Two Settlers' Accomplishment
When Bill Treichler first heard this story that follows here he said, "You must write that. It belongs in The Crooked Lake Review." Now one of the first things I learned when I began, following retirement, to write for publication was that you must never question or argue with an editor. It is unwise and it just is not done. He is in charge of his publication and what he says goes.
Being of an independent and questioning turn of mind, however, I still had to check this out for myself. I turned to The Review's statement of purpose that appears in every issue. "A review of the accomplishments of the men, women and families who settled here," it says. Bill was right. This fits in perfectly. The principals in this story, my wife Jean and I, certainly thought of what we had done as an "accomplishment." I "settled here" in 1942 when I came to Bath fresh out of college to start a branch office of Farm Credit. Jean "settled here" when we married in 1970 after the death of my wife Mary Ellen. We were settlers with accomplishments, then. Thus cleared, on with the story.
The first winter of our marriage Jean said, "Let's cross-country ski." That sport was gaining renewed popularity at the time. In our fifties then, could we do that? We looked back in order to look ahead.
I had skied in college with the Cornell Outing Club on a slope near Virgil owned by the University. In those days there were a very few rope tows (now extinct) here and there. These were endless ropes on big pulleys, usually old car wheels at hill top and bottom, driven by a motor. You stayed on your skis, grabbed hold of the rope, hung on and it pulled you up the hill. Chair lifts, if even in existence then, were rarer still. If you wanted to ski down a hill, mostly you had to ski up it first, every time. Removing skis and walking up was taboo—it roughened the snow by punching it full of footstep holes. You skied up in various ways. You could herringbone for short distances—it was fast but exhausting. Mostly you "traversed," climbing with parallel skis at the steepest angle you could, then reversing direction with a kick turn, thus ascending in a series of zig-zag switchbacks. The steeper the angle you could handle, the faster you got there. I developed a technique of speeding this up by pressing my heel hard down on the ski and thus digging the rear tip of my ski into the snow. As the front of the ski then came down on the snow it was often with an audible "slap" sound. This looked and sounded a bit odd, but it worked. Since it took much longer to ski up than down, I became a very accomplished uphill skier for those days while a fair-to-mediocre downhill one. Wasn't this climbing and descending, "cross-country" skiing? Yes, it seemed it surely was. With that history, it seemed likely I could do this again.
Jean's prospects looked even better. She had done real cross-country skiing — getting to and from grade school on primitive toe-strap skis, in the snowy North Country where she grew up. Later as present-day ski slopes developed, she took up downhill skiing on weekends in places like Greek Peak and the Catskill resorts.
She became a good downhill skier. But what she emphasized most was that she had gone once with the Finger Lakes Chapter, Adirondack Mountain Club, on their very first cross-country ski tour ever. They were the rankest beginners, she said; she'd had not the slightest trouble keeping up with them. There's nothing to it, she said, "Just walking on skis." (What she overlooked was what the ADK people might have been doing in the three years intervening. An important omission, we were to find.) Sure, we could cross-country ski, we concluded together.
We assembled our old equipment—good but heavy ridge-top hickory skis with steel edges. We had stiff-soled leather boots with "bear trap" bindings, heel-spring on mine, front-throw-cable on hers. And bamboo poles. We tried them out in various hilly, knolly places providing a variety of terrain conditions. We found it exhilarating and no problem. Sure—we guessed we were cross-country skiers, all right.
About then came word of the Finger Lakes ADK having a ski tour at Arnot Forest. Of course we'd go. Why not? We were veterans, weren't we?
We did go. The first thing we saw was that there were dozens and dozens of people assembling and the next thing was that nobody's equipment looked the least bit like ours. Their skis were light and narrow, their boots low and flexible—only their poles were similar at all. Again, so what? We were undaunted—as yet.
Soon the group formed a column and started skiing up an ascending forest trail, an old logging road. We fell into the line about a third of the column's length behind the leader. The first revelation we got that something was sadly wrong came when people kept passing us and our position in line came closer and closer to the rear end. Some of them turned heads and stared at this odd old man making slap-slap noises on the snow as he crept upwards. Jean did not have such an attention-getting peculiarity in her technique as I, but trying her best she still wasn't any faster than I.
As the next-to-the-last couple in line passed us they kindly asked, "Would you like to try some of our Blue wax?" Blue wax? We declined with thanks. What did we know of blue wax? Absolutely nothing. Jean's only experience with wax had been with Silver to make her skis go faster. Mine was almost as limited, although I had tried Klister once for spring skiing conditions and made such a mess with it I vowed that if I ever got it off my skis (I did; wasn't easy) I would never touch it again and I never did. Skiing that called for Klister was not for me, ever, I firmly decided back then.
In a moment we were alone and watched the gap between us and the rest widen until they passed out of sight. Glumly we returned to our car, shaken, disgraced, humiliated and defeated. We drove to a point where the planned route crossed the road. When we saw the leaders appear from behind a ridge and start to descend we quietly slunk out of there lest we encounter them again. We just weren't up to that.
Back home, we recovered and planned what to do next. Jean favored getting some lessons somewhere. None were available without expending considerable time and travel. I went instead to libraries, took out books on cross-country skiing and studied them. The best one that answered the most questions was by Lederer (he of the "Ugly American" and much more) but they all added something of value.
