The Telemark - A Northwoods Legend Poised to Rise Again

by Ben Theyerl |

Photos courtesy Telemark Education Foundation and American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

Outside of Cable, Wisconsin, a 75-year saga with as many ups and downs as the ski trails it brought to the Wisconsin Northwoods gets another chapter.

Telemark Lodge is an apparition now. Or rather, it always was.

In country where lakeside log cabins shuttered for the winter seem to act as acoustic paneling for the winter wind, and where old tarpaper lumberjack cabins seem to billow smoke as a signal, the Wrightian behemoth – trapezoidal, wood-paneled, clean-lined, and glass-fronted – couldn’t help but make on-lookers glance, and then glance again, to make sure that it was real.

But that was always the point.

For most of the last century on a hill too small to ski on, in a part Wisconsin too out there to be incorporated, a man named Tony Wise insisted with an ebullient stubbornness that there could be life and livelihoods in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. First, he built it, then they did come, and then he pushed ahead to bigger and grander with a pioneer’s spirit. Beginning in 1947, a glacial moraine was named Mt. Telemark, and a rope tow soon laced its slope. Quickly Telemark became, as an old-timer up North would say, “happening.” The American Birkiebeiner started, the biggest names in jazz and pop graced its ballroom stage, and senators, governors, and Green Bay Packers all came to Cable, Wisconsin.

Ski instructors at Mt. Telemark in 1952

Like all apparitions though, Telemark was ephemeral. A place powered by a pioneer who had repeated the mistake of thinking rain follows the plow. Wise took Telemark, continued to till it for more and more, and eventually, the soil he’d built it on dried up. His dream bought the farm as he lost the lodge, filing for bankruptcy in 1985. Rains came occasionally for the Lodge after, but without Tony Wise, it was merely subsisting on its own legend until finally closing in 2014.

What was left then was a Lodge that seemed to haunt Cable. It’s wood-paneled walls turned moldy, and the glass-front, absent of any lights on the inside, once again reflected the humbleness and harshness of the Wisconsin winter.

To say that Telemark haunts Cable though, isn’t to say it drags it down. Rather the specter of Telemark carries in it a hint of life. It is in some parts Hamlet’s father, Paul Bunyan, and Casper the Friendly Ghost. What Telemark was is spurring action on what Telemark could be, and the plans being made for the legendary property that built, held, and sustained the Wisconsin Northwoods spirit are being made by those who felt it firsthand. Namely, as the first whiff of spring signals the coming winter thaw, American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is moving forward with hopes to root Telemark further in the Northwoods community and assure its cultural and economic impact and growth into a sustainable future.

The Northwoods Comes of Age

Tony Wise was a man with an eye towards the mythic.

The founder of Telemark reflected once in The North Wisconsin News that standing at the top of Mt. Telemark, he would “take a trip back 10,000 years to watch the last ice age glacier ripping and tearing the earth’s surface asunder, which dumped a huge mass of rock and dirt into a moraine that ever after affords an unobstructed view in all directions.”

When Wise came along, he simply saw himself as part of another intervention in the long history of glaciers, Native Americans, French fur traders, and lumbermen.

He was born in 1921 in Hayward, at the tail-end of the Wisconsin timber boom which left the community seeking an identity. Unmoored and searching, Wise built up himself as he built up the community of Hayward. He lived in the same turn-of-the-century house in Hayward and slept in the same bed he was born in the entirety of his life, according to a 1981 profile in the Pioneer Press. Yet, his life’s work changed the economic, cultural, and physical spaces of “Up North” that came to define those words as an escape, an oasis, and a way of life.

Wise’s mother was a gleeful schoolteacher from whom he inherited his sense of story and place. His father worked the ledgers, speculating in real estate and owning a small bank in Hayward that acted as a creditor to many during the lean years of the 1920s. Wise’s dad also left life too soon, dying in an auto accident in 1932. It was a tragedy, and Wise made sure that the community-minded generosity his father showed during his life became the focal point of his own. The $100,000 life insurance payment from the accident ensured he and his mother could survive through the Great Depression. It also became the seed money for Telemark.

