Silent Sports

Listen up: There’s a quiet subculture of outdoor enthusiasts who prefer muscle power to motorized recreation — and they’re beginning to make some noise.

For several days each February, near the rural resort town of Hayward, Wis., you’ll hear a lot of huffing and puffing coming from the otherwise quiet north woods. It’s the sound of more than 6,000 cross-country skiers moving along the 51K-long Birkebeiner trail. The American Birkebeiner, or “Birkie,” as it’s commonly known, is North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon, attracting skiers from around the globe.

In the fall, the sounds of Hayward change – to the whirring of 2,500 bikes skimming through 40 miles of thick woods as part of the area’s Chequamegon (“Sha-wha-ma-gon”) Fat Tire Festival, one of the biggest races of its kind in the country.

The sounds in Hayward may vary by season, but the faces behind all those ski goggles and bike helmets are often the same. Look closely, and you’ll probably also see a lot of the same faces hiking or running the nearby trails or slipping kayaks into the numerous surrounding lakes and streams. And other than their heart thuds, foot strikes, rhythmic breathing, and pedal or paddle strokes, you won’t hear much noise from them – except, perhaps, enthusiastic words about their devotion to the outdoors and their burning desire to interact with it as often as possible.

Welcome to a subculture of outdoor activities known as “silent sports.” Silent sports describes an array of outdoor aerobic activities that rely solely on self-propulsion – no noisy motors or fossil fuels involved. Popular silent sports include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, mountain biking, cycling, hiking, running, paddling, rowing, climbing, multisports (triathlons, biathlons and duathons) and any other outdoor venture where you can enjoy the peace and quiet of nature while sweating your guts out.

None of these sports are terribly exotic or unusual, of course. For the most part, their popularity is well established and growing steadily. Membership in USA Triathlon, for instance, has more than doubled to some 60,000 members since 1989. What makes silent sports unique, though, is their participants’ distinct vibe – specifically their dedication to a whole range of nature-oriented outdoor fitness activities.

Silent sporters, for the most part, are not vanity-driven gym rats, weekend warriors or hit-and-miss athletes who beg off on their fitness activities whenever the weather is less than perfect or life gets a little too busy. These folks have no off-season. In the winter they slip on cross-country skis and snowshoes. In the spring, summer and fall, they lace up their hiking boots and in-line skates; they hit the bike and running trails; they paddle rivers and lakes.

Many of these folks enjoy competition, but not all of them are particularly concerned about improving time trials or tracking accumulated miles. In general, they are out there first and foremost for the joy of it: for the exertion, the exhilaration, the head-clearing views – and all the fresh air they can wrap their lungs around.

Silent Types

“You could say silent sporters are intense, or you could say they are just more invested in their athletics,” says Scott Wilson, owner of Hayward’s Cresthill Resort, which caters to sports enthusiasts, including lots of silent-sports types. But these aren’t necessarily shy or self-isolating individuals.

Silent sporters relish the peacefulness of solitude in nature, Wilson points out, but they also enjoy community spirit. As a result, they regularly come together in droves for organized and inherently social events like the Birkie, Fat Tire and others, as well as for informal bike, ski or paddle gatherings.

Silent sporters may be hard workers, but you won’t find them chained to their desks one moment longer than they have to be. You won’t find them glued to the TV, either, unless they’re watching the Tour de France, the Winter Olympics or something on the Outdoor Life Network. Given the option, they tend to devote as many hours as possible to their outdoor fitness pursuits.

Perhaps the most basic characteristic that ties silent-sports folk together, though, is their passionate commitment to healthy living and well-being. And as a rule, it shows.

Just a few of the telltale signs that identify your average silent-sports enthusiast: a sun-washed complexion; a lean, lithe body; clear eyes; and a focused demeanor. “I don’t know if silent sporters necessarily live longer, but they seem to look a heck of a lot healthier,” Wilson says.

If you make friends with silent-sports junkies, it probably won’t be long before they start inviting you to come share their outdoor passions. That’s a good thing, because in addition to educating you about the addictive appeal of self-propelled, nonmotorized sports, they’ll probably also help you see how rewarding it can be to reach wider and deeper into a whole array of outdoor fitness activities – and how easy it is to transition from one to the other as the seasons change.

