CAMP RIPLEY -- John Harkin, the wax technician for the Army's World Class Athletes Program, brings to work Wednesday morning a metal box about the size of a briefcase. The contents are worth $5,000.
That's $5,000 worth of ski wax in a box that looks like the tool kit you bought at Sears for $69.99.
If you're a cross country skier you might be amazed to learn that anything associated with this economical, bare-bones sport, which a beginner can get into for about $60, could cost $5,000. But that's the price tag when the stakes are high, when the skier isn't Bob of Brainerd doing his weekly loop around the Northland Arboretum but an Olympic-class athlete who trains year-round.
On this morning Harkin, 65, works in a small, windowless hut adjacent to Camp Ripley's biathlon range, where the National Guard Bureau Championships are taking place. Against the wall leans 12 pairs of skis that must be waxed within the next several hours. It's a light work load. Often Harkin waxes from sunup to well after sundown.
"Sometimes I do as many as four waxings per ski per race," said Harkin, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Bozeman, Mont. "First I apply a wax that cleans the ski, then a sub-layer of graphite, then a base wax and then a fluorocarbon. Sometimes we use a special speed wax, depending on the temperature and humidity."
It's the fluorocarbon waxes that are so expensive. Each must be refined several times for maximum purity. A container the size of the popular Swix brand used by amateurs costs about $100.
Biathlon skis need a special waxing process because the competitors "skate" rather than ski in the classical cross country style. Skating has been used since 1985 because it allows for faster times and easier transport of the .22-caliber rifles.
Harkin begins by scraping off the old wax. A new wax base is applied with an iron. After the ski cools the process is repeated. Then the ski is cleaned with a metal brush. A ski is ready when no more wax can be removed from its surface.
"You start with a clean surface and end with a clean surface," said Harkin, who has worked with the WCAP program since 1998. "You want a waxed surface rather than wax itself. What gets into the pores of the ski is all that's there."
Each WCAP skier has about 12 pairs of skis, Harkin said. This past week at Camp Ripley most used their "rock skis" because the trails were rougher than usual.
Harkin has a contract with the Army that runs from October through March. He will travel to Salt Lake City in February to wax skis for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team, whose membership consists of five Army skiers.
Harkin, a former Alpine ski coach in Michigan and Montana, has waxed a lot of skis over the years and said he's mostly self-taught. It's simple, painstaking work with a simple reward.
"It's nice to have people say that they had good skis today," Harkin said during a pause in his work. "It hurts when they say they weren't very good. The satisfaction comes in knowing I did my best. It doesn't always work out perfectly, but I want to know I did everything I could do."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.