Duluthians rally to keep Piedmont Ski Trail quirky
A team of volunteers has stepped up to replace and preserve the beloved signs that give a popular local ski trail its unique character.
Glen Nelson had nearly resigned himself to the likelihood that the whimsical collection of humorous signs he had handcrafted and hung with the help of Jerry Nowak, his long-time ski buddy, eventually would be whittled away to nothing, as the wooden placards continued to go missing from the Piedmont Ski Trail. As of this fall, 17 of the 57 signs were taken, and at 84 years of age, Nelson said he was getting "toward the end of my rope."
Nelson explained that it was simply getting to be too much work for him and Nowak, age 94, to maintain the signs, which they have tended for the last 50-some years. He concluded the time had come to say, "enough," and he shared that difficult decision with the News Tribune a couple of weeks ago.
But readers weren't ready to see the signs go.
In the days that followed the article, several people reached out to Nelson, asking if they could lend a hand to ensure the signs remained a part of the trail's scenery and charm for years to come.
Among the volunteers was a team from Flint Group, a local advertising and marketing firm.
Peg Johnson, the operations coordinator for the agency, shared the story of Nelson's plight with her co-workers, and they collectively decided to volunteer their services.
"I was speechless," Nelson said, noting that Johnson was a former student from his days as a teacher and ski coach in Proctor.
The task was a natural fit for the Flint Group crew, as a collection of hikers, skiers and runners with an accomplished woodworker — art director Ken Zakovich — in the mix, said Jessica Hehir, a public relations specialist for the firm.
Nelson said he used to put up the signs at the start of each ski season and take them down at the end. Last year, he handed that duty over to Duluth's parks and recreation department, which posted them but didn't have the staff time to take them down, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parks Manager Jessica Peterson expressed thanks for the upwelling of volunteer support at Piedmont and said: "I think it's kind of exactly what we hoped for: sort of a community passing of the torch."
"It speaks to the lasting impact Glen and Jerry have had out there. People recognized the special and unique value of those signs bring to that trail, and they want to see it continue," Peterson said.
Hehir said she and her colleagues at Flint are ready to take on that job and they hope to have replacement signs for those that went missing back on the trails within a couple of weeks.
"We're going to try to stay as true to Glen and Jerry's spirit as we can," Hehir said, explaining that they want to emulate the rustic homemade look of the original signs.
"We love the folksy charm and how truly Duluth-y it is that somebody would have the humor to put up some signs and just craft them from scratch to make people smile. What a legacy. They've been doing it for decades, these buddies out there. So, that charm, the creativity, the skills, the humor, the stories behind the signs. It really struck a chord with all of us, because we're in a very creative field, too," Hehir said.
Nelson said he's still a bit stunned by the offer of support from Flint staff. "I thought, 'Wow. The best thing I can do now is stay out of the way.' That's kind of hard to do, but it sounds like they are really on the ball."
"It's just nice to know there are people out there that care," he said.
Nelson recalled that early on in his sign-making endeavors, he heard from a county official who challenged his right to cut trails and place signs on tax-forfeited land that was not his. But Nelson and Nowak continued to receive positive feedback from skiers. So much so, that they were not to be dissuaded and carried forward with their merry trail work.
Recent events lead Nelson to believe even more strongly that he and Nowak were wise to continue with their sign-punctuated trails.
"It makes me feel good to know that maybe what we did was in the right vein, just to put a smile on the face and break up the monotony of the trail," he said.
"If somebody wants to pick up the slack and keep it going. Boy, more power to them," Nelson said.