Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Pleasant Surprise: Nordic Skiing in and around Morgantown

West Virginia may not be known for its skiing, but in and around the Morgantown area lies several options for winter time base fitness and adventure.

I've been downhill skiing since I was 8 and Nordic skiing (cross country skiing) since I was 13.  I really enjoy Nordic skiing as there is really nothing like it in terms of whole-body workouts.  Plus, contrary to what many people believe, it's actually pretty exciting and similar in some ways to cycling.  Nothing like flying down a hill and seeing that corner coming up, when you're going ~30mph, on a 4cm wide ski, without your heels attached!  And it's much, much, much cheaper than downhill.  MUCH.

My favorite place to ski- Craftsbury, VT.
This is a winter with little snow, but still a great picture.

In Vermont, where I grew up, I had lots of opportunities to Nordic ski.  When I was in high school and in college, I competed in several marathon distance (25-50k) ski races for fun.  It was never a really competitive thing for me, as I didn't have the greatest equipment and I was always a little burnt out from running and doing triathlons during the summer and fall.  However, I did have the opportunity to work with a really great coach who essentially was the Olympic development recruiter for the New England area (he was also my cross country running coach).  Now, I was NOT EVEN CLOSE to that level, but it was great to get lots of help with my form and to see what folks at the highest level were doing.  I even had the opportunity to coach the high school team and travel to Quebec City, Quebec to help with skill development.

Nothing will ever compare to skiing in Alaska.  This is no more than 100 yards from the cafeteria of APU.

Late in my college career I spent 5 months in Alaska as part of an exchange program, and my love of skiing really grew.  I could walk out my dorm door, and be on professionally groomed trails (that were free) in less than 200 yards.  The best part was, these trails ran for miles and miles and miles- over a hundred in fact.  That winter, from January to May I skied about 100k a week, with peak weeks approaching 200k!  I learned to love it, my form improved immensely, and I was hooked.  Especially skate skiing.  If you don't know what that is, check out this link of some amateurs out practicing their technique.

When I came back to VT I continued to ski, but I was graduating from college that next year, and it was a bad snow year, so I didn't get a whole lot of skiing in.  And when I learned I was coming to WV, I was a little sad.  I really thought I'd have no opportunities to ski.  After I'd just learned to really enjoy it.

Me competing in the PA Nordic championships

However, I was very wrong.

In the last 2 weeks I've skied about 120k!

There are basically three locations I ski in WV.  Each has it's benefits and each it's weaknesses.

The first is Coopers Rock State Forest in Morgantown, WV.  If you are from this area, you know of Coopers.  Its generally thought of as a great place to run, hike, climb, and mountain bike.  However, in the winter months it can also be a great place to ski.  And for me, it's the place I go after work to get 30-90 minutes of skiing in.  Due to it's high elevation, we can have no snow in the city of Morgantown, and if you drive the 20 minutes up the interstate to Coopers you can be in over a foot.  If you like adventure skiing, or back country, this is the place for you.  Break out the fish-scales and wide skis, as there's no grooming and if there's a lot of snow it can be wild.  However, with the average storms around here being significantly more tame than what I've experience in VT, the trails at coopers can actually be skied with skinny race quality skis- with 6-10" of snow, the rocks get covered up yet there isn't so much snow that you get bogged down.  Especially after folks have got out on the trails and broken them in.  I've skied the road side trail many, many times, and down the furnace trail, and intermediate ski trail can be very...exciting...not really anything intermediate about it. Also, the road to the overlook is plowed, but not scraped.  So, if the conditions are just right, I've been able to skate ski on the road as well, which is about 3 miles long.  And if you're lucky, the road heading down to Henry Clay Furnace can be plowed as well, and can serve as a great place to get some hill work in.  Just park at the gate, and ski away!

