Skis

Years ago I ran an out door program for a private school. The objective was to take athletic kids who were not competitive and give them the experience of membership in a team without competition. Each season we would all practice basic out-door skills; working safely with camp stoves, tying basic knots, navigation, food preparation for groups, packing a pack, that sort of thing. We would also attend presentations on subjects like leave no trace camping, wildlife habitat and the environments where our trips would occur. At the end of about a month of this kind of outdoor education mixed with physical training the students would be asked to sit down on their own and set goals for the team for the season. Then, with faculty help, we would try to establish safe and effective paths that could be followed to reach those goals.
            One winter season the students set as their goals to do a large number of winter camping trips in the White Mountains on backcountry skis. The students were hugely enthusiastic about this and it put me in the unenviable position of having to say no. I explained that the school had already convinced their parents to spend money on outdoor winter clothing and boots, and it would be hard, if not impossible, to now turn around and ask them to buy skis, ski boots, bindings, and poles. There was some discussion and research done on renting equipment, but it would have caused a logistical nightmare, and the savings were really not all that significant. Then the students posed a different question; “Couldn’t we make our own skis as part of the program, and then go on trips with the skis we make ourselves?”
            I loved the idea, but explained that while making the kinds of skis we needed would be relatively simple, we would still need a source of wood, and bindings, boots and poles that were affordable. Several days later, my team marched into my office and informed me that our problems were solved. The father of one boy was a wood buyer for a furniture company and could get us high quality planks of ash, 2″ thick, for $25 per kid. The parent of another kid handled inventory for a major outdoor distributor, he could get us a last years model of a backcountry boot and three-pin binding and could out fit us in an any size but men’s nine for $25 per kid. Parents had already been consulted and agreed that the $50 per kid to outfit them with backcountry skis of their own making was a bargain, when could we start? Since one of the main goals of the program was to have, the students determine the direction of each season’s activities and to follow through on their own goal, I really couldn’t back out now. So began three weekends of ski making, followed by three weekends of trips on skis.
            The plan was to make a simple solid ash ski to a very old, Norwegian, design. The camber would be cut with saw and planes, and the tips would be steam bent. Most of the work would be done in, my then, unheated shop with hand tools. The one exception was the cutting out of the basic ski blank from the 2″ thick ash with a band saw (I basically did that part) and, now that I think about it, some students opted to do some decorative carving on their own with a Dremel tool.
            I found the original handout that I made for making the skis. It is not presented here as a how to, but just to give the reader a little better idea of how simple the skis were in concept and construction.

Ski Making handout

            These are pictures of my own skis, which I still use.

My Skis

Detail on skis

            The students scraped, planed, and sanded in the cold until the shop was ankle deep in ash shavings. The tips of the skis were steamed in an old metal trashcan half filled with water, and set over a propane burner. We made simple bending jigs for the skis while they steamed, and then with much drama, bent the tips (as I recall we did have one ski tip break, but had a spare blank so all was well).
            The finished skis varied a lot, much like the kids who made them. Some were simple bordering on crude; others were beautiful as well as functional. We made something of a spectacle as we skied in various mountain passes in the White Mountains. People would ski up to us and exclaim; “Are those wooden skis? Did you make them?” It was great to see the kids respond and watch them relate the creative experience that they had just gone through. They radiated enthusiasm and pride. One shy boy, who rarely spoke at all, went so far as to ski on his own up to a group of total strangers in order to ask them; “Are those fiberglass skis? Can you BUY them?”         
           

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