Writing Nordic ski history book inspires author’s move to Duluth

But it wasn’t until he began research for his recently released book, “Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing,” published by the University of Minnesota Press, that he, his wife and their two daughters moved from Osceola, Wisconsin, to Lakewood Township, just outside Duluth.

The University of Minnesota Press recently published Ryan Rodgers’ book, “Winter’s Children: A Celebration of Nordic Skiing.”
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

For him, it was conversations with some of the area’s longtime skiers — Duluth East Nordic ski coach Bonnie Fuller-Kask, Korkki Nordic Ski Center co-founder Mark Helmer, Olympic ski jumper Adrian Watt, the late Olympian and Snowflake Nordic Ski Center founder George Hovland — that convinced him to head north in October 2020.

“It just prompted me to think it’s time to move up,” Rodgers said from his home on 10 acres of land north of Duluth that has a small trail system for skiing and fat-tire biking. “This is where I want to be. They think the same way about this stuff. Plus, there’s so many trails and the other recreation opportunities are endless.”

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Rodgers said he was attracted to the “outdoor philosophy” that he knew many others in Duluth shared, too.

“It’s not about the skiing. It’s about the means of getting outside and really embracing the outdoors as your lifestyle — it’s skiing, hiking, biking, whatever,” Rodgers said. “They’re secondary to the ultimate goal of just being outside.”

Duluth jumpers gather near the lodge at Chester Park during a tournament in the 1920s.  
Contributed / Archives and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth, on permanent loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society

Duluth jumpers gather near the lodge at Chester Park during a tournament in the 1920s.
Contributed / Archives and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth, on permanent loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society

And that’s reflected in the book. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive history documenting skiing, Rodgers said, instead, “I wrote it more for fun and as an expression of the passion that people have for Nordic skiing.”

The book traces skiing’s Scandinavian roots to the immigrants who brought it to the Upper Midwest. It chronicles the days when Duluth was a ski-jumping mecca with jumps at Chester Bowl, Lester Park and Fond du Lac, to ski jumping’s post-World War II decline and replacement by downhill skiing. It captures the “cross-country revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s and the sport’s strength into the 21st century.

Ole Mangseth high above Duluth's Chester Bowl ski hill in 1910. 
Contributed / Adrian Watt Collection

Ole Mangseth high above Duluth’s Chester Bowl ski hill in 1910.
Contributed / Adrian Watt Collection

Archival photos are placed on most pages, some of which came from Adrian Watt’s private collection, a box that Rodgers said he borrowed for over a year.

It began with Watt’s mother saving the newspaper clippings of his achievements and, later, Watt added to it himself. The result is “at least 60 years of good archival-type stuff,” Watt told the News Tribune.

Watt, 74, who competed in ski jumping in the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, grew up ski jumping at Chester Bowl.

For decades, Duluth ski booster Guy Olson presented an annual trophy to a member of the Duluth Ski Club. Here he presents the award to Adrian Watt in 1969. Watt is holding the skis with which he had set the U.S. distance jumping record the prior year.
Contributed / Chester Bowl Improvement Club

For decades, Duluth ski booster Guy Olson presented an annual trophy to a member of the Duluth Ski Club. Here he presents the award to Adrian Watt in 1969. Watt is holding the skis with which he had set the U.S. distance jumping record the prior year.
Contributed / Chester Bowl Improvement Club

He said he and all his friends — who he called the sport’s “old-timers” — have read the book and called it “a trip down memory lane.”

“(Rodgers) would have some information about somebody and some name that maybe you forgot through the years,” Watt said.

And the book includes the stories of the older “old-timers” that Watt and his friends remember from their days spent ski jumping at Chester Bowl, like Peter Fosseide, who still had his thick Norwegian accent and, along with Erik Judeen, helped usher in cross-country ski racing in Duluth. Younger skiers like Charlie Banks and George Hovland would ski behind Fosseide and Judeen, emulating their form, Rodgers wrote.

“There were a lot of colorful characters, let’s put it that way,” Watt said.

“As soon as anyone picked up his skis he would jump all over them until they would put his skis on,” said Walter Teppen about his dog, Spot, who during the 1920s entertained onlookers by schussing down the landing slopes on modified skis beneath jumps in Duluth and the Iron Range. 
Contributed / Archives and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth, on permanent loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society

“As soon as anyone picked up his skis he would jump all over them until they would put his skis on,” said Walter Teppen about his dog, Spot, who during the 1920s entertained onlookers by schussing down the landing slopes on modified skis beneath jumps in Duluth and the Iron Range.
Contributed / Archives and Special Collections, University of Minnesota Duluth, on permanent loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society

The book focuses on the people behind skiing’s history.

