CeCe Camacho moved to Maine 18 years ago after growing up in California. She came to realize that to enjoy winter in Maine, you have to enjoy being active outdoors.

“I think it’s key to mental health in the winter here,” said Camacho, who lives in Brunswick and now is a Nordic skier. “I tried skate skiing for the first time last winter, but struggled. I’m a big-time runner. I decided I would cross-train this summer … To be honest, winter is rough here. You’ve got to be active.”

Camacho was among a small group of outdoor enthusiasts who showed up at Portland’s Payson Park two weeks ago to take part in free roller ski lessons offered by Portland Nordic. They came to find another summer sport to help them get fit, and to improve their Nordic skiing technique. The lessons have been offered once a month since June on Sundays, when Baxter Boulevard is closed to traffic in the summer.

With the growth in Nordic skiing last winter during the pandemic, the nonprofit Portland Nordic purchased 15 new pairs of roller skis to help those new to Nordic skiing develop the skills to excel on snow. Portland Nordic’s first three Sunday sessions filled up fast this summer; its next free roller ski lessons for adults are scheduled for Sept. 12.

A survey of cross-country skiing retailers across North America conducted the first two weeks of February by the Vermont-based Cross Country Ski Areas Association and Snow Sports Insights showed that sales of cross-country skis, boots and bindings were up 30 percent compared to the same period in 2020. Some retailers reported that sales doubled. 

Portland Nordic board member Michael Collin, center, gives pointers at the start of the free adult Learn to Skate Ski clinic on Portland’s Baxter Boulevard. To the left is Kalie Dunn who is a coach and board member with Portland Nordic; to the right is clinic participant Scott Snelling. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Two weeks ago at Payson Park, Portland Nordic board members Michael Collin and Kalie Dunn started the lessons by showing participants the “basic athletic position” for roller skiing – or skate skiing, as it’s commonly known: knees bent and hands close to the chest and ready – what Collin called  “the ninja position.”

“When you’re skiing you need to react, if you hit a huge ice cookie or a mogul, you’ve got to be ready,” he said.

Collin then showed how to shift from one foot to the other while creating a line down from their nose to their knee to their toes – without tipping too far over.

“Balance is the hardest part for everyone,” Collin assured them.

The two former ski racers made it look easy – like an effortless ice skater on a clean sheet of ice. But early on, almost every participant in the lesson wobbled and looked at risk of falling over at some point. Within a half hour, most in the group were roller skiing up and down Baxter Boulevard, though near wipeouts were common.

“Even I am a little wobbly at times,” Dunn said to one participant. “But real skate skis are wider, and you’re (flat) on the snow. So this will make that feel easier.”

Scott Snelling – who got introduced to roller skiing this summer by a friend in Minneapolis – moved with ease. Camacho was not far behind. Others showed greater confidence, but moved at a slower, more careful pace.

Then Collin showed some of the participants how to jump with both feet in the air – as if going off a mogul. He first joked how the move is worth doing for the thrill – but then returned to the take-home message here: “It helps you work on ski agility. It helps improve your balance. These are all drills you can take directly to the snow.” 

Portland Nordic board member Michael Collin gives pointers to Lisa Kelley of Freeport during the free adult Learn to Skate Ski clinic on Portland’s Baxter Boulevard. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Lisa Kelley of Freeport stepped back to watch the group and regroup. She wanted to learn skate skiing to help her become a better Nordic skier.

But as her 15-year-old son whizzed past her on roller blades, Kelley said she realized she needs to do more exercises to stabilize her ankles, maybe even seek out some physical therapy to make her ankles stronger.

“I do want to try another class, but I have an old ankle injury,” Kelley said. “I like to try new things. But I think some ankle exercises would help me be more stable at this. I can see this gaining in popularity.”

Snelling, who got a crash course in roller skiing when his buddy made him do a 9-mile loop around Minneapolis bike paths, said getting coaching from pros made a huge difference.

“This is definitely helping – how (Mike) separates out what to do with your arms and legs. When I first started I didn’t crash, but I did injure my shoulder and my elbow by double poling,” Snelling said.

Collin assured Snelling that is not uncommon.

“Kalie and I make it look easy. But there are a lot of pieces to it,” Collin said. “But we are not trying to build World Cup skiers, just great skiers, who enjoy it, and hopefully then introduce a friend.”

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