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Skis are believed to predate the wheel, but their recreational use is more recent.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Courtney Wright, visiting Nordia House from Wisconsin, looks at a panel in its new exhibit 'Winter Comes: Oregon's Nordic Ski History' on the evolution of skis from the prehistoric to the present-day.Summer is on its way out — just this week, the National Weather Service issued its first winter weather advisory of the season for the Cascades in Oregon and southwest Washington.

But if the shortening days, cooling temperatures and rain augur the end of the outdoor festival season, fresh snow on the slopes of Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and Mount Bachelor means the start of a new season: ski season.

For decades, skiing has been a part of thousands of Oregonians' lives. A new exhibit on display at Nordia House, 8800 S.W. Oleson Road in Garden Home, documents its origins in Northern Europe and Central Asia, its arrival in the Pacific Northwest, and its evolution from being a mode of transportation for a few snowbound settlers to being a form of recreation enjoyed by many.

"Winter Comes: Oregon's Nordic Ski History" is on loan from the Deschutes Historical Museum in Bend through the end of the year. It opened Wednesday, Sept. 20.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nordic Northwest executive director Greg Smith stands with long skis dating back to at least the early 20th century, part of an exhibit that just opened at Nordia House on Oregon's Nordic ski history."I think the nature of Oregon, the historic nature of Oregon, has developed with a great interest in the outdoors," said Greg Smith, executive director of Nordic Northwest, which operates the cultural center in Garden Home.

He added, "I think that that nature, that interest in nature and being outdoors in the winter — year-round outdoor environment — really lent itself well to an interest in skiing. And I think that we're going to have a great turnout for this particular exhibit, simply because so many folks are involved in skiing or winter sports in one way or another."

Nordic, or cross-country, skiing was brought to the Pacific Northwest by Scandinavian immigrants. (A little-known fact, Smith noted, is that Washington and Oregon are believed to have the second- and third-highest percentages of residents who are of at least partial Scandinavian descent, with only Minnesota ranking higher, among U.S. states.)

The activity took off in popularity in the mid-20th century. While many of the first skiers in the Pacific Northwest took to their skids out of necessity — skis have been used for millennia to navigate snowy terrain, as they allow users to glide over deep snowdrifts and navigate slopes much more deftly than they could on foot — skiing gradually gained popularity as a racing sport.

"It began as a means of transportation," Smith said, "and I think that from there, it evolved into recreational skiing as well. … But for centuries, if you lived in a winter country, you either were pulled in a horse-drawn sled, or you had some sort of ski shoe or Nordic ski that allowed you to move from place to place. It was an essential means of transportation as well as a means of, later, recreation."

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Skis have evolved over the years, as evidenced by these old metal bindings intended to keep the user's feet in place.Skiing was also "egalitarian," said Nordia House communications director Chaney Harter, who played a role in bringing the exhibit from Bend to the Portland area. By the 1890s in Norway, women were participating in ski races — a sport that didn't take long to come to the Pacific Northwest.

One of the earliest ski contests in Oregon was the Fort Klamath to Crater Lake Ski Race, a 42-mile roundtrip circuit that began in 1927.

"One of the prize pieces of the exhibit … is the Klamath Cup," Harter said, referring to the trophy awarded to the winners of the race. "They commissioned this large silver cup that we're going to have set up in a display case."

After an abbreviated version was run in 1938, the annual race was discontinued — very soon, Oregonians had more on their mind than skiing.

"From what we've seen, a lot of the ski interest and ski industry grew after World War II, after the 10th Mountain Division had been constituted during World War II — which was America's ski-borne troops," Smith said, referring to the specialized unit that fought in the Italian Alps. "We actually have a historic film that we're going to be showing later in the run of the series about the 10th Mountain Division. … A lot of those veterans came home after the war and had been trained to ski as part of what they were doing but saw it as an opportunity to develop a recreational side. And that's when a lot of the ski resorts began to be developed."

Today, skiing both for competition and for leisure is a common winter activity in the Pacific Northwest, as it is in many other places around the world.

But the origins of skiing date back thousands of years. Historians debate whether skiing first arose in Northern Europe — modern-day Scandinavia, Finland and northwestern Russia — or on the steppes of Central Asia, in what is now western China, western Mongolia, eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Either way, they agree humans were likely on skis before the invention of the wheel.

"Part of that was obviously for 95 percent of human existence, we were hunter-gatherers, and that meant we had to travel," Harter said. "We had to follow the herds. We had to traverse the landscape in a way that (didn't require) the invention of the wheel … mostly for carrying large amounts of supplies, or things that you wouldn't have to do until you were at least a partially agrarian society. Before then, it was more important that you and all your friends could get around and chase down whatever you were trying to hunt, or get to the areas that would have plants and berries that you could gather. That's part of the reason they think that skis came before the wheels, is that the wheels were never about getting the humans around."

The exhibit includes about 20 sets of skis, some of which date back more than a century, as well as mannequins displaying the evolution of ski wear over the years. Informational panels also tell the story of Nordic skiing in the Pacific Northwest, highlighting some famous and influential skiers in Oregon's history, including an impressive list of Olympic skiers from the Bend area alone.

Nordia House is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Visitors to its in-house restaurant, Broder Soder, are also invited to browse the exhibit before or after their meal.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Chaney Harter, Nordic Northwest's communications and analytics manager, points out information on an exhibit panel about the Skjersaa and Nordeen families, Scandinavian immigrants to Oregon in the early 20th century.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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