It includes the likes of Banks, a shop teacher and ski coach at Duluth’s Central High School who in the 1950s cut a private trail system next to his home in Clover Valley north of town.

Rodgers writes that Banks would load up the ski team in his station wagon and drive to the trails for practice. Banks’ wife, Dorothy, would often make them some post-ski hot cocoa before Banks would drive them back to town.

Mark Helmer, who now runs the 10-kilometer single-track trail system as Korkki Nordic Ski, credited Banks with spreading his love of the sport to Duluth’s youth.

Charlie Banks skis his home trail. This photograph is displayed in the Korkki warming house in memory of Charlie. 
Contributed / Korkki Nordic Ski Center

Charlie Banks skis his home trail. This photograph is displayed in the Korkki warming house in memory of Charlie.
Contributed / Korkki Nordic Ski Center

“The fact that that’s been documented and will live on for some time makes me happy because (Charlie Banks) was my best friend and he still is,” Helmer told the News Tribune. “And to think that someone would write a book not only about Charlie and Korkki and what they did for skiing but all of the people that did so much to get the sport started — that’s important, very important.”

And Banks’ love of the sport included the type of outdoor philosophy that Helmer relayed to Rodgers, ultimately prompting the author to move just a short drive from Korkki.

As Banks grew older, Helmer would invite him for a ski. Banks said he was too slow and that he liked to stop and look at the tracks.

Helmer responded, “So do I. Let’s go.”

“It’s more than just skiing, and I think that needs to be said, it’s the love of being outside,” Helmer said.

Rodgers said he was glad to have interviewed George Hovland before he died at age 94 earlier this year.

Hovland, who skied in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, touched just about everything skiing-related in Duluth, described to Rodgers what it was like being a kid watching the start of the Arrowhead Ski Derby, a five-day race that began at Duluth’s Civic Center and ended in St. Paul for the St. Paul Winter Carnival. It was won by Fosseide.

This photo of George Hovland, left, Gus Downs, center, and Pete Fosseide, posing for a photograph after Downs won the First Grade division of the 1998 Twin Ports Championships, is on display at the Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth. 
Contributed photo

This photo of George Hovland, left, Gus Downs, center, and Pete Fosseide, posing for a photograph after Downs won the First Grade division of the 1998 Twin Ports Championships, is on display at the Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth.
Contributed photo

The book also tells the stories of some of the girls and women who broke into the sport in the pre-Title IX days.

Bonnie Fuller-Kask, now Duluth East’s Nordic ski coach, was one of them. In the late 1960s, she and her brother began skiing in the Twin Cities, but there weren’t many sports for girls to officially join just cheerleading. Her brother joined the school’s ski team and she’d train with them, but she’d often need her parents to drive her to practice while everyone else rode the bus, Rodgers wrote.

But things changed fast, Fuller-Kask told the News Tribune. She graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1973 and two years later, she returned to Robbinsdale as a ski coach.

By then, a girls’ team had been established and it was just as big as the boys’ team.

“The girls couldn’t conceive that there would be no girls’ sports,” Fuller-Kask said.

The inclusion of girls and women in sport is an important history to remember because it can often be taken for granted — she sometimes hears her skiers talk about Title IX as something that destroys boys’ and men’s teams at high schools and colleges rather than expanding opportunities for girls and women.

Bonnie Fuller-Kask

Bonnie Fuller-Kask

“Without knowing what it was like before, you might not be able to hold on to what you have now,” Fuller-Kask said.

And that, she said, is the importance of recording history.

“I think it’s a treasure for Minnesota to have someone like (Rodgers) write this book about the history of skiing because at some point that gets lost,” she said.

The book is Rodgers’ first and evolved from a 2019 article he wrote for the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine about cross-country skiing’s history in William O’Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix and how it eventually bred Jessie Diggins, who along with teammate Kikkan Randall, won the first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing for the U.S. during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Books on Nordic skiing are stacked in Ryan Rodgers’ home office.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Books on Nordic skiing are stacked in Ryan Rodgers’ home office.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

With a couple years of research, a move to Duluth and a book to show for it, Rodgers said he believes the future of competitive cross-country skiing is strong thanks in part to more facilities making snow and strong interest in high school programs across the state.

“Nordic skiing as a competitive sport — the future is bright,” Rodgers said.

But, he added later: “The traditional style of skiing the way the Norwegians historically valued it — this pursuit where you get in shape and you better yourself and you better your community and you get in touch with nature — that’s what we’re at risk of losing. It’s undeniable that winters are getting significantly warmer.”

Ryan Rodgers

Ryan Rodgers

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