Several winters ago, I purchased a pass to a nearby park, which allowed me to go cross-country skiing anytime I wanted. This was usually at night, after the sun had set and the world had fallen into shadow.
Twilight, I was surprised to discover, was a peak time to go cross-country skiing. The sport had become popular among young professionals in the nearby city. It seemed to me that they must have come straight from work, small groups of colleagues donning their spandex and retrieving their expensive skate skis from their trunks. Sometimes two friends or a couple would go for a night ski. But quite often, the majority went solo.
Solo skiers would start up the hill at a gentle climb in a skate-like motion, their skies carving V-formations into the the cold, hard-packed snow. Their wide path was lit by the dancing light of their headlamps.
This path was a paved road in the summer, heading up to a number of lookouts. But in the winter, it was converted into the main artery for hundreds of kilometers of trails.
Last fall, I began reading a book by Frederick Philip Grove — best known for his novel Settlers of the Marsh (1925) — called Over Prairie Trails (1922).
This work has been identified as a series of “sketches” or “essays” (depending on how you classify them), and centre around the long weekend drives that Grove took to see his wife and young daughter each week after teaching school in rural Manitoba. The solo drives lasted several hours, often going into the night, and were powered by a single horse or team pulling his wagon or, after the snow flew, his sleigh. Grove documents seven memorable journeys: the same journey, over the same trails.
Grove’s subject is closely intertwined with the Canadian landscape and is a beautiful piece of Canadian literature. Indeed, Over Prairie Trails was the first title in McClelland and Stewart’s “New Canadian Library” series. Originally from West Prussia before immigrating to Manitoba, Grove was living in Canada at the time of writing it.
You get to know a trail by travelling it often, taking note of things that a first-time or casual observer would not perceive. Much of Grove’s work is rooted in these observations.
During my winter season of night skiing, I noted that the majority of cross-country skiers skated down the middle of the white road. I kept to the right in a set of straight tracks cut into the packed path. That is, I did classic skiing: the old-fashioned, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind — a slower method than skate skiing or “freestyle” — but one which you could do in more versatile situations. Skate skiing required a wide, relatively smooth, packed surface. And while I was likewise skiing on a groomed track, I could easily break my own trail, if necessary.
As we got up into the woods, the skate skiers would generally continue to head up the road, while I and the few other classic skiers would branch off and ski on trails too narrow and twisting to skate ski on.
Though this was harder work in a way (it was easier and faster to stay on the straight, gentle-climb slope of the road), I liked the variety of the smaller trails. I skied these the entire ski season. I came to know every twist and turn, in both directions.
I came to know that the sharp bend lined with a wooden fence and trees around the corner was not a good idea to try in icy conditions. I knew how long it should take me in good conditions to ski from the parking lot, up the path, and into the trails and back again. I knew — almost instinctively — by the feel of the winter air on my face, and certainly by the crunch of snow beneath my feet as I walked to the trailhead, if it was going to be a fast ski.
As I read Over Prairie Trails, I likewise felt that Grove knew the landscape intimately. He travelled the trails in different seasons and in different weather conditions. Some of the most fascinating passages in Grove’s writing were his keen observations of the natural world. “As is always the case with me,” he writes, “I was not content with recording a mere observation. I had watched the thing a hundred times before. ‘Observation’ meaning to me as much finding words to express what I see as it means the seeing itself.” And he does: he describes, for instance, the peculiar ways in which fog behaves, the “work of the wind on an open field,” and the way the snow “crawled over the ground.”
Of the latter, we see him in the act of trying to accurately describe what he saw. “I did not watch snowflakes or waves any longer,” he writes, “but I matured an impression. At last it ripened into words.”
“Yes, the snow, as figured in the waves, crawled over the ground. There was in the image that engraved itself on my memory something cruel — I could not help thinking of the ‘cruel, crawling foam’ and the ruminating pedant Ruskin, and I laughed. ‘The cruel, crawling snow!’ Yes, and in spite of Ruskin and his ‘pathetic fallacy,’ there it was!”
Grove was able to make these kinds of observations about the landscape and natural world, in part, because he took this journey so many times. In the first sketch/essay, he prepares the reader by highlighting the important landmarks along his way: certain farmhouses and the types of people that live there. These serve as anchors for us in later chapters.
In ways that I found pleasantly essayistic, he often pulled from memory some prior observation — with a couple of references to his former life before coming to Canada — and occasionally would situate the drives in the past, a gentle reminder to the reader that he was currently writing, not making the journeys anew. I liked the attention he called to time in this way.
Throughout his book, I felt like I was being guided by the careful hands of a skilled writer. And behind his dispassionate observations, I also got the sense that, though this was not the principle reason for his essays, he was as skilled an outdoors person as he was a writer.
