When I moved to Chicago from Hungry Horse, Montana, some adjustment was required. As a rule, Chicagoans don’t practice grizzly-avoidance strategies or get in much backcountry skiing in avalanche country. But after some digging, I uncovered five ways to get an adrenaline fix within an hour’s drive of downtown. Here are favorites in heart-pumping order.
by Jody Robbins
Playing it Safe
>> Skiing on level ground sounds easy enough, but adventure junkies say that cross-country skiing is the most taxing sport out there. “It’s not like after you run, or mountain bike, and are in pain,” says Michael Choate, 49, a firefighter, dedicated cross-country skier, and ski salesman at King Keyser in Hinsdale. “What hurts is that your whole body is physically fatigued, like you’re on half battery power.” Cross-country requires endurance; as any marathoner knows, a test of endurance can be as extreme as any endeavor. GO: Skiers know the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin, just about an hour outside of Milwaukee, for its miles of groomed trails. There are two areas-a northern unit and a south ern unit. Both offer skiing. EQUIP: Boots, bindings, skis, and poles, which can be purchased at any ski shop. Choate recommends skis from Atomic, Fischer, or local distributor Traub, all available at King Keyser. (Beginners, he says, will be fine with most brands, as long as they get a crown or fishscale base.) Rental equipment isn’t easy to find, but, Backyard Bike Shop (in the southern unit in LaGrange, Wisconsin; 262-495-8600, backyardbikes.com) rents skis for $15 to $20 a day.
VOmax Lyra suit
A Little Jolt
>> Speed skating gets a lot of interest from athletes for its cross-training advantages. Skaters reach speeds of up to 38 mph slicing around oval tracks on thin blades; the thrill of competition ramps up the excitement. Though injuries are rare, crashes are not, says Carl Cepuran, head coach of the Glen Ellyn Speed Skating Club, which practices at the Center Ice of DuPage skating facility. Thanks to safety equipment, Cepuran says, 99 percent of the time “. . . people get up and go finish what they are doing.” GO: Center Ice of DuPage (1 N. 450 Highland Ave., Glen Ellyn; 630-790-9696, www .centericeofdupage.com) holds open practices Tuesday and Thursdays from 7:40 to 9 p.m. Beginners can pay $50 for three sessions, which includes speed skate and helmet rental, coaching, and ice time. EQUIP: Competitors wear padded Lycra suits made by VOmax (from $100 at vomax.com); newbies will be just fine in warm clothes.
>> I once sailed off a 30-meter jump in Colorado on my snowboard, and it was like having a rug pulled out from under me (only I was prepared for impending disaster). While snowboarders try to get air, ski jumpers keep it close to the ground-and go for distance. “I’ve jumped on our 20-meter jump, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Mary Jo Schauer, of the Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove (100 Ski Hill Rd.; 847-639-9718, norgeskiclub.com). Interesting fact: The club was founded in 1905 by a group of Norwegians, including ski pioneer Carl Howelsen, who helped bring ski jumping to Colorado. GO: The best way to get started is to show up early for practices held Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m. Everyone starts on the five-meter jump, and then moves upwards based on ability, comfort level, and the discretion of the coach. Each session costs $25. EQUIP: Warm, water-resistant clothing. Serious jumpers swear by Meininger jumpsuits, which are made in Denmark and start at $115 (meininger-jumpsuits.de/) But your downhill ski/snowboard outfit also will work nicely. The club has extra skis, bindings, and boots, but they loan them on a first-come, first-serve basis. It’s better to take your own.
Glad I Have Insurance
>> Currently exemplified by the young red-haired sensation Shaun White, the skateboarding industry thrives on images of fearless boarders spinning, flipping, and grabbing their way through big air competitions. At Raging Buffalo Snowboard Ski Park (Rte. 31, Algonquin; 847-836-7243, ragingbuffalo.com), wannabes can start with the basics, and slowly work their way up. “You want to get the adrenaline going and push yourself, but you have to take baby steps,” says Keith Duck, founder of the ski park. For me, this worked until I attempted a 40-foot “tabletop.” I ended up seeing double from a concussion. GO: Raging Buffalo offers a full instructional program from absolute beginner to advanced levels. Group classes start at $20 an hour; private classes are $40. Helmets are required, and medics are on hand. If you just want to watch, the site hosts four U.S.A. Snowboarding Association events this winter. EQUIP: Blend in with Smarty cargo pants (from $199) and the DaKine waterproof jacket ($299) from trendy snowboard outfitter 686; available at The Shred Shop (3801 W. Oakton St., Skokie; 847-679-3060) or at 686.com. At Raging Buffalo, rental equipment is available, from $19 to $45, and lift tickets cost $32 to $45.
>> First surfed seriously during the 1960s, the Great Lakes keep a dedicated group of die-hard wave-riders happy in the winter when the wind drives up the size of waves. “It’s not uncommon to ride waves as big as 12 feet, and that can be conservative,” says Ryan Gerard, proprietor of the Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan. Most people (including me, who once spent a cold-shower-filled winter in Steamboat after my propane tank broke) can’t imagine getting in the water when the air temperature is zero degrees and the water is at 30 degrees. But Scott Stiffle, a Chicagoan who is a winter surfing regular, says the cold weeds out the weak. “Anyone can surf California. This is different, and it takes a rare breed.” GO: It’s possible to ride the lake at any point, but I hear the best spots are found off the Evanston shoreline; in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and at the border of Michigan and Indiana near Horseshoe Casino. EQUIP: Rent a board any time of year at Third Coast (22 S. Smith St., New Buffalo; 269-932-4575) or Windward Sports (3317 N. Clark St.; 773-472-6868, indwardsports.com). Plan on laying out the extra $450 for the wetsuit and accessories; Gerard recommends a 5/4 mm- or 6/5/4 mm-thick suit by Rip Curl or Xcel, both available at Third Coast. Winter surfing is a risky endeavor. Don’t wade in without the outerwear-and insurance.
Illustration: Paul Willoughby
Photography: Courtesy of the manufacturers