BRAINERD, MINN. – There were no groomed ski trails when I started cross-country skiing in the early '70s. And that was fine with my friends and me, since we didn't care to follow anyone's predetermined path, nor were we looking to exercise. What we wanted was access to remote locations during the winters when the snow was deep. Usually we had rifles slung over one shoulder and wore white clothing, the better to ambush a fox or coyote.
My first pair of skis was made of wood. They were heavy and wide, but that was OK with me, since the broad boards provided additional flotation on the untracked snow. At the time most cross-country skis were outfitted with three-pin bindings, into which low-topped, often skimpy ski boots were attached. The boots were neither warm nor durable — not the type of footwear needed for long treks in the boondocks. The military-style cable bindings weren't much better.
One day while walking the aisles of a sporting goods store, I came across a display of modern snowshoes. The frames were constructed of lightweight metal, not wood, and the webbing was neoprene instead of the traditional leather.
But most interesting to me were the bindings; they were attached to the snowshoes via a metal plate that pivoted on a rod. That should work on cross-country skis, I thought to myself. Then and there, I devised a plan of mounting these snowshoe bindings to my cross-country skis. This would allow me to wear regular hunting boots instead of the not-so-warm cross-country boots. So I bought a pair of the bindings.
Next I went to the hardware store, where I purchased a set of metal-door hinges. When I returned home, I grabbed an old pair of skis, removed the three-pin bindings and retrofitted the snowshoe bindings to the skis. The door hinges now served as the pivots, just as metal rods had in the original snowshoe bindings. Now I could wear whatever boots were appropriate for the weather, instead of those plastic-bottomed, less-than-functional ski boots.
With my modified skis in hand I headed out to give them a try. The system worked perfectly.
Although I initially developed my versatile binding system for winter predator hunting, the retrofitted skis can be used for any jaunt to the hinterlands. How about that Boundary Waters winter expedition? No more cold feet, or changing boots mornings and evenings. Or maybe you'd like to ski to an out-of-the-way swamp to scout for deer or look for shed antlers. When the snow conditions are right — windblown or crusted — a person on skis can cover an amazing amount of ground. Even a novice skier can shuffle along much faster than, say, a human on foot floundering in deep snow or even someone on snowshoes.
My habits have changed some since the 1970s. For one thing, I've taken to cross-country skiing on well-groomed trails. But for that I have racing skis and, well, those odd-looking ski boots.
But when I want to explore the untracked wilderness, I always grab my door hinge/snowshoe binding retrofitted skis. Decades later, the bindings and skis are still in use. My feet are warm and comfortable in whatever boots I choose to wear.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.