(Originally published December, 2010)
By Alison Brownlee
You love to ski and you love to skate, so why should you have to choose between the two? Thankfully, you don’t.
Skate skiing has taken the amateur and professional worlds of Nordic skiing by storm. The winter sport combines the snowy trail travel of cross-country skiing with the leg movements of skating to create a fast-paced, exhilarating experience for people of all ages.
“It’s fun, it’s fast and it’s different,” says Peter Briand, park superintendent at Arrowhead Provincial Park. “If you do get the technique right and you realize you can actually skate up a hill, it’s pretty cool.”
Although skate skiing can be considered a cousin of classic cross-country skiing they are far from the same thing – the track, equipment and technique are all different.
As Briand says, skate skiing typically requires a smooth, three-metre-wide track on which to travel. Hard, solid, frozen surfaces work for the sport, but fresh, light, fluffy powder does not.
The skis are shorter and the poles are longer than those used for classic cross-country. While the general rule of thumb for deciding the required length of a classic ski is to stand with one arm in the air and have the tip of the ski reach the wrist, skate skis have to be only as tall as the skier, says Briand. Skate skis also tend to be wider at the boot and narrower at the tip.
Classic skis are also waxed or have a patterned surface on the bottom for traction, but skate skis are smooth to allow sliding.
“The poles tend to come up somewhere around your armpit for classic, and for skate they’re somewhere between your chin and your nose,” he says.
The purpose of the different equipment is to match the different technique used. With classic skiing the legs move forward and back, but with skate skiing the stride is longer and offset and the legs are going from side to side. The longer pole works well with the longer, wider stride.
“It’s not a kick and glide, it’s more of a stride to push you forward like you do on skates,” Briand says.
As a classic skier new to skate skiing, Briand notes that learning and maintaining proper skate skiing technique is important for endurance in the sport.
“If you don’t do it correctly you play yourself out more quickly. Classic is more forgiving that way – if you’re not doing it right you can still kind of shuffle along,” he says.
Groomed trails for skate skiing have been available at Arrowhead Provincial Park for well over a decade and Briand, who has been with the park since 2002, says he has seen the skate skiing set grow.
“It’s very popular within the Nordic community,” he says. “A lot of younger folks getting into the sport often favour the skate skiing end of things. Skate skiing is catching on, probably growing faster than classic.”
But each technique has its followers, he says. It all depends on which style someone wants to use and what skill set he or she has.
“Everyone who can walk can classic ski. Skate skiing is a little more demanding but we’ve got folks into their 70s that are skate skiing,” he says.
And the beautiful scenery and groomed trails at the park can easily draw people in to either style.
“We have some of the best groomed trails in the area for skate skiing,” Briand says. “The trails are set in nice, rolling terrain through forested areas. It’s a natural environment-classed park so it’s a pretty setting for skiing.”
Briand adds that there are activity options for those who may not be into skiing – including snowshoeing, tubing and skating.
One group that gets a lot of use out of the trails is Arrowhead Nordic Ski Club. Former club coach John Cowan is also the coach of the Huntsville High School Nordic ski team, which has seen its share of gold medals in competitions. Many of the high school team members were also members of Arrowhead Nordic Ski Club’s jackrabbit program for younger skiers.
Cowan says there is a somewhat natural transition between skating on ice to skating on a groomed trail.
“As Canadians, we’ve all had that experience of skating on a pond in someone’s back yard, or going to the local arena for public skating,” he says. “We’ve all had that opportunity – it’s kind of ingrained in Canadians. Now what we’ve done is we’ve taken that same action and put it on the snow.”
But the idea of skating on skis isn’t new, not by a long shot.
“If you go back to some of the old pictographs of some of the stuff in northern Finland and Sweden and you look at some of the pictographs on the walls of some of the caves there, you will see that they were actually cross-country skiing way back during the Viking days where they would travel across vast landscapes,” says Cowan. “They didn’t have track sets. But what they did have was frozen snow so what they did was use one pole to push themselves off… so they were skating.”
It wasn’t until 1985, however, that skate skiing started making a transition into competitive Nordic skiing competitions, says Cowan, who was coaching at the University of Waterloo at the time.
“A gentleman by the name of Billy Koch, an American, had developed this technique called the Marathon Skate Technique,” he says. “At that point all the Olympic-level events were classic skiing in set track so if you lost your grip wax, you were basically done. What Bill Koch did was he put his one ski out on an angle and used the edge of his ski to do almost a scooter kick down the trail.”
Already an internationally recognized classic skier, Koch employed his new technique at the 1982 Cross-country Skiing World Cup and won.
“The Swedes and the Norwegians were absolutely ticked off. They had always used skate skiing on their frozen lakes and tundra,” says Cowan.
Aggravated that an American had beaten them at one of their best sports, the Norwegian athletes introduced skate skiing professionally.
“Bill Koch revitalized what skating was all about,” Cowan says “and then the Norwegians brought it out and made it a full-fledged sport.”
Cowan says skate skiing can have applications for other sports as well, such as off-season training for runners.
“We’re getting a lot of tri-athletes coming out and a lot of runners who are doing it as their cross-training in the winter months,” he says, noting that cross-country skiing – whether classic or skating – can give runners’ knee joints a break.
“It’s a non-impacting type of activity. You’re not getting the jarring or pounding like from running,” he says.
Recreationally, skate skiing also has health benefits because it uses the legs and arms and doesn’t focus on only one part of the body.
For those who are interested in trying the sport, Cowan suggests they visit Arrowhead Provincial Park.
“It is the jewel of the provincial park system,” he says. “Arrowhead is world class. I’ve been to world cups, I’ve been to Olympics and I can tell you the types and quality of the trails they have there are absolutely amazing.”