Snowsporting Mom & Son Go Global
Growing up in Marquette as the son of two winter-recreation lovers, Ian Thorley, left, gravitated to the air-grabbing joys of snowboarding even though his ski-loving mom, writer/adventurer Frida Waara, tried her hardest to keep him on two skis.
The Waara-Thorley family of Marquette is something of a Lake Superior snow dynasty.
Frida Waara, who often writes for this magazine, was skiing just one year after her birth – and it seems like she hardly takes off those planks even in summer. They’ve taken her many places to many intriguing adventures, even cross-country skiing to the North Pole on a women-only expedition.
Frida happily acknowledges that she’s about to enter a new ski-race age bracket (60). She’s served on the board of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in nearby Ishpeming, the birthplace of the National Skiing Association. She’s headed the North American Snowsports Journalists Association and does inspirational speaking in her free time while selling real estate for ReMax 1st Realty as her day job.
Frida and her husband, Ron Thorley, raised their two children surrounded by plenty of Upper Peninsula snow. They visited more ski resorts and beach resorts, but Frida says, “When you grow up on the sandy southern shore of Lake Superior, no other beach can compare.”
It’s no surprise that both children grew up to careers with snow.
Snow swayed daughter Eryka, 31, to choose Montana State in Bozeman, and she now pursues her career on snow. She has spent summers guiding on Mount Rainier and in the Swiss Alps and winters as a professional ski patroller, often teaching avalanche safety. She uses her love for snow to research climate change and has been on assignment in Greenland.
Eryka switched from skis to snowboards and back, but their son, Ian, adopted boards, and, Frida says, “just can’t separate his feet no matter how much I encourage him.”
The 28-year-old lives in Truckee, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He’s hit the hills for fun or competitions in countries “from A to Z, Austria to New Zealand,” as he describes it, thanks to his passion for the board.
Ian claims he hasn’t figured out what his day job is yet, but Mom pegs him as a professional snowboarder. “If he’s not coaching at Mount Hood in the summer, he works for a moving company in the Tahoe area on the off-season. He doesn’t need to spend extra money on a gym membership!”
Frida and Ian have undertaken a friendly competition to see who can first ski or snowboard on all seven continents. The score so far: Frida 5, Ian 4. Frida needs Australia, Ian lacks Antarctica and South America. Both await Africa.
Still, Frida sticks to her skis and Ian to his board. We’ve asked mother and son to explain the hows and whys of their specific winter mode of movement. We hope you enjoy meeting and learning – through their own words – about two Lake Superior people who are making their mark around the world. – Konnie LeMay
Skis Go Everywhere
by Frida Waara
Snow has steered my life, and skis have transported it.
I chose my college based on snow – as my daughter would, too. I met my husband in a snowball fight and decided to live on Lake Superior because it ranks as the planet’s best snowmaker.
Snow shaped my life from its conception, literally. I got my start (so the family story goes) on my mother’s and father’s ski trip to Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains in the spring of 1955. I was born that November, the same time skiing changed forever. That month Maria Bogner graced the cover of SKI Magazine wearing stretch pants. My Pa – who skied in army surplus wool and canvas – declared that was when skiing became “sexy.”
I appreciate all types of landscapes and seasons, but winter is my soulmate (along with Ron). The Upper Peninsula nearly hit 100° F this summer, and it taught me an important lesson about myself: I don’t want to die with a fever.
Yes, the white world of winter is the best season, and skiing is by far the best way to enjoy it.
In the beginning I was an alpine, or downhill, skier, but living on Lake Superior I’ve grown to love all types of skiing – downhill, cross-country and backcountry. Last year I took up skijoring – skiing on freestyle, or “skate,” skis while tethered to a dog.
Wow. I did it every day of March, often borrowing one of my neighbor’s sled dogs. I can put it this way: If you love to ski and you love your dog, it’s not one and one makes two, it’s one and one makes 11 on a scale of 10.
Bottom line is, I just can’t get enough of gliding over snow, be it down the face of a mountain, on a winding trail deep in the woods or covering miles across an iced ocean.
There is something about the speed of downhill or the freedom of cross-country. It’s not just the air you grab (sorry, Ian), it’s the motion.
I’ve skied every month of the year – thanks to our 30th wedding anniversary when I told Ron, “You know we’ve never skied on our anniversary.” He countered with, “Our anniversary is August 17.” We celebrated our anniversary on the mountains in Argentina that year.
Through good fortune, I’ve gone to the ends of the earth to ski. In April 2001, I was the first Michigan woman to reach the geographic North Pole on skis, and in December 2010, I skied at the Amundsen Scott Station at the South Pole.