First, however, the money was put to work putting Wise through college. He graduated from Ohio State University, and then got an MBA at Harvard. World War II broke out, and Wise joined up to serve his country with the 10th Armored Division. He commanded a tank in the European theater from 1944 through to the end of the war. When the division entered Bavaria in 1945, he helped recapture the German ski resort town of Garmisch and quickly took to the local habit of alpine skiing.

When Wise returned to Wisconsin, he came back with an honorable discharge and a newfound love of a sport that was mostly foreign to Americans at the time. Hayward had begun to rebuild an economy based around hunting and fishing tourism that sustained it through three seasons. With skiing, Wise saw the final piece in the puzzle to the community’s prosperity.

The man with the dream. Mt. Telemark founder Tony Wise posed outside the then-new Telemark Lodge in 1972.

The myth of Telemark, as Wise would tell it locals – according to Telemark Education Foundation director and Telemark Memories author Deb Nelson – was that Wise climbed the 370-foot moraine 2 miles east of Cable in the winter of 1946, carved a number into a birch tree on one side, read a number carved into the other side by the property owner, and settled on a compromise of $750 for the nearly 800-acre property.

After a summer of clearing runs, Telemark ski hill opened on Dec. 13, 1947, using a surplus Jeep engine to power a tow rope. It was one of the first ski lifts in the country, let alone the Midwest. Aspen, Colorado, had only adopted lift-powered skiing a year before. Wise had moved quickly and found a community that soon became as engrossed with the sport as he was. By the late 1960s, the mountain was hosting 70,000 skiers per year. Telemark, named after the province in Norway where Nordic skiing was born, reconnected a community to its spiritual heritage, helped Hayward-Cable find a source of joy juxtaposed against the harsh winter cold, and accomplished Wise’s goal of being a source of economic stability through the winter months.

Aerial photo of Telemark, 1971.

Wise though, was not the only GI to glimpse alpine skiing and bring it back home. In fact, most ski resorts in the US today were founded by those who shared his story, serving in the famed 10th Mountain Division or seeing the Alps in the closing moments of World War II. The pragmatic side of Wise’s insight that skiing could fill a niche in an economy once centered on resource extraction became a model for long-suffering mining outposts in the American West. In Colorado, many towns simply picked a mountain and put up a chairlift. When it became an affordable option to fly, Telemark found itself competing against mountains offering vertical drops six or seven times Mt. Telemark in a single run.

To survive, Wise fell back on distinctly Wisconsin traditions of progressive experimentation. He turned the Wisconsin Idea towards recreation in the state’s Northwoods, foraying into any and all ways to guarantee its skiing, fishing, hunting, and leisure for now and into perpetuity.

In summer 1967, Wise led a canoe trip down the Namekagon with U.S. Sens. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Walter Mondale of Minnesota that secured their sponsorship for the 1968 National Scenic Riverways Act. When it passed, the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers instantly became the longest stretch of protected riverway in the U.S., extending more than 285 miles.

Meanwhile, in the winter, he recruited members of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team to design courses over the glacial moraines and woods surrounding Mt. Telemark. With the help of UW-Madison architecture students, he designed a plan for a series of model recreation communities that sought to center the activities that one could enjoy in the Northwoods for those who lived there.

A Lodge Bigger than the Hill

The centerpiece of his plan for Telemark though, was a $6.1 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s $41 million) 200-room ski lodge designed by Frank Lloyd Wright associate Herb Fritz: the Telemark Lodge.

When the Lodge opened in 1972, Olympic alpine medalist Billy Kidd remarked that “Telemark is the only place where the lodge is bigger than the ski hill.” It would become its epithet and attitude-defining mantra.

The Telemark Lodge in a 1970s postcard.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Telemark Lodge during its 1970s heyday.

The Lodge itself was as unique a building as you’d ever step in. An intricate maze of stone and cedar wood that folded in on itself, giving you the sense that in wandering to your room you were wandering the Wisconsin woods. As you walked, you would invariably find an oasis, popping into a restaurant where for a time the sous-chef was a young Emeril Lagasse, or into a lobby where Packers quarterback Bart Starr was sitting beneath the massive, 100-foot-tall stone fireplace, regaling an eager Wisconsin crowd with tales of the Lombardi years.

