Ellie Nicholson didn’t miss a beat when she said skiing is better than walking.
The 9 year old’s confident statement is a strong indication the love of a sport just might be genetic.
“It’s actually better than walking and even biking,” she said. “It’s really fun.”
Ellie, along with her 6-year-old sister, Kelty, last week demonstrated their skills on skis for The Journal’s camera on the Manka Trail, near Falls Elementary School. After a more mild winter, they were among many who used the 1-kilometer ski trail.
What sets the Nicholson girls apart from others, however, is that the trail was built by their great-grandfather, Tom Manka, who died in 2010.
“He would have been so proud of them,” said the girls’ mother and Manka’s granddaughter, Emily Nicholson.
Ellie and Kelty are the third generation of skiers in the family to master their skills on the Manka Trail, and although the sisters never met him, Nicholson said she takes every opportunity to educate her daughters on their great-grandfather.
“He was the absolute best,” Nicholson said. “He had a passion for skiing. That was his life and it was his most favorite thing to share with other people.”
Funded and groomed in 1987, the Manka Trail has become a staple of skiers and walkers in Borderland. Now maintained by the Polar Polers Ski Club, the trail continues to serve as a go-to recreation spot in the area.
Seeing her spend time at a place that is so special to Nicholson, brings tears to her eyes nearly every time.
“It’s like he’s out there with us when we go out there,” Nicholson said of Manka. “When it’s dark and the lights are on, it’s just magical.”
Building the trail
The magical feeling is likely what Manka, a former Falls Elementary fourth-grade teacher, was going for more than three decades ago when he secured funding for the trail.
“He was able to convince whoever he needed to, to build a ski trail in the woods next to the elementary school,” Nicholson said. “So he got the bulldozer and cut down the trees, with some help, of course.”
The construction of the trail is still fresh in Nicholson’s mind. She said she vividly remembers being in first grade and putting up the light poles out on the trail with her grandfather.
That memory sparked one of a few years later when the local ski club dedicated the trail to Manka.
“I remember them having that conversation and my grandpa not knowing they were going to do that,” she said. “There are so many good memories of him.”
Love of skiing
The love of skiing runs in the Manka family. Nicholson said her grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles all participated in the sport. Each year, several of them would travel to Hayward, Wis., for the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America.
In fact, when Nicholson sat down with The Journal, the Birkie, as the race is commonly called, had just been held the weekend prior.
“That was one of our favorite parts of winter,” Nicholson said of her family’s love of the event, which they have even participated in. “Before I could even ski, I would go watch.”
She shared stories of skiing the Birkie with her grandpa and how he’d stay back to start with her.
The event also features the Barnebirkie Youth Ski Tour, for younger skiers, in which Ellie and Kelty completed virtually this year.
“They were very proud to do that,” Nicholson said. “They’re excited to get their hats.”
To encourage more people to try skiing, Manka purchased several sets of skis that he would rent out throughout the winter season. Nicholson said she took it over when he became ill.
“I don’t even know how many pairs of skis he had,” she said. “When he got sick, he asked me to take them over and either sell them or rent them out. I couldn’t sell them, that is his legacy.”
Manka purchased so many skis, mostly from a store in Hayward, where he was known as ‘The Patron Saint of Cross County Skiing.’
“He never looked to make money on ski rentals,” Nicholson said. “He just wanted people to love it as much as he did.”
Even during the off season, Manka was waxing skis or grooming trails. Skiing was so much more than just a sport to him.
Now, as Nicholson rents out skis to others in the community, she said it gives her an opportunity to talk about her grandfather.
“I get to explain why I have all these skis and how the Manka Trail was created,” she said. “I get to tell his story. It’s an honor to carry on his legacy in some way.”
Memories of Manka
Reminiscing about her grandfather was therapeutic, but also spurred emotions.
“He was my best friend,” a teary-eyed Nicholson said.
Shortly after Manka died at 78 years old in 2010, Nicholson found out she was pregnant. Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage Dec. 26 that same year.
“It was a very dark year,” she admitted. “Throw the miscarriage on top of losing my best friend, it was horrible. Absolutely horrible.”
Then, she and her husband, Trent, found out they were expecting Ellie.
“That was a turning point,” she said of the pregnancy. “I felt I had a reason to be excited again... to be with people again.”
Ellie arrived two weeks ahead of her due date on Nov. 13, 2011 – one day before the first anniversary of Manka’s death.
“God and grandpa gave me Ellie,” Nicholson said. “And she knows that, we talk about it.”
The next generation
Nicholson and her daughters have a lot of discussions about their great-grandfather on the trail he helped make possible.
“We talk about him skiing and coaching and how he taught me to ski,” Nicholson said.
Ellie had a little bit of a different story.
“We don’t talk much, I’m too far ahead,” she said.
This year is the third grader’s first time on skate skis, and she had a lot of knowledge about the difference between skate and classical skis.
Kelty did, too.
“I’m on normal skis,” she announced. “(Ellie’s) have scales and mine don’t.”
The sisters agreed going up and down the hills was the most challenging part, but Ellie said she has it figured out.
“You know how you’re supposed to bend over when you go down the hill?,” she said. “I can go straight. I keep my balance.”
Nicholson smiled watching her daughters show off their skills.
“When I look at them, I see me out here,” she said. “I see me with my grandpa. I feel very, very lucky to have had that relationship with him. If it wasn’t that special of a relationship, it wouldn’t be this hard and I wouldn’t miss him so much. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s a blessing.”
The International Falls School Board will consider developing a new position that would handle the district's external and internal communication needs.
