Friday, February 27, 2015

these strange slats of wood

Because skiing was unknown in Maine in the 1800's, English-speaking people who saw the Swedish immigrants using skis didn't know what to call these strange slats of wood...they referred to them as long wooden snow runners, Swedish snow shoes, and even snow skates.   Other writers used the word skidor.
quote from an informational plaque in the entryway
Nordic Heritage Center, Presque Isle Maine 

My father is from Presque Isle, Maine.  That's way up north in The County, for those of you from away.  We spend as much of each summer as we can up in The County, where my family still has a camp they built there in the 1940s.  But, in the past few years, since we discovered the NHC, and since our kids became interested in skiing, we have spent a few days each winter there as well.  In some years, heading north during school vacation week has allowed us to head into skiable snow, where at home in Southern Maine there has been none.  This winter, with over 4 feet of snow in our yard, this was not necessary, but plans had been made long before Winter 2015 became as epic as it has been.

It was a snowy trip.  To a place that feels a little different than our home region of our state.  To this place that knows how to handle the kind of winter we are having this year.  

Last year, I wrote about our time at Quoggy Jo Ski Center.  This year we spent two wonderful days at Quoggy Jo again.  And we spent our other day at the Nordic Heritage Center.  

We were there just one day after a high school ski race, a race that had included some skiers that our kids know.  And so, though the center was almost completely deserted when we visited, it was clear from the groups of skiers and families in our hotel, from stories on the news, and from the race results left behind on the message board, that the day before the scene had been very different.  How strange it was to be 5 hours from home in a place that we are typically unknown, and to be able to spy names of kids we knew from home.

But this day, the still flawlessly groomed trails were enjoyed by just us, and a handful of other hardy intrepid skiers.  It was, after all, -13 degrees.

I have never seen trails as well groomed as these.  Typically, we appear to be the ones making the first tracks through the corduroy.  But this place still allows space and wilderness enough for those who might want a bit less direction.

The Center, wow, is warm and clean and did I mention warm?  

And the entryway holds a brief history of skiing in Northern Maine.

In the late 1800's, amidst concern that the vast area of unsettled and deeply forested land in Northern Maine might be taken by the British, William Widgery Thomas, a truly well manscaped man and a former ambassador to Sweden, convinced Governor Chamberlain that families from Sweden were just the types of people, given the similarities between their country and the undeveloped forests of Northern Maine, to thrive and help develop this area.  In 1870, Thomas went to Sweden and returned with 21 families who emigrated to an area just north of Caribou.  With them, they brought their country's tradition of skiing as a means of transportation in the long and deep snows of winter.

So we left our modern skis outside the doors in the racks and read about the skiing tradition in Northern Maine, stood next to original handmade skis, and looked at pictures of where all this strange business of sliding on slats began.  From bindings to length of skis to poles to wax, called dope originally, much to our amusement, we got a brief window into where we were, and this place's traditions based on the demands of its rather extreme winters and wilderness.  

And then, warmed and ready for a bit more, still contemplating skiing as a necessity to move about a land where roads were covered for months in feet of snow, we headed back out onto the trails.  Spying a sign leaning on the side of the center, we followed a trail we had never taken before.  It was late afternoon, and we knew the invitation was closed for the day.

But we came out of the woods into a clearing and spotted it.  The top of the T-bar of our favorite little alpine mountain in Maine.  Where we had been skiing on skis of a very different sort the day before.  Skis that in fact evolved for different purposes, terrain, and skills.  

The groomer was out, preparing the mountain for the next day.  We gave them a wave, and headed back into the woods.

On our way back to the hotel, we pulled into Quoggy Jo's parking lot and took in the sunset, brilliant over the potato fields and the landscape of my father's childhood, a landscape that has shaped a tradition here that we so enjoy.  I told the kids the story my father had recently told me of skiing to the mountain to ski for the day, skiing the miles with friends from his house, climbing the hill and skiing down to a lake below, and then skiing back home at the end of the day.  Now that, we agreed, was a full day of skiing.

Back home this week, our time in the County still close, we are continuing the story of a life that comes out this heritage.  In a winter that reminds us how life follows, is created from, living on the earth and its climate and landscape, responding to what it places in front of our feet. Accepting our lack of control over this, and adapting and enjoying what is beneath our feet. 

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