×

Rebuilt by Bow contractor, N.H.’s famed Nansen Ski Jump to host a daring last hurrah

  • The Nansen Ski Jump is seen before the repairs (left) and after. Courtesy—

  • An aerial photograph shows hundreds of cars parked in the farmland across Route 16 from the Nansen Ski Jump during a competition. A historian said up to 25,000 spectators visited the jump at one time, many of them watching from their cars and listening on the radio. Courtesy

  • The Nansen Ski Jump is pictured with its new deck. Courtesy—

  • The Nansen Ski Jump is pictured during a 1972 competition. Courtesy—

  • Lead carpenter Austin St. Laurent of Knollstone Contracting makes his way up the Nansen Ski Jump. The crew spent six weeks putting a new deck on the 80-year-old jump to prepare it for one launch. Courtesy

  • The Bow-based Knollstone Contracting crew is pictured, from left, owner Greg Baier, Josh Muniz, Seth Passler, Austin St. Laurent, Will Marvin and Tyler Cummings. Courtesy

  • The Nansen Ski Jump is seen before the repairs (left) and after. Courtesy—



Monitor staff
Thursday, February 02, 2017

A towering piece of New Hampshire’s history will be temporarily restored to active duty this month, when the 80-year-old Nansen Ski Jump in Milan launches one last skier.

A team of Bow-based contractors spent six weeks this winter putting a new deck on the rotted, 171-foot-tall steel-framed structure, which was once the epicenter of American ski jumping.

Soon, the lights will shine again, drawing the attention of the ski-jumping world for the first time in decades.

The star of the one-time event just north of Berlin is Sarah Hendrickson, a 22-year-old Red Bull-sponsored athlete whose parents grew up in Plymouth.

The former world champion and first-ever woman to jump in an Olympic skiing event will use the spectacle to jump-start her career after suffering devastating injuries in recent years. She’ll be the first person in 32 years to shoot at highway speeds off the 310-foot-long runway.

And when the crowd and TV cameras disperse, advocates of the region’s rich history in skiing hope to capture the momentum created by Hendrickson and her Red Bull media team to reinstate the jump as a tourist attraction in a depressed area.

Jay Poulin, secretary for the Friends of the Nansen Ski Jump, along with various state officials hope to restore the jump to its former glory.

“To the baby boomers and before, it’s iconic,” Poulin, 41, said. “It lost its significance in my generation and the generation after me. Hopefully this brings it back.”

A ski-jumping capital

Berlin already had a proud history in skiing long before the jump was built. Scandinavian immigrants in the late 1800s, who skied mainly for practical reasons, brought the tradition with them and began competing in cross-country skiing and ski jumping, said historian Walter Nadeau, who is vice president of the Berlin and Coos County Historical Society.

The Nansen Ski Club, which they formed, is the oldest organization of its kind in the country.

In the early 1900s, Berlin was booming. The mills there were the largest producers of paper in the world, Nadeau said, managing or owning 3.5 million acres of land and employing upward of 10,000 people.

The city’s population grew to 22,000 in the 1930s – far above its current 9,600 – and so did the region’s prominence in skiing.

When the Nansen Ski Jump was built in 1936, it was the tallest free-standing ski jump in the world, Nadeau said. It hosted Olympic tryouts in 1938 that attracted 25,000 spectators and were announced on 87 radio stations, he said.

Ski jumpers in the area even went so far as to prepare a bid for the 1944 Winter Olympics, Nadeau said. World War II made sure that those games never happened, but Nansen regained its prominence in peacetime and hosted a total of four national championships before 1973.

But by the 1980s, the city itself and its role in the skiing industry were in decline, Nadeau said, as new technologies required updated ski-jumping facilities.

“One of several reasons why ski jumping kind of died away from this area was, No. 1, there were better venues for the big jumpers to go to Lake Placid,” Nadeau said. “And also, the old-time volunteers that helped prepare the jump for big-time events were gradually dying off.”

A star reborn?

Somewhat like the jump itself, Hendrickson is looking to reboot her career. At 19 years old, the Utah native had dominated the inaugural World Cup ski jumping circuit in 2012 and won a world championship in 2013.

Then, she had the opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympics in the first class of women’s ski jumpers, when – 90 years after the first men’s event – women won the right to compete in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

At a moment when she felt she was at the top of her game, less than six months before the Olympics, she overshot a jump in Germany and blew out her knee, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

She recovered enough that she was able to compete in the Olympics, but she started the competition as the lowest-ranked skier there because she’d missed so much time. She finished in 21st place.

