Thursday, March 06, 2014

Joel Races with Wooden Skis crafted by Palmquist Family

Joel, our new ski instructor, describes skiing on wooden ski hand-crafted on The Farm!

I decided to ski the Nikkerbeiner ("knicker-beiner") race at the Birkie this year. This race celebrates the origins of the first American Birkebeiner in 1973, when wooden skis and bamboo poles were still dominant. By the 1980s, most cross-country skiers had retired their woodies in favor of newer technologies. After decades of shuffling around thrift shops, interest in wooden skis resurfaced, but (sad to say) as antique bric-a-brac to hang on cabin walls. 

I set out to find a wall with some wooden skis, and Palmquist Farm is just the place. They had a gorgeous century-old hand-carved pair. By my way of thinking, the only things mounted on walls should be dead, so I pulled them off the wall, and let me tell you, these skis are still very much alive and kicking. I asked Jim Palmquist to tell me the history of this pair. He told me his grandfather Anton carved this 240 cm long pair for his wife, Alena GustafsonShe used them for day-to-day transportation in winters like this, with no groomers to lead the way.

Jim told me the tale: 
"My grandfather Anton made skis for his family and friends in the community. He preferred to make skis from yellow birch because of its close grain. A young, straight tree with few or no branches was cut and split with a wedge into quarters. It was then dried in a hay mow for 2-3 years. Using woodworking tools like hatchets, spokeshaves, and drawknifes, the ski was formed into shape. To provide additional strength a ‘ridge’ was carved on the top. A special plane with a narrow blade was used to make the bottom box-shaped groove. He carved them in the sauna, using steam and a jig press to create the raised shape. After the form was made and the ski was still warm, lard was applied to the ski so that it would retain its shape as it slowly dried again. The opening for the leather boot strap was carefully chiseled out underneath the flattened area, and the bottoms were treated with hot pine tar worked into the wood over an open fire." 

The quality of Anton's craftsmanship was obvious. All the skis needed from me was a quick sand to the bases and touch of linseed oil to shine 'em up. No pine tar needed. Just like that, I was off to the race!
Here’s what I discovered: skiing with woodies is a completely different experience. They have a much flatter camber so the emphasis is on steady, long "surfing" glides rather than strong kicks. They worked perfectly in the cold, fresh snow that fell on the day of the race. Old wooden skis tend to shine in winters like this -- cold snow is abrasive and drags on the synthetic bases of newer skis. Woodies, on the other hand, only seem to get faster. And with just enough pressure applied on the raised center, who needs bindings anyway?All my modern gear couldn't save me on Birkie race day, but at least during the Nikkerbeiner barn-dried and sauna-curved Finn transporters were the skis to beat!

For me, skiing this race wasn't about being "retro" or playing the vintage dress-up part -- I'll be the first to admit the wind poured right through my itchy nordic sweater. It was about recognizing cross-country skiing craftsmanship and valuing its legacy.
After all, even some first wave Birkie skiers know it's best to take the edge off from time to time and enjoy a relaxed and lively wood ski. 

So, if you've got a pair of old woodies lying around, unscrew them from the wall and play the terrain at the Farm. Your skis deserve to be back among old friends. 

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