Glide Push Glide

BY David Gessner

I moved to Wrightsville Beach five years ago and since then I have become the freak of my neighborhood.

I am the guy who skis the beach.

It started one day when I was jogging. At 45 running at any speed is not a joint-friendly enterprise and I feel the slam of every step in my achy knees and partly torn rotator cuff. For this reason I was running as I always do along the water hoping the sand would serve as a shock absorber. But even with sand softening the blows jogging was drudgery and for about the hundredth time I felt displaced in my new Southern home longing for mountains for snow for the north. And for cross-country skiing since its remembered velvety athletic rhythm glide-push-glide seemed the opposite of the trudge-slam-trudge of my present.

It was then that I glanced down at the sand close to the water right where the waves licked and not ten feet from where I jogged. The sand looked slick slightly wet flat — and invitingly snow-like. Not heavy snow of course — that was higher up where folks put their beach towels — but packed snow like a cross-country trail that had been skied a few times. And then I thought “Why not?”

My old skis were back in a storage locker in Boulder Colorado but it was March which meant my birthday was coming up. When my wife asked what I wanted she was surprised by my answer but went ahead and placed the order anyway. While I was waiting for my new Atomic RC-8s to arrive I did some online research. I am a nature writer by trade and I now remembered that my fellow nature writer Bill McKibben had written an entire book on cross-country skiing and had many contacts within that world.

Through McKibben I learned that there were other beach skiers out there and that one of them was no less a name than Bill Koch winner of a cross-country silver at the 1976 Olympics still to this date the only American Nordic medal-winner. I read of how Koch had moved temporarily to Hawaii and had drawn stares from the other people on his flight when he picked up his skis at the baggage claim. For years before moving back to his native Vermont he skied the Hawaiian beaches. “The darn stuff has lots of glide ” he said. Koch inspired other sand skiers including the University of Michigan ski team which trains on the shores of Lake Michigan.

My own skis arrived and as McKibben recommended I waxed them with glide wax (the sort you would use for very sticky snow) and sprayed them with silicon to further cut down on friction. For almost every day of the next month I first consulted my tide chart looking for the ideal low when the flats sprawled out and then carried my skis over my shoulder the 200 yards from our house to the beach. Of course this drew stares.

I started to prefer the colder days when fewer people were out but even on the relatively crowded days it didn’t stop me from plopping down my skis on the low-tide sand pulling the pole straps over my gloveless hands and pushing off. And there it was: the glide-push-glide I’d been missing so. Sure the glide wasn’t quite as glidey as on good snow but not bad and the rhythm was there the exertion of pushing with the arms and kicking with the legs and my old knees were happy to be pushing forward and not slamming down.

On brisk days when the wind cleared the beach of others and the ocean kicked up that cerulean blue chopped with white and the gannets dove like shining white arrows for fish it felt every bit as exhilarating as skiing through the mountains or woods. Every few miles I would stop and stare out at the ocean taking a gulp from my water bottle and cleaning off my steamed-up sunglasses.

With spring the beaches became more crowded and I began to feel more self-conscious especially once the heat forced me to ski in my bathing suit. Once a friend walked the beach behind me and told me that when I skied past every head quickly turned and that cell phone cameras were held up high and that when he passed by the same groups a couple of minutes later they were still muttering about “skiing” and “the beach.”

By April the beach had started to fill and I had grown weary of the gawkers. Around Easter I put my skis away for the summer and decided that just as in the north the colder months would be reserved for skiing. It is May as I type this and I look forward to next fall when the beaches will start to clear and cross-country ski season can begin.

Not everyone thinks skiing the beach is strange. When we moved south five years ago so that I could take a teaching job at UNCW my daughter was only three months old. She has still never seen snow so to her skiing is the thing that Daddy does on the sand. She has a point: While most think my new sport is strange who is to say that what I do is out of place? Who decided that skis were meant only to slide across snow? “Whoso must be man must also be a nonconformist ” said Emerson.

I look forward to getting out there alone again to sweating next December as I slide over the sand and watch the diving gannets and embroiled surf. In my five years since moving south I have often longed for the North and more than once I’ve thought “I don’t belong here.” But oddly enough it is during those moments on the beach while practicing my strange new sport — itself a perfect symbol of displacement — that I feel most at home.

See David in action: