Leavenworth's ski jump draws a new generation of thrill-seekers
Seattle Times staff columnist
If you were a Norwegian tyke growing up in Leavenworth, not long after you learned to walk, you learned to fly.
Not in a plane, the way the Wright Brothers were doing it. Off the ground. On your own. With a little bit of the Cascade Mountains for a launch, and a lot of your own nerve as your navigation system.
To this day, it is a magical link to the land that refuses to be broken in Leavenworth, a little Cascade burg whose faux-Bavarian storefronts mask a deeper, truer European mountain heritage — one that's quietly re-emerging on the far side of town: ski jumping.
All of the first leapers are gone now, off to that great landing ramp in the sky. But their sons still feel the pull. Over the years, the knees get creaky, the limbs get stiff and the will diminishes. But the soul never forgets the lift.
Six-and-a-half decades later, Bakke, if you press him, can feel his first long flight off the hills outside Leavenworth as if it were 25 minutes ago: the anticipatory buzz as he kick-steps up that steep, snowy slope. The rush from pointing his wooden skis down the ramp and launching himself into the wind, a brief panic erased by the sheer, indescribable thrill of pointing your nose into oblivion and flying down a mountain, leading with your chin.
It was addictive, and entire generations got hooked. For nearly 50 years, in Leavenworth and a long string of other Cascade Mountain towns from Central Oregon to Canada, ski jumping was the local pastime, obsession and lifestyle choice.
These were the days, mind you, before a young Austrian immigrant named Otto Lang arrived on a train and turned the Northwest ski world on to graceful, parallel downhill skiing. The first-generation Cascade snow fiends weren't racers or schussers. They were big-air jumpers.
A Norwegian legacy
Kjell Bakke learned the craft from his father, Magnus, a first-generation Norwegian immigrant who, arriving in the Upper Wenatchee River Valley in 1930, proceeded to do what came naturally: He scouted for a good, steep hill to leap from on clunky wooden skis.
Magnus and his brother, Hermod, were ski-jumping pioneers here. Along with hundreds of other enthusiasts, they helped build a series of ski jumps outside Leavenworth, where the first jump, Lord's Hill, had opened in 1927. As a series of wood towers was built at what now is Leavenworth Ski Hill, each climbing a little higher, ski jumpers kept sailing a little farther into Leavenworth's cold, clear air. By 1939, when Kjell Bakke was 6, his dad and uncle had helped build Leavenworth's "A" Hill — the equivalent of today's 295-foot ski jumps.
It put the town on the global sports map. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Leavenworth was a national ski-jumping hot spot. Some national competitions drew 5,000 to 7,000 spectators, many arriving by train.
At tournament time, hundreds of local residents would troop out to the ski hill to pack the landing slope the only way possible — inch by inch, by foot and ski. The night before the jump off, ski fliers and townies alike would gather at large community dances.
Legends were made here. The hill was graced by the likes of Torger Tokle, the "Babe Ruth of Ski Jumping," who set the U.S. mark, 273 feet, on Leavenworth's big hill in 1940 — then went out and beat it by 15 feet a year later at Snoqualmie Pass.
Local boys, of course, lapped all this up. Generations of Leavenworth kids competed on a circuit of ski jumps up and down the Cascades, vying for that highest honor — a letter in high-school skiing.
Soon, even larger ramps were built at or near Snoqualmie Pass, stealing some of the spotlight for Seattle-area jumpers such as Olav Ulland, later the U.S. coach at the 1956 Olympics. But Leavenworth's old jump had some spring left in it: A world record, 324 feet, was set here by Norway's Toraf Engan in 1965. And the last great local Leavenworth ski jumper, Ron Steele, won the national championship here in 1974.
But it was not to last. By the 1950s, recreational skiing had begun to supplant ski-jumping as a safer, saner Cascade snow sport. The last tournament jumpers went off Leavenworth's "A" Hill in 1978. Ski jumping largely vanished from its Central Cascades incubator, the victim of economics, dwindling interest and a changing format that made Leavenworth's big jump a hand-fashioned anachronism.
Rebirth of a jump
The ski jump languished as a ghostly launching ramp to nowhere, identified only by a simple painted sign: "Bakke Hill." For 20 years, the closest you could get to organized ski jumping in Leavenworth was faded, black-and-white photos of the Bakkes and Tokles hung on the walls at local diners.
But leap, if you will, back to the first part of this tale, with a young Kjell Bakke feeling his hair blown back by the winds of euphoria, and it's easy to understand why the ski-jumping embers were never fully snuffed.
Bakke, like his forebears, was a competitive ski jumper for years, later serving as a judge for international events, such as the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. But his career with the U.S. Forest Service pulled him away to Portland, where the old ski jump on Mount Hood had, sadly, gone the way of Leavenworth's.
He raised a family and went about his business, and "just kind of got away from it," he says.
