My grandmother was a full-blooded Norwegian, descended from people who inhabited the islands off the coast of Norway above the Arctic Circle. But she never skied a day in her life, that I know of.
Neither did my parents. But somehow, that ancient Nordic wintertime urge bubbled to the surface in me. After all, the entire sport of skiing was invented in the Scandinavian countries more than 1,000 years ago. The word “ski” comes from the word “skiø,” in Old Norse.
On a noisy school bus, packed with teenagers oozing hormones and sweating in layers of down coats and pom-pom stocking hats, I used to ride to a ski hill called Wild Mountain after class on winter Fridays. I wasn’t a talented downhill skier by any stretch, but I could make it down the Midwest mountains – high bluffs above the St. Croix River north of St. Paul, Minnesota – without injuring myself or others. Mostly.
My core skiing experience, the one that hooked me for life, did not come on the well-groomed, lighted slopes of Wild Mountain. It came a few years later, skiing in a place that is truly wild – the Boundary Waters – a roadless area of lakes and rivers and deep pine forests on the border of Minnesota and Canada. During a long-ago January, I joined a group of other college students in a winter wilderness survival course, cross-country skiing miles into the backcountry with packs on our backs, to camp for three days in snow shelters we built on the ice of a frozen lake.
It was 30 below zero at night.
More than the cold, though, what I remember most about that trip is both the terror and the exhilaration of traveling through the untracked landscape almost silently, feeling like my skis made me part of the crystalline world around me, how my stride and glide made the miles pass swiftly (and kept me warm).
I was hooked. No traffic, no lines, no lift fees.
When I came to the White Mountains, I was not disappointed by the cross-country ski opportunities here. When snow conditions allow, you can ski almost anywhere, even down the unplowed streets of Pinetop to check on your neighbors in a big storm, if need be.
But a much more enjoyable choice is to head toward Greer on Hwy. 260. About four miles west of the junction with Hwy. 373, watch for a sign for Pole Knoll Recreation Area on the south side of the road. Pole Knoll has a spacious parking area with restrooms and access to 18 miles of trails, many of them groomed. The trails are an interconnecting series of loops that allow skiers to choose how long and how difficult a trail they want to take on. Overall, the terrain is flat to gently rolling, although some trails have more challenging ascents. The groomed trails make for truly enjoyable skiing, and it has never been crowded on my treks.
On a recent ski outing, the snow was just about perfect at Pole Knoll. Fresh snow had obscured the groomer’s work somewhat, but we met a few enterprising skiers who got out early and laid tracks to follow. The best ski temperatures are usually in the morning; the high elevation afternoon sun can quickly make the snow a bit sticky.
Cruising through the majestic ponderosa pine meadows, I found myself in the moment – hearing the pine jays, the occasional squeak of snow and ski, feeling my blood pumping and the sun on my cheek.
And although Arizona is very far from Norway, I could feel my inner Viking.
Trudy Balcom is a former editor of the White Mountain Independent. She loves to play outside and is a seasonal employee of the U.S. Forest Service.
How great to see Trudy Balcom's name back in the WMI! Wonderful piece and I hope we'll see more of her work.
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