REMARKABLE RESILIENCE & RESURRECTION
By Scott Halvorson
The Nansen Ski Club is a group in the Berlin and Milan area that has provided low-cost, community-based skiing, formed and supported youth skiing programs, and hosted ski jumping competitions.
The latter was lost for a while, but they are back—and the best is yet to come.
The Nansen Ski Club (NSC). Who are they? Short answer: they are remarkable. And there are those in the Valley with this same bias; keep reading to understand why.
Formed loosely as Skiklubben (“ski club” in Norwegian) in 1882, the club is the first, still-operating ski club in the country. It began with a group of Scandinavian immigrants who worked in the mills—they settled in what was then Berlin Falls, bringing their skiing heritage with them. Skiing was primitive, as was the equipment, and there was little differentiation between downhill (alpine) or cross-country (Nordic). It was just skiing, and principally a way to get from point A to point B. It was more fun when jumps were involved, and the club quickly became well-known outside the local area, connecting with other clubs and producing some of the best winter athletes anywhere.
NSC was known for its many ski jumps, including the Big Nansen, the world’s tallest, when built, and, in addition to being the first ski club in the country, also formed the very first junior ski club in 1923.
Some other interesting “firsts” include the first and longest bobsled run in the country, and first ski-joring competition (skiers being pulled by horses), both debuting in 1922, as well as sponsoring a first—and only—100-mile cross-country race; it was run during a blizzard, later dubbed the “100 Miles of Hell on Skis” in 1926. Although planned to be an annual event, for safety reasons, it was never run again.
Another impressive first was the manufacture of the first skis in New England, possibly the country, by one of the club founders, Olaf “Spike” Oleson, who also invented the first “iron rigging” bindings, which the Northland Ski Company bought the patent for and manufactured.
All said and done, a pretty impressive resume—but not without bumps along the way.
The Nansen Ski jump (aka Big Nansen), built in 1937, on Route 16 in Milan, NH, has attracted much attention in recent years. And it should. Rising 181 feet skyward, it is an imposing structure, and with restoration ongoing, it’s hard to miss.
Through the decades, it hosted the first-ever U.S. Olympic trials, four National Championships, North American and International Championships, and numerous invitationals; it was also featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Absolutely the greatest ski jumpers of the day traveled from afar to the tip of NH to jump the Big Nansen, and tens of thousands watched.
The Big Nansen held its last competition in 1985. It was abandoned for decades, was threatened with demolition, and hidden from view.
Fast forward to 2014, when a grassroots group, the Friends of Big Nansen, was formed, and partnered with the NH Bureau of Historic Sites (the owner of the jump), to save this historic icon. After extensive clean-up and repair work, and aided by sponsor Red Bull, former World Cup Champion Sarah Hendrickson “flew off” the jump, “one last time,” in 2017. This showed the possibility of the jump being fully functional once again and returning it to its former glory, which remains the goal to this day.
It has not been easy, but impressive progress has been made.
To date, through grants, private donations, and State of NH support, major accomplishments include a complete, full modern design, the Big Nansen landing hill being reprofiled, and a “false knoll” concrete retaining wall constructed. Funding has also been acquired to structurally reinforce the jump towers, bringing electricity and snowmaking infrastructure to the site. Work is progressing on all these fronts, with inrun modifications, a judges’ tower, and deflection boards to follow, which will need additional funding. It is hoped to bring all these pieces together for a Big Nansen return in 2025 or 2026.
Additionally, the “Little Nansen” K39, and the “L’il Nansen” K8 (beginner) ski jumps were built on site—ski jumping has returned, and the crowds have followed. The installation of an artificial inrun track on the Little Nansen last year, improved on—arguably—the best jump of its size in the East, with the young jumpers flocking to it.
The club, having been around for 140 years, has managed to keep on ticking despite two world wars, economic downturns, population migration, and a dwindling volunteer base. That’s in addition to constantly competing with the ever-changing landscape of entertainment and recreational choices in the North Country.
After becoming solely a recreational cross-country ski club in the 90s, NSC also lost its extensive network of trails in Berlin in 2006, as the club’s lease on these lands ran out and the land was sold.
It could have ended there, save for a core of dedicated board members, who tirelessly searched, researched, and negotiated to find its present home, partnering again with the State of NH. Albeit smaller, a wonderful network of cross-country trails is now maintained and groomed at Milan Hill State Park, with a beautiful warming hut added in 2017. Low-cost, accessible skiing was saved, as well as the club itself.
The Nansen Ski Club has not operated in a vacuum and is not doing this alone, especially regarding the ski jumping rebirth. Our biggest ally, Mount Washington Valley Ski Jumping (MWVSJ), lay just to the south of us and their support of our ski jumping rebirth has been nothing short of heroic. Chip Henry and Liz Garland, in addition to running their own first-class programs (including Kennett High) in the North Conway area, have “adopted” us fledglings and brought their institutional knowledge, enthusiasm, and blood, sweat, and tears, without which the return of our ski jumping events probably wouldn’t have happened. They are true “Friends.”
Our projects have been fully embraced by numerous organizations and individuals nationwide, including USA Nordic (USANS), Eastern Ski Jumping & Nordic Combined (ESJNC), New England Ski Jumping & Nordic Combined (NESJNC), all of which NSC is now an active member of. Most importantly, the State of NH, notably the NH Bureau of Historic Sites, and State Parks, have been chief allies and partners, allowing the club not only to survive but has provided significant financial support with this generational resurrection.
