How Wisconsin Learned to XC Ski
Glide across a snowy landscape with sunlight and your own movement keeping you warm. That’s the essence of cross-country skiing. One group in particular -- the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee-- is responsible for teaching thousands of people to enjoy Wisconsin’s winters through cross-country skiing. You can thank this club for the abundance of cross-country ski trails in southern Wisconsin. The club has taught skiing, created trails, held races, supported snow-making and popularized this silent sport. Here’s how:
In 1971 a group of outdoor enthusiasts founded a club to introduce cross-country skiing (also called touring or Nordic skiing). Mostly they wanted to introduce other people to skiing within parks, forests and on bike trails. This would be different than downhill, or alpine, skiing done at ski resorts. With a pair of skis and poles, you could just get in your car and go. Of course, it was nicer if you could ski in parallel tracks where the snow was packed down. So the new club started creating trails and, in some cases, “grooming” the trails with tracks set down by a tracker pulled by a snowmobile.
In summer 1972 the club was asked to design cross-country ski trails for Pike Lake State Park; club members had the trails ready in three months, for the winter of 1972-‘73. Within a few years the club had designed or expanded ski trails for parks in the northern and southern units of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest (Greenbush, McMiller Sports Center, Nordic Trail, Scuppernong). The club also worked with Milwaukee County Parks to create ski trails and with the Milwaukee Public Schools to offer lessons and races. Says Gary Hansen, an early club president: “People were interested in this new sport, which was less expensive than downhill skiing. And we were the only game in town.”
Teaching: Starting in its first year the club was teaching both children and adults how to ski. “I probably have given clinics to more than 2,000 people,” says Hansen. For more than four decades, club members have continued to teach skiing.
Trails for Wisconsin state parks: Some park directors for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources realized that cross-country skiing could be a boon to the state forests. In fall 1972, Pike Lake State Park asked the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee for help developing a Pike Lake cross-country ski trail. Several members pitched in, including the first club leader, James McCredy, plus Knut Hubert, Andy Brinker, and Klaus Millinski Walden. When the club decided to hold races at Greenbush in the northern kettle, Walden took existing hiking trails and expanded them and re-designed them to be safer for skiing. Later, David Harrison, the first elected club president, designed the Nordic and McMiller Sports Center ski trails in the southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. He also expanded the Scuppernong ski trail system and widened other southern kettle hiking trails for skiing. By the winter of 1978-’79, the Department of Natural Resources was grooming these trails (creating tracks to make skiing easier).
Trails for Milwaukee County parks: In 1972, the club also started discussions with Milwaukee County to open up county golf courses for cross-country skiing, says Ralph Ehlinger, the sixth club president (1977-’79). Initial resistance was overcome when the club showed county staff that skiing would not damage the greens. By the mid-1970s, the club was working with the Milwaukee County Parks Department laying out courses for races at Whitnall, Dretzka and Brown Deer Parks. The Milwaukee Public Schools and Milwaukee County Parks Commission even co-sponsored the races. Many of the race courses laid out by the Nordic Ski Club later were marked and groomed by the parks for public cross-country skiing all winter.
Ski races: By the mid-‘70s, the club grew dramatically by holding competitive ski races for adults and children, some of whom went on to become Olympic skiers. “Our peak membership year was 1978-’79, when we had 1,000 plus members,” says Hansen. The club held at least 20 races over the years. The Kettle Moraine Nordic race went on from 1976 through 1985 and toward the end was averaging 500 participants. It first was held in Greenbush and later moved to McMiller Sports Center in the southern Kettle Moraine. The Milwaukee Nordic children’s race was held in Brown Deer Park and then Dretzka Park. It went on for eight years. The Esker Odyssey, held 1980 through 1985 at McMiller Sports Center, was difficult enough (30km and climbing 5,295 feet) to be a qualifying race for the American Birkebeiner, the state’s largest cross-country ski race. The trails that David Harrison designed for the Esker Odyssey were hiking trails that he refined and expanded for skiing. They became ski trails the public could use all winter. The DNR eventually modified them to avoid a gun-shooting range. Several poor snow years in the mid-1980s exhausted volunteers and brought the Nordic Ski Club’s racing program to an end. Since then individual club members have competed in ski races across the state, and the club has supported youth skiers who wanted to race.
Ski trips: Cross-country ski trips “Up North” have been a popular club staple since the club’s origin in 1971. To this day its ski trips, by bus or car pool, welcome everyone, including non-members and beginner skiers. Free lessons on the trips help people refine ski techniques or learn the basics of either classic skiing (gliding on parallel tracks) or skate skiing (using a flat, wide track). Typical bus trips are to Minocqua Winter Park; Active Backwoods Recreation trails near Ironwood, Mich.; Valley Spur trails in Hiawatha National Forest near Munising, Mich.; and the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan.
