PANP Cross Country SkiingAn extended ski day in PA National Park turns out to be a near-death experience for two friends.
I delivered my little motivational speech to Tom Nelson in the middle of a large, solemn, frozen lake. We stood on it, a foot deep in snow, in near darkness, resting on our poles. My mouth numb with cold, I could barely enunciate the words. They spilled out unformed, with most of the vowel sounds in place, but with few consonants. I was more than a little worried.
The break was a welcome rest but it couldn’t last long. We had to keep moving to prevent freezing. Cold was seeping through even my thickest clothes. “You don’t need to think about anything else, Tom,” I said encouragingly. “Just keep your legs pumping.” I took the lead again and Tom followed. As night fell, and with it the temperature, I was concerned for my friend. Despite working my legs and arms like a marathon runner for the past three hours, I no longer generated enough heat to keep warm. The perspiration on my back had dried and my skin was cooling. This couldn’t be a good sign. We were still many kilometres from the safety and warmth of the Waskesiu townsite. I knew we were in trouble.
In 1979, cell phones and GPS units didn’t exist. No one knew we were in danger out on the dark, deserted lake. We had made a serious miscalculation of time on our day trip crossing, and now we were paying for it. Ahead, in the toofar distance, a pair of tiny lights twinkled weakly in the inky black. The only hope of surviving was to keep our bodies moving toward them.
Our ski trip had such a happy start that morning. Under a bright sun, Waskesiu Lake shone like a white ocean. Hurrying into our ski boots, we were excited about crossing it. The temperature should have been a warning to us, though. Just seconds out of my gloves, my bare fingers turned to hardened carrots. I found it difficult to fasten my skis. More mature or experienced persons would have taken this as a hint to ski locally, never going far from town.
But Tom and I, both in our early 20s, had a plan for our day trip and we would stick to it. Skiing north some 15 kilometres across the lake we’d arrive at a channel there known as the Narrows. We’d make a fire, eat lunch, and ski back.
We were young and outdoors savvy—we’d canoed together in Saskatchewan and hiked in the Rocky Mountains. Just weeks before, we’d skied in similar temperatures at Little Red River Park near Prince Albert. It was biting cold when we started there (I shivered putting my skis on) and I asked myself what I was doing there. But soon we were gliding through a Christmas-card scene of small lakes and snow-laden spruce. On the long, forested slopes, we got so warm we removed our toques and parkas. Skiing Waskesiu Lake, we assumed, would be no different.
Moving across the lake miles from the shoreline was like skiing in the Arctic. We had no groomed trail or tracks to follow. Nobody had been on the lake all winter. Even the animals and birds were hiding from the cold.
Saskatchewan winters, even at their coldest, are actually quite beautiful. Ice crystals twinkled in the crisp air. A million diamonds sparkled in the snow. The distant fringe of forest beneath cloud wisps in a pale sky would inspire a landscape artist. All around us, save for the swish, swish, swish of our skis, was silence. It was all fun and exercise and our exertion kept us comfortably warm. How could we know that later in the day we’d be skiing for our lives?
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