Being stuck at home in Muskoka is not so bad. We can get outside and have the space to be alone in the great out-of-doors!
There were cross country skis under our Christmas tree this year. Two sets of backcountry skis, poles, and boots. Santa Claus must have felt I needed to get out and get a little more exercise. Well, not just me, my darling wife too. Okay – he felt that I should, and he was kind enough to give me company.
I have not tried cross country skiing for a good many years, not since my teenage years when the skis had just recently advanced past being wooden boards with leather straps. Way back then you had those plastic low-cut boots that helped to deep freeze your toes into a painful state of numbness. You felt that if you whacked your foot with a ski pole, both boot and foot would crack in half. The equipment certainly has advanced. This new variety of boot is high cut, leather, well-cushioned and comfortably insulated. They look good too, racy and sleek. I had considered some spandex tights to complete the ensemble, but my wife, sensibly, had given a thumb down to that potential look.
The long skis are a little wider than I remember, for ploughing down snowy trails. They are scaled on the bottom, so you no longer have to rub wax on them for hours on end before departure, pretending that you knew what you are doing. Even the bindings seem much more sensible than the old “squeeze-the-toe” type that always seemed to pop loose as you were gaining speed down some steep pitch.
Cottage Country is a beautiful place in winter, with many opportunities for winter fun. On a sunny Muskoka winter’s afternoon, my wife and I head to Arrowhead Provincial Park north of Huntsville, where we plan to do some skiing, snowshoeing and skating on their generous groomed trails and ice loops. We check in at the park office to get a trail pass and a map, and then after a brief but heated discussion on which trail to ski, (my wife favours around the lake and I want to ski down the tube run), we decide to ski around the lake.
I clip my boots into the ski bindings, grab the poles and prepare to stride off down the peaceful trail. Instead, I lose my balance and fall clumsily into the soft deep snow. I find out what the poles are actually for, as I slowly pry myself back to my feet, and then fall the other way. I contemplate pulling out an excuse, a bad back, a sore knee, a concussion – I bonked my head and cannot remember how my legs work. Instead I persevere, we are off, and I am soon mastering the technique.
My poles flick at the snow, working in unison with the skis. I push hard down the packed track; the dense groves of silver birch, maple and aspen that hedge the trail are nothing more than a blur in my periphery. I glide effortlessly along, climb up short hills, and then swoosh down long looping slopes that carve through thick stands of pine.
I begin wondering to myself whether there is enough time to prepare myself for the 2022 China winter Olympics. “Coming around the last corner, from Canada, well in the lead, is skier number 13 in his flashy tight lycra ski suit. What an effort – what an athlete … TRACK!” I am brought back to the moment as a frail-looking elderly couple shouts “Track!” and swishes past, with a “Thank you,” given in a thick Norwegian accent.
“Yes, well we kick your butt in hockey,” I holler after them. Okay, the Olympics are out. I am having fun though, exploring Arrowhead Park like this. The weather is pleasant. It is quiet; the heavy snow deadens any sound. Silence – save for my heavy breathing, the sound of the wind and the twitter of the occasional bird.
We ski most of the 33 kilometres of groomed classic trails that the park offers, along the East River and around Arrowhead Lake. Afterwards, we snowshoe to Stubb’s Falls, and watch the water gurgle over a snowy ledge and down through a frozen wall of ice. It is beautiful, a natural ice sculpture. My wife scurries off ahead in her modern and fancy aluminium shoes, lightweight and barely bigger than my snowboots. I plod along behind in my authentic chestnut and gut-line beavertail shoes, circa 1749.
I will get her back later, doing my best Eric Heiden impression on the oval skating track, while my wife teeters around unsteadily, looking for a hand to hold. We even bounce down an icy bobsled-like run, piled together on some rubber tube, and here I do hold on to her, tightly, lest I get catapulted away. At the end of the day we head home to cozy up to the fireplace – tired and satisfied, after a day well-spent in Muskoka’s splendid winter playground.
Arrowhead Provincial Park grooms and maintains more than 33 km of cross-country ski trails that are designed for classic skiing or skate skiing. The Ontario Parks Ski Report www.ontarioparks.com/skireport provides updated trail conditions, and if you were not good enough to get ski gear for Christmas, equipment rentals are available.
Other great Nordic ski locations include the Bracebridge Resource Management Centre, located on the east side of Highway 11 just north of the town, which boasts 17.5 km of groomed trails. The KOA Gravenhurst/Muskoka offers 15 km of groomed and track-set ski trails throughout their 785 acres of wilderness. The Frost Centre Ski and Snowshoe trails located 12 km south of Dorset offer 26 km of beginner to expert groomed trails.