On groomed trails and backcountry terrain, with groups of friends or in solitude, on frigid mornings or under the light of the full moon, cross-country skiers will take to the woods of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio this winter.
They will challenge themselves physically in a demanding cardio-intensive sport.
And they will also embrace being outdoors, among the trees, rocks, sky and snow.
“I think that what they like the most is just being out there in nature,” Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association President James South said. “It’s an opportunity to get outside and get some exercise in the clean, crisp air. The whole kick-and-glide thing, it’s sort of like a Zen experience, especially if you’re on a nice quiet trail and it’s scenic. I think that’s what people like the most.”
Many skiers will share communal moments, too.
“The second part I think is kind of the society and social aspects of it, because after a nice vigorous time out on the trail everybody seems to gather at the warming hut,” South said. “They always have something to share, drinking coffee and cocoa, and talking about their next ski. That seems to be a big part of it as well.”
The sport also makes an economic impact throughout the region. However, as with any form of recreational tourism, the number is difficult to quantify, since it is based on a wide range of factors, including lodging, equipment purchases and travel expenses.
One variable is the most important — more snowfall means more people skiing, especially in January through March — after deer hunting season and the holidays have concluded, which determines how much money participants put into the economy.
“It’s totally weather-dependent,” said Chip Chase, founder of White Grass Ski Touring Center in Canaan Valley, Tucker County, West Virginia. “The best way to grow it is to have a snowy winter. Nothing can outdo snow.”
White Grass, which opened in 1979, provides about 50 kilometers of trails — from beginner to expert proficiency levels — with many testing the skills of skiers with numerous downhills and climbs.
“A lot of our clientele like the up and down,” Chase said. “In other words, White Grass has 1,200 verticals straight up and down the mountain, so there’s no way to ski here without knowing how to snow plow at least. That changes the sport. It makes it more like a downhill skiing sport, so it’s not everybody’s concept.”
The trails are located between 3,200 and 4,500 feet in elevation.
“We’re high,” Chase said. “We’re windy. We’re cold. We’re quirky. We’re real wet. We get a lot of rain. We get a lot of ice and snow. We get everything.
“It’s crazy. It’s really windy up here. There are a lot of wind turbines. It’s semi-remote. It’s pretty far away from everything. There is a lot of land in this area where you can ski. You can ski at the state park, the national wildlife refuge. You can ski at the national forest. You can ski at White Grass. You can ski all over the place.”
‘Love being out there’
Meanwhile, there are dozens of areas to cross-country ski in western Pennsylvania — from public land, such as Moraine State Park in Butler County, to business properties, including Blue Knob All Seasons Resort in Bedford County.
In the north, the PACCSA — an organization with 300 to 350 members — holds the annual Pennsylvania Nordic Championships at Wilderness Lodge in Wattsburg, Erie County, with the 2020 showcase scheduled for Feb. 1.