) by other users to allow them. Some of these areas have made fine compromises: allowing dogs on certain loops but not others.
As a law-breaking dog owner, I’m pained to say that this is a case where you should follow the rules. There are plenty of unrestricted dog trails, and so few groomed to perfection for the weightless sailing. If you do decide to break the rules, you probably won’t get a ticket, but do expect a stern scold from some throbbing Norseman in bulging tights.
Some skaters, Ms. Sundog for example, will readily risk a censure in order to run the mutt, arguing that the paws of small dog don’t even penetrate the surface. She wants the joy of racing around with the dog, and even as she welcomes the grooming on the old logging road where we ski (where dogs are still welcome), worries that it’s a slippery slope to total prohibition. Having grown up in a ski town when it was still a railroad town filled with loggers and homesteaders, she could hardly give a shit what the slick newcomers have to say, anyway.
Lead Illustration: Liam Eisenberg