DULUTH — Glen Nelson's whimsical wooden signs cleverly punctuate Duluth's Piedmont Ski Trail at nearly every twist, turn, climb and descent. But during a recent walk, he counted 17 of the 57 signs he'd made for the trail system missing.
At age 84, he has just about had enough.
For decades, Nelson served as a caretaker of the ski trail alongside his 96-year-old friend and ski partner, Jerry Nowak, who originally carved the trail network out of tax-forfeited property that has since become a popular city park and cross-country ski destination.
Nelson said he and Nowak used to post the signs in the fall and take them down in the spring. But he said Nowak is no longer able to get around as well.
"I'm getting down toward the end of my rope, too, so to say," Nelson said.
Last winter, Nowak handed off the task of mounting the signs to Duluth's Parks and Recreation Department along with a detailed map showing where each should be placed. Come spring, however, the signs remained on the trails, and many have since gone missing.
Especially as the city has struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic, staff resources have been constrained, and Duluth Parks and Recreation Department Manager Jess Peterson said that has forced her to prioritize work. She said that, ideally, fellow community members would take on the job of maintaining the signs.
"I think it's just a really special and unique addition that we've been honored that they've been willing to carry on with. And we understand that it has come with a citizen commitment to do that. They have carried that torch for many, many years," she said.
The missing signs include:
- "Friends" at the beginning of the trail.
- "Big Dipper" at a hill.
- "U-Turn" at a horseshoe bend.
- "What could be better?"
- "The butt stops here" at a bench overlooking the bay.
- "No-laughing zone" at a trail junction where skiers face ascents in all directions.
- "Not much."
- "Almost to the top."
- "Evel Knievel" at a steep downhill.
- "U R here."
- "Gentle Bend" at a curve
- "Just cruisin.'"
- "Up North."
- "Home stretch" toward the end of a trail.
- "Skid Row" at the bottom of a hill.
- "Green Achers" next to a stand of evergreens.
- "Nowak's Skate Trail."
- "Nelson's Classic Trail."
Nelson said there are stories behind many of the signs, many of which stem from interactions with fellow skiers.
"The history of the signs and the decades of Glen's and Jerry's dedication to maintaining those signs is definitely well worth noting and appreciating," Peterson said. "I and others have all enjoyed getting a good laugh or a smile out of them or even taking a picture with them."
A retired shop teacher and Proctor Public Schools ski coach, Nelson still gets out on the trails three to four times a week when snow conditions allow, and continues to hear glowing comments about the signs.
"We get a lot of positive feedback on them, just to put a smile on someone's face or to break the monotony," he said. But after 50 years of tending to and replacing the signs, Nelson has begun to think about calling it quits, and he has no successor.
"I kind of hate to see them go. But maybe they've been up long enough. So, I don't really know what the answer is," Nelson said.
Peterson said the signs give the Piedmont trail personality and they need not disappear from that landscape, although she does not wish to see them proliferate throughout other parts of the city's park system.
"These signs are special and meaningful in Piedmont, because there are citizens who care deeply about the enjoyment of the park and who were willing to add that special touch to the trails and the space," she said. "That really comes from the care and the love that our citizens have for these trails and what I think would continue to make them as special is really the opportunity for Glen and Jerry to pass that torch for continued community involvement and support of these signs, whether it is putting them up and taking them down or replacing them or creating new signs.
"The reason that the signs are so fun is because they come from a place of direct engagement and conversations with trail users," Peterson said.