Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cross-country in the heart of the city

The idea of skiing in the park hit me like sunshine breaking through an overcast, wintry sky. You see it wasn’t my idea.

Skiing wasn’t on my mind when I walked into the Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center. In fact I hadn’t thought about skiing in years. My intention had been to revisit Three Bridges Park—on foot, with my camera. The stop at the UEC was to see if there might be kids heading out to the park to sled on its hills. It had snowed earlier in the day and I was hoping to shoot some action.

As I enter, Omar, the UEC’s Visitors Services Assistant, greets me in the reception area. No, he says, the last group for the day had just left. When I tell him I am heading out to the park he asks, “Would you like to take skis?”

I am taken aback. Why have I never done this before? It isn’t as if I hadn’t known about the UEC’s free rental program for members. In warmer seasons I’ve borrowed canoes and often I’ve encouraged people to become members by telling them about this wonderful membership perk.

“Yes!” I exclaim, with equal parts gratitude for the suggestion and surprise at my own enthusiasm. I don’t even hesitate to dwell on out of tune muscles. If no one else is going to be out there why not provide the action I came to see!

We head upstairs to the corridor where a long, colorful row of skis stands in ascending heights. The shortest ones appear far too small for any real people who might go skiing! Then, overruling myself, I muse that even the younger elementary school children would probably be far better at this than I. Ha! Omar confirms this: kids as young as 4 go out with skis, he says.

Omar quickly outfits me with skis and poles. We descend to the lower level for boots. How long has it been since I’ve worn cross-country ski boots? Their sleek and efficient design feels futuristic, probably because I inhabit a future I couldn’t imagine when last I skied. Feeling anachronistic, like George Jetson, I lace them up. As Omar gives me a quick tutorial to refresh my memory of skiing technique I confess that I can’t remember how long it has been. I do recall having to wax the skis!

I pop the boots onto ski bindings that are remarkably easy to use; wonder again why it’s taken me so long to return to the sport I had so loved. Especially considering how much simpler it all is now!

The Valley Passage between the UEC and the park has been shoveled. I walk through to the snow-covered trail leading into the park, pop on the skis again and take off. Well, I move forward at least. I feel awkward and slow. The warm front that dropped an inch or two of fresh snow has also rendered it soft. No one has been out on skis before me and so I am left to carve my own path.

Nevertheless it feels great!

After surviving the better part of 3 months near and often well below 0°, today’s 30° feels positively balmy. Before long before I unzip my coat to avoid sweating. Maintaining a slow pace I fall into a meditative rhythm without too much stumbling. I might walk as fast but the glide of the skis feels easier on my back, which usually ends up aching after a slog through snow on foot.

The snow thins to a trace in the shadow of the 35th St. viaduct. I step carefully across the short space where black asphalt of the Hank Aaron State Trail shows through. My ski poles ping on the pavement. I glide up the long easy slope of the first moraine-like hill, anticipating the steeper slope I know to be on the far end. Blue plastic cylinders pop up here and there on the hillside, looking incongruous in the fresh blanket of snow. They protect fragile new seedlings that were planted last summer by UEC volunteers. They represent hope; the dream of a future forest.

The sloping sides of the ridge are well tracked by kids and their sleds but the steeper end when I reach it lies pristine and smooth before me. I stare into the white expanse of a suddenly remembered youth. Expecting an exhilarating rush to the bottom, I take a deep breath and push off. The skis sink into deep, mushy snow; I proceed at a steady, sedate pace all the way down. Downhill racer this isn’t.

Counting myself lucky that I didn’t tumble head over heels I continue on my way. I regain the rhythm of poling and gliding. The Menomonee River must flow under its icy roof, but there is only silence where it lies, snowbound. The likewise snow-covered hills rise in sequence like the backs of white whales breaching the surface of this ocean, in this city. The afternoon light slowly dims. I glide on.

Sweden has upset Norway to take gold in Olympic cross-country skiing, I have read. None of the cross-country events have been shown during the primetime broadcasts I’ve been watching, so I haven’t seen them. The network likely believes that viewers demand speed and thrills. The network may be correct. There are no spectacular crashes in cross-country as there are in the downhill, snowboarding, speed skating and even figure skating events. The ever-present threat of a spill raises the ante in already suspenseful events. Still, who could have expected—or wanted—to see Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian figure skating superstar, quit skating entirely after his very public fall on the ice.

I digress. Not being an Olympic—or any other—competitor, for me cross-country skiing is a meditative sport.

I ping across another thin spot under the 27th St. viaduct. A long, easy slope leads to where the park ends in an overlook. There I pause to take in the familiar panoramic view of the Valley with the Milwaukee skyline beyond. 

Turning back, I attempt to schuss down the slightly steeper side of the incline I’d just come up. No graceful glide this time—I take a plunge. Coat still open, I am spread-eagled, poles akimbo. Snow crawls inside my sweater and coat sleeves. The meditative sport just became worthy of prime time! Ha. Fortunately, no one is there to witness my ignominious downfall.

I brush off as much snow as I can and push on. I’m neither Plushenko nor a stalwart Swedish cross-country skier. No matter. This isn’t Sochi, either. (No, it’s colder here! They say the temperature there has gone above 60° Fahrenheit there. Putin’s follies.)

Sliding up and down the backs of white whales, feeling a little like Ahab, the rest of the run is unremarkable. Unremarkable, that is, unless you stop to consider, as I do, that this really is not Sochi; it is not even the Kettle Moraine State Forest. It is still the City of Milwaukee; still the Menomonee Valley. Amazing enough for me.

I glide on.

As no on was there to witness any of my first feat of cross-country skiing in twenty-odd years I resort to an unaccustomed selfie to record it. I feel as awkward pointing the camera at myself as I do on the skis! 

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.


  1. Thanks for sharing your discovery of the opportunities this winter has provided! Fun to see how much one can enjoy winter outdoor recreation - in the middle of the city!

  2. Great story and yes, Omar and the Menomonee Valley Urban Ecology Center staff are hidden jewels rooted deep in the fabric of all that is wonderful in Milwaukee...