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The Best Day is the Next One: Shredding the Gnar with the Spirited Telemark Skiers of Northern Minnesota

Jan 29, 2024 08:45AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: Tom Healy Telemark skiing in Montana, 2023.


By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - January 26, 2024


Free-heelers! Pinheads! Knee-dippers! The AT Tribe! 3-Pinners!

You may not be familiar with these slang terms, but the Telemark skiing community of Cook County, Minnesota is, and they wear these labels as a badge of honor. Who, exactly, is this niche community of outdoor athletes and do they walk among us in their Fair Isle jumpers, high-waisted Wadmal pants, knee socks, and leather boots? I set out to find them first at Tele Mecca: Mount Bohemia, in Mohawk, Michigan. Then, I followed the jerry-rigged ski racks figuratively to Montana, Minneapolis, Vermont, Duluth, Grand Marais, and Lutsen.

As one friend put it bluntly when I told her I’d be writing about the sport of Telemark skiing: “What the h*ll is Telemark?”

One part graceful ballet and one part extremely rigorous sport, Telemarking has endured through the age of snowboarding, freestyle dinner roll jumps, and other modern winter sports. The moves and technique of Telemarking summon positions used in yoga practice and stretching and less so the grit and G-force that Giant Slalom demands of the body. Or, it would appear.

On the North Shore of Lake Superior in Cook County, Minnesota, although thousands of groomed trails are maintained daily at a world-class level, these athletes and weekend warriors like to ski along Lake Superior’s cliffs and down the frozen waterfalls. If you don’t have vertigo, trepidation about avalanches, or fear of hypothermia, these skiers are fun to watch.

Grand Marais native Eric Bowen mentioned that Telemark skiing is “The technique that skiers in Norway were using hundreds and perhaps thousands of years ago…

Telemark and Back Country skiers are a unique breed of athlete and outdoor enthusiast. That connection to land, history, and community seems to permeate this skiing community not just in Grand Marais, but internationally. 

“Though the road is long in learning the Telemark turn (a turn is akin more to an advanced yoga pose or martial art move), Tele skiing will always have a core of skiers who wish to be able to ski anything, anywhere, anyhow. Only talented and skilled Tele skiers can do it all with such ease and grace,” Rory Scoles, Owner and President of Lutsen Recreation in Lutsen, Minnesota, said.

Scoles grew up cross-country skiing, starting on 3-pin leather boots in the early 1980's. It wasn't until he was in his 20’s that he started Downhill skiing and learned about Tele skiing.

Friends Back Country skiing the Cascade River, Grand Marais, Minnesota, Winter 2022. Photo by Kimberly J. Soenen.

“Tele skiing, and, more specifically, Backcountry Skiing on Telemark Free-Heel equipment, contains the very soul of skiing. It's the vanguard of all silent winter sports. It is the most ancient form of winter travel that has changed the least, and so stays close to skiing’s original roots as a means of deep snow transportation. There is nowhere on the winter landscape you can’t traverse and no mode of skiing you can't do. You'll break trail and hike like a snowshoer with a diagonal stride and skate across lakes and rivers like an XC skier, run up mountains like a ski randoneer, and make ecstatic powder turns on the down and even carve mean arcs like a Giant Slalom racer when the snow becomes boilerplate hard,” Scoles described lyrically.

So, exactly, where do they ski?

“Anywhere there is snow or any place where snow falls is Telemark terrain!” Scoles says. 

Tele skiing really started taking off again in the 1990’s as the quality of the boot-binding interface improved, eventually becoming nearly 15% of the Ski Sports Market by the early 2000s. 

“Modern ski shapes and profiles and better, stiffer boots have lowered the bar for entry into the Tele world, having moved on from the exceedingly long, straight, and narrow skis from the 70’s,” he added.  

Alpine Touring (AT) Backcountry ski and mountaineering gear allows a free lifting heel for skiing uphill, but latches down for the descent so you can ski downhill with a binding like an Alpine ski resort rig. It is frequently called “Randonnée gear,” after the French word for “tour.” Other terms are “ski touring” and “skimo.”


