Remembering homemade ski jumps in the 'Wild 80'
February 18, 2022
The recent article by Steve Korby on his memories of sliding and skiing in the woods in Cloquet triggered my own memories from the early 1960s.
I grew up on a dairy farm 3 miles northwest of Barnum. Even with few neighbor kids around, I don’t ever remember being bored for lack of fun or interesting things to do. I even felt a bit sorry for my classmates who lived in the big metropolis of Barnum — what would one do for fun in such a sterile, manmade environment?
One problem we faced in the winter is that our farm and the area around it were lacking in hills steep and long enough for good sliding or ski jumping. But we always made do as best we could. My dad had lived on the farm since 1917 and would tell stories about how he and the neighbor boys, Louie and Fritz, would build ski jumps in the “Wild 80,” the 80-acre block of woods on the farm. Their skis were the thick and heavy wooden type with a simple toe strap for bindings. I recall Dad claiming that his record jump was 38 feet.
It was probably inevitable that my older brother George and I would one day set out to best Dad’s record. The first challenge was to find the best hill in the Wild 80. Back in the 1920s, the woods were much more open due to white pine logging and the frequent fires that followed. By the 1960s, the woods were much thicker — with large trees — and that limited the choices of where we could build a jump.
We tried one hill but couldn’t get anywhere close to 38 feet, and soon set to work clearing brush and small trees off another. That first winter, there were two large aspens at the bottom of the hill that we would pass between while airborne. I am sure they were way too close together to meet any kind of safe standards for ski jumping. The next summer, I cut them for pulpwood (and I’m sure today not many would have approved of a ninth-grader alone in the woods cutting down trees).
Once the hill was cleared, George and I started experimenting with different techniques and jump placements to get the greatest speed and distance out of our adopted hill. We finally settled on a jump very near the bottom. That meant landing on flat ground. Landing on flat ground meant the skis would slap down very hard on the packed snow. This meant we were always breaking our skis. We became very skillful with wood glue and clamps. If a ski only cracked, we kept using it until there was a clean break and we could glue properly.
We always built a considerable hook into our ski jump to give us greater loft, and this hook put tremendous pressure on our skis just before liftoff. One day, George went off the jump with a cracked ski that broke upward, leaving the front end of the ski sticking up vertically out of the jump. I watched my brother go somersaulting through the air, landing in a crumple, and me wondering if he was ever going to get up. Somehow, no damage was done.
We kept coming up with new ideas to get more speed from our little hill. We built a 10-foot-high takeoff ramp supported by a clump of young aspen. We melted snow in an old copper boiler and iced the tracks. You should have heard the chatter of our skis on the slick surface.
We decided we’d get the greatest speed as it got colder at night. After milking the cows and eating supper, we would tromp the half-mile path out to the ski jump. To see, we’d build one fire on the top of the hill and one at the base. When one of us was ready to jump, others would throw evergreen boughs on each fire and that would light up the ski hill and all the woods around.
Alas, it was all for naught. We got close, but we could never break Dad’s record of 38 feet. We always wondered if he had embellished his memories just a bit.
Cloquet resident Roy Hagen’s passion for nature developed early on the dairy farm near Barnum where he grew up. He has gone on to work in forestry and natural resources in 42 countries, mostly in Africa and the western Indian Ocean. Contact him at [email protected]