“On your right! On your left!” Glancing up at the fallen casualties splayed like dilapidated windmills on the nordic trail I’ve just skidded down, I catch my breath and smile nervously at a crowd of polypropylene-clad skiers clustered at the bottom.
“Terrifying!” I pant.
“Yeah, you were,” one of them nods.
This seems an overly harsh assessment of the way in which I skillfully wove through the crowds emitting only the very mildest of swear-words (technically, “shi-euuuurgh” isn’t even a swear-word…or a word). But I let it go; the lycra guy’s brandishing a timer and wearing a ski club vest with numbers written on it – he must be important.
I’m at Highlands Nordic cross country ski centre, 10km south of Collingwood on the Niagara Escarpment – the huge crust of rock stretching from New York State through southern Ontario, forming gorges, waterfalls and cliffs.
There are 25km of trails at Highlands Nordic, winding through hardwood forest and – in some cases – overlooking Georgian Bay.
On the day of my visit we’re being pelted with powdery snow, it’s a bone-chilling -13C or, with the windchill, -23C. Mad dogs and Canadians, eh?
It’s the first time I’ve tried cross country skiing. I’m hoping that my downhill experience will come into play, but just in case, I’m taking a morning lesson, which is included in the trip organised by my ski club.
“If you’ve done alpine skiing, you’ll be used to the weight shift and some of the fundamentals we’ll be running through this morning, like the snowplough,” says Greta, our instructor. I nod, feeling encouraged. Snowplough? Pah, I passed that stage years ago.
But snowploughing on flimsy nordic skis is akin to trying to snowboard down a mountain on a tea tray (yep, done it). There’s no “edge” to cut, and the skis are less responsive as your ankles aren’t fixed to them with bindings. Needless to say, on my first attempt at the weediest of “hills” – really just a mound of snow – I lose all control and crash into a heap at the bottom.
Things aren’t a whole lot easier on the flats, but I start to get the hang of stepping and gliding.
Going uphill is another struggle. The “herringbone” move eludes me so I resort to running, which is stupidly exhausting. Now I get how you can burn more than 1,000 calories an hour and double your cardivascular fitness doing this.
“Give it more oomph” shouts Greta. I give it more oomph, and fall over again. At least the exercise is keeping me warm, and the snow-covered pine trees make a serene backdrop to my group’s giggly screeching.
I’m feeling brave enough after lunch to venture onto the trail again with just my other half for company. As we whoosh through the forest in the afternoon sun, slicing through glittering snow flurries with increasingly fluidity, it’s easy to understand what draws people to the sport.
And, to any naysayers, it IS a sport. That’s what my thighs and calves were telling me three days later, anyway. Look at these guys if you’re unconvinced.
Cross-country skiing: Potentially useful, factual stuff:
How long does it take to get to, from Toronto? Highlands Nordic takes around 2.5 hours from Toronto by coach
How much does it cost? Equipment rental plus a trail pass costs $35 for the day, though we only paid $15 each with the ski club
What to wear? On a normal winter’s day, you’ll probably be too hot in downhill ski clothes. I wore waterproof hiking trousers over thermals, and – as it was so cold – a long-sleeved base layer, hoodie and ski jacket. On a warmer day, you could probably get away with winter cycling/running gear
Anything else I might like to know? The shoes are COMFY. This is a major bonus to anyone used to toe-crunching downhill ski boots