Escape the indoors; hit the ski trails, slopes or take a sleigh ride

It's been awhile since it last happened, but virtually the entire northern third of the United States is now snow covered. Skiers may rejoice, but a lot of other people will look longingly toward the southern third (where, incidentally, the higher elevations also have a lot of snow). If you can't fly south and the prospect of staring out a frosty window pane for another month or two is not appealing, take note of some alternatives. Believe it or not, several will make you feel warmer than you do looking out that window.

People can't believe what a body warmer cross-country skiing is until they do it. I spent a morning skiing cross-country near my home recently and within seven minutes of starting I was as warm as I've been all winter. Hot, in fact.

You don't need your own equipment. There are ski touring centers and ski shops all across that snow-covered tier. Nearly all have rentals, and many offer instruction. The cost is minimal. The toughest part is deciding to do it. Then comes satisfaction, fun, and if you put even a minimal effort into it, warmth!

Item. A talk show host was deploring the fact that many adults spend much of the weekend strolling around indoor malls ``because there isn't anything else to do.'' He lamented that a new verb is creeping into the American vocabulary: to mall. (As in, ``Let's mall it Saturday.'')

Item. In Seefeld, Austria, site of this year's Nordic World Championships, there are 40 miles of walking paths hollowed out of the snow, and they are often filled with strolling nonskiers.

Item. Several indoor types were recently brought together for a dog sled trip the length of Vermont. Now, that is cold! Even so, as they stood around the fire fixing dinner, each acknowledged it had been a marvelous, mind-opening experience. One man hinted at a partial reason when asked what he would be doing if he were at home. ``Probably watching television and eatin' chips,'' he chuckled.

To enjoy winter's wonderland, you don't have to enter a citizen cross-country ski race, like the famed Birkebeiner at Cable, Wis. (Feb. 23), where they're planning on a seven-wave start, 1,400 skiers per wave. Nonskiers and skiers alike can bundle up for just a sleigh ride (moonlight and otherwise) at countless ski resorts, winter carnivals, and riding stables. A listing of Vermont stables that provide sleigh rides, for example, will be furnished on request by the Vermont Travel Division, Dept. 44, 134 State Street, Montpelier, Vt. 05602.

As for Alpine skiing, the trend would appear to be toward more beginners than in many years. Walt Schoenknecht, who owns Mohawk Mountain, Conn., estimates a 23 percent increase in beginners at his area. One reason: a return of the baby-boomers with their kids. ``The 3-to-11 year olds are skiing with their parents, who tell me they have not skied for 10 years or more,'' he says.

Another reason is a major effort by the industry to attract new skiers. Last season its ``Skiing is Believing'' program drew 14,000 people in five states. They signed up at a participating ski shop and for a $10 fee got ski rentals and a beginning lesson at a nearby area. This year, the program is in 11 states. One of the most frequent comments: ``The low cost allowed me to do something I've always wanted to try but felt I couldn't afford.

Besides ``Skiing is Believing,'' many areas now have beginner packages (lifts, rentals, and lesson) that range from $10 to $25. Southern ski areas often have the highest rates, but Wintergreen, Va. will throw in a free beginner's lesson for the price of the rentals.

Dress warm, not fancy -- long underwear, turtleneck, sweater, parka, hat, mittens (they're warmer than gloves). That's all you need to enjoy the outdoors without having to wait for summer.

Skiers planning trips over the Washington's Birthday week would do well to shop around concerning rate structures. One major area we know of where holiday rates will be in effect only for the Feb. 16-18 weekend rather than the entire week, for example, is Mt. Snow, Vt. . . . Just as President Reagan proposed to eliminate federal funding of Amtrak, trains began stopping at the new Fraser, Colo. station, two miles from Winter Park, the state's only ski area with daily train service. . . . If you've been tempted by some of the new investment and professional seminars at ski resorts, which promise that registraton fee, air fare, lodging, and meals may be tax deductible, better check with your tax adviser. An IRS representative expressed serious doubt that much would be deductible except ``that portion of the tuition which bears directly on income.''

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