Matt Dickerson: On the use of scarves and cross-country skiing in the cold
It was a perfect January day — the type of day during which I might wear a long wool scarf for the aesthetic, but I don’t really need one. The temperature hovered in the mid-20s. Fresh snow blanketed the ground. Most importantly, nearly all the trails at Rikert Nordic Ski Touring Center were once again open.
That last point we did not take for granted. A week earlier our appetite for cross-country skiing had been wonderfully whetted by an afternoon outing in near perfect conditions. However, 24 hours of 50-degree rain moving in to start the weekend had ruined all that good skiing: Rikert had closed nearly every trail.
Now the yo-yo had rolled back up the string. It felt like January again. Rikert was back open. Looking out the window at the perfect winter day, my wife wondered why we couldn’t just have this type of weather all winter long: something between 15 and 35 degrees, with snow cover from mid-December through mid-March. The comment was as much in reference to the brutal cold streak that had recently ended as to the snow-destroying rain and thaw.
Two weeks earlier, over the New Year’s weekend, we had taken our sons and the significant women in their lives on a three-day, two-night cross-country ski trek to the Gorman and Little Lyford Lodges — a pair of Appalachian Mountain Club wilderness lodges between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park. (Back in December, I wrote about this trip as our Christmas present to our family instead of wrapping up more plastics and electronics under the tree.)
The nighttime temperatures during our excursion dropped down to 20 below zero. The high during the day was only five below. I made use of my scarf on that trip. In fact, I made use of three scarves, plus a wool Buff, two fleece headbands, and both a fleece hat and a wool hat. Or, rather, those extra items I carried in my day pack were used by somebody — though not always by me.
The adventure began at the AMC winter parking lot where we left our bags of clothing in the sheds for snowmobile delivery, and began our ski of just over eight miles from into the Gorman Lodge. There were nine of us on the adventure. My wife and I were a bit nervous. Two of the group had skied only once in their lives, and a third was still somewhat of a novice.
Fortunately, the trails were well groomed and not especially difficult. We went a short distance down a wide groomed lumber road (closed in the winter) and then turned off onto a narrowed wooded trail (also groomed) that wound along ridges and ponds and over streams.
Even for beginners, eight miles is not a horribly long ski. And when you are skiing, five below is not bitterly cold. Nordic skiing works a lot of muscles — arms, legs, and core — and the body produces a considerable amount of heat.
The issue is temperature control. When the air is that cold you don’t really want to stop for much of a rest as you chill off quickly. And, as we all discovered, the moist air around the face has a way of forming icicles on strands of hair, beards, and even eyebrows and eyelashes.
So once you start moving, you just keep pushing onward until you reach the destination, which is why the cold temperature makes it more tiring. I paused only to wait for others, or to drink (alternating between my water bottle and my hot cocoa thermos), or to change which item I had wrapped around my face when my moist breath eventually turned my scarf into a big stiff icicle.
The first night, we all arrived exhausted, and a few of us had cold toes or cheeks or fingers. But the folks at the lodge had fires going in our cabins, and in the main lodge an assortment of hot drinks, plates of fresh cookies, and trail mix. They also had hot showers and a sauna that went a long way at the end of a cold day.
And the lodge dinner — which featured hug slabs of prime rib — was a veritable feast. Energy levels among the 20-something members of our went back up enough for some rousing games of ping-pong in the evening.
The second day was a shorter ski of only six-and-a-half miles up and over a ridge and then along a riverside trail from Gorman Lodge to Little Lyford Lodge. Everybody had a better idea of what to expect, and how to layer. I lent out my extra scarves to two members of the company. We waited until 10 a.m. to start our trek, and we made the next lodge in time for a late lunch — less tired and less cold, though with similarly iced-over eyebrows. We had a long afternoon to rest, build puzzles, and consume more cookies and hot drinks.
On our ski back out to the parking lot on the third and final day, we chose a more adventurous trail — i.e. one rated intermediate to advanced rather than beginner. Most members of the party ended up off the trail and in the deep powder more than once, and thankful for the face wraps that kept the snow from going down their necks.
Yet we arrived back at the cars no worse for the wear, and no worse for not owning a few more pieces of electronics. In fact, everybody thought they’d want to do a trip like that again — though nobody would have complained if we did it when the temperatures were 20 or 30 degrees warmer.
The only suggestion we received from the younger participants was to stay in the same lodge on the second night so we’d have the option of doing just a short loop on the second day, and without the need of packing our gear.
I agreed with the recommendations, especially the temperature. Going through the number of clothing articles that had turned into icicles around my face, I also made a mental note to bring more scarves next time. And not just for aesthetics.
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