For many outdoorsy Minnesotans, Nordic skiing feels like a part of our DNA. Northwoods ski lodges are abuzz with activity this time of year, the local high school teams top out at more than 100 participants, and the availability of groomed trails is unlike almost any other metropolitan area.
Today very few locals balk at the spandex-clad endurance buffs with fiberglass skinny skis atop their vehicle roof racks on the highway or the supremely bundled parents and young children shuffling around the lakes and local parks.
To say the scene has changed over the years would be an understatement. Back in the 1960s, the sport existed relatively on the fringes in Minnesota. A small and committed group would treat their skis with pine tar and blow torches before donning thick sweaters, wool knickers, and leather ski boots and heading out to lay fresh tracks in area parks without the benefit of machine-groomed tracks.
Many of these early Twin Cities skiers bought equipment from Norm Oakvik, a North High graduate who trained with the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and was an accomplished cross-country skier and ski jumper. A product of Norwegian immigrant parents, he and his friend Dag Helgestad imported wooden skis from Norway and sold them out of Oakvik’s basement.
Who were these early adopters? In large part, they were the founding members of the North Star Ski Touring Club, a Twin Cities-based group that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The club organized and drafted a constitution in 1967 with just 19 members. Joined by Oakvik and Helgestad at the helm were South Minneapolis native and former Montana ski patrolman Bob Larson and member of the United States Ski Association ski touring committee Jinny McWethy, who would later be referred to as “Mother North Star.” Ten years later, the club had grown to 1,600 skiers.
In a January 1970 Skiing Magazine article in which the North Stars were prominently featured, ski touring was described as follows: “There is adventure in touring — the opportunity to get into the backcountry in the dead of winter and to be there alone. The beauty of untracked snow — the entire landscape unpolluted by highways, power lines, ski lifts, service stations, houses, and other evidences of so-called progress — is a delightful and increasingly rare sight.”
Mel Peterson, vice president of the North Star board, said it was for those reasons he was drawn to join the club in 1979. “I’m a nature lover and can hardly wait for winter to roll around each year. I love being in the woods on a snowy day and the quiet, graceful motion of the sport.”
The North Stars aided cross country skiing’s growth in the state in tangible ways. They played a prominent role in developing the Great Minnesota Ski Pass for trails in Minnesota state parks and forests, helping pay for grooming and maintenance. Over the years they’ve also planted hundreds of trees along trails for wind breaks, constructed trail shelters, and cleared trails.
“Ski trails do not just suddenly appear in the north woods, tracked and ready for you to step into your skis and head out. Many hours of labor are required before the first tracks can even be set,” reads a 2005 article from the club’s newsletter, the “Løype” (which in Norwegian slang means “kindly remove yourself from the place in which I am about to ski”).
Every fall the club organizes several trips to resorts in the region where members clear brush, build new trails, and repair bridges. “We’ve been doing it since the beginning — moving rocks with crow bars and cutting down trees — we’ve put in thousands of hours over the years in hopes of making it more comfortable for people to ski come winter,” added Barb Wahman, who has been a member since 1976.
Once the snow falls, the club offers various ski programs and in more recent times it has added year-round activities, such as hiking, cycling, canoeing and kayaking.
While North Stars aren’t focused on the competitive side of Nordic racing, it turns out that they were instrumental in inspiring that movement in the state. It started with the inaugural 15-kilometer “VJC” race in February 1971, which went through the towns of Victoria, Jonathan, and Chaska. That year 300 skiers participated, making it one of the first citizen ski races in the entire country.
“The club organized the VJC race for a couple of decades,” said Peterson. “At the time, the area was pretty rural and skiers skied right through the countryside, which are now peoples’ backyards. That was quite popular and got the club a lot of notoriety at the time.”
The club doesn’t always stick close to home when it comes to its skiing exploits. Well-known for traveling far and wide, members have organized trips all over the globe, including far flung locales such as France, Italy, Switzerland, and Sweden.
It is the trips closer to home that are perhaps the most popular though. Wahman has been leading North Star trips to Maplelag resort in Callaway for 31 years. “We enjoy the 70-kilometers of pristine trails, the family style meals, the never-empty cookie jar, the 30-person hot tub and the sauna and hole in the frozen lake to jump in,” she said.
It’s that unique camaraderie among the group that has kept it active and vibrant all these years. “The North Stars become like extended family — many of us get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas — it’s one of the reasons it’s so important to members,” Nelson said.
Some members have become actual family too — with countless couples meeting and marrying through the group. Wahman and her husband, Allen Porter, are one of many examples of these partnerships.
“It’s just an amazing group of people,” she said. “They are supportive, down to earth and hardy enough to get out and ski no matter what the weather.”
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.