Reflections From a White Skier On The Spaces and Places We Ski, And How To Build Inclusivity
By: Ben Theyerl
The typical life story of a competitive nordic skier in the U.S. tends to resemble a character out of a Robert Frost poem. It’s an appropriate metaphor; the Rikert Nordic Center at Middlebury, VT doubles as the quarters of the renowned Bread Loaf School of English during its summer months, where the Bard of New England taught for many years. In America, this sport tends to be filled with people from the quiet corners and empty spaces of our country. From the arcane delight of Vermont’s hamlets, to the mountain outposts strung up and down the West Coast, and the downhome northwoods of Middle America in towns like my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. All these places color and contain the spirit of those who end up in a sport that receives little fanfare and even less attention in America, sans the two weeks every four years when the Winter Olympics are held.
For many, it has always been about finding peace in the silence and sublimity of harsh winters, and sanctity in the god-damn slog. Pumping hearts, clouds of heat, and the dance of drive and focus. It’s a sport for hearty souls that sees to it that those souls become heartier still; teaches you how to handle the struggles of life when it pushes you full bore to the brink.
I love it. My teammates love it. Despite having grown up surrounded by the sport, it still feels like a little miracle for me, and for many of my teammates, that I happened to find a sport that so-matched the character and values that the wide-open landscapes of this country offer, and that pursuing it with a full heart, that character became part of my character.
If you follow that Robert Frost metaphor I used earlier, eventually you’ll come to those two roads diverging in a yellow-wood. Where that famous assertion of individuality “And I -/ I took the one less travelled by, / and it has made all the difference” comes from. As nordic skiers, I think we’re prone to thinking that our participation in the sport is, in its own right, taking the road less travelled. Skiing is adventure, it’s idiosyncratic — knowing the otherwise useless specifics of waxing, and spending lots of time moving through spaces that otherwise receive little attention. It is easy to think, when you glance over your shoulder back at the forests, mountains, and fields of snow hours into a ski that you are in on a secret that the rest of society is tragically missing out on—and you are.
But if there’s anything that this year has proved, it’s that those glances over our shoulders are looking back at a world that’s changed. You can no longer look at my Frost metaphor and not think, why Frost? Implicit in his cool assertion of individuality is that the choice to take the path less travelled is one all-to-often reserved for those of us who look like Frost. We’re white. Many of us are male. Who we look to in forming our metaphors for individuality and freedom is important because it implies who has access to those virtues.
Why, for example, when plumbing my literary references for a metaphor didn’t I turn towards Langston Hughes, or James Baldwin, or Roxanne Gay? It’s a set of questions that points me back to an unspoken truth that those of us who travel the less travelled path in the nordic skiing community tend to look utterly homogeneous. This is a road taken disproportionately by those of us who are white. In fact, as I write this just 6% of nordic skiers in the U.S. identify as African American.
The demographics of where the places that harbor nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite nordic athlete. Here, in 2020, it’s apparent that we take the steps to re-examine inclusivity in our community, and understand why we haven’t done better in the past. Like any ski trail system, the road we have been travelling is now, under our societal moment, at another crossroads. We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.
There is one glaring irony in all of this pontificating on our sport’s ruralness and use of wide-open country spaces. The greatest concentration of skiers in America is currently at the epicenter of our national reckoning with our racial injustice—Minneapolis. The same city that, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, stands as the focal point for worldwide scrutiny of America’s historical racial oppression of Black people is also America’s nordic skiing capital.
There’s so much good to say about the ski community in Minneapolis. It’s large. It’s dedicated. It’s generous.
But there’s also a failing in that ski community’s racial make-up that parallels the wider-community of Minneapolis which is currently being highlighted by national events. Whereas most of the ski community can say that our sport is overwhelmingly white because of the communities it draws from are white, Minneapolis can’t fall back on that excuse. It’s a large, multi-ethnic, multi-racial city, and yet it’s ski community is still predominantly white. That’s not to discount efforts by that community, through the Loppet Nordic Foundation and others, to try and bring racial diversity to the sport, but it does go to show that in skiing, its not simply a lack of diversity in the broader communities where the sport can take place that’s an issue. This is a problem that goes deeper than demographics.
In her book Black Faces, White Spaces geographer Carolyn Finney discusses how nature and the environment in America have historically been constructed as a white space. Finney’s work is multi-faceted and should be a priority to read for any outdoorsperson, but here I want to underscore that big main point; it’s constructed. The mountain ranges and forests that we count on each winter to be able to do the sport of nordic skiing didn’t just pass into the hands of land owners, land trusts, or the public government. In considering how most of the spaces we ski in came to be, we have to start with the dispossession and removal of indigenous peoples before you ever think about how a trail system got built and who has access to those trails.
