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Fight Back Against the Darkness

Last month I wrote about the recent birth of my second son as being a happy reminder to keep things in perspective and to maintain balance in my life. With the winter solstice approaching later this month, this is perhaps the most important time of year to make balance a priority. Darkness is depressing. Going to and from work in the dark makes us feel as though we’re living in a cave. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a clinically recognized phenomenon, particularly for those of us living far from the equator. Added to that are the complexities of the holiday season with it’s unrealistic expectations, onerous obligations, demands for travel and the need to service a broad spectrum of relationships in a limited amount of time. If you’re a lawyer in private practice with a December 31 year end, add the financial pressures of meeting your billing targets for the year. For those of us in a profession that puts us at high risk for depression and anxiety at the best of times, these dark cold winter months can be the worst of times. This month I want to share what I do to fight back against the darkness in the hope that it might inspire some of you to find a similarly healthy hobby (obsession?).

This is my favourite time of year because it’s cross-country ski season. I grew up cross country ski racing and I remain heavily involved in the sport. The first year I met my wife I persuaded her to learn to ski and to actually complete a 55 km marathon (during which she apparently reconsidered our relationship). My 12 year old son is also a fine skier and the sport remains one of those increasingly rare opportunities for us to share relevant time together, training and travelling to races. My wife and son and I also teach kids and adults to ski and for the past five years we have arranged the annual year end wind-up with races for all of the kids in the club.

Last year, I finally followed through on my long-standing daydream to groom a trail in the city park across the street from my home. It’s a lovely spot with sports fields, gentle hills, and a bike path, bordered by a lazy flowing river with a well-treed bank. In the summer it’s a veritable hive of activity. In the winter, not so much. After the snow flies, the traffic is limited to a few joggers and dog walkers on the bike path. I often thought that this would be the perfect spot for an urban ski trail. I also had a selfish interest in being able to walk across the street to go skiing. Last year I spoke to the ski club as well as other groomers about what would be involved and was immediately provided with overwhelming support. Another individual who grooms an urban trail loaned me a previously decommissioned skidoo of his and the ski club promptly delivered the necessary equipment to the park. The ski club also arranged for the City to provide me with a permit to operate the skidoo in the park. I was taken aback at the speed with which those in the know accommodated my request and profusely thanked them for their kindness and generosity, to which they replied, “No, thank YOU”.

On my very first attempt to set the trail, it became apparent that the accommodation was likely made to lock me into following through on my promise before I realized what I had gotten myself into. Grooming a cross country ski trail isn’t so easy. Part road-builder, part Zamboni-driver, part greens-keeper, it requires a little bit of art, a touch of science, and a lot of backbreaking labour in the cold. Following the instructions of those with experience, I first packed the trail just with the skidoo, being stopped once to show the police my permit. I then used the skidoo to pull two separate implements, the first of which packs, levels and puts a corduroy finish on the snow for skate skiing. This is called a skate drag. It looks like a farming harrow and weighs about 300 lbs. Even hooking it up to the skidoo was a workout. It was fine so long as I stayed on the packed trail, but the moment I strayed into the soft powder, it submarined and hopelessly buried itself in the snow. The skidoo sat there uselessly spinning its track as I came to the disappointing realization that it would be necessary to disconnect the drag from the skidoo and man-haul it back onto the track. This was a devastating event requiring what felt like unprecedented feats of strength while wearing several layers of wool and down. It was an hour before I was up and running again. That first night, I think I got the skate drag stuck 4 times. As I wallowed in the snow, drenched, panting, and completely exhausted, I profanely wondered aloud what was I thinking? Isn’t just actually cross country skiing hard enough? Nonetheless, I did feel some degree of satisfaction when I pulled the second (and much lighter) classic track setter around the course to make those deep and perfectly parallel rails that are so nice to ski in. It looked something like what I’ve seen at resorts and at our club’s other groomed trails. Satisfaction aside, when I arrived home that night I complained to my wife that in the five hours I spent sweating out in the snow, that I could have driven to the existing groomed trails to ski 20 times and that it may have been a mistake to take this on.

The next day, I rushed home from work to go for a ski to try out my new trail. I was quite happy with what I had done. The 2.5 km course seemed to get the most out of the park, climbing and descending what few hills were there and taking advantage of trees and bushes to block the prevailing Northwest winds. It was a luxury to be able to walk out the door and ski, without having to load equipment into the car and drive to the trail. What impressed me more was the fact that there were other people out skiing on it already. I spoke to each and every one of them and they couldn’t believe someone had done this just to make it nicer to ski and how happy they were to have a groomed trail in their own area.

The winter went on and I kept at it. With practice and conditioning, I became more efficient and the process became easier. My son and sometimes his friends often joined me in the effort, happy to go for a ride on the massive twin track skidoo which he named the Bateau de Neige. Still, it was a 1 ½ to 2 hour commitment at least twice a week, depending on what the wind and snow had done to the trail. I still had my frustrating moments with the equipment, my sore back and frozen fingers when I would inevitably engage in the unhelpful mathematics of how long it would take me to just drive to one of the existing trails to ski. This said, I skied almost every day largely because I now had no excuse not to. Moreover, I had developed a following. It was a rare event to be alone on the trail and there were often as many as 20 people using it at once. Some of these people were competitive racers to whom I was proud to show off my creation. Even more satisfying though were the many people who said that they had dusted off skis that had been sitting forgotten their basements, now that the proximity of the trail had made it so easy for them to get out. By the beginning of March, the park was as busy as it was in July and I would regularly see people skiing down the back alley to the trail park while I sipped my Sunday morning coffee. In my hours-based lawyer thinking, my analysis shifted from the selfish consideration of whether this endeavour meant more skiing for me, to how many hours of physical activity by others were spawned by my effort. So many people who otherwise may have languished in the dark, were now out there embracing winter.

This really set the hook for me. Over the off-season I invested in my own skidoo and have once again resolved to make this little seasonal gift to the community. I also bought a ski kit for our baby’s bike trailer so I can get my workout in while giving him a nice ride.

I don’t expect that any of you will go and start grooming a ski trail. Although I do hope that some of you will be inspired to go for a ski. If skiing isn’t your thing, then I hope that you will at least be inspired to regularly do something active in the outdoors over the next three months so you can fight back against the darkness and maintain a measure of balance in your lives.

James N. Korpan

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