November 19, 2011

When Mother Nature dumped 20-plus inches of snow back in October, it shocked some people, annoyed others, and had many wishing that it would stay until mid-May. ... A day after the storm, I was out happily traipsing through the woods on snowshoes. Of course, all that magnificent snow went away and we are left waiting ...

Alpine skiers, Telemarkers and snowboarders are really lucky. Ski lifts are already turning at Killington (www.killington.com) and Sunday River (www.sundayriver.com), and with even a few cold nights, a dozen more will open soon. Cross-country skiers, Nordic skaters, snowshoers, even folks who just love going sledding in a sloped field somewhere all have to wait for cold, snow and ice.

A few cross-country resorts - notably Trapp Family Lodge (www.trappfamily.com; 802-253-8511) in Stowe, Vt.; Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (www.greatglentrails.com; 466-2333) in Pinkham Notch; and Weston Ski Track (www.SkiBoston.com; 781-891-6575) just outside of Boston - have fairly extensive snowmaking systems that help them get an early start each year.

Last week I wrote about planning some big adventures to help you enjoy winter more. This week, I'm sharing some ideas to get you outdoors and having fun until winter gets here for real (and stays this time).

Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Cut a wild Christmas tree

The White Mountain National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r9/white) in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/greenmountain) in Vermont both have a wonderful program that lets you seek out and cut the perfect wild Christmas tree. Here's how it works:

You buy a $5 permit at one of the National Forest Offices in Campton, Lincoln, Gorham or Conway, N.H., or Manchester, Middlebury, Rochester or Rutland, Vt. Each family can purchase only one permit and cut one tree. Trees are for personal use only, not for resale.

Your permit gives you the right to cut almost any Christmas tree that pleases your eye, but no tree larger than 8 inches in diameter at chest high or trees in or near campgrounds, picnic areas, experimental forests, wilderness areas, timber-sale areas, within 100 feet of a state highway, or immediately along roads, streams, hiking trails or property boundaries. But that still leaves millions of trees to choose from.

The other rules are pretty simple: Use a hand saw or axe (no chainsaws). Cut your tree so the remaining stump is less than 10 inches tall and scatter any limbs you cut off. Easy enough.

This is an off-trail adventure, so dress appropriately, and, as with any other time you leave the road, carry an emergency kit and a map and compass that you know how to use. You don't want to end up lost.

If you aren't a tree expert, carry a tree guide with you. Check out www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/easterntrees.cfm, or borrow a tree ID book from the library. Hemlocks look like they'd make great Christmas trees, but the needles start falling off as soon as you cut them. White pines are usually too spindly to hold heavy ornaments. White spruce smell bad. Search until you find a black or red spruce or a balsam fir (which smells wonderful).

I guarantee if you take your family out in the woods for a day and find a tree that grew wild, it'll make the most beautiful Christmas tree and some of the best Christmas memories you've ever had. Much better than any canned "cut your own" experience at a tree farm!

Go roller skiing

Take heart, cross-country skiers! No snow doesn't have to mean no fun! The newest generations of roller skis are making it possible to "ski" any time you want, almost anywhere you want, even on dirt roads and rail trails.

If you want to try the latest in roller skis, Nordic Skater (866) 244-2570; www.nordicskater.com) in Norwich, Vt., is the place to start if you don't already own roller skis. They'll let you demo roller skis, rent them for an extended demo, or buy outright at package prices.

The latest roller skis have big (5- or 6-inch diameter) pneumatic wheels that roll easily over any road roughness. The inflated tires provide cushioning for a smooth ride. They also have easy-to-use, multi-position, lever-speed governors that allow you to stay in perfect control down hills. They can even be fitted with "training wheels" and an emergency brake.

Like any other form of skiing, roller skiing takes some getting used to. I'd highly recommend wearing a helmet, gloves and the elbow and knee pads used by skateboarders. Hitting the pavement or the gravel is not something you want to do unprotected

The sensation of roller skiing is almost exactly the same as using skate skis or classic skis on slightly crusty snow. You just glide along with your legs and poles providing the impetus. The speed governors make roller skiing even easier than snow skiing. To control your speed down hills, you just bend down and click the speed governors up a notch and you instantly slow down. Amazing design!

One warning: Roller skiing along a quiet back road in late fall is almost as much fun as cross-country skiing. You may like it so much you stop wishing for snow. . . . Nah, that ain't gonna happen.

Gain some altitude - and perspective

With winter looming, the highest peaks of New York and New England can be daunting and potentially dangerous. But the smaller hills near your home are quiet and beautiful at this time of year

Deer season is on, so, for safety sake, wear some blaze orange. Always carry a day pack with a few emergency essentials. Fallen leaves can make a trail slippery underfoot and hard to follow, so use trekking poles for balance and pay attention. Oh, and carry a good flashlight or headlamp - it gets dark early these days.

Find a hill that you can climb a couple of times before snow flies. It's a great way to get back in touch with what's real before the holiday madness begins.

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