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Published December 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

No hills necessary

Cross-country skiers want F-M to have fun in snow
The 3 1/2 inches of snow that fell Wednesday night in Fargo-Moorhead may have given some locals the chills, but this winter’s weather has warmed the hearts of one hardy group; cross-country skiers.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

If you go

  • What: M.B. Johnson Park shelter cross-country ski open house
  • When: 1 to 4 p.m. today
  • Where: M.B. Johnson Park at 3601 Oakport St. (11th St.) N.
  • Info: (218) 299-5340
  • Online: www.pens-xcski.org

The 3 1/2 inches of snow that fell Wednesday night in Fargo-Moorhead may have given some locals the chills, but this winter’s weather has warmed the hearts of one hardy group; cross-country skiers.

Area cross-country skiers – or xc skiers – have another reason to beam. This weekend, veterans and beginners alike have been christening a new shelter at M.B. Johnson Park in Moorhead and riding the groomed trails.

From 1 to 4 p.m. today, members of the club Prairie Edge Nordic Skiers will help get novices up on skis, and Scheels sporting goods store will offer equipment to try.

PENS isn’t doing it to boost enrollment in the club but rather to introduce people to an activity that has deep family and cultural ties for many members.

While non-skiers may wonder if cross-country skiers are crazy for playing in the snow, the participants say it keeps them healthy physically and mentally during the cold months.

How are the trails?

For Kelly Sassi, the decision to start cross-country skiing was made for her.

“My dad’s Norwegian, so he just thought we should do that,” Sassi says.

Though she grew up in Fargo, at a young age she moved to Alaska with her family.

There she raced on her high school cross-country ski team and later a collegiate team. After Sassi became an English teacher, she found herself back at her old high school teaching the sport.

So when Sassi returned to Fargo for a potential job after 40 years away, she tried out the Lindenwood Park skiing trail before she even interviewed for the job.

“I didn’t want to move someplace that didn’t have good trails,” Sassi says.

She was impressed with the trails and the Fargo Park District’s maintenance of them, so she took the job and moved to town.

“I just can’t imagine living in a place without being able to get out and cross-country ski,” says the assistant English professor at North Dakota State University. “For me, that’s my sanity, to get outside and make friends with winter.”

Sassi is not alone. According to the 2000 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, 7.9 million Americans were cross-country skiers.

The percentage of men skiing (50.7) slightly edged out women (49.3), according to a 2007 National Sporting Goods Association survey. The survey also showed the largest age demographic was from 45 to 54.

Community interest

Sassi is trying to help some younger people make friends with winter, too.

Last year, she started a program to teach Clara Barton Elementary School students how to cross-country ski. She was hoping 12 kids would register for the courses at Edgewood Golf Course in north Fargo. Instead, 63 students signed up.

She’s repeating the program this year but capping it at 20 students.

“There’s a huge interest in the community,” says Erik Berg, president of PENS.

The problem, he says, is that there aren’t enough outlets to encourage and educate about the activity.

As a result, PENS is getting more hands-on with instructions. The group has offered lessons on Sundays at Edgewood for a few years. Berg is a certified professional ski instructor. On Jan. 2, PENS will host a workshop for people who might want to teach cross-country skiing. (Sassi says the location hasn’t been settled and advised those interested in the workshop to keep checking the PENS website, www.pens-xc

ski.org.) Both Sassi and Berg would like to see area schools include the activity both in physical education and as a sanctioned sport.

“If we don’t teach our kids these winter sports, why would they want to stay in a winter climate?” Berg says. “The people who complain about winter tend to be the ones who don’t do anything outside in the winter.”

Family affair

Practicing what he preaches, Berg, who’s been skiing for nearly 40 years, had his daughter on skis at 18 months old and his son at 2 years.

Sassi started her kids skiing at an even younger age.

“I put them on skis as soon as they could stand up,” she says of her sons, now in fifth and sixth grade.

Skiing is still a family affair, one that’s evident to anyone who visits their home.

Pairs of skis are leaning against the outside of their home, ready to hit the trails. Among them is an old wooden pair her parents used and a more modern set featuring a picture of each of her sons as babies – to give her motivation when she races.

Even finding a house for the Sassi family was tied to cross-country skiing. Kelly Sassi says they found a place close to the river to be near groomed trails.

“It was not a great choice, we found out, in terms of floods, but we did that so we could just walk over to the trails along the Red River,” she says of her Hawthorne neighborhood home in Fargo.

On Thursday, Sassi did just that with her son Alex and family friend Jay Richardson. Her husband took the family dog on another trail skijoring, where the harnessed dog helps pull the skier.

Skiing heritage

Though PENS member Jeff Quam doesn’t have any kids, he sees the importance of passing on the interest in cross-country skiing, saying “the common thread is heritage” among the skiers he knows.

Quam has been skiing for 50 years, since he was 8 and his 70-something-year-old grandfather would take him out on handmade oak skis to check his cattle on a farm near Erskine, Minn.

“You get out in the fresh air and your problems go away,” says Quam who skis three times a week.

“I really feel the need to show and make it possible for people to at least try this,” he says. “That’s where this sedentary lifestyle begins is in the winter, when you may stay inside, sit around and watch TV. So anyone I can reach as a kid is going to have a life-long hobby.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533