Sometimes a blast from the past contains the germ of a good idea. If so, the Marquette Backcountry Skis retro approach to a hybrid between skis and snowshoes is poised to take root.
The skis were developed to tackle the snow conditions and terrain of northern Michigan, according to the company’s website. It’s a throwback idea to the concept of “schuss skiing” of several decades ago, or perhaps even a return to the missing link between the two opposite ends of pedestrian snow-power.
Historians claim, after all, that skis and snowshoes came from a common ancestor somewhere in Eurasia, and grew apart as people migrated east and west. The Scandinavian settlers developed the true cross-country ski; of course, while the tribes who voted with their feet headed to North America where snowshoes flowered into a myriad forms.
The Backcountry Ski by Marquette is a bridge between those two solitudes. It’s mostly successful in its attempt, but there is clearly some room for improvement.
Let me confess that skiing, whether Nordic or Alpine, is not my first love when it comes to winter activities. Due to an appalling lack of coordination, it’s likely somewhere near the very bottom of the list, ranking with falling through the ice of a beaver pond. (Trust me; you don’t want to be stuck in chest-deep stagnant water trying to remove your snowshoes to clamber out).
So when I was presented with a pair of Marquettes to try out for a review, I looked at them with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I hadn’t even been on skis in approximately five years, preferring to cling to my snowshoes for dear life and sweet sanity.
Succumbing to duty, though, and rampant curiosity, I eventually installed some old three-pin harnesses on the Backcountry and took them for a test drive. The skis accommodate a wide variety of harnesses in its pre-drilled system, from New Nordic Norms to soft-boot harnesses.
I have many acres of mostly fallow farm fields surrounding my home near Georgian Bay in Southern Ontario. While winter has been practically non-existent this year, a sudden cold snap and about a foot of fresh-fallen snow gleaming in a cerulean sky enticed me outside to go play in the snow.
I sized up the Marquettes with a wary eye and headed out to break some trail.
My first impressions were mostly positive. I loved the width of the skis, since one of my major “bugaboos” about cross-country skis is that they bother my 2D-width feet.
I also liked the shorter, stubby length of the skis. I’m short, stocky and heavy, with disproportionately short legs, and these felt well-suited to my body type.
The skis floated over the snow like a proper snowshoe should, although they quickly showed a disconcerting tendency to slip sideways. Otherwise, the grip was very, very good with the modified fish-scale pattern.
It quickly became obvious, though, that the skis lacked a little something – ok, a big something – in the glide department. I found it nearly impossible to do more than a standard snowshoe shuffle in them, which actually suits my somewhat deficient Nordic technique anyway.
I couldn’t imagine either how they could be used to do a little down-hilling with the lack of glide. Even on the modest hills I was tackling, I couldn’t build up any speed.
As well, the skis were noticeably heavy; making me glad I wasn’t trying to lift them with every step. The minimal amount of glide was sufficient to avoid that problem.
To make sure my impressions were correct I talked my wife Charlene into trying them as well. She’s a much better skier than I am, although an Achilles tendon injury has slowed her somewhat in recent years.
Charlene was happy to oblige me, as she enjoys the chance to try out new toys any chance she gets.
She had more success using the Marquettes for skiing than I did. Her technique had her gliding along well, although not quite as well as standard cross-country skis, which we tried next for comparison purposes. She also enjoyed the stability of the wide Backcountry platform.
However, she also found the same disconcerting side-to-side slippage that I did, which she said detracted from her enjoyment of the skis.
“I’d have to get used to the feel of them,” she said. “I don’t like how they slip.”
So, in closing, if Marquette can improve the glide, the side-to-side traction and reduce the weight, they’ve got a potential for a unique and very useful cross-over package for winter enthusiasts everywhere. I’m eagerly awaiting to see if those improvements can be made.
For more information on Marquette Backcountry Skis, visit http://marquette-backcountry.com.