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Dashing Through the Snow

by Clare Coppa

Norbert Johnson likes to attach things to his feet that sometimes get him in trouble.

Wearing his 2.1 m cross-country skis caused him to almost become dinner for wolves, and made him feel humble when an octogenarian passed him in a ski race. But most times his skiing isn’t about getting anywhere fast, it’s about getting rejuvenated in the snow and crisp air.

Johnson, a 28-year veteran of ASTM and past chairman of Committee E12, is dedicated to the standardization and measurement of the brightness and color of retroreflective highway materials. A physicist in 3M’s Traffic Control Materials Division, Johnson, 61, has tripled his endurance since he started skiing at 40.

“The great thing about cross-country skiing is you don’t get cold,” he said from his office in St. Paul, Minn. “You dress rather lightly because you burn energy when you paddle along, and you keep warm.” Johnson and his wife Heather have skied in 20-below-zero temperatures. “We can’t wait for winter to come,” he said. “People say, ‘oh it’s going to get cold and snowy.’ But we say, ‘oh I hope it snows, ‘cause I can go skiing.’ Course, if you’ve lived in Minnesota as many years as I have, your mind becomes a little demented in that way.”

Too little snow caused Johnson to become wolf bait in January ’02. As he and Heather skied in Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, they passed a bloody carcass maimed by wolves. Soon after, he slipped on thin snow, shattered his ankle, and had to wait 20 minutes alone until Heather returned with a medic. “It seems there are always a few risks associated with being a bit adventurous,” he said, “but life is too short not to get out and enjoy it fully.”

Each year Mora, Minn., hosts the Mora Vasaloppet citizens’ ski races, and the Johnsons enter the 42K classic event. “I never win,” he said, laughing. “My goal is to finish. My wife’s a better skier than I. She has won in her class.”

Visitors to the twin cities can cross-country ski nearby at Como Park, about 5 minutes from downtown St. Paul, and Hyland Park, with lighted evening trails, 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. “It’s a great way to stay active in the winter,” Johnson said.

Copyright 2003, ASTM