To underscore this point, one can look at our community’s largest gathering, 10,000 people every year at the American BirkebeinerAmerican Birkebeiner ski race in Hayward, Wisconsin. The Birkie trail is a special place, hundreds of kilometers of northwoods traversing ancient glacial terrain. The Birkie is a special event, in large part responsible for the vitality of the nordic ski community in the Midwest. My own family would’ve never started in this sport without it.
In its present form, the Birkie trail straddles the Lac Courte Orillies tribal reservation, and is built on Ojibwe land. This fact is in the constant peripheral in any trip to ski on the Birkie trail. Most of us choose to keep it in the peripheral, however. We don’t think twice about crossing the Ojibwe names that dot the rivers, trails, and forests – Namekagon, Chequamegon, or Totagatic. I find myself guilty of driving from the cabin I stay in for the Birkie each year to the Mosquito Brook trailhead through the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, and not giving a second thought to the outsized, neon sign that advertises it as such, placed as the welcome sign to the LCO casino not more than two miles away from the trailhead. The proximity of native land dispossession in Hayward makes it a stark example, but this story is one that is at the origin of every trail system we enjoy and compete on in America.
Our sport ultimately is connected to that initial dispossession. As skiers, one step we can take towards recognizing our use of indigenous space is no longer keeping that fact in the peripheral in our community gatherings. Acknowledge it. This follows from a movement that’s already underway in native activist and academic circles, which calls for persistently acknowledging that the land we stand on today is indigenous land, as one statement from Northwestern University states:
It is important to understand the longstanding history that has brought you to reside on the land, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Land acknowledgements do not exist in past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.
We can make this a regular part of the introductory instructions at our community races. We can make it a part of the dedications that take place when christening new trail systems and facilities. To begin the work of inclusivity, we have to go back to the very origin of exclusion in the spaces we use for our sport.
The native experience, of course, is different from the experience of Black Americans in our sport, and in the outdoors community more broadly. Land dispossession began the process of colonizing the outdoors as an exclusively white space, but it wasn’t the only step. White colonization of the countryside in America was enforced and reinforced in the policies and narratives that constructed America historically. Finney writes that “land (and more directly land ownership) directly connected to what it means to be an American,” and highlights that the main historical mechanism for this in America was the Homestead Act, signed in 1862, which allowed settlers to own 40-160 acre plots of land for free if they were willing to farm it for five years.
Over 160 million acres of land from Ohio to California, Wisconsin to Washington, were settled under this act, and created the “countryside” as we figure it today in our national consciousness. Because of the time of its passage during the Civil War, the initial wave of homestead claims completely excluded Black Americans who were still legally under the horrors of slavery, meaning the claims were almost exclusively made by European immigrants. This, along with the pattern of America’s settlement from East to West, meant that the then newly created Midwestern and Western states formed their still predominant demographic make-up, majority white.
My own ancestors were among these claimants, staking out their place in the hills north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin where a century later their great-great Grandson, my Grandfather Walt, would start a family-wide nordic skiing obsession that now stretches three generations.
The immigrant patterns of the time meant that the initial wave of claims were made by mostly German and Scandinavian immigrants, for which this polka-dancing, lederhosen-owning author can tell you still colors the cultural identity of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota today. It’s those Scandinavian settlers who predominantly settled in Minnesota that brought cross-country skiing to America initially, and its place as a cultural keystone in the state was firmly secured for the future. We haven’t strayed far from the place that Scandinavian heritage has in the imagination of our community. We name our races Vasaloppet and Birkebeiner, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been overwhelmed with joy at more than one citizen race when the post-race snack table included lefse and not just orange slices. Take that, running. Nordic skiing is just that: nordic.
It’s worth asking if that close affinity closes off the community to those that don’t share that heritage though. After all, a lot has happened to shape U.S. skiing culture as distinct from that which exists in Norway or Sweden. This isn’t the whole story of skiing in America, but it does demonstrate the way that settler colonialism is intertwined to where and who skis here.
As the Homestead Act extended westward with the frontier, it continued to exclude Black Americans. All told, nearly 1.6 million white families settled and became landowners by Homesteading, while only fewer than 6,000 black families found the same opportunity. The countryside became a white space that took on connotations very different for Black and white Americans. For white Americans, it became individualism realized—a space to build a house and call it home. For Black Americans, however, the countryside was a space that held a collective memory of their exploitation under slavery, and was host to unchecked racist violence against many individuals in the form of lynchings.
