Shoppers peruse cross-country ski equipment at last weekend's sports swap meet at Kenai Central High School. Some people want to take their skis to the mountains for fun, at top, while others want to make their tracks in the backyard. Having the right gear and knowing how to use it is the key to having fun on skis.
Rain fell instead of snow, but Oct. 27 still marked the beginning of ski season on the Kenai Peninsula with the annual ski swap at Kenai Central High School.
All-out winter worshippers, high school racers, bargain hunters and the merely curious descended upon the high school's lunchroom early Oct. 27 to get geared up for winter.
"It was fast and furious, that's nice to see. It's going well, really well," said D'Anna Gibson, Kenai Central's ski team coach.
As usual, the big push of shoppers came as soon as the doors opened, but a steady stream flowed in and out the rest of the morning, slowing to a trickle by the 2 p.m. closing time.
The ski swap has expanded to an all-sports swap in past years, with hockey gear, baseball bats, cleats, golf clubs, rubber boots, workout gear and other odds and ends for sale, all at reduced prices and all supporting the Kenai ski program. The money goes toward ski team costs, like wax, fees and, hopefully, the construction of a wax shack, Gibson said.
"It's wonderful we get to have this every year, and we appreciate the support for that," she said.
The promise of discounts is what lured Kalifornsky Beach mom Lisa Henderson to the sports swap.
"We've got six kids. Getting things at a decent price is a good deal," she said.
The family attended Anchorage's much larger winter sports swap recently to look for ice skates for the kids, but struck out on a size for one of the boys.
"They had two in his size here," she said. "... This was good for our little community."
The biggest draw, and largest selection, was the skis. Local retailers donate brand-new equipment each year, which is sold at a steep discount, and there's a wide range of donated used gear to choose from.
"Gear gets recycled. That's what this is all about. If you don't use it you can donate it and it can benefit someone next year," Gibson said.
Old equipment could work well for a beginner, scratched skis could be great early season training gear for a high-schooler and even completely trashed skis with good bindings could be Frankensteined into another existence.
"Gear lasts. I'm still skiing on stuff that's 20 years old," Gibson said.
So the question becomes, what should you choose to spend the next two decades with?
UNINFORMED BUYING A SLIPPERY SLOPE
For the uninitiated, buying cross-country skis can be as intimidating as putting them on for the first time and trying to conquer that first big hill.
The jargon alone is puzzling - classic, skate or combi? NNN bindings or Salomon? Backcountry or trails? And would you like wax with that?
To make matters worse, hundreds of dollars are at stake when buying brand-new equipment. Even if you're buying used gear for less money, frustration, chewed-up feet, and the desire to never so much as look at a ski again could be the result of buying the wrong gear.
Kenai ski parents and coaches were volunteering their time and knowledge at the ski swap Oct. 26 to make sure buyers got a good deal of information along with the deals they got on gear. The following is a ski-buying primer gleaned from their advice.
The first step in choosing which gear best suits your needs is deciding what kind of skiing you want to do. For backcountry skiing along snowmachine tracks, powerline clearcuts and basically anywhere there's snow but no groomed trail there are skis specifically designed for the endeavor that are larger and have metal edges to help plow through less-than-ideal conditions.
For groomed trail skiing, there are three options. Classic skis are wider, longer and meant for a striding, back-and-forth action. Skate, or freestyle, skiing mimics ice skating in technique and requires thinner, shorter skis. Combination, or combi, skis are designed to do both.
Each type of ski requires a certain type of boot. The mechanism that holds the boot to the ski is called the binding, and therein lies the biggest pitfall in ski buying: The boot must match the binding.
There are several types of cross-country ski bindings. NNN and Salomon bindings are the two most common, and three-pin bindings can still be found on used gear. Bindings are not interchangeable. A Salomon binding won't work with a NNN boot, and vice versa.
And no, Alaskans, duct tape won't solve this problem. You must have a matching set.
"We try really hard to make sure they have the proper boot, because we want everyone to be happy," Gibson said. "We don't want them getting home and going 'Oh, that doesn't work.'"
