BRAINERD -- I have a passion for hunting predators during winter, and I love to cross-country ski, so it's only natural for me to mix the two sports.
I first cross-country skied in the early '70s. Back then there were no groomed ski trails. That was fine with my friends and me, since we skied not to follow someone's path, nor for exercise, but to access remote locations during winters when the snow was deep. Usually we had a rifle 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 -- heavy and wide. That was OK since the broad boards allowed additional floatation on the untracked snow upon which I traveled. But 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 into the boondocks.
Then one day while walking the aisles of a sporting goods store I came across a display of snowshoes. They were fancy webs, 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. So I bought a pair of the bindings.
Off to the hardware store I went, where I purchased a set of metal door hinges. When I returned home I gathered an old pair of skis, removed the three-pin bindings and retrofitted the snowshoe bindings to the skis using the door hinges as a pivot instead of the metal rods. This would allow me to wear whatever boots were appropriate for the day, instead of those odd-looking plastic-bottomed, nonfunctional ski boots.
With my modified skis in hand I headed out to give them a try. The system worked great. I felt like Red Green, proud of my accomplishment, and I didn't use any duct tape. "If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy."
Now almost two decades later the bindings and skis are still in use.
Although I initially developed my versatile binding system for winter predator hunting, the retrofitted skis can be used to access any remote winter locations. 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.
This winter, snow is plentiful in most of Minnesota, and I have a predator-hunting brother who resides in North Dakota. Old Man Winter loves to unleash his fury on both states, and when he cuts loose with deep snow and powerful wind -- the sort of wind that packs newly fallen snow into rock hard drifts -- it's time to strap on the skis and sling a rifle.
The type of winter weather that provides excellent skiing conditions also offers great hunting opportunities. Avid winter predator hunters know a good time to hunt is following a winter storm -- the nastier the better -- because hungry predators will be out and about after lying low while waiting for the storm to pass.
Most predator hunters know the farther from roads one ventures the more likely critters will be encountered. Cross-country skis outfitted with snowshoe bindings have allowed me to access areas far from road hunters and human traffic in general, areas where wary furbearers seek refuge; the less-wary are gracing a stretching frame.
When the snow conditions are right -- windblown or crusted -- a hunter on skis can cover an amazing amount of ground. Even a novice skier can shuffle along much faster than, say, a hunter on foot floundering in deep snow, or even a hunter on snowshoes.
On some days, perhaps because of a stretch of warm, calm weather, or maybe a nearby deer kill or some other readily available food source, predators seem impossible to call. Then it's time to strap on the cross-country skis and head for parts unknown.
When calling is tough, my brother and I sometimes employ a ski-and-gun tactic. We park our vehicle in a spot where we can hunt away from the road and yet take a different route back to the vehicle. We often split up when we come upon a likely predator hangout, such as a cattail slough or a brushy draw, hoping to scare a predator toward one another.
During those forays on skis, if we spot a predator unaware, we might try to call it closer or, using the terrain and considering the wind direction, attempt to ski to within rifle range. Often we will close in from two directions, doubling our chance that one of us will get a shot.
My brother and I choose waxable cross-country skis, but the various waxless models will be adequate for the hunter. The advantage of using waxable skis is that on-the-spot adjustments can be made to your skis according to snow conditions and air temperature.
We like to travel light and usually load just a fanny pack with a few essentials, such as several tubes of ski wax, various hand calls, a small electronic call such as the FoxPro, extra ammunition, a compass or GPS and a fire starter of some type.
And door-hinge-retrofitted skis.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.