Some of my most memorable skiing, though, has been near the shores of Lake Superior.
One memorable Minnesota cross-country tour came when I joined a group that started from Hedstrom Lumber near Grand Marais. We skied trails along the Devils Track River, even rappelling down a frozen waterfall. I made my own wooden skis at a North House Folk School class, too.
In the U.P., of course, the extreme skiing of Mount Bohemia near Lac La Belle could get anybody to pucker up. I love it because it’s homegrown skiing, and there’s just that sense of it. At the end of the run, it’s not some fancy $15-a-beer chalet, it’s a yurt. It’s adventure, it’s skiing, it’s good snow.
My Finnish heritage lives here, too, and that includes skiing. Story is that back in the day while the U.P. Scandinavians enjoyed ski jumping competitions, the Finns brought cross-country skiing with two poles. A competition was suggested between ethnic groups, and the Norwegians, who skied with one pole back then, weren’t unnerved by the two-pole Finns. “You can use a whole armful of sticks, we don’t care,” they taunted. Forty Finnish skiers bested all the Norwegians – at least how I heard it.
With snow so deep in my family history, it’s no wonder my children share the same passion. It’s hard not to, living in Marquette. Unlike folks who must drive hours to reach a ski hill (leaving the fun reserved for weekends), we can be at our home hill of Marquette Mountain faster than I can drip a pot of coffee.
Right within the city limits, Marquette Mountain boasts the state’s best racing hill.
I remember very well the first time I raced there, back in 1971. It was still called “Cliff’s Ridge.”
I grew up in downstate Michigan, and my high school ski team was invited to come north to race against the state’s best. It was daunting for parents to make the 450 mile drive from the Detroit area to the U.P. in February, but my folks gladly loaded the car with kids.
Arriving in Marquette, I remember the snowbanks were bigger than any I’d ever seen. Unlike the little bumps where we practiced on in southeast Michigan, or even at the resorts in the tip of the Mitten, I couldn’t see the finish gate from the start shack for the first time on the course at Marquette Mountain.
All that snow, all that steep, and race-ready to boot; I was hooked on Marquette. “I’m coming here to college,” I told my parents, “and I’m going to be on Northern Michigan University’s ski team.”
That was more than 40 years ago. I still race at Marquette Mountain every Thursday night – the oldest woman in our local beer league.
Eventually my parents moved to Marquette, and my Pa raced on Thursday nights, too. He taught our kids how to ski there. The lessons stuck. To this day, they both make their living on snow.
Our daughter Eryka, now living in the Rocky Mountains, has come full circle back to skis and is often lured into the backcountry for cross-country jaunts.
Our son Ian was the first in the family to switch to snowboarding. He goaded his dad into trying it, and Ron, always up for adventures with the kids, took the bait. Ron remembers a day of whiplash front falls learning the new sport, and still contends, “When you fall skiing you know it, when you fall snowboarding, you are punished.” Ron didn’t quit, though, and took his snowboard to the mountains to chase our kids and make more memories.
I’m glad he did because I tried snowboarding once – just once – at Marquette Mountain. It wasn’t pretty. Trained as a ski racer to pressure the balls of my feet – big toe to little toe – I couldn’t get the hang of using my whole foot and heel. I never got off the snowboarding bunny hill.
Ian was a natural. He won’t tell you, but I will (proud mom that I am). Nationally ranked by the time he was 13, he spent his last two years of high school at Waterville Valley Snowboard Academy in New Hampshire coached by Bill Enos, now the U.S. Snowboard Team Slopestyle Coach.
“Mom,” Ian often teases me, “you should give snowboarding another try.”
On big-powder days as I watch him curling sweeping arcs, playfully jumping the moguls (i.e. bumps), and ducking in and out of the trees, I’m tempted – for a minute or two.
Bottom line, though, I’ll never be a snowboarder. Skiing is freedom to me. You can’t go the same places on a board with your feet stuck together. On skis, I’m not limited to groomed tracks or trails at designated areas. After a fresh snow here, Ron and I can strap on our wider backcountry skis, pack up the camping gear and explore wild country at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or Hiawatha National Forest. For Ian, though, it’s more how high than how far. Still I try this reasoning with him: “Ian, snowboarding just isn’t fast enough.”
To which he quickly replies, “But Mom, you never get your feet off the ground.”
True, and I’m OK with that.
Snowsporting Mom & Son Go Global
Ian takes a topsy-turvy photo with a selfie stick in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Sure, Mom, But …
by Ian Thorley
First off, my family is all about winter. We never took warm-weather vacations. When you were old enough to stand on skis, you were on the hill. So, in the beginning, I was a skier.
