NEW ULM - Winter, for some people, means holing up on the couch with rented movies or video games and snacks to munch on.
For others, it represents an opportunity for some of the
most intense cardiovascular workouts a person can undergo - cross-country skiing.
Powdery trails beckon skiiers at Flandrau State Park. (Staff photo by Kurt Nesbitt)
Cross-country skiing was originally developed in the Scandinavian countries and came to Minnesota with im-migrants from Sweden, Fin-land,
Norway and Denmark, who used it as a form of winter transportation.
The sport of cross-country skiing became a part of the Winter Olympics in 1924 but it wasn't until the late 1950s, when Americans had more
leisure time and more re-sources to spend it on, that cross-country skiing began to catch on in the U.S. The 1970s were the peak of cross-country
Craig Beckmann, assistant park director at Flandrau State Park said the cross-country skiing season starts as soon as the park has enough
snow and it continues as long as the park has snow on the ground.
Example: 30 cross country skiers traversed Flandrau's trails during the first weekend in December, shortly after the first substantial, lasting snow-fall
of the year.
Beckmann said the sport seems to have grown in the last few years. Flandrau sees a number of "regulars" but since the park rents equipment, new people get into the sport every year.
Most of the regular skiers are older adults although skiers from many different
age groups use the trails at Flandrau.
"There's not a whole lot going on and you get a work-out without a cardio machine.
That's why it's popular," said Beckmann.
Steve Rose is one of the "regulars" at Flandrau. He started cross-country skiing 35 years ago.
"Living in Minnesota, I find it an activity that helps with Minnesota winter," he
said. "It's a way of keeping in shape."
Cross-country skiing is not a hard sport to learn, but it is one that requires some per-sistence from its practitioners.
Rose said skiers have to learn to stretch their muscles beforehitting the trails and have to take the sport at their own personal pace.
Early in the season, Rose takes about a half-hour to 45 minutes for him to get used to the workout, but once he can get out with some regularity, he can stay out on the trails for four hours.
"It's a great individual thing. I can work as hard as I want," he said.
On a Saturday in January, Flandrau can sometimes host 50 skiers if the weather isn't too cold.
"It depends on the weather but even more so on the trail and snow," Beckmann said.
Park staff - namely Beckmann and park director Gary Teipel - groom Flandrau's trails as often as possi-ble.
They usually want about five inches of snow on the ground before they groom.
Powdery snow is hard to groom, but heavy, wet snow is ideal.
A close look at the tracks made by a track setter that park staff pull behind a snowmobile yields a clue - the groomer makes four deep,
narrow grooves on each side of a cross country ski trail.
When the grooves are made in wet snow, they harden and serve as tracks that actually guide the cross-country skis along the trail.
This, as Teipel pointed out, is why park staff dissuade hikers and walkers from using the cross country ski trails - because footprints wreck the ski grooves. They can also prompt a park ranger to fine someone caught walking on
the trails, which are clearly marked with a sign that has an icon of a person skiing.
Although Rose thinks the Gunflint Trail is the best place to cross-country ski, the three state parks in this area also have plenty of trails. Outside of Flandrau's eight miles, Minneopa State Park, where Rose is the director, has four miles of groomed trails and Ft. Ridgely State Park has about eight miles of trails as well as a sliding hill for children.
The trails in Flandrau and Minneopa state parks are generally flat. Ft. Ridgely State Park has some hills, he said.
Flandrau has eight miles of trails. To be fair, not all of the trails that run through Flandrau are exclusively for cross-country skiing. Hikers also have their own specially-designated trails and both groups can share some of the park's routes, but not all of them.
Skiers typically come to the park on weekends be-tween 10 a.m. and sundown,
Beckmann said. On week-days, they tend come to the park after 5 p.m. Some even like to ski at night using lanterns, provided the weather is suitable and the sky is clear.
Like its downhill cousin, cross-country skiing also has different styles. The diagonal stride is the most traditional style. It's also the most common, since most cross-country skiers use it on the trails, and it's also what many peo-ple
think of when they think of the sport, according to Rose.
Beyond diagonal stride, skate skiing, which does not use groomed tracks, is a style of cross-country skiing that younger skiers use. Rose said
it is much more energy-intensive and takes more power and stamina than the diagonal stride.
"It's one of the best cardio exercises to stay in shape," said Rose.
Beyond exercise and a break from Minnesota winters, Rose also likes the flexibility and the convenience it gives him, so he mostly skiis by himself because he can go skiing whenever he wants to and can ski however he wants even though he isn't "adverse" to skiing with a group of people.
Many of the skiers he sees out on the trails range in age from the 30s to the 50s, although there are younger, more "hardcore" skiers as well. Rose said other forms of recreation have diminished cross-country skiing to some
"It's losing young kids to video games and organized group sports," he said.
Why, then, do people stick with it? Why do new people start cross-country skiing?
"That's a good question. There's no answer. Lots of people have been doing it for such a long time that it's just part of winter."