Jump tower reinforcement: The Big Nansen Ski Jump towers are in remarkably good shape, for being built in 1937, per the codes of the day. Codes have changed, as well as ski jumping, and some structural reinforcement is needed to accommodate the modern modifications needed for sanctioning.
Snowmaking: Important for the sustainability of the jumping complex, the club has been awarded a Northern Borders Regional Commission (NBRC) grant with the primary scope being snowmaking infrastructure, with completion expected for 2025.
Electricity: Three-phase power is needed for snowmaking, and all the other amenities and necessities associated with the full resumption of activity on the Big Nansen site. The club has funding for this and expect availability for 2025.
Other items needed: Once the jump tower reinforcement is completed, inrun modifications will be done, along with installing landing hill deflection boards, which will require additional funding.
Jump In! Recruitment ...
The “Friends” group and NSC Board members include volunteers from across state lines, who participate virtually, and in person. We are an enthusiastic and passionate group and are actively recruiting. We’d love to have you join.
Ski jumpers, we want you! We have the jumps, and some local youth has shown up to use them. We are re-establishing our ski jumping program through our alliance (and reliance) with White Mountain Valley Ski Jumping (WMVSJ) and coach Chip Henry.
The club has received a Save America’s Treasures (SAT) federal grant with a 1:1 match, for this purpose. To acquire the maximum $500K grant award, making $1M available, the club is seeking $200K more in match funds to go with the $300K already raised. All funds raised along the way will be matched immediately and are available to be spent. The cost of the repairs has been estimated at $800K to $1M. Work has already begun and will hopefully be completed by 2025.
The club is excited to announce upcoming events, bringing back the competitive thrills that helped grow this organization in the first place.
The next ski jumping event is scheduled for January 21, 2024 on the K39 Little Nansen and K8 L’il Nansen, The best young ski jumpers in the East will be there.
This will be preceded, on January 20, by a fun annual Art Sled Rally on the Big Nansen landing hill. Bring your homemade sleds. A New Hampshire High School competition will be held four days later, on January 25. Your cowbells are welcome at all events.
The North Country has experienced its share of disappointments through the years. This story isn’t one of them. The restoration of a historic icon, the rebirth of a sport and a culture, and the rejuvenation it brings make this a renaissance moment for the Nansen Ski Club and the area. Good times are ahead.
The Nansen Ski Club is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, membership-based skiing club dedicated to providing healthy winter outdoor experiences for locals and visitors. NSC maintains and grooms a network of cross-country trails in Milan Hill State Park, as well as the ski jumping complex at the Nansen Ski Jump Historic site, both in Milan, NH. Visit the Nansen Ski Club online at www.skinansen.com. Visit their facebook page for additional information.
Nansen Ski Club Through the Years
1882: Skiklubbin; 1st Ski Club in America is founded in Berlin, NH. Founding father Olaf Oleson, at age 16, makes 1st pair of skis in New England
1880s-1890s: 1st Nansen Jump located by Brown Avenue built over a fence
1907: Club name changed to “Fritdjof Nansen Ski Club” in First Constitution
1923: Nansen Junior Club formed (ages 8-16); the first in the country
1926: Bob Reid wins 100-mile challenge cross-country race (Portland, ME to Berlin)
1929: Fritdjof Nansen visits Berlin with the junior members escorting him in a parade
1932: Nansen Ski Club has the most (3) representatives in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics
1937: “Big Nansen” is built as the world’s largest steel-towered structure
1938: The 1st U.S. Olympic trials are held there
1939-1972: Four National Championships, North American Championship, International Championships, Eastern Championships, plus numerous invitationals
1940: Club name changed to “Nansen Ski Club,” which it remains to this day
1973-1985: Numerous Eastern & invitational competitions on the Big Nansen
1985: Last competition held at the Big Nansen
1988: Jump is officially abandoned and sits dormant for decades
1970s-2006: NSC maintains extensive cross-country trail network in Berlin, NH
2006: Club’s lease on trails land runs out and land is sold to build new federal prison
2007: Nansen Ski Club constructs new trail network in Milan Hill State Park, Milan, NH
2014: Friends of the Nansen Ski Jump, a grassroots local group, forms and partners with the state of NH (the owner of the jump) to restore the Big Nansen
2015-2017: Big Nansen site cleared of overgrowth; jump is exposed, redecked, and on March 4, 2017, former world champion Sarah Hendrickson flies off the jump
2019: The Nansen Ski Jump gets placed on the National Registry of Historic Places
2019: The Nansen Ski Club (NSC) awarded its first Northern Borders Regional Commission (NBRC) grant for the Big Nansen restoration project
2021: Small hills project initiated with 39-meter Little Nansen and 10-meter L’il Nansen ski jumps constructed on Big Nansen site
2021: Big Nansen Phase 1 completed (landing hill and retaining wall work)
2022 (January): First jumping event in 37 years was held on the new small hills; Eastern event followed three days later with an NH high school competition.
2022: The Nansen Ski Club (NSC) granted another NBRC grant for snowmaking
2022: Artificial inrun track and starting platforms installed on the Little Nansen
2023 (January-February): Hosted 2nd Eastern Ski Jump Meet (1/29/23) and NHIAA High School Ski Jumping Championships, crowning state and national champions
2023 (August): NSC awarded Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant for up to $500K
2024 (January): Will host 3rd Eastern Ski Jump Meet on 1/21/24; hosting NH High School Ski Jumping Competition on 1/25/24
2025-2026: Will hold first Big Nansen Ski Jump Competition in 40 years