A longtime cross country skier, who's tested snow coverings all over the world, said it best: "This is the most spectacular (cross country) skiing I think I've ever done ... the scenery is fantastic."

The area he was referring to is Sundance Ski Resort, not some high-end, out-of-the-way nordic center in some hard-to-get-to, high-mountain range across the ocean.

Two minutes from the parking area and people can be cross country skiing at Sundance. Four minutes and they can be lost among the tall pines, the quiet and overpowering beauty of Mount Timpanogos.

"People don't realize just what we have here in Utah in the way of nordic skiing," offered Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah. "We really do have some of the most spectacular country and best skiing in the world right here in Utah.

"Some people think they have to stay indoors in the winter, and when summer comes they'll get outdoors. Winter sports, like skiing and cross country skiing, give people a whole new perspective of the outdoors ... a whole new appreciation for winter."

While this has not, as yet, been the best of snow years until the latest storms, cross country centers have been and will continue to groom daily, sell passes and give pointers to anyone who asks.

Sundance has 10 kilometers, or Ks, of groomed track, Alta 10 Ks, Soldier Hollow 30 Ks, Solitude 18 Ks and White Pine out of Park City 20 Ks and an unlimited number of Ks available through its high-Uinta excursions.

Since this is a sport born in Europe, distances are always measured in kilometers. Broken down into more American language, 10 Ks is 6.2 miles, 20 Ks is 12.4 miles and 30 Ks is 18.6 miles. Or, in layman's terms, there's a lot of miles to ski.

As noted, cross country or nordic skiing followed immigrants to this country from Europe and eventually made its way west.

Today the sport of nordic skiing is enjoying a steady growth spurt.

The Sundance center opened in the winter of 1990-91 with 6 Ks of classic track. Eventually, it began grooming for both classic and skating, said Sam Palmatier, nordic director.

When it opened, he added, nordic skiing "was a well kept secret. Over the past five years, though, we've seen a lot of growth. You could say people have discovered just how good the skiing is."

The Sundance track runs over rolling terrain and into the forest and is designed so skiers on one trail are out of sight and sound of skiers on other trails. Skiers can choose their level of exertion, from a casual walk to a high-energy contest.

Palmatier has also introduced some interesting twists, which includes a woman's day, full-moon skiing and a owl program that involves venturing into the wilderness on skis to locate different species of owls. The next owl programs will be tonight and in mid-March. The next full-moon adventure will be March 3

Howard Peterson, general manager of the Soldier Hollow nordic complex, the only such center in the world to host the Olympics (2002), the Paralympics (2002) and the Deaflympics (2007), said business is up 25 percent year-to-date.

He points to the fact that the junior program at the Olympic site is growing, as well as adult participation, and that it is the adults or parents who are following in the tracks of their kids.

"When we look out on the track," he offered, "we see a lot of parents with the kids. Very often it's the parents who are trying to keep up with the kids," he noted.

Lauren Adams, nordic director at the White Pine Cross County Center in Park City, is also seeing numbers increase, especially among adult skiers, and attributes part of the increase to alpine skiers making the switch.

"In some cases they simply don't want to go that fast anymore. They want to take their time and enjoy themselves. We're seeing more and more women sending their families off to (alpine) ski and coming to our track. And we're seeing parents out there with their kids," she noted.

In some cases the additional skiers are new to the sport.

Adams noted that there is a growing number of new skiers and recommends, first, that they take a lesson and then head out on the course.

"People will enjoy the experience more if they take a lesson," she added. "They will be more efficient in their movements, go a little further with each stride and will be able to stay out longer and not get so exhausted.

"We can also help overcome their fear of falling. That's the biggest hang-up with adults. Kids tend to be fearless and will take right off. Many adults have a fear of falling ... and they will fall. But it needn't be something they should be afraid of."

All of the centers also offer cross country ski lessons, teaching both classic and skating. Classic is old-world skiing; skating is new world. Classic involves a parallel sliding motion, identical to walking. Skating is a little more technical and involves a V-shaped stance, widest at the tips, and then pushing off alternating skis in a skating motion. Classic skiing is more relaxing and slower; skating requires more energy and speeds are faster.

A popular alternative, said Adams, is White Pines' special Uinta tours. Small groups of skiers are taken by vehicle into the Uinta Mountains for a more remote, more intimate nordic adventure. The guided tours involve lunch and skiing for the day.

New skiers, and even some of the more experience participants, find that a good way to get more involved means getting their own equipment. One way to do this is to check out sales of used rental gear at one of the centers.

Along with an increase in skiers at the recreational level, nordic race events are also attracting more people. Race officials report that entries are at an all-time high this winter in the Citizens Series.

Along with that, added Peterson, Utah's ballooning junior ski program is showing results. During the Western Junior Olympics at Soldier Hollow, Utah girls swept podium awards — first, second and third — in two events.

"We get roughly 9,000 first-time visits a year. Some of those continue with the sport. Currently, we have 200 juniors on our local team. It wouldn't surprise me to see one of our young women on the Olympic Ski Team in the near future. We have some very good skiers," he added.

He is also seeing an increase in interest in the biathlon program, boosted some by the appearance of some of the world's top biathlon competitors to Soldier Hollow.

As Rafferty pointed out, there's no reason to stay indoors in the winter — not when it's possible to take a stroll in the mountains, on skis, into some of the most spectacular country in the world.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com