It’s a bizarre ritual, really.
Each year, skiers and riders all over the Midwest yearn for snow on their local hills, but when it all begins to melt in March, they flock back to the hills for the chance to ski water.
Like all local hills and like every year, Welch Village hosted its annual Pond Skip on Saturday and it couldn’t have gone better.
Tucked away in the Cannon River Valley in the tiny town of Welch, the ski area sits within a half hour of both the Twin Cities and Rochester metro areas. The family-owned ski area provides a natural haven for city folks and is equally popular among the agrarian-built communities of southern Minnesota.
Saturday’s festivities attracted all of them and then some. Temperatures hovered in the 40s, but in the absence of a single cloud all day long, the sun-soaked hill felt more like Spring Break in Sarasota than March in Minnesota.
‘Hit it hard and wish it well’
On a cold, winter-like day, the Pond Skip still attracts a crowd, but on spotless days like Saturday, the 100 available slots for skippers fill up quickly.
According to Raza Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant who has called Minnesota home for 30 years, the skippers are out of their minds.
“I’ll be watching the crazy people who want to get wet with skiing and ski boots,” he said while riding the lift up above the swelling crowd below. “That’s not me. I guess I’m not one of those. I like the snow.”
For every Hasan, however, there’s a Sidney Otten and a Shayne Okestrom, two teens from St. Paul who tossed their shirts aside to try and ski across the Olympic pool-sized, makeshift pond constructed from a snowcat, a tarp, a hose and some green dye.
“Just make it across with style,” Okestrom said. “Look good doing it.”
The confident skippers pledged to “bomb the crap out of it,” as they tucked down the hill toward the happy masses below.
“Hit it hard and wish it well,” Otten added.
Two men, two skis
A backflip, a corking belly-flop and of course the hard-charging face plant can all be expected during a pond skip. The judges gave ones, twos and threes to the competitors, always giving preferential scores to the younger skippers, those dressed (or undressed) in fun ways and, of course, for the oddest attempts.
Travis Mueller was not one of the wilder contestants, but he did accomplish what everyone lining the green pond below was hoping he would: he failed. He made it across in his leopard-print bathrobe, but fell short of his 180-degree spin attempt on the dismount.
There were only 100 slots available for the Pond Skip, but 101 skippers took their chance. That is because two brothers took their turn together, sharing one pair of skis, each equipped with a front and back set of bindings.
Moments like these are what make the Pond Skip so memorable and what makes the liability release form so necessary.
Their journey nearly ended in tragedy before it began, as their legs began to wobble as they made their approach toward the pond. They recovered, straightened and braced for impact and what an impact it was.
Brother one hit the water first, then brother two. Brother two was way too far over his skis, forcing brother one to do the same. The tips of their skis buried into the drink, catapulting both of them over the top. Luckily they ejected from the bindings, projecting brother two on top of the other.
The men, both full-bodied, made an incredible splash in the pool, forcing the water over the sides of the pool, but when both men surfaced, unscathed and perhaps further emboldened, the crowd erupted in its greatest cheer of the day.
Sunshine and white snow
For every cocky teen throwing a backflip into the pool and every scantily-clad elder seeking his annual moment of glory, there are many other types skiers out enjoying the snow.
For Kevin and Kailey, a couple from nearby Farmington, chances to get out on the snow are few and far between. Kevin is a full-time student. Kailey, a registered nurse. There aren’t many spare moments, but they make time to get on some hill every year. A few weeks ago, they traveled across the border to Wausau, Wisconsin to get their alpine fix. Last year, they made the 12-and-a-half-hour drive to Red Lodge, Montana for a trip as well.
Kailey, a former Welch Village passholder, enjoys skiing as a way to get in the outdoors. For Kevin, like so many in hockey-crazed Minnesota, he sought the snow as a replacement winter passtime.
“Ever since I got through high school hockey, I didn’t really have another hobby,” he said. “There are adult leagues and stuff like that, but this is another winter hobby, so I love it.”
Skiing scratches that athletic itch for so many who have left their athletic careers behind, while also giving people a chance to ditch their screens and distractions and ride the lifts outside instead.
Hasan is one of those people, too. He discovered skiing in college while at Iowa State. Welch Village was one of his first areas he skied. After years of raising kids, skiing fell to the wayside, but now a season pass holder, he skis every Saturday.
“I love skiing,” he said. “It’s wonderful to get outside.”
Riding the lifts, you talk to a wide variety of people. Some have headphones in and prefer a more solitary experience, but some people love the conversation roulette that is a chair lift ride. Sometimes you regret sparking up a conversation with someone on the chair, but other times, like my ride with Jania Trojena, you relish it.
Trojena moved to Pine Island in 1994 from Russia. She brought her love of the Russian mountains with her to the Midwest where there are none. Still, in a three-minute chairlift ride, she spoke of her affection for skiing the “canyons” carved by Midwest rivers.
Everyone who filled the Welch Village parking lots, lift lines and chalets Saturday can relate to the allure of skiing. Looking for some sunshine? Check. A little exercise? Sure. Beer? You bet.
For Trojena, however, it’s a combination of things, and her description moved me. Then she yelled “Have fun!” and we disembarked the high-speed quad headed in opposite directions.
“There is nothing better than when you see the sunshine reflecting on white snow,” she said. “You have this feeling of movement and it’s like you’re flying.”
To hear the interviews from above and to soak in the sounds of the day, listen to the podcast.