Highlights of the club’s history:
- Started in October 1971 by Jim McCredy. He had transferred to Milwaukee from Minneapolis, where he had been a member of North Star Ski Touring Club. To find people in Milwaukee to ski with, he put up notices at Laacke & Joys outdoor-equipment store. A group had a meeting, formed a club and started working on a constitution and bylaws based on the North Stars group. McCredy led the club until elections were held the next year. The club’s goals: 1) learn to ski, and 2) promote the sport.
- Ski trips: In that first 1971-’72 winter season, the club organized ski trips to Greenbush, Kewaskum, Minnesota and Michigan. For years the club ran trips to the non-defunct Telemark Resort in northwestern Wisconsin, where the famous American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race started. Trips have been the most popular activity of the club. In fact, the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee is one of the few cross-country ski clubs in the Midwest that continues to run bus trips. The club knows the best lodges, ski areas and restaurants. It provides free ski lessons on trips and organizes dinner outings.
- What’s in a name? The club’s original name was the Kettle-Moraine Ski Club. That name turned out to be taken by a downhill skiing group near Greenbush in the northern Kettle Moraine State Forest. Since “Nordic” was the term used to describe “cross-country skiing,” the club renamed itself the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee.
- Cross-country skiers of the 1970s: “We were people who were independent thinkers, liked doing things alone, liked cheap things, and were highly opinionated,” says Gary Hansen, who has been club president in three different decades. The club had a high number of engineers, technology professionals, and teachers.
- How did they learn? “We were all learning because nobody knew anything,” says Hansen about the early 1970s. “Klaus Walden brought his skiing skills from Germany; he grew up in a suburb of Berlin when our planes were bombing his town. Knut Hubert, a Norwegian citizen working in the United States as an engineer, also helped show us how to ski. So did Jim McCredy. We learned fast. We had the advantage of good winters and enthusiastic people. The club got known for its expertise. We knew more about the sport, the equipment, where and how to use it than any of the people in town who were selling skis.”
- Racing: Because there were almost no races in Wisconsin in the early 1970s, Nordic Ski Club members chartered a bus and traveled to the suburbs of Minneapolis, where the North Stars had a 15k race. “For three years, we participated in the Victoria Johnathon Chaska race,” says Gary Hansen. Finally the club decided to hold its own events. “Our first races were at Greenbush in the northern Kettle Moraine,” he says. “Then we moved the races to the southern Kettle Moraine on the McMiller Trails (15 km). Then we added the children’s race program, called the Milwaukee Nordic, which started at Brown Deer Park and was moved to Dretzka Park. The public schools provided equipment. We would have children’s clinics on skis on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., followed by a race. Ralph Ehlinger was the impetus, realizing that the race was the carrot to keep the kids interested.” Ehlinger notes: “We provided a traveling trophy, which was presented to the high school of the overall winner. We also staged family relay races.” In 1980 David Harrison came up with the Esker Odyssey, which was 30 km on the McMiller Sports Center trails. The races drew numerous volunteers from the community of Eagle, Wis. Over a decade, the club held at least 20 races, drawing thousands of participants. Poor snow years caused the race program to end in the mid-‘80s.
- Ten-year Anniversary: “In 1982 the club commemorated its 10-year anniversary with the Norsetalgia 90, an elaborate, three-day, cross-country tour of 90 miles from Greenbush to Milwaukee, partly along the Milwaukee River,” says Ralph Ehlinger. “We thought big in those days. Kathy Wacker (club president 1983-’84), a pilot, took Gary Hansen and me on a flight a couple of days before to check out the trail and make sure the river was frozen. Turns out it wasn’t. So we had to do some last-minute re-routing.” Adds Gary Hansen: “This was meticulously planned and doomed to failure. The weather went all to hell. We skied portions of our route. We used the Ice Age Trail from Mauthe Lake to Kewaskum. Some people camped overnight, the really strange ones (at 30 below zero). The next morning, no vehicles were starting. We were pulling batteries out of cars and warming them in bathtubs with water. We got down to the Bavarian Inn and it was so cold that the Inn wasn’t open; so the banquet we had planned was postponed for a week. Throughout the first 10 years, we did crazy things like that.”
- Cross-country skiers of the new century (2000 and beyond): The Nordic Ski Club still is home to many people in technical fields and teaching, but health-care professionals also make up a lot of its members. What most members have in common is a love for the outdoors and a desire to keep active through all ages of life. The club organizes year-round activities. Biking, hiking, kayaking, camping, and traveling are all on the club calendar. Indoor events include dining, theater outings and games nights. Monthly meetings (September through April) give people a chance to socialize and catch up on recreation news. And, as it has throughout its history, the Nordic Ski Club of Milwaukee gives back to the community. Club members support trails throughout Wisconsin and especially at Lapham Peak State Forest, one of the few places that makes snow for cross-country skiing. Club members have donated thousands of dollars to that snow-making project as well as to ski venues and ski groups in Wisconsin and Michigan.