By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, February 1, 1936.
“Skis,” said Jimmie Frise, “are not enough.”
“They’re plenty,” I assured him.
“Once you find the stores filled with all kinds of gadgets,” said Jim, “you know skiing has arrived. For years, all that the stores sold were skis themselves, ski boots and ski poles. And skiing was nothing more than a sort of half-hearted hobby of the few. But all of a sudden, skiing takes on major proportions. It is becoming a cult. It has its uniform, its badges, its accessories. Why, I was in a little shop the other day that sells nothing but ski stuff.”
“Ye Ski Shoppe?” I asked.
“No,” said Jim. “It was just called Ski Art. And beside skis costing fifty bucks, made of some sacred wood found only in Lapland, they had two walls lined ten skis deep with skis of every sort and size. Big heavy jumping skis, slim, tooth-pick skis for racing. They had vast piles of ski jackets made of silk, satin, leather, pigskin, canvas and fur. All the colors of the rainbow. Then you could take your pick of ski harness ranging all the way from fifty cents to twenty dollars. There were ski harnesses so perfect that all you have to do is stand still and you go shooting over the snow at sixty miles an hour.”
“Pff, pff,” I protested.
“Then, ski wax,” said Jim. “All the way from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. They call it smearing. It comes in little tubes like shaving sticks, and in tin cans like floor wax, and in sardine tins, now that the world has gone ski nuts.”
“You can’t ski in the Congo,” I pointed out.
“They’ll be taking it up,” decreed Jim. “They’ll ski on the great, green, greasy Limpopo river. But there is one kind of wax for dry snow, another for wet snow, another for crusty snow and another for crinkly snow. Then there are ski poles you use for just ordinary ski-touring. And another kind for hills. Another kind for jumping and doing Hendrik Ibsens or whatever it is.”
“He was a dramatist,” I scorned.
“Don’t tell me,” cried Jim. “Let me guess. Then there are boots that lace and boots that buckle. There are boots with a great thick cowhide tongue that comes right across the front of the boot. Then there are canvas gaiters, red, white and blue. And ski mitts, ski toques, ski ensembles, scarf and belly bands. Comforters and stomachers, all knit in wild jig-saw designs.”
“I like knitted things,” I admitted. “Have they socks?”
“Long socks and short socks,” recounted Jim, “high mitts and short mitts, fairy-light canvas mitts with leather palms, and little woollen bands to go around your head with ear flaps to keep your ears snug against your head so your ears won’t slow you down when you are sliding.”
“It sounds nutty to me,” I agreed.
“Ski nuts,” said Jim. “It’s worse than golf ever was, even the year of the big wind.”
“What year was that?” I inquired.
“1929,” said Jim. “Golf is a mere piker’s game to skiing. Skiing has more gadgets than golf, tennis, lawn bowling and twinkle-twit put together.”
Gadgets and Twidgetts
“What’s twinkle-twit?” I begged.
“You hit dingus with feathers,” said Jim. “What you call it, badminton!”
“I kind of like the sound of skiing,” I confessed.
“No sport is any good,” said Jim, “unless there is a lot of gear, costume, gadgets and twidgetts to it. Like fishing.”
“You said it,” I agreed warmly. “But in the winter there isn’t any fishing.”
“Our last effort at skiing,” said Jim, “was somewhat frustrated by our attempt to keep pace with the young. I suggest if we do any, we get right away from the young people. The very sight of them, so muscular, so smooth and graceful, seems to dampen our spirits right at the start.”
“We could sneak off somewhere,” I suggested.
“I have in mind,” said Jim, “up around Belfountain. It will be grand to see a trout stream in winter, even if we come to grief on skis.”
“Jim, I appreciate this,” I informed him. “I think we have a memorable week-end in view.”
“I’ll borrow one of the daughter’s skis for you again?” asked Jim.
“If you please,” I said. “And I’ll attend to the gadgets myself.”
“We’ll shop together,” suggested Jim.
Thus we bought ski boots made so heavy, as the young gentleman explained, that no matter what you did you couldn’t land upside down. And we bought ski pants of a material so light, so windproof, so warm, that really you would think you had no pants on at all. And ski jackets, mine yellow, Jim’s red, that were a joy to wear, and so like the Olympic games advertisements did we look. And elbow high mitts, and a tiny woollen headstrap to keep our ears streamlined, and a canvas black cap like a brakeman’s. And ski wax, of several kinds, I favoring light fluffy snow and Jim, being more pessimistic by nature, favoring slushy, wet snow.
The only way to go skiing is to start at daybreak Saturday morning, after a large breakfast of ham and eggs, plum jam and thick toast. I am told the proper thing for a ski breakfast is a box of sardines. But with our breakfast stowed, Jim and I, scorning all questions from our various children of ski age, drove off for Belfountain. Soon the gray sludge and slush of Toronto was blooming into the glittering white snow of Halton county.
