Skiing at Minus 3? No Sweat!

Sure it’s been sub-zero throughout much of the state this week. But in this Trail Talk blog Jim DuFresne discovered cross-country skiing in such Arctic temperatures can be a warm experience.

QuietWaterRather think about summer? On Saturday March 7 Jim will be at the Quiet Water Symposium at Michigan State University, giving his presentation “High Adventure on the Alaska Marine Highway” at 2 p.m. while Monday March 9 Jim will be giving his Isle Royale National Park presentation at the Jackson Public Library at 7 p.m. Both are excellent summer destinations.

By Jim DuFresne

I learned to cross-country ski in Alaska but I lived in Juneau whose surprisingly mild and rainy climate – thanks to the Japanese current – meant we usually had to hike up into the mountains before we found enough snow to step into our skis.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I never skied in sub-zero temperatures in Alaska or anywhere else for that matter. Not until Sunday when, in Southeast Michigan of all places, I decided it was time to man-up and go striding during a 24-hour cold spell that every meteorologist in the state was predicting would be record breaking.

My wife asked me why, for heaven sakes, would you want to go skiing when the mercury will never reach zero. I looked at her and said something I’ve been waiting my whole life to say; “because it’s there.” I’m not sure she understood – in fact I’m pretty sure she didn’t – but regardless. The real reason was I’ve been spending so much time on a treadmill at the gym in the past month I was starting to feel – and probably look – like a hamster in a cage.

Sure sign of cabin fever I thought.

My intentions were to go early in the morning when the latest Arctic blast from Canada had its tightest grip on my corner of the state. But minus 12 came and went and I just couldn’t extract myself from a warm bed where I was buried in layers of blankets and topped by the thick down quilt we use only in the winter. Imagine that.

Baby, it's cold outside!

Baby, it’s cold outside!

At 9 a.m., when it was minus 8, I decided I better wax my skis first and discovered the only good thing about sub-zero weather. You get to use all those glide waxes, the deep blues and purples, that you’ve never used before. The ones that were part of a wax kit you bought for the reds and greens that the Swix color chart says are best when the snow is minus 22 (or minus 30 Celsius if you live in Finland where they came from).

At 11 a.m., when it was minus 6, I was still strategizing over what to wear. I’m not sure what is worse when skiing; wearing too little and unable to stay warm or too much and sweating profusely. I’ve seen both on the trails.  I finally decided on a thick base layer of polyester and capilene for wicking but only a mid-weight fleece for warmth and of course a breathable wind breaker.

At noon, when it was minus 3, I arrived at Independence Oaks County Park, the finest Nordic skiing in Southeast Michigan, for an experience I was sure would be no different than skiing at the North Pole because it was 16 degrees colder here than it was in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Full Disclosure: While Independence Oaks does offer the finest groomed and tracked cross-country ski trails in the metro-Detroit area, the fact is I live across the street from the park, a two-minute drive if that. I was fully ready to go and already in my ski boots when I hopped in my car (after turning on the heated seats of course) and drove to the trailhead.

At the park I was out, in my skis and on the trail in no time at all. It was cold but brilliantly sunny so I grabbed a pair of sunglasses. Thus the only skin exposed was my cheeks and in less than a quarter mile down the trail I felt a familiar sting.

Skiing at Independence Oaks County Park.

Skiing at Independence Oaks County Park.

I’ve never had frostbite but once in Alaska I had what was described as “frostnip,” the result of thin gloves and wet snow during an outing. The tips of two fingers turned red and I felt a prickling and then numbness while skiing. What I’ll never forget was the pain and tingling after we finally returned to the van and warmed up. To this day those fingers are sensitive to the cold.

I turned around and headed back to the car. I drove home and – not wanting to take my ski boots off – rang the doorbell like a six-year-old wondering if he can come in now. My wife saw me, red cheeks and all, and immediately returned with my wool balaclava.

Back at the park I started down the groomed trail again, feeling stiff, cold and, frankly, old. It took more than a half mile for my legs to begin to loosen up and for my stride to develop some rhythm.  Then, a little over a mile on the trail, the most amazing thing happen; I started to sweat at minus 3.

I could feel moisture building up under my polyester layer while a steamy vapor was escaping from my balaclava and fogging up my sunglasses.  Hallelujah, I’m warm! I uncovered my finger tips and immediately cooled down. I covered them again and heated back up.

At times like this you realize what an amazing furnace the human body can be. Burning body fat, which I was more than happy to get rid of, it kept me warm in sub-zero temperatures. My thermostat was my finger tips and as I skied I was able to regulate the temperature so precisely that I straddled that fine line of being neither chilled nor wet.

My kick-and-glide technique wasn’t the best but I was outside, in the sunshine, gliding through the woods, with that claustrophobic feeling that has gripped me much of the winter slowly melting away.

I skied only five miles but I learned a great deal that day. Don’t be scared of sub-zero conditions was one of them. But mostly I realize that no matter how cold it gets, I need to get outside and into the woods from time to time. It’s how you survive winter.

Meteorologists are predicting more sub-zero temperatures for next week and I can’t wait. Anybody want to go skiing?

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One Response to Skiing at Minus 3? No Sweat!

  1. Patty says:

    I know what you mean, Jim! I was at the DMV downriver last Tuesday & found myself wandering the nature trail at the Metropark afterward. Wasn’t dressed for it & really wished I had my snowshoes (they are now being stored in the car for impromptu treks), but, oh, it was fabulous with the bright sunshine filtering through the trees & the snow reflecting the clear blue sky. The fresh, crisp air was just what I needed. Thanks for reminding everyone how important it is to get out (safely 😉 & enjoy the winter)!

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