The Night Gliders

by Audrey Distad

At Crandall Park in Glens Falls, N.Y., kids wax skinny skis under the lights when “the woods are lovely, dark and deep...”

     Set the scene: a pine woods, a shadowy lane, early evening. Bulbs strung overhead shed circles on the snow. In the air, the scent of woodsmoke. In the distance, a dog barking.

     Action! A cross-country skier appears as suddenly as an actor coming from the wings. Not a stage at all, it’s a surprising network of trails within Crandall Park, the city park of Glens Falls, N.Y. There are seven kilometers of trails, and each evening, five kilometers are lighted, producing just this eerie effect. The city claims they were the first such lighted trails in North America.

     In late day, say just after sundown, the trails are quiet. But about seven o’clock, possibly corresponding to dish-drying time at home, local youngsters begin to fill up the woodsy scene. A boy in racing knickers arrives with brothers and sisters. “We live down the block,” he explains, “and we come every night.” They whisk off into the setting like graduated models of how-to-ski. With them is a poodle in winter racing silks—a green sweater.

     Moments later, a mother arrives with her four-year-old. “Just for a short outdoor playtime before he goes to bed,” she says. “All his friends are at home, but he begged me to bring him over. He likes sliding down the little hill.” Up he climbs, down he steers. He’ll sleep well.

     Families for an evening constitutional—on skis. Three mothers unload a van of youngsters who are soon spinning along the trails. “Race you to the light,” one woman challenges a nine-year-old named Michael. While she is picking up her foot, Michael churns the distance like a pro; no contest.

     For a skier accustomed to sunlit paths and snowy vistas, it’s a novel experience. The tall pines, through which the trails run, whisper when wind passes overhead, and it is surprising to look past black branches and glimpse another lighted portion of trail as a red parka scoots past.

     The terrain is mostly level, good for beginners, for easy touring, for practicing a glide. There are steep pitches here and there to keep it interesting. In fact, one short pitch narrows onto a log bridge crossing Halfway Brook. This brook, folks will tell you, is where George Washington met the troops. Not right here on the ski trails but nearby. And as you cross the brook two or three times within the park, it’s nice to consider.

     The X-C trail system in Glens Falls began as the dream scheme of Dan Reardon, longtime city recreation director. In casting about for activities that might be made available to underprivileged youngsters in the city, he took the problem to Tom Jacobs, local ski-store owner and former Olympic competitor.

     “Tom, what’s this other kind of skiing?”

     “This was eight years ago—before the cross-country boom,” says Jacobs, “and I told him, ‘Dan, you’re talking about cross-country skiing and it’s mostly for racers and I don’t know if you’ll love it.’ Well, he kept talking about it, and I knew he was serious. One day, he announced he’d arranged a meeting with the mayor and the councilmen and we were all going to walk through the woods of the city park, which we did. I got excited about the idea of trails there. So did the mayor and the council, who said, ‘Yes, we’ll appropriate the money. Let’s go!’ ” The following summer, the city hired people to clear the trails and build the bridges and put up the lights and the signs and secure the insurance—all the ingredients necessary.

     That was in 1970, in time for “this other kind of skiing” to flood the trails with skiers. Now, six inches of fresh snow barely lasts through a day of crowded skiing—all free skiing, compliments of the city. There is still an emphasis on teaching the children of the community. Free lessons are available two evenings a week under the direction of Bill Parks, an enthusiastic X-C skier and local high school history teacher.

     “The first season,” he recalls, “Dan Reardon put out a call for old downhill skis that we could use to give free lessons. We bought some touring bindings and used band saws to cut the skis down to cross-country size and put together some fly-by-night ski outfits and invited all comers. The first time we had three or four takers. It was clearly designed so there would be no cost and any kid could come and take lessons.

     “Now of course, it’s grown. We provide three free lessons, say on three Mondays in a row. With the first lesson, we set a pair of skis—we have about 30 pairs now—for whatever boots the kid has and they can keep the skis between lessons to practice on, which means they have three lessons and two weeks of skiing on their own. We have youth sessions twice a week and we give three sequences of the three-lesson series with about 15 kids in each, so we work with about 90 kids in a season.”

     Parks not only spreads the excitement to young skiers but has two classes each week for adults as well. There is a charge of $4 for three two-hour adult lessons. The money is used to support the youth programs.

     The ski trails are a community project in other ways, too. Most Wednesday evenings of the snow season, folks gather for citizens’ races. “The last one of the season was just as disorganized as the first,” says Parks, the general organizer. “We have veteran skiers, high school kids, working people; everyone is out there surging around.”

