Imagine looking out over the High Level Bridge on a winter’s morning and seeing a rush hour of cross-country skiers on their way to work in downtown office towers. They’re skiing on trails that go from one end of the river valley to the other and connect neighbourhoods through groomed “white of ways.”
It might sound farfetched, but Gina Loewen, founder of SkiLife, a company offering its first year of adult cross-country ski lessons this winter, is just one of the Edmontonians dreaming big about cross-country skiing in the city. A former ski racer who grew up in the Yukon, she’s passionate about helping Edmontonians embrace the activity.
“There are so many Scandinavian cities that really know how to showcase cross-country and use it as mode of transportation,” she says. Cities like Oslo have elaborate ski infrastructures within city limits, she says, and it’s not uncommon to see workers ski part of the way to work and then hop on public transit for the rest. Her company, while starting with lessons and corporate retreats at various central locations, hopes to expand into offering half-day-long tourist trips, including a ski in the river valley that would end up at a restaurant such as Culina. It would be an excursion with equal parts local nature and local cuisine.
“My goal is, three years from now, to be able to stand on the High Level Bridge and see people skiing in the river valley the way they run in the river valley in the summer.”
Head coach for Edmonton Nordic Ski Club, Ulf Kleppe, has seen two perspectives of ski culture – he spent his early childhood in ski-crazed Norway before his family emigrated to slightly-less-ski-crazed Canada. “When I was old enough to move, I was on skis. This is very typical in Norway.” In Canada, less so.
Kleppe feels the greatest appeal of the sport is its accessibility. “There really isn’t a better winter activity,” he says. With over 1,000 members in the club, Kleppe oversees skiers from absolute beginners to elite racers, from children who recently began walking to those on the verge of switching out poles for canes.
For those interested in trying out cross-country skiing, Kleppe recommends beginning with introductory classes. Learning basic techniques – diagonal striding, how to ascend and descend hills, and, ahem, how to stop – can make the difference between newbie empowerment and frustration.
And although it’s a famously low-injury sport, learning how to fall properly is important as well. “After a lesson or two or three … the enjoyment factor increases exponentially,” says Kleppe.
There is no shortage of these lessons in the city. The City of Edmonton offers bare-bones basic courses, as does the Strathcona Wilderness Centre. Ski clubs such as St. Albert Nordic and Edmonton Nordic offer programming for a wide range of abilities – and beyond courses, these clubs offer the opportunity to meet like-minded skiers.
If you decide to make the jump and buy equipment, Kleppe suggests “going to a reputable shop and getting ski equipment that fits. Poles that are the right length, skis that are not too stiff or soft. You need equipment that fits you and your abilities.”
For the classic skiing technique (the sort of skiing that many beginners first take up and what first comes to mind when you think of skiing), poles should be between armpit and shoulder height. A reputable shop will measure the skis’ camber, the curve of the ski where the grip wax goes, to ensure that when you are gliding the grip zone does not touch the snow. When you stand on one ski with your full weight, the ski’s grip zone should make contact with the snow so that you can kick off and propel yourself forward. More advanced skiers, who have refined techniques, can ski efficiently with a stiffer camber than beginners can.
Kleppe also notes that knowing how to dress properly for the weather is essential. “You generate a lot of heat when you ski,” he says. It’s that full-body cardio. So skip the heavy parka in favour of multiple, thin and breathable insulating layers topped with another breathable wind-breaking layer. You can remove the insulating layers, onion-like, if you get too warm. He also reminds beginners to be prepared for cooling off when you stop. Stash a dry layer or two in your pack or car for a quick change once you’ve stopped moving.
Don’t think that the geek-out factor ends there. Many skiers soon realize that waxing goes well beyond the colour gradients generally ranging from red, blue and green tubes of grip wax, which provide adequate grip for most snow temperatures. Several other kinds of wax are available, each suited for different snow conditions, rather than just temperatures. All clubs, Mountain Equipment Co-op and ski shops offer periodic waxing workshops.
The city regularly grooms and track-sets green spaces for cross country skiing – check out the city’s website for the long list, which also features information about trail conditions. But this is just the tip of the snowdrift when it comes to what’s afoot for the sport in the city’s future.
Coordinator of the WinterCity Strategy, Susan Holdsworth, wants to make it easier to “go play outside” during the winter months. Encouraging cross-country skiing is a no-brainer. She imagines a future with groomed cross-country trails from one end of the valley to the other. These trails would allow Edmontonians to commute to work on their skis. Warming stations would also be found throughout the river valley and ski rental kiosks would be located near groomed trails.
It all sounds idealistic, and Holdsworth admits WinterCity’s timelines for some of these visions are pretty long-term. But changing attitudes towards skiing and winter in general isn’t a one-off. It begins small – this winter, the emphasis will be on more reliable maintenance of cross country trails and connecting existing loops. “In the future,” she predicts, “we’ll all embrace winter and cross-country skiing. It’ll just be part of our culture.”