As I read Grove’s Over Prairie Trails, I didn’t have the sense that I was going on the same journey over and over again. But rather, similar ones with interesting differences along the way.
There were things I learned when night skiing that only came from the experience of going multiple times: that it’s easier to start out after dark than to start before and adapt to the temperature drop after the sun dips down; that some of the fastest conditions are in a chill evening after a mild day; that just because you’re skiing at night doesn’t necessarily mean you need a headlamp.
The summer following my season of night skiing, I cycled to the park to explore it by bicycle. I’d rarely seen it in daylight — just a couple of all-day skis in the previous season — and the landscape had been transformed. How much more now: in a place I was used to seeing in the winter at night while skiing, I was now experiencing in the summer during the sunlight while cycling.
I realized that, despite their vast differences in appearance (and despite my cautious nature), I could take these same trails — fast! — on my bicycle. In the winter, I had been skiing on tracks; I was now cycling down a summer trail. But I still knew every dip and turn.
Question: What observations have you made of a place you’ve frequented often?
You had me at cross country skiing, and then you had me again at the notion of travelling over the same trail many, many times over time. While each trip followed the same route, each trip held the unique and subtle differences of a ski in ever changing snow and temperature conditions. Over the past number of years my ever familiar route covers a boundary trail that encompasses a familiar Provincial park strangely within city boundaries. My favorite time for skiing begins about an hour and a half before the sun sets when the day and the bush still holds some warmth, but by the end of the trip the sky has become coloured with the orange-yellow-purple-blue of the setting sun. As I climb the last steep hill at the end, if I’ve timed it correctly, I am rewarded with the encroaching sunset which is prolonged as it creeps up the hill with me. What a rush! Oh yes, I have to contend with the temperature dropping during the last half to one-third of the journey, but that becomes part of the challenge along this familiar trail.
Travelling a familiar highway route many times in a car during different seasons allows one to make many observations of the differences and similarities along that way. As one who studies how the brain learns surrounded by the familiar, and by the different, I am always impressed with how similarities and differences strike you along the route. It might be a tree that has blown down or slightly off-course in a storm, or how a flooded water course has changed its path. When I read your thoughts about Grove’s “Prairie Trails”, I was reminded of reading, many years ago, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. What struck me then about driving over long distances and long periods of time, was the phenomenon of autonomic driving while completely absorbed in thought about one thing or another, and then as I passed a mileage sign realizing that I had covered over 100 kilometres and had been oblivious to the distance. I have experienced this while running distance as well as paddling for several hours. Each time I had been completely captured by a developing idea.
When I read your essay about skiing or travelling over familiar trails, and observing the route, I identified, and as I gave it more thought, I considered the familiar experience of losing myself in the moment to the trail inside. I realized that I had done this on the ski trail as well, although not so often, as doing this represented a lack of concentration and on a cross country ski trail that probably would mean a spill. I hate to fall while skiing. I scold myself for my lack of concentration knowing that it is dangerous on the ski trail. However, I love to be captured by an idea or train of thought that takes me away somewhere equally demanding and or rewarding. It is different on the roadway where your eyes, brain and hands work independently to allow you to drive safely while captured inside.
And so, thank you for stimulating my thinking, through your essay, to a number of pleasant considerations both past and present. The past I have described, and the present…well, I need to get out on the trail for my first ski of the season. It is time to cover that familiar route once again, differently.
My thoughts, UJ
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What a beautiful image of skiing up that last hill, perfectly timed, as the sun is setting! Makes me feel almost willing to brave the temperature drop.
I liked what you wrote about being captured by an idea as you drive — a trail in and of itself –, and not having realized how much physical distance you’d travelled in the process. For some reason, it made me think of a passages from Grove, though instead of a road sign to measure the time he must have travelled in the interim, he had the natural world as a gauge:
“It was a night of skies, of shifting, ever-changing skies. Not for five minutes did an aspect last. When I looked up, after maybe having devoted my attention for a while to a turn in the road or to a drift, there was no trace left of the picture which I had seen last. And you could not help it, the sky would draw your eye. There was commotion up there — operations were proceeding on a very vast scale, but so silently, with not a whisper of wind, that I felt hushed myself.”
I’ll leave with another quote, one which I think, as cross-country night skiers, for us is as equally applicable as it was to Grove travelling over prairie trails:
“I sometimes think that the mere fact of your being on a narrow bush-road, with the trees looming darkly to both sides, makes the stars seem brighter than they appear from the open fields. I have heard that you can see a star even in daytime from the bottom of a deep mine-pit if it happens to pass overhead. That would seem to make my impression less improbable, perhaps. I know that not often have the stars seemed so much alive to me as they did that night in the park.”
Thanks, again, and as always, for your meaningful engagement and thoughtful response.