No, I’m not Jean Diggins, who must be a unique specimen of human-hood as she digs, kicks and glides. Nor am I Jean Menden, the artistic silversmith, who were it not for her depths of compassion and friendship, could have left me stuck in my tracks cross country skiing a few winters ago at Lac qui Parle State Park. We’re both long past having the youthful vitality of the young Olympian Diggins.
Yet, I do enjoy threading up the boots and hooking into the bindings on the long skis. And have for years. As a young man there were many Saturday mornings when a group of us, usually led by an exuberant Lola Dingamans, would ski up a mountain pass with backpacks filled with the makings of lunch and a bottle of wine. When we reached a picturesque site Lola would scream her wild and beautiful scream, which was our signal to undo the bindings, stomp a circle in the powdery snow for a seating and break out the lunch. Afterwards, after the last of the wine, we would bind back up and gleefully ski the several miles back down the mountainside to our cars. Far cheaper and much more friendly than hitting the slopes at Breckenridge, Vail or Winter Park.
Not many people I know ski around these parts of the prairie. There are exceptions such as Menden and Lucy Tokheim, yet apparently many don’t equate these flatlands with skiing. Which is too bad. Oh, you could venture to the Prairie Woods ELC, which I’ve done several times over the years, where for a modest fee you can rent skis. They even maintain trails, as do some of the more highly visited state parks. Not around here, though, which is a shame because Bonanza and the Big Stone Lake State Park would offer some beautiful skiing as would the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge, where you could swish past outcrops denuded by the Glacial River Warren thousands of years ago.
Which brings me to the home place. Across the trails of the home prairie and deep into the small woodland here at Listening Stones Farm, a fresh powder-like snow had drifted from the sky recently to further blanket what had fallen through the night. Winterly prairie winds were whipping the big bluestem causing snow to cruise across the landscape creating drifts and dunes more reminiscent of desert sands. For most of the day, and certainly throughout the grayish misty-looking morning, the distant horizon in all directions seemed a whitish blur. It was cold. Bitterly cold, and the wind and snow added to the chill.
So why would one spend nearly an hour searching for the poles that were stashed beneath a pile of coats on a hook to venture out on such a morning? Alone? With a camera, no less? Well, because there was a beckoning. Some might have suggested an explanation a bit differently.
You must understand that unless I’m rising from a couch or chair, or happen to catch a glimpse of my weathered and aged features in the bathroom mirror, I rarely think of myself as being, well, old. So what if I’m 77 and home alone, out on the frozen trails in 14 acres of tall grass prairie where a bad slip or fall might put anyone in peril in that sort of frigid environment? Those are thoughts you have once back inside with a steamy cup of tea!
I thought of Menden many times in my scooting along, slowly moving one ski just ahead of the other. On our skiing at Lac qui Parle I would try to kick/slide in futile attempts to keep up. This would cause breathing that would have scared any nurse of good standings in these times of Covid. Enough of that! Yet, I would look up while catching my breath to see Jean patiently awaiting me. What a wonderful friend! This time, though, I was alone.
For despite the temperatures and the wind, both the prairie and woodland were full of sometimes small and intricate sightings, while at other times a catch of the prairie amidst distant pairings of beauty caught my eye. Alone I found myself thinking back to those long ago years in Colorado, or with friends like Jean, or at Prairie Woods or at a State Park, just reliving old memories. But those memories, the many sounds and sightings, and the photographs of the natural offerings wouldn’t have been possible inside in the warmth of the hearth.
I was dressed warmly enough, although my skiing (if you could call it that!) kept me plenty warm. I saw the woodland a bit differently than before, and the prairie was rather challenging thanks to the uneven drifts and dunes. The two were quite different. Inside the woods the wind wasn’t an issue. It was quiet save for the birds that flitted around either high in the canopy or on the dense underbrush of buckthorn. Nuthatches, chickadees and downy woodpeckers, mainly. A few stubborn leaves caught and hosted bits of fallen snow. In one spot there were a few spindly arms of a plant that seemed to hold dearly to seed clusters that reminded me of those Reese chocolate cups. Was it too close to lunch?
Skiing out of the woods and into the prairie offered more of a challenge, especially physically because of the wind. Skiing up the hill into the wind was far different than on a sunny Colorado mountainside. On the weather shows the talking heads estimated a 30 mph blow, with gusts much higher. Ten to 20 mph higher. That, plus my erratic mowing of the trails in the summer added to the challenge. Rarely do I think of skiing when I create and groom the trails with the mower, so I sometimes cut the turns too tight for skis. I think of this when skiing, then come summer I don’t remember the having to ski-step to cut through the tight, narrow turns. Yet there were some beautiful stretches where it was a joy to kick and glide down a stretch of downhill straightaway. With the wind at my back. These were glorious moments, full of freedom and joy.
Along with the joy of a straightaway glide were glimpses overhead as an eagle labored against the wind, and then after the turn at the top of the upper trail, a skein of geese flew over possibly heading to a stalk field down the way. My near heart attack came when three male pheasants suddenly exploded from the bluestem to glide down the hillside away from my threat. Gliding free with the harsh wind like thin, feathery arrows.
In less than a quarter mile this was more wildlife combined that I remember seeing in all those skiing trips through the Colorado mountains, and this was right here in my home prairie on a day that was blustery cold, when staying indoors in front of the fireplace seemed a safer and perhaps a saner option. My skiing was more reminiscent of a woodland saunter, too, often with stops to look and listen, to admire and commune with the bluestem in ways far different than in the summer when butterflies and bumblebees, swallows and dragonflies seem to rule this nook of the natural world. It was a good day.
Loved the closeup winter images. Beautifully written.
Thank you for sharing, John… it was fun ‘skiing in the prairie’ through your lens.