Traverse Classics: Ski Jumping in the U.P.

Perrault is the most medaled of the group, but he wears his pride quietly. Like Fredette, he grew up in the ski jump world of Ishpeming, and today lives just three doors from his childhood house.

In 1944, 19-year-old Perrault got a taste of big city fame. He was in the Army's division of fighting skiers, the 10th Mountain Division (he wears a pin on his green corduroy hat this morning that bears the division name and the words "Viva Italia"), when the Chicago's mayor office called his commanding officer and asked if any of the soldiers could ski jump. The city was constructing a jump in Wrigley Field and was holding a tournament on crushed ice.

Even though Perrault was selected for two Olympics, the jump he remembers with the most pride happened at Iron Mountain in 1949, when he beat the reigning gold medalist from the 1948 Olympics, a Finn whom he calls "a prince of a guy."

Perrault's jumping success ended dramatically with a bad landing when training for the '52 Olympics. "All summer when I'd walk with my wife, when I'd come to a curb, I'd practice my landing," he says. He'd jump off the curb and plant his feet on the street, bend his knees, get the form. But that winter in Wisconsin, despite the obsessing, he messed up a landing in a bad way. He fell, crushing some vertebrae and cracking some ribs. He recovered and even jumped again for a couple of years, but then quit for good.

Why are fewer people drawn to ski jumping in the United States these days? "For years now they've been sending jumpers to Europe to train. They're not at the U.S. hills for people to see," Perrault says. In short, no local heroes to inspire youth.

Many of the goings on at Suicide Bowl this week are part of the routine: practice every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday; daily maintenance and hill grooming to keep the hills ready. But there's an added element of excitement in the background, preparations for the annual season-crowning ski jump competition.

The 2007 event was the 120th consecutive – the first was held in 1887. During the glory years of the Ishpeming Ski Club, 100 jumpers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York and even Colorado, would compete, but this year the only club to show is from Chicago. Ten high-school-aged jumpers – some Olympic contenders – and their coach arrive in a white van. None of the Ishpeming jumpers are yet accomplished enough to compete.

But the thin competition does nothing to ease the attention given to the event. For days the hill maintenance chief, Tom Sodergren, has been smoothing the 90-meter hill like a maid making a bed in a fine hotel. Time after time he heads to the top of the landing area on his skis and, carrying a rake, moves back and forth across the face compressing every bit of snow into hard-pack.

On Friday afternoon a team of men led by Coy Hill heads to the jump ramp to etch tracks into the ice-hard snow, tracks that will guide jumpers' skis as they hurtle to the takeoff. The men cut the track with a tool that Sodergren invented and that's been copied worldwide. The tracks must be 1.5 inches deep and 7 inches between the trails. The ramp at takeoff declines exactly 11 degrees below horizontal – measured on the readout of a digital level.

Saturday night, the cars stream in. A man with a hat made of fox pelts, multiple fox heads dangling, takes tickets. The parking lot fills with tailgate parties – country western music from SUVs, chili and Labatt beer all around. A bonfire rages 15 feet high.

Darkness arrives as start time nears, and Coy Hill stands beside the launch ramp, illuminated by the blue-green glow of vapor lights. His big coat drapes to mid-thigh, but is unzipped despite the 15-degree weather. He's thinking about his time jumping and about the boys jumping tonight. "In school, when I'd see that first snowflake in September, I'd go crazy because I couldn't wait to get on that hill and fly through the air like a bird," he says.

What about advice for today's jumpers? "When you meet that takeoff, you make that hill yours," he says. "You get on that big cushion of air and ride it." Hill thinks for a moment. "I was known in places all over the world," he says. "That's what this hill did for me, and that's why I've been in this valley for 65 years giving back."

Hundreds of spectators line both sides of the landing area and cluster at the hill bottom. After the national anthem and a firework, the jumpers begin, and though there are only 10 of them, the thrill of ski jumping is no less electrifying. The anticipation as the start-light flashes green and the skier begins his ride. The rattle of ski against ice as he speeds down the ramp. The moment of launch, the whoosh of air, the thrill of seeing a human fly.

And there's side drama too. After skier No. 2 jumps, announcer Carl Pelonpaa tells the crowd that the young man jumps with an artificial leg. A moment of silence settles as each person takes in this almost unbelievable fact, and then a giant cheer rises.

The jumpers each jump three times, and with each landing people honk horns, ring cow bells, scream and clap. Taking it all in high on the hill is Maria, the Ishpeming jumper who was concentrating on keeping her chin up Thursday night. Another jumper flies by, and Maria's eyes track him as he sails down the hill. "I'm gonna jump this hill at least once," she says. "And if I jump it once and don't fall, I will jump it at least twice, because I know I'll want to do it again."

Call it the thrill of victory.

This article was first published in February 2008.

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Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    The magazine article indicated this site to see Vinko Bogataj’s “agony of defeat” video, but I have not be able to find it. Where is it?

  • Anonymous

    Apologies for the oversight. We’ve now added a link in the opening paragraph, or you can go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPk_IZ44DMc. — Jeff Smith, Editor