Outdoor Adventures: Hiking in the steps of skiing history
The North Country morning symphony featuring a section of buzzing chainsaws and a collection of punctuating shotgun blasts resonated through the hardwoods as we walked up the hill in the steps of skiing history.
The footing was anything but easy with the slippery downed leaves of autumn and pesky rocks behaving badly. Back in the day, there were wooden steps leading up to “Big Nansen.” But they are gone, the remaining rusting staircase frame repurposed as shaky impromptu handrails for those with preservationist zeal to make the short and steep pilgrimage to see the storied and rotting ski jump tower above the trees.
What a shame it is to witness the crumbling remains of the 80-meter jump that in 1938, during its vivacious birth, held the Olympic trials and later hosted the national ski jumping championships in 1940, 1957, 1965 and 1972. It once stood proud above what is now an overgrown property littered with beer cans and discarded coffee cups.
But what a place it must have been in its glory days, as flying fearless ones in leather boots and long wooden free-heel skis soared through the chilly air in the heart of winter from the staggering 171-foot high steel tower jump. It was the highest of its kind when it opened, holding that lofty crown in the eastern United States for a half century.
The historic Nansen Ski Jump off Route 16 in Milan across from the mighty Androscoggin River and Nansen Wayside Area was once the centerpiece of a healthy and lively ski jumping scene linked to Scandinavian immigrants coming to Berlin and northern New Hampshire in the 1800s for its logging and mill opportunities. There is also the strong connection to the Nansen Ski Club, considered the oldest ski club in North America and named for Norway’s explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who skied across remote Greenland in 1888. The club still maintains a cross-country ski network in Milan Hill State Park.
Credit for building the jump goes to the city of Berlin and National Youth Administration that began its construction in 1936. It closed in 1988.
Those tapping their inner Nansen will find what’s left of the old staircase by a dirt road dead end near the state historic marker unveiled in 2011. Round a corner and there’s the grassy slope contained in the 225-foot vertical drop. Duck under a tree to find the stiff climb through history up to the flats, wood roads, the jump and scoring building.
Close-up, the jump is astounding in what it must have been like for these athletes to first climb up the stairs and then have to continue up more staggering stairs to the top of the jump before drifting through the air during a 37.5-degree descent. The wow factor lives on despite the decomposing wood. Partial stairs remain to the unsafe jump and it appears those able to scamper up steel have done so. Even a few years ago, people were able to climb stairs to the jump, some of those stairs now sitting in the weeds by a couple of planks set against the structure allowing for the misguided to travel upwards.
The trails around the jump afford several splendid looks at the structure, while that wood station is also in disrepair with missing boards and pathetic graffiti. A highlight is venturing out on the grassy slope for a fine look to the northern hills for a taste of what those daredevils experienced back during its zenith.
But all is not lost for the jump, as more of it may soon be revealed. According to North Country luminary Edith Tucker in the Berlin Reporter, plans are in the works to clearcut the eight-acre parcel perhaps as early as next year.
Following a tour with Director Ben Wilson of the state Division of Parks and Recreation’s Bureau of Historic Sites, she reported he would also like to install one or more interpretive signs and possibly to have some sort of safe platform constructed that would allow visitors to get an idea of what ski jumpers saw – and felt – before beginning their slide down the steep incline to soar into space.
That must have been something special, and easily appreciated by those grounded admirers gazing up under the frame of a giant dinosaur that once ruled the world of winter’s wingless flight in a struggling land with a storied past.
(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)