Enjoy woods, winter, friends in Vermont

This past Sunday my wife, Deborah, and I put on our cross-country skis for the first time of the new calendar year. Cross-country skiing is one of our favorite outdoor activities — one of the reasons we love winter in Vermont, and are often praying for snow.
But, although we did manage to get out on our skis over the Christmas break to wrap up 2010, not long after New Year’s Day along came the thaw and heavy rains, and all the lovely snow was washed way.
It was several more days before a succession of light flurries had accumulated enough to warrant a trip to the Carroll and Jane Rikert Ski Touring Center on Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, where we purchased our annual family season’s pass. Even with several days of light snow, there was just barely enough fresh powdery stuff on the ground to cover the trails and allow grooming, and not enough to lay down tracks for diagonal (classic) stride. There was also not enough snow to cover all the little springs that flow down shallow gullies across the hillside trails. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Joining us on our Sunday afternoon excursion were our friends Louis and Susan Nop. It was Louis’s first time ever on cross-country skis. Susan had been twice before, but both previous trips had been more than 15 years earlier. They were daring novices.
We began heading east across The Field and around the Battell loop, which is relatively flat and benign, easy even for beginners. The fresh snow had brought out a good crowd for the weekend. The parking lot was full, and there were plenty of skiers on these easier trails. But there’s enough space in the woods that it never felt crowded. We took it easy and enjoyed the snow-covered trees, the quiet of the woods, and some casual conversation, while our guests got their ski legs under them. Though the trails were not tracked, the conditions were good.
Not too fast, but not slow or sticky either. There were no exposed rocks. Susan fell only once.
After the warm-up loop, we crossed the road and headed up the slightly more adventurous trails to the north, eventually finding ourselves on the Sheehan trail. The slope was gentle enough that Louis and Susan made the ascent without difficult. We stopped and celebrated by sharing tiny cups of some of the hot wassail I had brought in my stainless steel thermos (A warmed bottle of Boyden Valley Glögg to be more precise). If the beauty of Vermont’s woods in the winter weren’t enough to hook our friends on the delights of cross-country skiing, and the burden of extended conversation with the Dickersons wasn’t enough to scare them off, the wassail, we thought, was sure to capture them. What could be better than hot wassail consumed on a cold, snowy, wooded Vermont hillside with good friends?
It was after the wassail (but in no way because of it) that we encountered the first obstacles: a succession of about five small springs trickling through gullies across the trail. We succeeded in crossing them with a variety of strategies, none of which could be called graceful, and all at the cost of getting the bottom of our skis wet. Louis also took his first spill in the bottom of one of the gullies. I would have teased him, except that less than a minute after he got up and brushed himself off, a member of Middlebury College’s Nordic ski team tried to cross the same gully and took an even more dramatic and acrobatic spill. So I refrained from laughter and instead we took another break to clean the ice off our skis while sharing the rest of the wassail.
The 90-minute excursion ended with a descent down the bottom side of Craig’s Hill back to the barn. Susan and Louis, who took the descent at a slightly slower pace met us a few minutes later. If either fell again, they did not admit it. They did admit to enjoying the excursion. “I loved it,” Susan said. “I thought it was great. I want to do it more. I need to get outside in the winter.”
As for Deborah and I, we’ll take any excuse offered. If we can share our delight of snow, winter woods, and cross-country skiing with good friends, all the better. We’re even willing to share the wassail.

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