The most valuable things to us that we learned, as far as how-to goes, were the kick-and-glide—stretch out that stride—and downhill step turns—pick up those feet. Extremely helpful was learning about the crystalline changes in snow from its first fall to its last thaw and what each gradation demanded in wax and waxing.
Moved by this reading, we put aside our old skis, the last word in 1939 and got us each a pair of cross-country skis and suitable boots. Rather than switch to the then-new toe bindings we got the old front-throw-cable heel bindings we were used to and which were then sold in light imported models. In addition to skiing technique we learned waxing, of whose importance we had become convinced.
We learned fast. The most time we had for daily skiing was the brief daylight after my office closed at 4:30. To make the most of this we ended up with 5 pairs of skis each. That sounds very costly, I know, but it wasn't. We got one more good pair of cross-country skis each, better ones than our first. The other three pairs each included one old pair of maple Northlands that I had rescued years ago from the village dump, plugging the toe-strap slots with wooden inserts-cost $0.00. We found two places, one near Naples and one near Livonia closing out Korean War surplus skis. At one place we paid one dollar a pair, at the other four dollars. I bought ten pairs at those prices, some of which we gave to relatives and friends. They were an all-purpose model of the best hickory. Passing through North Conway, New Hampshire, once, we came upon a store closing out their stock. I bought all the light cross-country bindings they had, some heel-spring and some front-throw-cable, at give-away prices.
With a hand rip-saw I narrowed these skis about three quarters of an inch, attached bindings and put six of them into our use. They were a mite heavy and did not hold wax base as well as the birch-bottomed real cross-country skis. We had learned, however, that any old ski waxed right for the snow conditions was better than the best ski haphazardly waxed.
I would scoot home right after work and Jean would have been studying the snow and reached a conclusion as to that day's proper wax. We got into our ski clothes, loaded skis and dog into the car and were off. We kept our five pairs each waxed five different ways and chose the one we'd agreed upon for that day. Our wax studies and ski practice had brought us to the point where we most often chose dark green wax, best for cold new snow, only light green being harder, but it gives you maximum glide if you can handle it, which by that time we could.
We also had on our skis light green, blue, purple and red. We had eliminated yellow and orange—too gooey, hard to handle and not needed by us.
We kept a running mental inventory of snowy spots near home. One was a couple of miles of field border only two blocks away. We learned that east slopes were most dependable. The prevailing West winds dumped snow there and they were shaded from the westering sun the longest. This inventory provided every kind of snow condition about which to learn.
We got better and better and enjoyed it more and more. We went on ski tours with Three Rivers Outing Club and one weekend with Cayuga Trails Club at Piseco and managed O.K. Then came word of another Adirondack Mountain Club ski tour at High Tor near Naples, with that same Finger Lakes Chapter where we suffered our first disgraceful failure. Of course we'd go now.
We arrived at the spot a bit early to check out the snow there and decide on any modification of the dark green we'd decided on at home. (You can put soft wax over harder, but not vice versa.) Once there, a friend soon arrived, also early, for that same reason. He had just come from a ski race near Rochester earlier that day. That's the kind of skier he was.
He made his choice and we made ours, which was, as I recall, about eighteen inches of purple in the middles under the foot, over our dark green. The group assembled and started up the hill. It had become warmer. This time nobody, nobody at all, passed John and Jean. Everybody, but everybody, even our racer friend, was troubled with back slip on the melting snow—except us.
The green gave us good forward glide and the purple held under our weight, no slipping back. At the top of the hill we were either first or among a very few others. Memory is not perfectly clear on that heady point. This time, at least, we could look back on a long line struggling up the hill and it didn't include us (My "slap-slap" days were long past; supplanted by good waxing.)
We were now viewed, we felt sure, by any who may have remembered our last ADK presence, with a new respect. Sweet vindication enveloped us like a fog. The Finnish ski troops who drove the Russians from their homeland could not have felt more triumphant. We gloated as shamelessly all the way home, as we had slunk there shamefacedly a few years before.
We continued to ski, of course, but after a while pain drove me to a hip joint replacement. I confided to my surgeon on a post-op check-up of my hope to return to skiing with my "restored" leg by practicing at first on dead-level old railroad beds. He hesitated not one instant to say, "If you do that, don't come back to me," I was too timid to take this other than seriously. That ended my skiing. Jean's skeletal joints held up better than mine did, but her heart didn't. She still kept on skiing a short distance every day until the day she died.
All history presumably contains some lesson. One lesson from this historical bit is that just about everything does change and become obsolete. All our hard-won waxing expertise would be near worthless today when we have waxless skis. I think no one but very serious skiers bothers with wax today, even though it is the ultimate.
I wouldn't bother with wax if I were starting afresh today. I'd get one pair of skis with the latest improved "fish scale" waxless bottoms. I would not get quite as good results with them as with skillful waxing, but I would get a lot of good skiing (not superlative, but good) without any required and time-consuming supportive effort. For most people the wax can now join with other nearly-antiquated objects and procedures that are interesting but not necessary. Our accomplishment I trust will stand in the archives of The Crooked Lake Review.
© 2000, John Rezelman