As you might expect, though, while many silent sporters tend to be rather quiet evangelists for their lifestyle, they really don’t have to shout to be heard. The truth is, if you spend just a little time around these folks, you’ll see how naturally they embrace a lifestyle that revolves around the fun of healthy activity, and you probably won’t need a whole lot more convincing.

Midwestern Appeal

In many ways, silent-sports enthusiasts are ambassadors for the core purpose of fitness: to have a healthy body that can take you any place you want to go. It makes sense, then, that silent-sports communities tend to spring up in places that cater to outdoor adventure and offer a rich landscape ripe for the exploring.

The silent-sports movement is particularly well established in the upper Midwest: Wisconsin, Minnesota, northern Illinois, portions of Michigan (primarily the Upper Peninsula) and northeast Iowa. Why here? Well, for one thing, these areas boast year-round climates suited to a range of silent sports. You’ll find plenty of winter snow; warm, but mild summers; and water, water everywhere. “Every day, there’s something to do,” Wilson says.

Another factor: access to a reasonable amount of undeveloped space. Silent-sports hot spots tend to be based in small and midsized communities with close proximity to deep, wooded trails; snowy slopes; steep crags and bluffs; and pristine waterways.

In most cases, a silent-sports culture underlies and infuses the towns in these areas. You’ll find plenty of small businesses that stake their success on providing the silent-sports crowd with the products and services they enjoy – from gourmet coffee shops and organic restaurants to top-of-the-line specialty outfitters and homey little inns.

Spend a summer afternoon hanging out in front of some of these main-street businesses and you’ll see car after car roll past with canoes and kayaks strapped to rooftop carriers. When the thermometer plummets, you’ll see the same cars return, toting skis and snowshoes for backcountry forays onto the frozen lakes and wooded trails.

In addition to Hayward, Wis., some of the country’s most popular silent-sports destinations include Grand Marais, Minn. (which rests along Lake Superior and the 200-mile-long Superior Hiking Trail), and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Part of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, the more than 1 million acre BWCAW contains more than a thousand lakes and rivers and borders Ontario’s 1.2 million acre Quetico Provincial Park, also managed as wilderness. With more than 1,200 miles of canoe and portage routes, the BWCAW is considered one of the finest paddling spots in North America.

Today, larger Midwestern towns (Marquette, Mich.; Duluth, Minn.; and Madison, Wis., for example) are attracting more silent-sports enthusiasts. Even Minneapolis and St. Paul have begun actively developing trails and riverfront intended to bring silent-sports opportunities to urban athletes. (See “Silent Sports, Big City,” Sidebar.)

Of course, silent sports are not just for Midwesterners. Thriving silent-sports communities can be found in bustling outdoor havens like Boulder, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Burlington, Vt.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Salt Lake City, Utah; and even San Francisco – virtually any place that actively promotes nonmotorized activities.

The locals in these places may not call themselves silent sporters, or even realize their athletic subculture has a name. Nonetheless, many have probably chosen (or stayed in) their towns at least in part because the cities are serious about developing and maintaining their running, hiking and biking trails and offer not-too-distant access to some kind of appealing natural environment. Silent sporters make active use of their nearby city and state parks, but they also won’t hesitate to load up the car and drive a day to reach whatever snow or water their area may lack.

The Midwest, though, may always be the mecca of silent sports. After all, this is where the father of the movement, Greg Marr, first coined the phrase. It’s also where he launched its manifesto, Silent Sports magazine. Marr first published the magazine (www.silentsports.net) in 1984, and for 20-plus years, the regional monthly, based in Waupaca, Wis., has catered to the silent-sports crowd. (Marr passed away in December 2003, but the magazine carries on and recently published its 21st anniversary issue.)

If you want to better understand the basic philosophy of silent sports, just thumb through the magazine’s 70-plus pages. Up to one-third of its content is devoted to a detailed calendar of upcoming regional events (read: “Get out there and do it!”). The balance of the magazine addresses nutrition, equipment and training advice, competition tips, plus features, profiles and commentaries on relevant topics (read: “Get out there and do it well“).

