Steamboat Springs This is a story about Jack Rabbit Johanson, who lived to the age of 107 in his adopted Canada. But the tale begins on Storm Peak, on a frigid December morning.
Sunday dawned cloudless and the thermometer on the front porch read 10 degrees below zero. But the ski report trumpeted 9 inches of powder, and there was only one thing to do.
The front of the mountain was still deep in shadow during the first ride up Storm Peak Express. But nearing the crest of Four Points there was the promise of the morning sun peaking over the mountain. There was also the illusion of mayflies dancing in the air as if hovering over a June trout stream.
Of course, they weren't mayflies, but thousands of tiny ice crystals set free by the first rays of the sun.
Nearing the top of Storm Peak, with acres of untracked snow waiting below, there was another illusion. A skier came arcing over the horizon, trailing a plume of powder that looked like a trail of fire, backlit orange by the coming sun.
Sunday was the kind of day on the mountain when you don't notice whether or not you have good wax on your skis. But it was another story in downtown Steamboat Springs on Sunday morning.
In a secret garage in an alley off Oak Street, some of the world's foremost experts on ski wax were making critical decisions that could lead to success or failure in that afternoon's Nordic Combined World Cup cross country ski race.
These guys are capable of writing a doctoral thesis on the interaction of snow crystals with wax applied to the bottom of a cross country ski.
Ski waxing at the World Cup level is an exacting science, but the task of the wax technicians can be stated simply they must overcome friction.
Friction from snow crystals, friction from water stored in the snow, and even friction from static electricity.
U.S. Ski Team wax guru Rob Powers was a difficult man to track down Sunday morning, so I approached another coach, Jan Erik Albu. I asked in my most innocent voice, "So, what kind of wax are the Americans using today?"
"It's a secret," Albu laughed. But the coach did provide some insight into the challenge of waxing for Sunday's conditions.
On the surface, the job appeared straightforward, the snow was good and cold. But Albu pointed out that the snow was also exceptionally dry. And the differences between snow conditions in the shady and sunny portions of the course were potentially extreme.
Steamboat's Sven Wiik, a great ski coach in his own right, agreed that the wax technicians from each country were probably forced to make a decision between waxing for the shade, or the sun at Howelsen Hill.
The American wax team must have figured out the puzzle they put three skiers in the top 10, a very good sign for the team competition at the Winter Olympics in February.
Ski wax can be a pricey proposition these days. If you want to put 10 grams of the fluorocarbon wax known as Cera-F in someone's Christmas stocking it will set you back $110. That's considerably more expensive than frankincense and myrrh.
Wiik can remember a time when skis were wooden, and all ski wax was cheap.
In fact, he recalls paying the equivalent of 25 cents for a tube of pine tar in his native Sweden.
You wouldn't want to put pine tar on your fancy new plastic cross country skis. But when skis were made out of hardwood, pine tar was the favored way to make them repel water, and even afforded a modicum of glide when temperatures ranged from 23 to 28 degrees.
Wiik pines for the days of pine tar.
"When the synthetic skis came in, cross country skiing lost it's charm, because you couldn't go in the back room and smell pine tar any more," he said wistfully.
The truth is, pine tar was a nasty, messy substance which required a small blow torch to melt it onto one's skis.
Of course, Wiik recalls that during his days as a ski trooper in the Swedish Army, they didn't have any fancy gas torches they waxed their skis over the campfire.
Which brings us to Jack Rabbit Johanson.
Jack Rabbit was one of the last pine tar entrepreneurs who produced pine tar for the commercial market. He came up with a really catchy name for his product Jack Rabbit Pine Tar.
Sven Wiik swears that old Jack Rabbit was still skiing at the age of 100.
He attributed his longevity to his regimen of indulging in most of life's pleasures, but only in moderation. Well, moderation in almost all things.
"He used to say, 'everything in moderation, and lots of skiing!'" Sven recalled.
Good advice, Jack Rabbit.
The rest of you guys know what to do.