David Welch Back Country skiing the Cascade River, Grand Marais, Minnesota, Winter 2022. Photo by Kimberly J. Soenen.


There is ample playful debate on the North Shore about whether Tellies should sport gear that looks like they are skiing in Austria in the 1800’s, or wear modern gear that is scientifically more cutting edge. The AT gear has greatly improved and Tele started to lose its standing for backcountry access. That changed again with the advent of the "New Telemark Norm" (NTN) boot-to-binding interface. The new NTNs significantly increased what is called the Ball-of-Foot engagement, and this helped bring people back into the sport, and many young people trying it for the first time. So, the Tele renaissance began.

Tom Healy, who splits his time between Grand Marais, Minnesota and Wisdom, Montana, is a passionate skier. “Tele gear was arguably more comfortable, especially for skin-assisted uphill travel, rather than the randoneer / AT gear of the day,” Healy explains. 

Cody McCarthy began Downhill skiing when she was four years-old. She grew up in Minneapolis and her family would drive to Winter Park, Colorado every year. She started Telemark skiing when she moved to Whitefish, Montana in 1992.

Cody McCarthy wearing Bib Number 109 in France after just landing after the jump in the Giant Slalom World Cup race, 2000. Photo by Richard McCarthy.

One day, she was planning to snowboard and decided at the last minute to only bring her Tele skis. She eventually became the National Champion. She only Telemarked for nine years and Tele raced for six years. During that time, she married and started a family. It was easy to ski with the kids on Teles but when her oldest child was six years old, she started coaching Alpine again.

“I gained a lot of respect for Telemark skiers that week when I first put my Tele skis on. I fell so much that week, and even slid down steep shoots face first in a ton of powder. I love powder skiing!”


Cody McCarthy at the starting gate of the World Cup in Italy, 1998-99 Season. Photo by Richard McCarthy.

About the psychological profile of the Tele community, McCarthy said “I think Telemark skiers are true skiers. You just don't see many visitors or weekend tourists on Teles, but you see people that live to ski. It's a lifestyle,” said McCarthy.

On being a woman in a largely male-dominated sport, McCarthy discussed what skiing means to her and how it has infused her life both before becoming a mother and after.

 “Before I had kids, I always skied with the guys, then I slowly started skiing with women. I think skiing has always been where I feel most confident. I was an area representative for Rossignol from 1995-2019 and still love skiing. I go as often as I can. My whole life has revolved around skiing and I still love it!”


Cory McCarthy in the Fila suit at the United States Nationals at Big Mountain after she had retired from racing. Photo by Richard McCarthy.

In Cook County, Minnesota, because of the vast expanse of wilderness, small population and minimal rapid-rescue capacity, skiing Back Country comes with very high risks. This sport is not for novice weekenders or amateurs without experienced guides. Many of these skiers are certified in Wilderness First Aid and carry special equipment to both mitigate risk and triage injuries on site when needed. Unlike in Vail, Steamboat, Jackson Hole, Crested Butte, Banff and other locations, Life Flight and Ski Patrol Avalanche Dogs will not be there within minutes if an accident or injury occurs so skill and preparation are essential to enjoying both Telemarking and Back Country skiing safely here.

Healy shared stories about what ignited his passion for Telemark and Back Country Skiing: “I grew up in Iowa and took advantage of every opportunity to Nordic ski growing up. I remember the entire family getting classic skis for Christmas when I was in elementary school. Mom and Dad got actual 3-Pin skis. All the kids got spring bindings that barely held a winter boot. I quickly evolved into using Mom's skis in Junior High and was always getting new boots and skis at Wilson's Sports in Iowa City through High School. Fast-forward to a New Year’s Eve celebration in 1987 in Isabella, Minnesota, which evolved into skiing and sledding behind a Jeep Wagoneer on logging roads in the area! After a few wipe-outs, my friend and now brother-in-law donned a set of Fisher E99 metal-edged skis and a set of leather Black Diamond 3-pin boots. I was hooked.”

