Well, it’s that time of year again in the Rockies when skate skiers head to the hills in the early morning to ski on crust, taking them through snow-covered meadows and more, while creeks slowly reappear and begin carving their way through winter’s snowpack to join bigger streams and river downstream. And for the adventurous, dual-sporter, this also creates a lightbulb of an idea: why not combine kayaking with crust skiing?
Don’t tell Abner Doubleday, but I’ve gone and done it — invented a new sport.
It’s not quite the same as Abner creating baseball — and not likely to catch on as well — but it’s new all the same, requiring skis and a boat rather than hand-eye skills and a bat. And perhaps a loose screw or two.
I’m not exactly sure how I got the idea. The light bulb went off earlier this spring while crust skiing south of U.S. Highway 40 near Dumont Lake. Twenty minutes in, I saw this trickle of water snaking through the snowfield as if I was in the middle of the Greenland Icefield. I bet you could kayak that, I thought, my line of reasoning as convoluted as the waterway.
Meandering through the snowfield was a four-foot-wide swath of water freed from its winter clutches and just waiting to be… paddled by someone like me. I’d just have to use skate skis to get there.
Which brought up some logistical hurdles — like how would you get gear for both activities in and back? While the plan had built-in social distancing — who else would be whacko enough to be up here, let alone within a six-foot radius? — I also likely needed a wingman. Just in case I ended up entombed in ice like Shackleton’s ship, Endurance.
But first I needed to hatch a plan. Back home, I jerry-rigged the metal pole handles from our children’s ski sled and attached them to the bow of the kayak with a couple of prusik knots and a cam strap. The pole handles were key; theoretically, they’d keep the kayak from sliding forward into my ankles like a nipping Yorkshire.
Next, hoping the neighbors weren’t watching, I laid my skate skis and poles within arm’s reach beside me and climbed inside my kayak in my driveway. This was the tricky part. Since I’d have to have my skis at the bottom, I needed them to go with me. So, one by one, I stuck them and my poles down my back, sandwiched by my life jacket. They stuck up like veritable lightning rods, but Voila!, it worked — as long as I didn’t have to duck under anything.
Next, I rounded up my drysuit, booties, spray skirt, paddle, helmet and PFD — I’m not stupid, after all — and stuffed them all inside the kayak; it would work as a sled to carry everything as I skated skied in. For my wingman, I enlisted the capable services of my accomplice Andy. After some explaining, and re-explaining, he was in.
The next morning I put my cobbled-together plan into action. We headed up Rabbit Ears Pass early while the snow was still firmer than my strategery. At the put-in, I hauled my kayak and skis out of my Subaru Outback, hoping no one else was driving by, and set about rigging — attaching the sled poles, stuffing the gear inside, zipping up the drysuit, putting my skate boots and skis on, and finally fastening the waist belt. Then, at the head of my own Dr. Seussmobile, I took my first stride south toward the waiting creek (“Oh, the places you’ll go!”)
Like Max and Grinch’s overloaded sled, it actually pulled pretty well. And aside from gyrating back and forth like a compass needed at the North Pole, and the annoying noise it made across the frozen snow, it was actually quite serene. At least until doubts about my plan creeped in. The creek stayed frozen longer that I had remembered. Had I miscalculated? Had the last few days of freezing night temperatures frozen it back up? But then I saw a gurgle of water bubbling up from below, creating an opening. And there, like the source of the Nile or Amazon, began the headwaters of Muddy Creek, threading its way through the snowfield.
Into a nearby phone booth, I switched from ski mode to kayak mode, swapping out my skate boots for wetsuit booties, skis for a spray skirt and poles for a paddle. Then I climbed in my kayak and stuffed my boots inside and skis and poles down my back, like the antennae of a praying mantis. Radioing my wingman — it’s not an expedition if you don’t have walkie-talkies — I then slid down a snow ramp into the river, landing with a splash.
From there it was all downhill. Corralled between banks of snow, the water began its search for sea level, carrying me along for the ride in my personal bobsled boat. Blue skies above matched the color of the ice below, all bordered by a blanket of white.
I’ll admit it: it was hardly paddling at the brink of Niagara Falls. The water took its time meandering through the snow meadow, requiring only sporadic correctional strokes to get through its many twists and turns. It was more like a Disney ride than an actual feat of derring-do. Until, of course, I came to the end of the line maybe a half-mile later and had to get out. I had scouted it beforehand — I’m not stupid, after all — noting the creek had frozen over again, just before dropping into a shaded canyon.
There was an easy place to stop and get out, but it was hard to paddle up onto the sloping ice. And that’s where the beauty of a wingman comes in. Timing his reach, Andy latched onto my kayak’s grab loop as I scootched up the ice as far as I could and pulled me ashore.
From there, I simply reversed everything, pulling my skis and poles off my back, and sled poles and ski boots out of my kayak. Then I rerigged the kayak into its alter ego as a sled, filled it with my drysuit, PFD and other gear, strapped on my skis and began the skate back — one small stride for man, one giant stride for mankind. In a land of Nordic champions, I had invented a new sport and was rounding third on my way home — minus just a little of the fanfare surrounding Abner’s national pastime.