By one estimation, 30 to 40 people were expected at the funeral. In fact, about 200 paid their respect. They spoke to the effect that an unsung hero had on their lives.
Kris Nurmi of Litchfield, Minn., spent 39 years in the Army Reserve, worked many years as a welder, and most recently was a night shift custodian in the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City school district. Nurmi, 63, also was a devoted volunteer on the Superior Hiking Trail. On Aug. 3, he led a group hike from the Split Rock trailhead to Beaver Bay that offered breathtaking views of Lake Superior and inland valleys. But to the shock and heartbreak of family and friends, he died suddenly on-trail that day.
Nurmi’s volunteer résumé with the Superior Hiking Trail Association was so packed with projects that no one seems to know when it began. Trail development director Jo Swanson said he helped build the original sections of trail from Duluth to Two Harbors in 2007. He participated in trail-clearing weekends and adopted a section of trail from the Encampment River to the Crow Creek trailhead. He maintained the area twice a year.
Swanson explained that with increasing numbers of hikers, the campsite latrines fill faster. So, the organization developed its “Elite Latrine-Digging Squad.” Nurmi showed up for training, then dug holes. When the trail group launched a volunteer crew-leader program for major projects, they selected a few reliable, steadfast volunteers to train.
“It was kind of a no-brainer to ask Kris,” Swanson said.
Swanson said Nurmi’s enthusiasm was infectious, and he endlessly enticed new people to hike or volunteer. “I have no idea how many people he got out on the trail [who] wouldn’t have gone out there without him.”
Nurmi was among the association’s top guided-hike leaders in terms of trip numbers and the quality of his people skills.
He “really excelled at connecting people to the place where they were,” Swanson said, and added, “He was fun to have around the campfire.”
Amy Carrison was known as the group firebug at many of those campfires. She and Nurmi had worked together on countless trail projects for years. She said he was the quiet one in their core group and the most dependable. But he had another side.
Carrison said they began a tradition of burning Peeps, the marshmallow chicks, just for something different. He’d also bring concoctions for the fire that colored the flames, igniting “oohs and ahhs” from onlookers. And he’d discretely introduce the bottle that was passed around the circle.
“He would absolutely, in his own quiet way, instigate silliness … that would just go on for the night,” she said. “He’s one of those people you’re happy he’s in your life.”
His wife, Nita Nurmi, sometimes hiked with her husband. But she wasn’t with him when he guided others on Aug. 3. Though she camped with his hiking group, she stayed back to enjoy some solitude — they planned to meet at day’s end. She took him to the trailhead and dropped him off.
“He was all smiles, a big hug and a kiss, and off he went,” she said.
His death was heart-related. According to his wife and others, he hadn’t shown signs of health problems. She said he died in his element. “If he had to go … what a way.”
Nita Nurmi said she was struck by the number of people from the school district and trail community who attended her husband’s funeral. Carrison said Nurmis’ daughter, Becky, also was surprised. “Becky,” she explained, “your father had quite an impact.”
Nita Nurmi described her husband as having a quiet confidence that transferred to those around him. During the Oct. 19 weekend, she, Becky and son Jason held a group memorial for him first at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, then along his section of adopted trail. The Nurmis’ three grandchildren, each 5, were there, on-trail for the first time.
Nita Nurmi also has two young nephews who attend the school where her husband was custodian. Shortly after he died, she checked on them. They said they were OK. “But the floors don’t shine as much,” they told her.
Scott Stowell is a writer and photographer from Ely. Reach him at writingoutfitter.com.