One recent issue of Silent Sports explained how to change your cranksets while cycling. It also profiled Rick Kark’s quest to paddle every navigable Wisconsin stream (he’s finished 254 of some 300) and parsed what the new food pyramid means to endurance athletes.

What’s notably absent in this sporting publication: race results. “We preview events, but don’t publish winners’ standings,” says editor Joel Patenaude, 35, who inherited the helm of Silent Sports when Greg Marr passed away. “Most of our readers participate in events, but they aren’t necessarily competing against anyone but themselves.”

Community Gathering

While much of the appeal of silent sports derives from remote and tranquil settings where one can be alone with nature, most silent sporters also get a lot of pleasure out of sharing active experiences with others.

Silent-sports enthusiasts have so many common interests and values that it makes sense they would want to hang out together. Wilson tells the story of his own entourage of silent sporters, the “Chequame-mama” cycling club. From late spring to early fall, the Hayward group of about 50 meets four times a week for long bike rides that are often followed by a healthy potluck dinner or picnic.

“It’s just understood that, say, on Tuesdays, we meet at 5:30 p.m. at the bike shop and ride,” Wilson says. The journeys along the roads near the Birkie trail often stretch for about 25 to 40 miles during the week, and Sunday’s trek tends to average about 50. When the snows come, the club switches gears, meeting for long ski jaunts instead.

Although many silent sporters are more than willing to make semiregular commutes to places like Hayward and the Boundary Waters from metropolitan areas like Chicago and the Twin Cities, and parts in between, there are others who feel compelled to carve out new lives closer to their favorite silent-sports destination.

In this latter group are many in their late 40s and beyond who’ve decided that the second half of their lives is going to be even more fun than the first. These individuals may have elected to retire early, they may have decided to “downshift” and consult part time, or they may have chucked their original vocation to open a local video store or launch a home-based business. Bottom line: They’ve done whatever was necessary to have more time for their outdoor passions. “Their philosophy is that you plan your life around silent sports,” Wilson says, “not the other way around.”

Dennis Kruse, 60, recently made the decision to be a full-time silent sporter. For more than 20 years, he shuttled 500 miles each way from Illinois State University in Normal, where he was a law professor, to Hayward for the skiing, biking and paddling. At first, he made the trip a few times a year, but that soon grew into frequent long weekends. Then he started renting a summer cabin. Before long, he’d arranged his work schedule so he taught only in the middle of the week. That opened up regular four-day weekends. But when he fell asleep at the wheel during one of his long nighttime commutes and skidded off a snowy highway, he realized it was time for a change.

“I wasn’t hurt, but it was a wake-up call, literally,” he says. Kruse decided his desire to incorporate more silent sports into his life trumped his dedication to teaching. “It was tough giving up my career. I really enjoyed what I did – it was like hanging out with friends all day – but I couldn’t fulfill my passion,” he says. “Now I get up every day feeling blessed.”

Of course, making silent sports a priority in life is not the exclusive domain of older enthusiasts. Wilson says a growing number of silent sporters are aging Generation Xers, those in their mid- to late 30s, who have already determined what kind of lifestyle they want to live. “I’ve seen people living in tents around here waiting for their new homes down the road to be finished, because they wanted so badly to be here, enjoying silent sports now,” Wilson says.

Silent Advocates

If the whole silent-sports culture has one tiny weak spot, it may be that its “brand image” has been kept a bit too quiet. Mention the term “silent sports” to bikers, hikers, paddlers, skiers or climbers outside Minnesota or Wisconsin, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares. They’ve probably never heard the term in their lives.

“There is not a broad awareness of silent sports as a unifying concept,” Patenaude acknowledges. “I still have to explain it to some people who automatically think it includes things like golf and hot-air ballooning.” But the silent-sports culture is destined for a higher profile, Patenaude believes, as its various core sports grow in popularity and as multisport trends continue. He points out that more people are snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, rock climbing and competing in triathlons than ever before – and there is more crossover from sport to sport. “I see the umbrella just getting larger and larger,” he says.

