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Nordic skiing thrives in Minnesota

Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club will be hosting Duluth author Ryan Rodgers on Saturday, April 2 to talk about his book, "Winter's Children," and the history of Nordic skiing.

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A new generation of children are learning the sport of Nordic skiing thanks to help from Itascatur club members who provide lessons and share their enthusiasm for the outdoors with area youth.
Contributed/ Deane Johnson
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PARK RAPIDS — Norwegians who immigrated to Minnesota brought their love of skiing with them.

Many shared their enthusiasm for skiing with their children, passing the sport from one generation to the next.

Since there were no mountains in Minnesota, they built ski jumps or adapted to skiing on the woods and prairies of their new homeland.

A celebration of Nordic skiing will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at the Soaring Eagle cross country ski area outside of Park Rapids and feature a talk and book signing by Ryan Rodgers, author of “Winter’s Children.”

Brita Sailer has been a member of the local Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club for over 30 years.

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“It’s a really comprehensive history of a part of Minnesota most people aren’t familiar with,” she said. “There are pictures in his book of old wooden skis like those I learned to ski on. There are also stories of people who came over from Norway and brought skiing to Minnesota and North Dakota.”

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Contributed/ University of Minnesota Press

A history of Nordic skiing

Minnesota is top in the nation when it comes to the number of cross-country skiers.

Rodgers, who lives in Duluth, collected old photos from around the state for his coffee table book, along with stories that showcase the unique history of Nordic skiing in Minnesota.

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Ryan Rodgers
Contributed / Patrick O'Leary

“Back in the old days, cross-country skiing was something people did to get from point A to point B,” he said. “The first mention of skiing in the United States was in Wisconsin, and it told about a man who went on cross country skis to the next town to buy flour. The first reference to skiing in Minnesota that I could find told about a Finn skiing from Duluth to St. Paul in two days. It was reported in one of the Minneapolis newspapers, and they called them Lapland snow skates.”

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In 1940, William Sautbine of Walker, Minnesota, leads a family outing on the ski trails of the Shingobee Winter Playground in the Chippewa National Forest.
Contributed/ Leland J. Prater, U.S. Forest Service Records, National Archives.

Rodgers’ book also talks about the ski jumping clubs that were popular in Minnesota before World War II.

“Jumping was the sport that drew in the crowds, but cross-country skiing gained popularity as it was championed by Norwegian Americans in Minnesota,” he said.

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Art Cassell sits on a Ski-Doo Skandic owned by the Bemidji Area Cross Country Ski Club. The Skandic, a popular model for trail grooming, is a wide-tracked snowmobile built for pulling loads.
Contributed / Bruce Slinkman
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Spectators arrived at a jumping tournament hosted by the Park Region Ski Club in Fergus Falls on horse-drawn wagons and sleighs, circa 1910.
Contributed / Adrian Watt collection

Rodgers hopes some of the people attending the event at the Soaring Eagle north of Park Rapids will bring their old skis, skiing photos and stories to share as well.

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Skiing with Itascatur

Sailer has been cross-country skiing since she was a young child.

“I grew up near Alexandria, and when I was a kid we found two pairs of old wooden skis of my dad’s,” she said. “They had a single strap you shoved your foot into so you could only go forward. My siblings, cousins and I used to go down a hill repeatedly. We’d also put on the skis and go traipsing around fields on drifts and in the woods even though we didn’t have poles.”

The Sailers have been cross-country skiing in the Park Rapids area for more than 30 years.

“When our children were little, we took them out skiing with us,” she said. “They weren’t thrilled, but they learned to ski and enjoy being outside. They liked interacting with the other kids who came with their parents. It really is a family sport. Winter is long, but if you ski it makes winter so short and you’re really sad when the snow goes.”

Proceeds from club events, such as the Headwaters 100 bike ride, have helped build and maintain the Soaring Eagle Ski Trails and Nordic Center, north of Park Rapids.

“Our club is for all outdoor activities, running, biking, skiing, snowshoeing,” she said. “Improvements, such as the snowshoe trails, added in 2017, are made by volunteers.“

Soaring Eagle
Trails at Soaring Eagles are tracked for both traditional skiing and skate skiing, which is becoming more popular every year.
Contributed/ Deane Johnson.

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“These skis are shorter than classic skis, and waxed only for glide,” she said. “The motion is like ice skating. You skate on the flat, herringbone your way up hills and get great glide on downhills. It's fantastic exercise.”

Soaring Eagle features about 10 kilometers of four different interconnected trails with levels from beginner to more challenging.

“Lots and lots of people come out,” Sailer said. “It’s just amazing.”

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A new generation of skiers

Sailer said one goal of the Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club is to introduce children to the sport of cross-country skiing.

For the past several years, the club has collected donated ski equipment.

“Members teach lessons on selected Sundays and try to help other people get started in skiing,” she said. “There are skis, boots and poles of all sizes, from kids up to adults at the club. Members of the club can use those anytime. This can be helpful during holidays, when you don’t have enough skis for everybody but you want the whole family to be able to go out and ski. Of course, everybody has to have a ski pass.”

Minnesota ski passes can be purchased online or at any location state licenses are sold, including bait shops and Itasca State Park and help fund grooming and other trail work.

Itascatur doesn’t have a membership fee. “Membership is paid through volunteering,” she said. You work on the trails, help with the bike race and other club activities.”

Sailer said this winter’s skiing has been exceptional. “We’ve been able to pack the trails most of the winter until the recent warm weather,” she said. “I think Nordic skiing is on a rebound,” she said. “We saw many new families coming out to learn to ski and enjoy the trails this winter. It was wonderful to watch those little kids just zoom around.”

Nordic skiing celebration

A free presentation by Ryan Rodgers, author of “Winter’s Children”, will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 2. The event is sponsored by Itascatur and Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery scheduled to take place at the Soaring Eagle cross country ski area at 25467 off Hwy. 71, 8 miles north of Park Rapids.

Depending on the weather, the event will be held outdoors or in the ski warming house, ending with a potluck. The club will provide brats and hotdogs. If it is too muddy to reach the ski area, the event will be held at Beagle and Wolf Bookstore in Park Rapids.

Check the Soaring Eagle website or call the bookstore at 218-237-2665 the day of the event for more information. A Minnesota ski pass is required to use the trails.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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