Long-time cross-country skier and state lands enthusiast, Jim Sota of Rockwood, Pa., got his first real taste of the sport more than 40 years ago, only a few miles away from Pennsylvania’s very own Laurel Ridge State Park.
Today, at 59 years old, you can still catch him out at Laurel Ridge after work (when the snow accumulation is right) cruising the Red or Orange Trail on a pair of skis, armed with a camera and a friendly smile. And he’s always willing to offer helpful advice on the sport.
How Jim Got Hooked on XC Skiing
During the mid-1970s, Jim’s family was enjoying a trip at their cabin near Laurel Ridge, when they decided to rent some cross-country skis. The family skied up to the top of the ridge, to the area that the Orange Trail is now on.
“I fell a lot, but I was hooked,” Jim shared.
Then, after college, Jim got his start working for Hank Parke, at Laurel Ridge Cross Country Ski Area (PDF). Working with Hank started it all for him. Cross-country skiing was booming in the 1980s, with snowy winters in the area and many people trying it out.
Jim worked at Laurel Ridge and Hidden Valley, teaching as a certified ski instructor and performing trail maintenance and grooming.
He’s now been out of the ski industry profession for 20 years, but he still carries with him his knowledge and love for the sport on his favorite trails.
Why He Still Loves the Sport
Jim has continued with the sport because it gets him outside, helps him stay fit, and provides stellar opportunities to enjoy nature.
“I like to get out and be active. Cross-country skiing is a really nice way to do that and enjoy the winter,” Jim said. “I bicycle a lot, so skiing helps keep me active year round.”
Another benefit to the lifelong sport is that it’s not as hard on your body as running, Jim shared. “It’s a smooth sport and easy on the joints, a really good exercise for your entire body. All people can do it. As long you’re willing to get out in the woods and get exercise, then it’s a great option.”
When asked if he also enjoys downhill skiing, he responded that he’s only ever downhill skied once. “I never had a big interest in it. I prefer to be in the woods more. I have learned a lot of downhill techniques.” And with a light-hearted tone, he said, “Downhill skiing was easier.”
There are downfalls to the sport, though, and one is that it is weather dependent. While he estimated he only got out about seven times last winter, he’s already been out to ski at least 30 times this year.
While Jim enjoys skiing at 10 degrees, he recommends checking weather and level of snowfall before heading out on an adventure (through resources such as state parks’ weekly Winter Report and video cameras like the one at Laurel Ridge).
Laurel Ridge State Park
While the winter activity is extremely weather dependent, there are many opportunities to enjoy cross-country skiing, especially at state parks and forests.
It is Jim’s hope that more people will take advantage of the amazing skiing resources that Pennsylvania is home to, including those at Laurel Ridge.
Laurel Ridge State Park (PDF) offers 18 miles of trails for everyone from beginners to advanced cross-country skiers, with concessions and rentals available, as well as a warming hut, refreshments, and bathroom facilities.
Jim enjoys the trails at Laurel Ridge because of the location. Because trails are on the ridge, they seem to get great lake-effect snow; getting at least six inches to ski is easier there than other areas because of that.
The location also is easily accessible for travelers, as it’s not far from the turnpike.
The state park setting provides for serene winter natural beauty.
His favorite trails are the Orange and Red. The Orange Trail is longer and flatter and allows dogs; it’s a good trail for beginners. The Red Trail is Jim’s first choice – a three-mile trail featuring rolling hills that always provides for a great work out.
The great thing about these trails is that skiers can make them their own! Trail cut offs and short cuts help the more experienced skier take a different approach and experience the trail at a different length.
Importance of Volunteering
While technology and gear has improved, the need for trail maintenance and volunteer assistance has not. It’s another aspect that Jim enjoys: giving back to the state park and helping improve the resources.
He encourages folks to get involved in the trail clearing and improvement days. Volunteers help to clear pipes, cut brush, pick up fallen branches, and mow the trails during late fall to keep the briars from growing in. Every little bit helps take care of state lands.
Trail Safety Tips & Etiquette
In regards to safety, Jim shared a few tips:
- There is “no bad weather, just bad clothing.” Dress in layers during the cold, and be sure to check the weather.
- For beginners, start off on flat areas, but also remember an important part is learning to get up small hills because it’s rare to find a completely flat trail. You don’t want to get stuck!
- Find boots and other equipment that are comfortable and get fitted properly.
- If skiing with pets, keep them on a leash and clean up after them.
- Relax and have fun!
Etiquette-wise, he says:
- Avoid walking in the ski tracks.
- Say “hello” to people as you pass them. Some may be training hard and moving fast while others are being social and skiing next to others -- it’s always nice to say hello.
- Yield to faster skiiers.
- Leave no trace! Be the best outdoor enthusiast that you can be and leave nothing behind but your tracks in the snow.
Skiing Crosses with Photography and Videography
Jim always has his camera out on the trail because he loves photography. He’s always trying to capture “that moment.”
“When the snow is laying on the branches and nice trail is in front of you with sun coming through the branches, it just inspires you to be out there and enjoy it,” said Jim.
Jim creates online photo albums and videos of his time on the Red Trail and Orange Trail at Laurel Ridge to get people excited about skiing and out to the park. Check them out to experience the trail.
To learn more about cross-country skiing tips and opportunities in Pennsylvania, visit DCNR’s website and the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skiers Association website.