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Winter cross-country skiing

Cross-country skier Gary Kuzminski captures the unique vantage point of ice volcanoes along the Lake Michigan shoreline at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

Courtesy of Gary Kuzminski

I needed a winter thrill. Could I learn to cross-country ski at age 60?

I’m the type of person who sees someone doing an unusual or difficult activity and thinks, “I’d like to try that.”

I’ve tried a few: Whitewater kayaking, building a log cabin, hiking through a rainforest to a lava flow. Results have varied. In the middle of an ambitious hike to a Maui waterfall, a flash flood trapped me and my companion overnight on a spit of mud in a deep canyon. At least that adventure led to an engagement, and marriage, to my put-upon partner.

Other ideas were chimeric, even laughable, and never materialized: surfing, the parallel bars.

Cross-country ski

The author pictured taking cross-country ski lessons in 2021.

Courtesy of Zachary Nauth

At age 60, the mind was still willing, but the body had its own ideas. As winter darkness and cold deepened in early 2021, I wondered if cross-country skiing might be at the sweet spot of recreation and acid test for a middle-aged man in reasonably good shape trying to escape a never-ending pandemic.

Now, bear in mind that I had never once been on skis — unless you count the time my 14-year-old brother towed me through the snow-covered neighborhood streets of Decatur on a pair of red plastic K-tel “Fun Skis,” purchased for $4.99 (companion poles sold separately).

As a vision began to coalesce into a plan, thick snow blanketed the ground. I found a location that rented skis and groomed the trails, at Sagawau Canyon in the south suburbs, one of my favorite places to explore in the other three seasons. Most importantly, the Cook County Forest Preserve’s “Nordic Center” based there offered lessons.

As far as companions, I was on my own this time. My wife, Ileana Gómez, wished me well, perhaps with distant memories of an idyllic waterfall transforming into a raging flood. My friends had stopped answering emails.

Their shrug-off was probably for the best; if this escapade turned out to be a colossal blunder, nobody would be there to see it. I put on long underwear and wool socks, grabbed my balaclava and headed south toward Lemont.

Wide open vistas

While some friends hunkered down during the pandemic, I bolted. With no full-time work in 2020, and a safety net of government relief, I leaped at the chance to go kayaking, biking and hiking several times a week. I let my gym membership lapse, but outdoor day trips were COVID safe, and with many commuters at home, the roads were wide open.

Not least of all, the wanderings proved therapeutic during a time that was exceptionally challenging for so many. Including me.

Big life changes had piled up. My family’s economic prospects were suddenly shaky: I was out of work, and with schools closed, my wife’s after-school business was in limbo. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. COVID-19 vaccines had just arrived. Maybe cross-country skiing was just what the doctor ordered.

Sagawau Nordic Center

Skiers of all ages and experience levels can take cross-country ski lessons at Sagawau Nordic Center.

Courtesy of the Cook County Forest Preserve

Sagawau sits atop a huge glacial wall created during the last ice age and later breached by torrents of ice and gravel that formed the Des Plaines and Calumet River valleys. Its defining feature is a small creek and canyon cut through dolomite limestone that supports rare plants.

My wife and I had taken a guided tour of the canyon in the fall and fell in love with it. I barely noticed the ski center. The center’s 40-year history can be told by one of its founders, naturalist Mike Konrath, who is still there.

Konrath got interested in downhill skiing while watching the Olympics on television. His first outing was a bit more prosaic: On a rainy day he shot down a small ski hill in Lisle, into the parking lot, and through the windshield of his brother-in-law’s car.

In spite of the accident, he jumped at the chance to join fellow naturalist and skier Ralph Thornton at Sagawau with whom he shared a desire to “give people a positive outdoor experience.” They persuaded the preserve superintendent to buy 40 pairs of cross-country skis. The program was so popular, rental demands quickly exceeded the supply.