Telemark Lodge’s heyday stretched over a period that was, in retrospect, comically 1970s. The dull orange furniture that survived until its closure eight years ago was a lasting testament, but so were the odd details that define what the Lodge at its best looked like. The lavish nightclub billed itself as a “disco,” but most nights hosted jazz luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Bill Evans. At the first ever cross-country skiing World Cup in the U.S. in 1978, the dignitary with the honor of starting the race was Billy Carter, brother of President Jimmy Carter and proprietor of Billy Beer.

Renowned chef Emeril Lagasse as a young sous-chef at Telemark.

“There was always a possibility you’d be sitting in your room and right down the hall someone that belonged at Carnegie Hall or cooking at a restaurant in Paris was doing their thing.”

Marlene Theyerl

Mt. Telemark Lodge patron

I always held a subdued fascination with this time period at Telemark, as it’s when my own family first visited the Lodge. My favorite reflection on the energy during the period comes from Marlene Theyerl, my grandmother, who described it saying, “There was always a possibility you’d be sitting in your room and right down the hall someone that belonged at Carnegie Hall or cooking at a restaurant in Paris was doing their thing.”

The Lodge during those years had a unique pull to it, drawing people in from all over, and for many, causing them to stay. A fixture of Telemark for many years, Gary Crandall fell in love with Telemark, and at Telemark, when he moved to Hayward from Madison in the early 1970s. His future wife, Sara, owned the Creative Touch gift shop housed inside the Lodge’s mini-mall.

The U.S. Ski Team at Mt. Telemark in 1978.

As the tourist economy spurred by Telemark took off, Crandall became the race director for 35 years of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, which started in 1986, quickly became one of the largest mountain bike races in the world, and called Telemark home. Among his favorite memories of the Lodge in its early days was Wise’s penchant for booking musical talent that painted a picture of the times and the place. For Crandall, sitting in front and hearing Bonnie Raitt was a favorite memory, as was a visit from the Badgers: “During the Birkie while we were working, the UW Marching Band came down the hallway. … Pretty amazing to hear those drums fill a narrow hallway while they marched.”

The hodgepodge of the times was also underscored by significant investments in Telemark that would become fixtures in Hayward-Cable, and the Northwoods, for years to come.

Most notable among these was the American Birkiebeiner, affectionately known as the Birkie. It started in 1972 with just 51 skiers, but will host an estimated 10,000 skiers this year when the 48th annual race takes place the weekend of Feb. 26. A 55-kilometer point-to-point marathon originally from Hayward to Telemark, and now skied from Cable to Hayward, the race spurred the development of the Birkebeiner trail, which now stretches over 120 kilometers of ridges, forested valleys, and hills.

The American Birkiebeiner XI, 1978.

Cross country skiing, in fact, ultimately surpassed downhill skiing as Telemark’s main attraction. The hills of Wisconsin were no match for the West or New England, but the forested ridges, hills, and steep valleys found in Wisconsin offered some of the most ideal terrain on the American continent for those OK with climbing. Plus, the sport mixed freely with the leftover spirit of those Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns who landed in the Upper Midwest during the Scandinavian diaspora.

With Wise’s invitation, the U.S. Ski Team made Telemark a regular training ground. He even let them design the trails that went in for a World Cup race in 1978. Meanwhile, the Birkie became the largest and most prestigious race in North America, and Wise banded it together with the oldest and largest races held in Scandinavia (including the Swedish Vasaloppet and Norwegian Birkiebeiner) in a new series called the Worldloppet.

The Missing Years

Ultimately, the mantra “the Lodge is bigger than the hill” lost its oomph. It was Telemark’s fatal design-flaw – the thermal exhaust port on Wise’s anti-Death Star.

Through all of the heady days of the Lodge, Wise was barely turning a profit on his most profitable events. And in most ventures, Telemark was taking heavy hits to its bottom-line.

Nonetheless, Wise pushed ahead. He went even bigger than the Lodge in the early 1980s, investing in an all-weather convention center, “the Coliseum,” that was meant to bridge the gap of low-snow years in the Northwoods. It had tennis courts, an indoor track to ski through, grand murals with allusions to Rome, and cost about $1 million per winter just to heat. Telemark Lodge had hid the financial realities of its grandeur behind its splendor and the cheerfulness of its owner. The Coliseum though, a concrete box that looked like it belonged on the lot occupied by Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, seemed to be rejected by the spirit of the Northwoods itself.

