Pine Valley soars into 50th yearLooking back on the past 50 years at Pine Valley and how a dream became a community's reality.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The people of Cloquet have a way of transforming grittiness into greatness.
More than a few local “rink rats” who started out scrabbling over the ice of Pinehurst, Athletic or Sather rinks have gone on to become professional hockey players and/or Olympians. Likewise, countless young people who have strapped on their first pair of skis – and taken their first face plants – on the slopes at Pine Valley have gone on to win local, state and national ski titles, and a handful of them went on to greatness at the Olympics as well.
It was that same sort of fervor and determination that spurred a handful of local skiers to pursue an almost unheard-of dream 50 years ago to build a first-rate Nordic and ski jumping facility within the city limits of the small community of Cloquet. This month, Pine Valley celebrates that anniversary and the realization of that dream.
“With visions of putting together a championship ski team,” said former ski coach Joe Nowak, “we searched the Cloquet area for a site that would allow a ski jump to produce flights of 30-40 meters to meet the standards of the Minnesota High School League.”
Nowak, a worldwide competitor in ski jumping and alpine racing, came to Cloquet in 1958 as a science teacher and ski coach. During his first year of coaching at Cloquet, he concluded that Cloquet skiers lacked the type of competition jump that would develop a well-rounded team. The existing 20-meter jump was located at Gillete’s Hill (just west of what is now Applebee’s restaurant).
Several suitable sites were found but proved to be unavailable until finally, in 1961, forester Ed Jankowski led Nowak to a hill southwest of the Cloquet Armory that proved to have considerable promise. The elevation was measured and it met the necessary height, so an appeal was launched to Northwest Paper Company, who owned the land, in the hopes of finding training grounds for the fledgling jumping team. Northwest Paper offered the entire 40-acre plot to be used for skiing if the city of Cloquet would accept the land as a park and pay for a suitable insurance program. With the guidance of the Cloquet Park Board led by Al Spafford, plans got under way, with the skiers themselves cutting brush and weeds on weekends and during after-school work parties.
During one session, Nowak solicited ideas for names for the ski area. Because of all of the towering pines in the area, someone wrote on a suggestion slip, “Let’s call it Pine Valley!” Nowak liked the name, and it stuck.
In the fall of 1961, the skiers themselves erected a temporary wooden ski jump, and high school coach Herb Drew was commissioned to paint the name on an eight-foot by six-foot board which was later nailed to the take-off of the temporary ski jump. A network of trails through the wooded acreage of the park was also established, and cross country skiing practice began the following January, coinciding with the first United States Ski Association (USSA) jump meet to be held there.
A cinder block chalet was added in fall 1962, much of it accomplished once again through donated time and labor, and lights were added to the ski jump. The Cloquet Ski Club was established that same year, with Nowak paying the USSA fees for the 15 members out of his own pocket.
In spring 1963, the local ski group was able to secure enough steel to build a 40-meter ski jump from Duluth Mesabe and Iron Range Railroad as they dismantled their water towers in Proctor. An accompanying 15-meter jump for beginners was also built adjacent to the larger jump. That December, it was Nowak who took the opening ride on the big jump – and the rest became history. A slalom hill with a rope tow was added as well.
Mike Marciniak joined the Cloquet High School coaching staff in 1963-64 in charge of the cross country ski team, which went on to accomplish great success as well. Marcinak helped supervise the upgrading of the trails to accommodate the skating technique that became popular in the 1980s and also worked to add night skiing to Pine Valley by helping to develop a lighting system on a portion of the trails.
As Pine Valley played host to bigger and more prestigious events, the chalet was upgraded in 1971, thanks to a donation from the Noon Kiwanis Club. Another primary supporter, the Cloquet VFW, served as sponsor for the annual Cloquet Invitational Jumping and Cross Country Ski meet for more than 40 years.
It was 50 years ago this month that the land was transferred to the city for the ski facility. In the years following, local skiers earned their way to 13 state championships in 15 years and garnered for the northern Minnesota community a reputation for producing high-caliber skiers. Ski jumping was dropped by the Minnesota State High School League in 1978, but in the meantime the League had added skiing sports (cross country and biathlon skiing) for girls in 1975. Cloquet’s Patrice Jankowski won three consecutive individual state championship titles in cross country skiing, followed by Barb Unzen who won an individual state ski title in 1980. Jankowski also participated in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Biathlon competition, and Steve Flankey represented the U.S. in Biathlon in the 1979 World Junior Championships and in the 1980 Olympic Team Trials.
Other notables spawned by the Pine Valley program included Mike Randall, who competed in the 1984 Olympics in the Nordic Combined event; Denny Nelson, who joined the U.S. Biathlon team and trained in Europe and Alaska; and Dave and Don Quinn, who finished first and second in the American Birkebeiner at Telemark.
Many, many other local skiers distinguished themselves in regional and state events as well, with parents and coaches staging numerous fundraisers to help defray their expenses.
Today, many accomplished skiers continue to come out of the Cloquet Ski Club program, whose roots and traditions grew out of those early years at Pine Valley.
“This facility became a landmark on the Cloquet landscape and earned the city a place in Minnesota sports history,” stated an article on Pine Valley written by Nowak and Tom Urbanski for the city of Cloquet’s Centennial publication, “Stories of a Century.” “That reputation became legendary in the 1960s and 1970s.”
“Pine Valley has been linked to many happy memories since those early days when the steel ski jumps were built there and the well-designed chalet was modernized,” said Nowak. “Congratulations to the Cloquet Ski Club and the mothers who ran the chalet and the lunch counter, the Park Department that kept the area up to date, and mostly to Hank Nelson, the superintendent of Cloquet parks [at the time it was built].”
Nowak himself played a pivotal role at Pine Valley and was recently awarded his third “Hall of Fame” award for 65-plus years of involvement in the United States Ski Association (USSA) ski development program that has touched the lives of many youths who later went on to accomplish success in their sport, as well as many more who simply enjoyed the outdoor sport and all that it had to offer.
“Mr. Kendall’s [of Northwest Paper] donation of land sparked many people into action who later went on to make the area well known,” reflected Nowak.
“At a special ski banquet held in Cloquet in 1960,” related Nowak, “the past president of the USSA, Harold Grinden, saw an outline of the ski jump planned for Cloquet and remarked, ‘Build that and you will be practically unbeatable!’ And he was right.”
Retired teacher and ski coach Joe Nowak and Cloquet High School graduate and cross country skier Tom Urbanski contributed to this story.