Members said they will, between now and a planned board retreat possibly in April, develop thoughts about a communications director position, its duties, how to measure successes and whether it should be full time or part time.
Superintendent Kevin Grover told the board he will gather information about other districts that have communications positions.
Board Chair Ted Saxton told the board the idea of communications director surfaced a couple years back at a board retreat, with the group agreeing that communications between the district and board and its students and staff, parents and families and the community is important and could be improved.
Saxton said the position could also market the school to students who have left the district, with money for returning students helping to pay the salary. The position would require a college degree in communications, he said.
Board member Roxanne Skogstad-Ditsch admitted she was a little concerned at first, thinking of creating a new position when the district is considering budget cuts and careful spending. But as she thought more, she agreed the possibility of returning to the district some of the 200 students who have left is well worth the cost of the position.
She agreed the position's success should be measurable. Should the goals not be met in a timely manner, the board could rethink the position, she said.
Other members, like JoAnne Smith, Jen Windels and Emily McGonigle agreed exploring the new position would be a good idea. Each discussed the value of efficient communications.
In reports, Grover told the board he has met with a group interested in forming a boys hockey cooperative with Fort Frances, and expects the group to present the idea to the board at some point. The group was to speak with International Falls Recreation Hockey this week, he said.
The idea is worth hearing, Grover said, explaining that long term student numbers - 5 or 5 years into the future - may not be able to sustain some programs as they are now.
"We are struggling now to support a varsity and JV and our classes are not getting bigger," Grover said. Without a JV team, he said it's likely few numbers of schools will want to play against the Falls.
Board member Bruce Raboin said he'd heard about the Fort Frances idea, and said a cooperative could come with the good, the bad, and the ugly. However he said it deserved a conversation.
Closure of the border with Canada due to the pandemic has posed challenges in starting a community conversation about the idea, Grover added.
Meanwhile, during the open forum, in separate statements, Jenell Feller, and Bob DeGross of the Rotary Club of International Falls, discussed being inclusive and welcoming of all students, including those who identified as transgender.
Feller asked every school employee - from bus drivers to teachers - to accept, protect and encourage all students.
DeGross read a statement from the Rotary leadership: "We value diversity and recognize that we build a stronger community by welcoming those with different perspectives and backgrounds. When people speak against diversity and inclusion, and those words are not countered by concerned citizens, it may cause others to think that this is the majority view of our community. Many of our local club members strongly feel that we should stand up for those who may feel intimidated to come forth to express a differing view."
He concluded that Falls Rotarians support the school board as it implements policies that follow state guidance and that assures "that all students are provided a safe and welcoming place to learn, be valued, and have a positive school experience."
Their remarks were in response to a comment made during the February open forum by Mark Lessard, who urged the board not to allow male students to compete in female sports.
Lessard said Monday that he agreed with 99.5 percent of what they had said, and added that he should clarify his earlier statements. He said he urged the board to not allow biological males to play in female sports.
Saxton reiterated that the district would follow all state laws while it does all it can to make every kid feel safe and welcome.
On another agenda item, the need to seek grants to fill funding gaps for student and district needs will be handled for now by a working group of board members, administration, business staff, community members, parents and student representatives.
The board also:
The International Falls will accept applications for an administrator until April 30, and the city council Monday instructed existing staff to launch a candidate search.
The position was left vacant with the retirement of former administrator Ken Anderson, whose last work day was March 5. Anderson served as administrator for seven years.
The council Monday approved a revised job description for a city administrator, after deleting that the position would act as human resources manager, and serve on the negotiation team for labor contracts.
Mayor Harley Droba said the city should designate a human resources manager, separate from the administrator position.
Meanwhile, the council decided on a 4-1 vote to forgo using a recruitment firm for the search, agreeing instead to save money by using existing staff to conduct the search. Councilor Mike Holden voted no, implying he would choose to promote internally for the position.
About $16,000 was spent on a search that resulted in hiring the former administrator, reported interim Administrator Betty Bergstrom. She said company representatives said to expect to spend from $19,000 to $20,000 for recruitment services now.
International Falls Area Chamber President Tricia Heibel was asked for input, as she has experience in recruitment. While she said the cost associated with hiring a recruiter may seem high, she pointed out that using existing staff to do the search also comes with a cost.
Asked about the additional duties, Bergstrom said some duties will be delayed because existing staff have already absorbed additional duties with Anderson's retirement.
"(Conducting a job search) will be a task to handle after all that's been dropped on our plates," she said. "If that's what you choose, we will get it it done. Other things may get pushed to the back burner during the process, and it's an important process."
In other business Monday, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance that would repeal several chapters of city code, and be replaced by adoption of the international property maintenance code.
The council also approved a temporary structure permit application and fees, which apply to temporary storage containers.
Also Monday, the council approved a revised 2021 contract for services between the city chamber effective Jan. 1 for $12,474. The council also agreed, effective Jan. 1, to provide space at the city-owned chamber building at no rent fee, and to refund any money provided already for the year. The city rented the building to the chamber for $5,000 per year.
Droba said the service contract is less money than what the city has given in the past, "but opens the door to different possibilites and more services that the chamber can facilitate on behalf of the city, that will benefit the city and business community."
The council was informed the Koochiching County Assessor's "Open Book" meeting to discuss property values is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon May 19 at the County Assessor's office, in the courthouse.
The county's Board of Equalization opens June 15. Valuation notices will be mailed to taxpayers in International Falls within the next six to eight weeks. Property owners with questions or concerns about their property value can also call Assessor Len Peterson at 283-7002.
The council also: