Matthew Dickerson: Ode to snow (and an outdoor center)


My wife and I bought our seasons passes for the Rikert Nordic Center today. In truth, it was more of a step of hope than one based on the present reality. Although the snowmaking machines at Rikert were pumping out new snow up and down the hill along the Tormondsen race course, most of the trails were not yet ready for skiing. And the weather forecast for at least the next 10 days suggests we’re going to see more rain than snow.

Nonetheless, we are choosing to persist in our hope. After buying our passes, we skied the one short section of open trail that has been supplemented by the snowmaking. The conditions were good on the manmade snow, but it took us only a few minutes to do the whole loop. So we circled the short loop a second time. Then we tried one of the trails with natural snow, which we quickly discovered was quite a bit crustier and with thinner snow cover. We turned around before we were halfway through. It was our first outing anyway. Just a warm-up. We’d probably be back tomorrow.

On our way down the mountain after our ski, we discussed the pandemic and the outdoors. Last year, it felt like our cross-country ski outings — even if only 45 or 50 minutes over the span of five days — made a big difference sustaining us emotionally and physically through a lot of the stress and challenges of pandemic life.

In the early days of the pandemic (which now seems like a lifetime ago), when it was becoming evident that COVID-19 was highly contagious, but it was not yet clear exactly how it spread, there was a general fear of being near other people even when outdoors. Dog walkers would cross the street or duck into a stranger’s driveway to avoid contact with other dog walkers. We’d get nervous if a jogger went past without a mask and we had to breath their air. Even as we now enter a whole new wave of the pandemic — the even more contagious omicron variant that many expect to be devastating at the start of this new year — experts have now said that it’s highly unlikely to transmit even this highly contagious virus while recreating outdoors.

I’m thinking cross-country skiing — and more generally just time spent outside, away from human-built environments, in the woods or by a lake or up on a mountainside — might be even more important this year than last.

On the drive up to the mountain before our skiing, we also discussed a recent article by Stephanie Pearson in the “Travel” section of National Geographic’s online magazine. The article had the headline “These are the best cross-country ski trails in the U.S.” That caught my attention so I began to peruse it, wondering if it might lead to a little Nordic getaway vacation some time.

At first I was disappointed — though not entirely surprised — that the locations of these “best cross-country ski trails” were all out west of the Mississippi River. The list included locations in Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska, Washington and Minnesota. Surely there must be something in the East, I thought.

And, indeed, there was. Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, Vt. There it was on the (virtual) pages of National Geographic: one of the best seven Nordic centers in the United States and the only one listed that is east of Michigan.

It was a bit like reading that your favorite local restaurant (or gourmet ice cream maker, or beer brewer) has just won some big award. You know they have deserved it. And you also feel a little proud because you can say, “I eat there” or “I ski there.” In our new age of dramatic climate change — this Anthropocene — I might not trust the weather to provide any winter, but at least I can trust Rikert to do the best with whatever we get. And I need that right now. I feel like I need time outdoors more than ever.

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