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Cross Country Skiing
Has Extensive History

In the year 3000 B.C., in a land known as Scandinavia, humans first glided across snow on boards. They had discovered a better means of transportation — which we know today as cross country skiing.

In the beginning, cross country skis were just a crude adaptation of the snowshoe. People soon discovered, however, that by pushing off with a pole while on skis, it was possible to go faster and farther. In the late 1500s, Finnish Lapp skiers were using 9- to 11-foot skis, which glided with the help of a single, long, pushing pole.

In 1520, Gustavas Vasa skied 51 miles from Salan to Mora, Sweden, to lead his countrymen to freedom against the Danish King, Christian II. Today the Vasaloppet Race is an annual event in Sweden and follows the exact same route as Vasa did.

The late Middle Ages saw important advancements in cross country skiing. Hills and valleys, crevices and precipices, soft snow, and hard snow have all influenced the development of equipment. Whereas the long pole in Finland worked well on relatively flat surfaces, the Norwegians developed baskets on the ends of their poles so as not to sink into the soft deep snow. The Finns and Swedes built poles to contend with crusted and windblown conditions. In Austria, the pole was used as a brake while descending hills.

In the 19th century, the concept of braking was popularized in America by John “Snowshoe” Thompson, who skied over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver mail in 1856. He accomplished the 90-mile journey in an average of three days and continued to deliver mail this way for 20 years.

The late 1800s saw the beginning of a new development in cross country skiing — it became a recreational activity. This occurred with the invention of the first binding by Sondre Norheim of Telemark, Norway. The binding allowed people to maneuver their skis with much more control. It was mainly due to binding and boot development that alpine and nordic skiing took different paths. Alpine boots were attached to the ski at the heel, and nordic boots were free of the ski at the heel. In the 1930s, when alpine skiing became an Olympic event, the split was complete.

The 1920s and 1930s saw further evolution in cross country skiing binding techniques, and the use of two poles increased in popularity. In the Alps, shorter poles or “Swagger Sticks” were used for going uphill, while the Finns and Swedes developed long poles with curved spikes at the ends to better negotiate the flat, windblown, snowy terrain of their homelands.

The outbreak of World War II called for armed battalions on skis. The 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army trained 15,000 men for action in the Italian Dolomites in 1945. They underwent specific training in skiing, mountaineering, and alpine survival techniques at Camp Hale in Colorado. Today, the 10th Mountain Division Trail in Colorado is a memorial to those men who served.

It wasn’t until 1968 that the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, introduced the concept of a “cross country ski area.” The sport was still unrefined. The skis were wood, the boots leather, the poles bamboo, and the clothing consisted of wool or blue jeans. It was not a sport for the pampered and coddled. Trail grooming or maintenance, if any, was done by snowmobile and homemade tracksetters.

Today, cross country skiing is much different. The sport has several million adherents, of which a little more than half are female. As an activity, nordic skiing is family-oriented and appeals to people in their late 30s and beyond.

Extensive trail grooming is done at most cross country ski centers, and many have introduced skating-only lanes which are specifically groomed flat for cross country skiers enabling them to push the skis to the side and glide, much like ice skating. Many facilities offer the best of amenities from health clubs, sleigh rides, and guided tours, to gourmet meals.

A recent revolution in equipment has brought to the marketplace shorter, wider skis which are more manageable; boots that are comfortable, functional, and colorful; and stylish clothing made from the technologically advanced fabrics.

“Nothing hardens the muscles and makes the body so strong and elastic,” wrote Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian Arctic explorer who traveled across Greenland on cross country skis. “Nothing gives better presence of mind and nimbleness; nothing steels the will power and freshens the mind as cross country skiing. This is something that develops not only the body but also the soul — it has a far deeper meaning for people than many are aware of.”

Written in 1890, these words still hold true today in a much faster paced world.


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