Back In The Saddle

     Sorry if you’ve been here lately and found no new posts. I took a couple of weeks off for the holidays. It feels odd not to write a whit for that long, but it’s probably good to have the break.
     On Sunday afternoon, a friend from Budapest, Hungary, and I hooked up for a ski at the Korkki Nordic ski trails between Duluth and Two Harbors. Mark Helmer, who helps maintain the trails at Korkki, joined us for a loop, too. It was one of those perfect winter days we’ve had so many of this December. The snow felt like silk under our skis. The temperature was mild but not too warm. The balsam firs that hug the classic track were still flocked with our last five-inch snow. We might as well have been skiing in a Rick Allen wood cut.
      We talked and told stories all the way around. Granted, it’s a little odd trying to talk in an elongated column along the trail. We had to speak up because the sound of our voices was almost immediately swallowed by the hush of the snow-laden trees.
       It’s 11 kilometers to a full loop at Korkki if you include Iso Maki, which my Finnish friends tell me means "big hill." We almost always do Iso Maki, and we did it on each of our two loops Sunday. It’s an exhilarating run, a steep descent from a maple ridge overlooking Lake Superior, straight and long with a couple of undulations near the bottom that keep you honest. You build up jacket-flapping speed on the drop, and if you make it standing up, you just want to hoot. Which we often do. I don’t know what the equivalent would be on a snow machine, perhaps getting air off some modest lip or powering out of a pocket of slush on a northern lake. The thrill of Iso Maki is partly in the speed, but also in that zone where there’s some doubt whether you’ll be able to pull it off.
     We mastered it both times around on Sunday, then double-poled the final four kilometers back toward the warming hut. Near the end of the second loop, the three of us fell in behind three other skiers we knew — Jerry Fryberger, Dave Prusak and Dave’s teenage son, Joe. Almost all of us knew everyone else, and the level of banter ramped up as we all poled and glided through the day’s fading light.
      I was at the back of the column, and I got a kick out of watching the repetition of motion up front — bodies pumping like pistons, arms driving poles into the packed trail, skis scooting ahead in quick bursts. It was also cool knowing our ages ranged from about 15 to precisely 70, with liberal representation in the 40s and 50s. Yes, there were some bunged-up body parts among us — a shoulder here, a hamstring there, probably a few more that remained unspoken — but nothing to keep us from our appointed rounds at Korkki on a winter afternoon.
      It was a Minnesota moment, a pure northern experience, and if you zoomed out far enough in your imagination, you could see a similar group of skiers hooting and jabbering around a trail somewhere in Finland or Norway.

  • If you want to try Korkki’s trails, turn north off Minnesota Highway 61 onto the Homestead Road and go up the hill about 2.5 miles to the Korkki Road. Turn left and go about half a mile. It’s on your right. No fee is charged, but donations are accepted. This is a privately operated trail that doesn’t accept state grant-in-aid money, so no Minnesota Ski Pass is required.