February 2017 - ATHLETE PROFILE
TAKES LIFE SPORT TO NORWAY
By Alex Kochon
Family: Wife, Barbara; Daughters, Emily and Liza; and two young grandchildren
Residence: Glens Falls
Occupation: Retired Teacher
Primary Sport: Cross Country Skiing
Secondary Sports: Hiking, Golf
Anyone familiar with the Cole’s Woods, aka Crandall Park, trails in Queensbury probably knows “The Wall.” Bill Parks certainly does; he’s groomed it thousands of times.
Almost three decades ago, back in late ’80s, former Queensbury Nordic ski coach Bob Underwood stumbled on a surprise at the bottom of The Wall. The Glens Falls ski team had built a jump for someone daring enough to ski down the biggest hill in the 35-acre park. That someone was Bill Parks.
A history teacher and multisport coach at Glens Falls High School, coaching cross country skiing, cross country running, and track and field for about 35 years apiece, Bill wasn’t a daredevil by trade. He just loved skiing. With his athletes and Bob Underwood watching, Bill flew down The Wall, hit the jump, and soared over Halfway Brook on the other side. “The kids wouldn’t do it but he did,” Bob recalled.
Bill, now 73 and retired from teaching and head coaching, hasn’t stopped his quest for adventure, especially as it pertains to skiing. On March 18, he plans to race in the Norwegian Birkebeinerrennet – the mother of all cross country ski marathons – from Rena to Lillehammer, Norway.
The 54-kilometer (roughly 33-mile) race, also known as the Norwegian Birkebeiner, has roots dating back to 1206 during the Norwegian Civil War. Birkebeiner skiers carried the 18-month-old son of Norway’s King Sverresson and Inga to safety from Lillehammer to Trondheim. Prince Haakon would later become king. Since 1932, the Birkebeiners’ journey has been reenacted annually as 17,000 racers make the point-to-point trek on skinny skis, each wearing a backpack weighing 3.5 kilograms, or 7.7 pounds – symbolic of the weight of the baby. According to the race rules, the pack must contain extra gloves, a hat, wind/water-resistant pants and a jacket, food, tools and a “hose kit.”
Bill bought an eight-pound bag of thistle bird seed to stuff into his pack to train with. He also spent the summer and fall training with a weight vest. “I was doing almost all of my rollerskiing with this eight-pound weight vest on and was pleased to find it didn’t seem to bother me much,” he said during an interview in his Glens Falls home in January. “Of course, the pack could be a little bit more annoying.”
The pack is necessary for safety reasons. While Bill will hardly be skiing alone out there and there will be aid stations along the way, he explained that the course is remote. “There are only two or three places that a road crosses the trail, so you’re out in the boonies for a lot of it, without anybody being able to get to you in a hurry,” he said. “Part of the adventure is worrying about, what is the weather going to be like?”
In the race’s 84-year history, the Norwegian Birkebeiner was called off twice, in the middle of the race in 2007 (due to high winds) and 15 minutes before the start in 2014. Parks was in Norway with his brother three years ago during that second cancellation. “On TV they were showing pictures up on top and the wind was howling and the snow was blowing,” he recalled. “They said the trail groomer was going through and 10 minutes later you couldn’t see where it had been.”
The trip was his second to Norway. He also traveled there in 2012 with a friend and fellow citizen’s racer, Darwin Roosa of Altamont, the former president of the New York State Ski Racing Association (NYSSRA) Nordic.
Two years later, during a mountaintop ski north of the Birkebeiner trail with his brother, it dawned on Bill: “It might be entertaining to ski over the mountain there sometime,” he said. “I’m getting to a stage where I figured, well, better sooner than later.”
So three years later, Bill will return to Norway with Darwin, and be among the masses at the Norwegian Birkie. He’ll start first in the 65-plus age group, 15 minutes ahead of the elite women, and 20 minutes before the elite men. “Whoever the cool skiers are will go thundering past, so that will be fun to watch,” Bill said.
If all goes well, he hopes to finish in 4-1/2 to five hours and in the middle of his age group, but he was careful not to put too much pressure on himself. Bill said he hadn’t been able to train as much as he would’ve liked with the lack of snow locally this winter. “It’s partly just the adventure of being in this giant thing,” he said. “It’s a little bit like the person who wants to run in the Boston Marathon and doesn’t care about anything specifically. It’s a little more than that, but not much.”
