Last weekend, a friend and I revisited the Korkki Nordic Ski Trail, where I competed in my first cross-country ski race forty years ago. The year was 1977 and I was in eighth grade, part of my junior high school’s ski team. My equipment included wooden skis and bamboo poles with black rubber baskets. Clad in bell-bottom jeans and a ‘fashionable’ down vest, my head protected from the cold by a knit hat with a huge ball atop it, I ended up winning the race and the city championship for my grade.
Winning the first race I ever entered – you would think it would be a good experience and I’d return to the same trail dozens of times to relive the glory. But I didn’t. Why did it take me four decades?
That’s what I was trying to figure out as I shooshed down the trail on my fiberglass skinny skis (waxable ones) last weekend.
Now, the thing you need to understand is that Korkki Nordic is Old School. Only one track winds its way through pines on land tucked in the highlands along Lake Superior’s North Shore. And the trees are close enough to lean over and kiss as you go by – not ten feet away on either side like most ski trails. Classic skiing only; none of that fancy-schmancy skate-skiing.
The trail system is maintained by a nonprofit organization and was started by the very man who kept time during my first ski race. Charlie Banks is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on.
The trail is sort of out of the way. With so many good ones in Duluth, that could be one reason why I didn’t come out here. It wasn’t a place my parents usually skied, and they were the ones driving the car when I was young. But still, why didn’t I come here when I was older?
As my friend and I started skiing, I noticed the timekeeping house was still near the trailhead. After we traveled down the trail a ways, I recalled how clueless I was during my race. Our “coach” didn’t even ski himself, and he did little to prepare us. I only knew that racing meant going as fast as you could until you reached the finish line, so that was my strategy after the staggered start. This led to overtaxed lungs and leaden arms and legs. But I kept going, although I was alone and scared by this new experience and unfamiliar trail. Finally overcome, I paused a time or two to catch my breath on the uphills, terrified that another skier would pass me, but I never saw anyone.
My friend and I continued skiing and I recognized the feel of the trail – lots of small hills, nothing too scary — especially if you take the easy route options, which I did, having nothing left to prove. We skied four kilometers, which I suspect was the same distance as the race. The finish line banner we crossed under looked suspiciously like the exact same one from my stressful race.
Was that it? Even though I won the race, was the stress of it so unpleasant that I had no desire to return to the scene until forty years later? Could be. I recall that in subsequent ski races, somehow I learned more about pacing and didn’t get as burned out.
As I crossed under the banner last weekend, I realized that whatever kept me away for so long, I’m finally over it!
I’m gonna return soon to this little woodland ski trail gem.