Wednesday 30 January 2019

The Yellowhead Loppet, Part 1

        In 1978 on the morning of the ski race, I awoke without a trace of nervousness or  worry. It was Sunday, no reason for panic. I lingered under the warm blankets enjoying the sleepy peacefulness of the morning. I don't know if professional athletes spend much time lying in bed worrying about their upcoming games,  but my lack of concern for the ski race didn't stem from self confidence, it stemmed from the fact that I did not even suspect that I was going to be in a cross country ski race.
         The February sun was just beginning to streak through the tops of the cottonwood trees which grow on the lower slopes of the mountain, east of our place. The house was cold.  I got up, while my wife lingered in bed, so it was up to me to opened the vent at the front of the wood stove, stir up the slumbering ashes, and then carefully place a log into the firebox. I was just closing the cast iron door of the stove when the phone rang.
         It was Fern.
         "I hope I didn't wake you up," she said.
        "No," I tried to make my voice sound like I had been up for a couple of hours. Since we had just bought the small farm in this rural community, I thought it would sound better if I came across like an early riser. "I was just putting more wood on the fire," I croaked.
        "Today is the Yellowhead Loppet," Fern began.
        "Yes, I know.   We were planning to come and watch." I said.
        "I was calling to see if I could get you to be in the race," Fern continued, "You do cross country ski don't you?
        "Well, I'm really not very good."       
         This was not false modesty. I wasn't a very good skier. We had bought a cross country ski "package" the previous year in an attempt to make the long Canadian winters a bit more enjoyable by getting some physical exercise out in the crisp mountain air. The equipment package included a pair of "no wax" skis, (“Just snap them on and go”), bamboo ski poles, and a pair of high cut boots with padding around the ankles.
       In our old community, we would sometimes spend Sunday afternoons on the skis, shuffling and pushing our way along one of the many abandoned logging roads paralleling the North Thompson River. It was scenic and enjoyable, speed never entered into the equation.  The small rises and dips in the road which gave brief periods of acceleration and a little wind in the face, did not provide anything that could be considered the kind of experience that I could cling to in a cross-country ski race.
        "l'm sure you would do fine," Fern added.
        I was flattered. No doubt Fern had recognized the innate coordination and speed I had demonstrated on Wednesday nights in the high school gymnasium at the square dancing club my wife and I had joined in an attempt to meet people and establish ourselves in this small isolated community. Fern obviously had been impressed by my prowess as I "dos-a'-dosed" my partner, weaving, spinning, turning, before running head-on into the oncoming lady.
          I tried to decline again, but Fern was determined she was going to get me into the race and so she began to deploy her heavy artillery.
          "I sure wish you could help us out, Dave. We really need some participants in the Adult Male Category. You really don't have to race, just ski for the fun of it. Do it for the community.
         Bang, she got me. We wanted desperately to become part of the community. We had just bought the house and moved to this area five months earlier. I wanted to establish roots here. I didn't want to be in a ski race, but I heard my voice tell Fern over the phone, "Okay, I'II be in the race. How long is it?'
         "The Adult Male race is just seven kilometers?"
         "Oh," I replied, without really knowing what seven kilometers related to in understandable terms. It couldn't be too far, I thought.  I remembered reading in the little glossy “How to Cross Country Ski” booklet we had purchased along with our skis, that in Norway, seventy year old men win 50 kilometer races all the time. Surely, a thirty year old could ski seven kilometers without too much effort.
         Before my brain had any time to reconsider what my voice had just committed my body to, Fern said, "Good for you, Dave. The race starts at 10:00,  See you there." and then quickly hung up. 
        "Honey, wake up, I guess I'm going to be in the ski race.”
         My mind was already racing; I pictured myself skiing along with members of the community lined up along the track, all nodding in appreciation at what a good sport I was to enter the race so that there would be at least one local participant in the Adult Male Category. Who knows, I might even do well in the race. I still had an athletic body, despite my indifference to sports. As far as I knew, I still held the decathlon record at my high school back in Indiana. Maybe this was going to turn out all right!
        In the two hours that remained before the start of the race, I ate a bowl of cereal, went out to the wood shed to gather up the skis and poles.  I leaned against the leaned the skis and poles on side of the house beside the door, and brought the boots inside to warm up.
I gathered up my ski clothes: thick red wool knee socks, my heavy beige woolen ski knickers, a red woolen turtle-neck sweater, and the burgundy nylon windbreaker splattered with the odd drop of brown paint. All dressed up in my skiing clothes, I put the skis into the car, and off we drove to the Ranch of the Vikings where the race was being held.

The story continues tomorrow.

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