Once you've chosen a type of skiing, you pick the specific gear you want. Skis are height and weight specific. If you hold your arm above your head, classic skis should reach the bend in your wrist. To judge weight, skis should flex when you stand on them but a piece of paper should be able to slide underneath when standing on both skis. If getting used gear, look for skis without scratches and dings.
The fit of boots varies by brand, so buyers should be prepared to try on as many as possible. Once on, the boot should be snug enough that your heel isn't flopping around, but not so tight your foot is cramped or chaffed. To get the most accurate fit, bring socks you'll be wearing when you ski, which should be synthetic and a little thicker than normal socks.
Ski poles also vary by the type of skiing you'll be doing and are height-dependent, with skate poles being longer than classic poles.
As if that wasn't enough to keep in mind, classical skiers still have one of the most frustration-inducing decisions to make: To wax, or not to wax. Skate skiers must learn how to apply glide wax.
Classic skis for backcountry or trails can require waxing, or not. Waxable skis require the wearer apply both glide and kick wax to match different temperatures and snow conditions. Waxing properly can ensure optimal ski glide no matter what the conditions, but the process is time-consuming and waxes aren't cheap. And if you wax wrong apply a wax that doesn't match conditions or don't reapply wax soon enough your skis could be too slick or too sticky for the conditions.
Waxless classical skis have "fish scales" applied to the bottom that offer traction when climbing hills and glide when descending them. They're convenient but not as adaptable as waxable skis. Waxless skis lose speed on downhills, and in warm, slushy conditions you could literally end up going nowhere fast.
The general advice is waxless skis are best for first-time recreational skiers. They're easier to deal with and a neophyte won't notice the performance deficiencies anyway.
"I've seen too many first-timers get overwhelmed by the thought of waxing skis," said Steve Ford, a Kenai ski parent and ski swap helper. "If you don't wax right you have a miserable time."
But on the other hand, "waxing doesn't have to be a big mystery," Ford said.
Ford has a set of skis he's only waxed the entire length of about three times in 18 years, he said. When he takes them out he scrapes wax on the kick zone (in the middle of the ski below the binding) like a crayon, rubs it on with the palm of his hand and calls it good. They may not win any performance tests, but "I've had more fun with those skis," he said.
Retailers are crucial in outfitting serious skiiers and are a big help in choosing what will suit and fit new skiers best. But if you're not sure about any or all of the above, buying used gear is a great way to give skiing a try while saving your permanent fund dividend for other purposes. Garage sales, area thrift stores and similar-sized friends looking for an excuse to upgrade their gear can offer deals on used equipment that has enough life in it to let a newcomer get a feel for the sport.
The annual ski swap is a chance to get outfitted for cheap with advice at an even better price free
"I thought this would be a reasonably priced way to get into it," said Sylvia Beaudoin, of Kasilof, who attended the swap so she could go skiing with her kids. "I make sure that it fits well and has a little bit of life in it. I'll get some time in on it and see if I like it and then I'll get something a little bit better."
NEVER TOO YOUNG
Kids can put adults to shame with the speed at which they master technology, pick up languages and soak up new information in general. Skiing is no different.
"You can start kids skiing really, really young," said Marc Johnson, a Kenai ski parent who lives off Strawberry Road.
If kids can walk in snow they can be outfitted with the smallest versions of classic waxless skis, or even cheap plastic tie-on skis that get kids used to the feel of having something big on their feet, he said. Even if parents aren't ready to start chasing soon-to-be speed demons around the trails, they can take kids along in sleds or backpacks to get them used to being outside.
Any apprehension Scott Pitsch, of Kenai, might have felt at teaching his daughter, Mikaela, and son, Braedon, to ski disappeared as quickly as Mikaela whipped by him.
"My husband took them out the first time and my 8-year-old could go faster than him," said Krista Pitsch.
Krista was at the ski swap with Mikaela, 8, Braedon, 5, and Rachael, 4, to get herself outfitted with skis so she could join Scott and the kids on outings. The family enjoys outdoor activities and Krista said skiing is a good one for building skills and keeping the kids entertained.
