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Reflections of a vintage skier

Courtesy of the author
The author’s brothers Dan and David Carlsen; late father, Ted Carlsen; and cousin Peter Carlsen prepare to ski on a snowy Thanksgiving morning, circa 1975.

I come from a skiing family. My father grew up skiing on the hills along Minnehaha Creek and famously made the trek to Aspen, Colorado, in 1948. His tales were epic: driving over Loveland Pass in a snowstorm, one of his friends sitting on the car hood with a ski pole extended toward the snowbank so they could stay on the road; staying at an old miner’s cabin and waking up with snow on their beds.

When I was 7, Dad took me to Mount Normandale (now more accurately called Hyland Hills) to learn how to ski. I rode up the rope tow holding on to the folds of his baggy ski pants and then learned the basics of snowplowing as I ventured down the hill with his encouragement.

I was hooked. Every winter weekend of my childhood Dad would take us to a local area to continue to learn the finer points of skiing: Cedar Hills, Moon Valley, Afton Alps, Trollhaugen, and the king of all areas – Telemark or Hardscrabble in Wisconsin. We were a true skiing family.

Around 1970, my cousin Peter introduced a new version of skiing to us: cross-country. He had lived in Norway for a year and had fallen in love with the sport. Dad was game to try it. Only one ski shop in the Twin Cities carried cross-country equipment – EMS Lob Pine in Roseville — and we made the trek there to get outfitted.

There were no trails set in those days – it was still an outlier sport with most people preferring to ski downhill (“Why would anyone want to just walk around on skis?” the skeptics wondered). We regularly skied on Braemar Golf Course or through the woods by Anderson Lakes.

We loved to go bushwhacking in the woods on our skis. It involved a lot of walking on skis and dodging branches and logs, punctuated by some fun – and sometimes hairy – hills. As downhill skiers, cross-country skis were a new challenge, given that they were skinny and didn’t have edges.

Knickers and knee socks

As the sport began to catch on, we got into the spirit of it by wearing knickers and patterned knee socks. The boots were like leather shoes with a flat part sticking out in front with holes to attach to your skis.

The skis were wooden imports from Norway. Every season you had to burn off the wax buildup and sear new pine tar into your ski bottoms. It was a messy, stinky process, but Dad was very good at it. And then there was the wax. We had a round thermometer that read the outdoor temperature and showed what color of wax to use.

In my memory it was usually blue wax – or green if it was really cold. The right wax would make skiing a dream. The wrong wax, and you would slip and slide along miserably. When you had to use klister in the spring – a stringy, messy affair – it typically signaled the end of the ski season because getting klister off was a tough proposition that involved more blowtorching and pine tarring. (In my book, the modern fish scale skis have been a great improvement.)

Now I am 62 and still skiing both cross-country and downhill. Because Minnesota snowfall is unpredictable, I bought a Three Rivers season pass so I could ski where they make snow and groom the trails.

Passed by guys in spandex

Courtesy of the author
The author, ca. 1978

I was the slowest person out on the trails the other day – even old grandpa-type guys, clad in spandex and sporting fanny packs, zoomed past me. Most were skate skiing, a technique I have never taken up, preferring to remain with the “classic” form of yesteryear.

Cross-country (now called Nordic) skiing has changed over the years; today it’s about speed and fitness and technique and fashion. I watched as school buses arrived, and kids poured out to prep for a race on the course the following day. I think a few of the young guys chuckled to see me slogging my way up the hill, clad in jeans and a light jacket. “That lady is hardly moving,” they might have thought.

Hey guys, I’m vintage. Maybe I will try to find a pair of knickers on the internet – do they still exist? I have a pair of my old patterned knee-high socks I could resurrect.

Cross-country remains for me, as it always has been, a simple pleasure: getting out in the woods on a snowy day, the thrill of a little speed on the downhill, working hard on the uphill and feeling my heart beating in my chest. And then being able to pause, catch my breath and take in the view of our winter wonderland.

I wonder if knickers could come back.

Mary Lilja is a lifelong Minnesotan who hopes to ski into her 80s. She is the owner of Lilja Communications.

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Comments (3)

Brings back memories for me

I grew up a mile north of Minnehaha Falls. As a teen I could ski along Mississippi River Road past Minnehaha Falls and out to Fort Snelling State Park in the late 70's before I had a car. On fresh snow days, once I got to Pike Island I was often either breaking trail or skiing on tracks left by a Park Ranger's skis.

I refused to buy a ski pass the first year they were required. Why should I pay for something that's free? Then I saw that ski trails were being machine-groomed and that was the reason for the cost. I have bought a ski pass every year since then.

I took up skate-skiing which I prefer, but classic stride is looking ever better as I age. My gold corduroy knickers still fit.

Love your memories

Russell, thanks for sharing your story. I remember feeling the same way about a ski pass in the early days -- why pay for something that's free? I'm also very impressed that your knickers still fit! Here's to more good ski days ahead!

Me too!

I grew up on the Wisconsin side of the river, never took up the cross country skiing but your memories of downhill skinning in the heyday around here bring back many for me. Birch Park and Snowcrest have been gone for years but we used to have many places where we could ski for less than $10.