How we winter

This story is part of a series of essays by Midwestern writers, illustrators, photographers and creatives about how they make the most out of winter, from quiet reflections to extreme activities. Tell us how you winter on social media #HowIWinter

Day 1: ‘Hygge’ and my seasonal depression

Day 2: Why I swim in the frozen lake

Day 3: A chef helped reinvigorate my winter soup routine

Day 4: I bike in Chicago year-round but want to go further

Day 5: A better winter skin care routine

Day 6: How I found my winter muse as an artist

Sagawau soon became a reliable place for newbies and professionals alike to get decent equipment and instruction at a low price and to take a spin in a natural but well-maintained setting.

“When people have a good experience with cross-country skiing, they want to do it more often,” said Konrath, who is also a professional ski instructor.

Konrath and Thornton carved the trails through the underbrush, bushwhacking, marking the outlines and clearing stumps (the trails were recently repaired and upgraded for the 2023 season). They received grants to buy more skis. Visitors lined up for rentals.

Today, the center is one of the only places of its kind in Cook County, renting both classic and skate ski equipment seven days a week in snowy conditions. Participation is limited only by demand and the vicissitudes of the weather.

Fortunately for me, 2021 was a banner year for trail conditions, with 46 consecutive days of skiing. I made hay.

Ceding control

It’s possible I won’t be able to do this at all, I had to acknowledge during my 40-minute drive to Sagawau. But to be honest, the possibility of succeeding at something entirely new, entirely foreign, helped motivate me.

On Feb. 3, 2021, I snapped on cross-country skis for the first time in my life. My instructor, Laura Brown, put me at ease. That was important because with the skis attached to my boots, it felt like I had ceded control of my body. Gliding slowly on even the tiniest incline seemed like an invitation to hurtle into the woods.

Cross-country ski

A skate skier takes a mini incline at Sagawau Nordic Center in the Cook County Forest Preserves

Courtesy of Cook County Forest Preserve

Successful cross-country skiing in the “classic” style involves striding forward with your legs while swinging your arms in a synchronized motion. Push off with one ski and one pole, glide with the other ski. Shuffle, push and glide. It is an exhausting full-body workout that strengthens the core, sharpens balance and burns calories in the cold air.

After 45 minutes of this, and a couple of painless flops to the ground, I was apprehensive but ready to go off on my own.

Sagawau has four different trails, all connected, and ranging from easy to difficult over 2.5 total miles. I started on the beginner’s Sag Trail that loops through the woods and over a small creek. It’s mostly flat but begins with two short hills connected by a curving flat.

This little incline loomed like a black diamond challenge in my mind, with a sharp curve that would surely send me off the course in a tangle of skis and poles. It was now or never. I shoved off with the ski poles, pointing them backwards and holding them under my arms, as instructed, to avoid catapulting over them. I wobbled, then collapsed into the soft snow. That didn’t take long.

There were a few other spills but by the end of the day my confidence had grown, and I was actually looking forward to a wee bit of speed and an adrenaline rush.

Gliding through the woods felt magical, and I kept coming back for more, as Konrath predicted. I was drawn to the crisp snap in the air, the hush, the see-through woods, the feeling of dormancy.

Animal tracks in the snow reminded skiers we were not alone. A spot bloodied by torn animal fur marked the remains of a meal for a raptor or carnivore. Clear meltwaters gurgled under the wooden bridge, passing under holes and around rocks poking up through a thin crust of ice. The feeling of moving quickly and comfortably over the snow in the bright sunshine, whistling by the naked trees, was stab-sharp and invigorating.

I returned every few days, with just a day to recover, knowing the ideal conditions might not last.

A dozen days brought me, as I knew it eventually would, to the expert level Ridge Run Trail. I stood at the lip of the highest slope. There were no tracks, just a slick surface. I tried to visualize not falling, making it to the bottom upright. I pushed off and felt myself go weightless, if just for a moment.

Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.

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