Cross-country Skiing: Every Adventure Needs a Little Angst

Gliding through a pine grove on cross-country skis, snow glistened in sunlight filtered by feathery boughs, icicles dangled from ledges, trees creaked, groaned and echoed in the hollows, crisp air stung the nostrils – we outdoor enthusiasts savor such bounties of winter, ample rewards for having to endure icy blasts to the face, slush, Stygian darkness and other insults to the senses for much of the season.

Three friends – Maggie Jones, Jennifer Herbst and Phil Plouffe, all of Mystic, as well as Jennifer's playful pooch, Smiley – joined me the other day on a short but sweet outing in Voluntown's Pachaug State Forest, a magnificent, 27,000-acre expanse of woodlands criss-crossed by miles and miles of trails and gravel roads that are ideal for hiking in spring, summer and fall, and skiing or snowshoeing in winter when conditions permit.

During last year's snow starvation I managed to get out on my skis locally only twice, which is why I was eager to hit the trail soon after last week's storm dumped up to a foot of powder through much of the region. When it comes to snow in our neck of the woods, the principle of carpe diem prevails; those who hesitate risk losing out on the chance to play for weeks, months, or perhaps an entire year.

We drove to a forest road called D.E.P. Trail off Route 138, just west of the tiny village, and parked our cars next to a steel gate blocking a well-traveled path.

"It's a little rocky," Phil observed. No matter – enough snow covered the ground to support skis, and so we scrambled past the gate and set out, with Smiley, unimpeded by cumbersome strips of fiberglass worn by his human companions, dashing to the lead.

Unfortunately, we were not the first to venture onto fresh snow, and the start of the path had been fairly well trampled by boots as well as rutted by ski and canine tracks. Oh well, you can't have everything. Those of us who prefer to stick closer to home and ski for free rather than drive for hours and pay to schuss on groomed, commercial trails must take what we can get.

Whenever the path diverged, though, we heeded Robert Frost's advice and chose the road not taken, a policy that for the most part served us well until, inevitably, the trail disappeared among a tangle of fallen trees.

"What should we do?" Maggie called, peering in my direction.

As unofficial expedition leader who has periodically tramped and skied the territory, it seemed logical that I would be the one consulted for route advice – except that my navigationally challenged sense of misdirection is compounded by a propensity for willy-nilly exploration. This can be, and has been, a dangerous combination.

"Uhh, it looks like the trail should keep going toward that valley," I said, waving a ski pole, "but I absolve myself of any responsibility."

"Does anybody have a smart phone with GPS?" Jennifer asked.

"I don't even have a dumb phone," I replied.

"I think we should keep going," Maggie decreed.

I'm pretty sure British explorer Robert Scott must have uttered those words more than a century ago during his ill-fated race to the South Pole, but we deferred to Maggie, who is executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic and a devoted outdoorswoman.

"It looks just like the trail at Manituck," she explained, referring to a nature preserve in Stonington where a storm had knocked over a number of trees. "All the blowdowns are blocking the trail. We just have to get past this section"

And so we slowly picked our way over and around toppled trees, wondering how long we should continue before giving up and backtracking. To amuse us, Maggie related the story of a woman who had been out cross-country skiing a number of years ago, slipped on a log and impaled herself on a sharp branch.

"Was she killed?" Jennifer gulped.

"No, but she had horrible injuries, crippled the rest of her life …"

"I see a fence!" I cried.

Sure enough, a hundred yards ahead a metal gate extended between two trees. Beyond it: a snow-covered gravel road that eventually led to our cars. We would wind up covering six or seven miles, except for Smiley, who likely zig-zagged at least twice that distance.

As we merrily skied ahead, we credited Maggie's determination and sense of direction.

"That was fun. I'm glad we didn't turn around," she said.

"Me too," I said. "Every outing should have a little angst, a little uncertainty. Otherwise it wouldn't be an adventure."

Note: A few weeks ago, when I wrote about a new ordinance on Long Island banning clotheslines in front yards, an alert reader noted I inadvertently mixed up the towns of Glen Cove and Great Neck Village, N.Y. Since the reference was based on a kayak trip around Long Island I made years earlier, I attribute the error to water on the brain. Mea culpa.

S.F.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

My Favorite Kayak Race: The T.I.A.G.A.T.I.N.M.R. In Rangeley, Maine

Paddling like the dickens last Sunday on Maine’s Rangeley Lake, we competitors had two choices: steer clockwise or counter-clockwise around Maneskootuk Island.

Selden Island: Once A Bustling Quarry, Now A Quiet Haven

More than 40 years ago, Dave Wordell of Salem took his then-10-year-old son, Dave Junior, on a boat ride up Selden Creek, a narrow, secluded tributary of the Connecticut River in Lyme.

Life As A Lumbersexual

I can never remember – do you apply facial cleanser before or after the exfoliating scrub, and then finish up with healing balm and moisturizer, or should you start with the scrub, work your way through the cleanser and then top...

R.I.P. Cecil the Lion: Let's Make the Trophy Hunter an Endangered Species

The international outrage sparked by an American trophy hunter’s killing of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, justifiably vilifies the despicable practice of slaughtering wildlife for sport – but it also exposes the human...

All Who Wander Are Not Lost: Searching For The Elusive South Bog Stream In Rangeley, Maine

"Head for that tree stump," I instructed authoritatively one afternoon earlier this week, as if I knew for sure where we should be heading. I have learned to exude confidence when giving directions on any expedition, even...

Scott Jurek's 'Reward' For Breaking Appalachian Trail Speed Record: Three Summonses

When internationally celebrated speedster Scott Jurek scrambled last Sunday to the 5,269-foot summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, he broke the record for the fastest assisted hike of the 2,189-mile...

No Swimming at Seaside: What’s Next? No Hiking at Bluff Point?

Most of the time I’m reasonably scrupulous about abiding by government regulations.

Training For Mystic Sharkfest: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Swimmer

Among the many benefits of active recreation is hanging out with friends – which of course you can do at a bar, pizza parlor or coffee shop, but since most of my pals prefer to spend their leisure time on the trail or water, we...

Stung By Wasps AND Suffering From Lyme Disease: I Can't Catch A Break

You know that funny, itchy feeling when something is crawling around or worse, lodged where it doesn’t belong?

Which Is Worse: Getting Devoured By A Grizzly Bear Or A Great White Shark?

During years of roaming hither and yon on land and sea, I’ve been chased by a grizzly bear, nearly trampled by stampeding yaks, charged by a bull, attacked by swarms of hornets and almost struck by a copperhead – but what...

A Whitewater Dream Taking Shape in Willimantic

Asked to name the best whitewater kayaking and canoeing stretches in Connecticut, most paddlers would single out a gnarly, 2.6-mile section of Class IV rapids on the Housatonic River from Bulls Bridge Dam to Gaylordville, or Diana's Pool...

My War With Canada Geese

Years ago I looked forward to autumn, not so much for the kaleidoscopic foliage but because the evening serenade of migrating Canada geese that lulled me to sleep.