SOLDIER HOLLOW — It's a walk in the park. Or, in this case, and at this time, a ski in the Olympic Park in the winter.

Right foot forward and slide, then left and slide, right and slide and left . . . and so on.

The world's oldest form of skiing has found new roots in the world's newest Olympic cross country center — Soldier Hollow. And it is on the trails within the park that participants are finding there's good reason the sport has been around so long. Cross country skiing is active, healthy, invigorating and easy.

Howard Peterson, manager of the park, best described the art of nordic skiing as a "brisk walk."

Which, of course, would explain the growing popularity. Peterson said that since the Olympians have left, roughly 29,000 people have tried the sport for the first time, "and we're on track this year to introduce it to roughly 10,000 people for the first time."

About the only difference between cross country and walking is that there are 6-foot extensions of the feet and 4-foot poles connected to the hands.

And, participants can make it as easy or as physically demanding as they choose. Forbes Magazine lists cross country skiing at No. 5 in the top 10 most physically beneficial sports.

The sport itself is only distantly related to alpine skiing. The skis in cross country are much thinner and longer, and the boots much lighter and more comfortable. The newest boots, in fact, look and feel more like shoes.

Because of the constant movement involved in nordic skiing, the clothing tends to be lighter. Also, the equipment and clothing tend to be less expensive.

The introduction of the groom track in nordic skiing has been a big benefit to the sport. Custom-designed snowcats pack a wide swath over snowfields, eliminating the need for skiers, especially new and/or inexperienced skiers, to break trail through deep powder.

Groomers not only set two parallel tracks for the classical walking style of skiing but also smooth a wide patch for the more technical and newer skating style.

At Soldier Hollow, offered Peterson, "we pay special attention to grooming. Our groomers are out every night."

He also pointed out that since the Olympics, "we've redesigned the park. About half our trails are new and most are on more gentle, less challenging terrain. I'd say about two-thirds of our trails now are on flatter, gentler terrain, and the other third is still Olympic caliber."

There are 10 trails within the park that are groomed, for a total distance of 21 kilometers.

Cross country skiing starts, of course, with connecting the skis to the feet, which, for some can be challenging and why instruction starts on flat, level ground and with a little help from the instructor.

"The next step in learning is showing people how to stop," he added. "Knowing how to stop goes a long ways toward taking away any fears they may have."

With younger skiers, instructors then move into the natural form of walking, which in cross country is akin to people out on a "power walk." From there the students are given the freedom to explore.

With adults, the learning process is a little different.

"What we've found is that most adults are not anxious to go off on their own in the beginning, but want a little more instruction or a guide to help. So we'll just go out on a trail and in the process they learn the different techniques. At this point, instructors become more of a guiding force."

Since the Olympics, one of the main focuses at the park has been introducing the sport to youths.

On any given day, there will be between 65 and 70, or roughly 1,000 young skiers a week, most of school age, on the track.

"We've organized programs for children as young as 4 years old," he said. "We have more than 400 sets of skis available for children, just to make sure we have enough."

For $3, youngsters can register for a program that includes a track pass, equipment and lesson.

There is also a program available to introduce people to the biathlon or a mix of cross country skiing and target shooting.

To ensure equality during the Paralympics, which followed the 2002 Games, the Salt Lake Olympic Committee purchased a number of very expensive competition air rifles. Those rifles were donated to the Olympic park after the Games.

The biathlon program for kids requires they ski for a half kilometer, then shoot five shots with the air rifle at a target 10 meters away.

"What they find is that it's one thing to shoot when rested and quite another to shoot at a target when their heart rate is up after skiing. They gain a new respect for the sport," he offered.

The shooting experience is available to both kids and adults, both summer and winter.

In the summer, said Peterson, mountain biking is substituted for cross country skiing.

He recommends that those interested in the shooting experience make early arrangements but said that in most cases the park can accommodate requests.

For those who opt not to shoot, he has also introduced a program that mixes skiing with tubing. The Olympic Park has a lift-served tubing hill.

The cost of all these activities, of course, depends on an individual's interests.

Its most recent program, good through the end of the season, is intended to introduce the sport. A trail pass and equipment rental for the day for adults is $15, $9 for juniors and $6 for children. Also, a family pass, which includes trail pass and equipment for all, is $39.

A pass on the tubing hill is $15 for those 7 and older. A simple trail pass for cross country skiing is $17 for the day. Children under 7 need no trail pass. A learn-to-ski package, which includes rentals, lesson and pass, is $29 for juniors and $39 for adults.

As Peterson pointed out, there's pretty much something to fit every individual's needs, whether it's walking on skis or sliding on a tube or aiming at a target.

For information call 435-654-2002.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com