Gone are the days when many northern Minnesota towns boasted at least one ski jump. Now Cloquet and Coleraine are the only places north of St. Paul that still offer this most daring Nordic sport.
Cloquet took its turn in the spotlight last weekend as residents and visitors came to Pine Valley to compete in and watch the annual Cloquet City Ski and Jump Meet. Jumpers as young as 3 or four flew off the tiny 5- and 10-meter jumps built into the snow, while the older kids and several adults launched themselves off the imposing 20- and 40-meter jumps that tower over the trees at the woodland park.
At 57, Minneapolis resident Joe Berens may have been the oldest man competing Sunday; the youngest competitors were at least 53 years younger than the master ski jumper.
Aside from a year when he was 11, Berens said he didn't start jumping until he was 41.
"I watched the Salt Lake City Olympics and said, 'I can do that,'" Berens said, adding that he loves coming up to the Cloquet meet because it's "such a nice little club atmosphere and so many nice people."
Duluth master ski jumper Erik Hagfors visits Cloquet each year as part of a tour that also includes jumps in Chicago, Madison and St. Paul.
"Those are fun, sometimes international people come and it's a big party with thousands of spectators," Hagfors said on a day when he was jumping in front of closer to 75 people. "But this is one I try to make every year. What more could you ask for on a day like today? It's perfect."
While the majority of the participants were teenagers and children from the Cloquet area and Coleraine, one former Ukrainian Olympic jumping team coach even brought his tweenage son, Maxim Glyvka, from the Chicago area for the event.
Two of Cloquet's best ski jumpers - Cloquet High School juniors Aidan Ripp and Woody Waugh - didn't compete. Waugh is currently an exchange student in Italy and Ripp has outgrown the 40-meter jump at Pine Valley and could hurt himself by jumping too far.
However, Ripp's 13-year-old sister, Charlotte, jumped the 40-meter, a pair of translucent wings strapped to her back on a day that was more about fun.
Missing was the late Joe Nowak, the former Cloquet High School ski coach who first envisioned a place where his team could do it all. With help from Northwest Paper Co., the city and lots of other people, Nowak made that dream a reality - his team members and volunteers erecting the first wooden jump in 1961, then cutting trails through the woods by January.
In spring 1963, Nowak was able to secure enough steel from Mesabe and Iron Range Railroad to build a more permanent jump. An accompanying 15-meter jump (now 20 meters) was also built adjacent to the larger 40-meter jump. That December, it was Nowak who took the opening ride on the big jump - and the rest became history.
Later, that ski-jumping place was named the "Joe Nowak Ski Area," and still is.
Since then, Pine Valley has been home to the Lumberjacks Nordic ski team each winter. It was also home to a Cloquet team that won the combined alpine, Nordic and ski jumping title at every state meet from 1965-1971, took third in 1972 and then first again each year from 1973 through 1976, before they separated the winter sports.
Although 1977 was the last year ski jumping was part of high school sports in Minnesota, Cloquet has continued to train champion jumpers.
Charlotte Ripp is currently ranked No. 1 for girls in her age group in the Central Division for Nordic combined, which combines jumping with Nordic ski racing.
Big brother Aidan has been competing in ski jumping and Nordic combined since he was in eighth grade, and internationally since he was 15 years old. Later this month, he will travel to Norway to compete again. In February, he competed in the U.S. Cup in Vermont in Nordic combined and headed to Alaska for Junior Nationals with basically a one-day layover in Minnesota.
Ripp said it was all about fun when he was younger and learning how to jump and ski at Pine Valley, but now that he has competed in so many different places, he looks at his stomping ground with new appreciation - and an eye for what could help the next generation of skiers.
"The rough edges taught me how to jump and not to fear things other people might," Ripp said, talking about how high the jumps at Pine Valley rise above the hill versus some that are built right into the side of larger hills. "Once you can jump these, other hills don't seem quite so scary."
The fact that the volunteers at the Cloquet Ski Club, including co-coaches Pat Marciniak and Ken Ripp (Aidan and Charlotte's father), made sure the hill and chalet were open regularly made a big difference. Having a tow rope to bring jumpers back up quickly meant they could complete a lot of jumps in an evening. And, even with climate change, the winters in northern Minnesota are kinder to skiers and ski jumpers than many other places.
"Our cross-country ski trails are constantly open," Ripp said, noting how a 70-degree day in Vermont in February ruined the skiing in a day. "That consistency is huge. It may not be the national training center, but it's one of the best (facilities) in the area. That's what I love so much."
On the other hand, Ripp can see some easy ways to make a good thing even better. Snowmaking equipment could help with jumping, Nordic skiing and the city's tubing hills. The jumps at Pine Valley are quickly approaching 60 years old and need care.
In addition, Ripp would love to see steel tracks for the 20- and 40-meter jumps. Right now, the club members have to wait until there's enough snow on the jumps, then cut a track into the snow for an in run, then "pour gallons of water" in the track to make sure it ices up and is firm for the jumpers. Ripp said it's a very time consuming process and one sunny day can destroy all those hours and hours of work.
Jon Waugh, a volunteer whose three children all either jumped or skied or both, said he figures snowmaking and steel tracks are just "pipe dreams" as the city leaves most things jumping up to the volunteers at the Cloquet Ski Club.
"I would love to have a more collaborative relationship with the city, though," Waugh said, "especially as far as grooming the hills and the trails. The city does a good job, but the groomer is also the plow truck driver and there are more important things for him to do first. But we would love to help if they would let us use the equipment."
Those things are far from the minds of most competitors this weekend - they were more focused on having fun, doing well and grabbing a snack at the concession stand.
Sunday wrapped up with an awards ceremony, where nearly every skier and jumper walked out wearing round wooden medals marked with event and place, perhaps cut from fallen trees at Pine Valley, in the heart of the City of Wood.