For the last couple of years I have wanted to spend more time on the Big Sound as well as exploring the ungroomed trails around Parry Sound. To that end I would head out on my cross country skis or snow shoes depending on the situation and my mood. That turned out to be okay at best. The snow shoes didn't really provide that much lift and I was sinking down a foot or so in some areas of powder. The skis were a bigger problem. At 205 cm they were long and hard to maneuver around trees and rocks. But the biggest issue was with the boots; they consistently created blisters and my feet too quickly got cold. Remember, I'm out exploring and taking photos, not gliding along a groomed trail. And gliding would not be the right word to describe my Nordic ski style, perhaps it's a bit more like snowshoeing with skis. So there was a need to find a new set of tools to get around and explore.
After one dead end at Marquette Backcountry, it seems they are no longer in business, I was directed by a young outdoors person to Altai Skis. I ordered a pair of their 125 cm Hok skis, with bindings, which arrived in about a week. This is a short review of my experience with them after about 40 hours of use in and around Parry Sound, on the Big Sound, on ungroomed trails and busting through the bush. The short review is that I'm happy, very happy.
Skis: Hok 125 cm with bindings. I head out with two DSLR cameras, with lenses, and usually another lens and my 15 year old Sorel boots. Total weight with cameras, clothes and skis is probably about 180 lb (82 kg). The float is good at this length.
- The bindings. I can use my comfortable and warm Sorel boots. This is a big deal, I'm able to use boots I already own and like (no additional cost). The bindings are like those used on high end snowshoes. They are easy to get into and out of.
- The 'skins'. These skis have an embedded synthetic material with a nap. Resistance when sliding is minimal but the grip when heading up a slope is fantastic. In situations where I would need to 'herringbone' up a slope with my usual X-country skis I can walk up easily. This is a very, very big benefit if you are out for hours on end and are carrying equipment.
- The 125 cm length. It's a very practical length for maneuvering around while providing sufficient float, and good grip heading up slopes. You may need the longer 145 cm version if you are heavier.
- They are skis, not snowshoes. If you are heading out for a 10-20 km hike reducing the friction and getting even a little bit of slide saves energy and goes a long way when skiing through the bush.
- They aren't as maneuverable as snow shoes. This was an issue earlier in the season when there wasn't that much snow and I was working my way through rocky areas. Snowshoes might have been better, a little shorter and with metal grips on the bottom.
- The 'skin' on one of the skis delaminated, about 1 cm (1/2"). I emailed Altai skis and they replied in a couple of hours offering to repair it under warranty. I asked about fixing it myself and they sent instructions that had me back on the trail the next day. It involved applying a little bit of adhesive (Shoe Goo) and clamping it down. Pretty easy.
- Watch out for slush. This is a strange situation that I experienced yesterday. I was out on the Big Sound and the temperature was about -15°C (+5°F) when I hit a patch of slush. Slush? Yup, even though the temperature has been well below freezing for the last month, and ice is well over 50 cm thick, it seems slush oozes out between the faults in the ice sheets. Normally I wouldn't have hit it, but a passing snow machine churned up the snow and exposed the slush. When I crossed the snow machine's track the skis became coated on the bottom and pretty much froze immediately, but only after picking up additional snow. This added about 2 kg per ski. I took off the skis and removed much of the ice and snow, but it wasn't possible to remove it all. So while the weight was reduced the friction was horrendous; they essentially became snow shoes. On returning home I brought the skis in to warm up, and let the snow and ice to melt. Good as new. This was a special situation and I don't expect it to happen again; lesson learned.
All-in-all I'm very happy with the skis and intend to order a pair of 145 cm Hoks. Why? Out on the Big Sound there is no need to maneuver and the extra float might be helpful. It also let's Anne and I head out together, next time perhaps it will be 'Beyond the Big Sound'.