But there was a silver lining: The Olympics called for the lowest-ranked skier to go first, and so she became the first woman ever to jump in the Games.

In June 2015, she tore her ACL again during a practice jump in Utah. After another surgery and a year of rehab, she only began jumping again this past December, according to Outside magazine.

“There’s a parallel,” she told the magazine. “I’ve been off the radar for a while, I haven’t competed in a year, and I’ve been training my ass off to get back. And not just get back — to get back and win a medal in Korea.”

Jump restoration

Although the Nansen Ski Jump was structurally sound, its deck hadn’t been touched since 1972, said Greg Baier, the lead contractor tasked with restoring it this winter. The men who rebuilt it moved meticulously around the rotted planks and wore harnesses in case they fell through.

Baier, who owns Knollstone Contracting, was called upon in early October to see whether he’d take the extraordinary job of re-decking the jump amid a season of negative temperatures and gusty winds.

When he and his team of five men visited the site, he said, “We all stood on the ground with our mouths hanging open, going, ‘What are we doing here?’ ”

Although Baier, 38, said he’d never even heard of the jump before the job came up, he went home and read every article and watched every video he could find, becoming enthralled by its history. His crew accepted what they saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, rented an Airbnb home nearby where they’d live together and started work at the end of November.

It took 22 tons of lumber to rebuild the deck, he said, noting that he cleared out every Lowe’s in New Hampshire and some in Maine and Massachusetts.

At one point about halfway through the job, Baier said, he was caught vulnerable on the jump amid 30-below-zero temperatures and 30 mph winds. A gust caught the side of the jump – which would sway noticeably in the wind – and nearly sent him plunging down. He yelled to his crew to get down, because that day’s work was done.

“I’m not afraid of heights at all, but being up that high and having the wind and the movement,” he said, pausing. “It definitely slowed us down.”

The team barely finished in its six-week time frame. But the crew spent enough time in the area that it became renowned at the Millyard Lounge, where they’d stop for drinks at the end of the day.

It was there that Baier said he fully grasped the importance of the ski jump after the locals became curious about them and asked what brought them to the area.

When he said they were working on the jump, “it was like a record scratch,” he said. “Everybody turned around and from that point forward everybody wanted to talk to us and share their stories. . . . We’d walk into the bar and they’d say, ‘Oh, the ski jump guys are here. Six Budweisers, here you go.’ ”

He said of the local attitude toward the jump restoration: “It’s like having Gillette Stadium built in their backyard. They’re all about it.”

Continued investments

Hendrickson may be the only skier expected to make the jump, but the state’s Bureau of Historical Sites hopes tourists will continue to visit the site for years to come.

Ben Wilson, the director of the bureau, said the state’s final investment will be close to $150,000 to restore the judge’s stand, light the jump and install interpretive panels along the course. Much of that was planned three years ago, before Red Bull entered the picture, in conjunction with the Friends of the Nansen Ski Jump.

But Red Bull, whose infrastructure donation and site preparation alone is approaching $75,000, has changed the picture completely, Wilson said.

Poulin, of the Friends, said he hopes that tourists will enjoy visiting the site to learn about its history, explore the judge’s stand, have a picnic and peer off the end of the jump. He envisions drivers on the adjacent Route 16 looking up at the thing as a monument – illuminated at night in full view of the road – just as they used to line up thousands at a time in the farmer’s field across the street.

“Right from the get-go, our goal as the Friends was preservation of the jump. It was never about jumping,” he said, “however, along comes Red Bull.”

Hendrickson’s jump is planned for late February, although the date will depend on the weather, and a Red Bull spokesperson said it’s a private event.

Poulin said the investment and energy brought by Hendrickson’s sponsor kickstarted his group’s restoration effort. He estimated that the re-decking probably would have been “years down the road” otherwise.

There’s still plenty to do, Poulin said, “but we want to kind of leverage the jump to get some funding and other things lined up, so we can continue to preserve it and allow people to enjoy it going forward.”

Then, he imagines, the public can visit and “stand on the end of it, and just look out over the hill of the jump itself, to give them that real perspective of this incredible sport of ski jumping, and what kind of courage you need to launch off this thing.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at
@NickBReid.)