When he retired from the Forest Service, Bakke moved back to Leavenworth, and it wasn't long before that big-air DNA started flip-flopping in his bones. Bakke found himself lured back to the ski jumps bearing the name of his father and uncle — and discovered a next-generation of ski fliers just looking for landing tips.
"I started to think: 'I wonder if I can get this going again?' " he recalls.
By this time, the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club, a nonprofit group that runs the Ski Hill and the town's network of cross-country trails, had already done some work on "Hill D," one of the old, smaller jumps. Bakke built on this foundation, cajoling buddies old and new into raising money and joining work parties on the slope.
In the past two years, donors have put more than $100,000 and plenty of sweat equity into the "D" hill, regrading the landing area, installing a rope tow and logging out a few trees, which were used to build a 35-foot launching tower at the top.
The result: a lighted, lift-serviced, working ski jump of about 98 feet — currently the only one of its kind in the Northwest.
A blast from the past
Bakke, now 70, who lives nearby, began showing up here two nights a week, plus weekends. A small crowd of "recreational jumpers" began to assemble. A few patient tips here and there from the old master had Leavenworth kids flying in no time.
Step up to the jump base these days, and you'll see jumpers anywhere from 4 years old to 70 catching flight, landing at distances ranging from several inches to more than 75 feet. It pales in comparison to modern distance standards, but that's not the point to these jumpers, who range from local old timers to brand-new recruits from the Puget Sound area — commuter jumpers.
"It's a nostalgia thing for me," says John Kavanaugh, 54, a Wenatchee Fire Department captain fresh from a recent night jump. "I used to jump here a little in junior high. But it's also just a blast being around some of these old Norwegians."
Bakke and other volunteers want to reestablish a junior program, with real competitions. If that happens, they hope the community might reach for its true Nordic roots and rebuild Leavenworth's big jump to standards for modern competition, just like the old days.
For now, ski jumping in Leavenworth isn't competitive at all. It's just plain fun — to do, or to watch. On a recent weekend, Bakke and his young and old cohorts put on a practice jumping tournament, just to get the feel of things again.
A dozen jumpers took three flights each in three age categories as a crowd of 31 locals and five judges looked on.
The kids, as is the tradition here, stole the show — particularly Taylor and Jesse Boyd, 11 and 13, of Lake Wenatchee. The brothers, both jumping on alpine ski gear, posted some of the longest jumps of the day, donning that familiar graceful, head-forward/legs-spread position as they sailed more than 70 feet down the mountain, their landing position marked by volunteers posted along a stretched measuring tape.
Afterward, Bakke was all grins as his pupil, Jesse Boyd, explained the lure.
"I was up here skiing, I saw the jump, and I just had to try it," he says. "I love it. When there's an updraft, you feel like you're floating."
The star of the old guy's division was Gordy Skoog, age 51 going on 15, who awoke much of the valley on a sleepy Sunday by cutting loose with a lusty "YAAAAAAAH-HOO!" halfway through one jump.
"I used to jump on this hill when I was a kid," says Skoog, a Bellevue native whose father, Dick, and uncle, Jim, were high-flying contemporaries of the Bakkes. "Two or three years ago, I was bumping around on the Internet, saw the jump was back open here, and just went, 'No way!' "
"It's real nostalgic for some of us," he says. "The jumping's fun, but the nostalgia just brings back all these great memories."
At one point, Skoog took following in Dad's shoes to its illogical extension, donning his father's old wooden skis and leather boots and taking flight on the new Leavenworth jump.
"I couldn't figure out how in the world he did it," he says, laughing. "Pieces were coming off every time I landed."
But Kjell Bakke knows. It was a labor of love, a flight of fancy, a way of life. He's too old to jump now, he says, although some old Norwegians past the 70 mark have been known to let one rip here on occasion.
Building a junior program will be tough, he knows. Kids are a lot more distracted, and a lot less willing to spend several hours packing the ski hill by foot just to get in a handful of jumps.
But some of them have that old ski-jumper's spark.
"It's going to take some time," he says, after patiently working with a 6-year-old girl with tiny skis on her feet and big air in her eyes. Fortunately, time is something he has in reserve these days.
Somehow, it just gives an aging man solace to know people are out here, again, taking to the hills, letting it all go. Learning to fly.
Local jumping fans have high praise for Bakke, and say they worry about who will pick up the slack once he's gone.
But to fret over that would spoil the magic of the moment. For now, the rocky hills that served as black-and-white backdrops for the Northwest's most memorable Nordic moments are alive once more with the high-flying whoops of Generation Next.
Just look at it: Right here in the shadow of Bakke Hill, a Bakke is back, teaching kids to honor tradition and defy gravity, all in one graceful leap.
On a snowy day in the heart of the Cascades, it all seems right. Leavenworth is cleared for takeoff, and history has come full circle.
Ron Judd: email@example.com or 206-464-8280
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company