Land ownership also served as the basis on which many white Americans built their wealth and prosperity over the following century and a half, and along with other oppressive economic measures, the exclusion of Black Americans from homesteading helped create the racial wealth gap we inherit today. The relative financial security and disposable income that many white Americans secured in the twentieth century allowed them to spend on the travel, gear, and time required to take part in outdoor recreation. Thus nordic skiing formed a twofold reinforcement of its whiteness: taking place in communities that were almost exclusively white, and requiring a certain amount of wealth that disproportionately was (and still is) possessed by white Americans.
Nordic skiing parallels the well-studied history of outdoor recreation in America, beginning with what Wallace Stegner famously called “America’s best idea,” the national parks. I won’t repeat the history of catering the experience of places like Yellowstone to an experience of “wilderness” by removing Native Americans and buffalo hunters while putting down railroad tracks for wealthy eastern, and white, tourists. I will recommend William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” and Ken Burns’ “The National Parks” as starting points, and resources concerning the Parks’ current reconciliation with their past to those unfamiliar. The unsanitized story of the National Parks is one that should guide our understanding of outdoor recreation in America as it plays out in landscapes and spaces, and is one that mirrors the way that the nordic skiing community tends to understand itself.
As Finney writes in her book, “[the countryside is] a key site of nationalistic sentiment, and implicitly excludes Black people in its discourse.” Those of us who look for refuge in the weekend escape to the trailhead, find community in the racing scene that takes over small-towns and rural spaces throughout the winter, and spend hours paging through outdoor gear catalogues filled with white faces, need to think critically about why we feel comfortable in those spaces.
Chances are, it’s because they’ve always been white. And chances are, we’re white too.
Part of the ethos of participating in this sport is that it allows us to gain access to freedom otherwise not found in life. On skis, we can glide over terrain you can’t on foot. The freedom of skiing is derived from access to some sort of wilderness, and that is a sentiment that is colored white by historical practices that can seem so far and distant, but is intimately intertwined with our experience, even when our minds are occupied with tweaking our V2 technique to shave off seconds or taking downhill corners just right. We may be on the road less travelled, but that road was still paved by the pitfalls and racism of American society.
Which means we’re back to that Frost metaphor. Which is good, because it represents the crossroads that society, and by extension, our sport, are at with inclusivity. What I’ve discussed here are tepid steps towards the road we have to take as a community. If this story were trail-building, it’s simply tree-flagging – identifying what needs to be cut and cleared before we do the real work forging new paths. But, it’s a necessary step. Survey and think, recognize and learn.
Where we go from here is also a task we take up in the tight-knit, collaborative manner that the nordic skiing community has always acted in. We’re building a new trail. At the time of this writing, movement is already underway. A number of organizations, such as the National Brotherhood of Skiers, have been doing work to build inclusivity of Black communities in alpine skiing for years. The Share Winter Foundation provides grants to programs across the country that seek to empower youth to enjoy winter and reduce barriers of access to skiing and snowboarding. Their grantees include a number of big clubs and governing organizations in the nordic community. Our path forward must include programs like this, devoting funds to introducing Black communities to nordic skiing and building trail systems that guarantee low-cost, easy access to all. It’s imperative that these resources meet action from those in the community. For coaches, this means figuring out how to create programs that introduce and retain talented athletes regardless of where they come from or the resources they have. For shops and manufacturers, this means figuring out how you can help those coaches get the necessary equipment to coaches working to make this sport accessible to all athletes, especially Black athletes.
These ideas are far beyond my scope as a singular member in this community, but I’m confident that the good-spirited souls and minds that have built our sport in this country can develop and implement action towards drawing in people who our community has historically ignored. This new trail system we’re building won’t be complacent with the twists and turns and hills we’ve travelled on our skis in the past. It’ll be new and true to the nordic skiing spirit—trailblazers who take comfort in the challenge of hard-work.
Ben Theyerl is a third generation nordic skier from Eau Claire, WI, who recently graduated from Colby College this spring. He is currently working on the campaign trail in Wisconsin for the upcoming election, training for whatever the Birkie looks like this winter, and gearing up to help lead fall training with his home club Chippewa Valley Nordic.
Resources for Building Inclusivity
NENSA steps towards making a difference – https://nensa.net/2020/06/11/taking-a-stand-toward-making-a-difference/
USSA Roundtable on Diversity and Inclusion – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zLMXTtCaLk
Letter in reply to Tiger Shaw’s statement on BLM – https://usskiandsnowboard.org/news/open-letter-diversity-our-sport
A list of conservation resources on Blackness and the Outdoors – https://www.conservationnw.org/resources-for-racial-justice-anti-racism-allyship/
Carolyn Finney’s Book Black Faces, White Spaces – https://uncpress.org/book/9781469614489/black-faces-white-spaces/
National Brotherhood of Skiers –
Warren Miller Entertainment Article Citing Programs working towards inclusivity in winter sports – https://warrenmiller.com/changing-game