If you’re old enough, you might remember grundvalla. If you know what that is, then you had wooden cross country skis. Life was simpler. After the sport split into “freestyle” and “classic” techniques in the early 80’s, everything changed. I’ll admit ditching the diagonal stride. I was a kid ski racer who wanted to go fast and you did that by skating. I got fiberglass skis. I got a fancy Lycra racing suit. The whole deal.
I’m still semi-serious about my preparation for skating technique ski races. But when I need inspiration more than another freestyle workout, my family goes to Korkki Nordic Ski Center near Two Harbors, MN. The trails are classic only and transport us back in time.
Grab a Great Minnesota Ski Pass and go north on the Homestead Road from Highway 61 between Two Harbors and Duluth. Just after cresting a big hill, take a left on Korkki Road. Take a right in a half mile and you’re there. There’s a small cabin with a woodstove. Between ski loops, I love to page through the guestbook while my kids are drawing pictures with crayons. You’ll read entries in the guestbook that testify to skier ecstasy. The old black-and-white ski pictures on the wall and Olympic bib numbers worn by homegrown athletes make this small hut a memorial to local Nordic skiing royalty.
The true shrine is the Charlie Banks Ski Trail system, dedicated to the legendary Duluth skier and coach. There are 10 kilometers of trail that afford you cutoffs for shorter options. I like Dorothy’s Loop near the start. It’s just over a half mile around, but I get to see the white world of snow through the fresh eyes of my kids. My 6-year old schusses down something I consider a bump, but he thinks is the thrill of a lifetime. The smiles come thick and fast as we follow the chickadees through a frosted evergreen tunnel. Before there’s a complaint, you’re back at the start and it’s probably time for a snack and hot chocolate. Before round two with the kids, my wife and I will usually take turns going for a longer solo ski.
Then you get to glide. The skis hiss and you remember what it meant to be an efficient momentum machine. We don’t ski just to run your thighs like Eric Heiden and set your personal best. Sure, that’s part of it for some. But for me, this is why I love the sport: To feel the frigid air in your nose on a bluebird day when there’s blue kick wax under your heels. At Korkki, the trails are like they used to be; wide enough to let a classic skier move within the woods, not through them like a plow. It’s a ribbon that you travel where the snow covered balsams might be passing just outside your shoulders. After decades on super-wide freestyle trails, here, I actually sense the woods as they pass.
Two years ago my daughter was two and stubborn. We’d go for family outings at various ski trails. The rest of us would ski and she’d take pride in refusal. But we always had the tiny skis with us in case she wanted to stride with us across the frozen flakes. Suddenly, one day she said, “I want to ski, Papa.” First tracks for my little girl were, of course, at Korkki. The place was already perfect. Now it’s part of family history.
When you need the joy, go to Korkki Nordic. Maybe among the smell of the firs you’ll smell the pine tar (grundvalla!) on the base of the wooden skis of your youth. Maybe you’ll remember 1975 when you didn’t have to choose techniques, you just went cross country skiing. Maybe when you hear your children laugh, you’ll hear the echoes of your former self out to play in the winter woods. Take a quick detour near Two Harbors this year. You’ll be glad you did.