I don’t know if Ole T. Westby was a fan of ski jumping, but the small city with a big Norwegian heritage named after him sure is. In February 1923, just three years after Westby incorporated as a city, its first ski jump competition caught some air. A novelty at the time, the event drew 15 competitors and 2000 spectators. The event, sponsored by the Snowflake Ski Club, still draws large crowds and an internationally-flavored group of jumpers. The competition spans two days, but I only had time to experience the Friday night festivities when fireworks ignite the event, jumpers jump under the lights, and bonfires keep the crowds warm.
I arrived in town early to check out the scene in Westby and visit a couple of Norwegian-themed shops. Needing a hearty meal to stiffen my resolve to stand out in the cold for a few hours, I headed to Borgens Café , a local favorite since 1903. This being Friday night, I opted for the fish fry, a staple in restaurants around Wisconsin any Friday night of the year and was not disappointed; the two pieces of beer-battered cod were perfectly cooked: crisp on the outside, not greasy, and moist in the middle.
The drive from town was only five minutes, which may be why many folks choose to go by snowmobile instead of car. I spent about an hour exploring the grounds before the opening ceremonies, which was plenty of time. The food booth and souvenir stand had a steady flow of customers, but I was drawn to the fur hats at another booth. Honestly, I had no idea there were so many types of skinned critters to keep your head warm: possum, red fox, and arctic fox, just to name a few.
Several bonfires were going and small crowds were gathering around them, although with temperatures in the mid-20s, it almost felt like spring in February. I popped in to chat with a few folks, most of whom were in a very good mood, partly because the Packers were to play in the Super Bowl in two days and partly because beer was abundant and some folks were already well-lubricated.
The centerpiece of the grounds is, of course, the imposing 90-meter hill, shimmering white under the lights and towering over the scene like Godzilla at a poodle convention. This event was the last stop in the Four Hills Ski Jumping Tour. The event has historically drawn competitors from around the world; local families provided lodging for many of them. Even as skyrocketing travel costs have limited the number of jumpers from outside the US, this year’s event still drew jumpers from Canada, Norway, Finland, Poland, and Russia.
Once the requisite opening ceremonies were finished and the fireworks were done, the jumpers finally got to jumping. From my vantage point at the bottom of the hill, it was tough to spot the jumpers as they flew down toward us. Mere specks in the distance, the white background helped to highlight them until they got closer to the middle of the hill and came fully into focus.
This year’s winner was Veli-Matti Lindstrom from Finland, and, while Ole T. Westby might not approve of a Finn beating Norwegians on their home (away from home) turf, he’d be impressed with the state of his village and the event that has transformed from a novelty act to a world-class competition.
Where to eat: Borgens Café: 109 S. Main Street; 608.634.4003; open daily.
Where to stay: a range of lodging options in La Crosse, which is a 20-minute drive.
For More Information: 608.634.3211
Date I Attended: February 4, 2011
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011