Chippewa Valley Skiing Enthusiasts Don't Shy Away From Winter; They Embrace and Conquer It
You might know them by their brightly colored zip-front windbreakers. Perhaps it’s a rustic winter sweater and a backwoodsy vibe that gives them away. Their dedication to proper winter attire – hats, gloves, and those handmade fleece neckwarmers – is a sure sign. But it’s the blatant love of the outdoors and friendly disposition that really blows a skier’s cover. The Chippewa Valley is teeming with skaters, jumpers, and classical skiers of all ages, from 4-year-old newbies to veterans of more than 80 years.
“If you can be a ski jumper, and go down those hills, you can do anything.” – Dan Mattoon, Flying Eagles Ski Club
There are at least five ski organizations in the Valley representing a myriad of focuses. The Kickin’ Kids ski club nurtures recreational skiers ages 4-17, meeting weekly in January and February. For more competitive youths, there’s Chippewa Valley Nordic, which puts fifth to 12th graders on track to compete in association races. The Flying Eagles have a nearly Olympic-size hill for jumpers. And then there’s the rivals-in-jest cross-country Ski Striders and the downhill Red Eye Skiers. Each group has its own personality and concentration, but all are unified by their shared love of strapping boards to their feet and sticks to their hands to get moving in the snow.
Mark Blaskey remembers the winter he moved to Eau Claire; according to him, it sucked. The winter of 1979 saw very little snowfall, leaving skiers out in the cold – but not the way they prefer. When he finally did get a chance to get out and glide with the locals, he found that everyone was training for the Birkie, short for Birkebeiner. When describing North America’s largest cross-country ski marathon, Blaskey leads with miles rather than kilometers, so as not to confuse any layman. The 30 mile/50 kilometer trek takes more than 10,000 skiers from Cable to Hayward annually.
This is the race that inspired Karl Andreson to start the Ski Striders, the Valley’s oldest ski organization, in 1973. “He was the quintessential person you’d want founding a Nordic ski club because he was from Norway,” Blaskey said.
Blaskey joined the club and has been skiing with the Striders ever since. “I used to be the youngest person in the club, and now somehow I’m one of the oldest,” he said. “What the hell happened?”
A similar fortune befell Arlyn Stertz, who founded Kickin’ Kids with Chris Gorzek 20 years ago. She is a nearly 50-year member of the Ski Striders, and at 83 years old, still loves to instruct young skiers. She teaches youngsters how to fall properly and the importance of getting back up, along with ski technique and trail etiquette.
Keeping the younger kids focused can be difficult, but Stertz knows that snacks and games prove effective. She has led lines of children through the woods between trails on their skis as they search for animal tracks and make up silly stories, and refereed hundreds of “falling competitions.”
“Sometimes you feel like a cheerleader,” Stertz said. “You make it fun for yourself and that makes it fun for them.”
More than 40 volunteer coaches and nearly 150 kids come out for ski practice once a week for eight weeks in January and February. The skiers are split into groups based on age and experience. New skiers are instructed in classic style, and once they’ve proven proficient, they may pursue skate skiing. Older newbies are given one-on-one instruction until they can ski with other older kids.
Stertz has also taken a stab at running with the Redeye skiers. This downhill group ventures to slopes near and far, inducting new members with an initiation ceremony, of sorts.
When Stertz joined them for a jaunt to Duluth, it was colder than cold. She was wearing every piece of clothing she had when she stood on the top of the trail. Four big Redeye guys came up to her, claiming her bindings needed checking. Stertz insisted her bindings were fine, and didn’t need tending to, but they hunched at her feet under that pretense anyway. They grabbed the ends of her skis and flipped her upside down, each holding one end of one ski. She had been certain she could avoid whatever initiation they had in store but, when proven wrong, took the hill with them in good spirits.
The Ski Striders’ and associated groups’ half-century run in Eau Claire pales in comparison to that of the Flying Eagles ski jumpers. Ski jumping has been a Chippewa Valley pastime since the late 1800s, and the Eagles have been doing it since 1933. They currently boast about 50 members ages 5-14.
Dan Mattoon, an organization leader and former Olympic skier, has been skiing with the Flying Eagles since he was 7 years old. When a jumper found him sliding down the ski ramp near his home, he gave Mattoon some equipment and informed him that if he wanted to go down the hill, he had to do it on skis.
“If you can be a ski jumper, and go down those hills, you can do anything,” Mattoon said. He believes ski jumping instills courage and discipline in young people. When employers see “ski jumper” on a résumé, they learn a lot about that candidate, he said.
The Eagles practice year-round on plastic-covered jumps, and use snow machines to ensure that a lack of snowfall doesn’t cut into their winter practice time. During years with lighter snowfall, the Eagles invite the Kickin’ Kids to their Mount Washington jump area to take advantage of the manufactured powder.
The Chippewa Valley Nordic team, which offers race opportunities to skiers in fifth through 12th grades, also practices throughout the year. The roughly 40 skiers in the organization do dryland practices at Pinehurst Park to develop stamina and poling technique so that when the snow falls, they’re ready to race.
“Skiing is a complicated, difficult sport,” Ted Theyerl, Chippewa Valley Nordic coach, said. Between weather, trail conditions, equipment, technique, and fitness, there’s a lot of factors to take into consideration. “When it all does come together, it’s really rewarding.” A lifelong skier himself, he hopes to instill a passion for the sport in the young people he coaches.
“People have a tendency not to do things in the winter,” Stertz said. “Once they do things, they find winter can be quite enjoyable.” She speaks fondly of the experience of skiing, and recalls the time she spent skiing with her family when her children were young. During a weekend in December, she travelled to Minnesota to watch her grandchildren compete in ski races.
Blaskey credits his lifelong pursuit of packed trails to the exercise and his love of the outdoors. An “all-seasons guy,” he says skiing is a great full-body workout for the winter.
Mattoon is in it for the thrill. His own son is trying out for the Junior Olympics this year for Nordic Combined, which consists of a scored jump followed by a cross-country race. “People come back because they feel so much in their soul, it’s a part of them,” he said.
Skiing in the Chippewa Valley is a growing, generational pursuit. Local organizations are working on expanding and improving trails and facilities every year. More information on ways to get on a pair of skis can be found at club websites.