Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series on small Nordic ski trail systems in Minnesota.
Two Harbors, Minn. – In 1954, the late Charlie Banks (1924-1998) used an ax and grub hoe to build a 10-kilometer classic ski course behind his home near Two Harbors. An avid Nordic skier and coach for the Duluth Central Nordic Ski Team, Banks drove the kids from Duluth to his trails, coached them, served them a cup of hot chocolate, and drove them back to Duluth.
Banks opened his trails to anyone with enough skill to handle the challenging course. Mark Helmer, a neighbor, asked about training on the course. Banks agreed and the two became close friends who shared a love of fishing as well as skiing.
When Charlie’s wife, Dorothy, died unexpectedly in 1992, Helmer suggested opening the trails to the public “to give Charlie something to do.” He also suggested the name, Korkki, in honor of the Korkki family which had homesteaded the land since 1910. When Charlie married Dorothy Korkki, the couple received part of the homestead to live on.
The trails were adjusted to make them less challenging, but not enough for Marilyn Erickson, of Circle Pines.
“I’m not a fan of Korkki,” she said. “The woods are beautiful, but I walked down a lot of hills.”
Adam Johnson of St. Louis Park loves the trails. “Korkki is great! It’s my favorite classic ski trail.”
The two skiers represent sharply differing opinions about the trails, even among experienced skiers. Johnson was once a top-10 classic finisher at the Birkebeiner, but Erickson is no slouch on the trails. She skis more than 200 kilometers per year and travels extensively in the Upper Midwest to experience a wide range of trails.
Korkki trails are proudly old-school. The entire system is for classic-style skiing only and most of it is single track. The trails snake through the woods as they relentlessly climb to a double black diamond loop of roller coaster hills, fast descents and quick turns. Skiers of all abilities tackle that roller coaster, and many come back coated in snow or sporting black eyes from falls.
“They really should think twice when they see those black diamonds,” Helmer cautioned.
A visitor turned at the 6K cutoff, the last chance to bail out before getting caught in the roller coaster, but still found the return trail challenging. It slopes enough to guarantee that a well-waxed pair of skis will pick up speed throughout the descent. Modern trail systems allow classic skiers to step out of the track and snowplow to slow their speed. Snowplowing on the Korkki system, however, means destroying the meticulously groomed tracks that run down the center of the narrow corridor in the woods.
“Trust the track” is the default maxim at Korkki Nordic. In classic skiing it means keep your skis in the track, stay relaxed and corner properly. The track will guide you.
“I love that you have to have that faith in the groomer!” declared Margie Rock, of New London, Minn. “I love the old-school feel. It’s like opening a present around every corner.”
Paul Erickson agreed about the beauty of the course. “It was designed by someone who wanted to capture every quick scary turn and every scenic view on the property.” But he tempers his enthusiasm with the caveat: “The guys who designed Korkki would love to design roller coasters.”
Skilled skiers have good reason to trust the groomer at Korkki. Helmer had groomed the trails at four the morning a visitor called, and would groom again in the afternoon. During a follow-up visit to the trails, he was out, apparently for the second time that day, grooming. At one point, he and grooming partner Craig Brown stopped near an off-camber turn and shoveled snow into the corner to build it up for an upcoming high school invitational.
“Some of the junior high kids are pretty unstable,” said Helmer, then added. “They’re my favorite skiers.” A little extra care on a tricky corner could make the difference between an enjoyable race and a bad experience for those kids.
The oldest race at Korkki Nordic, the Eric Judeen 10K, dates back to the 1960s. In its heyday, it was one of the biggest events in the Midwest and drew skiers from Italy, Germany, Russia and Canada. Today it is a much smaller event and draws 40 to 45 racers. This year’s event is March 1.
“We keep the Eric Judeen going because of its history,” Helmer said. “Eric was Charlie’s mentor. He taught and coached kids in the 1930s and ’40s.”
Korkki Nordic offers one- and 2-kilometer flat loops for beginner skiers. The rest of the course is for intermediate to advanced skiers, and those who are willing to risk a face plant to experience this gem in the North Woods.
Doug Shidell is a freelance writer. He lives in the Twin Cities.