Bill is using his participation as a fundraiser for The Friends of Cole’s Woods. The former president and current board member of the volunteer-based organization, he’s groomed the trails there for more than 50 years. “I’m just hoping that some people will be reminded that there’s an organization that’s keeping the trails maintained,” he said of the park, which is owned by the city of Glens Falls. “And that if they use the park or appreciate the fact that it’s there, that they might think, ‘OK, I should join this organization or at least contribute to it.’”
He plans to donate $10 for every kilometer he completes of the 54K Birkebeiner. “They can do any amount they’d like,” Bill said of anyone interested in donating. “Something per kilometer or per mile, if they want to be economical, or if they have some small or vast amount they wanted to contribute.”
Planned upgrades to the trail system include the underground wiring of lights, which have illuminated Cole’s Woods since 1971. In fact, the park is home to North America’s first lighted cross country ski trails, and it hosted about a decade of international races starting in the ’70s. “Bill was hugely influential in the community, and what he brought to cross country skiing, both recreationally and competitively is phenomenal,” said Jeff Jacobs, son of the late Tom Jacobs, a 1952 Olympic Nordic-combined and cross country skier who owned Inside Edge Ski and Bike and Reliable Racing Supply in Queensbury – and founded The Friends of Cole’s Woods. “He was certainly as instrumental as developing the sport in Glens Falls as my dad was,” Jeff, who now lives in Boise, Idaho, continued. “Between the two of them, they made it happen.”
According to Bill, Jeff Jacobs introduced him to cross country skiing. Bill was born in Canastota, and lived outside Syracuse until about age seven, then moved to East Greenbush, where he attended Albany Academy. Back then, Bill mostly ice skated and alpine skied. Sometimes he’d mess around with cable bindings to allow his square-toed ski boots to lift up in the heel. “I kind of was busy inventing cross country skiing, and I used to go and prowl around the woods,” Bill said.
Albany Academy didn’t have a ski team, but he stood out in track and soccer. Bill attended Harvard University, where he ran for the first-year-and-a-half and studied anthropology. After graduating, he obtained his master’s degree in teaching from Colgate University and married his wife, Barbara, who grew up in Glens Falls. Bill landed his first full-time teaching job in 1967 at Glens Falls High School, where he mostly taught 11th grade American history. He retired from teaching in 1999.
During his early years in Glens Falls, Bill went to the Crandall Library and picked up ‘The Cross-Country Ski Book’ by John Caldwell. It described a “Paleolithic” method, as Bill called it, of making alpine skis into cross country skis by using a bandsaw to cut the sides off. He promptly went home to do so.
Around that time, while getting paid $2 an hour to supervise kids on Crandall Park’s ice rink, Bill noticed a young man cross country skiing along the snowbanks. “He looked school-aged and I said, ‘Anybody here know who that is?’ and somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s Jeff Jacobs, his father owns the ski shop,” Bill said. “The next afternoon when Jeff emerged from his last class, I clamped onto him and said, ‘How would you like to show me some things about cross country skiing?’”
Jeff gave him a pair of his dad’s old skis and two went backcountry skiing at Avalanche Pass in Keene. “That was kind of my first lesson in it all,” Bill said. The discovery went both ways; Jeff credited Parks with introducing him to backcountry skiing.
Bill coached at Glens Falls until 2015, and even in his retirement, he remains an assistant ski team coach. When he’s not training or coaching, Bill grooms the Cole’s Woods trails on a Polaris Ranger UTV with tracks – a far cry from the “squinting one eye into the snow” snowmobile grooming days. “This thing has a cable, heater, windshield wipers,” Bill said. “I joke that I wear a suit and tie when I groom trails now.”
“He’s been the constant person who’s kept the park going all these years,” Bob said, who coached at Queensbury for 30 years and succeeded Bill as Section 2 high school ski coordinator. “Bill’s had a huge impact on the number of kids he’s coached and state champions. He’s kind of been the anchor of skiing in this area.”
On March 18, Parks will ski his first international race and first marathon in more than 30 years – since competing in the Vermont Ski Marathon twice. “I’m interested to see what the downhills are like at the end,” Bill said of the Norwegian race. If they’re anything like The Wall, he should be fine!
To donate or purchase a $25 membership to The Friends of Cole’s Woods, visit the membership page on coleswoods.weebly.com.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) of Cleverdale is the managing editor at FasterSkier.com and to most people’s surprise, not a guy. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s chasing her one-year-old, and in her spare time adventuring in the Adirondacks.