LAKE PLACID - Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. That was the sound that reached my ears as my skis glided along the already established narrow, parallel tracks in the snow.
It was Friday and I was cross-country skiing for the first time. Going into my private lesson at Mt. Van Hoevenberg I thought cross-country skiing would be like snowshoeing in that I would be walking in the snow, but with skis strapped to my feet. But soon into the lesson, I realized that my preconceived notion was incorrect.
After getting my rental skis on, which proved to be difficult - I had trouble getting the boots to snap into the skis - I started moving along an established trail in the cross-country ski stadium by leading with my feet, as if I were walking. My instructor, Joe Kahn, the ski school director at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, soon informed me that I should be leading with my hips, not my feet.
Cross-country skiers enjoy the terrain at the Mount Van Hoevenburg Cross-Country Ski Area on March 2.
Photos/Margaret Moran/Lake Placid News
"Do you dance?" Kahn asked me.
"Uh ... a bit," I answered.
"So like dancing, you want to lead with your hips," he said.
Kahn, who was equipped with his own skis, boots and poles, demonstrated what he meant. Next it was my turn to try.
Keeping my legs loose and leaning a bit forward as he had instructed earlier, I jutted my hip forward with my leg and foot following from behind. I immediately felt a difference in my form, and I guess it was apparent, since Kahn commented on it.
Over the next few minutes I practiced on my form, making sure that I could lead with my hips and keep my knee in front of my ankle on a regular basis. Once I had gotten the hang of that, Kahn showed me the key to cross-country skiing: sliding.
"The thing that makes it (cross-country skiing) fun is the sliding," Kahn said. "When you can slide uphill, it's even more fun."
Step, step, lean on your lead heel, slide.
Following those instructions, I felt the underneath of my right ski skim along the top of the compacted snow. I did it! I slid. When I tried to repeat the motion using my left leg, it didn't work out as well.
What's going on, I thought. I did everything that I did with my right leg, right? I tried to slide with my left leg again with the similar results.
Kahn said everyone has a stronger side - mine apparently being my right side - so I knew I needed to practiced sliding with my left side. At first, my movements were jerky. I would stop and go like I was stuck in rush hour traffic. My right leg acting like the gas pedal with my left leg acting like the brake.
To encourage me to keep a more even sliding pace, Kahn whipped out what I believe was a harmonica - I couldn't see the instrument, since I was in front of him practicing my gliding - and he began to play. The steady rhythm of the music did end up helping me to sustain more fluid movements.
After practicing sliding along with other movements such as the star turn, which can be used to change one's direction, in the stadium, it was time to embark on a marked recreational trail.
"They're great for beginners all the way to serious experts," said Rand Jerris, of Branchburg, N.J., who was on the trails Friday with his wife, Kate, and two young children, Hope and Noah. "There's a great variety of trail systems here. You can ski for a couple of days and not necessarily be skiing on the same thing over and over again. It's just something different each time."
For me, it was all new because I had never traveled on any of the trails at the Olympic Sports Complex before. The trail that I ended up going on with Kahn was called the Mini Loop. It is designated as an easy trail whose length is .5km or .3 miles with an estimated completion time of 10 minutes.
With a little push from my poles at the beginning of the trail, I was off. The trail started with a slight dip, so I was immediately hit with the rush of picking up speed and gliding on the snow while providing minimal effort.
That was fun, I thought, as I began to slow down and had to rely on the techniques I had learned earlier rather than on gravity to move forward.
"I love gliding on snow," said Jenni McGrew, of Lake Placid, who was at Mt. Van Hoevenberg on Friday cross-country skiing. "It's fun. It's really fun."Not only was I having fun, but my surroundings were picturesque.
On either side of me along the Mini Loop trees towered over me with fresh snow clinging to their branches and sunlight filtering through them, illuminating the wide, snow-covered trail.
In the fresh snow, the grooves of past skiers and snowshoers were easily visible. I made sure to stay within the deep-set ski tracks that were off to the right, since they helped me go straight.
"People like to ski in a set track," Kahn said. "It becomes like a railroad. It helps to direct their energy better."
"It's fun to come out on a trail that is packed and tracked," said Bonnie Birk, of Lake Placid. "It's nice terrain."
Following the already laid out path, I made turns and traveled up a hill before reaching flat land. While steadily making my way along the straightaway, a pair of cross-country skiers quickly came up from behind me, their form being different from mine.
"What kind of cross-country skiing are they doing?" I asked Kahn.
He told me that they were doing skate skiing, named for the form and movements looking similar to that an ice skater.
"That's an advanced technique," Kahn later told me. "That's used for biathlon and nordic combined, which are the two sports where Lake Placid athletes have excelled (at)."
This reporter, however, was just trying to grasp the classic style of cross-country skiing.
"You did great," Kahn told me at the end of my lesson. "You did a really nice job."
A sense of pride washed over me when he told me that. I knew I didn't do it perfectly, but I put myself out there to learn something new, and with doing anything new, a few bumps along the way are to be expected. My final bump proved to be going downhill.
At the top of a small slope, Kahn told me to "melt," lean forward and push off with my poles to get my initial momentum. I did as he instructed, feeling my speed picking up as I continued to glide down the snow-covered slope before coming to an abrupt halt by falling.
Kahn instructed me on how to get up and told me what went wrong since I had no idea; one second I was up and the next I was down. My second attempt to get down the slope was successful, returning me to the stadium where I had started.
Going on the trail for the second time - without my instructor - I realized how peaceful it was. I hardly encountered anyone, but I knew I wasn't alone. I could hear the chatter of unseen birds and the scamper of a squirrel as it made its way up the trunk of one of the many surrounding trees.
"I think for me (I like) the peace and solitude of being outside in nature," Jerris said. "We do both cross-country and downhill, and we like the cross-country because it's a chance to get away from all the people and find a little quiet and enjoy the outdoors."
Cheryl Schiller, of Lake Placid, echoed that sentiment.
"For me it's enjoying the surroundings," she said. "It's just beautiful and quiet."
I was actually so taken by the surroundings and so focused on what I was doing that I forgot that I was actually getting a good workout in the process.
"I don't think there's any better exercise than cross-country skiing," Birk said. "It exercises your whole body - arms, legs, mind, core, everything."
And I certainly felt that once I was done. For the rest of the day, I could feel the tightness in my thighs as if I had been running all morning.
"It's a very good workout," said Audrey Hyson, of Lake Placid. "It's very easy on your joints. You can do it for your whole life. I recommend it to anyone. It's just a really great sport, and it's not expensive like Alpine skiing."
The cost for a cross-country ski package, which includes a trail pass, rentals and a class lesson, at the Olympic Sports Complex is $45. A similar package, but with a private lesson instead costs $65.
"Anybody new should be doing that (getting a lesson) because they have much more fun," Kahn said. "Otherwise, they tend to just walk on their skis instead of sliding."
Mt. Van Hoevenberg is open to cross-country skiers daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. until March 25.
"It's just another way to play in the snow," Hyson said.
Contact Margaret Moran at 518-523-4401 or at email@example.com