     One race is a mass start; another is called the “one-hour ski,” in which a skier tries to predict how far he will go in an hour. The winner was not the person who went farthest, but the one who made the closest prediction. Still another race is dubbed the hodgepodge relay, which demands three people per team. According to the rules, there must be a female on the team, and there must be someone 12 or younger.

     “The hodgepodge turned out to be a big hit,” says Parks, “and it was great socially because everyone tried to make friends with the fast young skiers. The kids looked at it like a date to the prom, getting the right person to ski on their team.”

     Another event was the Tennis Ball Biathlon. “I didn’t think anyone would go for guns in the park,” explains Parks, “so I got a bushel basket of old tennis balls and some wastebaskets. The skiers travel a loop to a barricade and have three tries to put a ball in a basket. If they make it, they go on; otherwise, they ski a penalty loop. It’s designed to give them an idea of what the biathlon is all about.

     “Everyone has a good time. Of course, one night when it was about five degrees, a kid skied into the brook at the far end. We always have someone stationed there for such emergencies. They fished him out and took him to a nearby home until he could be picked up.”

     Besides the local events, the trails are the site of other races each year. There is the Night Flight, sanctioned by the Eastern Ski Assn., for skiers of high school age and over; a Travelers PEP race, which drew 200 entries last season; and a local Rotary Club race for high school age and younger that attracts about 80 participants.

     The highlight of the season is the Glens Falls International Invitational Cross-Country Ski Race, which began the second year that the trails were opened. Jacobs, who was on the 1952 Nordic Olympic Team as a cross-country racer and jumper, organized the first race.

     “My good friend and teammate from 1952, John Caldwell, was the U.S. coach when we opened the trails. I asked him if he’d give us a hand, and he brought the Team here for our first night race. It’s gone well every year. We invite the U.S. Ski Team and the Canadian Ski Team—it’s a quality race for the top skiers, we’re not after numbers. Athletes love to come here because it’s a unique race, the original night race in North America. We have a banquet after the race and a fantastic prize table.”

     For the seventh annual race last season, there were 44 men and 21 women racers. They came from as far as the Alaskan Ski Council, the Rocky Mountain Ski Assn., and the Telemark Academy in Wisconsin. The Swiss Ski Team withdrew at the last minute because of scheduling problems. The men raced ten kilometers and the women six, starting in two’s at 15-second intervals. When it was over, Craig Ward of Virginia and Joanne Musolf of Washington were winners.

     Behind every good race is a good volunteer committee and a true community push. All prizes and monies needed for promotion, mailings, racing bibs, the banquet, the endless details, come from local merchants; race officials are members of the Adirondack Ski Club who volunteer their time. The prize table had some 50 offerings, ranging from fiberglass racing skis to digital watches, to sweaters, even artwork. In the European tradition, racers (in order of their finish) have their pick while the prizes last. Between the race and the banquet, ski films are shown and local ski buffs can meet the racers.

     Besides the international motif, Doug Neely, recreation commissioner in Glens Falls, is quick to point out that a year ago the trails were recognized as part of the national trail system of the Department of the Interior. “This particular trail is the only ski trail within the national system, either downhill or cross-country. We’re proud of that,” he says.

     Still, it’s mostly a local park, and citizens regard the trails with proprietary interest. Jacobs, who helped design the trails together with the city recreation department, agrees, “The trails are designed for citizen usage. It’s not difficult enough for heavy-duty international racing, although the racers like to come here because they get good exposure and it’s a good place for spectators. But it’s a city area. We had certain perimeters of land to work with, and we tried to get as much variation within them as we could.”

     And Tom Jacobs has his eye on another recreational project: a ski jump. “We’ve finally found a place to build a jump,” he explains with enthusiasm. “We’ve gone to see the city council, we’ve done the design work, we’ve surveyed it, but we’ve dragged our heels on the final steps. Where will it be? On the old city dump. We’ve even got a slogan, ‘Jump the Dump.’ It’s a natural terrain, it’s abandoned, it’s all piled up and easy to move. Be a great landing hill. We’ll get it done someday, I hope.”

     And Glens Falls just might do it—certainly they have caught the ski bug. Meanwhile, a kid waxes skinny skis under the lights. A pair of skis is entrusted to a snowbank until the owner returns. Stars wink between the tops of the pines. Robert Frost said it: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…” And the skiing’s fine.