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A piece of Canada's skiing heritage

Misadventure and cross-country skiing seem to be closely linked concepts in my experience. It might be the desert-dweller in me or, more likely, just my innate lack of co-ordination.

Misadventure and cross-country skiing seem to be closely linked concepts in my experience. It might be the desert-dweller in me or, more likely, just my innate lack of co-ordination. Regardless, I do not have a close and abiding relationship with skinny skis. In my experience, they should be called sweaty skis although, admittedly, my own skis are only about the width of linguini noodles and sweat very little.

My cross-country skis are very old though and for all I know, aren’t really even cross-country skis at all. In another lifetime, I bought them in Montreal at Canadian Tire, or Le Tire Canadienne, as it’s known in Montreal. I couldn’t buy skis at an actual ski shop in Montreal in the late ’70s because I couldn’t find one where anyone would speak to me in English. Gibberish being my only other language, I was reduced to buying skis – and almost everything else – at Canadian Tire because at least in the West End of Montreal, Canadian Tire hadn’t yet knuckled under to the draconian language laws of the Parti Quebecois, known in the West End as the Parti L’Idiot.

Buying cross-country skis was not my idea. As was true of so many misadventures during those years, it was the idea of my wife, who, having come up with enough bone-headed ideas like cross-country skiing to make it abundantly clear we each married the wrong person, is now my ex-wife.

She believed it would be "good" for us to engage in a brisk winter sport. I believed it would be "better" for us to move to Hawaii and forget there were sports associated with winter or for that matter a season called winter at all. Since she didn’t consider winter camping or ice climbing brisk winter sports – I believe the technical term she referred to them by was "stupid" – I bought skinny skis.

When I finally made it out to Canadian Tire to get cross-country skis, an adenoidal kid who looked like he’d spent way too much time in front of an industrial french-frier pointed to the back of the store and said, "Ask for Jackrabbit."

Jackrabbit turned out to be a chain-smoking, three hundred pound mechanic who was selling skis because he’d thrown his back out and couldn’t do brakes and shocks – his chosen profession – until he’d rehabilitated. It was immediately clear Jackrabbit knew a lot more about brakes and shocks than skis but what little he knew was more than what I was sure I knew and that, coupled with somehow knowing my wife insisted I buy skis, gave him the clear upper hand.

Jackrabbit, of course, invoked the memory, if not the image, of Herman "Jackrabbit" Johannsen, the legendary cross-country skier who single-handedly revived a sport so close to dying it took on cult-like status once it started to regain followers. At the time I was shopping for skis, Jackrabbit was celebrating his 104 th birthday, skiing every day at his home in Piedmont, Quebec, and calling everybody who rode chairlifts to go skiing "wimps and pansies".

Jackrabbit Johannsen got his nickname in the 1920s. He organized Hare and Hound races through the bush near St. Sauveur for the Montreal Ski Club. He was often the "hare" and was rarely caught. His speed and agility on skis earned him the name Jackrabbit. Jackrabbit the Mechanic, on the other hand, may have more appropriately been nicknamed Greased Pig on account of his abundant girth and his casual affiliation with personal hygiene.

But he knew how to sell. It took him about two seconds to know he was going to watch me walk out of the store with a pair of skis he’d been trying to sell all season long. They were just the right size, Canadian made and bore the name Splitkein, meaning in Norwegian: pulled groin muscle.

With a huff, he handed them to me, saying "Just the ticket, Sport."

Now, all cross-country skis have some camber to them. But these skis had CAMBER. Actually, I’m pretty sure Splitkein also makes leaf springs for 18-wheelers and these skis must have been a crossover production.

I tried to flex them. Visions of the 97 pound weakling in the Charles Atlas cartoons. "Kinda stiff aren’t they?"

"You’re a big, strong boy, ain’tcha Sport?"

I could feel shrinkage.

"Got anything that doesn’t need wax?" I asked.

"Waxless skis! I wouldn’t sell you waxless skis unless you squat to pee," Jackrabbit fired back.

More shrinkage.

I was sunk. I paid for the skis and left the store before Jackrabbit could shrink me further. I saw him thumbs-upping the french-fry cook kid as I got into my car and drove away.

Showing the skis to my future ex, I put on the silly boots and clipped into the three-pin bindings. With all my weight on the skis, you could still slip your fingers under the all-important kick section directly under my foot.

"Kinda stiff, aren’t they?" she said.

"I can fix that," I explained. Gently, taking care not to mar the gliding surface, I supported each end of the skis on a large cement block. Then, using equal care, I stored my entire record collection, all 400 kilos, right on the centre of the skis. Nine months later, I could finally flex them.

Now all I had to contend with was waxing. Jackrabbit was right about wax-no wax skis. Waxing was one of those universally recognized things that separated the men from the boys. Like so many other things that perform that function, the arguments for and against were firmly grounded in incomprehensible bullshit. But real men waxed. I waxed.

There are 273 different theories on waxing cross-country skis. None of them work. The immutable interplay of physics and meteorology work relentlessly to ensure you will need a wax, or combination of waxes, you either don’t have or one with completely opposite attributes to the one you just spent 15 minutes applying. It is no wonder today, now that mankind has finally unravelled the mysteries of skinny skis and waxless skis have won out, you can still buy 29 different formulations of wax and virtually no new skis on which to apply them.

Apathy and inertia, the two guiding principles in my life, have kept me from replacing those skis. I’ve given passing thought to buying new skate skis but I can’t shake the feeling skate skis are another wax-no wax black hole. Still, they seem like they’re more fun and they fit the True Guy criteria for dealing with apathy and inertia: New Gear.

But it makes me uncomfortable when I only see people dressed in spandex on them. Maybe next season.

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