Nordic Skiing and the Zen of Kick-and-Glide
Following Icicle Creek's Skinny-Stick Routes to the Heart of the Cascades

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The little thermometer clipped to the pack zipper was showing between 5 and 10 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Even for a midwinter outing in the Cascades of Washington, that's cold. A blue sky shimmered above, holding out the distant promise of warming temperatures a few hours later when the low-angled sun finally reached the bottom of Icicle Canyon. Shocking temperatures aside, there were 12 kilometers of trail to be skied before lunch. No sense in whining, so we pushed off.

On parallel tracks machine groomed into the top of a record snowfall, we set off down the Icicle River Trail on the outskirts of funky little Leavenworth. Dressed only in fleece, we were cold to the bone when we started out. But the exertion of moving soon had photographer James Martin and me fairly comfortable as long as we kept our speed at a near maximum level. The trail meandered along the flats on the west side of the river, through open forests of pine and hemlock. The usually swift running river was frozen, with only a few stubborn runnels managing to push through the cold. Occasional steep hills slowed us down on the upward side, sometimes forcing us to herring-bone uphill, but paid us back with a warming adrenaline rush on the way down. The only sound was the whoosh of our skis on the snow.

Martin and I soon settled in to a kilometer-devouring rhythm along the freshly groomed trail, approaching what for me is the whole point of cross-country skiing: the Zen-like state of harmonious physical movement, a perfect kick-and-glide euphoria through a beautiful winter landscape accompanied only by a good friend and a tranquillity of thought. Traveling for miles on skinny skis is pure aerobic exertion, an extended endorphin high, veritable tonic for the soul. One of the easiest of all winter-time pursuits to learn -- next to snow-shoeing -- Nordic can nonetheless be one of the most rewarding ways to foray into snowy countryside.

Crashing is sort of the price one pays, the ante-up for the good time. There was but one fall, an extravagant one on the far loop, on an icy patch at the bottom of a long slope. I carried a lot of speed on the downhill run, and in the icy snow below there was no way to turn in time to stay on course. I was hauling ass by the time I launched off the berm at the edge of the groomed way and landed in a big, twisted pile of tiny trees and skis and poles. No serious damage. Martin was watching and said it looked pretty good, "big air" he called it. "Why didn't you bail?" he said. Bail? I wanted to see if I could make it. No dummy, he side-stepped down.

On this frigid morning, the skiing was delicious and we had Icicle Canyon all to ourselves. Near the end of the route we finally skied into the brightly lit sunny side of the valley, which had beckoned from the shadows for almost an hour. We reached the end of the trail bathed in the pale, flattering light of midwinter. After a major calorie burn-off, we were already looking forward to what lay ahead.

Our destination was our starting point: Sleeping Lady Resort on the southern edge of Leavenworth. At once civilized and eco-sensitive, the incredible creature comforts of Sleeping Lady can arouse something akin to guilt in those of us accustomed to rougher accommodation. It's not so much the rustically furnished yet luxurious cabins, the artwork by artists such as Dale Chihuly, the food or even the warm-pool blasted from solid rock, but rather it's a combination of all of that. The meals prepared by executive chef Damian Browne loom large in the minds of hungry skiers, and James and I stashed our skis outside the dining hall and eagerly entered the stonework and timbered lodge to see what was on the buffet menu. We were always pleasantly surprised at the spread that awaited us, and even after two days of non-stop skiing we figured we hadn't managed to burn off Damian's huge and delicious meals.

An unparalleled location is another factor that makes Sleeping Lady the right setting for a serious outdoor adventure, whatever the sport or the time of year. In summer, the Icicle is the gateway to some of the best hiking and climbing in the Cascades. In winter, ice climbing, alpine skiing, snowboarding, and Nordic trails are minutes away. In the case of cross country, some trails go directly to the lodge, so there is no need to even get back in the car.

The city of Leavenworth maintains a 23-kilometer network of trails, groomed for both conventional cross country and the newer and increasingly popular technique of skating. The Lake Wenatchee ranger district maintains another nine miles of groomed and ungroomed trails, while Stevens Pass Nordic Center maintains another 15 km. of easy to moderate trails, as well as the same amount of extremely demanding terrain for expert Nordic skiers. That combination of resources makes Leavenworth one of the best cross-country ski locations in the Northwest, along with that of the Mazama area, another two hours farther north.

As more and more summer outdoor types look to winter adventure, cross country skiing has grown tremendously in recent years. With a relatively low buy-in to the sport in the way of gear -- at least compared to downhill skiing or randonnee skiing -- and a fast learning curve, Nordic skiing is an irresistible way to enjoy winter in the mountains. The usual dangers apply, however, so be careful: don't get lost, don't die in a slide, but do go. Winter awaits, for a few months yet at least.

-- Peter Potterfield, Mountain Zone Staff
Skiing photos by James Martin; lodge photos from Sleeping Lady Resort's Marketplace
Visit's Marketplace and find all the stuff that will make or break your trip. You'll find glacier glasses, goggles, head lamps, trekking poles and everything from amphibian knives to mosquito coil repellents. The stuff you need...available online.

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