In this issue, we look back at a dicey ice rescue on Georgian Bay, immortalize local landscapes with Cameron Lawrence, learn how to better manage anxiety, and hold a mirror to nature. We also go winter-camping during lockdown, share tips on winter’s finest gear, explain why some of us are bad Canadians, and more.
Winter Neditorial: Skiing with Purpose
A few years ago I acquired a pair of odd skis—very short and wide, sometimes called “ski shoes.” Their manufacturer traces a lineage to the Altai mountains, where China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge. This is the ancient homeland of Altaic peoples who were probably the world’s first skiers. Chinese archaeologists have dated cave paintings in northern Xinjiang province depicting hunters on skis at roughly 10,000 years old.
Based on a traditional design among many still in use in the Altai region (some short, some long, but all equipped with horsehair skins for grip and universal bindings so you can strap in your regular winter boots), your heel is free but the binding keeps it secure when turning telemark-style on the downslope.
These skis are not meant for speed. (The skins slow your descent a little, allowing you to maintain more control.) But what you lose in speed you gain in diversity of application, because you can explore places otherwise difficult or impossible to access on XC or touring skis. And they hold a major advantage over snowshoes, as you can float atop the snowpack and go downhill as easily as up.
They’re not for everybody. They’re too wide for a groomed trail. And don’t bring them to a resort. You won’t even make it across the piste to drop into the backside glades without bobbing and weaving like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, because these skis have zero camber. They’re made for deep snow only.
While the resort shutdown took up more than half of last winter in Ontario, these skis proved their worth. Their heritage as ancient tools of transportation—designed to propel you through every permutation of a snowbound landscape—shone anew when COVID crowds hungry for accessible terrain forced us deeper into areas previously deemed unskiable.
Out in the back corner of a nature reserve where I was unlikely to see any other people, the troubles at large in the world seemed suddenly small. When the leafless maple and beech trees creaked in the wind and spindrift snow formed a brilliant haze against the sun, I felt that maybe humanity wasn’t doomed, in spite of numerous signs to the contrary. At least we haven’t wrecked this sizeable hunk of biosphere yet, I said to myself. The shared desire that led people to set aside this nature reserve in perpetuity instead of slicing it up for short-term profit is itself encouraging. As long as that desire isn’t snuffed out, there’s hope for us as a species.
I kept skiing, gliding through cedar groves, over submerged logs and escarpment whalebacks. I sped into a gulley then back up the other side, kicking toward the lip as I lost momentum. Perhaps hatred, greed and ignorance are slowly ebbing away, I thought as I flew over a frozen creek, making way for a reintegration of humanity and nature—battered, ragged but strengthened by past struggles.
On that day the snowbound forest manifested bliss and redemption. More than that, it felt like a compassionate entity unto itself, one capable of swallowing up humanity’s failure and misery, transforming the lot into hope and resilience.
That’s where my skis led me last winter. I’ll look for more of the same this winter. At worst, if The Walking Dead comes true and the next pandemic reduces most of us to zombies, I have the ideal workhorse sticks for long, secretive backcountry missions. My apocalypse-ready skis may not be fast, but hopefully the zombies aren’t, either.
–Ned Morgan, Editor
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