To enjoy crisp winter air and the peaceful quiet of a snow-dusted landscape, there is little better than putting on a pair of cross-country skis and gliding through the forest on a classic track. It can be a vigorous workout and an opportunity to enjoy breathtaking vistas of the Blue Mountains or Elkhorns in Eastern Oregon, made more visible in winter’s stark beauty. When the seasons change, typically rocky and bare peaks don majestic snow cloaks. In the hush of white forests, skiers hear the rhythmic swish of their movements amid birdsong of juncos, chickadees and nuthatches.
As a first-time cross-country skier, you might question if your skis are with you or against you most of the time, but after your first winter learning how to use them, you’ll be comfortable in the snow. Here are some tips to get a great start.
An Alternative to Downhill Skiing
First you’ll want to choose from among two main styles of Nordic skiing, an all-encompassing term that generally refers to gliding along flatter, groomed trails — also known as tracks — that may include going uphill as well as down. Classic cross-country skiing uses an in-line stride that resembles walking or running along a set of parallel tracks set into the snow and is a great style for newbies. Skate skiing, or freestyle, uses a diagonal stride and various poling techniques to whisk the skier along on a much wider track.
Choosing the Perfect Skis
There are two different routes to take while testing the waters or, rather, the snow on a budget: renting and buying. Renting is the easiest way to experience the activity without spending too much money purchasing gear. Ask for waxless classic skis, the most user-friendly of all the cross-country skis out there.
Nestled in the Grande Ronde Valley, La Grande offers a few options for rentals in the Blue Mountains, including The Mountain Works and the Blue Mountain Nordic Club’s gear library. Anthony Lakes Resort in the Elkhorn Mountains offers both cross-country ski rentals and lessons. If a resort atmosphere and controlled environment are more your style, Anthony Lakes is a wonderful place to fall in love with the sport and has easy trails such as Anthony Lake Loop to get your ski legs. Another good place to rent skis is The Trail Head in Baker City.
Before you buy your gear, think about your current level of experience and the types of conditions you prefer to ski in. A good online guide can help walk you through the decision-making process.
Getting Your Ski Legs
For your first outing, select an easy trail to get comfortable on your skis, such as Horseshoe Prairie’s Tenderfoot Trail in the Blue Mountains. You might also consider taking a lesson like those offered at Anthony Lakes or with the Blue Mountain Nordic Club.
Cross-country skis are longer and thinner than their alpine counterparts, which can feel a bit awkward at first, even if you have alpine or downhill skied before. A beginner’s guide video provides many useful tools to help you learn to glide and use your poles. Before you head out, keep in mind that most trails have at least some complex terrain, and it is important to ease yourself into learning how to maneuver hills and turning. You should be comfortable with techniques like the wedge to slow yourself down, the herringbone to make your way uphill and the all-important ability to turn using a step turn for sharper corners.
While there are miles of Nordic trails in Eastern Oregon, some of the best trails for beginners looking for easier challenges in the Blue Mountains include Horseshoe Prairie’s 2-mile Tamarack Trail loop as well as Meacham Divide’s out-and-back Loppet Trail and easy-to-intermediate Kansas Trail. (Pro tip: Loppet’s Moose Huff Hill within 1.5 miles of the trailhead may be too difficult for beginners, but it’s worth the effort. Take your skis off and walk beside the trail up or down the hill — but never in the parallel tracks set for classic skiers.) In the Elkhorns, check out Mud Lake Dog Loop and Lodge Trail at Anthony Lakes.