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Touring on skis in Bretton Woods

We push off through the powder snow, heading down the five-mile touring trail that winds from the top of the Bretton Woods chairlift to the bottom of the mountain.

Through a clearing in the trees, we glance down on the buildings of Bretton Woods Resort - town houses, lodge, ski touring center, and the enormous white, wooden, 79-year-old Mount Washington Hotel.

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Beyond is the mountain, the giant of New England at 6,288 feet, wrapped in mist most of the day and only emerging for brief viewings.

It is the presence of the mountain that makes Bretton Woods such a good ski touring area, for the westerly winds that hit Mt. Washington drop an average of 180 inches of snow on this area annually. A high base elevation of 1,900 feet usually guarantees that the precipitation will be snow instead of rain.

The sun breaks through the cloud cover as we glide along ''Mountain Road,'' following the ridge along gentle ups and downs. Stepping off the track into the three feet of fluffy snow, I feel as if I'm floating downhill.

This trail could be very difficult under icy conditions, but today it is delightfully easy. Taking time to photograph, and to enjoy the quiet of the woods, we complete the tour in a little under two hours.

We lunch at the touring center, watching a family of cross-country skiers start out, a man, wife, and two children, aged 1 and 2. The man hooks a harness to his waist which pulls a sled for the children.

Two couples waxing up for a picnic in the woods comment that they switched from downhill skiing to cross-country this year. ''It's to get away from the crowds and the expense,'' the group leader says.

Cross-country skiing, also called Nordic skiing, or ski touring, is growing in popularity throughout New England. Many downhill ski resorts have added trails for cross-country skiing. There are over 80 ski touring centers in New England, listed on the Eastern Ski Map published by the National Survey, Chester , Vt., 05143.

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At Bretton Woods, during the 1981 season, 20,000 ski touring tickets were sold, in contrast to 66,000 alpine tickets. That's 1 in 3 skiers opting for cross-country touring; more switch over all the time.

There is a tendency to mix the two, to ski downhill on Saturday and cross-country on Sunday. In some families, the children prefer the fast downhill runs, while the parents go for the quiet wooded trails. At Bretton Woods, an excellent Hobbit Ski Program for children aged 3 to 12 takes care of the youngsters all day - including lunch, a rest, and a ski movie - leaving parents free to ski-tour.

A new sport has emerged, ''Norpine'' - a mix between Nordic and alpine. It is cross-country skiing on downhill slopes, using a new type of ski, narrow and light, with metal edges. We saw a Norpine expert linking telemark turns down the steep slopes under the chairlift.

Along with the growing popularity of ski touring, fashions have changed. Ten years ago, the cross-country skier wore jeans, a heavy wool shirt, and a 60/40 parka, and used wooden skis. Today you see people in bright polyester matching suits, or wearing one- piece racing outfits made of Lifa. Most people use fiber-glass skis, some carefully waxed, others waxless. Many enjoy racing.

Cross-country ski races range from local touring center fun to elaborate nationwide events such as the Great American Ski Chase, now in its fourth year. This race is a series of eight marathons held in various places across the United States, the largest of which, the Norwegian American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, may attract 7,000 skiers this year.

Two of these eight marathons are New England-based, the Yukon Jack Ski Marathon at Bretton Woods, March 13, a 30-mile race (you may ski only 15 miles if you wish), and the American Ski Marathon, Feb. 6, at Blueberry Hill, Goshen, Vt., a 35-mile event. (Entry blanks are available through USSA, Ski Chase, Box 100, Park City, Utah, 84060.)

The biggest cross-country ski race of the year is the 1982 USSA Subaru National Cross Country Championships, Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, at Bretton Woods. Not only will there be spectator events, and stars such as Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch, but there will also be events in which the general public can participate.

On Jan. 30 and 31 a Nordic Carnival will feature citizen races along with the national events. Another carnival event is ''Challenge the Champions Citizens Race,'' with interval starts and electronic timing. There will be clinics on waxing by the United States Ski Team, videotaping (you can see yourself ski), an opportunity to try out equipment of various manufacturers, and a final reception , open to the public, with prizes.

New England ski touring centers offer a wide variety of possibilities, from ski racing to overnight camping. The Viking (Little Pond Road, Londonderry, Vt. (802) 824-3933) offers guided luncheon tours from the ski touring center seven miles to The Inn at Weston, with the option of skiing back again or riding in a truck after a gourmet luncheon, all for $15 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Mountain Meadows Ski Touring Center (Route 4, Killington, Vt., 05751 (802) 775-7055) offers free skiing to anyone over 60. A Race for the Roses on Valentine's Day is a couples' relay race, with the tag-off being a kiss.

At Cummington Farms, halfway from Northampton to Pittsfield on Route 9 (South Road, Cummington, Mass. 01026 (413) 634-5386), you can ski out to a rustic group of cabins and enjoy a served dinner by an open fireplace, then bunk down in your own sleeping bag. Your sleeping bag and luggage are transported by sled while you ski. A two-mile lighted trail is open for night skiing Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (Jackson, N.H. (603) 383-9355) is a nonprofit organization in an attractive alpine village. The ski center has rental equipment and a place to wax up before setting out on the 140 kilometers (85 milesl) of trails.

Waterville Valley Ski Touring Center (Waterville Valley, N.H. (603) 236-8371) offers a combination of alpine slopes next to 33 miles of groomed, patrolled trails. For families with babies, Waterville Valley has an excellent nursery.

Appalachian Mountain Club (Pinkham Notch, Gorham, N.H. 03581 (603) 466-2727) offers special weekends for cross-country skiers, Introductory Weekend on Feb. 20 and 21, and Intermediate and Advanced Weekend on Feb. 27-28. For the adventurous, AMC keeps a cabin open with a caretaker at Zealand Falls, a six-mile ski in from Route 302 near Crawford Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

For the family that skates as well as skis, Carrabassett Valley Touring Center (Carrabassett, Maine (207) 237-2205) offers 80 miles of ski trails and a skating rink that is lighted at night. This center is near Sugarloaf Mountain.

Sunday River Ski Touring Center and Inn (RFD 2, Box 141, Bethel, Maine, 04217 (207) 824-2410) is a quiet winter retreat, particularly appealing to families with children. Skiers who like exploring old logging roads can have their fill at Sunday River.

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