Aerial View of Telemark Lodge, 1997. Photo courtesy American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation

It didn’t last long, the Coliseum closed and was torn down less than a decade after it opened. The venture proved the investment that broke Wise, who lost control of Telemark in bankruptcy in 1985.

From there, the Lodge became a lost treasure that the community that had sprung up around it tried to reclaim. It bounced, and bounced, among owners. Some wanted to run Telemark like any other ski resort, while others were intent on capturing what made Telemark different from those places that had become as much a fixture in American winters as the sport they hosted.

In the end, the property went on the auction block at a sheriff’s sale in 2013.

In its initial act Telemark had created an energy that transformed the Northwoods. The laws of the universe held that energy would be conserved, and now, those who remember and carry Telemark’s legacy are doing just that.

The American Birkiebeiner Ski Foundation Steps In

As far as energy goes, a fair amount of Wise’s entrepreneurial passion surrounding the Northwoods community landed with Ben Popp.

Popp is executive director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF), which was founded as a nonprofit to take over the American Birkiebeiner when Wise lost Telemark in 1985. Like Wise, Popp has a deep understanding of the community he grew up in (Popp is from nearby Phillips, and now lives in Spooner) which presents as a natural intuition, and he is not afraid to let his – or others’ – ideas flow freely. “I think oftentimes if (we at the Birkie) think, ‘This is something we can come up with,’ and we think it’s important – then we go, ‘Let’s figure out a way to do it,’” is how he characterized it when I talked to interviewed him last month.

The Birkie Foundation, once just in charge of the annual race, has turned into a year-round calendar of events, a trail infrastructure operation, and a new professional race team, Team Birkie, that’s already put skiers on the World Cup. Popp was instrumental in moving the race’s home to a property adjacent to Telemark when the Lodge closed in 2013. There, the ABSF built the largest snowmaking operation for a cross-country trail in the Midwest – capable of producing a fully artificial 5km snow loop.

There are plans to expand that to 15km, which would make Birkie’s snowmaking operation the largest in the U.S., and do it on a trail that’s up to the requirements to host any level of skiing event. There are plans to shoot high on that front, “I mean, to put it simply, we could have an Olympics up there! But we’ve put in a joint bid with the (Minneapolis-based) Loppet Foundation to host a World Cup on the course in 2024, which we’re extremely excited about,” Popp said.

“To put it simply, we could have an Olympics up there! But we’ve put in a joint bid with the (Minneapolis-based) Loppet Foundation to host a World Cup on the course in 2024, which we’re extremely excited about.”

Ben Popp

Executive Director of the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation (ABSF)

In 2018 though, the Birkie came up with its biggest idea yet: Bring it all back home. Since 2013, Telemark had remained vacant and empty. The Lodge neared condemnation, while just to the west the Birkie was breathing life into the vision the Lodge once embodied. “After three or four rounds of plans going nowhere, we decided that if no one else has been able to (make this work) over the last five or six years, then we should maybe look at doing it,” Popp said.

Considering purchasing Telemark, however, yielded a challenge that fit the outsized building. “Once we decided to do it, we just had the little problem of raising $1.4 million! Then (to add to that) it became clear pretty quickly we had to tear the building down.” That would add about $750,000 to what the ABSF would need.

The Birkie, though, was committed to bringing down the Lodge in a way that would honor what it had been. A $250,000 idle sites grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. gave the project life, and then the Birkie channeled Wise’s wide-ranging, conservation-minded thinking towards building a sustainable Telemark. The ABSF looked to preserve part of the Telemark property into perpetuity and found a partner in the Landmark Conservancy.

“There were members in the community that approached Landmark and said, ‘You guys should really look at this property, it is significant,’” said Lindsey Ketchel, the Landmark Conservancy’s executive director. “Once we saw just how critically important these lands were for outdoor recreation, and the ecological integrity of the forest there, we decided to move forward with the purchase from the Birkie.” The $500,000 sale from the ABSF to Landmark Conservancy proved to be another one of that forest’s mutualisms.

Telemark Lodge was demolished in April 2021, paving the way for dreams to be planted again in the ground Telemark had sprouted from.

