Snow Skiing originated as a mode of transportation, and evolved into a recreational and competitive sport. About 5,000 years ago, Scandinavian cave paintings depict hunters pushing over snow using animal large bones on their feet. In modern times, long planks of wood were attached to boots and poles used to pull one's self over top of the snow. Skiing has evolved into several variations: downhill, cross-country, freestyle skiing, ski jumping and the biathlon..
In the 1800s, cross-country skiing had become a popular leisure activity and mode of transportation in Scandinavia. It gained widespread popularity after 1888 when Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen journeyed to Greenland over winter pack ice on a pair of cross-country skis. The best-known pioneer of the sport in Canada was Herman "Jackrabbit" Smith-Johannsen, who skied his last official race at age 75, but continued skiing until he was 106. The sport really picked up in North America in the early 1970s, as a way of enjoying the winter outdoors without the high cost of downhill skiing lift tickets. It proved especially popular across much of Canada, where there are no significant ski hills and where the terrain was generally flatter.
The objective of cross-country skiing is to travel across the snow, often up and down hills. There are two basic techniques used by competitive skiers. The oldest is the "classical style," in which the skis move parallel to each other through narrow tracks in the snow. When the skier is ascending a hill, the skis point slightly outward for traction. On level ground, good skiers can reach speeds in the range of 25 km/hr. The newer style is "freestyle" or skating style, in which skiers do not keep their skis in narrow tracks, but rather, while one ski points straight ahead, they push off the other like a skate. Freestyle races are slightly faster than classical races, with average speeds of 30 km/hr. Freestyle first appeared in Scandinavia in the late 1960s and became an Olympic discipline at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.
In the 2006 Winter Olympics, there are six cross-country skiing events each for men and women: men's 15km classical and 50km freestyle events; women's 10km classical and 30km freestyle events; men's and women's combined pursuit events; men's 4x10km relay and women's 4x5km relay; men's and women's 1.5km sprint.
In the related biathlon events, cross-country skiing is combined with rifle shooting, which forces athletes to switch from high-energy and fast racing to low-energy and highly focused shooting. The first recorded biathlon competition took place in 1767 on the border between Norway and Sweden, but did not catch on with audiences until the early 1900s. In the Olympic "Nordic Combined" event the athlete competes in ski jumping, and then race cross-country with starts staggered based on their ski jumping points, so the cross country finish reflects the combined event winner.
Skiing and snowboarding are relatively expensive sports, though you can save on the high costs of equipment by renting your equipment. The skis used for freestyle are shorter than those used in classical events, to allow for a more efficient "skating" motion and prevent tangling with other competitors' skis. The poles are also slightly longer.
A skier's wardrobe includes a warm water-resistant winter outfit (not jeans), a tuque, a scarf or neck tube, ski gloves, ski goggles and warm undergarments and socks. The key to warmth with cross-country skiing is dressing in layers, so that you can dress warmly at the start, and progressively remove thin layers as you warm up from the exercise. Modern synthetic fabrics like GoreTex (made of rapidly stretched Teflon!) are popular with skiers, since the molecular structure of the fabric keeps water droplets from getting in while allowing smaller steam (sweat) molecules to escape.
Most sports shops will have ski equipment and clothing in season (watch for "end of season sales by Valentine's Day) though ski hills have pro shop to sell anything forgotten, broken or lost. There is also an annual fall Ski Swap for both new and used equipment, which makes it easy to compare products and prices.
If you choose to try Cross Country, many public golf courses and parks around the city have trails you can ski for free, and of course, there is the Conmore Nordic Centre (403-678-2400, up Spray Lakes Road in Canmore) which hosted cross-country races duing the 1988 Winter Olympics. There is also a Nordic Centre at Edson, just east of Jasper. There are many trails in the National Parks system, though caution should be exercised, and all weather reports and avalanche warnings should be heeded.
See a listing of local Cross-Country Ski areas.
For both the social and competitive aspects of skiing and snowboarding, check out the ski clubs.
The major local ski hills have many spectator events and competitions over the winter. Contact the hills for information.