An epic houseboat session on northern California's Don Pedro Lake unlocked the world of free-skiing to nine pro skiers.
At the end of a 150-foot spectra line hooked to the tower of a sleek, blue Malibu Response LXi, Will Asher resembles a miniature skier in the wide-open expanse of Don Pedro Lake. It was the first time most of our crew had ever witnessed longline skiing of this sort, and the grin on Asher's face represented the moment quite well.
It was all about having fun. He'd fly across the wakes as fast as he could, then bank into one of the longest slalom turns you could imagine. His movements appeared to be in slow motion as a low-flying tracer spray chased him around the lake, leaving behind what looked like huge dollar signs in the water. This open-water set was practically the first time Asher ventured outside the slalom course since he strapped on a ski as a little kid and yelled the words, “Hit it.”
Asher's limited free-skiing experience isn't altogether surprising. Pro slalom skiers have earned the unsavory reputation of leading a repetitive, mundane, even unimaginative on-water existence — and perhaps for good reason. Oftentimes a single buoy can mean the difference between making top dollar at a pro event and not even breaking even, so countless hours are logged chasing orange, pass after pass, line length after line length.
That cast shattered last fall, however, when WaterSki rounded up a group of the world's finest shortliners, who took a short break from the buoys and hit the calm open waters of Don Pedro Lake in northern California. Nestled within the sprawling foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the 20-mile-long stretch of water-ski nirvana offers 160 miles of scenic shoreline without the crowds. And with a well-equipped Forever Resorts 70-foot houseboat anchored in a private cove of the lake serving as our floating home, there was only one goal in mind: enjoying the moment.
While pro slalom skiers and slack line turns do not usually go hand in hand, the first day of skiing aw more mistimed turns than a Minnesota lake on the Fourth of July. Nick Parsons, in the midst of his most successful season to date, was the first to reveal his kryptonite by linking a pass of uncharacteristic wheelie turns, even at 32 off. “It took me at least two or three sets to fall in line,” Parsons admits. “Without any reference point to time my release, I was pulling too long and just falling out the back.”
It was not the loose line turns that concerned Parsons the most, however. “I was tripping so hard on the deep water,” he says. Accustomed to skiing on 5-foot-deep manmade lakes, the crew quickly learned Parsons was terrified of Don Pedro's expansive abyss. “Every time the boat stopped, I started seriously freaking out,” he says. “All I could do was hug my knees and hope for the best.”
The free-skiing experience was a learning curve for Natalie Hamrick as well. “I had always avoided free-skiing at all costs,” says Hamrick. Without buoys dictating her turns, she admitted that her prior free-skiing photo shoots were a collection of wheelies, grimaces and shots of her completely out of position.
The start of Hamrick's first set on Don Pedro was no different. She encountered her usual wheelies because she was finishing the turns with her head. But with a couple of tips from the peanut gallery, her perspective of free-skiing took a 180-degree turn. “I kept my vision looking down the lake until my ski completely finished the turn, and the wheelies just went away,” says Hamrick.
The grimaces were replaced with smiles. “Without projecting ahead at how you are going to turn the next buoy, you can really work on slowing everything down and can focus on one thing at a time,” says Hamrick.
Another skier who was slow to adapt to open-water turns was course crusher Asher. “I'm not sure if I ever did get fully dialed,” Asher laughed. “I was just going far too easy at first.” Once Asher found his stride, he began to link his signature “Asher” turns without the reference of the slalom course. He says, “I just started going much harder than I initially felt I needed to and things got smoother for me.”
For Asher, it was far more than the endless miles of glass that made the trip so memorable. “Just getting to hang out and ski with such a diverse group of personalities and styles really made the week,” he says. “Skiing, partying and living together for a few days forced us all to let our guards down and really get to know one another.”
For Radar team skier Chris Rossi, the open-water sessions awakened his visual senses. “I ski so much on small, manmade lakes that it was nice to take in the beauty of a big lake,” says Rossi. With the lake water far below its normal level, the orange rock-sloped banks and all of the reflections on the water gave the illusion of skiing on another planet. In one glass-calm pass alone, Rossi carved close to 40 turns. Although his marathon run was a big departure from the usual six turns in a course, you could tell he loved every minute of it. “My heart felt like it was going to explode,” says Rossi. “I've never had that long of a run with complete glass.”
The time on Don Pedro Lake was also defined by new skiing experiences. West Coast technique advocate Marcus Brown proved that there's more exploration to his skiing than just the confines of a slalom course. To break up the monotony of his training, he had been skiing with a 150-foot, zero-stretch spectra line and wanted to share the buzz that is comparable to giant slalom. With the boat dialed in at 38 mph, Brown, Asher, Trent Finlayson and Terry Winter took turns figuring out the timing and movements required to link turns of sizable proportions.
“Unreal,” commented Finlayson, one of the first to take to the lengthened rope and accelerated speed. “You hook up a turn, set your direction and then just hold on. It starts off so quiet back there, but by the time you're into the wakes, the wind is howling in your ears.” So pumped on the feeling, Finlayson took three solid sets, the final one lasting well beyond the beautiful Cali sunset.
A change to his normal ski routine was exactly what Winter was looking for. “I have always wondered why we cling to so many constraints when it comes to slalom,” says Winter. “Supercross, snow skiing, downhill mountain biking — all of their courses vary from site to site and race to race. Yet many skiers are afraid to even experiment with change.”
Winter quickly got dialed with the longer line and increased speed, linking turn after turn. “It was fast man, almost scary at times,” he says. “It was the first time I felt out of control on my slalom ski in a long while.”
Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box to resurrect the emotion of skiing for the first time. There's not a feeling like it in the world — fun, unabashed exhilaration and the pure stoke of hitting turns with your friends.
And although it's likely nothing official will come from that afternoon's session, that was far from the point. No matter how much fun and exploration the group had in the open water, the lure of the sheltered slalom course in one of the narrow channels of Don Pedro Lake was just too inviting to pass up. For California native Winter it was a set down memory lane. “This is where I skied in my first tournament,” explained Winter as he idled his Moomba Outback through the channel to the slalom course.
Not much has changed in the site that gave Winter his first tournament experience. Clorox bottles acted as boat guides and the course still maintained its absence of pre-gates and magnets. Even so, Winter felt right at home in the old-school course with a run of
3 at 41 off. The club skiers of Don Pedro would have been proud, had they only known the level of greatness that consumed their water playground.
The amalgamation of so many distinct styles and personalities on one stretch of water, regardless of the size, was a visual treat. From the explosiveness of Brown's West Coast technique to the flowing style of Jason Paredes and the carefree spirit of Hamrick, it took a four-day getaway from the busy season to remind the top pro skiers of how and why they got their start in this sport to begin with — a pure love for skiing: plain, simple and free.