“That’s the nuts-and-bolts that got us to where we are now, which is the idea that Telemark is vital to 1) the economic activity of this region, and 2) for (the Birkie) to carry out our mission of having amazing experiences while getting people outside, we need a medium, and this is the place for it,” Popp said.

As for what those ideas look like in reality, Popp offers this explanation: The plan is to break ground next year on a Nordic Center, certified for sustainability and using a solar array, which would help offset carbon emissions from snow-making. “Some of these balls are starting to roll – which means we’re taking on more events coming up,” Popp said. Among these are the Mt. Borah Epic Mountain bike race, a high school mountain bike league race, and a cross-country World Cup event in 2024. A planned hotel, as well as partnerships with several business, “make us feel like it’s really starting to come together,” he said.

The ABSF also recently received a $762,000 outdoor recreation grant from the state, which will fund a roller ski loop, biathlon range, strength park, and additional mountain bike trails, which Popp said will enhance the venue and provide more silent sport opportunities.

To use that old Northwood-ism again, Telemark is “happening.” This version, however, seeks to use the detritus of what Wise once built to bring a stability to Telemark and its place in the Northwoods landscape. No longer an apparition, but instead a steady presence, alive and well.

And while the ideas are free flowing, there is a focus to the ABSF’s version of Telemark that is clear. Popp explains that “if you draw a circle 50 miles around (Hayward and Cable), 90% of our funding comes from outside that circle. But we as an organization spend over 80% of our funding within that 50-mile circle. So that’s the model, using the community we’ve built far and wide in skiing to flow in and build our community in Hayward-Cable, (and) it will be cut from the same cloth of getting people outside and being connected to the world at large.”

In both the skiing community and among those in Cable, Popp and the ABSF’s vision seems to have a faith placed in it that previous attempts to remake Telemark have not earned.

Gary Crandall summarizes the Cable community’s feelings: “We all have a strong desire for Telemark to regain a viable operation bringing back that huge national and international focus. I see that the Birkie is taking a more measured approach and hopefully this time the glory that was Telemark will once again blossom.”

“We all have a strong desire for Telemark to regain a viable operation bringing back that huge national and international focus.”

Gary Crandall

former race director, Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival

Meanwhile, for those for whom life’s tapestry weighs heavily towards skiing and for which Telemark was a touchstone, there is already much to laud. Eau Claire skier David Ecker said of his time growing up at Telemark during its waning years that it “was one of the few places in the world that (cross-country) skiing was the center of the universe.”

“Many of us have spent the last handful of years mourning the loss of Telemark,” Ecker said. “I am especially excited by (the Birkie’s) sustainable plan to focus on land conservancy, rather than over-commercializing the property.”

For Popp, meanwhile, the nuts, bolts, facts, and figures of steering the ABSF all point towards the spectral joy, spirit, and connection to the world that the name Telemark carries in the Northwoods: “I think about hosting a World Cup here (in 2024), how amazing would it be to line up Jessie Diggins next to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo” – a seven-time Olympic medalist Norwegian skier – “next to your dad, my mom, a kid from Minneapolis who didn’t know what skiing was two years ago, a kid from the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, and on and on. When we all get to sit at the same table, we all get to inspire each other, and that’s my ultimate dream at the end of the day.”

To see that dream, you can now head two miles East of Cable, up a chip-sealed road where the bridges offer glimpses of the vernal pools and springs coming off the Namekagon, take in the glacial knoll that’s stood for 10,000 years, brought life and connection to northern Wisconsin, and belongs to all once again. It is a place not unlike others strewn throughout the Northwoods – this is after all, one of the most beautiful places on Earth – but here a certain ghost named Tony Wise, through a half century of hard-work, folded and stuffed all that is beautiful and good about the place into a singular word: Telemark.

With the vision Wise inspired alive and well through the Birkie, he can now watch over the rebirth, renewal, and continued legacy of the Northwoods that he helped create.

In other words, Telemark Lodge is an apparition now. Or rather, it will always be.

Ben Theyerl

Ben Theyerl grew up in Altoona, has cross-country ski raced all over the country, and currently lives and breathes the sport while based in Crested Butte, Colorado. He’s written about skiing at Fasterskier, and about other things in The Brooklyn Rail, Volume One, and BJ Hollars’ Hope is the Thing project (Available at the Local Store!).

Read Ben's personal story:

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