There was no carbon fiber, no ski wax. There wasn’t even any plastic or metal. It didn’t matter. I found myself euphorically floating across a narrow trail Wednesday afternoon with nothing more than a pair of hickory planks attached to my legs with a piece of webbing and parachute cord.
“You get a different kind of flex with wood skis,” my guide, wood ski maker Tom Paragi, explained during the quick lunch-hour ski.
There was a bit of a learning curve, but once I got into the rhythm the skis worked just like a pair of 21st century skis. A gentle lean forward, a kick and push with my poles, and I was effortlessly gliding forward.
I started having stupid daydreams about Saami people chasing whatever people hunted on early cross-country skis. I thought about the 2016 movie “The Last King,” a film I’ve never seen, but one that Tom had just told me about and described to me as a wooden skiing action movie.
I wondered — had I made a mistake by learning to ski in the world of exorbitantly expensive equipment and confusing, proprietary binding systems? How much money I could make by selling my various sets of modern skis and switching to this simple but elegant design.
These daydreams were interrupted a few hundred feet from the Creamer’s Field parking lot by my boot sliding out of the toe loop that passed for a binding and sliding into the deep snow off the trail. I bent down in the snow to reattach myself, again.
Tom patiently waited for me, as he’d done the half dozen other times I’d stepped out of my bindings on our half-mile excursion.
A wooden ski holdout
Like me, Tom wore wooden skis, but his used a comparatively modern binding system, the Rottefella 3-pin binding system developed in 1927.
I’d sought out Tom to preview this week’s Skiathon ski race/tour on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus because of his wooden ski experience. The Skiathlon is one of the oldest Fairbanks ski races. It’s been held since 1967 (with one long hiatus between 1977 and 2002) and has a “classic” character with a wooden ski division and use of narrow trails that don’t allow skate skiing.
I’ve been interested for a while in people who use wooden skis for skiing. It’s a small community. I hadn’t ever seen anyone with wooden skis or the trails on the slopes, although the skis are popular for home decor and for taking “shot skis” at bars.
Tom has been building wooden skis for about 10 years. He prefers the feel of skiing on wood.
“When you’re going over uneven terrain it just feels different to me than the plastic ones, and I just kind of think it’s cool to ski along on something you made,” he said.
Tom works as a wildlife biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and takes a short ski most days at lunch outside his office at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. He packs down his own classic ski trail through the deep snow of the fields, parallel to the groomed Alaska Skijor and pulk Association trail.
Ginny Wood skis
To get the real antique ski experience, Tom recommended I forgo actual ski boots and instead use the tie-in binding on a pair of World War II-era military skis that were given to him by Ginny Wood.
Wood was a World War II Women’s Auxiliary Corps pilot who settled in Fairbanks and is known for her work as a conservationist and a founder of the Camp Denali lodge in Kantishna. Wood was an accomplished skier who was the 30th member of the U.S. National Ski Patrol and a founding member of the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks. She died in 2013.
Her skis could be in a museum, but instead I got to use them for the afternoon. They’re long, solid pieces of wood with bindings of a toe loop made of webbing. There’s no clip to hold the toe in place, but a piece of a bicycle tire screwed to the top helps keep the toes in position.
They were originally Army skis and the letters “US” can be faintly seen carved into the skis above the toe binding. Wood cut the skis down to make them narrower.
I promptly broke these historic skis. The third time I fell out of the binding, I looked down to see I’d ripped the frayed cord that runs through a hole in the bottom of the ski and ties around the back of the boot.
Tom wasn’t especially upset at me for damaging the skis. An advantage of simple skis is that they’re easy to repair, he said. He improvised a repair, and we were underway again.
After stringing a few nonclumsy steps together my internal monologue was back to reflecting on the simple beauty of these skis. Maybe I could become a wooden skier with practice, I said to myself. I thought about all the stories of people getting stranded on backcountry trips in deep snow because of broken bindings, and how nice it would be to have something I could easily repair.
A few hundred yards later, my traditional skiing skills were tested again. Just ahead of us stood a cow moose and a yearling moose along the side of the trail. Tom detoured a bit to give the moose a bit of space as we passed them. The cow didn’t pay us much mind, but the calf walked a few steps closer to us to investigate.
I became especially aware of how awkward these skis were as I focused my attention on my toes to make sure I didn’t slip out of my bindings again. I felt extremely vulnerable. I imagined the mother moose coming to stomp us if the calf got too close and being unable to get away with only one ski attached.
The calf moved a few steps closer and then stopped.
“He’s just curious,” Tom said, reassuring me.
We skied on, and the calf didn’t follow us farther.
The last half of our short ski went well, with only two quick stops for me to put my boot back in the binding. When we got back to the Fish and Game building, I felt like I’d gone more than half a mile. The ski had given me an appreciation both for how much of the magic of skiing is based on a well-shaped piece of wood rather than any particularly fancy technology. But it had also given me a new appreciation for modern skis and especially modern ski bindings.
I respect anyone who posts a fast time in the wooden ski division at Sunday’s Skiathon at UAF. But I’m thankful to have my modern skis. If anyone asks, they’re not for sale.