On a bright but freezing cold day last winter, the medley of languages overheard at Fahnestock Winter Park might have fooled you into thinking that you’d been magically transported to Russia, Finland, or Poland — anywhere other than the all-American town of Cold Spring in Putnam County. As flags of many nations flapped in the wind, groups of transplanted Europeans, many up for the day from New York City, gathered around the outdoor fireplace at the lodge and sipped hot chocolate, their cross-country skis propped nearby.
“Europeans really have a heritage of being outdoors,” says winter park Director Paul Kuznia. “They’ll put on a backpack, ski the trails, and have lunch. It’s a way of connecting with how they grew up.” On a good weekend, as many as 700 people might visit the park, making it one of the busiest cross-country centers in the Northeast.
Not that there are all that many to choose from. While popular abroad, cross-country skiing (also called Nordic skiing), with its hip air of sophistication, is still an underground sport stateside. Until recently, it was enjoyed mainly by a small but passionate group of enthusiasts. Some were converts from downhill (or alpine) skiing, and many also took part in other rigorous sports like kayaking or bicycling. But it seems that this relatively easy and affordable pastime, which offers an excellent overall workout, is now catching on with the general public.
Staying in shape: With special skates, Sibilia practices her skiing form in the off-season
Dutchess County resident Janice Sibilia started out as a bike racer in the early 1980s, and took up Nordic skiing as a form of cross training. Today she coaches high-level skiers and is the competitive program director for the New England Nordic Ski Association. Sibilia practices the fast-paced form of cross-country known as skate skiing, which was popularized by Olympian Bill Koch in the early 1980s.
“Cross-country skiers are some of the fittest athletes in the world,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you have to be incredibly fit. You can really set your own pace. You can go out for a leisurely, bucolic ski on classic skis. Or you can go out on your skate skis and try to cover as much ground as quickly as possible.”
The full gamut of skiers is evident at Fahnestock: Plenty of families and seniors make their way around the easy two-mile Field Loop, while the more experienced venture onto more challenging trails (all of which are groomed, which makes them easier and more enjoyable to use). When Lake Canopus freezes, skate skiers head out there as well. “It feels like Siberia out on the lake, like a different world,” says Mark Booska, a volunteer at Fahnestock and the cross-country chairman of the Hudson Valley Ski Club. “You’ll find a deer carcass out there and wonder what happened. Did coyotes surround it?”
Like other dedicated cross-country facilities, Fahnestock offers lessons in both classic and skate skiing. Basics covered include how to get up if you fall (and you will), and how to transfer your weight from one ski to the other. But that’s just scratching the surface.
“In downhill you have to learn one thing: to turn, which is also to stop,” says Booska. But in cross-country, you’ve got skating, classic, uphill, downhill, the transition from flat to uphill, “so you’re using different techniques and getting a total body workout,” he says.
Most beginners take lessons on waxless classic skis (waxes are used by experienced skiers). But anyone who’s had experience ice skating or rollerblading can give skate skis a try from the get-go. Classic skis generally are thinner and longer than downhill skis; skate skis are skinnier still and slightly shorter than classic skis. And both classic and skate skis have more camber than downhill skis. Camber is the arch at the base of the ski; it helps to distribute your weight evenly, which reduces drag and increases glide. “The longer the glide, the more efficient your form,” says Rob Kelley, the owner of Pawling Cycle & Sport. “When you get really good at it, and the conditions are right, you shoot along. It’s euphoric.”
Kelley points out that many beginners don’t know their own physical limitations or understand the importance of snow conditions. “In wet snow, you can go nowhere,” he says. “Having some snow-sport background is very good, because some of the downhill technique does transcend to cross-country.”
On the whole, cross-country is cheaper than downhill skiing — which is a huge plus, especially in these difficult economic times. For about $300, you can get a complete cross-country package (skis, poles, boots, bindings). You can easily spend that amount (or much more) on downhill skis alone. “You also spend much less money than you would going to an alpine facility,” adds Sibilia. “The rentals are cheaper, and you don’t have to wait on endless lines for lift tickets. Just put the skis on and go.” At Fahnestock, the daily trail fee is $9 for adults, $6 for kids; rentals (including boots and poles) are $16. Group lessons run $17 per person; private lessons are $30.
Aside from Fahnestock, the two other big cross-country facilities in the area are Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve, which Booska particularly appreciates for its subtly colored ice formations and access to remote, challenging terrain. Both locations are at relatively high elevation, so they get more snow and it stays cold longer. (To learn about trail conditions around the region, check the free-to-join discussion group on veteran skier Ken Roberts’ Web site.)
Keep in mind that cross-country facilities rate their trails by level of difficulty (from green for easy to black for difficult), but Roberts warns that trail ratings are subjective: “There’s a green hill at Minnewaska that suddenly drops and isn’t so easy anymore.” You need to think ahead: A trail that was simple to go down might not be such a snap to ascend. And a route that was soft in the early afternoon might become slick and slippery when you return at dusk.
A big part of cross-country’s appeal, of course, is that you don’t actually need a groomed facility — or even to travel out of your neighborhood — to enjoy it. Golf courses, open fields, your own backyard are all possibilities. Kelley has been known to classic-ski with friends through the center of Pawling to grab a cup of coffee on the weekend. They’ll also get together after work and skate-ski into the wee hours on a long stretch of the frozen Great Swamp in Patterson. Or they head over to Pawling’s Lakeside Park with classic skis. “If we get as little as three or four inches of snow, we can break classic tracks and ski the heck out of them,” says Kelley. “People can go over and use them. Once the tracks are broken, it can be out of this world for any level of skier to get out there.”
State-run downhill skiing venue has 5.6 miles (9.02 kilometers) of intermittently groomed trails
Fahnestock Winter Park
Cold Spring; 845-225-3998
Fifteen kilometers (9.3 miles) of groomed trails plus lake; suitable for all abilities. Lodge with food (delicious chili), rentals, lessons
High Point Cross-Country Ski Center
High Point State Park, NJ
Nine miles (15 kilometers) of groomed trails for all levels. Rentals, lessons, and certified ski patrols available. Just over the border from Orange County
Minnewaska State Park Preserve
Twenty miles (32 kilometers) of carriageways of intermittently groomed trails; warming yurt adjacent to upper parking lot; incredible rock formations and views
Mohonk Mountain House
845-256-2101 ski shop
845-256-2197 for updates on trails and conditions
Thirty-five miles (56 kilometers) of groomed trails with magnificent vistas; rentals, lessons
Thirty-five kilometers (21.7 miles) of groomed trails; rentals; lessons; open weekends and holiday weeks when conditions permit; warming hut, snack bar
Bear Mountain State Park
Cross-country trails are open all winter in the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area
Clermont State Historic Site
Five miles (8 kilometers) of carriage trails
Six thousand-acre wetland owned by the Nature Conservancy spans Dutchess and Putnam counties
Three hundred-acre town park
James Baird State Park
Pleasant Valley; 845-452-1489
Seven miles (11.2 kilometers) of trails and nearby golf course
Mills-Norrie State Park & Dinsmore Golf Course
Numerous trails, carriage roads, fields, and golf course
Hudson Valley Ski Club
Downhill and cross-country organization
Pawling Cycle & Sport
Offers a weather-dependent January clinic; call ahead