The boy sails into the air, thrusting his chest and hips far forward, his skis forming a V, wide at the tips. There's a brief whoosh as the skis cut the air, then a slap of skis against hard-packed snow as he lands the jump. He speeds to the bottom of the hill and hockey-stops at the straw bales. Shaking his head in disappointment, he yells up to the men on the hill, "It's slow!" He shoulders his skis and walks to the stairs.
Now another boy jumps. And then a girl. And then another girl. Preceding each jumper, the call of "Clear!" moves like a wave down the hill. And after each lands, he or she complains that the hill is slow. But they still focus on technique. As 16-year-old Maria Honncola walks back up the stairs, she pauses in the darkness to speak to Fredette.
"How did I do? Did I keep my chin up?" she asks.
"Could you see your ski tips?" he says.
"Yah," she says, the implication dawning. "I must have had my chin down."
"Yep, you had your chin down," he says. He laughs and takes a hit of his cigarette. She lets out a moan of disappointment and continues her march up the dimly lit hill.
The night goes on, and one kid after another shoots into the air. At one point, a boy named Adam takes off, and his right ski falls off in midair. He crashes and slides down the hill unhurt.
Adam's fall illustrates why people here feel ski jumping is so much safer than the infamous clip of Bogataj's fall suggests. Fredette says, "It's not the fall that hurts you, it's the sudden stop." It sounds like a joke, but what he means is that the landing portion of the hill is slanted steeply and covered with hard packed snow. When a jumper falls he slides down the hill until eventually stopping.
"The snowboarders at school get hurt way more than we do," Maria says. Still, she feels it takes more courage to ski jump, despite her perceived safety of the sport. "If a boarder went off this jump they'd crap their pants," she says.
One regular at ski jump practice is Sten Fjeldheim, the nationally acclaimed cross-country ski coach from Northern Michigan University, a man who has sent several collegiate athletes to the Olympics. Fjeldheim is here because his son jumps in the club. "When you look at the odds of getting into the Olympics, how many kids are trying to get in playing hockey compared to ski jumping?" he says. Thousands and thousands and thousands of hockey players, maybe a few hundred ski jumpers. "If you want your kid to have an Olympics experience, that is really something to think about."
Around the valley, people still talk about Rhys Hecox, a Marquette teen who skied on the U.S. Ski Team back in 2000. "He was out-jumping everybody," Fredette says. Hecox even won the Continental Cup in Finland, but then he quit. "An Austrian told me some people expected him to be the best in the world," Fredette says wistfully. Clearly it still hurts to think how close the return of Ishpeming's ski jump glory was. Fredette blames Hecox's resignation on politics within the U.S. Ski Team.
The kids in Ishpeming's program these days are pretty green, recent recruits from a campaign to build up from a membership low a few years ago. The iron mine that owns the valley was going to fill it in with waste rock. People began to feel there was no future with the sport. But then mine officials changed their minds, and now people talk of investment in the big jump, bringing it up to revised world class standards. They also are installing summer jump technology: on the jump, a dimpled metal surface that water runs over; on the landing area, a specialized plastic mat. As testament to how close to burial the club's valley, history and culture was, just a few hundred yards east of where the kids jump, a wall of mining waste rock rises 30 stories, and the valley beyond is no longer a valley.
Dale Fredette knows what it means to have ski jump heroes propel a young jumper's dreams of glory. In 1949 he was listening to a radio broadcast of a ski jump competition in Iron Mountain, and heard that a 24-year-old Ishpeming man named Joe Perrault had just beat the best skiers in the world. "I was a young boy, but I knew right then I wanted to be a ski jumper," he says.
He would ski to school and prop his boards outside all day, then after school he'd head to small jumps he knew of around town. Back in the first half of the 1900's, Ishpeming and Negaunee had ski jumps all over the place. People built them on any hill they could find, piled snow against garages and skied off the roofs; some people even built scaffold jumps. Back then, when people said "skiing" they meant one thing: Ski jumping.
Fredette's uncle told him, "Once you take your first ride down the big hill, you'll run up for your second," and the thought stayed with him. By the time Fredette was 10 he felt ready for the big jump, but when he asked his mom, she said no.
The next winter, at age 11, he became the second-youngest person to jump Suicide Bowl's most extreme hill, but the risk he didn't take was asking for permission. "When I went home and told my mom she got mad and wanted my dad to hit me," he says. "But my dad just looked at me and said, 'What do you mean? He's all right.'"
And as Fredette moved through his teens, his local heroes didn't disappoint. "In '48 we had two guys on the Olympic team. In '52 we had two, '56 we had one, and in '60 we had three more." Other local Olympians had come before, more came later – 13 all together. But no local has competed since 1980 – a 28-year drought.
Fredette made it to the top amateur league, but not the Olympics, and toured the nation for the Ishpeming Ski Club. And ski jumping was still "the big thing in my life," he says. He worked construction and took winters off so he could ski jump. "I couldn't count the number of times I did the big jump," he says. "But it was 25 times a day every day I could, and I did that for 40 years." In all the years he jumped the big hill, Fredette's mom never once watched him.
Not many people can head downtown and have coffee with their heroes, but Dale Fredette can. Every Friday morning, ski jumpers from the glory days meet amid the bacon-pancake-coffee aroma of Meg's Place in Ishpeming to share breakfast and keep the flame alive. And Friday, February 22, finds them there at 9 a.m. Clarence "Coy" Hill, now 80, won the National Class A championship in '52 and competed around the globe. Joe Perrault, now 83, was selected for the '48 and '52 Olympics; he was named the Michigan Daredevil. Other jumpers with victories of their own populate the place.