The next place to ski is Whitegrass in the Canaan Valley of WV.  It's a full blown Nordic ski area, with over 50k of groomed trails.  It's also a pretty adventurous place, with lots of back country off-trail options.  But, you also have the options of getting in 1, 3, 5, 10+ hours of skiing without setting foot off a groomed trail.   The trails at Whitegrass are fairly narrow, so it's not great for skating, but if you have a little experience it's not bad.  I wouldn't recommend it for someone trying to perfect technique or just learning.  Unless you're willing to ski the snow farm, which is always an option.  The snow farm is a flat area in front of the small cabin that the put snow fences up and catch the blowing snow, and then use groomers to spread it out.  It's usually the only really well tracked and super hard packed area of the whole place.  If I have my race poles with the small baskets, it's the only place I can really use them to put power down.  Don't get me wrong, I use them all over the area, but they often sink through the softer groomed areas.  If you're classic skiing (traditional Nordic skiing) than this is your place.  I'd say about 30-50% of the trails are tracked, despite what they say on the website.  I've never been there when everything was tracked, although I've been there when all 50k was well groomed.  It's a little expensive at $18 to ski, but there's really no other options in the area.  Negativity aside, my wife and I always make the 2 hour pilgrimage to Whitegrass 1 time a year in the winter for a fun 3-4 hour ski day together.  Be ready for serious elevation gains and losses, as like much of WV, you're either going up, or going down.  There's no in between.  The best part of Whitegrass is the cabin which provides delicious cheap lunches and basic gear, including waxes, equipment, and waxes.  Overall, I do enjoy Whitegrass and it's worth the drive, as long as you're not expecting wide race-groomed trails.  I will probably compete in the Mountain State Marathon next week if there's snow's hoping.

A typical whitegrass trail- groomed, but not perfectly, and very hilly!

The Snowfarm, Whitegrass
Another typical trail for Whitegrass- The 3 Mile trail

The final place that I ski the most distance and time at in the winter is the Laurel Ridge State Park.  It's an easy drive north past Connelsville, PA.  Yes, it's not in WV, but it's close.  They claim to have 20 miles of trails, but I've really only skied about 10k of them, and really focus in on the really great 5.5k "red" trail.  I've skied it over, and over, and over.  It's basically the only trail you can really skate, or rather it's so much better than the others it's the only one I want to skate on.  But like I said, I've skied more K's there than any other place besides the trails in AK and my home Nordic ski area (Craftsbury, VT).  The last time I went (couple weeks ago) I skied 25k, and wanted to ski more, but had to leave for other reasons.   The red trail is almost a perfect trail, it's SO sweet- it's NEVER boring, and it's not overly crazy.  You get to climb, you get to go down hills, and there are sections of relative flat- but no long, straight, flat sections.  Lots of corners too.  But the best part is that it's always groomed EXTREMELY well.  They pack it down hard so you can use your race quality stuff, and the tracks are always solid.  At least, it's the best in the immediate area in terms of grooming- there are places I've been which were obviously better (St. Annes in Quebec for example) but given the amount of snow, and the equipment they have, they do a fantastic job.  And, it's much cheaper than Whitegrass, $8 (it went up this year, the last 3 years it was $6).  So even though they don't have the crazy terrain that Whitegrass has, it's better in my eyes because it's cheaper.  And they do have some refreshments  like pastries and cold sandwiches, and often have some kind of soup.  The downside is it can get very very crowded in the warming lodge, and people can be a little rude and pushy.  But generally it's fine, especially if you time your lunch (we've never ate there) or stops to non-peak times.  Laurel Ridge is also the site of the PA Nordic state championships (amateur of course), so if that even peaks your interest a little, why not ski the course the races are on?

The trails at Laurel Ridge are WIDE!
here are also a couple other options withing driving distance- Alpine Lake supposedly has some good classically groomed trails.  They even have the capability to put in tracks.  I've never been because I'd rather ski at Laurel Ridge since it's good and it usually has more snow.  There's also Blue Knob, which I've heard can be good, but it's 2 solid hours away.  I may also venture North to Wilderness Lodge in PA, but that is going to be a weekend trip, as it's 3.5 hour drive one way.

And if all else fails, and there's snow, the rail trail in Morgantown is also a viable option.

So get down to Pathfinder, get yourself some skis, and get out there!