“We Canadians,” said Jim, “should sooner or later realize our affinity with northern nations and races, and drop from our hearts all memory of sultry southern climes. Do you realize that our clothes here in Canada are designed by Americans? And that the clothing trade centres in St. Louis?”
“Preposterous,” I assented.
“Our clothes,” declared Jim, “should be designed no farther south than Inverness or Stornoway. If we want to stay British, the least we should accept in the way of clothing, is what the Scotsmen of the north wear. Imagine us Canadians slowly congealing in garments and textiles decreed by gentlemen in St. Louis, Mo.?”
“Utterly absurd,” I agreed.
“These Norwegians,” said Jim, “are, latitudinally speaking our brothers.”
“I’m not much on sardines,” I protested. “And I should admit right away that I prefer the violins of Italy to the bagpipes of Ross and Cromarty.”
The Real Color of Canada
The white landscape wheeled past, the beautiful bare barns, the bleak and desolate homes of our country cousins staring haggardly from the pinched fields. Fences wove away, and dark patches of evergreens made color against the dazzling pale morning sky.
“The real color of Canada,” said Jim, gazing at it appreciatively. “Our artists wait patiently all year for a week of autumn leaves, and then go mad for few days, painting what they pretend is Canada. For eight brief weeks in summer, they paint like fury, getting the lush greens, the gay blues of water and sky. But they ignore the true Canada. The Canada of grays and grims, and pallid leadens and faded yellows and browns.
“You mean our artists should paint like those dull Flemish and English painters, in dampish, wet grays, grayish greens?”
“Not at all,” said Jim. “There is nothing dampish about our grayness. Our country is under a harsh, livid light. But there is no excuse for artists hiding in fear from Canada, the way it is for nearly ten months of the year, in order to paint it only in the brief summer and in the briefer autumn.”
“They paint snow,” I protested.
“Pink snow, mauve snow,” said Jim. “But snow is mostly gray, platinum, grim.”
“And splendid,” I said.
“And terrifying,” said Jim.
We were now climbing the Caledon mountain, and the highway sloped skyward, a chill came with every leap of the car over the snowy pavement, the morning blue was changing to a platinum sky, and there was a sense of shadow across the great valley behind us.
“Terrifying?” I laughed.
“Why,” asked Jim, “do we Canadians huddle along the southerly border of our great land? Why do our artists avoid, with furtiveness, the truth of our magnificent country? Why has no musician written us a noble symphony, a tone poem, even?”
“We’re young,” I explained.
“Because,” said Jim, menacingly, “all these great north lands are the last refuges of the mysterious, the magical, the dread. Because in Canada, as in Norway and Finland, there are trolls, like in Peer Gynt; and little people, such as the Irish dream about: and goblins and banshees; because Thor and Wotan are the gods of this vast country; because it is a land of legends where there are no legends yet; because, in the face of this country, artists are struck helpless.”
“Pooh,” said I.
“Why do we cuddle to our hearts the folk tales of those safe and sane little countries from which we came?” asked Jim. “Because we are afraid to sing our own songs. Why do we all try to love Canada with the love an Englishman has for England, or a Scotsman for Scotland or an Irishman for Ireland? Why don’t we love Canada the way a Canadian must love Canada?”
“Why?” I inquired, looking about at the fields which spread away at the top of Caledon Hill.
“Because,” hissed Jimmie, “because we are afraid to!”
There lay the gullies with their dark and forbidding cedars. There lay the rolling hills, with their small, unpainted farm houses and barns. There lay the bleak skylines. And the snow was not really white. It was only pallid.
“I love Canada,” I stated.
“You love it best,” sneered Jim, “when it looks most like Ireland or Scotland.”
“I love it the way it is,” I said. But as I spoke, the wind picked up a large ghostly wisp of snow and whirled it around into a shape, a phantom, which swept down upon us and engulfed the car, making hissing sound on the windows, and causing Jim to wobble the steering gear.
“See?” said Jim in a low voice. “What do you suppose that was?
“Pooh,” I laughed.
“The Indians,” said Jim, “used to call that a Wendigo. They knew what it was.”
“Where do we turn in here for Belfountain?” I inquired. “Let’s see what a dear familiar trout stream looks like in winter?”
But Jim’s words had caused the day to take on a gloomy and desolate aspect, and I leaned back and watched the passing landscape with troubled eye. It really was rather depressing.
Across every field we passed were the shining tracks of skis. And though it was only Saturday morning, we saw groups of cars parked, and across the ski-line, parties of skiers filed, each bearing a little knapsack, heading away for some sequestered glen of cedar where they could make a fire and boil a pail of tea, and eat their onion and cheese sandwiches.
Whirling Snow Ghosts
At last we drew aside at a lonely spot, where, in the distance, limestone cliffs rose darkly up, and half-hidden patches of sombre cedar told of hills and rolling country. And we slid out our skis, and buckled on our harness, and climbed barb wire fences and commenced a ski-tour.
