Ski Jumping: Original Extreme Sport

A gray November sky promised rain.  The strong breeze hinted at the gale force wind that would come in the evening.  I parked at the usual spot, the Green Pond Road trail head that’s become New Jersey’s version of overcrowded Adirondack trail heads.  I shrugged into my hydration vest and took off.  Thanks to the weather, I had the place to myself for a change

A kilometer into the woods, I veered off the marked trail onto an old road.  I was on a mission to find a piece of local history.

Long before halfpipes, BASE jumping, and street luge, ski jumping was the primordial extreme sport.  The only information I’ve found on the origins of the sport attribute the first jump to one Ole Rye of Norway, who jumped 9.5 meters in 1808.  Most likely, spectators wanted to see who flew the farthest rather than who could send the most disastrous crash. Remember “the agony of defeat” on ABC Wide World of Sports, anyone?

“There’s nothing left except the hill itself.” That was my friend Roy’s response when I asked him if the old ski jump in Lake Telemark still existed.  “It’s behind the Lutheran church.”

goblins-guarding-the-woods

                                  Guardians of the woods

In 1999, I had a long conversation with Roy, and spent a lot of time in the local and county libraries reading microfilms of old newspapers.  The end result was a story I that I’m still quite proud of.  But I never found the ski jump.

Roy was of the generation that belonged to the Odin Ski Club, the club that built the said ski jump.  The club flourished from the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s, hosting tournaments in the summer as well as winter.  Nowadays, people jump during summer on mats that are a combination of an astroturf-like material and marbles.  I’ve no idea what they used then.  I do know that in low snow winters, club members would drive around Rockaway, scavenging snow for the jump and landing area.

The Odin Ski Club was Art Tokle Sr’s home hill.  Tokle, a member of the National Ski Hall of Fame, was a two-time Olympian in ski jumping and later coached the US Olympic team.  Oddvar Ask qualified for the 1960 Winter Olympics, but didn’t receive his citizenship in time.  Birger Visgnes missed an opportunity to try out for the 1960 Olympic team: he told me his invitation came in the mail while he was doing basic training in Fort Dix. 

Mining ran from some time in the eighteenth century to some time in this century.  This road was one of several that traced through these woods, from those times.  One website says mining in this area ended in 1916; this article cites a mine that was started during World War 2.

A mile in, my road dead-ended.  The landmark, a pile of empty Busch Lite and White Claw cans at the base of a tree meant, turn right.  A gradual climb led to a clearing where there had once been a farm.  Four ancient, stately maple trees grew in too straight of a line to have been random.  Today, I went off trail to look for a foundation.  All I found was what might have been a root cellar, and a brick chimney.  No evidence of a house.

maple-tree-lane

Maple tree lane

Half a mile further on, faded red metal stood out on the forest floor.  By the chrome trim, I guessed is was the door from an early 1960s General Motors vehicle.  There was a deteriorating rock and cement foundation.

A bit more uphill, and a four-way intersection with the detritus of humanity: dead televisions, plastic buckets, rotting old tires.  To the right, two houses are maybe 100 yards off.

I continued straight downhill, across a meadow.  What had been dry stream beds two weeks ago were running fast with the previous week’s rain.  I looped up to the edge of private property, houses on a cul-de-sac.  The old road turned into single track.  I ignored an intersection that I’d explored earlier and kept going.  Clambering over a large downed tree, I turned on to another road and went a few hundred feet.

meadow

The first time I saw it, I didn’t realize what I was looking at.  The second time I came out here, I’d just spent time looking at another slope, overgrown, with an impossibly short area for landing.  Then I arrived to the actual ski jump and was like, OMG, the holy grail.  

ski-jump-hill

                                The ski jump, with trees growing in

I clambered up the slope to the lip of the hill and looked down.  The landing area looks impossibly short.  It’s a 25-foot hill.  By today’s standards, it’s a training hill for juniors.  It would sure scare the you-know-what outta me if you put me on skis and gave me a push. 

looking-down-from-takeoff-point

                                          Looking down to the landing area

Most of the men (and back then, they were all men. Chapeau to Lindsey Van for breaking that glass ceiling) who jumped at Telemark were there for fun and the thrill. How did Tokle and his peers transition from this modest 25-foot hill to the 45-meter hill at Bear Mountain? Or the 80-meter jump at the 1960 Olympics?  Walking up to the top, waiting their turn, each must have had a lot of time to think before they made their run.

Here’s a news reel video of Art Tokle winning a meet at Bear Mountain:

 

Craigmeur, a local feeder hill that opened in the early 60s, also featured a ski jump, but it burned shortly after they opened.  Ski jumping didn’t burn out; its popularity faded over decades for reasons that many have debated.  But I won’t forget the original extreme athletes.