Outdoors: He bombed the pond and then ditched the skis
January 3, 2020
Based on what I’ve been able to read in other newspapers, I’m not your typical outdoors columnist. For one, if I were listing jobs I currently occupy, writing for the Pine Knot News would be third or fourth down the list. Also, when I get time away from all my responsibilities, I tend to try to catch or hunt or spear something. I’m not much for taking long hikes with my dog or staring at a campfire contemplating the cosmos. I also don’t own a fat bike or a serviceable pair of skis. Truth be told, I’ve only skied once — and that was long ago.
My high school buddy, Jason Rockvam, convinced me to hit the slopes. Already a member of the ski patrol, Jason made skiing look pretty effortless. My only knowledge of downhill skiing came from the Olympics coverage of the 1994 Lillehammer games. We piled into his old Ford Bronco II and headed east out of Cloquet, destined for the Mont du Lac ski hill.
A quick stop in the rental shop and I was outfitted with boots and skis. A helmet would have been a fantastic idea, but damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I shuffled out of the chalet and looked sheepishly at the little kids learning to turn and stop and fall on the bunny hill. I wobbled and wavered but was able to work my way to the back of the ski lift line. Jason was patient, assuring me he would teach me the ins and outs of turning and stopping on the slopes.
His tutelage should have started with how to get on a chairlift.
The lift banged into the back of my legs sending me sideways, poles and arms and legs flailing for safety. Heart pounding, I gained a solid perch on the chairlift and began my ascent. Getting off the darn thing in one piece was my sole focus. Surprisingly, I navigated the departure without issue. I stood high atop the ski hill and took in my surroundings.
The bunny hill kids being pulled uphill by a giant rope looked even smaller from high above. The chalet, however, looked large and hittable. The hill itself was steep but mostly uninhabited. Most skiers were taking the long, relaxing way around.
Jason had already begun his descent around the side of the hill on the slower, tapered run. In a split second, I made a fateful decision that forever shaped my skiing career. I would bomb the hill straight in front of me, attempting to beat him to the bottom.
I leaned out over the tops of my skis and pointed myself downhill. Immediately I began to pick up steam. I replicated the Olympic skiers the best I could, tucking my knees into my chest as I lowered my head. Within seconds I realized how much trouble I was in. The world raced around me. My fight-or-flight kicked in. I wanted to lay to one side and end the nightmare. My mind was convinced this was my best option for survival. My body fought back, knowing a flash of light and the crunching of bones could accompany a fall at such a pace. ABC’s “Wild World of Sports,” with the agony-of-defeat guy flopping sideways across the hill, arms where legs should be and legs where arms should be, flashed in my consciousness. They call it a breakneck speed for a reason.
Before another thought passed, I was two-thirds down the hill and seconds from slamming into the line of skiers waiting to board the ski lift. I heard myself screaming “I don’t know how to stop!” as loud as I could muster. If no one moved I would have no choice but to force myself into a tumble. Mercifully, the line parted. I barreled through the crowd, my inertia refusing to relent.
In another split second, I was across the flat expanse behind the ski lift. I left all other ski tracks behind as I entered unchartered territory. I finally began to slow as my surroundings came into focus. I allowed the energy of the trip to dissipate. I stood tall in my skis waiting for them to stop breaking trail. I didn’t dare try to turn or attempt to make them stop. Finally, all went still.
I struggled to free myself from the bindings. I grabbed my skis and turned to trudge back to the chalet. To my surprise, members of the ski patrol were there whooping and hollering. “You bombed the pond!” They yelled. “Nobody bombs the pond!” I looked down at the one line of ski tracks that betrayed the only person shuffling back towards shore. I was well past the bottom of the hill, halfway across a pond most skiers don’t even notice.
I never turned — not once. I never really stopped, allowing myself to coast until stored energy gave out. I never fell, or I’d have been in big trouble. I skied … once, and I lived to tell about it.
I will stick with what I know, both in outdoor recreation and writing.
Bret Baker is a lifetime resident of Cloquet. He is a proud husband, father, educator and outdoorsman. Bret began guiding fishing trips when he was 16 years old. Today, in his 40s, his passion is to introduce people to the tremendous outdoor adventures our region has to offer.