Growing up in the U.P., you’ve got to adapt. You’re either inside for six months, or you can suck it up and go have fun.
My first experience skiing, though, was not fun. Dad took me to our local ski hill and we spent most of the day on the bunny hill. I couldn’t do more than 5 feet without falling. It took 45 minutes to get down the hill.
As soon as I was old enough, my parents enrolled me in the Marquette Mountain Ski Racing program. I did it, but I didn’t like it. I was OK at skiing, but I pretty much only had stop and go.
I was supposed to be on the race course, and instead I’d be looking for jumps or off in the trees. Maybe that’s what I love so much about snowboarding. Freedom.
Mom and Dad still get a thrill in a race course, but to me, there’s more to snowboarding than just going fast. It’s what you can do in the air.
I was 10 when I asked for a snowboard for Christmas.
Going up the chairlift with my skis, I’d see the kids snowboarding. I wanted to do that.
When I started, I was terrible. Truth is, new things have never come easily for me, but I’ve learned that if I stick with it long enough, my ability starts to shine. My secret to success? Don’t give up.
I have to admit, it’s easy to be a snowboarder in Marquette. My parents would pick me up after school, and because the hill is so close, I could be on my board before most kids got off the bus. It’s not that simple for kids in Denver or Salt Lake City.
Like most Midwest ski areas, Marquette Mountain was open for night riding. Out West, even if you live at the base of a mountain – like in Breckenridge, Colorado, or Mammoth Mountain, California – riding ends when the sun goes down. Those places close after dark.
In the U.P., Indianhead, Brule, Mont Ripley, Mount Bohemia, they’re all good snowboard training grounds, and they are so accessible.
So added to the hours I could bank at Marquette Mountain on weekends, I was snowboarding about 40 hours per week as a kid. I’d stuff a package of Ramen in my backpack for a snack. The noodles would be pretty crushed by the time I added hot water in the bag-lunch lodge, but it was all I needed to keep going.
My friends and I had a great time making jumps on the mountain or in someone’s backyard. I remember the day we all learned to do a backflip. It was brutal at first. We didn’t have a coach or even another rider to teach us, we only had videos that we watched over and over. After a fair share of crashes, we eventually nailed that trick.
There’s something about landing a backflip. Once you get it down, your confidence soars and you’re ready to move to the next level. That’s probably when the dream sunk into me about becoming a professional snowboarder.
In those early years, Marquette Mountain had a very active USASA (United States of America Snowboard Association) program. Every weekend, we would travel to resorts from Mont Ripley in Houghton or Big Snow Country’s Indianhead and Blackjack in Ironwood to Boyne Mountain in lower Michigan.
At first I competed in all the events: slalom, giant slalom, halfpipe (think a cup made of snow), slopestyle (more on that in a minute) and boardercross (like a snow roller coaster).
Racing events like slalom, giant slalom and boardercross are timed. Freestyle events like slopestyle and halfpipe are judged.
Slopestyle courses are a mix of rails, jumps and other terrain park features where we are scored on style, amplitude (how high we jump) and degree of difficulty. Slopestyle is my favorite; it’s always different.
Courtesy Ian Thorley
Snowsporting Mom & Son Go Global
Marquette native Ian Thorley catches some air in Nanshan, China, at the Red Bull Nanshan Open, a 15-year-old international snowboarding event.
From those early contests, I qualified for national events and traveled to Telluride, Colorado, Mammoth Mountain, California, and Sunday River, Maine. The mountains were bigger and so were the jumps, and at these competitions is where I saw the big picture. I met other Midwest snowboarders with great reputations – Danny Davis, Eric Beauchemin, Mason Aguirre – competing with me internationally.
Some think you have to grow up out West to be a professional snowboarder. That’s not exactly true. The Midwest produces good slopestyle snowboarders because it’s more than vertical feet; it takes access and a jump. My Midwest snowboard buddies share similar stories; they lived close to the hill and could get hours of practice every day. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 good jumps on which to practice, you only need one.
Plus, Midwest resorts make snow. Growing up on the south shore of Lake Superior, that meant my season started around Thanksgiving. I’d get a month of snowboarding in before Christmas.
To this day, at 28, I’m still living the dream. From that single backflip, my skills have grown, and I’ve done double backflips with Big Air contests all over the world. I live most of the winter out of a snowboard bag, but professional slopestyle snowboarding has been my ticket to visit resorts in 16 states, and 16 countries.
My mom and I are racing to see who can ride all seven continents. She likes to say, “When you love snow, the places you can go.”
On that one, I think she’s right.