It’s important to note this writer doesn’t recommend skiing behind Jeeps, but…Healy continued light heartedly: “His boots fit me and I borrowed his set up a few times and went to Lutsen. While visiting Europe the following year I found myself invited on a 10-day ski trip in the French Alps. The family that took me offered me an Alpine set-up, but I chose to catch a bus and rent a Tele set-up. I really felt like I was starting to figure out how to ski fast and varied terrain for the first time. Numerous Lutsen season passes, trips west to renowned ski areas, and Backcountry and hut adventures ensued....”

Healy also noted that Telemarkers are frequently pigeon-holed as slow, graceful skiers, but the reality is that there are also Telemark adrenaline junkies, “air seekers,” and speed demons.


Dusty Olson, Mt. Bohemia. Photo by Chris Guibert.

Telemark legend Dusty Olson grew up in the Midwest and got bored with his Alpine gear so he started Telemarking using his Track Nowax cross country skis at Chester Bowl in Duluth when he was just ten years old. For him, Mt. Du Lac, Chester Bowl and Lutsen were the first experiences. He started Downhill skiing when he was four, and quickly picked up the other disciplines growing up at Chester Bowl back when they had ski jumps. He was there so often they let him keep his skis in the Chalet.  He’d often Nordic, ski jump and Alpine ski all in the same day. 

Olson mused that it's a “diehard, dedicated community,” explaining that “some Tele skiers don't even change their gear for decades!” Olson considers Tele skiing to be a much safer way to ski with half a binding. He says Alpine skis “scare him” because of the locked down heel, and speed. Olson agrees with Scoles in that Telemark skiing is considered more of an art form than a sport.

Telemark skiers are all around adventurists. Most of them kayak, mountain bike, rock climb and trail run. They are thrifty “dirtbag hoarders of equipment,” (Olson’s words). That’s a ski term meaning they mostly trade or buy gear at consignment shops or get it on sale in the spring. “It's more of a lifestyle sport, with a core community where we still wave to each other on the hill!” Olson laughed.

“The equipment isn't important to Tele skiers. They'll ski on anything. From their grandpa’s old gear with leather boots, to the newest plastic boots and widest skis on the market. Especially if it's on sale!” Olson laughs. “But the newer early rocker skis make it easier to initiate a turn with half a binding. Tele-specific skis with softer tips are no longer needed. So, any all-mountain ski will work. Big plastic boots, stronger stiffer bindings have made it closer to Downhill skiing which is hopefully bringing in more people to the sport.”

Jim Ouray (left) and David Welch (right) Back Country skiing the Cascade River, Grand Marais, Minnesota, Winter 2022. Photo by Kimberly J. Soenen.

Grand Marais resident David Welch has been Telemark skiing for 30 years.  

“Tom Healy loaned me some Tellie boards and boots years ago and I took off from there. I was already a rad snowboarder and accomplished freestyle Alpine Skier. I was bored of the hill I was riding so to make an old hill new again Telemark skiing was the answer. It was a challenge at first… The sport is a little “cultish.” If you see a fellow Tellie skier on the hill you need to say “Hi!” because you know they are bad-ass skiers. We all just want to ski with our people and friends. Tele skiing is really a super niche community.”

“Outside of traditional ski areas, which are good places to practice turns, up on the North Shore, Maple Forest is good because there is less under-brush to poke your eyes. Granite peaks are the best because nothing grows on them and often give great views. But the narrow window when the waterfalls freeze? That’s the sickest Telemark skiing.  Skiing waterfalls is pretty much Shredding the Gnar!” Welch enthusiastically expresses.

As for the best places to ski, Tom Healy says “I've skied all over North America, and a bit in Europe. The ideal conditions will vary depending on what people are looking for. Fresh snow and varied terrain are always great,” said Healy, “but the best day is always the next one.”


Kimberly J. Soenen is a writer and producer specializing in Health Humanities and healthcare industry investigative reporting.

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