His assertion is backed by statistics from a recent Outdoor Industry Association study: From 1998 to 2004, nationwide participation in silent-sport activities increased – by 203 percent, for example, in snowshoeing; and 235 percent in kayaking. Similarly, USA Triathlon membership increased almost 200 percent from 1999 to 2005.

Yet as an entity, silent sporters are not well organized. There are no official associations, and other than the popularity of Silent Sports magazine (a modest circulation of 10,000), there is no way to document just how many participants are out there. And silent-sports enthusiasts tend to enjoy their anonymity.

Silent sporters do get a bit more vocal and organized, under one circumstance. That’s when the environments on which their sports depend are threatened. Their biggest hot-button issue: stopping the assault on trails from off-road and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles.

ATVs are infamous for tearing up the trails and landscape that silent-sports enthusiasts hold dear. The vehicles’ big, go-anywhere knobby tires, heavy weight (400 to 1,000 pounds) and high speeds (some can go up to 75 mph) destroy vegetation and can carve ruts several feet deep. This wear and tear not only causes erosion, but also makes the trails nearly unridable for bikers, unskiable for skiers and an ankle-twisting hazard for runners. Plus, silent-sports enthusiasts observe that ATVs often stray from designated trails, doing ecological damage in sensitive areas and messing up landscapes for miles around. And finally, the noise and exhaust fumes of ATVs are antithetical to the most basic principles of silent sports.

Many silent sporters are concerned that ATV owners are increasingly demanding more access to public lands, such as state parks and rail trails. And that’s where the quiet side of silent sports and its general lack of organization become notable liabilities. Silent-sports enthusiasts simply don’t march under a single banner. Although they do tend to come together to take on individual causes, rallying support for legislation that limits ATV access, for example, they don’t have much permanent political muscle. Oftentimes, small groups of individuals speaking up at local town meetings account for the biggest voice they can muster.

The ATV advocates, on the other hand, have many established local and state associations. They are better funded, know how to market themselves and are good at getting their positions heard. That creates a steeply tilted playing field that many leading silent-sports advocates would like to see leveled. But that will take energy and a collective will that they acknowledge might be tough for their mellow compatriots to muster.

“All silent sporters are affected by ATVs,” says Bruce Slinkman, president of the Minnesota Nordic Ski Association, one of the state’s few silent-sports advocacy groups. “If silent sporters don’t get more vocal they’ll become just as eroded by motorized groups as the trails they want to preserve,” he says.

Some silent sporters recognize the risk of keeping quiet about the things that matter most to the movement. Advocates like Mark Haag are taking it upon themselves to promote their environmental values. The 50-year-old social science instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College writes the blog “Quietnorth” (http://quietnorth. blogspot.com), which advocates for nonmotorized trails and tracks legislation related to trail use. Other enthusiasts have launched informational Web sites, like www.skinnyski.com, that cater to silent sporters, and they use these forums to keep locals abreast of the latest issues. Haag believes Web-based community-building could be one of the best ways for silent sporters to better educate the general public about the values and issues that matter to them all.

Sounds of Silence

Silent-sports enthusiasts revel in the moments when the only sounds to be heard are the gentle dip of a paddle into water or the soft crunch of boot-clad feet moving deeper into snow-covered forests. They know how connecting with the landscape can help clear a cluttered mind and rejuvenate a stressed-out body. They know that being strong and fit is the best way to do more of what they love.

“There’s a real sense of well-being that comes from being out in nature and being physically active,” says silent sporter Phil Van Valkenberg, 60, reflecting on solo skiing moments when it’s just him and the sound of silence. It’s during these instances, he says, that he can step back and look at the world and his life with greater clarity and confidence. “Inherent optimism in the human psyche is tied to being physically active,” he asserts. “You’re in a much better mental state when you exercise this way.”

Regardless of the activity or activities you choose, regardless of the season or landscape, at the heart of virtually any silent sport, you’re likely to discover a basic, yet extra-ordinary, kind of experience: The experience of forging a direct, personal relationship with nature by moving through it, using nothing but the power of your own body, one step, one stroke, one breath at a time.

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