Jim led. We toiled up slopes and slid down slopes. We came upon a chime of two or three hundred snow buntings, silent, faintly chippering little birds that rose like blown leaves off the snowy fields, to suddenly chop down again to earth, as if they were all connected by invisible threads. We followed them a mile, watching them rise and pitch down, and some of the sinister aspect of our native land was softened by these small buffy white creatures.
We startled out a couple of big jack rabbits immigrants like us from the Old Country – and with comically narrow backsides, they leaped with terror away from us, keeping straight on until they had crossed the farthest sky line.
“If we humans,” said Jim, resting, “find it hard to love Canada as it really is and spend so much time trying to imagine it otherwise, what about those poor jack rabbits, designed for the soft and humid climate of England, being dumped down here to make a fresh start.”
“Yet they grow bigger here than they do in England,” I stated.
“Maybe they have to,” said Jim grimly. And as he spoke, from over the scrubby tree tops floated, on wide wings, a gray-colored hawk, large, sinister, its beak tucked under its chin, and its baleful eyes staring downward, spying every square yard of snow. So intent was it, it did not notice us until it passed so near we heard the bitter hiss of its wings.
Jim waved his ski poles arrogantly at it and it banked wildly, as if contemplating the idea of stooping to one of us, probably the meatier of us.
“Track!” cried Jim giving himself a scoot with his poles across the snow.
But the higher we worked, the more grim loomed the limestone cliffs, the more darkly bronzed the cedars in the gullies. The wind was rising, and the ghostly whirls of snow seemed to seek out Jim and eddy around him spectrally. He laughed.
“They’re after you,” I laughed back. But immediately wished I had not laughed. Because even as I laughed, the sky seemed to darken slightly, a leaden sky, with no warmth, no kindliness in it.
“Let’s work to the top,” shouted Jim back to me, “and then we can slide down the far side, wherever it leads, and have lunch somewhere in shelter.”
“I think we have gone far enough,” I called back. “I’m winded.”
“Come on,” shouted Jim, shoving with his ski poles.
I saw another snow ghost, larger and bigger than ever, begin to gather itself, whirling and swirling madly, like a Dervish, and I paused to watch it. Straight at Jim it spun, growing bigger; and spectral arms seemed to reach out from it. I could almost hear a faint moaning sound from it….
“Jim,” I called sharply.
But with another shove, he plunged forward. The snow ghost caught him, wound itself around him. And then….
Vanished right off the pallid face of the earth. He faded, as the snow wraith embraced him. It passed. And Jim was gone.
I stood rock-still for a moment, blinking my eyes and swallowing. I tried to call. No sound came. I shoved myself with a heavy effort, a few feet forward. Then my voice returned and I shouted: “Jim.”
No answer. The white unbroken expanse of snow lay featureless except for the tracks of Jim’s two skis. And there they ended. The tracks just stopped.
Immensity, chill and dreadful and silent, surrounded me. Should I go forward and examine the snow for signs of giant wings? Or giant cloven hooves? Should I look for eagle marks as of some great god’s helmet?
I decided not. I decided the best thing to do was turn down hill and slide as fast as skis would carry me. And then, with plenty of loud, noisy, hearty help, make search for Jim, if search were of any avail.
But turning on skis is not easy. I was in process of turning, when I heard a faint call.
“Jim?” I replied.
“Hoy,” came the faint cry.
I slithered up the slope. Unseen from where I had stood, was a sudden sharp declivity and a limestone cleft, of which there are any number in the Belfountain neighborhood.
And in that cleft, hung by his skis in the limbs of leafless and stunted oak tree, was Jimmie head-down, vainly attempting to unbuckle his ski harness.
“Just a moment, my lad,” I shouted heartily, removing my skis and clambering down into the crevice. And in a couple of moments, Jim fell heavily to the snow beneath, uninjured but a little red in the face.
So we finished the climb, rode Valkyrie like down into the farther valley, built a fire and boiled a pail of tea and had onion sandwiches and Norsk cheese.
“Jim,” I said, as we sat on the bench made of skis and poles, “I see color in snow. I see mauve and pink.”
“I don’t,” said Jim.
“The country is full of color,” I cried. “Why, it’s just a splendor of green and blue and gray and mauve and …”
“White,” said Jim.
Editor’s Notes: Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright famous for his story Peer Gynt.
Belfountain is north-west of Toronto, situated in t he Caledon hills, where skiing still takes place.
People may be aware that the 1936 Summer Olympics took place in Nazi Germany, but the 1936 Winter Olympics took place in Germany as well, in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria. It was the last year in which the Summer and Winter Games both took place in the same country. Sonja Henie, the famous figure skater, won her third consecutive gold medal in that Olympics.
A Snow bunting is a small white bird seen in the north.
This story appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Outdoors (1979).