Every Christmas morning the Hagens click into their Nordic skis like good Norwegians and glide into Grand Teton National Park. Fifteen year old Annabel says it’s a tradition she is proud of whether her family is with her uncle Martin Hagen, a three time Olympic biathlete, or with family friends.

“We all go out and ski together from the Taggart trailhead until we don’t want to ski anymore,” she says. “When you get in a certain rhythm and pace, you don’t even think about it. You’re not focused on breathing or thinking, ‘what if I trip and fall?’ You just think about what’s around you and the conversation you’re involved in. Time flies because your mind floats away.”

To Nordic skiers in the area, there’s nothing more therapeutic or athletic than skating on crisp white snow. Whether it’s an hour of skate skiing, a skin up Snow King or 12 hours in the park, the access to well-groomed tracks and beautiful backcountry terrain is unparalleled in this town. Perhaps that is why Jackson is home to so many Olympic Nordic skiers who are now passing on their love of the sport to their children.

“One of the reasons I love to live in Jackson so much is there is so much skiing on hand,” said Hans Johnstone, who competed in the 1988 games in Calgary for Nordic Combined, an event that mixes Nordic skiing with ski jumping. “It completes the day and keeps me in a good frame of mind. It can be like a meditation session.”His wife, Nancy Johnstone, was among the first women to ever compete in the Olympic Biathlon (an event that combines cross country skiing and target shooting) in Albertville, France in 1992. Local realtor Erich Wilbrecht competed in the men’s Olympic biathlon that same year.

Johnstone, who owns the Alpine House and Turpin Meadow Ranch, went on to become the head coach of the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club. Now the kids that she trained are coaching her three teenagers in Nordic and freestyle skiing.

“I like to see the next generation getting out there and see the sport provide all the fun, excitement and challenge it provided for us,” Hans Johnstone said. “Who knows where they’ll take it.”

This winter, the Olympic couple will open up a shooting range at Turpin Meadow the Nordic facility and guest ranch they operate between Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. It will be the first time since the Hagen family organized a biathlon club in the early 1970s—back then they set up a shooting range in, of all places, the basement of the old high school—that there will be a facility to train Nordic skiers in the art of speed target shooting. This discipline requires the extraordinary focus amidst a high heart rate, body and mind control.

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Martin Hagen, a biathlete who competed in the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics, followed in the footsteps of the first biathlon champion from Jackson, Pete Karns, who was an alpine racer and jumper as well as a cross country champion in high school and college. Karns finished 14th in the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan and went on to train Hagen and Rusty Scott, another local world champion.

Now Hagen’s niece, Annabel, is holding the torch. She was the regional champion in the U14 Intermountain Division for skate skiing and classic cross country skiing last year. Her father, Rody, also competed on the US Junior Nationals team.

“It’s really inspirational I guess,” Annabel says. “I grew up Nordic skiing. It was a given that I tried. But I don’t feel any pressure from anyone in my family because they’ve gotten so far with it. You see where they’ve gone and you get on skis and you say, ‘I want to get to that level. This is so cool. This might be the way they felt.’”

Whether you are interested in competition or not, locals agree that Nordic skiing is a sport that requires a unique core strength and a lot of endurance. It is also one of the most accessible sports in the winter for all age groups. The gear is a fraction of the cost of alpine ski gear, there is no lift ticket required, and there is little doubt that it connects the mind, body and spirit as well as the family.

“There’s nothing else that comes as close to a perfect sport as Nordic skiing,” says Scott O’Brien, another former director of the ski club’s Nordic program and now one of the owners of local retailer Skinny Skis. “It emcompasses the whole body. The lower body and the upper body. It’s like taking running and crossing it with kayaking…It is a stress reduction exercise too. The quietness you find on the trail. You can go for miles, even on a groomed track and see no one.”

Skinny Skis puts out a map every year called Trailhead, and is a sponsor of JHnordic.com, an online resource describing the trails groomed by the US Forest Service, national parks and Teton County/Jackson Parks & Recreation, including Cache Creek, Game Creek and the Levee along the Snake River in Wilson. Just down the road, Trail Creek and Teton Pines Country Club have private tracks, which are open to the public with the purchase of a day or season pass.

When O’Brien reflects on his 30 years in the valley, he marvels at the ability to essentially walk outside his door and strap on skis, and he is thrilled to able to give his 11-year-old daughter a love of Nordic skiing in their backyard.

“I think more and more as a parent there’s all these distractions that kids have and influences that want to keep them inside like the latest electronic device,” he said. “Nordic skiing is easy and affordable. All it takes is patience and a love of being outside.”

About the Author

Julie Kling
Julie is a freelance journalist who loves to connect community, explore in nature and share ideas with TedX Jackson Hole. When she is not writing, you can find her on her yoga mat, teaching people how to turn with breath on the ski slopes or chasing her two kids around town. She grew up in Rochester, NY, and went to school and worked in Boston, Chicago and New York before finding her place here in the Tetons

Images by: David Swift

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