CLOQUET - It doesn't take Charlotte Ripp long to recall when she first began skiing.
From the days riding trails along in her parents' backpack as an infant, to eventually getting her own two skis, the Cloquet eighth-grader has been around the winter sport ever since she could remember.
"Basically, they just threw me on some two-by-fours with a little wax," Ripp, 14, said of her parents, Ken and Carolyn, who got her hooked to the lifetime activity from day one. "Skiing means a lot to me. It's definitely a lifestyle."
That was evident earlier this week when Ripp and her Cloquet-Esko-Carlton teammates were preparing for the Nordic season, as herds of skiers took to the trails of Cloquet's Pine Valley, while the centralized chalet was constantly buzzing with teenagers dressed in winter attire along with their skis, poles and positivity.
Milling among them was first-year head coach Arne Maijala, taking over for Glen Sorenson, the latter of whom recently beat prostate cancer and retired after last season.
While Maijala assisted Sorenson the past two winters, the 50-year-old was seemingly exhausted when asked what it has been like taking over an ever-growing Lumberjacks program that includes three towns, two practice venues and over 100 skiers in grades 7-12.
"Extremely busy," said Maijala, a math teacher at the Cloquet Middle School.
Maijala was quick to highlight his host of help: assistants Ben Croft, Tim Stark, Ann and Gus Gustafson and Ken Ripp. While Maijala and Croft centralize at Pine Valley with the younger skiers, Stark, a former assistant at Duluth Denfeld, has helped supervise the veterans at Spirit Mountain in Duluth. It's busy, and takes some organizing, but it's an efficient strategy to get everyone on the paths.
While the program's numbers continue to climb, as does their care for one another. In a sport that is nothing short of costly - a set of classic and skate skis, poles, boots, bindings and wax, among just some of the necessary items - Maijala said that all of his skiers have skis, including his first-years, donated from the program and Croft's personal stock.
In fact, Charlotte Ripp remembers getting hand-me-down skis when she was growing up, while she's seen her old ones still in use today.
"It really is like a second family," Ripp said.
That it is. While Ripp is in her first winter on the CEC varsity, her older brother, Aidan, a senior, has been blazing the paths for a half-decade. He's one of the top Nordic combined - Nordic skiing and ski jumping - teens in the country, just recently returning home from Steamboat Springs, Colo., after competing in the United States Junior World Qualifier.
Meanwhile, Maijala's daughter, Anja, is a sophomore at NCAA Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, where she just won a national championship in her age division at last year's Junior Olympics in Utah.
His son, AJ, a sophomore, is also in his third year on the CEC varsity.
"Skiing is like a family reunion with other families," said AJ, who, admittedly, is "inspired" by his older sis. "I look up to her. I think a lot of people around here do."
Their father mentioned that several skiing families also took a trip to Yellowstone in Montana over Thanksgiving to get in some more skiing, including Carlton junior Spencer Hoeffling, Esko junior Hannah Zuck and the Ripps.
Aidan said he's been to Norway, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and most recently, the Czech Republic, to compete in skiing. The nationally-recognized senior met is friends with many athletes from the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Aidan has the rare chance to be an Olympian too, if the 5-foot-9, 135-pounder continues to progress.
"It's inspiring to be around someone like that," said sophomore teammate Josh Sanders, who also runs cross-country with Ripp. "Being from a small town and seeing someone rise up just shows that it can be done."
"It's cool to be around that," sophomore Benjamin Bauer said.
"By far, he's one of the best skiers in the state," coach Maijala said.
While Ripp will be busy balancing his high school and competitive combined schedules during the winter, the elder Maijala noted he will have plenty of help leading the way. In fact, Ripp, Sanders, Bauer, Hoeffling, Maijala, Cloquet senior Blaine Bong and freshman Cal Prosen are all back for the boys, while Charlotte Ripp, Zuck, home-schooled senior Andrea Hille, and Cloquet senior Elise Pickar and freshman Harmony Tracy are all talents for the girls.
The team begins their season Thursday, Dec. 6, at Mount Itasca in Coleraine, while the annual Cloquet Invitational is set for Jan. 8 at Pine Valley. By then, coach Maijala may be balancing his busy schedule better, yet, if not, he's content with the tradeoff.
"I have the utmost respect for Glen and the coaches of the sport. Everything has to be adjusted on the fly all the time. You've got to be prepared for everything," he said. "I love the sport, but the best part of the job is the kids - that's the reward."