"Their coordination is really good and it helps to continue to build it," Krista said. "Skiing is a little more family friendly than snowshoeing because the kids are moving. It's hard for them to pick (snowshoes) up and go fast and keep their bodies going."
Even 4-year-old Rachael wanted to get in on the action.
"She just asked on the way over if she could get skis and start skiing," Krista said.
Her determination was torpedoed by a rack of pastel, sparkly figure skating outfits positioned near the door.
She presented her mother with a particularly frilly, adult-sized purple number.
"Is it my size?" she asked Mom, who was balancing an armload of skis and boots.
Rachael wasn't deterred by Mom's refusal to add the dress to her shopping list and crafted the most convincing argument she could muster.
"I love it."
"Oh that's very beautiful," was Mom's response. "Now go find its hanger."
Perhaps someday skiing will generate the same ardor in Rachel. If so, she'll find plenty of opportunity to excel in an activity that's particularly Alaskan.
"If a kid really wants to shine in a sport, they can be around world-class athletes and world-class coaches on world-class trails, and have a long season," Johnson said of skiing in Alaska.
Even if kids don't care to compete, skiing still offers rewards.
"If you start them now it's something they can use for the rest of their life," Gibson said. "I told my team I want to see them 20 years from now with their kids in tow. ... It's a lifetime activity."
TIPS FOR PARENTS
1. Kids can start young with the basics, like just getting used to having something big on their feet. They'll learn more as they grow. Marc Johnson
2. Just like with adults, make sure kids are dressed properly. Cold hands and feet don't equal a good time. Steve Latz
3. For younger kids, take a treat along to keep them happy. A piece of candy or bubble gum can do wonders. D'Anna Gibson
4. Be prepared to help. At the middle school level, especially, ski team coaches have their hands full. A parent who can ski along with the stragglers can help everyone improve and have a good time. Steve Latz
5. Have kids ski with and thereby learn from others. Before long you may be learning from your kids. Steve Latz
TIPS FOR BEGINNER SKIERS
1. Be prepared to fall. "If you're not falling, you're not trying. You are going to fall, flat and simple. There is a learning curve to skiing, so don't give up. It's an awkward thing for anyone to get on skis ... but once you've learned, you've learned." D'Anna Gibson
2. Start out on flat ground and get comfortable on your skis before taking to the hills. Steve Ford
3. Look around. "Take it slow and enjoy what you're skiing around and past. Enjoy the surroundings." Steve Ford
4. Get help. Ski with friends or take a ski clinic, Ford recommends. It's more fun to ski with others, you'll learn more and there'll be someone there to help you get back up after the inevitable falls.
5. Dress for success. "You should be chilly for the first five minutes if you want to go out for exercise. For recreational skiers, have some good gloves and ear protection," Ford said. And keep in mind the modern outdoorsmen's mantra: Cotton kills. Synthetic materials are best at keeping you warm while wicking away sweat to keep you dry.
TIPS FOR INTERMEDIATE SKIERS
1. If you're comfortable classic skiing and feel the need for more speed, consider giving skate skiing a try. "It's the difference between running and walking." Marc Johnson
2. Watch the weather, Johnson said. Winter on the Kenai Peninsula can include long stretches of icy conditions, severe cold snaps and periods of warmth that will melt trails. Learn to ski in different conditions so you're ready for anything.
3. Try new places to ski. Frozen lakes (make sure they're safe!) with even a little frost on them are skiable, Gibson said. And even when snow melts in town great skiing may still exist at higher elevations. "Spring skiing is really, really fun. You can ski at different elevations. Go higher later in the season," Marc Johnson said. And if you'd rather stay on established trails, take a tip from Latz and head out a few hours after a ski meet to take advantage of the meticulously groomed trails.
4. Stay in shape year-round. Take poles along when hiking or jogging. It's a full-body workout and gets your muscle memory ready for ski season. D'Anna Gibson
5. As you get better, get better gear. Steve Latz
Jenny Neyman is a freelance writer who lives in Soldotna. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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