April 2018 - ATHLETE PROFILE
Residence: North River
Family: Wife, Sally; Children, Barbara, Patty, Mike, Rich; Numerous Grandchildren and Great-Grandchildren
Occupation: Retired from Remington Arms, Herkimer and Examiner for Professional Ski Instructors of America
Primary Sports: Skiing: Alpine, Telemark, Cross-Country, Backcountry, and Paddling
Other Sports/Hobbies: Sailing, Woodworking, Hunting
An Adirondack Athlete
By Julia West
A couple of weeks ago, while skiing on a quiet backcountry trail near a beautiful pond that houses an enormous beaver lodge as well as an old heron rookery, we suddenly heard voices in the woods. We looked, and crashing through a thick hemlock stand, a couple of guys on skis appeared. My first thought was – what in the world are they doing in there? The guy in front, as he was stomping down the twigs and ducking under branches, called out happily, “This is not the way to go!”
Meet Larry Wilke, who at 86 years old was on a backcountry outing with his grandson, showing him this special place called The Vly, and trying to find a shortcut off of the pond back to the trail.
I hadn’t seen Larry in a while, not even at the local meeting place – the post office. I was delighted and not at all surprised to see him tromping through the trees. If you’re looking for Larry, that’s where you’ll likely find him. He will either be paddling something, hunting something or sliding on something, just as he has been doing since he was a small child in the 1930s.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect when I was asked to write an athlete profile about Larry. When we spoke on the phone and I asked about coming to meet with him and Sally, his wife of almost 65 years, he remarked, “They said something about an athlete profile, but I’m not an athlete or anything.” I chuckled, and told Larry that if he wasn’t an athlete, I’m not sure who is! Larry is an athlete in the true Adirondack sense. Though he didn’t make a life of competing in races, a life spent being active outdoors in one sense can put those of us who work our desk jobs and manage to get an hour or two a day outside, pursuing our fitness goals, right in our place.
Larry started skiing when he was about six (let’s see, that’s 1938), and though we couldn’t find it, somewhere there is a photo of him as a tiny boy, next to his skis. At this point in our conversation, Larry held his hand up over his head as far as he could reach to indicate the height of those first skis. He started skiing at the North Creek Ski Bowl, where Carl Schaefer built the first ski tow in 1935, using the engine of a 1929 Buick. He also carved turns into the 1940s on Schaefer’s property nearby, to where that original lift was moved, and where the remnants still remain.
Growing up in Schenectady, Larry was a neighbor of Carl Schaefer, an accomplished stonemason who hired him as a teenager to do stone work. Carl also was a Boy Scout leader, taking boys into the Adirondacks to “keep them out of trouble.” Carl had a strong influence on Larry’s formative years; hard work and outdoor recreation became Larry’s life.
As a high school student, Larry raced with the Mount Pleasant High School Ski Team. One of his coaches took a few of the skiers to the famous Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in N.H., so Larry made his first trip there in the late ‘40s. Thus started a regular tradition of Memorial Day weekend Tuckerman trips that lasted many years.
After Larry became smitten with Sally in college, she accompanied him to Tuckerman. Sally recalls, “He told me to ‘sit on that rock. If you hear someone yell “ice,” get under it.’ The fog was so thick that I just sat there all day. I heard skiers going by, but couldn’t see them.” She added, “You’ve been up there, right? Oh my gosh – there’s a picture of me crying…” Nevertheless, they kept going back. When each of their four children became 10, they were allowed to go. Except for Rich, the youngest, who wouldn’t be left behind, and first skied Tuckerman at seven years old.
Let’s back up a bit. During Larry’s last year of high school, he studied ski instruction with the Schenectady Wintersports Club, and received his first teaching certification. He then went on to college at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF). He continued to teach skiing all through college with the Syracuse University ski program, where he was put in charge of training the teachers. “I got 50 cents an hour for being a patrolman if I wore my belt, and probably $1 an hour for teaching – big money!” You could tell where Larry’s priorities lay as he added, “I nearly flunked out!” Well, he didn’t of course, and graduated with a degree in Wood Products Engineering.
Wregular tradition of Memorial w. . schenectadywinter Larry continued teaching skiing after joining Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), where he was on the educational staff for 35 years. I met Larry in 1992 when I started working at Garnet Hill Lodge Ski Center. Larry was my mentor and the ski school director there, starting me off on what is now over 25 years of teaching skiing. Do I dare say Larry taught me everything I know? He certainly was a strong influence.
Larry’s working career started with Standard Furniture in Herkimer, followed by GE, and then 19 years at Remington Arms, where he was a Senior Process Engineer. His specialty was gunstocks made of walnut. Larry’s proficiency as a woodworker and builder is evident if you visit his beautiful home, which he and Sally built themselves. That was after they built the camp to live-in while they built the barn! “You have to have somewhere to store the boats!” says Larry.
The boats are another huge part of Wilke family life. Larry made his first trip down the Hudson River Gorge in a wood/canvas canoe in 1959 with his friend Charlie, on a trip that included many swims, and ended with a wrecked canoe and a 12-mile hike out. Local writer, founder of Hudson Headwaters Health Network, and longtime Hudson River Whitewater Derby paddler, John Rugge Jr. and his father were with them in a separate canoe, and they continued down the rest of the river for a clean run.
Never one to back off from adventure, Larry has continued to take part in the annual Hudson River White Water Derby, which will turn 60 this year. The Wilke family has been in the derby just about all of those years, and in 2017, four generations of Wilkes competed! I suggested that if it wasn’t for the Wilkes, we would have no derby. “Yeah,” Sally chuckled. Larry and Sally continue to strive to keep the derby alive and thriving. Keep an eye out there on May 5-6 for the Wilke family!
Do you think all of this makes Larry an athlete? If not, perhaps we should add that Larry is an avid deer hunter, hiking all over his steep property, and the state land behind it. And he taps 90 trees every year for maple syrup on that same steep hillside. He and Sally are also sailors – more boats for the barn! When I was struggling to make my first Telemark turns about 20 years ago, I would gawk as Larry carved graceful arcs on his tele skis on The Rumor, the steepest double black diamond trail at Gore Mountain.
For the past 25 years, Larry has been an inspiration to me, and has been to many others for much longer. So if you run into this Adirondack athlete in the woods, take some time to hear a few stories – you won’t regret it!
Julia West (email@example.com) of North River is a high school science teacher for Oak Meadow, an avid skier, instructor and coach for the Johnsburg School Nordic Ski Team and whitewater guide. She enjoys biking, hiking, gardening and everything outdoors!